Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Water is a Single Substance

May 7th, 2021 | 6 min read

By Benjamin Woollard

Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps (Ps. 148:7)

Water is a single substance. Each and every instantiation of the liquid merges with every other. Each molecule composes the same body, longing for union with its distant members, holding to itself, guided by the same principles. The cycle of evaporation and condensation is the great cycle through which every drop must pass. They fall to live terrestrial lives, swaying in great sheets over the landscape or collecting as luminescent orbs upon the florae. Each portion of water that falls receives its particular features upon descending to the earth; it loses them again as it is distilled, rising vaporous from the scene of its incarnation. It dwells in great migrating unities upon the heavens and falls again to become something new, yet it always retains in itself its basic qualities.

One could, if one so wished, see in all this a religious drama: the metempsychosis of the soul revealed in natural metaphors. We descend from the heavens by our attachments, the heaviness of our souls’ desires drags us down, and we are made subject to the vagaries of earthly life. We wander through the mountains and the crevices, we form brief and lasting unions, our riverbeds are nations, cultures, languages. These riverbeds change and evolve as we pass through them. As we travel through this life, some are able, by taking in the cleansing heat of the divine sun, to ascend again. Others must travel to that place of indistinction, the ocean, and be lost to themselves before rising. Some are lost for millennia among the pressure and the dark of the chilling depths. This cycle, this endless shuffling of states, is all there is, forever.

This is a depressing vision, and it is certainly most unchristian. In fact, such cyclical visions of reality are raged against by many of the Church Fathers. On describing a similar cosmology, Maximus the Confessor remarks, “What could be greater reason for despair?” (Ambiguum 7.1) The rising mist that reaches the heavens will find its place unstable; the rays of the sun will suddenly be insufficient to keep it in its heights. In such a world, God may attract us from our wretchedness, but he cannot hold us in our blessedness. If the light is only attractive in relation to the darkness, then the divine is insipid, and existence is, at best, banal.

No—we must reject any such understanding. The vagaries of water cannot be the primary metaphor of the soul’s journey; growth followed ineluctably by decay in a ceaseless cycle cannot be the true foundation. To believe it could be so is to see nothing beyond nature as we find it living and dying on our doorsteps. These types of metaphors are of course quite valuable, but only when properly conceived. The sun really does stand apart from and yet illuminates the process of this cycle, and we rightly see in this the transcendence of a yet ever-present God. If we take the earth as the pull of the passions that keep us bound to the desires of the flesh, we may gain insight into the nature of our fallenness.

Nevertheless, we must not believe that the soul grows heavy in its purity and falls again to be mingled with the passions of the here-below. Our destiny cannot be the swinging between the two poles of good and evil. If it were, the good would prove itself to be relative, and evil a form of good. For Christians, this cannot be, and so we must look deeper into our metaphors. If we are to understand the peregrinations of water in the full scope of its life as representing the destiny of humanity, we must abandon our assignation of the passions to the image of the earth. We must recognize that for water to fall and become new is not the denaturation of its being, but rather its fulfillment.

The metaphor breaks down because the sole good of water is not to exist in the blue expanses of the sky, denatured of all particularity. Would anyone dare say the beauty of the oceans or the rippling of the stream is inferior to the mist? Or that the mist pales beside a passing cloud? Let us not be so misguided. Each moment of difference, every form that water takes is new and fresh as the morning and shines with its own unique beauty. We cannot believe that the shedding of all one’s particularity results in a superior being, for every instantiation that water takes, from the downpour to the rivulet, from the swamp to the rising steam, is a new revelation of what water is. Each manifestation adds to its beauty, and one does not arrive at the true good of water by merely stripping away its uniqueness in favor of one form.

So, too, with human beings. We shall not arrive at our God-given end by becoming less than we are. The destruction of our particular definitions, of our relationship to the rest of the world through our particular place in it, is the destruction of our person and not our purification. Just as each new form of water, each river, each floating specter of mist upon the mountains reveals in a new way what water truly is, so each person adds to the revelation of humanity. We are variations on a theme that can only be known in all its permutations, for it contains and transcends them all.

Gregory of Nyssa points to this truth when he speaks of the human pleroma, the great body of humanity formed in the mind of God before the world began. Each person forms a strand of a great tapestry in which his or her role is to reveal the whole in the radiance and relationships of its parts. Humanity is both a unity and a diversity, and these two facets of its being are not contradictory but rather mutually interdependent. The uniqueness of our identity is formed by our belonging to the whole of humanity, in which we share an essence but are diversified as unique members that God wills to exist from all eternity.

Beyond the human, the whole of creation also lives and breathes as a single creature, a single harmony, however shattered by the disruptions of sin. Humanity stands at the center of this great being as the union of its two halves. We look up to the angels and down upon the earthworms, and neither are foreign to us; each is somehow present in ourselves. This great idea, this interwoven braid of lives and movements, is already contained in its perfection within God’s intentions, and he works ceaselessly to bring it forth.

We may even come to know these intentions as they are in God. St. Maximus speaks of ascending to the edge of creation by the harmonization of opposites. By unifying within ourselves the divided world, we come to the final division: that between God and his creation. When a person has followed Christ to the end and realizes both the unity and insufficiency of the cosmos, he stands upon the abyss that separates the finite from the infinite. In so doing, such a person recognizes that the logos of the world is contained in the Logos of the Trinity and understands that all that has come to be possesses an eternal pattern, an eternal idea in the mind of God, to which it is meant to conform.

This recognition includes the awareness that the cosmos has fallen from this pattern, that it has become subject to decay, that the harmonies of God’s intention have been violated by the discord of our rebellion. Yet, for Maximus, those who attain to this moment find themselves confronted with a bridge that spans the abyss and sets right the brokenness of the world. This bridge is Christ, who has reconciled the creation to its creator by joining both in himself. In Christ, the pattern is made perfect, the heights are attained, and the changeable is reconciled with the changeless. Only when we have reached this end beyond end, this truth beyond knowledge, may we rest inalienably in the divine life, fully attuned to that for which we were made. This rest cannot be shaken, for it is grounded in the truth that dispels all ignorance. Nor does it require our denaturation, for it is the perfect realization of our uniqueness as members of Christ’s body, which shines forth glory through every varied portion.

To strip bare the molecules of the ocean is to impoverish the beauty of the waters. The ever-shifting view of the waves, the clouds, the tributaries, brings forth in time the eternal idea that God holds for water, that single yet diverse truth that plays itself out within the world, even if, for now, it is a broken adumbration. So it is also with us, and with creation as a whole. When we reach the end of all our strivings, we will find ourselves as we were truly meant to be. The darkness of our fallenness and ignorance cast off, we shall no longer be tempted by merely apparent goods, but bask in the Truly Beautiful. And we shall become mirrors to that beauty, not as disembodied abstractions but as the glory of our distinctive place in relation to the whole. The good of water is not found by remaining in the clouds but by becoming radiant in every moment of its diversity and shining forth kaleidoscopic beauty.