The knowledge of God, generally spoken of in a very experiential manner, is an absolute foundation in Orthodox theology. Nothing replaces it – no dogmatic formula – no Creed – not even Scripture – though Orthodoxy would see none of these things as separate from the knowledge of God. But the questions I have received are very apt. In a culture that is awash in “experience” what do we Orthodox mean when we speak of such things and what do we mean by such knowledge of God?
There are two Scriptural passages in particular that come to mind when I think of this subject. The first from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8); the second, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).
Obviously I equate “seeing” and “knowing,” as does the Tradition. In both of these verses the knowledge of God (“seeing God”) is tied to purity of heart. We do not see or know God because our hearts are darkened by sin and ignorance. Thus any knowledge of God that we have in this life begins as gift and remains as gift. However, it is a gift that is more fully received as our hearts are purified.
The importance of speaking of knowledge of God in this manner is to prevent two equally devastating errors. One would be to have a knowledge which is based only on the data of revelation, and only known as we know other data (like the multiplication table). As an Orthodox Christian I accept the teaching of the Church precisely because I am not pure of heart and I am not competent in and of myself to judge these things. I trust the saints and hierarchs of the ages, under the Holy Spirit, to have spoken truly of what they know and of what they have received.
The Orthodox “experience” if I can use such a phrase, is the confirmation in the heart of the truth we have received as we grow in grace and in purity of heart. But the truth of the faith must be confirmed in such a living manner or it simply becomes an historical item and the Church would be a collection of antiquarians and not the living temple of God. For my knowledge of God is also my life in God. Life, light, truth, knowledge – all of these have something of a synomymous character.
In accepting Christ as He has given Himself to us in His Church, we are also accepting knowledge of Him as it has been given to the Church. Private revelations (experiences) tend to be received with great skepticism either because of the spiritual dangers involved (delusion, etc.) or because of our own spiritual incompetency (sin).
None of this is an effort to disparage knowledge of God in a way that is “experiential,” that is, more than merely rational, but it is an effort that recognizes that such experience of God is itself part of our healing from darkness, death and sin. And just as that healing is a slow and steady progress (sometimes even a regression), so too our knowledge of God is slow (hopefully steady) as we grow in grace and purity of heart.
There is a passage in one of my favorite spiritual novels, A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, (written by the mother of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev). In it, a mother and her son make pilgrimage to a monastery in Georgia (the one south of Russia). The woman is bright, intelligent and a fairly recent convert to the faith (having been previously a non-believer). In a conversation with the Abbot, she asks some questions about a passage in Maximus the Confessor. The Abbot reacts with alarm, “You’ve been reading the Fathers?” She replies in the affirmative. He is concerned that she may have done herself damage. “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray,” was his admonition.
His concern is that she not come to a place of imbalance – where the knowledge that fills her mind outstrips the knowledge that fills her heart. Such knowledge, acquired without ascesis (prayer, fasting, repentance, etc.) is the knowledge of which St. Paul warns when he says, “Knowledge puffs up” (makes us proud). It is by no means a celebration of ignorance, but rather a deeper diagnosis of precisely the kind of ignorance that poisons our souls.
I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth. Again, knowledge that is not accompanied by ascesis is dangerous – no matter whether the knowledge is of an academic character or of a mystical character. We cannot know God and at the same time not be like Him to some degree. Such conformity to His image is itself a result of such knowledge. It is for this reason that the Scriptures tell us that “by their fruit you shall know them.” If someone claims knowledge of God, but his life is not in conformity with the commandments of Christ, then we know that what we are hearing is largely delusional in character.
What should we do?
First, we should pray, fast, repent of our sins, seek to forgive our enemies and do good to all around us. These are clear commandments of Scripture. With such efforts, as God gives us grace and changes our heart, we begin to know. The writings of the Fathers are generally the writings of saints. We will not understand them without ourselves seeking to become saints. All of this, of course, is slow and difficult – but we are talking about reality and our salvation not simply the acquisition of information.
