Unspeakably Speaking

PreobrazhenieEastern Orthodoxy commonly describes its theology as “apophatic.” The word means, “Unspeakable.” It is perhaps the most important point within Orthodox thought: when speaking of God, we are always saying things that cannot be said. It does not mean that nothing should be said (though this is often a good idea). It means that no matter what we say, the subject that lies at the heart of our speech is not the same thing as our speech. We do not worship words – we worship the Word.

The various forms of rationalism that have come to dominate modern Christian thought have almost destroyed true theology. Fundamentalist rationalism speaks with an assurance that borders on blasphemy, while liberal angst loses itself within its own rational conundrums. God is not an idea. He cannot be manipulated, studied, poked and prodded nor is the text of Scripture a rational cookbook for the knowledge of God. God transcends human thought, and when known, is only known by way of personal gift.

Such statements are normative in Orthodox teaching. As we approach God we are told to walk slowly, and finally, to stand still. More than “standing” still, we are told to “be still.” The calmness and silence of such stillness refers to the noise of our own reason and emotions. The inner conflict produced by life in the world is easily projected onto the screen of the universe, yielding an imaginary God. Only true stillness can allow the projection to dissipate.

The so-called “Masters of Suspicion” (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche) have long ago demolished certain “gods of men” (in the words of philosopher Paul Ricouer). There is a recognition that many images of God are nothing more than our cultural or psychological projections. Whether as divinized “father figure,” or “wish fulfillment,” such imaginary gods are less than useless for believers. Many things that are attributed to God today (think, “Facebook Meme”), are simply cultural values underwritten with the cachet of religion.

The struggle to know God goes to the very core of our existence. It is not a struggle to believe an idea. It is as much a struggle to know ourselves and our place within creation. It is in this context that the Elder Sophrony will write and speak of “standing before the abyss.” The “abyss” can be many things: human suffering, our own death, the existence/non-existence of God, the opacity of the universe.

The witness of the Christian faith is that the God-who-cannot-be-spoken has made Himself known in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. It also witnesses that through Christ we can have true communion/participation in the life of the God-who-cannot-be-spoken. But this great mystery, which we “proclaim from the rooftops,” remains a mystery into which we enter. The Incarnation does not reduce the mystery and make it manageable: it opens the mystery and makes it accessible.

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:24-27).



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


41 responses to “Unspeakably Speaking”

  1. Rhonda Avatar

    Once again thank you, Fr. Stephen:

    The struggle to know God goes to the very core of our existence. It is not a struggle to believe an idea. It is as much a struggle to know ourselves and our place within creation. It is in this context that the Elder Sophrony will write and speak of “standing before the abyss.” The “abyss” can be many things: human suffering, our own death, the existence/non-existence of God, the opacity of the universe.

    And as I struggle to know myself & find my place, I find myself standing at the abyss of my own soul…

  2. Steve Avatar

    Thank you for your carefully measured words, Father. I am especially grateful that you included this delightful Icon of the Transfiguration, to colour (as it were) and embed “words” into the very ground and pillar of Truth.

    I include an equally delightful reflection from the Anastasis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, New Rome, Archdiocese of Thyateira & Great Britain:

    For Balaam laid before us precisely
    The meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy,
    When he said that a star would dawn,
    A star that quenches all prophecies and auguries;
    A star which resolves the parables of the wise,
    And their sayings and their riddles,
    A star far more brilliant than the star
    Which has appeared, for he is the Maker of all the stars,
    Of whom it was written of old, From Jacob there dawns
    A little Child, God before the ages.
    Archimandrite Ephrem ©


  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    I worked on this short post for the past 4 days. Occasionally, writing is difficult, for various reasons. The subject also seemed to want careful work and few words.

    Archimandrite Ephrem’s translations are excellent. He is a most interesting gentleman. I met him years back at a conference in New York on translating liturgical materials.

