Father Sophrony on “Dogmatic Consciousness”

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I introduced the phrase “dogmatic consciousness” yesterday – a phrase coined by Fr. Sophrony Sakharov to describe the acquisition of grace in a manner that is truly engrafted within our lives and mind. Today some more thoughts:

The Dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it not only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light, but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about eh light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God. And were there strength left in her, she would aspire to greater fulness of Divine life, and when the action of God is beyond her strength, she swoons in blessed silence…..

The foundations of sure dogmatic cognizance are laid when man first experiences grace; and if this aspect of the spiritual life – one and undivided – is not immediately apparent, it is not because God’s gift is flawed but because a lengthy interior process is required for its assimilation.

These are such important and foundational understandings of the Orthodox mind. It is one of the reasons that conversations between East and West on the nature of grace (uncreated versus created) are often without much success. Orthodox dogma has had its foundations primarily in the experience of the saints and not in the formulations of scholastics. Conversion is not about learning a catechism, but about acquiring the Holy Spirit – knowing God.

Not that other Christian groups know nothing of this. But Orthodoxy’s steadfast refusal to offer an alternate way of explaining itself maintains a faithful witness to the Living Truth. If you want to know the Truth you must pray, fast, repent, give, confess, be patient, and do all of it (and more) with an expectancy for God. He has promised to lead us into all Truth and He is faithful to give that which He promises.

Comments

  1. Mary Bethany says

    This is so true. Since coming to the Church, spiritual life is an ocean of the presence of God, and I only know how to stand toe deep. Having studied much from adolescence through young and middle adult years, it astonishes me how little I have experienced, how much is rational understanding, divorced from “praying, fasting, giving, . . .” In patience posess your souls. I seek to learn that, no, I seek to live that.

  2. says

    Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

    This is very beautifully said. Words like this give me much joy. When sun rises, lamps in the street turn off – In moments when heart feels God’s love, intellectual mind becomes silent and dividing thoughts cease to exist.

  3. Juliana says

    “Orthodox dogma has had its foundations primarily in the experience of the saints and not in the formulations of scholastics.”

    One of the issues I had before becoming Orthodox was the focus on what I perceived to be the emphasis on experience instead of intellectual/rational knowledge. As a good Calvinist, the focus was definitely on being able to know God from an intellectual standpoint because you could not trust experience (which was equated with being emotional, not rational). And, of course, there are people all over the world who follow all forms of religion who claim to experience God. I could point to non-Christian acquaintances who’d experienced God is some rapturous way. So, the only way to know the true God (I thought) was to be able to understand Him intellectually. I was a huge Francis Schaeffer fan (the father, not the son). Of course, this begs the question, what about those without the ability to come to an understanding of God through a series of logical deductions (children, the mentally handicapped).

    When I originally became interested in Orthodoxy I was put off by what I thought to be an overemphasis on mystery and experience. But I came to see a difference in the fact that it was the Church as a whole that had the experiences of the saints to testify to truth, not individuals here or there who claimed to know God through various experiences.

    Juliana

  4. Fatherstephen says

    Juliana,

    My experience in schools and graduate schools made me, finally, highly sceptical of anything the scholars said. They disagreed even more than those who had experience. It is the consistent fruit in the life of the Church of saints who know God, and in reading them, realizing that, yes, this is the God that I, too, know, however, poorly, that was such a help.

    Reason, unlike the enlightenment promise, is no guarantee of objectivity and agreement. It is quite the obvious. People use it to cover up their lack of experience or any number of deficiencies. It has its place, as Fr. Sophrony noted. But can never substitute for the slow coming to knowledge of God in the truest sense.

  5. says

    This is the first I’ve read of Fr. Sophrony. What a treasure. Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    This phrase “dogmatic consciousness” is the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe the trans-rational element of doing Orthodox theology. It isn’t a denial of rationalism at all, but a confession of its limits.

    But the real sermon here is allowing what I say I know with my head to finally enter my behavior. That hit a little too close to home.

    “If a righteous man strike me, it is a kindness.”

  6. says

    So many times I fall into the trap of trying to understand my faith only on the intellectual level. Thank you for helping me to better understand this facet of Orthodoxy.

  7. Alan says

    Father Stephen,

    I’ve heard meditation described as the mind, filled with truth, slowly sinking into the heart.

    Is that what are speaking about?

    Are you speaking of Spirit changing our spirit non-rationally, supra-rationally?

    Please help me understand — rather — help me experience what you are speaking of.

    Peace,

    Alan

  8. says

    I cannot answer your question, Alan, I can only say to you that when I was baptized, convicted to do so by the Holy Spirit. I made the metanoia, I repented, grace came into my life and I changed and am changing. Becoming Orthodox and seeking God daily, daily, living in the Church, feasts, fasts, prayer, makes you new. It made me new. How this is accomplished I cannot explain, it is a mystery of the sacramental life of the Church and Jesus Christ Who is Life, the Source.
    I realized finally the futility of this life and attempting to be my own god, and sought out the Living God. Grace will then flow because things become more clear.
    That is how I experience what they are talking about. Prayer,fasting, almsgiving, loving my neighbor… Dogmatic consciousness, whatever you call it, I am not smart enough to say… I just want Jesus in my life.
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  9. says

    Bless Father.
    I wrote an ecclesiology paper for Fr. David Hester on Afanaseiv’s “Canons and Canonical Consciousness.” The gist of my remarks were that mere awareness (i.e., consciousness) of right and wrong does not encourage one to behave rightly rather than wrongly. Awareness of the rules, awareness of the law, awareness of what is good or bad is simply not enough.
    A canonical conscience is what is required.
    Otherwise we have merely evolved, i.e., molted. We have shed what is kosher for what is canonical. The letter of kosher law or canonical law is not what motivates our movement in Faith toward God. It is the spirit which must reflect the relationship which, by faith, must exist between the Rule Giver and the Rule Obeyer. And the relationship is never static; the relationship is always growing. I’ve learned since that the two terms (consciousness and conscience) are nearly synonymous in Russian and so I love how St. Sophroni helps me understand this even more: it is truly a divine gift to our souls.
    And so all of this was conjured up when I read “Conversion is not about learning a catechism, but about acquiring the Holy Spirit – knowing God.” I continually pray that my conscience/consciousness is quickened and enlarged more and more.

  10. says

    Alan,

    May God hear your prayer. Generally, we pray, we fast, we confess our sins, we live the life of the Orthodox faith in the bosom of the Church, bringing as much of ourselves to each of our actions as possible. With time (and patience and perserverance) Grace makes these inward changes and we become like Christ to an ever greater degree. It’s not hard and yet it is the hardest of all things. It is free and yet it costs everything.

    Stay tuned.

  11. Alice C. Linsley says

    Lovely. I’ve always been attracted to the orderly scholastic dogmatics of the Roman Church. But a part of me perceives, knows and loves apart from my intellect. Roman Catholicism doesn’t value the experience of the mystics in the way that Orthodoxy does, and yet those figures speak encouragement to my heart. I’ve expressed this poorly, but it is difficult to explain.

  12. says

    Though there is such a thing as Orthodox scholasticism, Orthodoxy does not give it the place it traditionally has held in Catholicism. It’s the actual experience of the Divine Light, and the “Dogmatic Consciousness” attained in a lifetime that holds dominance.

    Thus, I reiterate, as not long before, I am an ignorant man.