Only Love Knows Anything

 

Only Love Knows Anything

There’s a part of us that is wired to be careful. It senses danger and hunkers down. It looks for danger. It can easily become the dominant mode of our life. Anxiety and depression, are among the most common noises of this internal warning system. When it comes to dominate, we see the world through fear-colored glasses. In the classical language of the Church, we describe such an experience by the voices it produces: the logismoi (the “little words” or “little thoughts”).

It is of note that the logismoi rarely consist of considering information or pondering deeper things. Such things do not “nag” us. Rather it is the dark thoughts of danger, anger, sexual impulses, hunger, anxieties, etc., that haunt our minds. And so, our days have a way of drowning in petty things.

Sadly, these voices or thoughts can become the lens through which everything is filtered. The world becomes a dark and dangerous place. This same lens can turn in on the self, magnifying the sounds and symptoms of the darkness within ourselves.

A difficulty with all of this is that a warning system is not designed to serve as a world lens. It does not see beauty, it fails to see the true complexity and wonder of the world, and it darkens and obscures any knowledge of God, including our sense of His presence. The nous, the natural faculty by which we see and know God is occluded by the logismoi. We imagine that God has abandoned us, or even that He doesn’t exist.

A World of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty

A number of the early Fathers described the world with three terms: goodness, truth, beauty. It is grounded in the story of creation. When God creates, we are told that He says, “It is good.” In both Hebrew and Greek, the word translated as “good,” also carries the meaning of “beautiful” (a very interesting linguistic intuition). From this, the Fathers taught that what truly exists, that which has true being, is inherently good, and is inherently beautiful. Additionally, they taught that what is “evil,” does not have true being. Rather, it is a parasite, a distortion, and a misuse or misdirection of what is true, good, and beautiful. This parasitic distortion is the very nature of sin itself – a drive towards death and non-being. (This understanding is quite prominent in the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Dionysius the Areopagite).

But, if the truth of existence, the reality of being, is beautiful and good, what happens when the lens through which we see the world is colored by fear, lust, anger, and anxiety? We do not see what is – we see counterfeits, parasites, and dark wannabe’s. We do not see God. We do not see others. We do not even see ourselves. At least, none of these appear in the truth of their existence.

St. John offers this statement:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 Jn. 3:7-8)

The passage is so simple and familiar that we easily pass over it, failing to comprehend and consider what it tells us: Only love knows anything.

“He who does not love does not know God.” God is not an object, an inert entity that must stand still and endure our observations. Rather, St. John tells us, “God is love.” Only love can see Love.

The truth of creation (and of other human beings) is good and beautiful, and cannot be rightly perceived apart from love. This way of being (and perceiving) is often foreign to our actions. Instead, as fearful, anxious creatures of our logismoi, we imagine that knowledge is gained by the amassing of “facts.” The nature of such knowledge is found in its ability to manage. It represents a form of safety and comforts the mind of fear and anxiety.

Of course, such knowledge is extremely limited. The vast array of “facts” that constitutes the universe is well beyond our ken. With but the tiniest fraction of such information we spin various explanations of everything from the origins of life to the very nature of the universe itself. It is a game best played by academics, most of whom agree among themselves that the guessing game constitutes reality itself. The popular media regales the general population with daily revelations implying that we’re very close to knowing everything.

Only love knows anything.

Information Does Not Constitute Knowledge

Information does not constitute knowledge. At most, it constitutes the limits of our management. True knowledge, particularly as spoken of in the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church, is an act of communion. Communion is an act of love.

The nous, as the organ given to us to perceive God, is an organ of love. When Christ says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” He is speaking of the purified nous, a heart made whole through love. For many, even most, the nous is a reality that is largely unknown. Our pursuit of information has largely drowned even our awareness of the nous, or to pay attention and value to its voice within our experience.

In our culture, if someone spoke about coldness of the heart, we would likely describe it as an emotional issue, and dismiss it or diminish it as merely unfortunate. If, on the other hand, we were to speak about something interfering with our acquisition of information, we would treat it as a crisis of first-order. We do not understand that the greatest crisis in our lives is found in our coldness of heart. Indeed, even our acquisition of information is distorted by coldness of the heart.

