Saving Knowledge and Blessed Ignorance

A friend of mine recently noted that the middle of the road is the “narrowest way,” being but a single line. Increasingly, it has been clear to me that it is a path that requires true self-control and sobriety. When we speak of what we know, we must remember what we do not know. And when we acknowledge our ignorance we must still remain faithful to the knowledge that has been given to us.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Cathecetical Lectures (book 6) has this:

For we do not explain what God is but candidly confess that we do not have exact knowledge concerning Him. For when speaking of the things concerning God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.


But some one will say, If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why do you speak of these things? Just because I cannot drink all the water in a river, am I not, in moderation, to take the amount that I need? Just because my eyes cannot take in all of the Sun, can I not see the little that I need? Or again, just because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat everything in it, would you have me go away altogether hungry?

The same tension as can be observed between our knowledge and our ignorance can be found between our desire to do good and the thoughts and desires that pull us away from the good. (cf. Romans 7).

Our life is properly found at the point of these tensions, a narrow line in the middle of the road. It was said by one of the Desert Fathers:

Prayer is a struggle ’til one’s dying breath.

In my few years among the “Jesus Freaks” (the phenomenon of young Christians in the late 60’s and early 70’s), it was not uncommon to run across members from various “cults.” For as much as there was a great movement towards belief in Christ, there was an equal movement of start-up groups whose teachings and practices deviated from traditional Christianity, often led by strong personalities. A common characteristic that I noticed when meeting cult members was the sense of “nobody’s home.” Despite many of the virtues that could be seen among them, there was simply a sense that something was “missing,” some aspect of personality that left me hesitant and always wary.

I have thought long about this through the years in that I’ve seen its manifestation in many other places (not all of them religious). Something had taken place within a person that “silenced” something that should, normatively, be present. The result has always been a diminishment of their humanity.

St. Maximus offers something of a hint in thinking about this important tension. He describes us as having “two wills.” The first he called the “natural will” that is the fundamental drive of our nature. It is inherently good, and desires the good that properly belongs to us as human beings. The second he named the “gnomic will,” (meaning the “choosing will”). It is fragmented, separated from the natural will as a result of the Fall. It is uncertain and inconsistent, sometimes choosing the good, and sometimes not. The presence of these two wills means that there is always a tension within us, a “background noise” that is the sound of our present existence.

The temptation found in the “cult-like phenomenon” is an end-run that seeks to silence the noise of this inner tension. Since we are unable to simply conform the gnomic will to the natural will of our ownselves (normatively, it is the end-product of the life of grace, a reunion and healing of this fundamental schism within the soul), we substitute some other will for the natural will, one that will overpower and suppress the gnomic will and produce a false harmony, an inner peace that is not a true peace, but a false identity and diminished personhood.

What I’ve see through the years is that what I first saw in the cult phenomenon is actually more common than that. Almost anything can serve the purpose of suppressing the natural will and creating a false harmony: ideologies, political groups, cliques, strong personalities such as narcissists, etc. When these things are in place, the individual begins to see the “struggle” as outside themselves. Their work becomes one of silencing the struggle within by projecting it onto those outside. It is a great temptation – and the more firmly it is set in place – the harder it is to come out of it. When those working with cult members described a process of “de-programming” (which was often quite abusive), they were confronting this very thing.

In that we live in a culture whose primary principle is that of maximizing pleasure (it’s what consumerism is all about), we are quite vulnerable to the false pleasure of a silenced, or muted “natural will.” We drown it out with the noise of the consumption that surrounds us. Often, we are simply left with an emptiness, marked by a “false fullness” of those things that can never satisfy us. All utopian schemes have an immediate goal of silencing the natural will, for it will not allow us to be blithely happy with anything less than the truth.

This brings me back to the narrow way. In this life, the tension between the natural will and the gnomic will, between the good for which we are created and the lesser diminished goods that tempt us, is normative. It is perhaps not “ideal,” in that what I am describing is part of our brokenness. However, an honest brokenness is much to be preferred to a false wholeness. St. Cyril’s observations, quoted earlier, point to this life of healthy (normative) tension.

We long to know God (it is our natural will, indeed). It is also true that what we know of God is extremely limited. Our knowledge is always framed with an abiding ignorance. Christ, in His extreme humility, embraced certain expressions of ignorance. When asked about the time of the “restoration of the kingdom,” Christ said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) There are boundaries to our knowledge, an ignorance that is proper to our nature.

