Working With What We Know

I recently had a question put to me that made me think about “where we start” when we think about the things of God. The question was this:

“A friend of mine who is familiar with Jewish beliefs told me that the Jewish Sheol was self-emptying. It was a purgatory-like place where people lamented and repented of their sins and when they were ready they left on their own. He said that Jesus wasn’t needed to release these captives because it was self-emptying.”

My response was to note that Jewish thought was extremely diverse at the time of Christ (it still is). Be that as it may, is was a question that had a certain similarity to various conversations among Christians. Those conversations are essentially framed by what we take to be metaphysical certainties. We describe the shape and mechanics of hell and heaven and explain salvation as the solution to their problems. This is, I believe, a fundamental theological error. It begins with what we do not really know in order to describe the few things that we really should know. What follows in this article are some observations that seem worth sharing. Perhaps they will be of interest.

This is my suggestion: do not start with what you do not know.

I have long intended to avoid the turmoil of after-life debates (universalists vs. infernalists, or whatever we should label the positions) with something that approaches a kind of agnosticism. When the question, “Shall all be saved?” is asked, I demur to the fact that I don’t know. I can speak of what I hope, but not of what I know. I have read everybody’s arguments (I do not exaggerate). Invariably, the answers turn on what we do not know. The evidence is slim – scattered verses of Scripture, some of which seem contradictory. I am often surprised by the certitude that surrounds various positions.

There is such a thing as a saving certitude:

“…nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” (2 Tim. 1:12)

It is of note (to me) that St. Paul’s statement is prefaced by “I am not ashamed.” Much of what passes for certitude in the world is little more than the shame of ignorance – we cannot or will not face what we do not know. Our ignorance threatens to unveil the existential nakedness of our being. We construct worlds of “knowing,” explanatory structures that protect us from the darkness of our minds. Of course, that we do not know all things does not mean that we know nothing. God gives us knowledge of Himself.

Years ago, when I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I heard a common explanation that passed a number of folks. They said that “Stephen could not deal with modern uncertainty and has run away to hide inside Orthodoxy.” On the one hand, nothing was more “certain” among them than the platitudes of modernity. My rejection needed an explanation. The reality was that I was abandoning the false certitudes of mainline American Protestantism for the frightening journey of the soul into the mystery of Christ that lies at the heart of the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is not a bastion of answered questions. Rather, it is a way of life, whose teachings are the abiding testimony of those who have walked that path and borne witness to what they found. Indeed, apophatic theology, the preferred manner of Orthodox thought, draws us towards the nakedness of our ignorance and dares to stand in that state before the wonder of God.

I am not suggesting that we elevate ignorance to the exalted position it holds in the panoply of anti-Christian rhetoric (for our adversaries hide from their own ignorance). Indeed, I do not suggest beginning with our ignorance at all. Rather, I suggest that we begin with what we know and move towards its depths.

What do I know.

In some manner, I profess with St. Paul that I know Christ. I do not know Him exhaustively (who could?). St. Paul longed to “know, even as I am known.” My first glimmers of Christ came from reading the gospels – what He said and what He did. It came secondly through reading those who had chosen to follow Him and were seen as exemplars (the saints). Along with these external witnesses was my own internal witness that has been unfolding for most of my life. It is what happens if we keep His commandments:

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (John 14:21)

and

“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.(John 14:23)

This knowledge does not belong to the category of objects. We do not and cannot know God as an object. Knowing God is closer to knowing ourselves than it is to knowing objects outside of ourselves. We can note, over time, that our inner knowledge of Christ resembles the inner knowledge described by others and consistently confirms the truth of His commandments. It is more than mere subjectivity.

Were I to engage someone in debate who asked me to prove that I exist – I suspect I would be at a loss for words (perhaps if I smacked them on the nose my argument would be most effective). I’ve read treatises on such questions which mostly serve to prove the silliness of such treatises. I often feel much the same way when asked to “prove” the existence of God. We do not “prove” God – we bear witness to what we know. And there we must leave it.

