“If only I had known…”
These are, not infrequently, the words of an apology. They are also an explanation of why we are sometimes the way we are. Ignorance is, in the mind of the Fathers, a major cause of sin. Of course, if sin is understood in a legal/forensic framework, then ignorance would be nothing more than a form of innocence. Not knowing is excusable in most cases. But the teaching of the Church does not describe the world in legal/forensic terms. The world is not about who and what is right or wrong. It’s about what truly exists and what does not. Existence and being (ontology) are what matter, not what is legally correct. God is the “only truly Existing One,” and our salvation in Christ is a movement towards ever more true existence. This is the meaning of “eternal life.”
True knowledge changes us. “If only I had known,” can also mean, “If only I had been a different person.” Knowledge, in this biblical sense, is much deeper than the collecting and management of facts. In biblical terms, we know by participation or communion. When Christ says of his detractors that they do not know God, he dismisses their mastery of the facts (“And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” John 16:3) Those who accused Christ and urged the Romans to crucify Him, not only knew the facts of the Jewish faith – they were experts. Had the “facts of the case” been an issue, then Christ would have engaged in argument and debate. As it is, He only engaged their taunts and questions with answers that put them off – and put off His crucifixion until the time was ripe. But the disciples, and those who sought true knowledge from Him, received very different responses – not always easily understood – but always leading them towards the true knowledge that transforms and saves.
Knowledge is deeply problematic. It takes a variety of forms (few of which have much to do with the biblical notion of knowledge). We are also the constant target of those who market various forms of “knowledge,” most of which are nothing of the sort, but feel like knowledge. The knowledge to which Christ refers can also be called “saving knowledge,” for it requires and involves the transformation of the person who has it. And that transformation is in the direction of true existence – conformity to the image of God.
The door to true knowledge is repentance. Of course, for most people, repentance itself belongs to the category of legal and forensic things. It means not doing bad things, promising not to repeat the ones I have done, and, perhaps, feeling sorry. This is both inadequate and misleading. The Greek word used for repentance is metanoia, literally a “change of mind (nous).” It can be described as a movement from one form of knowledge to another (true knowledge).
The path to such knowledge passes through humility. And the path to humility involves shame (yes, I’m writing again about shame). Shame is more than a significant emotion (painful at best). It is described by the Elder Sophrony as “the Way of the Lord.” It is at the very heart of repentance. Shame has to do with “who we are.” Guilt is about “what I have done.” It is important to understand the distinction.
Guilt generally belongs to the legal/forensic world. Our minds are filled with all kinds of subtleties about what we have done. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Perhaps it’s just the sort of thing everybody does. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. We break rules all the time and, in large part, have become somewhat hardened to that reality.
Shame, however, is quite different. When what I have done spills over into who I think I am, then shame has supplanted guilt. The awareness of shame can be devastating. If who I am is truly very dark, we can become suicidal and plunged into despair. Shame is painful (and so we run from it). Repentance, however, involves confronting shame. St. John of the Ladder says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”
It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’
“Confessing another person’s sins…” This is a subtle move of the mind and heart to avoid the pain of shame. It also avoids the possibility of metanoia. In the struggle of confession, we need to make the greater journey to the place of the heart. And, strangely, at that place, when we confront the truth of sin, we find shame. It is necessarily the case that we find shame because, when we confront the truth of ourselves, the “who I am” of our existence, in the light of Christ, it appears broken, darkened, filled paradoxically with emptiness. We may very well confront that place and feel that we are, in fact, nothing at all.
When we confront the “nothing at all,” we instinctively draw back. It is a place of fear, or of loathing. The loathing is the sound of pride. We confront the nothing but demand to be something. But at that precipice, at the edge of the abyss, when what we see is the nothingness of the self, we also stand in the presence of Christ. He has entered into the nothingness of our being (death and hades) and meets us there. And it is there that we receive the gift of our true self, formed in the image of Christ Himself. For the emptiness of self, that we experience as shame, is also the birthplace of the life in Christ. So, St. Paul prays and asks that he might “be found in [Christ], not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith…(Phil 3:9)
The “righteousness of the law” is the false self, imagined in a legal/forensic mode. What I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, what I know, what people think of me, etc., are all nothing more than legal “noises.” They do not constitute the true self. They are not the stuff of eternal life. They do not carry us into the knowledge of the true and living God.
Fr. Serafim Aldea, the founder of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull, has a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith. He recently spoke profoundly about the discipline of confession. He related how his spiritual father encouraged him to always bring something to confession that would make his confessor not think well of him. It is a mild exercise in being a “holy fool.” I have often heard people express a fear about confession, noting that their priest will think less of them if they are truly honest. But this is nothing more than our fear of shame. A priest should expect to hear such things. If he judges people for their confessed sins, he himself engages in a much worse sin. He should rejoice that he accompanies someone into the bright presence of God where shame is transformed into true being.
