God and the Mystery of the Self

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, offered this simple statement: “Noverim me, noverim te.”

“If I knew myself, I should have known Thee.”1

There is probably no writing in the life of the early Church as “self-reflective” as Augustine’s. His Confessions have sometimes been called the first “modern” writing. They are certainly the first writing that can properly be described as “autobiographical.” He gives us the first truly “interior” view of an ancient subject. And, though he was writing 1500 years ago, his work feels contemporary. I can say that his Confessions are the first ancient work I ever read in which it was possible to forget their antiquity.

There is a genius in his writings, not only of style, but of insight. A case in point is the statement: “Noverim me, noverim te.” It has the economy and beauty of the very best Latin style. It also happens to be true – both then, and now. If ours is a psychological age – then Augustine is our first example. We still think in a manner that rhymes with him.2

Christ famously taught, “And this is eternal life: that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (Jn. 17:3). Salvation is described in terms of knowing God. But, Augustine is also correct. We do not yet know ourselves. How is it possible for us to know God?

The answer, I think, is a “package deal.” In that we are created in the image and likeness of God, we cannot know Him and not know ourselves, nor can we know ourselves unless we know Him. However, saying this begs ever so many questions. What does it mean to know yourself? It is a question that can be as slippery as the problem of consciousness. Science and philosophy both draw blanks when it comes to explaining, or even giving a definition of consciousness. And yet, we all have it and we all “know” it.

My own experience and reflection on the question of self-knowledge is that the “self” (I would gladly use some other term if I could find a better one) is hidden. St. Paul says as much in Colossians 3:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (vs. 2-4)

He not only says that our “life” (the self in its true form) is “hidden,” but that it is something that will be fully revealed when Christ is fully revealed. It’s the package deal.

But if the true self is hidden, what are we experiencing as the self in this present moment?

Stuff. Lots of it.

Our inner lives are often quite noisy. Highly selective memories ladened with emotions and colored with varieties of shame combined with a cultural bombardment of noise, engineered to excite the passions, serve as a layered cocoon beneath which is the self, often unattended and little recognized. Instead, we “identify” with the stuff. We work with the noise in an effort to make it more bearable, both for ourselves and for those around us.

Our moral efforts strive to make the noise behave, often achieving little more than making our noise conform to the noise we see around us. The whole effort, including our reflections and reading, often do little more than push our inner fog into various shapes. Nothing becomes clear.

The gospels give a glimpse of something different. There we see Christ encounter individuals whose identities would seem at odds with what He is asking them to do. Matthew, a tax-collector, is called to be an Apostle. Fishermen are called to become theologians. As often as not, people are given new names. The Hidden God is calling the hidden man, like calls to like. Slowly, they begin to see who (and what) He is, only to discover that they are other than they had imagined.

They do not “know” Jesus, at first, nor do they “know” themselves. Both things unfold over time, in union with each other. God’s knowledge of us is striking:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jer. 1:5)

The self whom we do not yet know is known to God, and it is God alone who reveals us to ourselves. This is without the distortions of the noise and passions that darken our understanding and rob us of our sight.

It is this reality that drives the constant refrain in the Church’s Tradition regarding noetic understanding. The nous is the eye of the soul, the faculty by which we know God, and thus the faculty by which we know ourselves.

I have been told any number of times by readers and others that they have no idea what is meant by the nous. It is not surprising. Our culture lives by passion-driven consumerism, while “relationships” are often false constructs of shame and protection (self-created “identities”). Repeatedly, the Fathers of the Church urge us to embrace hesychia (stillness). The point of that stillness is, over time, the gradual increase in noetic awareness – growth in the knowledge of Christ rather than the mere religious training of our noise.

Most importantly (n.b.), the path in the knowledge of the self comes as we pursue the knowledge of Christ. It is not our invention. It is His revelation to us. It is knowledge of the self that God knows “before He formed you in the womb.”

The Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously said, “Know thyself.” Apart from Christ, such an effort would likely yield something less than the true self (though it certainly might raise many good questions). Christ does not say, “Know thyself.” Instead, He teaches us to know God (as He has revealed Himself in Christ). The reality of self-knowledge comes over time, I believe, with prayer, with worship, with a faithful abiding in the commandments of Christ, and through the practice of thanksgiving.

In that straightforward pursuit of God, we slowly set aside our pretensions, our fears, our delusions – all that distracts us from knowing Christ. Over time, we allow Him to tell us the story of ourselves. It is a love story that began before we were formed in the womb and will continue without end.

Fearfully and wonderfully made, the truth will unfold in us in fear and wonder.

Footnotes for this article

  1. This is Olivier Clément’s translation of the phrase.
  2. It is outside my purpose in this article to discuss the merits of St. Augustine’s theology. It has its short-comings. He is, regardless, one of the most important figures in the early Church and should be known by Orthodox Christians.

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.



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58 responses to “God and the Mystery of the Self”

  1. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Father is there a translation of Confessions you would recommend?

  2. Chase Avatar
    Chase

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I always enjoy your posts, and this one especially. Revelation is always in media res, indeed.

  3. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    A stirring meditation, Father, thank you.

