I was in a small shop yesterday in a coastal town. Among its many knick-knacks were a large variety of compasses. We have become a compass-driven culture today, after a lull in which they were largely passé. Of course, the compass is now a very passive thing, hidden within the workings of the resident GPS system in our phones. There has long been a debate about the presence of an “inner compass” in the human brain. Some people seem to have a strong sense of direction, while others do not. Many animals clearly have a means of finding their way about, so that it would come as no surprise if some humans were similarly equipped. But to be equipped and to be aware of it, much less, able to use it, are very different things.
God seems to me to be a compass-related question. The traditional compass points towards the magnetic North because the needle is magnetized and allowed to float freely. It is drawn to the right position by the magnetic field of the earth. A Christian must say that there is a natural spiritual compass within every human being, inasmuch as we are created in the image of God. Some would say that the spiritual compass is distorted by the world and its many noises. I think this is mistaken. What is missing in any human life is not the compass itself, but the willingness of drawing near to read it.
Do we actually want to know God? And what does it mean when we ask that question?
The “God question” is often so encrusted that it is hard to actually engage it. This “encrustation” occurs in a number of forms. First, there is no way to strip the reality of God from particularities. There is no “generalized” God. If there is a God, then He is not only particular, He is transcendently particular. He is not one out of a set of multiples, nor is there even a set. He is without category.
Second, we can never ourselves be without particularities. We are not generalized beings: we are always somewhere, somehow, somewhat. We have a history and are positioned in place and time. Every thought we have is couched in a language and must be experienced just so. There are, however, some practices that make the compass more available to us (or ourselves more available to the compass).
Many, if not most, of the particularities of our lives are deeply enmeshed in matters of identity. We do not necessarily think of them in such a way, but everything that we care most deeply about (and how we care about it) carries with it some piece of our identity, something that forms and shapes who we think ourselves to be. I think it is safe to say that those things about which we are truly indifferent are simply those things in which we have no stake. If they did not exist, we would feel no loss. They are not me.
Strangely, the question of knowing God is perhaps the greatest question of identity. To know God is also to know my self. All things take on their proper meaning in their proper light in the presence of the knowledge of God. If the knowledge of God does not have this effect, then it surely is knowledge of something else. For in the presence of God, everything else must become relative, and relative only to Him. Everything takes its true form and shape in the light of the Light.
And this most especially concerns ourselves. It was what makes the knowledge of God and finding God so terribly problematic.
Every identity that is mine, every detail that forms and shapes the “me” that I value, is inevitably judged when brought into the Light. And this inevitably means that, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we encounter shame when we find God.*
When we approach God, the true and living God, all of the identities that wrap our inmost self, begin to crumble and disappear. People frequently “have a relationship” with “God,” in which their identities are up-front and foremost, but this is far short and possibly unrelated to true knowledge of God. Such “relationships” differ very little from the relationships through the ages with gods of many names. It is an approach to a powerful helper but not an approach to communion with the very Ground of all being.
That event of communion is the end (and beginning) of a journey. It is not insignificant that in Scripture, such an encounter with God results in the change of a name. Abram become Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon bar Jonah becomes Peter. As the disciples said to Christ, “Lo, we have left everything!” The imagery in St. John’s Revelation suggests that we will all receive a “new name” in the Kingdom. That fact is reflected in the naming of a child on the eighth day in preparation for their Baptism, and that it is traditionally the name of a saint. We are not known by our own name, but by a name that has been fulfilled in heaven itself, our own final name waiting to be revealed.
St. John says this:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2)
When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Moses asked for His name. God answered: “I am who I am.” It is also interesting that the encounter produced another question from Moses: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exo 3:11) Moses understands and knows himself in a new way, even as he is initiated into the knowledge of God. These are not separate events: they belong together. The revelation of God is also the revelation of Moses.
