Seeing and Believing – A Noetic Life Part 2


“I see what you mean.”

Language holds many secrets that we ignore. Some of the secrets are quite old. If we pay proper attention, we are able to discover things that we already know, but did not yet know that we knew. The phrase, “Now I see,” or other various uses of “seeing” as a form of “knowing,” is quite ancient in its insight. The Greek word for knowing is εἰδῶ, and though it is not readily apparent, its root is the same as the Latin word “videre,” to “see.” The connection between seeing and knowing seems instinctive on some level. Though, if we think about it, the kind of knowing to which it refers is itself quite interesting.

For example, when we think of the kind of knowledge that is often described as “objective,” “seeing” is not at all the right word. Imagine that you have the opportunity to encounter God face to face. I will give you two words for this encounter: “look” and “see.” I could “look” at God, and perhaps (in my imaginary scenario) come away with a description. But “looking” does not imply any level of knowing. God is encountered as object.

When we look at objects, we are often doing nothing more than engaging the rational, critical faculty of our mind. There is no particular investment in the object itself. This is the knowledge I have described as “consumerist” knowledge. My grocery store is full of objects. I buy some and eat them.

But if we say, “He saw God,” there is a different kind of knowledge that is implied. Indeed, it would be possible to “see” God, and yet not be able to describe or even relate what you saw. It is not the knowledge of an object – it is an encounter that is rooted in communion.

“Seeing” with the sense of “knowing” implies much more than simple observation. It infers a knowing with understanding, or knowing that somehow includes communion. “Now I see,” intimates that the one who sees is somehow different as a result of the seeing.

There are no “objects” in the spiritual life. Everything that exists carries with it the possibility of communion. Our place within creation is not as the master of objects but as a point of communion.

Many people who struggle with their faith imagine that things would be different if only God would give them more evidence. I have been told by atheists more than once that their lack of belief is God’s fault. “If God wants us to believe in him,” they think, “then He should have made things more obvious.” However, God is a good God and does not give us what is damaging to the spiritual life. The kind of knowledge being demanded (objective) is of no use, and would indeed be spiritually harmful if it were given.

Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a statement that declares that good people will go to heaven. It is a statement about the nature of spiritual sight and spiritual knowledge: it is directly related to the heart. Plenty of people had an objective experience of Christ. His miracles occurred in the presence of crowds. But Christ did not come to give this form of knowledge. Judas saw all of the miracles, and, doubtless, performed his share along with the rest of the Apostles.

Christ said in St. John’s gospel: “This is eternal life: that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The knowledge to which Christ refers is a knowledge that takes place only as communion and coinherence. We cannot look and gain such knowledge – it has to be seen.

In my previous article I wrote about the faculty of the nous, as understood in the Fathers. It is the use of this faculty that lies at the critical point of our seeing God. One of the classical definitions of the nous is the innate faculty through which we may know God. Purity of the heart can also be described as purity of the nous. The nous is not some special faculty set aside for spiritual things. It is the very heart of our existence. And although the nous can indeed be said to focus into a single point, it is also true that it represents not a narrowing of perception, but an expanding.

The Fathers describe the nous as “darkened” went it is unable to do its proper task. This is the same as an impure or hardened heart. When the nous is darkened, every other form of knowing and functioning is acting in spiritual blindness. The nous is understood to be the faculty that should govern the whole of our being. That the critical rational mind, together with the passions, are enthralled by a consumerist culture is not particularly the fault of either. The fault lies in the absence of a properly functioning nous.

If anything, this points to our lives as something that is rightly lived in a “whole” manner. The nous is not a substitute for other forms of cognition, but other forms of cognition cannot substitute for the nous. The ascetical practices of the Church are seen as the primary tools for the healing and development of the noetic life. When the disciples asked Christ about their failures in an exorcism, Christ told them, “This kind only comes out with prayer and fasting.” Such practices, together with generosity and kindness, repentance and confession are essential to our life. They are not a “style” of Christianity – they are necessary to the wholeness of the soul.

This noetic training in the traditional practices of the Orthodox faith is the meaning of the “solid food” described in Hebrews:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:12-14)

It is commonplace in Orthodoxy to describe evangelism as “Come and See.” I have had more than a few visitors in my parish who clearly came to “look” at Orthodoxy. However, you cannot “look” at a way of life. Rational arguments, discussions, explanations, personal stories and the like certainly have the power to attract (and sometimes repel). But none of them represent communion with God. At some level, true salvation begins in a noetic experience between the soul and God. And this cannot be forced or managed. It is an intrinsically holy action in whose presence we can only be silent. St. Paisios noted that a person could be converted at the sight of a fox or a bear – the matter belonged, he said, to the “disposition of the soul.”

The life of solid food is often strenuous and people are tempted to substitute easier quicker things. Rationality, or even irrational passions, are often used as a false basis for the spiritual life. It breeds arguments and judgments and is revealed by the energy of the passions that surround it. Such a life is also very prone to doubt (which may be covered by yet more passionate noise) and produces depression and anxiety (among many other things). We were not created to live out of our rationality and passions. We are noetic creatures.

