Archive for November, 2007

Confession and Forgiveness in Solzhenitsyn

November 11, 2007


My dear friend, Fr. Al Kimel (known to many as the Pontificator) sent me a link to this wonderful excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, including some insightful commentary. The piece may be read in its entirety on the Blog, Word Incarnate (on WordPress). My thanks to the writer, Abbot Joseph (a Byzantine Catholic) for such excellent writing, and to Fr. Al for the head’s up.   The passage describes a young woman who was in the throes of grief and misery over her grievous sins, which included affairs and betrayals and a general turnaing away from God – Leaving the solitude of the place she was living – for fear she would commit suicide – she walked and walked until she found herself outside a church – she went in and was struck by the huge icon of the Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”) in the dome of the church – Solzhenitsyn describes her experience:

“At present it was in semi-darkness but, lit from below, the countenance of the Lord of Hosts, majestic in conception, was half visible and half recognizable. There was no trace of consolatory tenderness in the Creator’s tense expression, nor could vengefulness or menace have any place there. He Himself was the heaven above us all and we were sustained by Him… But from beyond and through what was painted there, the unimaginable looked down—a portrayal of the Power that sustains the world. And whoever encountered the gaze of those celestial Eyes, and whoever was privileged to glimpse even momentarily that Brow, understood with a shock not his own nullity but the place which he was designed and privileged to occupy in the general harmony. And that he was called upon not to disrupt that harmony.

“There Zinaida stood, and went on standing, with her head thrown back, staring into that immensity, deaf to what was happening in the church… What floated above her could not be conveyed in words, was indeed out of reach of thought. It was a wave of life-giving will, surging also into the human breast… she stood shivering like a sacrificial victim awaiting the stroke… A passive receptacle of the Divine Will, she began to feel easier and stronger. Gone was the burning desire she had felt at home to break out, run away… She stood staring upward, her neck growing numb, but the iron bands that had immobilized her for so many days relaxed, gradually fell away, released her…”

This was but the beginning of her liberation from sin, however. She needed also to meet Christ on the level of his com-passion, his suffering-with her, in addition to his awesome and all-encompassing majesty and power. So she approached a different icon of Christ. “It was a completely human face, though its complexion was not of this world… The eyes held an enigmatic omniscience… knowing all, from the beginning to the end of time, things of which we never dream. A mind at ease might not have responded to these depths. But Zinaida, with her heightened perception, saw that Christ was suffering acutely, suffering yet not complaining. His compassion was for all those who approached him—and so at that moment for her. His eyes could absorb whatever pain there yet might be—all her pain, as they had absorbed many times as much before, and would absorb whatever pain was still to come. He had learned to live with pain as something inevitable. And he could grant release from all pain. A weight was lifted from her.”

She began to examine her life, her sins, as the church choir sang penitential psalms. “She shuddered. Her whole story had been known here before her coming. They were proclaiming it aloud.”

She had not come for confession, but there was a priest there hearing confessions, and when the others finished, their eyes met and he invited her to come. There was a lectern there upon which rested the Gospel book and a crucifix. “Gospel and crucifix watched over her confession. The lectern—she saw it now—was a steep slope, a rough steep slope—and up that slope she had to drag her whole life, struggling under the burden, and against the friction… She plunged in without preliminary explanation, throat dry, voice cracked. ‘I have seduced a married man’…”

One by one she dredged up, with great difficulty, the sins that were crushing her soul, or rather burning her from within. Solzhenitsyn describes her struggle with repentance and confession thus: “It was like using the grapnel at a wellhead, with three hooks facing different ways—and what you have to do is find down there, in the dark depths of your soul, a hot stone, fish for it, grip it, only the hooks won’t take hold, it breaks loose, seventy times over it breaks loose until at last, with delicate movements, as cautiously as if it was your dearest treasure, you latch on to it, draw it upward, raise it carefully, carefully, then seize it. You burn your fingers but you have rid your soul of it… It was as if every stone thrown out had ceased to be a part of her…so that she could look at it objectively instead of dragging it around inside her… But once you have learned how to drag these stones out with your grappling hook—your throat is less dry, speech becomes less hesitant, confession flows faster, until your words tumble over themselves as you hurry to snatch at and identify all your betrayals…