Only Love Knows Anything.

In our interactions with other people, our hearing can be very selective. We can imagine that noting the words spoken is sufficient. But words are never spoken “alone”  – they have an emotional context, and, quite often, other levels of meaning. St. Ignatius of Antioch once wrote: “He who possesses the word of Jesus, is truly able to hear even His very silence.” St. Ignatius is describing a context in which love is at the very center. Only love “possesses the word of Jesus.” As St. John said, “He who does not love does not know God.” Love is the beginning of true knowledge.

Of course, none of us is perfect in love. Coldness of heart can be fairly common companion, fueled by inner wounds and circumstances. I have long treasured the simple admonition: “Guard your heart.” Caught up in a world of ideas and the arguments of culture and causes, we all too easily neglect our heart. The passions cloud the nous and the coldness creeps in. We do not need an idea or information to heal us – we need communion.

The greater point of fasting, at all times, is to reacquire warmth of heart in the cleansing of our nous. It is a slowing down of mind and body and an attention to the one thing necessary. We return to our first love, for it was always love that made God known to us, however dimly.

We need to determine, above all, to guard our heart, to note the subtle hand of coldness before its grasp is complete. When Christ was healing the soul of St. Peter following the Resurrection, He asked simple questions:

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17)

Only love knows anything.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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35 responses to “Only Love Knows Anything”

  1. Burt Noyes Avatar
    Burt Noyes

    Thank you Father. Your post calls to mind Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. So many of the same threads of thought.

  2. Stuart Marlatt Avatar
    Stuart Marlatt

    That’s beautiful, Father, and very much needed this morning. Thank you.
    The perception of darkness all around risks our forgetting that it is because of the brilliance of the sun that shadows are cast.

  3. Perpetua Avatar
    Perpetua

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen. I happen to have in my body a living, ongoing, and inescapable icon of the reality vs. distortion problem — it’s my eyes. A condition has developed which causes the center of the vision in one eye to be permanently fuzzy, but the lines around it to bend and be NOT straight in my vision, although they ARE straight to my touch, and even to my other eye. If I take my body’s “object lesson” a little further, I could even say that the direct contact of love can tell me what my distorted observation cannot. And there’s even a medical remedy for this, which I’ll be accepting pretty soon. The treatment is expected to clear up the distortions at least a little, but it cannot touch the fuzzy bit in the middle, where the tissues of the eye have died off.

    I’m saying all of this to say thank you. Again. I so hope to meet you one day and tell you in person how much your public life of writing and speaking has meant to me. But I know I’m not the only one God has reached through your hands and voice, and here, once again, you’re talking about exactly what I’m experiencing. (NB: it’s not usually quite such an overt experiencing — haha! This one’s just particularly focused, so to speak.) Only love knows anything. I’m going to put that on the wall above my computer screen – and touch it when I read it.

  4. Jennifer Mary Fox Avatar
    Jennifer Mary Fox

    Thank you, Father. This article is very profound. The personal implications for each one of us as we strive for a life in Christ (theosis) as well as the societal implications (even just thinking about the ways we go about amassing knowledge and how we place value in non-things) is stunning. Sometimes simple, and what should be obvious, concepts are like that.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jennifer,
    It’s actually quite stunning in its simplicity. I think we treat everything that is not monetized as less than essential. If it’s so necessary to our existence, how can it be free? And yet, we die for lack of love/communion. Without it, everything else is but grass that withers.

  6. christa-maria Dolejsi Avatar
    christa-maria Dolejsi

    Why is it easier to default to judging myself than accepting Gods love? Gods’ love calls us to live unselfishly. He even promises us His Holy Spirit to help and guide us. No I am not worthy of communion with God but He chooses me, He chooses us. At confession, I was so busy judging myself and trying to make a “good” impression…I was speaking from the mind….It stopped all in shambles., then…”God have mercy on me a sinner” my heart spoke. The “little shame” I have to bear blows up on me when my mind is in charge. “We lift up our hearts to the Lord.” over and over and over. Thanks be to God!