Our modern drive towards mastery of all things (so as to mass-produce universal pleasure) makes us rebel against the very notion of ignorance. If something cannot be fully known, then we declare it to be unworthy of knowledge. My own approach has been to start with what we do know: we know Christ and His death and resurrection. We have His commandments and the abiding presence of the Church which He gave us. And this knowledge of God through Christ is bounded by ignorance. Does it answer every question? Of course not – and it would be unhelpful if it did.

Within the life of the Church, there is a possible temptation to “get behind Christ,” to seek out “God” without reference to our ignorance and limitations. It is, I think, something inherent to the “mysticism” we find in the Church – a relationship with God without boundaries. However, our ignorance is a boundary and is as essential to the truth of our being as is our body itself. We are creatures, bounded by limits. Everything we know, everyone we know, we know within limits. Our ignorance surrounds us on every side.

The narrow way exults in what it knows, and ponders with humility the ignorance that accompanies it. To be whole is also to be who and what I truly am. It recognizes the tensions within us, and though it struggles to know God more fully, it also struggles to know its own limits and the mystery of our own ignorance.

God give us grace to walk in such a place.


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.






31 responses to “Saving Knowledge and Blessed Ignorance”

  1. Evan Avatar

    I appreciate this post, Father Stephen. Your words echo things that Dr. Albert Rossi has said on his podcast “Becoming a Healing Presence.” He has talked about how a sign of psychological and spiritual maturity is being able to say “I don’t know” with faith and humility. It doesn’t mean being lazy in our walk with Christ and pursuing the treasures of the scriptures and various gifts. It simply means that having all the answers isn’t how we were designed by God. What he has revealed to us in “Christ and His death and resurrection” as well as “His commandments and the abiding presence of the Church which He gave us”, we hold onto with joy and thankfulness.

    A helpful recitation given by Dr. Rossi when we encounter great mystery:
    1. I know that I don’t know.
    2. I know Christ knows.
    3. I trust Him.

    Perhaps life really is meant to be that simple at times, for Christ calls us to become like children as we seek first His kingdom.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what is Christian sobriety and how does the effervescence of Joy in the Holy Spirit as described on Acts fit in?

  3. Laura Avatar

    Thank you for this- what a profound thought about the two wills- natural and gnomic! Having known someone with “psychiatric” troubles, this sheds some possible light from a slightly different angle! I wonder how we might guard ourselves and help others from falling into this. It is easy enough to say to “avoid cults”- but all of these other various things that can have the same effect- I wonder if they are always so clear!

  4. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you Father. I’ve been wrestling (for nearly a decade of being an Orthodox Christian) with the bounds of what I can and cannot know. Practically, it most often revolves around questions along the lines of ‘How am I doing?”, “Am I making progress on the Way?”, “Am I living faithfully?”, “Am I doing this all right?” etc. It seems that on the one hand, there is what I can know, what the Church gives me to ‘do’: pray, fast, give alms, attend the services, read the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints etc. But the answer to my above questions seem to reside firmly on the other side of that boundary, in what I don’t (can’t?) know. It can sometimes feel like stumbling around in the dark.
    I’m feeling more and more that to ponder these questions ends up being unhelpful at best. I can’t seem to answer because I can’t stand outside of myself and objectively assess these things and that leads to anxiety, uncertainty and all the rest. And so, I feel I should leave these considerations behind and just keep taking one step after the other, trying to be obedient in the moment to what I know and forgetting the rest. I’d be grateful to hear any thoughts you have on this.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think they are at all clear (these other many things). One little “diddy” useful for thinking about ideas is: “Do I have the thought, or does the thought have me?” Even in our Orthodoxy, it is more accurate (and healthy) to say, “I have found the place to struggle,” than it is to say, “I have found the answer and no longer struggle.”

    I do not think we learn anything without questions. The most important things in life are finding the “right questions.” It’s like a sifting process. There’s lots of “answers” floating around out there – most of them are nonsense, or simply things stated in a way to get us to join their club. But, if we’ve reached a place in life where we are not asking questions (and on the level of the deep soul), then something has intervened and cut our lives short.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you are moving in the right direction on these questions. What is the energy behind “how am I doing?” In many ways, forgive me, it’s just the energy of our various neuroses, the unattended shame that marks our lives. Imagine if you had the answer to such questions – of what use would it be?