“She had blurted out all she had to say, however horrible it was; she had done all she had to do, and now she crouched with her head pressed to the crucifix, breathless. But another Breath, the Spirit, hovered over her and stole tremulously into her. ‘May the Lord our God Jesus Christ [said the priest] through his grace and the munificence of His love for mankind, forgive you, my child, all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy priest, with the authority vested by Him in me…’ He stressed not his authority, but his unworthiness. Grief-stricken witness of her struggle against grief, he testified to her forgiveness. ‘I pardon you and absolve you of all your sins…’

“He withdrew his stole, and she quietly raised her uncovered head… Yes, he had understood her question, and let it be seen that he had… ‘In each of us [he said] there is a mystery greater than we realize. And it is in communion with God that we are able to catch a glimpse of it. Learn to pray. Truly, you are capable of it.’”

What Theology Looks Like – Revisited

November 9, 2007


This was first posted back in May. It’s subject seemed to me quite germane to the topic of the relationship between theology “lived” and theology as “academic” which has arisen in the comments of the recent post on Fr. John Behr’s work. It recounts a story and reflection in my life that the topic always brings me back to. Theology is, finally, always lived, for all of our books will eventually perish, but the imperishable (our life in Christ) will be raised to reign with Him in glory. For those who have read this before, I hope it will bear the re-reading.


Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).

My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had the pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.

But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.

I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.

But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish).  There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).

Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.

Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.

The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?

I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”

Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.

But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.

The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).

The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.

I would add this further thought to my reflection. Every seminary graduate, though trained in theology, will eventually return to parish life in some setting. Sometimes as a sudden shock, sometimes as a breath of fresh air, each will learn that the task of “doing theology” has really only just begun. When the phone rings in the middle of the night the grace of lived theology will be the only grace that matters. Thank God, such grace is given abundantly.

Orthodoxy and Scripture – Fr. John Behr’s Lecture Revisted

November 7, 2007


The earlier attempted debate (in the comments about St. Michael the Archangel) about Scripture and Orthodox understanding of the saints, prayers, etc., is rooted in an understanding of Scripture that is itself the very basis of the Christian faith. Attempts to remove the Bible from its proper Churchly context by the Reformation and modern day Protestants inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the gospel and an attack on the very Church itself. Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, which I excerpted and posted much earlier on this site, is worth revisiting. No Church is as Scriptural or Scripturally based as the Orthodox Church – indeed – I think it is safe to say that no other Church continues to interpret the Scriptures as they were interpreted by the Fathers (at least I think I could make that case).

If you are reading Scripture in a manner that differs from that of St. Athanasius, or St. Irenaeus of Lyons, then, chances are you are possibly reading Scripture in a heretical manner. There is Scripture, but there is a way of reading Scripture. That way is a necessary part of the faith.  

The following is excerpted from Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, delivered in 1998 at the University of North Carolina. A link to the full text is given at the end of the article.  Fr. John is now Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.

Rather than talking about the historical or external aspects of the Churches who have identified themselves as Orthodox, “Orthodoxy” in the first sense of the term, it is primarily with the latter sense of the word, ‘Orthodoxy’ as ‘right belief’, that I am going to be concerned tonight — for it is this which the Orthodox Churches claim for themselves, though I will explore it, and some of the key and differentiating themes within the Eastern understanding of Orthodoxy, by looking at various historical developments as seen from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The classical picture, as it was presented for instance by the book of Acts, and Eusebius the Church Historian in the fourth century, of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, has become increasing difficult to maintain — especially since the work of Walter Bauer: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934) — and rightly so. The earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to Churches which are already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them. However, whereas Bauer concluded that orthodoxy itself only appeared at the end of the second century, emerging victorious out of a conflict with other traditions, I would argue that the reality is there from the beginning — it is the Gospel which was delivered by Paul and the other apostles — but that it has never been perfectly manifest or realized within any community.