  4. TLO Avatar

    This post reminds me very much of Lewis’ “Til We Have Faces” which uses a lot of words to say something profound that perhaps cannot ever be said properly.

  5. Jim Avatar

    Fr. Stephens… For the past couple years, I have continued to read, “listen” to, and appreciate each of your blogs. Through you, and other’s from the Orthodox background (including books), I am becoming familiar with the idea of “apophatic”. My struggle is this — I look at thoughts shared by Paul (e.g. Colossians 1:10; Romans 1:18f) and Peter (e.g. 2 Peter 12:5f) which place me in the position of responsibility (necessity) to grasp (possess/ understand/ know) the “knowledge of God”, yet it is, at the same time, seemingly unattainable. So I find myself attempting to make distinctions — i.e. God is “unknowable” with the understanding that there are things about Him that I MUST know (e.g. God is Holy, God is Love, “Who is Jesus?” — John 14:8f). Also, making distinctions between Knowing God as a person, and knowing the truths revealed by God (doctrines, teachings… which pose their own set of difficulties for me to distinguish in regards to what matters most and what is “essential”??) I am trying to think of how to frame this into a question… What is most important to the Orthodox, that we are making the attempt to pursue/process an understanding of God in a way that molds who we are as people, or that we actually arrive at certain milestones of understanding (e.g propositional truths) where we can say, “I ‘know’ thus-&-so to be true”? Another related question might be, “I assume that before a person can become Orthodox he/she must ‘know’ certain things… What would that be?”

  6. Grant Avatar

    Thanks again Father. This blog, I think, is an important part of many people’s lives, including my own.

  7. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, ok you convinced me to start using my old online handle “Apophatically Speaking” 🙂

  8. Steve Avatar


    I kept my response to yet another of your first rate posts, purposely brief. Thank you!


    I can’t get over the sheer creative intelligence of the writer of this icon. He/she has expressed the inexpressible without using a single word!

  9. Paula Hughes Avatar
    Paula Hughes

    Oh thank you ,Father Stephen. This is exactly what I wish to say to those, including my husband, who can’t understand how we can ‘know’ that our God exists. And who object to the reality of God because He does not measure up to their ideas of fairness or rationality or what He ‘should ‘ be like.
    When they ask ‘how can you believe in God when there is so much suffering, as if we had never struggled with that ourselves! I can only say ‘I really don’t know,’ but I do. I will print this out to have on hand for these people.

  10. Arnold Avatar

    I think this is the best advice I’ve read on theology that I can recall. I wonder if much resistance to Orthodoxy is not due to the unfamiliarity of the terminology.

  11. Marjaana Avatar

    “God is not an idea. He cannot be manipulated, studied, poked and prodded nor is the text of Scripture a rational cookbook for the knowledge of God. God transcends human thought, and when known, is only known by way of personal gift.”

    This explains so much about why the Bible is the way it is and how it cannot and should not be dissected in the same way as scholarly treatises are. The Scripture tells about God in the same way as we would tell people about other people.

  12. Karen Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Again and again in contemplating such things, my mind goes back to the book of Job. We see there how inadequate was the rational and simplistic theologizing of Job’s friends–once they make the mistake of opening their mouths–and how this compounds the suffering of Job. Job, similarly, gets no farther in his attempts to reason out what is happening to him, but then comes the encounter with God–the knowing that comes by experience. Job’s response is memorable (Job 42:2-6):

    “I know that You can do everything,
    And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.
    You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
    Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
    Listen, please, and let me speak;
    You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’
    “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
    But now my eye sees You.
    Therefore I abhor myself,
    And repent in dust and ashes.”

    (Emphasis mine.)

  13. Shane Avatar

    Thank you Father. This ties in with something read recently by Met. Anthony Bloom on the absence of God:

    “The fact that God can make himself present or can leave us with the sense of his absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God.”

  14. Stephen Martin Reynolds Avatar
    Stephen Martin Reynolds

    Thank you, Fr Stephen.