  7. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I sometimes get hung up on how something that has no existence can drive something that has true existence toward non-existence. How can something with no existence parasitize existence? Sin seems more like the logismoi themselves. Logismoi have no existence of their own but attention to them gives them power. If possible, I would appreciate some clarification.

  8. Katie Andraski Avatar

    I woke up this morning confessing my fear and clinging to those promises to remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, I study too much what’s wrong with our culture. I am afraid to play with my horse when I see others going and doing. Then I went for a walk and looked at the pastels in the early morning sky. Your post is an answer to that prayer. Thank you.

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I studied Orthodox theology before coming into an Orthodox Church. Nevertheless it is love, as you say, that taught me anything at all, including Orthodox theology and whatever I learn from God’s creation as His servant and scientist.

    Dear Father thank you for this reminder. Also as Christ says, only fasting and prayer (with the grace of love for God) can rid us of the blindness in our hearts. May the perfect love of the Theotokos save us!

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    It’s a hard question. I’ll need to ponder a bit and post later today.

  11. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Fr, This post finally makes sense of why this verse is in 1 Corinthians 13:
    “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
    – Luke

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    My “pondering” consisted of re-reading some passages in Nyssa and Dionysius who are perhaps the most eloquent on this. Even that which we call “evil” has some basis in the “good” or it would have no existence at all. He even calls it a “para-hypostasis” – a way to talk about a “sort-of” being, but not quite so. It is a parasite in that it cannot exist apart from the good – for all that God has created and sustains is good (even if only in the tiniest measure).

    But, evil is something of a “misdirection” or “misuse” rather than a “thing.” It is a misdirected choosing or desire. But even in such things, such as a bad choosing, it is commonly the case that we mistake some wrong thing as a desirable “good.” We can even imagine that non-existence is a “good.”

    Dionysius in his Divine Names, Book 4, goes into great depths with all of this. And though he’s using neo-platonic language, he’s make subtle corrections and distinctions in a Christian manner (or so the commentaries say).

    In all of my pastoral years, the “mistaken” good has been a useful thought. Use the alcoholic for example. Alcohol is sought for its pleasure or its ability to lessen pain. Pleasure and less pain are, generally speaking, not evil in themselves. But as he seeks that distorted “good,” he, in fact, is moving in an “evil” direction. It can get extremely perverse in certain examples.

  13. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Simon,

    This comparison is not original with me (and I may have even read Father Stephen making it in the past), but what your questions call to mind is cancer. Every cell in the body has a purpose programmed into it by the DNA in its nucleus. The DNA of a cancer cell has, as Father Stephen describes of evil, a misdirection that causes it no longer to do that purposeful thing, but rather to work toward the body’s destruction–mostly by making excess copies of itself and growing out of control. Because the cancer cannot perform any of the necessary functions of the healthy body for itself and thus cannot live without its “host,” that path also leads to its own demise.

  14. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    Father,
    Love is God in motion. If the world could only grasp this concept we would be living in paradise. Great article.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    I hesitated to use the cancer example – Simon is a molecular biologist – and I wasn’t certain that I could use the example without saying something wrong. 🙂

    But cancer raises an interesting question with all of this: the phenomenon of “natural” evil. There is no “will” involved in a cell going cancerous, unless we think of things like smoking, etc. But with storms, earthquakes, floods, fire, plagues, etc., we have things that are “evil” in their effects in which “nobody is at fault.”

    That pushes us back to thinking about creation itself. St. Paul describes in (Romans 8) as “subject to futility.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase, one that I prefer over “fallen.” Death, decay, etc., are written into creation in profound ways. St. Paul, of course, also describes creation’s “liberty” that comes through its participation in our liberation – at the time of the Second Coming/General Resurrection. As such, creation itself is somehow part of our larger story of redemption.

    The mechanisms of all of this are hidden from us to the greater extent – leaving mostly speculation to describe it. I have always suspected that the narrative should include the “principalities and powers” the “stoicheia” of “elemental spirits” as some translate them. After all, when Christ calms the winds and the waves, they are said to “obey” Him – indicating a “will” of some sort on some level.