It is a mistake to look back to a lost golden age of theological or ecclesial purity — whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers or the Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Christians are strangers in this world — in any society of this world. As the Second Century Letter to Diognetus writes, concerning Christians:

They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.

And this is inevitably so: our citizenship is in heaven, as the Apostle Paul puts it, and its from there (ex hoy) that we wait for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3.20). It is a mistake to look for this as something realized in the past, and since lost — a mistake to which Eastern Christians especially are tempted as they have been subjected to foreign or atheistic powers, and forced to dwell in other lands.

Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered. Debates certainly raged about the correct interpretation of this Gospel — but it was nevertheless delivered once for all. In the debates about what was the orthodox position, the issue of what is authoritative for this position was paramount. And in this question of authority, two particular and inseparable aspects were fundamental: the canon of Scripture and the correct interpretation of that Scripture — expressed most clearly in the rule [canon] of faith/truth.

The earliest Christians, of course, already possessed a collection of writings which they considered authoritative — the Scriptures — the Jewish writings (what became known as the OT); and it was in accordance with these Scriptures, says Paul, that the Christ died and was raised on the third day (1 Cor 15). The Gospel, as it was originally delivered, seems to have been a particular, Christocentric, reading of what was later described as the “Old Testament.” As St Irenaeus put it, at the end of the second century:

If anyone reads the Scriptures [that is, the “Old Testament”] in this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the ‘treasure which was hidden in the field’ (Mt 13:44), that is, in this world — for ‘the field is the world’ (Mt 13:38) — [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for He was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. … And for this reason, when at the present time the Law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation (tên exêgêsin) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God, but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ (Against the Heresies, 4.26.1).

The Word concerning Christ, the Gospel, is a treasure hid in Scripture, brought to light by the Cross.

It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross of Christ, that is salvific — if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal 2:21).

Yet the Gospel remains intimately linked to the Scriptures — Christ is the Word of God disseminated in Scripture. It is interesting that those who appealed most to the apostolic writings during the course of the second century — such as Marcion and Gnostics such as Ptolemy — failed to appreciate the relationship between these Scriptures and the Gospel — usually heightening the contrast between the two, claiming that they were about two different Gods. It was only by the end of the second century, with St Irenaeus, that the continued preaching/kerygma of the Gospel came to be crystallized as a rule of truth, and that the writings of the apostles themselves came to be recognized as possessing Scriptural authority. As Irenaeus wrote:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. … These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God (Against the Heresies, 3.1.1-2).

The reason I am dwelling on this, is because it helps to understand the Orthodox Church’s insistence on Scripture and Tradition, and the place of creedal formula within this. The Gospel which is the foundation of the Church, has, according to Irenaeus, been preserved intact within the Church, as the tradition of the apostles. It has been maintained through a succession of bishops teaching and preaching the same Gospel — he continues a little later:

It is within the power of all, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted as bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times (Against the Heresies, 3.3.1).

It is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel.

More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.

The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood [1]. In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).

Read the entire lecture here.

St. Michael the Archangel – And Other Angel Stories

November 6, 2007


Some years ago, when I was a young seminarian, I served with an Episcopal priest who greatly disappointed me in conversation one day by telling me that he saw “no need” for angels. “There’s nothing that angels are described as doing that the Holy Spirit could not do instead.” This kind of heavenly economy had never been offered to me as a theological reason before. When I thought about it, I realized that there was nothing that we could do that the Holy Spirit couldn’t do better, and wondered whether we existed. It seemed silly to me to posit something as not existing simply because you saw no need for it.

