The One You Don’t See

angry-godMy recent post on the One God has shown me that there is much more to say on the subject. “We believe in One God…” but do we?

In a recent conversation, someone said to me that they had difficulty believing in “one supreme being who created everything…etc.” Christians don’t actually believe in one supreme being. If this startles you, then read further.

Christians do not believe in “one supreme being,” first because we do not believe in one of anything (or one of something). There is not a class called “supreme beings” to which the God who created everything belongs. There is no class of anything to which He belongs. The God of the Christians is in no way similar to the “gods” of the ancients. Indeed, Zeus, Hera, et al., are actually creatures – they each had a beginning – and the stories of their beginnings are important. They were considered powerful by those who worshiped them, but they were part of the creation itself, in some manner “similar” to all other created things.

The God of the Christians is uncreated. There is nothing to which He belongs.

The word “One,” when used in connection with the God of the Christians, has no mathematical meaning. He is not one in the sense that there could be two or more. He is not one such that He could be counted, multiplied, divided or subtractedHe is One in that He encompasses all that is, but is not defined by anything. He isOone, in that He cannot be divided (and thus be two). He is One, in that to know the One is to know the Whole (though we cannot truly know the One).

One can neither discuss nor understand the One, the Superunknowable, the Transcendent, Goodness itself, that is, the Triadic Unity possessing the same divinity and the same goodness.

If you like paragraphs that say such things, then you would greatly enjoy reading St. Dionysius (Pseudo) the Areopagite, its author. Indeed, this is a fairly normal statement when reading in the Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries (as well as in many others). Though, for modern Christians, “One God,” means something they think that they understand. “I can understand ‘One God.’ It’s the Trinity that gives me trouble.” Not so.

But if we move away from the question of the One God and begin to think about the One Church, again, everyone immediately assumes a meaning that seems obvious: mathematics. But the Church is One, even as God is One:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one… (Jn. 17:20-22).

Birthed into the Church by Baptism, we enter into a new kind of existence. St. Paul hammers at this new existence on the theme of the “one.”

But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.  For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free– and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. (1Co 12:11-13) – emphasis added.


 …that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ (1Co 12:25-27).

These verses have become commonplace in Christian thought – but, just so, we have ceased hearing them and considering how strange they are. What kind of existence is it that I now have, that someone else’s suffering is also my suffering? Christian lives coinhere. We are not a collection or an assemblage. We are not a group of like-minded people, or those who share a common cause. We are not a fellowship. Whatever it is that we are (St. Paul here uses the word “body”), we are one. But we are one in such a manner that we remain differentiated. What kind of one can possibly be many as well as one?

St. Paul speaks of a great mystery, and uses a fitting example. But the fitness of the example has become trivialized in the thoughts of many.

The understanding of the Church as “one,” is also found in the meaning of the world “catholic” (καθολικός). Many today treat the word as though it meant “universal.” Thus the “catholic” Church is the “universal” Church, the Church that is everywhere. It’s meaning is much deeper and rooted in the mystery of the One. To exist καθολικός, is to exist “according to the whole,” that is, everywhere the Church is, the whole Church is there. There is no “local part” of the Church. The Church only exists as One. It is καθολικός. Because the Church is Catholic, it is everywhere the same Church, because it cannot and does not exist as two. It is καθολικός.

As I noted in my earlier article, this creates difficulty for conversations among Christians in the face of the massive schisms that have become the world of modern Protestantism. The conversation is no longer  about the schism between East and West, or between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian. That conversation was (and remains) between Christians who understand that the Church is καθολικός.

For many, the current plague of schism has become a manifestation of modern diversity. “Different people like different things! Why not different Churches? After all, we’re all really one!”

If we are in Christ, then indeed, we are one. But the mystery of that Divine reality has nothing to do with contemporary denominationalism. If we are in Christ, then if one suffers we all suffer. I suggest (and assert), that we are indeed one, and some, known only to God, are living out the mysterious suffering on behalf of all that preserves us as one beyond our ability to perceive.