It is, of course, proper, even necessary to study the faith, but this is something we should do with a primary concern for the salvation of our own souls and not the correction of others. The Scriptures tell us: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
Neither should we avoid religious “experience,” though this has gotten something of a bad name on account of numerous abuses within the Christian world of today. But like knowledge acquired by study, knowledge of God gained by experience should be accompanied with ascesis as well. Much of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching has offered false information on religious experience to an audience of Americans who wants everything. Too often we want the interior life of Mother Teresa and all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos. It just doesn’t work like that.
The story is told in the Lives of the Desert Fathers that one of the Fathers was in prayer when the devil sought to trick him. A demon appeared in the cell of the monk (who was in prayer) and said, “I am the angel Gabriel sent from God.” Without looking up the monk replied, “You must be in the wrong cell. I am not worthy for an angel to visit me.” The demon disappeared, defeated by the humility of the monk.
This is a description of the proper state of our heart. We desire to know God, but we want to know Him deeply enough, that we refuse to settle for anything less. Much of modern religious experience, as witnessed by its fruit, has little to do with the true God.
Study. Pray. Fast. Give alms. Forgive your enemies. Repent of your sins. Cry out to God for mercy. He is a “good God and loves mankind.” He will not leave us in the dark nor ignore the cry of our hearts. “This is eternal life,” Christ says, “To know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Thus we pursue knowledge – true knowledge in the way and in the manner given to us as though our life depended on it. It does.
“His concern is that she not come to a place of imbalance – where the knowledge that fills her mind outstrips the knowledge that fills her heart.”
Good message Father. May God help us find the proper balance. Thanks
I just finished reading “The Shack” by Wm Paul Young. I am concerned about the book’s ramifications among modern Christians, in developing a new theory of the knowledge of God apart from history, and apart from the experience of skilled spiritual fathers and mothers, (which probably only exists in our Orthodox experience.) The author seems to draw from both Christian and non-Christian influences and snippets of various philosophies, to direct people toward his imagining of the Trinitarian God. It is appealing, but feels somewhat shallow, and lacking the dimension of dealing with the Evil that does exist, seeking to deceive us, and the fallen nature that will continue to impede us from advancing in knowledge of God. Any thoughts? The book is trying to reach a generation, jaded with the distortions of modern Protestantism, so it does make some very good points, but I can see a new “Denomination of the Shack” coming out of it!
I only have second hand knowledge of the book. I find it little wonder that those who do not know the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith are drawn to many things that offer even a glimmer of the Truth but grieve that many do not know of the true banquet God has set for us.
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Kathy I can recommend this short review of The Shack by an Orthodox priest: http://lifeiswasted.blogspot.com/2008/11/shack-courtesy-of-frlawrence.html
“You should never read more hours in a day than you pray” is a remarkable teaching.
Coming out of a life in the pentecostal church (including attending and gaining pastoral credentials in a denomination), it took a decade to shed the teachings I had learned (and I am not anywhere free from them yet) and the past 4 years of regular meetings with my local priest, assigned reading, assigned prayer rules,and obedience to get a very basic understanding of the delusion that I was under. I have found that in my own spiritual life, reading The Arena and other good basic Orthodox books, that what I accepted once as the norm in modern day Christianity is nothing but an illusion, a deception that drives people away from God rather than to him. The importance of balance needs to be stressed. Too often we who have been on the outside when coming to the Orthodox Church, devour way too much, creating more problems than it helps, a good spiritual father/confessor and regular obedience to prayer and the life of the Church is the cure to such sickness. Thank you for a wonderful article.
I have read that too, about knowledge leading to pride. But, honestly, among well-educated people I know (in a variety of fields), it is only a little knowledge that leads to pride – once a scholar begins to understand her field, she becomes ever more aware of how much she does not, and will not ever, know. This is especially so for math and science – everyone I know who has studied or worked in these fields for enough years to develop an expertise, although she may not be a humble person in general, is very humble about her specialty, knowing that, although her skill in it may be greater than someone else’s (who assuredly knows more than her about some other topic), it is very small compared to the truth of the matter.
Wow, I really think I have read too much! Being a convert now for three years, already I think my mind has grew more then my heart, thanks Father for the insight
“You should never read more hours in a day than you pray” .