    All of that aside, the understanding of the fundamental goodness and beauty of all things remains. Even in cancer, the principle of growth is a “good,” but the cancer represents a “good” that has gone rogue. We would not destroy all growing just to halt cancer. The loss of that “good” would be devastating.

    For myself, it has been a fundamental spiritual principle to embrace that God is good, and the foundation of all goodness. Any deviation from that opens a door to a capricious despot that I’ve seen haunt too many believers. Following the Cappadocians, Dionysius, and Maximus, I hold firm to contemplating the goodness of God, including the stuff that I don’t understand.

  16. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I have so many thoughts on this that, if I got started, I’d meander all over the place with a comment that the length of which would tempt anyone to scroll it all 🙂

    “As for you, what you intended against me for evil, God intended for good, in order to accomplish a day like this—to preserve the lives of many people.”

    Though the mechanisms are often hidden from us, Joseph described what I try, as you do, “to embrace as a fundamental spiritual principle.”

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    I’ve been nurturing the work of “natural contemplation” (theoria physike) in my daily practice, following the advice of the Fathers. Much of that is simply considering the work of providence (which St. Dionysius equates to the Divine Energies) in all things. That God works good, even out of the “evil” things is one of them. It saved my mind during the pandemic, to say the least. Indeed, during that period, I drilled down on some historical reading – the 6th century (Justinian’s time) in which there was Plague, and a 3-year winter across Europe as a result of the explosion of Krakatoa, and then on the 14th century (the period of the 100-Year War) when there was the Black Death, and about as messed up Church and Government as has ever been. For one, it made our little pandemic seem minor, and it served as object lessons that God works in all things for good. In all of these things, I see a “cruciform” shape to history. The Cross was the worst thing that could ever happen (killing God), from which the best thing happened (our salvation).

  18. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen…it’s funny because I almost went on a rant about the cancer and the disruption of cell signaling and unregulated cell cycle. I deleted it because it seemed beside the point. But, you pretty much nailed it.

    I like what you said about para-hypostasis. Many times I think about the disruptions in my own personality and it strikes me as a chaos created by the ‘quorum of non-Simons.’ In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is a very powerful insight to think of the ways in which personality can become fragmented and the way fragments take on a quasi life-of-their-own as para-hypostatic. These things have no life except as hypostatic discontinuities.

    I like the idea of evil as para-hypostatic splinters. If I may speculate, the “drive” of our hypostasis is to be further hypostatized by theosis. That is the telos of our nature. Therefore, I wonder if the para-hypostatic splinters retain that drive–because they are never truly dissociated from the human hypostasis–and that tends to give those “things” a misdirected driving force. That certainly would be a model that fits comfortably with my experience…not that that means anything at all.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I think you’ve pretty much nailed it.

  20. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Something must be wrong because it makes too much sense.

  21. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    This rhymes very much with Jesus reference to the simple or singular eye. And then James’ reference to doubt as being of “two minds.” The reintegration of all the splinters and cracks is humanizing. And maybe that’s the first process in theosis.

  22. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Stoicheia tou kosmou–It’s hypostases all the way down.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, sounds like your next book. The prevailing heresy today in this regard is that the living (non-human) creation is perfect except we humans mess everything up and must be purged. It seems to me to be a form of dualism.
    It has also become the prevailing politics unfortunately as well (All parties)..

  24. James Avatar
    James

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Could you give advice or pointers on natural contemplation? Or recommend any reading?

    In my experience, many people have a much easier time seeing and loving the beauty and life of plants and animals, than they do with loving other people. (And it’s hard to blame them sometimes.)

    My wife and I keep chickens, and we recently had a sick one. We were trying to help her, clean her up etc. My wife was holding the bird while I worked on cleaning her up, and the bird died in her hands from the stress. I was heartbroken. My sorry attempts to help this sick animal only seemed to speed her along to her death.