    I have a question concerning “like calls to like.” What specific quality of the nous allows it to register divine revelation? That is, what makes our noetic capacity more like God than the lower soul, the brain or body? This is a profound mystery, of course, but since there does seem to be a higher affinity between our spirit and His Spirit—deep calls to deep—I’m wondering if you could say more about the “why” of that relationship. In other words, why does knowledge of my own “I am” enhance my knowledge of I AM, and vice versa? Is the border between created and uncreated thinner at our noetic center?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    I could speculate, but, I don’t actually know.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I’ve not made a comparison. I just grab and read whatever is at hand.

  6. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    “Over time” is so difficult, especially for the modern person. I have never been able to determine real progress in my life, but I have been able to see change, ever so small, as I live. The present is incredibly difficult, especially in my sin. It seems I am learning over and over again that God is merciful! Glory to Him in all things.

  7. Deborah Engleman Avatar
    Deborah Engleman

    I love this post! Thank you!

  8. Fr. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    It is the paradox of Orthodoxy that the only way for me to know myself is to forget myself and focus on Christ. And yet, I confess (appropriate since we are speaking of St. Augustine), I often get trapped in this current emphasis on psychological analysis behavioral scrutiny.

    My coming back to a right mind has always been as I enter into the liturgy and the rhythm of prayer. It is only then that I know Him so that I can know myself.

  9. Paulette M Sackett Avatar
    Paulette M Sackett

    Thank you, Father. Beautifully written. I have found it difficult to know God when I am not willing to face the painful truth of myself. Now I understand why that is. I think, perhaps, that is exactly as God intended it.

  10. Maya Avatar
    Maya

    Beautiful post, Fr. Stephen. I love your writing and this is certainly one of my favorites recently. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Michael,
    The Confessions of St. Augustine – R.S. Pine – Coffin, is a good edition. Also The Confessions – Maria Boulding OSB, is a good edition.
    It’s some years since I read Pine – Coffin’s work, so I can’t make a comparison between the two.

  12. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    “Our moral efforts strive to make the noise behave, often achieving little more than making our noise…. The whole effort, including our reflections and reading, often do little more than push our inner fog into various shapes. Nothing becomes clear.” So very true.

    And “In that straightforward pursuit of God, we slowly set aside our pretensions, our fears, our delusions… we allow Him to tell us the story of ourselves.” Beautiful Father; thank you.
    And i certainly hope and pray i allow Him to tell me my own story.

  13. Cliff Avatar
    Cliff

    It is interesting Father to think that we cannot fathom the wickedness of our own hearts, which makes it so easy to see the faults of our brother. It seems in this instance; our lives being hidden in Christ is not such a good thing.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Deborah! Good to see you here! Joy.

    What of people who have been deeply hurt by other people in the Church and mistake the hurt and the people for the Church?

    After many years I have figured out that I am not God. Yet God does dwell deep within me. Often where He seems to dwell I can only reach in the throes of pain in the middle of the night. The noise, internal and external is less then.

    Through the prayer of Jesus, experience of His mercy comes. Yet all the false ideas, judgements, anger, etc. seem to return. “I” am far from the mercy that dwells within.

    Despite that He is always there. The “place” I go to meet Him is a well. Deep and unfathomable. I have yet to dive in. Too scary, yet in reading this post I get the sense that “I” am at the bottom of that pool, if it has a bottom. But that means forgiving everybody of everything including myself. It means a total reliance on Jesus for all that “I” am and will be. All bounded and inner penetrated by His mercy. To let go and jump/fall into that pool requires me to die to “myself” even the stuff I nominally think of as “good”.
    It also means, I think, being connected to others pain and joy in ways I would rather not be most of the time. A deep empathy and experience that I imagine is not unlike The Cross.

    Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  15. Byron Henderson Avatar
    Byron Henderson

    It is the paradox of Orthodoxy that the only way for me to know myself is to forget myself and focus on Christ.

    So very true, Fr.!

  16. Byron Henderson Avatar
    Byron Henderson

    And I am now both “Byron” and “Byron Henderson”. Hopefully this revelation will cause no existential crisis among the faithful of the this blog! 🙂

  17. Brandon Avatar
    Brandon

    Owen – some of St. Sophrony’s truly authentic “speculations” on this point outlined in Archimandrite Zacharias’ ‘Christ, our way and our life’ may be helpful to your question. See a few excerpts below:

    According to Fr. Sophrony’s expression, the human intellect is ‘an image of the Primal Mind, which is Light’. 25 That is, it is created in the image of the divine Energies. It too is an energy of human personhood. 26 While it is destined for ineffable contemplation of the glory of God, left to itself it is unable to accept the ‘folly’ of the gospel commandments. 27 In its natural state, the mind is ‘imaginative’ and is ‘not suited to theology’. 28 Separated from the heart, it is situated outside the sphere of the Spirit and is dispersed throughout the creation by the imagination. The heart of every individual human being is made by God in a specific and unique way. It is unrepeatable; it is the centre of the human hypostasis. Man is majestic when he approaches God with his ‘deep heart’, for there is the ‘place of spiritual prayer’, 29 the ‘battle-ground’ for spiritual struggle. 30 The heart is the place where the infinity of the Lord is revealed, and the prayerful spirit of man is concentrated. Here are encompassed ‘both the height of the vision and the depth of knowledge’. 31 Authentic vision and knowledge of God are inseparable from sensitivity in the deepest heart. That is why the word of God confirms that ‘the hidden man of the heart’ is ‘precious in God’s sight’ [cf. 1 Pet. 3: 4]. In the hesychastic tradition the heart holds a central place, and the workings of the mind, too, are extremely significant. The hesychast strives assiduously for the union of these two, the intellect and the heart. He struggles to stand before God in the integrity of all his being. For the union of the heart and mind, the two principle energies of the human personality, Fr. Sophrony does not resort to any psychosomatic technique; he simply recommends the attentive and undistracted offering up of the name of Jesus Christ, which must, though, be joined with daily effort to keep the gospel commandments. 32 Union of heart and mind then comes as a result of man’s healing, and it is ‘the normal religious state for the human spirit, desired, sought after, bestowed from on High’. 33 The intellect, when it is disconnected from the heart, is diffused with sensations coming from the created world. It is ‘tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind’ [Eph. 4: 14] of the imagination, and easily captivated by demonic energy and delusion. The ultimate delusion into which man can be led is the delusion that he is divine. He identifies a ‘divine principle’ in created nature, and he will then accede to the heresy of pantheism, a religion natural for human logic. 34 Likewise, as one would expect, the heart, without the oversight of the sovereign mind at its entrance, remains hardened; it is earth ‘bringing forth thorns and thistles’, ‘evil thoughts’, which stifle the ‘imperishable seed’ of God’s word [cf. Heb. 6: 8; 1 Pet. 1: 23]. It becomes a den of depravity, subjected to the ‘law of sin’, which through it rules over all the members of the body and transmits ‘the mind of the flesh’ to the intellect as well [cf. Rom. 7: 23]. The intellect, puffed up with fantasy, and the heart, slain by passions, are then in a state which is hostile to the law of God [cf. Rom. 8: 6-7]. Thus, for the body and the spirit of man to become a place for the revelation of God’s glory, the incorporeal mind must return and be united with the body, and indeed, with the ‘body most interior to the body’, 35 that is, the heart. The hesychast struggles to station his intellect at the entrance to his heart in prayerful attention. 36”

    However high a rationalist theologian may rise, whatever ‘mystical’ depths he has reached, his experience has, in essence, a ‘pantheistic’ nature, because he puts his created mind first. 65 The speculative mind has not been illumined by a fiery sensation of the deep heart, and is incapable of the vivid and ineffable contemplation of God, which sanctifies the whole man, including even his body. The ultimate bounds such a mind may attain are a form of ‘self-contemplation’, a vision of man’s own mental light. Man sees his own mind’s beauty, the natural light of his intellect created in the image of God. 66 Authentic Christian experience is supernatural communion with the personal God. It is a gift from on High, and is made known to man when his created will is freely subjected to the uncreated will of God. This experience liberates man from the deceit of the imagination and from the forceful character of his logical reasoning.”

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brandon,
    I agree with your suggestion of St. Sophrony’s writings (including their presentation by Fr. Zacharias). No one, I think, has written more profoundly in our contemporary world on “personhood” than St. Sophrony. I am deeply indebted to him for so much. I also find that there is so much that I’m still chewing on that it is premature to present it as an answer…

  19. Johnpaul Avatar
    Johnpaul

    Beautiful article. In my background, there was a lot of emphasis on science and debate.
    “Here are proofs that God exists” “We know this has to be the case because science.” and, “You do not need any help understanding the Bible.”
    That model runs into issues really quick. It relies on measurements and deductions. I could say the universe is fine-tuned for us, and so could a mud-puddle. I could say this scripture means such-and-such, but it could also just be sarcasm. I could say “I think therefore I am” but I might just be a simulation. Therefore the best I can do is say, “I think, therefore I think I am.”
    It is so tragic that we have cheated ourselves with this model of reality. That is yet another thing Christ redeems us from. In Christ, we can actually know.

  20. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you, Father Stephen. Following your advice on how to read the Old Testament, I had just finished reading segments of the Book of Job.
    Now reading this essay, I think Job also is very modern, answering his friends in very modern ways as they console him with a faulty modern-like theology.
    ‘Like calls to like’ — God’s hidden-ness reaches out to His servant Job, even through earthly ups and downs, because He knows the hidden Job. So, there are ‘answers’ from Job to his friends, but then Job turns to God, and that is written as ‘discourse’; like calls to Like . . . And Like answers .
    I don’t understand a lot of Eliot’s poems, but a line comes to me from Four Quartets in light of your post:
    ‘With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
    Calling’
    Thank you again.

  21. Susannah Avatar
    Susannah

    God and My-Self –
    I’m still looking for us
    Above and beneath
    All this noisy stuff.
    Please send help!

  22. Bruce Avatar
    Bruce

    Father Bless!!!