This practice is important not only in confession, but in our prayers as well. We do not always press the point of our shame to a place that is unbearable, but we do well to learn how to go to that place when we stand before God and pray. It is not simply that we rehearse a list of our failures. This will often only take us into the noise of our legal/forensic false existence. It is by standing honestly before who we are, and what we are not (that proper reflection on our actions can produce) that also allows us to stand face-to-face before Christ Himself. He is a good God, and loves mankind. He has no desire to crush us or drive us into nothingness through our shame. Rather, He meets us there, and comforts us with the truth of ourselves and the compassion of His company. In St. John’s vision of the New Heaven and Earth he says:
They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:4)
That name of God was made known to Moses, after he had removed his shoes (the false self). The name is: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. “I am the Truly Existing One.” All icons of Christ have this name inscribed on them. At the world’s end, God will write this name on us.
excellent article thank you!
Beautiful, Father. Christ is our gnosis! Colossians 2:
1 For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh;
2 That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ;
3 In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
4 And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words.
5 For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ.
6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
Thank you, Father! Pray for me.
I hope to see both you and Father Serafim in Oak Ridge on April 10.
Thank you Father,
Indeed, my selfish “I’ is but the absence of Him, the absence of the God who is the only One that truly exists. The more I realise and even embrace the truth that I am ‘nothing’ and He is everything, the more I come to know the Truth of all things and this Truth enters my darkness as Light that is Uncreated, Eternal and Personal.
“And I said, “Perhaps darkness shall cover me,”
But the night shall be light to my delight;
For darkness shall not be dark because of You,
And the night shall be bright as day;” (Psalm 138)
We all know and treasure the words of St. Paul in Romans, “…and do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”. Interestingly, the word “transformed” is the word from which we get the English word “metamorphosis”, the term applied to the change a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly. The caterpillar, a wonderful symbol of a life given over to the flesh, one day goes into a sort of suspended animation (and, indeed it moves very little) in a sarcophagus-like chrysalis. Weeks or months later what emerges is a creature with a very different nature-a butterfly. The process is referred to as a “complete” metamorphosis. To be honest, many other insects also go through a complete metamorphosis and for some the change brings about a nature we don’t much appreciate (flies, for example).
There is, however another form of metamorphosis in the insect world. It’s the kind that locusts, grasshoppers and cockroaches go through. They do indeed change, many grow wings, for example, but their nature remains the same. The devouring locust just gets bigger, its appetite increases and now it can fly.
Just a little natural history called to memory by your blog Fr. Stephen.
My fear is that we cannot bear what we are. It’s too much, too painful.
Alone, it is impossible. And all at once is very difficult. So, a little at a time, with Christ, and a loving friend/spiritual father.
Do you think that people judge others as a way of distracting themselves from themselves?
It varies. That is sometimes true. Very often, what people experience in their “judging” is sort of like a resident parent or critic in their head. It judges them mercilessly, and does the same to others as well. There are a number of sources to such “resident critics,” very often, it is the sound of over-bearing, overly critical parenting and the like. Much of that is experienced by a child as shame, and it is the voice of shame haunting their thoughts, darkening the world. It’s misery. It can be healed.
Would you say then that the popular advice, “Forgive yourself” is a mistake? I’m aware that some of the desert fathers advised that we condemn ourselves rather. My concern is that most people just couldn’t handle this. The desperate need to believe that we are, at bottom, good people is just so ingrained in people. For myself, I can scarcely imagine how I could avoid crushing depression if I managed to believe- really believe- that I am evil. (Although, I suppose, probably I surely am. ) I’m aware that it is said that this is due to pride: if we were humble we wouldn’t be surprised by how far we have fallen. But what shall we base our happiness on if we have lost all sense of internal goodness? Wouldn’t the only thing left be self-loathing?
I used to hear phrases like, “Repent and confess all your sins and…” Now I shake my head – I had no idea. I’m really grateful that the knowledge of how great the Fall in my own life doesn’t come all at once. It’s like someone who once described peeling an onion – “it comes off a layer at a time and you weep”.
“I am the Truly Existing One.” I love this!
This seems to be a much better rendering of “I Am that I Am.” Is there a translation that includes the “I Am the Truly Existing One?” Did you paraphrase this for emphasis, or is it actually a better rendering? Either way is fine of course.