The Psalmist encourages us to “be still and know that I am God.” Such stillness is a reference to the noetic life rather than mere peace and quiet. “Come and see” is not just a word to those who don’t believe. It is the continual word of God to the soul of every believer. It is worth noting that the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that Christ’s word to His disciples after the resurrection was, “Peace be with you.” It is an invitation to noetic communion for every soul.

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.


13 responses to “Seeing and Believing – A Noetic Life Part 2”

  1. Makedonka Avatar

    Thanks a lot. I really appreciate language stuff.

  2. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father this makes the idea of stillness and an enlightened nous much more clear.

  3. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    Thanks for this clarifying follow-up to the “Noetic life”.

    Might you sometime consider writing a little about Christian “joy”? I ask because it relates closely to this topic, I believe, and the evidence of such joy in us is uniquely Christian.

    Fr. Schmemann speaks of it in his wonderful little book, For the Life of the World</i (from page 24):

    “…from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth. It rendered impossible all joy we usually think of as possible.”

    “Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”

    “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy” — thus begins the Gospel, and its end is: “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Luke 2:10, 24:51)

    “Joy, however, is not something we can define and analyze. One enters into joy. ‘Enter thou into the joy of the Lord.’” (Mt. 25:21)

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joy is, I have come to believe, a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is possible to experience great joy in the midst of great pain and sorrow.

    The word in your article Father that intrigues me is “encounter”. Can you expand on what you mean by encounter and how it is related to communion.

  5. Dino Avatar

    Indeed joy in the midst of suffering is almost the quintessence of, and the irresistible advertisement for, genuine Christianity.
    Like the fruit which needs it’s skin on the outside for protection, inner joy is actually safeguarded by outer sufferings in the saints. It’s as if the scriptural saying that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven through many sufferings is flipped around and upon encountering outward sufferings we are strongly reminded of the kingdom to the point of great inner joy.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I can see that. (Hmm, wrote that without considering the topic of the post.).

    It is a seeing however as a whole 3D visual opened to my inner eye expanding and broadening my own particular reference.

  7. Jordan Avatar

    This post is really good news. Thank you, Father.
    Lately I’ve realized that maybe the greatest work the reasoning mind does is to recognize it’s insufficiency and quietly to yield “the floor” (or rule) to what I now know is the nous.

  8. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B


    In ch 4 of Louth’s book, Discerning the Mystery, he writes extensively on tradition and the tacit dimension. He says, if I understand him correctly, that the passing on of tradition is the way we pass on “a way of life.” I believe he asserts that receiving the cultural tradition is the mysterious way in which one perceives and knows one’s culture (Greek paideia or Augustine’s doctrina). In my words, Louth says to “become” within a culture, one must receive the tradition (participate in it).

    If one understands “tradition” in the sense of the Fathers, then is it through the mystery of the engagement of the shared Church tradition with our nous that we, too, “increase in wisdom and stature,” becoming one with God (Theosis)? (A methodless method?)

    Pardon me now while I return to fiddling on the roof.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I really would like your further comments on the word encounter. It is an important word I think but can easily be interpreted in a squishy emotional way or a confrontational way.


  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Everything, I think, can be interpreted in a “squishy emotional” way in our culture. The sentimentalization and pyschologization of everything is a hallmark of modernity. It makes the passions seem profound (and they are not).

    It is another word like “see” that suggests something more than mere “looking.” I am assuming a meaning of “participatory adherence” for the word “encounter.”

  11. Dino Avatar

    The ontological ‘participatory adherence’ that is part and parcel of our daily existence is often mocked by modern nominalist advocates. A case in point, which they assume proves their argument, is upon seeing us venerate Holy relics. One would think that they might have a point when they see that we even venerate relics of whose historical background we have a suspect knowledge. I recently venerated some of the most fragrant – staggeringly so for all of us present– relics, ascribed to St Mary the Egyptian, and to my knowledge and that of others more knowledgeable than myself, these have never been discovered/revealed and it is most likely that the said holy relics ascribed to St Mary of Egypt actually belong to those relics that have come to us (in Greece – this was in a Monastery outside Patras) from rather unidentified Western sources in the past. It makes little difference though! We do not assign honour to them nominalistically, no, we can simultaneously encounter St Mary, (as well as an unknown saint of great Grace) in the veneration of those particular relics… It remains an ontological encounter.

  12. Mihai Avatar

    @Dino: Our parish priest once told us (in one Lenten season) that some monks brought what they claimed to be the relics of St Mary of Egypt. (I can’t remember were or when- I am sure though it was a monastery, perhaps it was in Greece).
    One of the priests who received these relics found their origin questionable brought these relics along with others of known origin before other monks, who didn’t know anything about them. He secretly prayed to St Mary to reveal whether or not those were hers.

    After they sung the troparion for each of the known relics and they reached the ones ascribed to St Mary, the priest said he had no idea to whom those belonged. After some moments of silence, all the monks began to spontaneously sing St Mary’s troparion.

    Again, this was part of a homily at the end of Sunday Liturgy (most assuredly it was the 5th Sunday of Lent), but I have not remembered any details as to time or place.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sounds very Greek to me. 🙂

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