And this brings me back to my initial statement. The Scriptures give us the promise of knowing Christ. They also give us the reality that even the greatest of saints long to know Him yet more:

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:8–11)

My experience has been that such knowledge comes by following Christ in the paths of the heart. As St. Macarius the Great taught:

“The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”

What little I know of hell, I have found within my own heart. The same is true of heaven and paradise. I also see the shame of my own naked ignorance and beg Christ to clothe me with Himself. We do no harm to one another when we speak of what we know or when we confess our ignorance. There is irony and paradox in all of this. One of the hymns on “Lord, I call,” for Thomas Sunday said:

O most wonderful doubt of Thomas!
It brought the hearts of the faithful to knowledge.//
And with fear he cried: “My Lord and my God, glory to You!”

The Church gathers us together on the day of resurrection each week, teaching us to sing and to wonder in the presence of God. The risen Lord gives Himself as food for our souls and invites us to follow Him into the depths of hell, only to follow Him into the heights of heaven. It is all real and all true – but you have to go there to know that.

 

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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48 responses to “Working With What We Know”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My parents, memory eternal, were not Christians in this life, yet they knew God and embraced His mysterious presence in His Creation. Not a static presence but a living presence intraconnecting all life. My mother’s last instruction to me when I turned 18 was “God is real, you need to find Him.”

    She also gave me a beautiful, handmade silver cross.

    By the Mercy of Jesus, I found Him. Rather, He revealed Himself to me. 18 years later, He led me to the Church, where He reveals, as Father points out, the work of Repentance and celebration and intraconnected service of the Orthodox life.

    God is real, I found Him through the Cross. “The Creator of all things visible and invisible…,” according to the Nicene Creed.

    Knowing is the easy part for me….doing what I know much more difficult. Yet His mercy endures forever. That is where repentance comes to the fore.

  2. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    How should we think when we recurrently find that the thing that often destabilizes Orthodox folk regarding the mind-set you describe as “what we know, what we have found within our hearts and what we confess as our ignorance” (regarding Heaven and Hell) is that this mind-set can, for some folk, feel almost ‘protestant’ or ‘relativist’ in its malleability, specifically in comparison to the certitude that some extremely traditional spiritual guides exhibit [I can think of many], a conviction that seems to be constructed upon the numerous ‘testimonies’ that have been almost ‘officially adopted by Sacred Tradition’ over many years, and which they have stidied and memorised meticulously, particularly in certain circles like the Athonites (and many influenced by that).

  3. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Brother Stephen, thank you for sharing your personal approach to epistemology as place for talking about theology. However, is there not a place for objective truth (much like 1 Corinthian 15; “eyewitnesses”- appeal to material evidence)? If so, how would you delineate the balance?

  4. Eric Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen

    Our ancestors I suspect Knew better than we did, but they knew far far less. They Knew that Life was a mystery.

    We know a billion more facts than they did and confuse this for Knowledge. We confuse life for Life. Nothing is a mystery to us, or at least we believe that we can know every fact, but we’d still Know nothing.

    We turn Faith into faith, a set of facts about things we don’t Know, but cannot Live by such faith, for we stand apart Objectively in our not Knowing

    Life, Faith and Knowing are like water to fish, we participate in them but they are Deeply mysterious to us. Because we don’t Know, but know we think we don’t need to participate.

    I guess this is where church falls down for so many who’ve learnt to treat it like more school – a place you go to learn facts but not Life.

    God bless you and your writing

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    Very good question. First, there’s no doubt that a “Protestant mindset” can abuse such an approach. Many of them misuse apophatic theology as a cover for little more than liberalism’s revisionist questioning (which is really a strategy for undermining). I do not mean to endorse such a thing.

    Nevertheless, it is possible (particularly in our fear and reaction to such abuses) to substitute a merely dogmatic approach to questions – where we learn the answers but only by rote. The Pharisees knew the “answers” (Christ said, “Do what they say”), but they did not truly know the substance.