    Along the lines of the discussion about cancer, I heard someone refer to cancer as “death by immortality” , as in the cells refuse to stop growing/living, or grow faster than they should (I’m no biologist). I recently saw the film Oppenheimer, and found myself weeping in the sold-out theater when they successfully detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert. They even called it “Trinity”. The reign of death in this world seems too much to bare sometimes. And we seem to be doing a fine job of speeding up the process, for ourselves and the whole of creation. We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.

  25. James Avatar
    James

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Could you give advice or pointers on natural contemplation? Or recommend any reading?

    In my experience, many people have a much easier time seeing and loving the beauty and life of plants and animals, than they do with loving other people. (And it’s hard to blame them sometimes.)

    My wife and I keep chickens, and we recently had a sick one. We were trying to help her, clean her up etc. My wife was holding the bird while I worked on cleaning her up, and the bird died in her hands from the stress. I was heartbroken. My sorry attempts to help this sick animal only seemed to speed her along to her death.

    Along the lines of the discussion about cancer, I heard someone refer to cancer as “death by immortality” , as in the cells refuse to stop growing/living, or grow faster than they should (I’m no biologist). I recently saw the film Oppenheimer, and found myself weeping in the sold-out theater when they successfully detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert. They even called it “Trinity”. The reign of death in this world seems too much to bare sometimes. And we seem to be doing a fine job of speeding up the process, for ourselves and the whole of creation. I remember the saying “we know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy. “

  26. James Avatar
    James

    sorry for the double post. not sure what happened there

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    James, may the Mercy of the Lord be with you. Despair is easy for me to fall into as you describe. The only way I can weather it is through my own repentance. Trying to submit myself to our Lord in the midst of my own sinfulness is difficult.
    Using the Jesus Prayer helps me a lot.
    “I desire to see my own sin and not to judge my brother.” Prayer of St. Ephraim.
    Mt 4:17 as well..
    Forgive me brother.

  28. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    It is also at the Last Supper that our Lord says to the apostles, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He says it at least twice, and its significance to me is, first, the repetition, and secondly that it is the third in the sequence beginning “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…” and having its middle in “… love thy neighbor as thy self”. Following on after those two upon which hang the Law itself, this final one takes a loving step forward into love as example set by Christ Himself, much as Father Stephen’s title above links to his blog name incorporating “all things” into “anything”. We may say that the life of Christ touched upon all things, while indeed it is only love that knows anything. So again, having seen it in His life, we can return (thirdly) to “Do the next good thing.”

    Thank you, Father Stephen- what fun it is to splash in the puddle! For the little girl it surely was ‘the next good thing’!

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your comments and a personal struggle I am going through, John 16:33 came to mind: “…In the world you shall have tribulation but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”.

    Good cheer is not manic joy but a balanced assurance of the victory by Grace and Mercy.
    Often I am tempted to think that God’s Grace is equivalent to the darkness of the world. It is not.

  30. Albert Avatar
    Albert

    I copied the phrase “caught up in a world of ideas and the arguments of culture and causes” for later reflection. It identifies pretty well a problem that I have only recently recognized in my life as an obstacle to communion in dealings with family and friends, not to mention the deeper all-consuming one which the essay here points to. I am so grateful for the opportunity to read your posts, Father Stephen. The comments too. Glory be!

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Albert, thank you for emphasizing the “caught up in the world of ideas and arguments of culture and causes”. A good reminder for me to give thanks to our Lord for His Mercy won for us on the Cross.

  32. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    The prevailing heresy today in this regard is that the living (non-human) creation is perfect except we humans mess everything up and must be purged. It seems to me to be a form of dualism. It has also become the prevailing politics unfortunately as well (All parties).

    My own thought, Michael, is that you have this backwards. We (Society) think humanity is just fine “as-is” while creation is subject to us. We just need to make constant adjustments in order to “fix” the unintended consequences of our efforts to use creation as we move toward an undefined “Utopia” of our own making…. It’s all about Progress….

  33. Michael Baulman Avatar
    Michael Baulman

    Bryon,
    We are both right and both wrong. Reminds me of a Mark Twain quote: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

    Living in thanksgiving for the mercy of our Lord is the only way out that I have ever seen. John 16:33 sums it up nicely: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” KJV

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Katie,
    Nice article – well done!

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