The truth of our own existence is like the truth of Moses. Who-I-am has its meaning as it is related to God. God alone is the truly existing one and the only ground of true existence. Who-I-am only has true existence if and as it is grounded and related to the truly existing God. There is nothing that exists apart from God. As a side note, there is and can be no such thing as a “secular” existence. “In Him, we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
In the classical teaching of the Christian faith, Christ is unfailingly identified with the One who says, “I Am that I Am.” The icons of Christ are always inscribed with ὁ ὤν (“He who is”), the phrasing from Exodus 3 in the Greek text.
I noted at the beginning of the article the problem with generalities. God does not exist in general but is transcendently particular. This is made abundantly clear in the Incarnation. The fathers, for example, wrote that Christ may be depicted in an icon, not because He became man, but because He became “a” man. It is in His particularity, manifest as the person of Jesus Christ, that He is made known. It is in our response to God, as Particular, that we, at last, can come to know our true selves.
Many people say they believe in God, and may even be able to describe some of the things they attribute to Him. But so long as the belief rests in generalized terms, there is no true knowledge, only the projection of our wishes, desires, even delusions (no matter how good or noble). The journey towards knowing God requires unknowing what we think to be ourselves that we might see Him for who He is. Our own name and true existence is then revealed only by Him and in Him. And this is eternal life. (John 17:3).
* The experience of shame, according to psychologists, is bound up with the question of “who I am.” It is about identity. Anytime we experience a wound, an embarrassment, or even too great a sense of vulnerability, there is a natural experience of shame. This is, in its most common form, quite harmless, producing little more than a flush to the cheeks and averting of our eyes. There, are, of course, much more serious forms of toxic shame, genuine attacks on the very core of our identity that can leave crippling wounds that last for years. But all forms of shame are things that people avoid. According to psychologists, it is our most painful emotion.
God Himself is not the source of our shame. He does not seek to bring us into shame, indeed, Christ “bears our shame.” However, it is the nature of the Light that it reveals things to be what they truly are. If the identities we wear are made of the flimsy stuff of delusion and imagination, then the presence of God will show them for that very unreality. It leaves us feeling stripped bare. “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10) There was no sin in Adam’s nakedness, nor was there any judgment from God regarding it. Indeed God gave coverings for Adam and Eve. But Adam experienced his nakedness as fear/shame.
This is such a blessing, thank you Fr. Stephen.
In a long stretch of time (2 years or so) when I am feeling God’s absence, even rejection, considering my feeling bereft and “naked” as an indication of God’s Presence is oddly comforting. I will sit with this and maybe I will be able to read something with this “compass.”
I look forward to your blog posts on my FB news feed. Thank-you.
One question that struck me near the end of your article was how it is that one discerns the difference between the ego and God? I got excited as I was reading thinking about discovering God, the *person*, about discovering his character and his sense of humor and his beauty and having my own unique “romance” with God… and then I suddenly realized that the idea of God I feel most strongly will probably come forth from my own ideas about who God should or might be through my experiences with reality. The things I touch, taste, see, hear, smell—the experiences I undergo, the temptations I fall to—all of these things will shape a particular vision of God that may end up looking very different from someone else’s vision of God (and what God really is in and of himself).
So how do we begin to “unknow” ourselves? How can we be sure that the “particular God” we worship is not a particular manifestation of our selves?
Thank you Father. This post is leading me to remember when I lost my bearings in relationship to my spiritual compass and wandered in the wilderness of Sin and how I was brought back to a more proper alignment. How can I ever thank the Lord enough for His Grace and how aware I am of the things that still need to change to be fully in alignment.
Again you have inspired so many reflections. In your own way it’s as though you are saying to me, ok, now that you’re at the edge of the Abyss, why not just step back a little and have some tea?
Ok I will, but first…
The compass is very meaningful to me. Can’t believe I’m going to mention it here but here it is, I went to live on a boat. And intended to sail it from Vancouver to Hawaii. This was many years ago–32 I think. Single-handed. Got as far as Neah Bay when I got blasted by severe storm that actually sunk several commercial fishing boats. For privacy I will mention only this part of these circumstances for now. I was trying to reach, be in God’s presence, in the particular transcendent way that you describe. This sounds insane. Perhaps it was insane. This was part of a much longer journey of a life of active searching.