    The Scriptures tell us not to be many “teachers,” knowing that teachers will bear a greater condemnation. But, in our modern world, a whole lot of people imagine themselves to be teachers, just as everybody in the modern world imagines themselves to be in management. I’ve said before, we are not saved by information.

    We do much better to avoid conversations and arguments about what we do not know (politely saying, “I don’t know about that”) rather than simply repeating what we have only heard (and with a certitude that sounds as if we knew what we were talking about).

    At what point does the believer stand before God in the nakedness of his ignorance?

    What I am speaking of here is the path of the heart as we pursue God. There seems to be very little of this. For hesychasts – we’re awfully noisy.

    I add, quickly, that the Church has provided us boundaries that we do well to respect.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Steve,
    There is clearly a place for the objective knowledge you describe (and 1Cor. 15 is the perfect example). Indeed, St. Paul’s citation of witnesses is done in a manner that would have played well in a court of law. It is, of course, only a starting place. Such a witness is a reason to start down the road, to give faith a chance. It is not the end of the road. Quoting the list of witnesses is not the same as saying, “I know whom I have believed…”

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    I do not mean to diminish the importance of boundaries – many/most of which are delineated for us in the dogmatic teachings of the Church. And, even if the dogma in a matter might seem less than clear, if what is being expressed/explored is novel in any way, then we do well to be quiet about it, weigh it with a spiritual father, and put little trust in our own selves.

    But, living within the boundaries of the Church, we are still on a journey to truly know rather than to merely repeat. In that sense, we should be disciples rather than teachers. There is a fullness when we listen to the teaching of one who knows – and a kind of emptiness when we simply hear yet another opinion (no matter how well it agrees with the teaching).

    I hope that clarifies my thoughts.

  8. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Thank you Father,
    how you describe it is much clearer and sounds traditional to me.

  9. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Brother Stephen,

    If for St. Paul, apostle of God, 1 Cor. 15 serves as a connection or a starting place as to the historicity of our faith (i.e. it was not founded on hearsay or myth and was “testable,” or verifiable -empirically speaking) in gnosis-oriented worldview, what guidance do you give to those of us who feel called to be apostolic witnesses to those not yet abiding in Christ?

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    Thank you for that. The journey into the heart is filled with temptations and delusions – making it best to walk with a good confessor, practicing a lot of self-honesty. If you will, the boundaries are helpful, in that they are what they are and do not have to be maintained by some private effort of the will. That is a great weakness in many forms of Protestantism – everything being “up for grabs” makes no one safe.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Steve,

    All of us have a call to bear witness to what we have received. What God does with that is God’s business – not our own. For me, as an Orthodox Christian, evangelism is rooted in the Church, which tends to make an approach to things a much larger, slower, process. I bear witness. We invite others to “come and see.” And it unfolds from there.

    Forgive my earlier comments – they were, I think, an uncalled for rant.

  12. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    To be frank, the strictness and conviction of some ultra traditional spiritual guides’ opinions on Heaven and Hell, (grounded, both on numerous old testimonies assimilated through “osmosis” by sacred Tradition, as well as on their own experiences) – even though these guides were undoubtedly “ones who knew”, who were extensively esteemed, who had a life of holiness and miracles, etc. – has both ‘devotees’ as well as ‘cynics’ amongst believers.

  13. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    You guys all have such complex and theological comments. I am a bit in awe. Mine has always been a much more basic approach to faith. My grandmother taught Bible classes and she knew God was real; Jesus loved and saved us; and taught she me that from a very young age. At five yrs old I gave my heart to Jesus and He has dwelled there since. Thru 70 years of some of the roughest things people can go thru, I never doubted Him. I have survived at least a dozen diseases and injuries that should have killed me, but God wasn’t ready yet. I had more to do here. My husband led me to the Orthodox faith, and I finally found the home where the Jesus I had always known and loved was sitting above the alter in that square chair I had seen him in as a young child. My grandmother was a woman of deep faith, and she passed that on to me. I knew she would never lie to me, and so I knew Jesus was very real. He became more and more so as I got older. I learned about the Saints and Elders, and the Angels too. The only time I ever felt God had desserted me was when my previous husband died young and unexpectedly. In truth, it was me that had turned from Him, in my pain. You are all right I am sure, but I have no Spiritual Father to turn to. I trust in you, and what you say, as well as my husband. But, most of the time I am still like that little girl that sang “Jesus Loves Me” and knew it was true.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    That’s one of the reasons that I remain silent, to a great extent, on the topic. I know a variation within the witness, though (among true witnesses) with a great humility. Debates and arguments that I see are often lacking in humility. I understand the passions and have my own as well. I’ve come to positively value my ignorance about certain things – not as a place of complacency – but as a place to stand, naked, in prayer.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Merry,
    Don’t change. You’re fine.