  15. thoughtsintrusive Avatar

    Evlogeite! — How grateful we are for your posting this Father! It reminds us of Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos’s text: Ineffable-Uncreated Words & Created Words and Concepts http://thoughtsintrusive.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/ineffable-uncreated-words-created-words/

  16. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “The inner conflict produced by life in the world is easily projected onto the screen of the universe, yielding an imaginary God. Only true stillness can allow the projection to dissipate.”

    This is very well said, Father Stephen – the whole post is, but I am particularly drawn to these words. When I experience doubt, I think it is often because I am considering an imaginary God that has crept unbeknownst into my thinking.

    I am so used to the word “God” – talking, thinking, reading about God that He starts to seem unreal. And that is, of course, because once I start employing words or images, I have, in a sense, deviated from the true God.

    Making Him small enough for my comprehension makes Him into something supremely dubious. Thankfully, in the gifts of Jesus, the sacraments and stillness, my heart can experience (at least a little) what my mind cannot know or describe.

    Thank you for laboring to say this so well.

  17. Casey Avatar

    Beautiful, Father; you might convert me from Catholic to Orthodox. 😉

    Truly, your blog has become a refuge for me, if I may. I need this feeding. Thank you.

  18. […] “The inner conflict produced by life in the world is easily projected onto the screen of the universe, yielding an imaginary God. Only true stillness can allow the projection to dissipate.” Fr Stephen Freeman, “Unspeakably Speaking” […]

  19. Anna Avatar

    Hi Casey,

    I can say the same thing about Fr. Stephen’ blog being a spiritual refuge. I’m Orthodox, but somehow being reminded of my own Tradition by bite-sized internet writing has become a part of my hanging on to the hem of Christ’s vestment.

    I checked out your blog, which I truly enjoyed. If I may make a random comment now, you look somewhat like a friend of mine who is Bulgarian and living in the US. She is a presbytera now, since her husband who became Orthodox before their wedding has been a priest for a few years.

    Father, bless, please excuse the off-topic comment, but it seemed more out of place on Casey’s blog than here.

  20. Marcus Avatar

    Wonderful post Father!

    I often think atheists don’t understand the god they reject. They reject a god fed to them by their surroundings, which is usually the clothed cultural values manifested in some semblance of a deity. Wrap this up into a very judgmental “fire and brimstone” theology they see in modern media, and you have a god no one would want to worship.

    This is not the God of Christianity. I often think the biggest adversary in our faith is not the one who denies God, but one who twists Him in their image.

  21. Steve Avatar

    Well said, Karen!

  22. Dino Avatar


    I thoroughly enjoyed that article you pointed (hyperlinked) to – indeed, Metropolitan Hierotheos presents there, the actual subject where Father J. Romanides would shine at his very best…

  23. Anglican Peggy Avatar
    Anglican Peggy

    “But this great mystery, which we “proclaim from the rooftops,” remains a mystery into which we enter. The Incarnation does not reduce the mystery and make it manageable: it opens the mystery and makes it accessible.”

    My heart just leapt when I read these words. Not due, of course, to any merit of the good Father’s, but because there was a recognition of the truth in them. Surely, that unknowable God was helping you, Father Stephen, to put them just right to make the concept clear.

    I feel like I have to share this column with others and especially the part quoted above. I don’t think that the problem with understanding the deeper concepts of Christian faith lies with those concepts but rather with the words used to explain them. It is an happy occasion for me when I find something so helpful as this.

    By the way, I may be an Anglican, and a happy one, but the part of my spirituality that was formed by the Orthodox grandparents has to be fed from time to time. Coming here does just that. Thanks, Father.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To paraphrase Fr. Seraphim Rose: the deep matters of the faith are not concepts to be grasped with the mind, but a person to be loved: Jesus.

    As such the deep matters of the faith require surrender to His love.
    The Incarnation allows us to enter into that love in its fullness, in fact requires it. If we allow it, He draws us closer and closer. At each step, we willingly shed more and more of our false “happiness” for the person/being we really are.