Later that week I was in a prayer group with this same priest (in his parish where I worked). It was a fairly informal group, and I have to confess to pure naughtiness when I said to the group, “Father said he sees no need for angels.” I don’t know what I expected, but the response was a sudden torrent of people sharing stories about angels that were purely wonderful. It included a story by an elderly woman who told of seeing an angel by the bed of her dying child. By the end of the evening, my priest friend had recanted and professed a belief in angels.

That is a story from the confusing time of an Anglican seminarian. What do you do when your professor and mentor just ups and denies a cardinal doctrine of the faith? I didn’t know at the time, so I probably did something wrong – though the outcome was good.

In the years since then I have had occasion in sermon or in a class to share a story about an encounter with an angel, or the intervention and help of an angel (I have a few such stories to tell). Without fail the result has been the same as that first night in a prayer group in Chicago. The story I tell is met with a torrent of similar stories. It seems that many people have angelic encounters but (at least in the circles I was in) were afraid to tell anybody.

Apparently if you live in a two-storey universe and you tell about an encounter with a second-floor creature, some people are afraid of the consequences. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of living in a one-storey universe where God is everywhere present, where the holy angels surround us moment by moment, and at the same time we have a great conspiracy of silence not to tell anyone about how things really are. Secularism is just one large myth.

Tonight my wife and I prayed the Akathist to the Archangel Michael (we were offering intercession for a friend). At the end of the prayers my wife said quietly to me, “St. Michael has always been a good friend to us.” It was a time for me to pause and remember how many times through 33 years of marriage we have stood together and asked St. Michael to come to our aid. Sometimes it has been through our own need, other times for the needs of others. But what we have known has been the faithfulness of the “Chief Captain of the Heavenly Hosts” to do battle for us and protect us in all of our spiritual battles.

I do not have an answer for someone who would deny the Holy Angels and subscribe to some form of theological minimalism. With a God who doesn’t make two snowflakes alike, what place does minimalism play in the universe? I’m Orthodox – which is always maximalist. Our God is a great God.

O chosen leader of the heavenly hosts and defender of the human race, we that are delivered by thee from afflictions offer unto thee this hymn of thanksgiving; and as thou dost stand before the throne of the King of Glory, do thou free us from all dangers, that with faith and love we may cry unto thee in praise:

Rejoice, O Michael, great supreme commander, with all the hosts of Heaven!

Kontakion 1 from the Akathist to St. Michael

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep…

November 5, 2007


This delightful old English prayer said by children and their parents at bedtime has long ago been shortened to only its last verse. There is more (as I was taught):

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

The are four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head,

One to watch, and one to pray,

And two to bear my soul away.

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

If you know more of the tradition of this prayer please share it.

Thinking of Angels

November 5, 2007


This 8th of November is the Feast of St. Michael and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven. The feast marks its own special occasion, but it seems entirely appropriate that the feast should be so close to the beginning of the Nativity Fast. There are very few Biblical stories where angels do not play a part, and their presence only grows greater with the incarnation of Christ. In the life of the Church they surround our every action. And thus it is good to celebrate these humble messengers of God.

I offer here a few thoughts on their many occasions of help to mankind.

  • Cherubim were posted at the entrance of the Garden of Eden protecting us from the damage we would do to ourselves by entering where we should not yet go.
  • An angel ministered to Hagar, saving her and her child from death.
  • An angel intervened and spared the life of Isaac staying the hand of Abraham at Mount Moriah.
  • An angel accompanied Abraham’s servant as he returned to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac.
  • An angel spoke to Jacob in a dream directing him how to find his freedom from his father-in-law Laban.
  • An angel appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of the burning bush.
  • In all of the travels of Israel during the Exodus, the Angel of the Lord went with them and protected them.
  • All of the Judges of Israel seem to have guided and protected by angels.
  • Angels are found in the visions of the prophets.
  • An angel speaks to Joachim and Anna and brings good news to that barren household.
  • An angel speaks to Zechariah as he ministered in the Temple.
  • An angel speaks to the Theotokos and brings the glad tidings of salvation for all mankind.
  • An angel speaks with Joseph and told him that the child she had conceived was of the Holy Spirit.
  • Angels spoke to the shepherds of the salvation that had been born in Bethlehem.
  • Again an angel told Joseph to take the Theotokos and the Christ Child into Egypt.
  • Angels ministered to Christ after His temptation in the wilderness.
  • An angel appeared to Christ strengthening Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  • An angel greeted the women at the tomb and announced the resurrection.
  • Angels stood by and explained the meaning of the ascension to the disciples.