    As you rightly point out in this article and many others, a way to find God (or at least to seek the Kingdom) is to offer the ‘sacrifice of praise’ that we hear of repeatedly in the Psalms and in the heart of our Eucharistic celebration. If God is Truth and Goodness, isn’t the version of ‘me’ that is revealed in and from Him worth the wait? Is there any real truth or sustainability in the ‘me’ I find on my own?

    Father Thomas Hopko offers us a version of ourselves in his interview years ago with In Communion (about forgiveness) that may help us understand the value in withholding any judgement about ourselves until we first find our unity in Christ. He suggests that the translation of the Great Commandment may be best understood as ‘love thy neighbor who is thyself’. Perhaps, as we find our unity in Christ we begin to realize the fullness of who and what we truly are.

    Your post also took me back to some recollections from ‘Passion and Virtues – According to Saint Gregory Palamas’ translated by now our OCA Grace Alexis about our ‘natural state’. Early in Chapter 1 , the author, Anestis Keselopoulos, makes this provocative assertion:

    “Passions do not belong to human nature. The entire patristic tradition views the passions as movements and actions that are foreign to the natural life of the soul” .

    He also offer this about the nous:
    “The nous … the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created thing by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason, ….it does not function by formulating abstract concepts … it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition, or simple cognition”

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To all,
    There is some “ascesis” that can be directed towards this goal of knowing God. Jesus said: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (Jn 14:23)

    “Keep my word.” I often think that when I write “keep the commandments” people go sailing past as if they knew what that meant (“of course, of course, of course”). But, often we don’t keep the commandments of Christ very much at all – beyond avoiding lying, wrestling with anger, and the things that fall into the category of politeness.

    Matta al Maskein (Matthew the Poor), the Coptic monk, wrote once that if we would take a single commandment of Christ and pursue it with all our heart, it would become for us the door into the Kingdom of God. I think there is much to be found in this that’s true.

    I think of the Holy Fools (extreme examples). In their foolishness, they often kept the commandments in a very large manner. In particular, they rejoiced when they were persecuted, etc. That is, they bore more than a little shame, they encouraged the shame – leaning into it.

    My personal experience has been that the more I dug into things (within myself) I began to encounter tons of unacknowledged shame. It has been quite painful. I’ve also found ways to “lean into” it, to “bear it” in some small way. Oddly, it’s also the only way to get past it and to the “self” that lies beneath it.

    I’ve discovered myself “losing” lots of arguments in my head that I always felt the need to win – which, in point of fact – only fed the shame and its need to self-justify.

    It tastes bitter at first, but then becomes sweet.

    This, in a fashion, is a very small way to “lose yourself” for Jesus’ sake. We lose the false to gain the true.

    Can we be merciful to others? To our enemies (our shamers), to those who are ruining your country? To those who are ruining your Church?

    When you have your inner arguments and conversations – who are they with? Who provokes you and why?

    And so forth. Find ways to keep even a single commandment and see what doors might open.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I find that I cannot be merciful even to myself unless I first submit to Jesus’ mercy. It is quite hard because it involves really facing my own shame without excuse. Often the only response is tears. Still as I do a little a voice within reminds me to submit to His mercy. Nothing else changes. I am made more aware, so far, of how enslaved to sin I am myself. So, I cry out for more of His mercy. It is the only reason I still live, perhaps the only reason any still live. To repent.

    That sounds morbid but it is not.

  25. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Who am I? A perplexing question that raises its head from time to time. There’s the self perceived in the mind, which has been delusional in many ways throughout life. Distorted because of what I have allowed to be of influence. There is also the self of which I am not able to fully understand. This self seems to reside in my abdominal region; it is angry and has an aversion to God and to myself. I was praying once, the Jesus prayer and my mind had drifted off and I caught myself saying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, leave me alone.’ It really shocked me to the core to hear those words. I ask myself who am you?

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, you were really close.

  27. senu Avatar
    senu

    Thank you father for this beautiful post. I have benefited much from your posts & the comments.
    Recently I have been thinking about the line from the prodigal son story that goes like this “ and when he came to his senses, he remembered his father’s house .“ I believe Hardship, pain & suffering helps us come to know ourselves and if we could bear the pain awhile, Grace descends to our heart. And we experience the best of times in the midst of the worst of times. I believe self knowledge & experiencing God work synchronously. I could be in error, if so please ignore me.
    I just would like to thank all of you for the kind comments you write. They are like a cup of cold water to a needy soul. You won’t lose your rewards.
    I would appreciate your prayers. May the Kindness of our Lord follow you.

  28. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Michael. I really don’t know what is going on most of the time?? I try to rationalise it, but it is of no help; it just makes the distance seem the greater.

  29. Benyam Aragaw Avatar
    Benyam Aragaw

    Great article!!! But i still have a question.According to your article the path to knowing ourself and hence God is prayer,worship,upholding commandememts and thanksgiving.But Matthew the tax collector,Peter the fisherman,Paul,Abraham and many others did not went through these practices.All we know is that they were called out of their self created identities by God himself (they were chosen John 15:16 or should i say pulled out of their self created identities).You also clearly showed that God knows our hidden self since before birth.And if the above practice pave the way to knowing ourselves and God, does it mean it will remain hidden without these practices? Or should i assume that there is role playing toit.I mean do we simply adhere to the practices and leave the rest to God?