  25. Steve Avatar


  26. PJ Avatar

    The Elder Sophrony’s distinction between the psychological and the spiritual comes to mind, as discussed by the Elder Zacharias in “Enlargement of the Heart.”

  27. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

    Sadly, I believe that the hyper-rationalism of Western Christianity has either created atheism or at least greatly fueled it. If only our culture could embrace ambiguity and let go of feeling like we have to have all of the answers.

  28. dino Avatar

    I very much agree that hyper-rationalism has fueled atheism. It has also fueled heresy from the earliest days and keeps fueling the nihilistic meaninglessness of much of contemporary thinking.
    It is as if our very seeking for meaning – for’answers'(through the medium of an over-bloated rational only intellect)- has led us to meaninglessness. We see this in scholastic Theology’s mistakes and I often see this in modern “scientism”.
    Some strands of popular science (and the way it is presented to the masses) look like they are on a road of self inflicted ‘suicide of Man’s significance’. As if having ‘killed God’ in modern atheism is not enough until we also ‘kill Man’ too… I often see celebratory (!) articles on Man’s insignificance compared to the immensity of the trillions of Galaxies which are a tiny portion of the actual matter of the universe, of which there are countless, etc etc…
    They fail to realize that even if, somehow, someone could be given a superhuman intellect including all the scientific answers (to Black Holes, Dark Matter, etc…) – the How of creation in other words -, they would still be lost without the answers to the Why of creation.
    When God grants a saint who has reached the final stage of glorification/theosis His knowledge, he then “asks nothing”, not because he has all the “how” answers but because he has all the “why” answers; these, and only these override the endless arguments of intellectualism’s dead-end in one fell swoop as has been verified time and again in the experience of those who have reached that stage in the Orthodox tradition.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Dino and Jeremy. Man will not survive without God. Our cultural fate is intertwined. Of course, God simply is… And will triumph over cultural missteps…how many times will we need to prove that man without God is a disaster without mitigation (other than a return to God). The many failures of cultural religions pale beside the moonscape of atheist regimes. Travel to Albania and other outposts of the moon and speak about liberating man from God. We get God wrong again and again, but without God, we get man wrong, and the voices of the weak call out from their graves for mercy.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    DeCarte’s dictum: “I think, therefore I am” is one of the greatest blasphemies ever for it is the epitome of the the nilistic denial of God. It is at once the elevation of man to supreme being and our utter destruction as human.

  31. Robert Avatar

    Mention is made here of “cultural religions” which makes me wonder if it is possible to have anything but just that. Every expression of the faith is ‘enfleshed’ in some form of a cultural expression (it may run counter culture, but it is still a cultural expression as such). How often don’t we mistake or substitute our faith (or the faith) for God?

  32. Rdr John Avatar
    Rdr John

    Father bless.
    This is a technical web site question. It used to be easy to print a readable copy of a given reflection by clicking the title where it appeared under recent posts list on the right. Now I have to go to FILE and I get more pages than I need and I get very small print that is almost unreadable. A few months ago this was never a problem since I would always get a nice readable copy with or without comments, depending on how many pages I opted to print. Any ideas?

  33. Steve Avatar

    PJ, thank you for your truly inspired comment.

    The theology behind the Enlarged Heart is well covered in another of Archimandrite Zacharias’ books, namely Remember Thy First Love (Revelation 2:4-5): The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony — available on Amazon.

    The three stages are as follows: Firstly, the receiving of the Divine Spirit. Secondly, the withdrawal of the Sprit in order to elicit a kind of divine dependence. Lastly, man reacquires the Divine Spirit in a stage that lasts for eternity:

    Man often imagines that he has arrived at the third stage without actually having acquired the Divine Spirit in the first place. In this case, we might expect to see not the fruits of divine government under the son (Isa 9: 6-7) but rather those of a dystopia dominated by CS Lewis’ “men without chests” (for “chest” read “heart”).