I’m hoping you’ll say it is a better rendering. It makes so much more sense. I never realized there were verses that echo God saying “I am the only un-created.” I always thought it was the Fathers who brought that truth to light.
Why have I never heard it this way?
Thank you for this post. I plan on using it for a discussion with my older children.
I was just thinking today in regards to some things I regret: I knew but I didn’t really know. In other words even though I had some head knowledge of certain things being sinful I didn’t understand until I began to face a tiny bit of my shame. Still so far to go. Father, bless.
the Septuagint and the Orthodox tradition always uses “Ο ΩΝ” -literally: the One Who Exists. It is very fortunate that in Greek is is fairly straightforward (unlike in English) that this is clearly understood as “the One Who truly exists and in comparison to Who’s existence all other existence (if separated from Him Who is the Creator and Supporter) does not really even exist.”
Our infinite worth is because of Him and our infinite unworthiness is also because we can separate ourselves from Him. The knowledge of the two together brings noble humility.
It is a translation of the Septuagint (Greek) in Exodus. As Dino notes, it is “Ο ΩΝ,” which you could render as “He who is,” but is generally, in Orthodox English writing, rendered, “The truly existing one.” It is its clear meaning. Sometimes a literal, word-for-word, fails to do the job.
The Fathers who wrote in very ontological terms, didn’t make their stuff up. It was grounded in Scripture.
The popular advice, “forgive yourself,” is not entirely mistaken. It is correct at a certain point. The desert fathers’ admonition to “condemn ourselves” is simply pointing to the bearing of shame as I’ve described it.
All human beings are fundamentally good. This is the teaching of the Church. Our brokenness cannot change that. We base our happiness in God who created us good. I do not believe there is such a thing as a human being who is fundamentally evil. Christ is my righteousness and my peace and my joy. He binds up our wounds and bears our shame.
You wrote: “Our infinite worth is because of Him and our infinite unworthiness is also because we can separate ourselves from Him.” I’m about to display my shallowness here, but isn’t our ability to separate ourselves from God a function of our free will? And isn’t our possession of free will a hallmark of our being created in the image of God?
Or is our unworthiness not that we “can separate ourselves from Him,” but that we’ve fallen so far that we generally misuse our free will to separate ourselves from God?
What a blessed hope you provide at your conclusion…I groan in my spirit at reading it…may it be so that His Name will be inscribed on me unworthy though I be!!
Certainly, this way of shame – the way of my own cross – is a pittance by comparison to obtaining this “Pearl of great price”!
I think of Ο ΩΝ as “the BE(ing).” I think it’s literally like saying “the Be.” Thank you for this blog post, Father Stephen.
“For myself, I can scarcely imagine how I could avoid crushing depression if I managed to believe- really believe- that I am evil. (Although, I suppose, probably I surely am. ) ”
I was struck by this. I think it should read (correct me if I am wrong Father or anyone) something like:
“I am crushed at the belief that I am *nothing*…”
The dialectic of good and evil (or the “forensic”) is not at the heart of who we are (or God. As Genesis says, we “know” good and evil, not we *are* good and/or evil.
Much more terrifying is this existential shame and fact of our “nothingness”. Think about your death, and how history will leave you as so much dust. Think about how there is nothing that you can do about this negation of your “self”. Does “good” or “evil” really even apply? I don’t think so, it (and you) simply is or is not. I can only stand the terror of this for short periods, and I have to be very careful “on the rebound” so to speak.
Perhaps Father you can say something about this “in between” existence we live while in our sins but also while we “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” It is just a wee bit schizophrenic at times. To live a “paradox” is to live on what all too often feels like shifting and shaking ground…
you answered that beautifully. Without Him, our Life, our Worth, our Light, our All), we fall into the abyss of nothingness and unworthiness (that our adversary and our ego tries to somehow present as worthiness sometimes.)
it means ‘the Existent’ if you want to be literal.
The icon above is very nice, using the French “je suis” – I Am. This was Christ’s usage too (for instance, John 8:58). Personally I find the connection of ΩΝ/eimei to be important as concept
I know I’m late to the commenting game on this one, but I wanted to see if anybody had any thoughts. Father mentions that ignorance would be a defense in a legal/forensic framework. But, does not Christ Himself pray that the Father would forgive the sins of His murderers, because they “know not what they do”? Is ignorance, then, grounds for the forgiveness of God? Are we not all forgiven, if all are ignorant to the degree that they sin?
It is wonderful article! I found so many things that concern me. Thank you F. Freeman! I often ask myself about the sin and the roots of sin for myself. I believe that what is lawless and what is right are two different things. Jesus points this numerous times across the Gospels. I pray I always find the right path to confession and repentance.