    Think of St. Mary of Egypt (read her life here). She had been in the desert for 47 years, without seeing a single soul. Her first question of the priest Zossima was this: “Tell me, father, how are the Christian peoples living? And the kings? How is the Church guided?” Her next question was to ask him to bring her communion the next year at that time.

    She didn’t ask, “How do you think I’m doing?” or any such thing. Her self-evaluation was such that she refused to pray a blessing for Fr. Zossima because he was a priest, and she, a sinner, and only did so after his persistent begging.

    Our most important questions are not about ourselves – but about God. I often think of myself as a warrior on a battlefield. I have been shot numerous times, and blown up more than once, but I’m still dragging myself across the field with a bit of a weapon still in my hand. What matters isn’t me (I’m going to die in this battle) but the battle itself. “Where may I strike next?” is the only question. “How may I serve?” I will serve badly, and I just one soldier among many. We can forget ourselves to the extent that we remember the battle – and it’s only to the extent that we remember the battle that we can be courageous and of use.

    It’s a helpful set of thoughts – because “the battle belongs to the Lord.” Victory will be His. It will matter only that I fought on His side. How well I did is not something that can be known (especially while the battle is still raging). But, who knows, perhaps we’ll get a mention in the Great Hall when the tale of the whole battle is recalled and sung (to keep to the image)?

  7. Aaron Avatar

    Do we have two wills or one? My understanding is that as human persons, we only have one will. It’s how we use our will that determines whether we’re using it according to our nature or against our nature. Isn’t this what makes it free will? Isn’t the gnomic “will” more of a corruption of our will by which we can choose other than the good?

    By extension, wouldn’t it be said that Christ didn’t have a gnomic “will”, but rather his human (free) will was deified and acted according to nature (i.e., natural will)?

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is correctly said that Christ’s humanity did not have a gnomic will (that is the teaching of the Church). The gnomic will is an artifact of the Fall, as I noted in the article. The healing of the will (the gnomic will) such that it embodies in a proper and personal way the “natural will” of our humanity, is part of the ascetic struggle. But there are no short cuts. It is the short cuts that I’ve described in the article – and I’ve seen very many of them in the various delusions that mark our modern life (including, many times, within the Church itself). It’s a slow work – of patience, of confession, of tempered self-examination, and God’s own gradual revelation to us of the truth of ourselves. I suspect than none of us could bear to see the truth of our fallness in one quick (or short-term) revelation. We could not bear that – it would break us.

    If, however, the “noise” that is the common lot of our fallen lives is absent, it raises questions for me (rightly, I think). It’s a matter of discernment.

    So, to your first question: we have (ideally) but one will (the natural will). But we effectively have two wills (the gnomic and the natural). Ignoring the effective reality is to live in delusion. We come back to the struggle (cf. Romans 7).

  9. Mary from Tennessee Avatar
    Mary from Tennessee

    Fr Stephen,
    RE: Natural and Gnomic Will. I think Julian of Norwich came half-way to the Orthodox understanding?

    “ And in each soul which will be saved there is a good will which never assented to sin and never will. For as there is an animal will in the lower part which cannot will any good, so there is a good will in the higher part which cannot will any evil, but always good, just as the persons of the Blessed Trinity.”
    — From Chapter xvii of “Showings” (Short Text). Classics of Western Spirituality edition, page 154

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hmm. I’d not see that (or noticed it when I was reading her). In Rabinic though (prior to St. Paul), there was an understanding of “two impulses,” the yetzer ha ra and the yetzer ha tov (the bad impulse and the good impulse). Some think that it provided the background for St. Paul’s thought in Romans 7. I find it quite comforting to think about the natural will – a natural drive towards the good. Our experience, I think, is dominated by the gnomic will which would take us all over the place were it not for the abiding noise of the natural will.

    We are, however, highly social animals – far more than we imagine in that we’ve been nurtured on the make-believe notion of our radical individuality and freedom. The gnomic will is greatly influenced by the “company” it keeps – the social life, the social opinion, and, of course, the massive and never-ending propaganda of a consumer culture. People have opinions that were invented somewhere else, often believing false facts that were espoused somewhere else, and discover that, lo and behold, they are very much like some group of people or another.