  16. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Indeed Father, whatever makes us stand before the Lord ‘naked’ in prayer, is most undoubtedly the valuable.

  17. Brandon Avatar
    Brandon

    Father, how would you think about this.. when you have a saint like St. Silouan who truly knew God but didn’t know or understand from an intellectual perspective (who himself notes the vast diff between knowing God and knowing about him)… would any such right understanding of some piece of doctrine shed any more light or lead him to any more depth or fullness ? Because I don’t think we would say those saints don’t need doctrine. I believe you once said something like such a saint would perceive the whole trinitarian doctrine in his vision of God. And it’s also not like right doctrine didn’t form the experiences of these saints and set the proper boundaries of true knowledge..St. Sophrony talks about dogmatic consciousness too all gained by and through Church Tradition. I mean one sense you can’t be ignorant of anything if you know God truly. In what way then could a saint like Silouan grow to a deeper knowledge of God? Or is it a this point past intellectual understandings one can only seek deeper and deeper into humility which leads to greater understanding? Apologies if I’m being too uncomfortable in my own ignorance and thus rambling.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brandon,
    Outstanding example – St. Sophrony’s teaching on “dogmatic consciousness.” As I noted in the article, Orthodoxy is a way of life. Part of that way of life includes our immersion – our “pickling” – in the reality of the life of the Church – her hymns, her sacraments, all of it. (I use the word “pickling” in that is actually the original meaning behind the word “Baptizo.” It’s more than a mere washing – that would have been “bapto.” The “ize” presupposes a process and a transformation. I think of it as “pickling.” One of the earliest known uses of the word was found on an ancient papyrus scrap of a pickle recipe! (Sorry for the rabbit trail)

    But a dogmatic consciousness is not the acquisition of information – anybody could do that. It’s when the information transforms us and unites us with the true hypostatic life of God. To that – there is no end. St. Sophrony would even have said that we become infinite…but, I’d settle for being a little larger right now. That, by the way, is how I would describe the several saints I believe I have met through the years – they seemed larger somehow.

    Glory to God.

  19. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Thank you Father.
    And i was reminded of this Fr. Hopko quote: “You cannot know God, but to understand that, you have to know God.”
    And, as you wrote, John 14: 21, 23 provide the answers to the hows of knowing Him.

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Thank you for these words. I grow weary when I hear theological arguments about heaven and hell–I click “off”. More specifically, those arguments evoke sadness in me when they are written by Orthodox writers. Such reminds me of the Protestant spirituality that was so judgemental and discouraging to me in my youth. I was once asked if I knew whether I was going to heaven by a Protestant who apparently wanted to give me the impression that they knew I wasn’t.

    I’m ever grateful for St Silouan’s experience of God’s words, “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” Such words helped St Silouan, and they have helped me. This isn’t about what you know but what you experience in the life of Christ and how you respond to such an experience. As difficult as it might be, I believe such a path is of love and trust and of touching the wood of the cross.

    Dear Father, do you think the pickling of baptism may have something to do with Christ’s words, ‘having salt?’ (a little tongue in cheek)There seems to be an interesting connection, just the same.