I could, of course, amplify this small list – but these few mentions serve to show how constantly the angels have looked after us and been a part of God’s saving work among us. Thus it is always fitting that we should give thanks to God for their work and not forget the good they have done.

The Holy Relics of Sts. Joachim and Anna

November 5, 2007


As the priest of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, I read with great interest the linked blog on the gift of their relics to an Orthodox parish in California. The articles are well done and the video is outstanding. For all who love the saints, you will enjoy these pages. Sts. Joachim and Anna, pray to God for us.

A Short Good Read

November 5, 2007


I explored Richard Collins’ Blogsite today and found some good writing. I commend his article on an Icon class he attended recently. He especially does a good job of setting forth some of the technical distinctions (body, soul, mind, nous, etc.) that I found helpful. A good read is always welcome to me and I recommend it to all as well.

Knowledge that Saves

November 3, 2007


It is perhaps unfortunate that our English language (as well as the Greek and many other Indo-European variations) do not make a clear distinction between knowing something as a fact, and a different kind of knowing which requires participation in the actual life and reality of that which we know. Thus it is possible for me to know a great deal about the history of bread-making in 16th century France, even though I did not live in the 16th century, have never been to France, and only know what I know because I have studied it (I do not in fact know anything about this subject, but simply chose it as an example). On the other hand, it is possible for me to have studied the beliefs and teachings of the 1st century Church and yet have no knowledge whatsoever of the God for whom these early Christians willingly gave their lives.

Thus we can see a particular use of the word to know. It may mean nothing more than the mastery of facts, requiring nothing more than memory and an understanding of how those facts fit in which other facts of a similar time. We could even give such knowledge a name and call it “expert knowledge.”

There is another form of knowledge, frequently used in Scripture, which refers to a direct, experiential knowledge, in which we only know what we know because we have participated in it and, to some extent, have become part of what we know. Thus we can speak of knowing God because we have come to have a share in His life. This kind of knowledge presupposes that God is not an inert piece of data awaiting its assimilation into the greater database of our accummulated knowledge. Instead, we must assume in this kind of knowledge, that God is free, and can only be known because He makes Himself known. And we can also assume that I have come to know Him only because I have freely entered into relationship with Him and in some manner that is not necessarily disclosed, I have come to know Him. To some degree His life has become my life and my life has become His. I know Him, thus, in something of the same manner in which I know myself.

It is the Christian teaching that this latter form of knowledge is “saving” knowledge. Knowledge about things (or God) may fill our head with data, and may make it possible for us to score higher on certain tests, but it does nothing to us and requires nothing of us other than a certain dedication of time to acquire the knowledge.

The second form of knowledge is indeed “saving” knowledge. We are saved by this “knowledge” not because it enables us to pass a test (indeed I have found it almost useless in most graduate level studies of religion), but because it requires a change in us – a change that is, in fact, being conformed to the very image of God Himself. His life is becoming my life and my life His. I am becoming more like Him. That we use “knowledge” to express this relationship is partly our Semitic heritage (Hebrew used knowledge in this same sense) and partly that we have found no other word to say exactly what we mean. We could say that we are finding “union” with God and it would be correct. But though the Tradition uses this word, it still prefers “knowledge.” “Knowledge” seems somehow to maintain the distinction between knower and known in a way that union does not. “Union,” if used in the form it has in the Far East, may presume that all distinctions disappear. This would not be the Christian gospel. The more fully I know God, the more fully I truly become what I was created to be. I am more “Stephen” than I would be otherwise.