    I am glad that God is merciful.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “It is a slow work…” I am 74 years old. I was received into the Church when I was 39, but the work had been going on in my parents before me at least. Roughly 100 years that I can look back on and see the hand of God at work, by His Grace.

    In me, again in retrospect, it began when I was 18. As I could handle it and with what seemed like false steps along the way, He brought me here. He has slowly nurtured me in and through the Church ever since. I am a stubborn man which contributed to both the pace and to the fact I am still here.

    It is a wonderful and challenging journey but not without pain as Fr. Stephen’s analogy of the broken and wounded soldier on the battlefield makes clear. Yet it is wonderful and a journey in which many others participate.

    The key for me has been to begin to learn repentance which I misunderstood for many years and probably still do. My Bishop and my priest and others have blessed me along the way and I try to be impeccably honest with them. Even the priest who Baptized me though he turned away himself. The spirit of the world is a tough beast and cannot be defeated on one’s own. I certainly could not.

    Still a very long way to go, perhaps even further than His Grace has brought me. Yet,
    In His mercy, it will always be “higher up and deeper in”.

    I looked in many places Protestant, Catholic and cultic. But in the end I am only following what my mother told me privately when I was 18: “God is real! You need to find Him!” Here, in the Orthodox Church is where.

    A little obedience is a good thing.

  12. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Thank you, Father. This is helpful for me simply living in today’s world.

    I wonder if you addressed “the shame of not knowing” in your upcoming book? It seems quite relevant to the thoughts about shame in general. For some of us it’s an ongoing issue, and always gets my attention when you write about it.

    I don’t have many questions at the moment; I think part of that is that I’m at peace in the Church. Also part of it, I think, is that so much of my attention is still on myself, and the Lord is being kind to me in not showing me very much of my sin, so as not to undo me. I pray more and more, “Lord cleanse me of my secret sin.” Hope that makes sense to you 🙂

    Thanks again-

  13. Joseph Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen Freeman,

    Mysticism also has the tradition of apophatic theology, to keep taking away what we know or think we know until we’re left with “illuminated darkness” as some have called it. Even in the Bible it’s said Moses found God through intense darkness at certain points. It’s difficult to accept our human condition and inherent ignorance at many things, that there are things to know but we just can’t understand them in our way. God’s speech to Job comes to mind. Yet it’s honest, and reminds me of the Pharisee and tax collector, the difference between a prideful man and humble one, not necessarily before a cosmic judge, but reconciling to Truth Himself. God helped reconcile Job to his own soul and self by becoming a truer, more whole human, ignorance accepted, and praise rightfully given.


  14. Aaron Avatar

    Thank you for your clarifying comments about one vs two wills. I find this topic extremely important. It helps shed light on “what” we are and how we tick, and in knowing this, we can progress with an understanding of how to become who we were created to be (i.e., like God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). After all, isn’t this the purpose of our life?

    It seems the struggle between yielding to our gnomic will vs acting according to the “noise of the natural will,” can’t be absent because it is precisely the means of working out our salvation given to us by God specifically for this purpose. The gnomic “will” is plagued by our ego’s desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and the struggle you mentioned is associated with the gradual revelation of our egoistic desires. The gnomic will could just as well be called the egoistic will.

    The practical process of healing and transformation requires us to not choose the fleeting, self-seeking pleasures which ultimately can never fulfill us, but to act according to our natural will and choose the Ultimate Good who is the only one who can fulfill us. This is a cyclical movement back and forth between the choice of our gnomic (egoistic) will or our natural will. If we continuously choose the latter, we progress up the ladder, growing more and more in likeness with God. In a way, this really is the walk of faith – left, right, left, right,… where the resulting forward movement is the narrow way of salvation. If there wasn’t a capacity for gnomic (egoistic) willing, God could not be freely chosen and unconditional love would not be possible. Free will is essential for there is no coercion in the spiritual life.

    This slow and steady left-right-left…process, reveals to us the truth that real knowing is experiential. It’s a back and forth movement between concealment and revelation. Night and Day. Darkness and Light. If we choose to remain on the left side and act egoistically, according to the gnomic capacity of our will, we choose to remain in the darkness of night, living a life of pleasure-seeking pursuits. Instead, if we use this God-given gift of our egoistic, gnomic will for good, we can consciously choose to allow the Light of God to illumine us and heal us.