    “Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

  21. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Brandon,
    There is a rather classical approach to the explication of the types of knowledge imparted upon the God – bearers who have assimilated through long sufferings an indelible experience of Grace and Divine discernment.
    I particularly have in mind the recently canonised athonites like Silouan, Joseph Hesychast, Ephraim, and Porphyrios (unlettered largely) or others like Sophrony who was rather more erudite, or some particularly learned ones like Elder Aimilianos.
    They all had the knowledge of God.
    But there are obvious gradations of how well they were capable of transmitting the resultant wisdom to others through words.
    Through prayer it was given to them to transmit it to particular persons 1-2-1 with accompanying words (or not) amazingly.
    The more intellectually equipped were able to leave us books of God inspired instructions.
    Comparing the books/letters of say Paisios, Sophrony, Joseph, Aimilianos… It is clear that there is something for every personality there and that there are gradations of pedagogical ability in their expression – often due to their experience on this too…

  22. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    It’s been going on since the gospels.

  23. Brandon Avatar
    Brandon

    Thanks Father and Dino. Dino, David Balfour was right in that both Sts Silouan and Sophrony were obvious giants. Not to compare, even if there could be saint to be a rank of sorts of saints, but would a lack of the ability of Silouan to transmit the resultant wisdom to others through words compared to the brilliance of the writings of Sophrony mean anything of the depth or fullness of each’s knowledge of God? Surely Silouan had the ability to do so through his presence and his prayer. And Sophrony even notes about his elder’s simple writings that they contain the measure of all that exists. Ultimately it’s probably a bad question. I’m wondering though because there always seems to be the temptation in ones spiritual life to follow certain debates and learn the ins ans outs of doctrine as if that would provide one with more fullness than deep prayer would. And I think it’s that temptation that leads one to be uncomfortable in facing what they do not know. They feel unsettled as if simply being in the presence of God vs being able to explain one’s experience or knowledge of God were not enough. Again perhaps here i myself am seeking to “construct worlds of “knowing,” explanatory structures that protect [me] from the darkness of [my] mind.” But I do meditate very very much on how the writings of St Silouan as Sophrony elaborates contain the measure of all that exists… it’s as if his knowledge and few writings because of the authenticity of his experience and faithful ascetic striving are a true root of discernment from which one could depart from (or should start from) in attempting to find the words to speak about anything in this world, or at least find the proper place of everything. And so it’s in that way that any seemingly more erudite understanding or explication is merely the ‘longer way’ (though surely more helpful to certain minds) to say the same thing.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brandon,
    We read far too much and think far too much. It is a temptation, as you note. Avoid debates whenever possible. What we want to know above all else is Jesus Christ. We learn Him by keeping His commandments. Those commandments draw our attention to small things – the next thing at hand. We do that, and then be patient.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brandon, another thought.

    There are things that might seem small, but are truly large. I think of first importance that we need to know that God is good. That goodness is made known to us in Christ. And this is a knowing that needs to be settled in us in the depths of our bones. It is one reason that I urge people to give thanks always and for all things. Second, we need to know that He loves us – utterly and completely. I could not dare to look deeply past my own shame if I did not know that God is good, and that He loves me. They seem like “small” things – but existentially, they are the greatest things.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the problems with theological debates and reasoning is that one can quickly loose the fact that Jesus is a Person as are the Holy Spirit and our Father. The saints, I’d wager never loose sight of that key fact. Each of us has the opportunity to interrelate with the Persons.

    At its best, theology reveals the Persons. At its worst, e.g. angels and pins, theology obscures who God is.

    The Church, at Her best, is a meeting place where each of us can meet the Persons of God with assurance we are not being fooled by a counterfeit.

    It seems to me that three activities are crucial: Worship, Prayer (which includes reading the Holy Scripture) and Repentance.

    Tomes can be written about each one and have been. At best, they provide proper boundaries, but are not the Persons they describe and lead to.

    The first time I attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, I got whopped up against the side of my head with a tire iron by the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist during the Great Entrance. That was 37 years ago. Nothing as intense since, but, He certainly got my attention..