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Benyam,
    Thank you for your question. First, it is Matthew, Peter, Paul, etc., who taught us the path of prayer, worship, following the commandments and thanksgiving. For the Apostles, its there in their writings, and it continues in the life of the Church. There is ever-so-much more that unfolds in the dynamics of life as we undertake those activities. And God is ever-at-work in us in the process. If we follow that path, it will unfold within us what has been given to us.

    For example, as we keep the commandments – forgiving even our enemies (we are commanded to do so) – we clothe, feed, visit, etc. the needy – that path will likely bring about the inner struggles that are part of this path. We confess our sins (it is a commandment) and begin to see more clearly what is taking place within ourselves, etc.

    There is much that has to be “left in the hands of God” because we do not yet know the end of the path. How could we “work on” that which is hidden? The “true self” is also the Kingdom of God within. It is the treasure buried in the field, etc. Since Christ is the “way, the truth, and the life,” then following the way He has given us, in the truth He has made known, leads to the life that He is giving us…

    A further note on the Apostles:

    It is only in the imagination that we could think that the Apostles did not do these things I’ve described. The gospel narrative does not focus on the “average day in the life of a disciple” – and so the movies (imaginary Apostles) don’t bother to show it and we imagine that they did not do these things.

    They were practicing Jews. They would have prayed three times a day, with memorized prayers and psalms. Christ, we’re told, seems to go off alone from time to time to pray. They are given the commandments – and are clearly walking in them. They went to the Temple, they were in the synagogues, etc. It’s all there in the text if we look for it.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, of course you do not really know what is going on most of the time. The Apostles and St. Paul and the rest fid not either.

    You use the word “rationalize”. That word implies to me a sense of personal control that we simply do not have. Jesus and His life in us is supra-rational.

    St. Paul expressed many times a kind of surprise at what following Jesus entailed. Romans 7:19-25 is his most direct expression of not knowing what was going on.

    I think sometimes I expect God to appear and “poof” we are well. St. Paul before Jesus appeared to him on the Road to Damascus had the certainty of righteousness. Afterward, he did not–yet he willingly died for God after that moment in many ways instead of killing “for Him”.

    A hard reality for me to accept as I was saying to my wife last night is that no matter what grace I experience from God, I am still a sinner. I think I see the sins more clearly but I still do them. “For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not do: that I do. ”

    In my youth I read that and shook my head in confusion. Now I know the truth behind those words, a little bit, just an inkling.

    A friend of mine on the path to God was told one time: ” Better for you holy confusion than worldly certainty. ”

    God be with us all

  32. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Michael, you hit the nail on the head nail again. I keep falling into the trap of concentrating on how I think things, myself included should be, instead of accepting things as they are.

    I appreciate your input to the conversations going on here; it has much value. God bless you and your wife; especially with her upcoming operation. I hope all goes well.

  33. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Michael,

    I too find great difficulty in seeing my sins more clearly. Worst of all I see that they are mainly figments of temptation (passions) that I have kept in my mind and revisit from time-to-time. If I don’t feed them, they become small and impotent and I can pray easily. They never leave me but, by His Grace, God relieves me of them at times.

    But many practices of my life tend to feed them and I’ve noticed that I need only feed one passion for all of them to become strong again. Keeping the commandments in my “average, daily life” is so incredibly important. It is the shaping of my heart and mind, which follow the actions of my body as much as they direct them, in the Life of God.

  34. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    The disciples didn’t really know what to say when Christ asked them who He was, except for Peter. And even Peter immediately after saying that Christ was the Messiah, attempted to stop Christ from fulfilling His Pascha. At that point the Lord called him “Satan”. The Lord also called him Peter, the ‘rock’ of the future Church.

    On another occasion when they were denied a place to stay on their way to Jerusalem, the disciples asked Christ, (paraphrasing) “should we pray for their destruction?” And the Lord said “you do not know what spirit your are of” (paraphrasing again).

    I think it’s safe to say it took awhile for the disciples to grasp who Christ was and who they were themselves.

    In this western culture (speaking mainly of the US) we are incessantly encouraged to “find ourselves” to be born again of our own invention, to attain with a few accoutrements a “whole new me”, whether it be an education, a physical workout, or some other regime of sorts. And in the meantime, all we need to do is purchase a few items, classes, a diet program, a spa program, gym membership, or ‘retreat’ in the wilderness program. Or we can read self-help books which promise a successful ‘new you’.

    The eyes of the disciples were opened after Pascha. And it didn’t seem to have been as a result of their ‘best behavior’. Almost all of them showed some sort of initial resistance or complete flabbergast in the revelation of who Christ is.

    Should we expect anything different in our minds or lives? Do we think we know who Christ is? Thank God for Father Thomas Hopko’s response. ‘We don’t know who Christ is (and the Father), but it takes knowing Him to know that.’