    We come to know by experience that free will is simply an illusion which is inextricably linked to knowledge of God (and ourself – for the two are bound up, one with the other). We’re given free will as a means of coming to know God. However, the appearance of free will is merely a reflection of our spiritual state. When we don’t know God (and the truth of ourself), we think we have free will and can choose whatever it is we want in life. Yet when we come to know God, there is no longer any real “choice” to make; we simply open ourselves to know God’s will and do it. This is the fruit of tuning in to the “noise of the natural will” and acting in accordance with it. This is how the gnomic will is conformed to the natural will, and we obtain the fullness of our nature. This is true freedom.

    Furthermore, sin and repentance are also illumined in this process and shown to be what they truly are. Repentance is the conscious choosing of the right side, acting in accordance with the natural will, constantly turning back to God, opening ourself to Him, and allowing His Light to fill us and flow through us. Sin, on the other side, is to act in accordance with the gnomic (egoistic) will, turning away from God. This is not merely sin on the level of thought or deed, but rather of a deep, inner orientation. This is the experiential revelation of sin on an ontological level.

    I have found that in order for us to heal and obtain the purpose for which we were created, we have to understand “what” we are and how we tick. Perhaps some of these thoughts may be of use to others. If not, let them go. We must all walk our own spiritual path, but it seems the process is common and the journey is easier when we do it hand-in-hand together.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for your thoughts. I would not want to describe the gnomic will as “egoistic.” It is not an “evil” will or an inherently sinful will. It’s just a symptom of our brokenness. In this life, to the greater extent, the gnomic will is always there (hence the struggle). Indeed, we’re not always clear about what constitutes the natural will – thus the importance of following the commandments of Christ.

    Lastly, I’m not very interested, on the whole, in thinking about life as a progression, getting better and better (left, right, etc.). It is, I think, a matter of asking the wrong questions, and, quite often, is just a shame-driven model. What matters is knowing God – loving God. Do I love Him more today than yesterday? That is a fruitless question. Just love Him, keep the commandments, and let God worry about whether I am being transformed.

    I believe this is important.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas Hopko famously said, “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”

  17. Byron Avatar

    In this life, to the greater extent, the gnomic will is always there (hence the struggle).

    A conundrum: our salvation is in union with Christ, which reveals us as what we are created to be. Is that not the nature of Adam and Eve in the garden? Did they not struggle (and fail)? Will the gnomic will, in some form, remain in us in the resurrection? Will there still be struggle?

    I know Protestants like to claim “we’ll be sanctified” after our life here is over but I don’t think there’s a “magical” change that will happen. Perhaps these are things of which we remain ignorant and simply need to trust God. The actual nature of the fulfillment of our resurrection, the landscape of heaven, has not yet been fully revealed. Just thinking out loud. Sometimes it is fun to chew on things….

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Apparently, in the resurrection, the gnomic will is healed and ceases to be something that would be described as a separate will. As noted, it’s a product of the fall. My writing about this, however, is both to identify this understanding (the “two wills” in fallen man) but mostly to identify the normality of the “struggle.” The silencing of the natural will, as I noted, is not an uncommon part of a kind of neurotic spirituality. Kind of a “zombie” spirituality, if you will. I quoted the fathers, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.” We should not expect it to be otherwise.

    I’m not opposed to the notion of growth and transformation (though I’ve been accused of it). It’s that I’m opposed to the abuse of those notions, which is far more common than the real thing. As I said in a comment above, I think they are the wrong questions. St. Paul says, “Forgetting those things that are behind…I reach towards those things that are ahead…” St. Paul doesn’t makes comparisons to himself. He’s not worried about whether he’s getting better. He simply reaches. Our culture makes almost any language of “progress” in the spiritual life to be misleading and potentially toxic.

    Just keep the commandments. Love God. Love your neighbor. Pray. Give. Forgive your enemy. Don’t read too much. Bear a little shame and put up with being displeasing to yourself. And so on…

  19. Aaron Avatar

    I wouldn’t describe the ego as evil, but as the desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. It’s simply a desire to be filled (to receive). The question is, by what or whom and for what purpose and with what intention? Therefore, I also wouldn’t describe the gnomic will as evil. The result can be sinful, if in the choosing, it’s an ontological movement away from God. The practical function of the will is simply to choose. The noise of the gnomic will seems to be the inner struggle with the choice. Do we choose selfishness or selflessness?