    It is precisely because of this, that the Enlarged Heart must be a heart of flesh!

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Shameless Plug: Eighth Day Books here in Wichita has all the Orthodox books you need plus great literature, philosophy and icons. The are a wonderful ministry for Orthodox around the world but are a small business which needs all of our support in order to be able to continue. http://eighthdaybooks.com/index.php

    They’ll order any book you want if it can be found. Great books, great service, great people.

    Archm.Zacharias’ books can be found at Eighth Day too, plus Everyday Saints and a great many more including our host’s, Everywhere Present.

    All of my books come from Eighth Day or they are not worth buying.

  35. Dino Avatar

    The struggle to know God goes to the very core of our existence. It is not a struggle to believe an idea. It is as much a struggle to know ourselves and our place within creation.

    I thought that this also points to the truth that our deepest desire -even when it is perversely expressed in a number of other desires – is the knowledge of God, our participation in His Life, that ‘answer to all our questions’, the thing that, even in our darkness, we suspect to be the reason for our existence, as the Lord secretly whispers in our soul…
    Saint Isaac the Syrian’s celebrated quote is more pertinent than it seems at first here. :

    “Strive to enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for one is the same as the other, a single entrance permits you to contemplate both. The stairway leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul: cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which you ascend”


  36. Steve Avatar

    Archimandrite Zecharias speaking on the life of St. Silouan:

    “One can only know God if one has seen his kind, that is to say his glorious image; and if one has heard his voice, that is to say the voice of God through the power of the Holy Spirit that puts a seal to the truth of God sealed in us”.

    A profound truth.

  37. Maria Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this beautiful essay. It brings to mind a short (10-minute) film I recently saw of Russian animator Garri Bardin, that so poignantly evokes (through origami, no less) the visceral recognition of Truth in His appearance. No words. Just the image to remind of the power of his simple Presence.

    (There is a commercial at the beginning one can skip over after a few seconds…)

    I must warn that the ending of the film, when the somewhat-illuminated creatures so quickly condemn another creature who has not yet come into contact with the Light…(and apposite for the just-past Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican)…is perhaps another topic.

    Others might have a similar response as I did. Whereas the beauty of what the film portrays until that point brought tears to my eyes, the end presented many temptations and tormented me for quite sometime (I was raised to eschew “religion,” especially organized religion, and this seems to hit at the core of such antipathies).

    Thanks be to God, I was reminded that darkness (whether of the other or our own) is not be cast out or condemned. Only illuminated. Perhaps this is why icons (except those of the judgment which I’ve always found difficult to look at) portray only the light, rather than presenting examples of darkness that should be condemned and avoided…

    And so there is ugly sin to be seen in the church, sin here, sin abroad, sin in me. Yet, now by some different understanding than what I had when I stood outside and was repulsed–I am repulsed, pierced, and yet still believe.

    We are all sinners. God have mercy on us. Live and abide in us, and forgive us our sins.

    I wish the film had portrayed somewhere in the last scene, the Light not just reflected on the creatures, who take a posture so different from the One on their signs, but the Light living in just one.

    Such a contrast might hit on a difference between faith/knowing as an answer to a yes-or-no question (something definable, somehow touchable by human logic) and faith/knowing in relationship to a person, which, like love, has an existence apart from any words which might be used to describe it.

  38. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you for sharing that film, Maria. It is very intriguing and moving. It does seem that the writer/director of the film has been burned by “organized religion” or perhaps feels like an outcast because they’re a little bit different.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    Reader John:
    Solved the technical problem on print. There is a print button now at the end of each article. It had gotten hidden somehow. Let me know if it works well for you. If there’s an improvement you’d like, let me know.

  40. […] Lent is a microcosm of our entire spiritual journey.  As Fr. Stephen Freeman writes in his blog, Glory to God for All Things, “As we approach God we are told to walk slowly, and finally, to stand still. More than […]

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