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  27. Brandon Avatar
    Brandon

    Thank you Father for the clarity as always. Your last note echoes St. Sophrony on Silouan ‘Only a few thoughts engage the Staretz’ soul, his mind, but ontologically these thoughts are most profound. They are the measure of all that exists’. It seems that I had the answer before I asked the question. But goes to show how we need more than just the answers as mere data points. Only once in a while do I have that proper Union where those questions and doubts dissolve into futility, or rather when my attention is solely on Christ.

    And thanks Michael for your last comment. ‘At its best, theology reveals the Persons’ That also in part helps me reframe my above meandering.

  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dino,
    For the sake of readers who might not have lived long in the Orthodox faith, do you agree that unless you live the life of Christ within His Church, obtaining such deep life experience in prayer and assurance of Christ’s love, that understanding the writings of the saints no matter who the writer is, is a gift received?

    Sometimes when I read theological arguments, it seems the main point is to demonstrate philosophical prowess, not necessarily to serve the hopes of those who look for Christ.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, my wife says the same thing, plus some other women I know. Historically, purely theological arguments have not done the Church much good unless there was a clear heresy involved.
    Now, heresy is abounding (most of it quite obvious) and since we are in the minority we had better reduce our arguments over interpretations.

  30. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    I’d have to agree the way you put that. I think regarding one person’s knowledge of God, it is impossible to say anything really, only the Holy Spirit reveals those inconceivable depths [personally] and one might have a greater such Spiritual knowledge than even the route and signposts to which knowledge they can ever articulate.
    However, regarding the gift of Spiritual Fatherhood and the “word” which that gift can generate – a rare gift given to select individuals for the sake of the Body of the Church – God seems to give those select people a far greater ability to articulate the discerning, appropriate, inspiring and transforming “word” that is necessary. This is far more rare.
    Two cases of such immense spiritual pedagogical ability, were Saint Joseph the Hesychast (upon meeting whom Saint Sophrony exclaimed something like: “you felt you were in the presence of a five-star-General of the Spiritual Life”) and Elder Aimilianos (upon meeting whom Saint Ephraim of Katounakia heard God speak to him something like: “You have found a second Elder Joseph the Hesychast”)

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “What I know” unfortunately tends toward the passive. I do not do a good job of guarding my heart against my own passions let alone the the sin that abounds in the world.

  32. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Wow, so much good stuff here, both in the post and the comments! Thank you all.

    Fr Stephen, you wrote:
    “We can note, over time, that our inner knowledge of Christ resembles the inner knowledge described by others and consistently confirms the truth of His commandments. It is more than mere subjectivity.” Oh yes, this is my experience, in my wandering. I found many things I felt were true through prayer practice, and then I “recognized” them in the Church and in Scripture and the saints. But I needed the experience and prayer first to understand.

    Merry, you wrote that the Jesus you had always loved was sitting right there on the altar. Oh yes, such a deep-in-the-heart experience conveyed there. How wonderful for you, truly! And wasn’t it Jesus who told us about that mind/heart of a little child, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven”?

    Dee wrote: “This isn’t about what you know but what you experience in the life of Christ and how you respond to such an experience. As difficult as it might be, I believe such a path is of love and trust and of touching the wood of the cross.” So powerfully true! As true as the old rugged Cross

    Michael, that “whopped on the side of the head” is quite a good way to describe your experience! That’s the voice of experience if you ask me

    Father, regarding Baptism. I am always struck by the words that denote enzymatic action. The parable of the leaven and the meal, for example. The word for leaven is ζύμη (“zymee”). Yes, the base word for enzyme, and denoting energetic action. I think of it as parallel to energies, and we all know how that word is used theologically. It makes much sense in the parable of the new wineskins as well as “pickling” and salt!

    Finally, Father, I always think of the healed blind man when quizzed by the authorities. “He answered, “Whether He is a sinner I do not know. There is one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see!” In the Orthodox Study Bible there’s a commentary that this is the real formula for witnessing — that I don’t know, but this I know. I keep trying to remember that. It is always accompanied by the struggle to stay humble and “stay in your own lane” so to speak! You can tell that remains a giant learning curve for me!