    I also don’t think it’s helpful to look at life as a progression. This can easily lead to judgement and toxic shame, as you mentioned. However, life does seem to be an unfolding process. We can agree to consciously participate with God (i.e., to have faith) or not. The process continues regardless. The train’s a movin’. Healthy shame, on the other hand, is essential and reveals to us the truth of ourself and can drive us to act according to the natural will.

    Indeed, to know God is to love Him – not simply rationally, emotionally, or physically, but spiritually. To become love. What does this mean, but to enter deeper and deeper into conscious participation in and with Him. To be re-integrated and united as a whole person in God. To become like Him. God certainly does the transforming, but we have to agree to participate, willingly. The rest is up to Him. Isn’t this the process of deification?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree, on the whole, but I will add a quibble. I would prefer not to speak of the “process” of deification. “Deification” by itself is saying enough. Again, I’m just so loathe to lend support to what has become too common in our Orthodox speaking – a kind of spiritual progressivism that is simply not part of the tradition (or it’s an unconscious rendering of the tradition into very modern terms). God cannot be measured. Deification cannot be measured and should not be thought of in that manner.

    As an aside: the work of some, such as Fr. John Romanides, and his popularizer, Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, made quite popular the three-fold scheme of purification (katharsis), illumination (theoria), and deification (theosis). Indeed, some describe this as “three stages” in the spiritual life. I think such language is unfortunate and has misled some into a kind of progressive understanding of the spiritual life.

    There is never a time in our lives that we are not undergoing katharsis (repentance never ends in this life). Also, theoria is normative at every moment of the Christian life. Equally, deification is ever-present. Indeed, all of these words are used in the sacrament of Baptism – even the Baptism of an infant!

    So, though this is a quibble, it is, I think, important. I do not think any of this requires any special understanding or vocabulary. St. Anthony the Great found a cobbler in a local town whom God told him was a greater saint than he. St. Porphyrios (I think) often thought there were far more great ones among the average folks than on the holy mountain. We waste time thinking about this stuff. It is, I think, our love of “technique.” It’s a modern penchant. Deification is not a spritual technique that we master. So, I push back on this kind of speaking every time I hear it. And will continue to do so.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father… And repent always even in the midst of “doing good”. No matter what I do, God’s is always needed for any goodness to be manifest.
    At the same time, I cannot demand or expect anyone else repents.
    God alone is good. Yet we should not allow that reality to make us cynical because we are NOT “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
    We are sinners in the mercy of an Incarnate, Crucified and Risen God!

    I may be in the tomb of darkness, struggling but He is Risen giving life to the world.
    Matthew 4:17. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. ”

    There is no hint of “progress” in that command that I can see.
    Repentance denies my gnomic will and allows me
    to know God, in three persons.

    Perhaps Christian sobriety is realizing that my repentance is always the task at hand while at the same time participating in the Joy of communion?

  22. gigi Avatar

    prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath… no greater love than a man lay down his life for a friend.
    death becomes us.
    thank you for the delectable portions of thought you serve us so faithfully.

  23. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Fr. Stephen,

    It is difficult to avoid describing this three-fold reaching as a “process” because I experience life through a temporal perspective and, therefore, struggle with language that references something eternal, without a before and an after. (For example, my mind conceives a time before I was baptized and the present as after that; inevitably and perhaps inescapably in this life I will tend to see that as “progress.”) An observation of why I fall into such thinking, not a disputation of what you are saying.

    Does the danger in talking of improvement come from its leading to pride (self-satisfaction and a growing sense of superiority), or do you see additional snares?

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think our temporal perspective is one thing, while viewing it as “progressive” is another. The latter is a habit of modernity. We are absolutely suffused with this notion of progress – the larger part of which is neither true nor accurate – but mostly just an ad campaign for consumerist culture. So, I fight it and push back against it.

    Take a leap back before modernity to an earlier Christian time. Though Christians have always had some sense of history – they did not think about it in the manner we do. For example, the “fall of the Roman Empire” is a modern idea. The “Dark Ages” is a modern idea. And so on. People did not think so much in broad historical terms – but more in terms of liturgical time. For example, all of the vacation days (and there were about 50 of them in the medieval period) were just Church feast days. The passage of time was enmeshed in liturgical time – which is a very different thing.