    I was in a car accident at 17 years old. In the wreckage my father was dying, my mother was dead, and I couldn’t see where my brother was in the mangled car. The skies were dark and pouring rain. I could barely stand. My flesh was badly torn, my arm bone exposed, and I begged for cars to stop to help us. None stopped but many slowed down and gawked. After a time that seemed forever, (likely around 15-20 minutes), a dump truck stopped. A tall strong African American man came out. ( I name his race purposefully, many white people passed by) His arms stretched out a large clear plastic sheet above his head and shoulders. The glistening rain flowed over it, an image of the wings of an angel. When he came to me I asked him, are you coming to help my family? Very quietly and assuredly, he said “yes I’m going to help your family”. He got their bodies out of the twisted metal with a crowbar and the strength of his hands and arms.

    I was not Christian then. And because of that, I would have no idea what might have been meant by the words “to put on Christ”.

    I have indeed met Christ; and my first encounter was in this gentle soul who helped me in the car wreck. I’m grateful to God that He opened my eyes and has revealed Himself to me in this man who came to me in the midst of crushing hell. But my goodness, why did it ever take such a long time to see His workings across the stretch of my life!? How could I be so blind? Nevertheless, it is my witness here, all the way to Emmaus my heart burned for Him. I ached for His presence even while denying Him.

    I thank God for that small flame in my heart across all the years of my life, however weak and ill formed, and so often it nearly went out. I can only say it remained lit with God’s grace, not any works of my own. Now in my late years, I converted to become an Orthodox Christian causing an upheaval in my life. Regardless He found me in the mud and blood and placed me on His shoulders. In Him I live with all my failures. I wait for His word and with His help and grace I shall endure.

    I say these things because this is what He promises for all of us. Let us put on Christ. The Lord’s commandments, Fr Stephen’s articles and Father Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims (both priests who help to explain and coach in the doing of the commandments) are your tools to begin a new life. And everyday we begin again.

    May God’s grace abide in us all!

  35. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Dee,
    the depth and clarity of your post is much appreciated. I would like to say more, but I am lost for words.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    The mercies of God come is such unexpected ways. Thank you for the story – such a horrific moment (and Christ was there). One of my most important Christ-moments came in the darkness of a mental hospital where I was being treated for depression at age 19. It was a point of light somewhere inside me, and spoke a word of promise that comforted me. It helped me bear the next years of my life that were a white-knuckled hell of inner torment. He knows us and loves us.

    I cannot find any way to give a narration for how the universe unfolds – with its much suffering. Most accounts that I see are simple unsatisfactory. “We sinned, the creation fell” is insufficient. But I know that Christ is intimately within all the moments of suffering and not in a vague universal manner, but intensely, absolutely, personally. And this suffices my heart for now.

    Thank you for sharing this story with us and your witness of Christ.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father and then there are those who ho through similar dehumanizing experiences and see only the darkness and the isolation with a stigma that never leaves them. Denying His presence and, because of that perceived absence, denying His existence at all.

    As a person who knows without a shadow of doubt our Lord’s existence and His mercy, how does one address the denial and the anger which comes with it.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    We address it with respect. Whatever someone’s experience is – should be respected. First off, as a believer, I can assume that whatever place someone else is in, God knows what He’s doing. Frequently, it is the case that someone who professes strong unbelief is just on the edge of belief. You don’t know until later. If possible, we should make friends with people. If, in knowing us as friends, they are not drawn towards Christ, then our own witness might be at fault. I do not try to convert people – that’s God’s business.

    I think that in our day and age, Christians are at a bit of a disadvantage. First, our compatriots in the faith have behaved so badly now for quite a long time, that we have a not-so-good reputation that is, sadly, deserved. Many people who profess no faith in God are, of course, not believing in a false God (a God not worth believing in). As such, they are already somewhat in a state of grace (it takes grace to reject a false god).

    So, we trust God, we behave as respectful friends. We see what God does with all of that – with patience.

    Many today are deeply concerned about the so-called Culture War. We were fighting that war many decades back and we were doing so very badly. What we have right now are the consequences for having been such terrible hypocrits rather than Christians. We blew it.

    So, we pray, we repent, we try to live at peace with people, and we do the next good thing, and wait on God.

  39. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Dear senu, I don’t quite agree with your very sweet post, but I don’t wish you to be ignored – I’ll try and say what it is that I don’t agree with ; it isn’t major but maybe if you have read further on in comments that will help. Father Stephen himself gives an illustration, and others as well, that one’s experience of suffering in the extreme is more like a stripping away of self. As with the Prodigal his father says to his other son “He was lost and now is found.” So rather than being self knowledge, it is more like an emptying helplessness, like having only a shriveled onion to grab onto. Which the old woman in the Russian folk tale does do, but she’s not experiencing a saving communion with God, (it’s my onion!) or that onion would have been strong enough to pull everyone out. I know, it’s just a folk tale, but the situation isn’t really a reciprocal one because her false sense of who she is overrides the angel’s attempt to save her.
    I apologize if I’ve not been of help – I love Plato myself but I can see Father Stephen’s point. And isn’t it comforting that God knows us better than we will ever know ourselves, the real task being for us to keep seeking to know Him?

