I noted with interest recently that newly-elected Metropolitan Jonah, of the OCA, first became aware of the Orthodox faith through reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. It is a very difficult volume. My interest was piqued because this book was also my first introduction to the Othodox faith. I suspect I still do not understand most of what I read. Lossky is best known and associated with writing on Apophatic Theology (apophatic, from the Greek, means “unspeakable”). Many of the greatest writers and Fathers in Orthodox theology held to the importance of an apophatic approach – that is – that we may come to know God best in a manner that is beyond speech. I have always liked Fr. Thomas Hopko’s aphorism: “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” It states the mystery succinctly.
I would add another aphorism:
It is hard to be deluded when you don’t claim to know anything.
That’s not Hopko – it’s me. What many do not understand is that apophaticism is not an intellectual position, but is itself a way of life – the very heart of Orthodoxy. What seems difficult to most is the idea that declaring that we do not know is a way of knowing. Apophaticism is not agnosticism.
We behold God in a mystery and the mystery we behold is inherently unspeakable (if we truly behold Him).
None of this is to say that we do not preach the Gospel, nor share the good news of God in Christ. But it is a recognition that in our own lives we pursue God not through greater depths of rationality but in a manner that is itself “unspeakable.” Such an approach is begotten of humility and the recognition of both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves.
I have written most recently of the “soul as mystery.” This is not to deny that we may know other people but that to know them properly we must do so in “fear and wonder.” This is the language of love. We do not rightly seek to define the object of our love, but to be in communion. We love and with it language fails. Language fails not because of the lack of knowledge, but because the character of the knowledge we have through love is larger than words. Words may serve as icons – as windows towards the reality they seek to express – but they cannot contain nor fully comprehend that to which they point.
I think particularly of the hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration:
Thou wast transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Thine everlasting Light shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!
“Revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it.” We can bear it more than words can say. But if insist on what words can say, we will bear little indeed.
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