    The heavy thoughts about historical time is a feature of modernity – in some ways begotten by the Reformation which sought to justify many of its radical ideas with various theories of history and progress.

    I think the danger in progressive thinking is, as you say, the danger of pride and delusion. Pride is really just the refusal of humility – our unwillingness to bear the legitimate (healthy) shame of our lives. When we stand in the presence of God – what does time have to do with it? God is timeless and eternal. There is, as well, a timeless and eternal aspect of our own lives, particularly as they exist “in Christ.”

    There is a sense in which the passing of time is delusional. It’s an abstraction from the present-tense fact of our existence. Whenever I’m thinking about time passing, I am, to a great extent, not actually being present where and when I am. When Christ says, “Take no thought for the morrow,” I don’t think He’s being radical – but simply trying to wake us up. The Kingdom of God does not exists in “history” – but is here and now. I cannot enter the Kingdom at any time other than now – not tomorrow, not yesterday. “Today is the day of salvation.”

    I’m not talking about mindfulness or any such thing. Just saying that our historicized consciousness is more of a cultural artifact than a human artifact.

  25. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    Hmm… the distinction between the natural and gnomic will seems to be basically the opposite of how it is understood normally, in that our natural state is towards evil and we have to choose the good. And often I do seem to be fighting against what seems to be our natural impulses, such as for instance losing my temper. But ultimately it is my choices and my desire for control and not my body that bring me to the point where I lose control of myself. And so the solution is not more control but giving up everything to Christ.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Our cultural notions tend to think about “natural” as meaning what the tradition calls the “passions.” Hunger is a good example:

    Hunger is a good desire, natural and necessary. But hunger can become “disordered” and experienced as a “passion,” in which it wants too much of the wrong things at the wrong times, etc. Same is true of sex and all the desires that are rooted in our bodies. There is nothing wrong with them, as such. It is only when they are disordered that they become problematic. But if you actually removed any of them, we would not be fully what we are meant to be.

    So, the Orthodox life is about the healing and proper ordering of what is truly natural. We don’t suppress it or deny it – but, by grace, we work towards it proper ordering.

  27. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you for your response, Fr. Stephen.

    “There is a sense in which the passing of time is delusional. It’s an abstraction from the present-tense fact of our existence. Whenever I’m thinking about time passing, I am, to a great extent, not actually being present where and when I am. When Christ says, ‘Take no thought for the morrow,’ I don’t think He’s being radical – but simply trying to wake us up. The Kingdom of God does not exists in ‘history’ – but is here and now. I cannot enter the Kingdom at any time other than now – not tomorrow, not yesterday. ‘Today is the day of salvation.’”


  28. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I have found with age and prayer that my vantage point and focus has changed. Death is ever nearer and I have realised that getting caught up in whether I am making progress or not, is a trap and hinderance.

    I don’t know if there is any connection between ‘go neither to the left hand, nor the right hand’ and entering through the narrow gate, but they come to mind often and letting go of any baggage, whether material or other-wise seems more important; staying the course and not veering off in a misguided direction. Thus the boundaries set by the Lord and His Church are a safe and sure guide to communion with the Holy Trinity.

  29. juliania Avatar

    I understand this wouldn’t be true for everyone but I came to Orthodoxy late, and it was a gradual recognition rather than a conversion per se – I felt I had come home, that parts of me were falling into place that had been there all along, through the early days in different parts of my childhood, through my education and the teachings that seemed to speak to me, even through a highschool experience of roman catholicism – so much beckoned to me and yet wasn’t home. And none of it was my doing!
    So, thanks, Father Stephen and friends – this is part of that, a stepping into (and sometimes away from) a felt presence of home.
    That’s a new and amazing icon to me.

  30. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    This is just a brief note of thanks for this and your continued guidance.

    This struggle of the wills and the modern quest to quell the struggle’s noise is an important lesson. I have encountered a cult-like phenomenon in the Orthodox Church amongst followers of particular charismatic personalities. And I’ve heard interpretations of the tradition (and Tradition) espoused from Orthodox quarters that just didn’t sit right. Your blog is a very helpful level-headed resource, and I’m grateful!

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I have been reading and thinking about your comment. There is a lot there to ponder in the context of the philosophy of modernity and our susceptibility to it. Just saying “I am Orthodox” is not sufficient,,. going deeper is always necessary in humility.
    Thank you for sharing.

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