  40. Anonymo Avatar
    Anonymo

    St Augustine’s confessions was the first and possibly only patristic and saintly work I read before discovering Orthodoxy. It moved me significantly at the time, and my experience of his love and humility before God left me a desire for this deep authentic Christian relationship with God which I later I found in Orthodox clergy, monks and Saints which drew me to the Church and allowed me to more deeply fall in love with Christ.

    “No one, I think, has written more profoundly in our contemporary world on “personhood” than St. Sophrony”, Father thank-you for mentioning this. I have been fascinated by both “personhood” and my struggle to be a person. I take it as yet another sign I am headed in the right direction 🙂

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I came to know Jesus directly with no witness from others except my mother telling me that God is real and that I needed to find Him. Them she handed me a copy of Huston Smith’s book, ‘The Religions of Man’ telling me that He(God) was in there somewhere.

    My experience with human witness, particularly in the Church, has been pretty dismal. There are notable exceptions of which you are one and about five others. The priest who catechised me and baptised me was a walking disaster who told me once he was certain he was going to hell. The failure of human witness has not really impacted my faith. That failure seems to be ubiquitous. Frankly, I expect it as I lead the list of failure.

    I know Jesus is real because He has shown me Himself and led me to His Church. A fact that I have no explanation for given my deep and abiding sinfulness but He has done so and continues to do so despite my own failures at witnessing to Him in any substantial way in daily life. I know Him, I know the hem of His mercy and the grace of the Sacramental Life. I assume we people will and do botch our witness most of the time. I certainly do.

    My question is about the difference in your perception of grace and light in the midst of the dehumanizing reality of mental/emotional difficulties(the experience and the snake pits called treatment filled with Nurse Ratcheds) and the perception of the person I love as deeply as anyone who grew up in the Church yet experienced only darkness and the near destruction of hope in similar circumstance.

    My own witness to this person has been and continues to be dismal BTW. God forgive me.

    How does God’s mercy work in and through a person cloaked in darkness refusing to see?

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    On further reflection I have expanded my list of good witnesses t2. About half and half clergy and laity. Two bishops. Interesting number. That is in 53 years since I set my own foot knowingly on the path.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Since you mention the ‘culture war’: it is literally possible to find anything and everything offensive and therefore it should be banned. In a bit of satirical fun I often pick something, anything, and give a rational why it is offensive and ought to be done away with.

    It is that reality that led on luminary of The Theater of the Absurd decades ago to posit the perfect play as “30 seconds of heavy breathing on a dark stage”.
    The culture war is simply nihilism at work. Unfortunately nihilism is tempting to our souls. It leads to utter destruction. Not “the nothing” it promises but to a life consciously and continually separated from God. Thus Milton’s words of the Devil: “It is better to reign in Hell than serve in heaven.”

    The Cross is the only way to overcome the nothingness. Thus the Cross will always be in the lives of anyone remotely serious about knowing God.

    Unfortunately, that often looks like failure and despair.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    That His mercy and grace is at work, I take as a given. How is mysterious to me. It frequently leads to surprises.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, in my own personal case I can lay out the how with a lot of detail. I can do that even as it is happening. It is the why that alludes me. As in “Why me?” I am not deserving and frequently unseeking. Every so often, it seems that Jesus “whups me up against the side of ms head with a tire iron” to get my attention. Despite my lack of virtue.

  46. Albert Avatar
    Albert

    So many profound thoughts here. This one I’m putting on my wall: “ The point of that stillness is, over time, the gradual increase in noetic awareness – growth in the knowledge of Christ rather than the mere religious training of our noise.”
    Very helpful essay, Father Stephen. Thank you!
    I’m going to take my time going back over it, and the comments. Treasure box here.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Another great difficulty for me and for many, I think is rememberance of wrongs. Wrongs often seem to be part of my body. Little things that itch and sting but left unattended grow into a rash and even a cancer on my soul.
    Unfortunately, the wrongs I have done to others are opaque and largely invisible to me.
    Shakespeare was right again when he wrote: “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy. ”

    The ” next good thing” as Fr. Stephen says.

    I find it profoundly difficult at times to forgive as I have been forgiven yet I long for mercy . I have even been given mercy pressed down flowing over , yet I still sit in judgement of others .

  48. TimOfTheNorth Avatar
    TimOfTheNorth

    Father Stephen,

    Are you at all familiar with Internal Family Systems therapy? It is a model of therapy that starts with the belief that our true Self has been largely hidden under a variety of”parts” (called protectors and exiles) that emerge in response to trauma and then become the primary modes in which we experience and respond to the world. Although it was developed as a secular model, Presbytera Julie Honeycutt is one of the leading proponents of Christian IFS. I am not an expert in IFS by any means, but in learning and doing some of the work myself, I have found it to be among the most rewarding approaches to addressing and healing the “noise” of all the parts of me (passions?) that distract me from true perception of reality. In the secular models, the Self is rather self-referential and it’s own terminus. But from a Christian perspective, the Self really emerges as the nous and the place of connection with our Lord. I see a lot of points of similarity between what you have written here (and elsewhere over the years) and the model that IFS postulates.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Tim,
    I am “generally” aware of family systems therapy, and I’m sure it has its value.

