Reminder – I Am an Ignorant Man


Last January I posted a note on Ignorance and God. It has since been translated and posted in both Romanian and French. My first thought was, “Great. My first taste of international recognition will be because I am an ignorant man.” That, of course, is a kindness from God. I would be in danger should I be known for something else.

Within that first article I included a quote from Father Sophrony on the nature of true spiritual knowledge. I wrote:

What do any of us actually know of God? I believe we only know of God what has been revealed to us in Christ. And just reading the revelation is a world away from actually knowing and “having” the revelation. That comes very slowly indeed.

The Elder Sophrony wrote that such revelations come in something like a “flash of lightning, when the heart is burning with love.” These relatively rare experiences accumulate over a lifetime:

The accumulation in the experience of the Church of such ‘moments’ of enlightenment has led organically to their reduction into one whole. This is how the first attempt at the systemization of a live theology came about, the work of St. John of Damascus, a man rich, too, in personal experience. The disruption of this wondrous ascent to God in the unfathomable wealth of higher intellection is brought about, where there is a decline of personal experience, by a tendency to submit the gifts of Revelation to the critical faculty of our reason – by a leaning towards ‘philosophy of religion.’ The consequences are scholastic accounts of theology in which, again, there is more philosophy than Spirit of life. (From his work On Prayer).

Today I would like to add to this a quote from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:

As we have said, the Orthodox faithful awaits and desires to become the reflection of the glory of God and through the grace of the Holy Spirit he becomes an image of our Lord Jesus Christ. He desires, in other words, to immediately know one person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and through him the remaining two, the unapproachable person of the Father, and through the Son alone, the person of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Christian strives towards purity of Heart for the visitation of grace, and having been fulfilled, is able to behold the sought-after glory of God. Being thus transformed, from glory to glory, the Orthodox Christian approaches God. On the spiritual journey a dogmatic description of the manifestation of the Lord and his Body, the Church, is not required because our experienced guide at every moment protects us from deception, and allows us to accept the Glory of the Lord in any appearance it takes. Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma. However, a mere theoretical discussion on the meaning of life and dogma is unnecessary.

This quote comes from a speech by the Ecumenical Patriarch to a Catholic audience at Georgetown University several years back. The full text can be found here.

What is of interest to me is the common thread that runs between Fr. Sophrony and these comments by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Both understand that dogma, though officially stated by the Church in its formularies, are in fact a reality to be experienced and known on a level that transcends all discussion. It is this reality that makes the Orthodox seem as completely intransigent in their discussions with others (although there are lesser and sinful forms of intransigence). But at the core and heart of Orthodox claims is the reality of the experience of Christ and the knowledge of God found in Him. This knowledge is frequently unable to be expressed, even though it can be known.

Will there ever finally be ecumenical reproachment between the Orthodox and others? Not if the reproachment is rooted in dialog and formulas. The treasure that is Orthodoxy is a living experience of the fullness of Christ. It is certainly true that most of us who are Orthodox do not have yet a fraction of the fullness of that experience. And yet, oftentimes, even in very young (spiritually) Orthodoxy, there is an instinct, born of the Spirit, that hesitates at the formulaic offerings of those who would seek union.

The first task we have as Christians is to bear witness in word, and primarily in deed, of the reality that has been birthed in us through Baptism and the anointing with the All-Holy Chrism.

And thus it is that I confess myself an ignorant man. I do so partly to protect myself from any temptations to think more highly of myself than I ought. But I do so as well because I have promised to safeguard that which was vouchsafed to me at my Chrismation and at my Ordination.

On the most fundamental level of my heart, it is a hesitancy to embrace anything that would separate me from the reality of the experience of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. It is as the Patriarch stated:

Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of Him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma.

From this point of view, anyone who knows me would agree that I am an ignorant man. It what measure is my life the expression of Orthodox dogma? Certainly only in fractional ways. But to settle for less or be drawn away to anything less is apostasy plain and simple. Help us, save us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





8 responses to “Reminder – I Am an Ignorant Man”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Homo Ignoramus as seen in the wild.

  2. Reminder – I Am an Ignorant Man

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I can only pray to grow more and more ignorant.

  4. tony c Avatar
    tony c

    There’s a parallel to music here.

    There is the reality of the music itself, and then there is the notes on the page and the theories of harmony and such. The book knowledge expresses the reality, but it is not the reality itself.

    And the violinist who went to Juliard can be a great musician, but so can the hillbilly playing banjo on his porch.

  5. Damaris Avatar

    On St. Thomas Sunday, a few weeks ago, this was part of the liturgy: “John the Apostle leaned on the Savior’s breast, and Thomas was made worthy to touch His side. The one thus understood the depths of theology; the other was priviledged to announce the mystery of the Resurrection to us crying: ‘My Lord and My God, glory to you!’”

    This emphasizes your point, Father Stephen, that the experience of Christ (leaning on His breast, touching His wounds) is what makes us able (perhaps) to understand theology and proclaim Him; theology does not necessarily make us able to draw close to Him.

    I have only recently begun attending Divine Liturgy. To me being in church on Sunday morning is having the inestimable priviledge of leaning on the breast of Jesus. I have spent many years listening and learning about God (though I am still extremely ignorant!), but what joy to come home to Him, to be near to Him.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve not read this anywhere – but it would seem to me that “thrusting your hand in His side” would be fulfilled in communion (which is sometimes described as a “fiery coal,” and also because it is from His side that blood and water flowed.

  7. David Avatar

    I didn’t know where I heard the phrase “I am an ignorant man.” So I Googled it and this page is the first one that comes up.

    Now THAT’S a witness.

    Said in love to a very important person in my life,

  8. d Avatar

    I think that each of us is as ignorant as God allows us to be, and that is for our own good. Ignorance is not an excuse in certain circumstances, nor is a blessing in others; however, it may be seen as a gift too as ‘blessed are the poor in spirit…’
    Seeking answers is not always the way to go [when the call is for obedience]. On the other hand, complacing oneself in a luke-warm ignorance as a way of life is a questionable attitude too. So, ignorance like anything else is relative. But what do I know!? Just an opinion…

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