Now I know growing up why they pray and pray and pray. That is all I saw all the Orthodox doing; holding up their prayer books, standing in a corner, and the only time you see them reading or listening is during the Services in the church. Thank you Father again and again for all your wonderful reminders and showing us all in what the Faith is all about.
Father, thank you for this post. I am grateful for you.
father, thank you for this. i needed to read your message at this time! i have read ” the shack”. the point that it makes is , there are many paths to god. of course, it is fiction! mother teresa said “there are so many religions and each one has its different way of following god. i follow christ.” i would appreiciate your thoughts on this.
Thank you Father. This is very insightful. But, I am not sure I was able to find the two devastating errors this view of the knowledge of God tries to prevent. One, I see, is relying too much on the “data of revelation”, by which I understand you to mean the view of “sola scriptura”. I could not find the other devastating error unless you are referring to one not relying on Holy Tradition. As to the focus on the tradition of the Church rather than the data of revelation, while I am a recent convert and have only begun to learn this tradition, could it not also be a devastating error to rely too much on tradition?
Bless, Father. Thank you for the wonderful lesson. Can you please post the name of the Icon which accompanies this post?
Here’s a little tidbit from our Sunday bulletin…
“The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read. Not to learn it by heart, but to take it to heart. Not to practice using our tongues, but to be able to receive the tongues of fire and to live the mysteries of God. If one studies a great deal in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others, without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fill his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machines.”
Here is the rest of the Mother Teresa quote
There are so many religions and each one has its different ways of following God. I follow Christ:
Jesus is my God,
Jesus is my Spouse,
Jesus is my Life,
Jesus is my only Love,
Jesus is my All in All;
Jesus is my Everything.”
Brilliant post! As a Roman Catholic youth minister I have seen teens with the hyper-emotionalist “conversion” who claimed an experience of God but 2 weeks later, they are done with their newfound faith. I have also seen authentic conversions go awry with too much reading, as vain curiosity about God overcame their zeal for God. My prescription was to guide teens to read only books on spirituality written by the saints. Only after they had a stable, personal, deep prayer life could they be permitted by me to read anything on theology. And even then I drew them to books that deepened their contact with the Living Word and away from shallow spirituality of new age Christianity (like The Shack).
Your quote is much better advice than mine: “You should never read more hours in a day than you pray.” Much better than my advice.
The two devastating errors would be to rely too much on the “data of revelation” which means more than Sola Scriptura (it could also mean the data of a dogma – as in arguing about a dogma when it is not yet truly known by you, yourself) the other would be relying inordinately on “experience” and not submitting it to the larger experience of the Church.
The icon is a Seraphim (6 winged), but I do not remember its origin.
I always hesitate to disagree with someone whom I esteem as far greater than myself – such as Mother Theresa. I would never say “there are many paths to God.” There is only one path to God (the one He leads you on) and that path if it leads to the true and living God, ultimately leads you to Christ, for there is no revelation of God apart from Christ (He is the “image of the invisible God”). What that might look like in someone else’s life is not for me to judge. But I know no other God than He who has made Himself known to man in the God/Man, Christ Jesus.
This is the Orthodox faith. I would not be so bold as to say it in another way.
The icon is of a Seraphim, and is part of the iconography at New Gracanica Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Grayslake, Illinois, USA.
“Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
“You should never read more hours in a day than you pray.”
I’m a relatively young convert to Orthodoxy (I’m 20 now, I was chrismated when I was 17) so I know that “hyper-emotionalist” conversion that Mike Gormley up above is talking about. I did have a bit of “convert zeal” and did indeed read a lot of theology. Thankfully, I’m realizing more and more that it’s not all about what you know — it’s good but ultimately it’s all just a bunch of fluff. Prayer is communion with God, and what could be better for your soul than that?
Thank you, Father. Your words are always a blessing.
“I have known brilliant men and women, with degrees from very prestigious institutions, indeed with degrees in various forms of religious disciplines, whose knowledge of God was less than my average catechumen, but whose very “knowledge” reduced the possibility of discovering their ignorance and coming to a knowledge of the truth.”
And I know a man who has his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics — and is the most humble person I have ever met. When he speaks about God or his faith, you can tell it comes from a profound, very real, and very personal experience of God, and he shines with a light that attracts all who meet him. His degree is not worth “nothing” to him — he worked hard to earn it — but there’s no question in anyone’s mind as to what, or Who, is more important to him. I’m blessed to call that man my priest!