    Psychological systems use metaphors and images to label the things within us that we seek to manage or heal (or survive!). Even the language that the Church uses: nous, passions, virtues, etc., are still just labels. The Church borrowed its labels largely from Greek Platonic and Stoic philosophy, adapting them and changing them to suit our purposes. It’s often quite helpful to use other language. The weakness of psychological systems is that they do not have the language to speak of theosis (divinization), and, as such, can only go so far in the theological treatment of the soul. But, at the stage of life where most of us live (well shy of theosis), it can be very useful when an image or metaphor captures some aspect of our inner world.

  50. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection. Please forgive this somewhat tangential question: Is it correct to say that God’s presence in all things means his energies are present but not his essence, whereas the Incarnation includes both God’s energies and essence in Christ? In the process of learning about icons, I’m wondering how the Orthodox tradition articulates this difference between God’s presence in all things and his presence in the Incarnation (and also how this might relate to icons). I’ve looked elsewhere to read about this but haven’t quite put my finger on it.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Kenneth,
    God questions. The Orthodox faith teaches that all things are sustained and maintained in their existence and well-being through the Divine energies. All that we know of God is made known to us in the Divine energies. It also teaches us that we cannot know God in His essence (His very being) nor do we participate in His being. Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is fully God (of one essence and being with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and fully man (of one essence and being with all humanity).

    The Holy Icons are described, in the writings of St. Theodore the Studite (one of the primary theologians of the icons) as “hypostatic representations,” that is, they are representations of the “hypostasis” (person), and never the essence (you can’t picture an essence).

    Sometimes the language of these things can be a bit of a barrier – at least in my experience.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kenneth, no matter the theology if icons, and it is profound, it is impossible to encompass the all that they are. The saints they depict are still living in Christ and, as real people, they may surprise you at times. My wife and I have a small icon of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, a Fool for Christ. Ever since we put that icon up on our prayer wall, it has shone so she has taken up a special place in our daily prayers.
    I have a special affinity for St. Raphael of Brooklyn for many reasons. He sent my parish our first priest, the missionary priest Fr. Nicola Yanney back in the early 20th century. When St Raphael was being considered for official elevation to sainthood our associate priest at the time wrote his official Vitae. We also had written a proto-icon on the west wall of our sanctuary (the representation of Bishop Raphael but without a halo or penumbra. Indeed I have a copy of that proto-icon on our prayer wall too.
    Plus I really like that he is St Raphael “of Brooklyn”. He seems very approachable to me. The energy of his icon, the very first one if him ever, is simple and humble and a bit stern too.

    Just some thoughts.

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    Somehow the person (hypostasis) depicted seems to engage personally with the person (flesh and blood) who prays and venerates before the person (saint) in icon. It doesn’t seems a ‘one-way’ street, so to speak. I’ve also heard it is best to look at the icon in prayer rather than closing one’s eyes. The physicality of looking upon the eyes or face of the saint in the icon is important for the connection to take place. Much like an intimate conversation with a loved one. I don’t think this is an imaginary conjecture. But I appreciate your correction if I go too far.

  54. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Dee,

    It may be that looking the icon “in the face” is to remove shame from the communion? Just thinking out loud here….

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I look the icon “in the face” because I love them and honor them and know they love me. Occasionally, like with St. Xenia now, there is a brightness that makes it difficult to look for long.
    My heart grows full and sometimes tears well up as I look. Why? I have no clue. She has taken an interest in us by God’s grace.
    Some icons are just icons. I reverance them because if who is represented and that is sufficient. But I blather.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Human beings, from our earliest age, establish communion primarily by looking at each other face-to-face. Think of a mother and infant. The Scriptures use the phrase to describe communion as well. The face is also the primary place where we experience our emotions, particularly shame. To behold someone face-to-face is also to see them without shame – other than in its most healthy form.

    Icons are most properly depicted facing us, and, never in profile (except for Judas or the demons), at least according to a major strand of the tradition. The face (prosopon) is also a word, in Greek, that can mean “person.” A “personal” relationship is a face-to-face relationship.

    Just some thoughts.

  57. Eric Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,
    I’ve been pondering this post again. This last Sunday in our Lectionary we heard Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow Him, abuot seeking to save your life, and losing it. I can’t help but think that this applies here, and my apologies as always if I’ve missed it in the thread. There is a sense in which seeking to grasp, to hold onto what we call our self, it turns to dust in our hands, like all ‘earthly’ treasures, yet in losing it, in releasing our grasp (and herein of course we hear echoes of forgiveness?) we fall into the far wider mercy and Love that is the mystery of God. Underneath are the everlasting arms. I was struck that Peter’s confession of Christ in Mark is accompanied by Jesus’ call to secrecy – almost as if he tells us that His Self is hidden. (So St Paul ‘your life is hidden with Christ . . ‘ in God)??

    Also I find your allusion to being made in the image and likeness of God perhaps the simplest and clearest explanations of the necessity of knowing God to know ourself. So in Loving Him heart soul mind and strength, we are cought up in an act of self forgetfulness, self relinquishment, in which we find our Life.

    thank you once more for your words

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