Just as we should stand before the mystery of the One God in awe, so we should stand before the mystery of the Church. The Church is the “pillar and ground of truth,” the “fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

I must be careful in asserting that “we are one,” not to be heard saying that there is no trouble. Schisms are real. St. Paul warned of them. A marriage is still a marriage even if a couple lives apart. That they fail to live out the fullness of their lives is tragic but it does not thereby establish a new reality. They are one. Adultery complicates that unity, uniting those who have no right to be present in the marriage. They need to be expelled. There are many schisms and adulteries that mark the lives of Christians in the present day. Beliefs and practices that are, or should be alien to the household of faith, dominate great numbers of the faithful. And I’m not excluding Orthodox Christians from that description.

But the One Church to which we are all called is and always has been a great mystery. Its location may not always be obscure – but even after finding such a place, it is all too easy to discard the mystery and live a fragmented life. The person who feels secure in the correctness of their allegiance stands in great danger of discarding the mystery. Their safety can easily become simply a choice among choices; the Church, a Church among Churches. To find the One Church in the One God is a different thing entirely. I have increasing doubt that the soul can be healed in such a way as to see the One God apart from the One Church. But that is only my increasing doubt.

I always find it difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox, that I accept the Orthodox Church as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church because there is no other way to accept and be united with the One Church. Life in the One Church is a mode of existence, and a necessary existence for the knowledge of the One God. To renounce this, or to hold it at some distance, is to renounce the unity that is Christ’s prayer and to embrace the scattered mind of modern man. The healing of my scattered mind is intimately part of my salvation.

What I can say – and what I mean to say in this article – is that our salvation is worked out through union with the One God. The fragmentation and scattered mind of modernity is contrary to the life of salvation. The Church as a multitude of choices, styles and theologies, is not the Church as salvation, as delivered to us in the Scriptures. To stand before the fragmented universe is to confess that a major portion of the journey has yet to be taken. In our many Christian permutations, the One God has become only one god. And he lives in competition with the many gods. Such a god is fittingly worshiped in the many and varied temples of the competing world.

Before the One, True God everything rightly comes to a standstill. There the mind must cease its fragmentation and frenetic scattering and be quiet. Then the journey begins.

Next article – the One God and the Communion of Saints




  1. Schisms are wounds in the body of Christ that need to be healed. Prayer heals these things. As an example of what can come of that I once wanted to pray for the renewal of monasticism. So, I found a St Benedict church in Indiana and called them requesting a mass for Thomas Cromwell. Most people have no idea who he is so I didn’t have to risk being thought crazy. The first available one was May 4. It turns out that that is the feast day for the Carthusian martyrs who he personally had executed. I think this had a healing effect on the schism of the 16th century in England. What that effect is I have no idea.

  2. “If you like paragraphs that say such things, then you would greatly enjoy reading St. Dionysius (Pseudo) the Areopagite, its author.”

    Or Plotinus, via Ammonius Saccas.

    Do you see any connection between the Neoplatonists and the orthodox, catholic understanding of the uncreated God?

  3. This fabulous article reminded me of one of the few expressions, that are not apophatic, yet describe God’s encompassing of all that is, but not being defined by anything, – by Elder Aimilianos, and quite close to those descriptions used by Saint Basil the Great in his Divine Liturgy –

    When man meets Him, he clearly apprehends the unapprehensible truth that “His existence is such, that all that exists is as non-existent in comparison”.

    The immense marvel however, is that man has the potential to become so infinitely cosmic (in Christ through the Holy Spirit) that he too can encompass all that exists in his heart…

  4. PJ,
    I see connections everywhere, but I also spot the telling differences too – no?

  5. Fr. Stephen, could it be said then, that our Faith is not monotheistic? It seems to me that monotheism refers to God with a numerical category. And it seems to me that you are also saying that the Oneness of God is an apophatic statement at its core.

  6. no matter how much research how much looking at the Fathers and the Church dogma, will really answer. I read somewhere it is by grace alone, and to my way of thinking Faith is the hope of grace. So nitpick, outline, cast this demon out. the Muslims are just as sure they are right, the Jews still hold the Tora as the one and only truth, like I said the great joke when the new guy in heaven asks St Peter about the fence, he says “thats where we keep the Catholics they think they are the only ones up here”/ me. I survied four tours in Vietnam and seven years in Prison, so God in His love has given me twenty eight sober and safe years to come to know love and serve Him. More is just school work or mental workout that is fun but in my opinion counter productive. First Think of God Live it/ the last line on the slogan wall in most AA halls. bottom lines are cool

  7. Leonard,
    I do not know that schisms are wounds in the body of Christ. That’s more than I could say theologically. But prayer is always good.