  33. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS I should have added that I was wondering if Dino has thoughts on ζύμη. “ZEEmee” in modern Greek

  34. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Janine,
    I haven’t given much thought to leaven (ζύμη) other than why is ‘leaven’ pronounced “wrong” in English and it always catches Greeks out 🙂
    However, in Greek we use its derivatives much more, i.e.: in the sense of “kneading”.
    Elder Aimilianos often used the word metaphorically e.g: one needs to be “kneaded” together with something over a long period of time before he can talk about it to others (something like the Jesus Prayer, or Fasting)

  35. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dino, very interesting. Thank you! I am going to remember that

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, Merry, et. al
    In his book, Fr. Stephen gives the Church’s answer to over theologizing: The Holy Fool.
    The Holy Fool also comes into play when a culture or community is deeply fractured.

  37. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Michael,
    Thanks for that. I once read that holy fools make an appearance when society is too stratified, too static. I don’t want to bring up politics per se but our culture, for all kinds of reasons, is moving steadily toward greater attempts to control thinking.

  38. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I don’t know whether this question is pertinent to this post and comment stream. But I ask for your patience in my asking it anyway. What is the relationship between mindfulness and communion with Christ?

  39. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Dee, Father,
    Would it be correct to note that in ‘mindfulness’ (taking it as a synonym of ‘noetic vigilance’) we have a ‘field’ in which the practitioner demonstrates their own volition far more than in ‘communion’ – being quite a bit more, a product of the resulting –disproportionally greater– action of God?

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    Possibly so. I don’t think that we want to make communion to be a passive state, though. I admit that it could seem that way. I recall that Vladimir Lossky defined faith as “participatory adherence to Him who reveals Himself.” But it’s such a mouthful! In another place, Lossky describes faith as “ontological participation.”

    I would also not use the term “mindfulness” for noetic vigilance – simply because it’s been commandeered by popular language to describe a meditational technique of merely “being present to the present.”

    Language (especially English) is so tricky. English is constantly shifting, following it’s culture currents this way and that.

    But your point is on point!

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Something about “noetic vigilance” resonates with me much more deeply than “mindfulness”.
    “Ontological participation” seems to fit too.

    On a separate note: during COVID a friend of mine went to a “jab” protest and took a good sized icon of The Theotokos. He had folks from both sides coming to him and asking what it was (having never seen an icon).

  42. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    In our context, I use “mindfulness” to describe the state of continual prayer. That is, remembering God or remembering what we are to be about.

  43. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    There can be a continual desire in the heart for God that can be nurtured. Whatever kindles that desire is worthy of attention. Usually simple things do the trick.

  44. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Janine,
    I initially took a liking to the word ‘mindfulness’ when encountering it (making the same connections as you did) but later on, one day, as I was looking for a fasting option at a rather pretentious vegan restaurant, I ordered a dish of “mindfulness” 🙂 and was put off the word due to it being hijacked as Father explained.
    Vigilance (νὴψης), on the other hand, is a rather specific ascetic Orthodox term; worth reading St Hesychios (from the Philokalia) very attentively on this. In fact, I don’t know if it exists in English yet, but Fr Aimilianos has a sublime analysis of that very work in Greek, probably the best treatise on the matter anywhere.

  45. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you all for your comments. i was seeking an Orthodox perspective.

    I’m grateful to receive them.

  46. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, I want to clarify what I wrote. My sense of “mindfulness” is prayer, or remembering God, while at the same time we are living and experiencing. I think of it even as a heightened awareness of what does God want me to see/to do in *this* moment, with *this* going on. A held attention to both at the same time. If that paradox makes sense. I hope 🙂 🙏

  47. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dino, just think — re νὴψης — maybe that means we are the original “woke” 😀

  48. Evan Avatar
    Evan

    Regarding our approach to ambiguity and things we simply do not know, Dr. Albert Rossi offers a helpful meditation:

    1. I know that I don’t know.
    2. I know that Christ knows.
    3. I trust Him.

    In eternity, I’m inclined to think that we won’t have regrets, especially for standing before the Lord ‘naked’ in prayer.

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