Ignorant Man – Part 3

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Twice before I have written on the topic, “I Am an Ignorant Man.” In both cases I posted the article for good reason. Today I post because occasionally I need to confess this before others, lest I be taken for some kind of an authority beyond what I actually am. Yesterday I posted a short article on reading the Fathers – though I am far less an expert at the subject than many who write well on them. In one case I fear I may have given offense. My whole blog isn’t worth giving offense. In light of my error, I remind myself and others, I am an ignorant man and offer a partial reprint as a reminder.

Within the first article on this topic I included a quote from Father Sophrony on the nature of true spiritual knowledge. I wrote:

What do any of us actually know of God? I believe we only know of God what has been revealed to us in Christ. And just reading the revelation is a world away from actually knowing and “having” the revelation. That comes very slowly indeed.

The Elder Sophrony wrote that such revelations come in something like a “flash of lightning, when the heart is burning with love.” These relatively rare experiences accumulate over a lifetime:

The accumulation in the experience of the Church of such ‘moments’ of enlightenment has led organically to their reduction into one whole. This is how the first attempt at the systemization of a live theology came about, the work of St. John of Damascus, a man rich, too, in personal experience. The disruption of this wondrous ascent to God in the unfathomable wealth of higher intellection is brought about, where there is a decline of personal experience, by a tendency to submit the gifts of Revelation to the critical faculty of our reason – by a leaning towards ‘philosophy of religion.’ The consequences are scholastic accounts of theology in which, again, there is more philosophy than Spirit of life. (From his work On Prayer).

Today I would like to add to this a quote from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:

As we have said, the Orthodox faithful awaits and desires to become the reflection of the glory of God and through the grace of the Holy Spirit he becomes an image of our Lord Jesus Christ. He desires, in other words, to immediately know one person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and through him the remaining two, the unapproachable person of the Father, and through the Son alone, the person of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Christian strives towards purity of Heart for the visitation of grace, and having been fulfilled, is able to behold the sought-after glory of God. Being thus transformed, from glory to glory, the Orthodox Christian approaches God. On the spiritual journey a dogmatic description of the manifestation of the Lord and his Body, the Church, is not required because our experienced guide at every moment protects us from deception, and allows us to accept the Glory of the Lord in any appearance it takes. Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma. However, a mere theoretical discussion on the meaning of life and dogma is unnecessary.

This quote comes from a speech by the Ecumenical Patriarch to a Catholic audience at Georgetown University several years back. The full text can be found here.

What is of interest to me is the common thread that runs between Fr. Sophrony and these comments by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Both understand that dogma, though officially stated by the Church in its formularies, are in fact a reality to be experienced and known on a level that transcends all discussion. It is this reality that makes the Orthodox seem as completely intransigent in their discussions with others (although there are lesser and sinful forms of intransigence). But at the core and heart of Orthodox claims is the reality of the experience of Christ and the knowledge of God found in Him. This knowledge is frequently unable to be expressed, even though it can be known.

The first task we have as Christians is to bear witness in word, and primarily in deed, of the reality that has been birthed in us through Baptism and the anointing with the All-Holy Chrism.

And thus it is that I confess myself an ignorant man. I do so partly to protect myself from any temptations to think more highly of myself than I ought. But I do so as well because I have promised to safeguard that which was vouchsafed to me at my Chrismation and at my Ordination.

On the most fundamental level of my heart, it is a hesitancy to embrace anything that would separate me from the reality of the experience of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. It is as the Patriarch stated:

Therefore, experiencing the Dogma of the Church is not something that is taught through intellectual teachings, but it is learned through the example of Him who, through incarnation, joined Himself to us. To this point, dogma is life and life is the expression of dogma.

From this point of view, anyone who knows me would agree that I am an ignorant man. In what measure is my life the expression of Orthodox dogma? Certainly only in fractional ways. But to write in such a way as to give offense to another is the height of ignorance (for me). I ask forgiveness for any I have offended and ask for your prayers and patience with a fellow struggler. I pray that my writings will be of nelp.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I’m fascinated at the ways the topics on this blog emerge, one from the other. Your discussion of the writings of the Fathers and recommendations will lead your blog readers in fruitful directions, and for us converts in Western culture, they are always welcome. We come from a cataphatic environment, and whether we like it or not, we are products of the Enlightenment, and it is good to read, study and discuss the wealth of writings given to us by the Church Fathers. I think the thirst of western converts for them is an indication of our need, our thirst in modern culture to reach early Christian roots and to try to follow Christ.

    But we are all ignorant men and women, and we stagger and wobble through our daily lives, battered at times by the obstacles that we face each and every moment. So we look (sometimes desperately) for the apophatic path, knowing that prayer, silence and humility are the real paths to holiness. Reading a thousand books will never be a substitute for a life of prayer, (and I’m not even mentioning concern for other human beings, essential to our salvation).

    I believe this blog is valuable for all, and perhaps especially for you as a spiritual father to many others. We need to evaluate our thoughts and actions daily (as you do on this blog), and as we veer, first toward the cataphatic, bookish side, we have to remember the apophatic silence that we all need in this confusing world. Thank you, once again.

  2. Thanks for reminding us to be humble — for if you are an ignorant man, then I shudder to think what that makes me! But of course, I should shudder for it is meet and right to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. In any event, I do hope you continue your excellent blog. I assure you that it helps us run the race. So, thank you again for your cyber-space ministry!!

  3. Father, bless.

    No offense taken, certainly, and in addition to being grateful for your advice on reading the Fathers, I am also grateful for your honesty here.

    In a time when theology seems to have become relegated to a science of the elite, your post is a good reminder that “the theologian is one who truly prays”. As a teacher and student of Sacred Scripture, I feel rather immersed in the hyper-intellectualism that pervades the academy. Posts like this remind me of what I am really called to do, and why. Thank you.

    Your son,
    W.H.

  4. “…for if you are an ignorant man, then I shudder to think what that makes me!”

    That was exactly my thought when I read this today!

    -C

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