  8. PJ,
    Probably the best contemporary read on the Fathers and the neo-Platonists is Fr. Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. The Fathers absolutely new their Plato and their Plotinus – and probably a lot of writers and thinkers about whom we know nothing. Influence? Well, read in the 4th century, then read Plotinus and the commonality is quite striking. But there are significant differences – very significant. What can be said is that the language of Platonism, as found in the Neo-Platonics as well, was the common language of philosophy and pretty much all serious thought in those centuries. It is therefore the language of the bulk of Patristic theology. But Christian thought is not derivative. The vocabulary is much the same.

    Of course the truly radical Christian thought is that the One became flesh and dwelt among us. Though that’s not the way that it would have been said. Probably just repeat St. John.

  9. Well, it’s also worth pointing out that the Neoplatonists didn’t come into their own until well into the Christian era. It’s still not clear where Ammonius Saccas’ loyalties lay, though it now appears unlikely that he was a Christian, or even a crypto-Christian. Nonetheless, radical Protestants, as well as skeptics of all stripes, are too quick to read the similarities as importations by Christian theologians. There was no doubt cross-pollination. And, indeed, there’s reason to believe that Neoplatonism was, in part, a reaction to the growing success of Christian theology — especially Logos theology — among the educated classes.

  10. Dino,

    Oh, yes. Many differences. The Incarnation being perhaps the greatest, as Father points out. And the general Christian fondness for the material world. Although there was a certain strain of pseudo-sacramental Neoplatonism. Theurgy. Iamblychus was a prominent theurgist, though for this he earned the approbation of Porphyry. Some radical Protestants errantly see in theurgy the origin of the sacraments, but that’s precisely because they’ve always misunderstood the sacraments as magic.

    And it seems the Neoplatonists also noticed plenty of differences between themselves and the Christians. St. Augustine has an extended treatment (that’s putting it nicely) of the Neoplatonists, especially, IIRC, Porphyry, in The City of God. This is somewhat ironic, given the charge often lodged against Augustine: that he was a barely reformed Platonist. That may have been true early on, but once he began to seriously study the Scripture — no.

  11. Father I see your point. I suppose to say a schism is a wound to the body of Christ would imply both parties were members of the body and not every ecclesiology goes that far.

  12. In my experience there comes a point where apophaticism (that which cannot be spoken) becomes necessary because all of the usual tricks stop working. I grew up among Evangelicals, lived in a charismatic commune, studied and served among the Anglicans and looked at “renewal,” “academics,” etc. The delusions of modernity and its shadows (the Evangelicals are only a shadow, or modernity is the shadow – one way or the other), simply don’t pan out. The false demands of inerrancy or the various rational schemes for believing collapse in the face of serious scrutiny – certainly scrutiny on a rigorous existential level.

    It is recognizing this that gives me patience and sympathy for TLO, for others who struggle with faith, and with those who have cast aside the struggle. There are some who came to Orthodoxy to find a greater citadel – a protection against modernity and a shield of faith. But like Byzantium itself, the answer is never found in greater walls or more clever defensive strategies. The answer is only found in union with the true and living God.

    This is the ground of reality and it is not only possible – it is the way of life. But the Fathers pointed us towards the bounds of what we know, and then pushed us beyond those bounds because the true and living God dwells there. We can know Him in the communion of His One life – but we also have to allow that One Life to be enough. We cannot want arguments about the One Life or discussions of the One Life to take its place. Only God Himself.

    I give thanks to God for the living witnesses in the world today of the life of the true God. Dino’s stories and quotes of the Elder Aimilianos (and others) are such a joy and a delight to me. Their very character has something “apophatic” about it.

    There are so many times that I wish there were words for what remains wordless. It pushes me towards the poetic – if only because poetry tends to be able to say more than the words it uses.

    Glory to God. I am so deeply grateful for the opportunity I have to share and to “think out loud” and to listen to this community – and the many voices that share in what must ultimately be a song.