It is this knowledge that we seek as Christians. Studying can be a means of both kinds of knowledge. It can be an occasion for gaining expert knowledge and it can become the occasion for saving knowledge. My experience is that I study much slower if I am seeking saving knowledge.

But, wonderfully, saving knowledge can be had in immeasureable ways even by the unlearned. The village idiot may have more saving knowledge than the village scholar, though not necessarily. The future of the Church needs scholars, but without saving knowledge it will not even be the Church.

Always and everywhere, my heart should be set towards saving knowledge. It need not be at the expense of expert knowledge, but I should never seek to substitute expert knowledge for saving knowledge. It may preach – but it will offer a very meagre fare to its listeners. The Church’s contention is that saving knowledge can be had from Scripture and from icons – though both can be used merely for expert knowledge. But almost all in our modern life, driven as it is by the acquisition and distribution of data, can quickly become little more than expert knowledge.

To acquire saving knowledge of God, all that we approach must be approached as we would a person for whom we have the deepest reverence and who can give us what we want only as a generous gift and never as an answer to the demands we make. Thus I hear the Scriptures and bow my head, “Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee.” I approach an icon, not in a hurry but with the recognition that I behold heaven through this tiny window and with the attention of my heart may perceive that heaven is beholding me.

And with each encounter comes something more than I can express – a knowledge that may have words to describe it – but once described so clearly transcends the description that it seems a futile effort. Silence has a way of surrounding this knowledge.

May God save us through the knowledge of His beloved Son, and give us the life that He alone can give. May we know Him even as we ourselves are known.

Do We Want to Know God?

November 2, 2007


It was remarked briefly in a recent comment that “we cannot know God completely,” and that we should be satisfied with the mysteries of the faith and trust the teaching of the Church (I apologize for using the writer’s honest statement as the point of departure for this post). However, this short quote from St. Silouan:

It is given to our Orthodox Church through the Holy Spirit to fathom the mysteries of God, and she is strong in the holiness of her thought and her patience.

The mysteries of the Faith give to us, not some other grace (Baptismal grace, etc.) but grace that is the very Life of God. What we know in Baptism is God. The same is true of all the mysteries. The same is true of everything we see in the life of the Church – and if we have ears to hear – it is true of every action in every moment of our lives.

If we can only love a God who is perceived through some third-party mediation as an idea, then this is not love of God. I must not love God as an idea or even seek to know Him in such a manner. An idea of God is truly and dangerously an idol. By comparison, the Holy Icons we venerate make known to us the true God. But an idea – those vague and even idiosyncratic notions – are not glimpses of God at all.

We must hunger for God Himself, never anything less. This is why we must know our ignorance. We must not be satisfied with knowledge that is not knowledge. Only true knowledge of God should and can satisfy the true longings of our heart. We who once walked in the cool of the evening with God should not settle for something less (I know the imagery is just that- imagery – but it points to the nature of true knowledge).

Thus we may have unlettered peasants such as St. Silouan who know God – but thank goodness they did not settle for something less. It may eat us and consume us (this hunger for God) but we dare not settle for less or the entire purpose of our life will have been wasted.

Nothing less than God.

As Fr. Hopko says, “You cannot know God, but you have to know Him to know that.” This is the mystery of God in his essence and His energies. We cannot know Him and yet we can know Him. Of course, most of us do not know God – or if we do know Him we only barely know Him. But why settle for anything other than more of this? God became man and united Himself to our flesh that we might know Him. St. Paul cried out for nothing less and would have given everything up for the excellency of knowing Christ.

Indeed, we are told in prophecy: “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,‘ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).

Know God.