Of course. That is a great blessing.
Thank you for this post, Father.
As an intellectual and theological bulimic, I tend to gorge on every theological or church-related piece of writing I can come across (particularly on the internet) until my head feels like regurgitating it all, and in the end I have not acquired anything good or come any closer to God (quite the opposite). This habit is going to take a great effort for me to unlearn. Praise God for writers like you who encourage me to stop reading and start praying!
By the way, I thought you might like to know (since you have, unknowingly, been instrumental in the process) that after over a year as serious investigators of Orthodoxy and a little over 4 months as catechumens, my wife and I were baptised and chrismated last Saturday at Annunciation Orthodox Cathedral in Ottawa. Our first communion was given to us by the newly-consecrated Bishop Irénée of Quebec City. My heartfelt gratitude to you, Father Stephen, for all of your writings that helped us along the way (no irony intended in regards to this post), and I give glory to God for all things!
I can think of nothing that gives me greater joy today than to read of your reception into the Holy Orthodox faith – and to receive communion from His Grace, Bishop Irenee! May God grant you and your wife many years!
David, many years from a fellow such “bulimic” (by God’s grace through my entry into the Church, now also working on recovery)!
Father, bless! I love the beautiful balance and fullness of Orthodoxy, which you have again very helpfully articulated here. Now, back to my chores and my prayer corner. . .
Thank you, Fr. Stephen!
I like what you wrote about never reading more hours in a day than you pray.. But how do you get rid of the junk that you have read.. My grandmother took my mom to seances when she was little. Then when mom had me, when I was older she took me to readers and such.. So that is the stuff I read when I was a teenager. I do not read it now, But that is the stuff I was brought up on.. I try to pray, and try to pray.
Fr. Stephen: I am always amazed at your posts and today is no exception. I appreciate your Orthodox spirituality and insight. As a lay Catholic, I study and teach others about our faith and why it is important to both know God and have a personal relationship with our Triune God. I also stress the benefit and necessity of living out one’s faith through loving service to others. It is in living out our faith in the larger experience of the Christian community that we grow and help others grow. As to forgiveness, my own faith journey took a new and wondrous path after I forgave the young woman who caused by teenage son’s death 5 years ago. It was only through the power of the Holy Spirit that I was able to forgive; it was not my own doing.
Kathy Lu, I would disagree with your comment that we only find spiritual fathers and mothers in the Orthodox experience. As a former Protestant who came to the Catholic Church 27 years ago, I have personally met and experienced through the written word many spiritual fathers and mothers in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. I respect all three Christian traditions, though I learn more from ancient fathers and mothers of the Eastern and Western traditions than I do from most modern Christians. I would agree with your assessment of The Shack as it pertains to true Christian Theology of God, but I also know that it has helped some devout Christians who experienced the unexpected death of a child recover from their anger and shock without damaging their faith and trust in our mercifully, loving, just and compassionate God.
Peace and All Good to All
“You should never read more hours in a day than you pray.”
Together with those who find this word is very good and true, Thanks Father! 🙂
I am praying for you, asking God to help you and He is more than able to do so.
May the true and living God lead you to a holy priest who knows how to help you renounce the occult influences to which your family exposed you and guide you to wise godly counsel and to complete spiritual peace and teach you how to walk in lasting freedom through Jesus Christ our Lord.
…that is, guide you through wise and godly counsel to complete peace and freedom…
“You should never read more hours in a day than you pray.”
I believe I heard that pray in this reference refers to more than our prayers in our prayer closet. It refers to attending the services at church–the liturgies, the hours, the akathists, the vigils. There we are instructed in the prayers of the fathers and the saints. I remember Father saying that we need the time in prayer that each of these services provides.
A very good reminder. I’m certain that the majority of my prayer time is time in one service or another – even if I am praying the service alone. It is the activity of prayer – and our attentive presence in the services is a most excellent form of prayer.
Seeking to replace the ole John Mc – Cain who ran
us into this ditch a couple of years ago. Holidays are when many of the presents are purchased and shared.