    Glory to God! I will remember all of you in the Liturgy tomorrow morning. It is the Midfeast of Pentecost. The waters of the Jordan will flow through my parish!

  13. Father,

    I for one am grateful for your “thinking out loud” via this media outlet! It has greatly expanded & guided my thoughts quite frequently. And I finally got to listen to all of your AFR talk on the Crisis of Beauty. Splendid!

  14. Two sides of the same numbering problem: seeing Jesus, but not the One or seeing the one, but unable to see the person of Jesus Christ.

    Understanding the divine as a transcendent, impersonal energy vs Anthropomorphising God in Jesus in a manner that denies his divinity.


    We always want to turn God’s definitive statement about himself: “I Am”. Into a question: I am what?

  15. Father,
    I unfortunately missed the beautiful Matins and the Liturgy of the Midfeast of Pentecost today and after reading the beautiful Cannon by St Andrew of Crete and Teophanes, I thought: “someone, somewhere must be remembering us during this Liturgy”… (Of course there are always persons that do – for all of us), I just got an extra special and remarkably well-timed and touching surprise when reading your above comment!
    I am very grateful!

  16. I am beginning to suspect (forgive my hard heartedness) that the only way to express or experience the One is praying for each other. The few times in my life when I have actually prayed, I have also experienced the ineffable inter-connection with God, the person for whom I am praying and so much more.

    Archmandrite Zacharias described the training of a monk as a process of learning how to pray: first for himself, then gradually expanding his prayers to include others in the same manner. The goal is praying for the whole world as one prays for oneself.

    Of course praying for others does not mean praying “at” them as if we are God and know just how they need to be “fixed” any more than praying for ourselves means that.

    My parents had a profound understanding about the inter-connectedness of all things and were constantly frustrated by their inability to communicate it. My mother was a dancer so her lack of words was not the barrier that it was to my doctor father. But that is still ‘things’ when all is said and done.

    In my journey to and in the Church, that sense of personal connection to the whole and beyond is what I seek. Human beings have a unique capacity to connect, unify and express the wholeness not only of things, but of our Creator. We are sacramental beings continually offering up to our Creator “thine own of thine own…” and giving thanks at the same time.

    The form of the Liturgy, among many other things, is one of a call and a response. It is a temptation to me at times to see that only as the call of the deacon/priest and the response of the congregation, but it is our call to God, Lord have mercy, and of offering the “sacrifice of praise” and God responding to each person as unique in His I am.

    The schisms that occur and the heresy’s that destroy communion begin, I think, with a failure to pray for one another, to offer one another up to God in thanksgiving. All too often people slip out the side door before we notice, even if they are still there.

    I am always struck by the story of the paralytic whom his friends brought to Jesus and would not be deterred, tearing off the roof of the place to get their friend before Jesus. Jesus forgave the man’s sins because of their faith, not the man’s faith.

    I am once again reminded of what I must do and so often fail to do: make time in my life simply to pray for others without judgment, especially those who bug me. The problem I have always run into is my list gets longer and longer and longer. As a lay person, I have to cut it off somewhere and attend to other things. (OK, that usually means my own ‘needs’). My inability to pray for all of those who have come to my attention leads me to not pray for anyone. Even just reading the names begins to take up a good chuck of time.

    Any ideas on how to do that appropriately?

  17. Michael,

    Do not be troubled. Your heavenly Father knows who and what you want to pray for (Matthew 6:8). You don’t need to worry about “missing” someone, or “leaving them out,” so to speak. The Spirit groans inside you ceaselessly (Romans 8:26); the Son constantly intercedes for you, bringing your heart before the Father. None of us pray as we should. But we needn’t feel anxiety about this, for we two advocates before the Father: the Son and the Spirit — as well as our guardian angel and our patron saints. We are not on our own.

  18. Michael,
    I very much agree with your instinct. We know the One, not by straining so much to see or know what we don’t see or know, but to, in fact, be one – the life of communion – which is the heart of the life of prayer. My upcoming article will be focusing on this.

  19. Michael,
    I have struggled with that issue too. As PJ aludes, God knows and we can trust Him in the matter so that our ‘standing before Him overshadows any choice of words.
    The advise I was given long ago (due to my “attachment” rather than my’ Holy Spirit fuelled love’ to those I prayed for) was to remember (ie ‘say’ the whole long list of names for the living and for the dead) once a day. The rest of the times one can say “your aforementioned servants” or something similar.

    Elder Porphyrios famously used to not allow his spiritual children to say (what Elder Sophrony actually favoured) “have mercy on us” or “on them” or “on us and your world” (all used a great deal in the Essex monastery); he wanted his children to say “have mercy on me” in full knowledge that ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘us’, ‘them’ is all the same in the Holy Spirit of oneness…
    He did not like the dissipation. (a real problem that inexperienced persons are often not even aware of as a hindrance)
    He sometimes also advised you pray with the prayer-rope for others, having perhaps mentioned their names once, but carrying on with “me”(!) -for them!
    Elder Aimilianos favoured this too, especially considering the danger that beginners are always faced with, that of forgetting God in favour of their attachments (in the name of love)…
    Using “me” for ‘all of Adam’ is quite strange at first, but
    the deeper one enters into their heart and into God’s all loving heart the easier it becomes, the purer their love for all of Adam becomes, through Christ’s love for Man, without so much of a ‘preference’ for some people over other people the more natural it feels, “harsh” and “monastic” as this might initially appear to our secular minds, there is huge experience and Spiritual discernment behind it.

  20. Dino, I have actually been coming to something like what you describe in praying the Jesus Prayer but including both my wife and I since we are one. I had not really expanded that any but there were hints that it included all of our combined family as well but those hints were just on the edge of my consciousness.

    I appreciate the explanation and the difference between praying and attachments. What you describe seems quite obvious in a way (as most things when explained). One of those, “of course” moments.

  21. Dino,
    Can that be extended to all of creation, or is that getting to pantheistic?

  22. Michael,
    that sounds like the most appropriate start to further expansion -is what I imagine Father Zacharias from Essex would say.

    I wouldn’t know how to answer; my guess is the Spirit would lead you to a consciousness which unforced weighs one way rather than the other.
    That is one of the great things about following Elder Porphyrios’s advise: you do not tell God, He tells you (who to pray for and even does it for you).

  23. I’m glad you brought that up, Dino…praying “Lord have mercy on me” when praying for others. It is something that I have felt lead to do a few times, and I wasn’t sure how “Orthodox” that really was.

  24. Fr. Stephen,

    This is an extraordinary article (I see you have already posted another – I can’t keep up!)

    “If we are in Christ, then if one suffers we all suffer. I suggest (and assert), that we are indeed one, and some, known only to God, are living out the mysterious suffering on behalf of all that preserves us as one beyond our ability to perceive.” (Fr. Stephen)

    If I may, I would like to quote from Martin Laird’s book “Into the Silent Land” about a woman with intense pain from an illness. He quotes Steven Levine “true healing happens when we go into our pain so deeply that we see it, not just as out pain, but as everyone’s pain.” As the woman learned to found silence away from thoughts about pain, she discovered “that in this very silence there was communion with all people, a loving solidarity with all humanity. The awareness of this was seamlessly united with her awareness of God.”

    This seemed to connect with your words, if I understand them correctly. Sometimes there are no words – because we must approach mystery from our hearts more than from our minds – but you do very well with them nonetheless 🙂

  25. Michael & others,

    Regarding praying for others…I have struggled with the same thing, finding that too much of my prayer time was spent on lists!

    It has helping me lately to remember what prayer is. God does not need me to remind Him of who to bless. If I open my heart to Him, He knows all who are within (as well as those not in my heart but, of course, should be). Sometimes God grants me the grace to wordlessly love these people in His presence. I am also reminded to hold before Him those I find hard to love.

    In Buddhism, the metta (lovingkindness) meditation consists of first wishing (love, health, etc.) for self, then for other, then for all others. This notion integrates very nicely with Christianity where we take our wishes deeper, into the heart of God through prayer.

  26. Your post is one great expression of faith. The Bible tells us the story of Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus who only after finding the wounds in the body of Christ came to believe that it is in fact Jesus he was interacting with.

    John 20:29 says, Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    Faith is all about believing in God even though we can’t see Him in person.

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