Well before becoming a Christian, in the workings of my heart, I needed to actually see God, but didn’t articulate this to myself and didn’t ask it of God in prayer. Later, the identity I had was “scientist”, a physical chemist, or in other words a person that wouldn’t ask God to show Himself. But I needed no proof not because I was indifferent but because I sensed God’s presence in the workings of nature and yet I couldn’t touch ‘His transcendent particularity’. This was something beyond me, yet I still searched for this within science having no idea what I was trying to reach.
The embodied ‘me’ needed the embodied God. I sensed Him in my heart, in nature, in atoms, in space, in fields. But at the time what I sensed I could give no name. I believed these things, matter, space, energy, are alive, believed it was not a secular world. Yet it was a world for which I had no language, try as I might in chemistry and physics.
Before I became a Christian, there was a moment while studying some data, that I asked a question to the ‘Icon of ‘Nature” that I’m describing in allegory , “please show me Your Hands”. I asked this question in trust, like a child, not to challenge or to analyse but simply to see Who it is that Lives and is the Ground for all existence. I didn’t know it at the time but I was Thomas. Then unexpectedly in the data– Christ. His Death, His Resurrection, Our Death, Our Resurrection. I kept studying the data and realized an idea that was very similar to: He trampled down Death by Death.
As you have pointed out Fr Stephen, now I have a new identity. Through the Grace of God, the Holy Spirit and Baptism, I have put on Christ. Christ covers my nakedness. Now I can say He is the First Born. He is the Navigator of the Ark, His Church. He is everywhere and fills all things. Even me. Glory to God.
And now some tea.
For me, this talk by Fr Seraphim (Aldea) was seminal in helping me begin to address those questions. Maybe it will be for you as well.
I echo Raphael’s suggestion of the talk by Fr. Seraphim. For one, I think we “unknow” by coming repeatedly into the presence of God, by baring ourselves. This is such a work of grace that we should avoid trying to make it happen. Letting it happen by drawing near to God is key. I struggle in these moments to remember not to despair nor to be overcome with shame at my silly failings and pretensions. God does not shame us. I think, I know, that we haven’t even a glimpse of how He loves us and rejoices in our presence. If we understood it, we would never be able to leave Him.
Fr. Stephen, The last part of your comment reminded me of this wonderful Old Testament verse from the prophet Zephaniah. “The LORD your God in the midst of you is mighty, he will save, he will rejoice over you with joy, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” 3:17 He truly is, as we hear often in the liturgy, the lover of mankind. May the needle of the compass of our lives float light and free, forever pointing us toward and living in his presence.
BTW, very much enjoyed sister Vassa’s interview of you and matushka Beth on your journey into Orthodoxy in her recent podcast.
Reading your comment to Nes, particularly about what it would be like for us if we really could experience the depth of the Lord’s love for us, an image and teaching from my developmental psychology class sprang to mind. In infancy, the newborn discovers himself in the face of his mother. The young infant has a particular range of acuity for vision of about 18 inches–more or less the distance his mother will hold him to interact with him (and nurse him). The rapt attention to the face of his mother that is typical of normal development at this very early stage is called being in “thrall” or “enthrallment”, and the infant has no sense of his own “self” or identity apart from what he sees in the face of his mother and experiences in her arms.
I have been reading Paul Evdomikov’s Women and the Salvation of the World, and he offers the insight from Orthodox Tradition, quoting from the Byzantine “Theotokion” in the Third Tone, “Without a father you gave birth to the Son, the One who was born without a mother before all ages.” (my emphasis), that motherhood is the earthly image of the nature of God’s Fatherhood (and of spiritual fatherhood).
It was fun meeting Sr. Vassa. She was the keynote speaker for our diocesan conference. I got there a day early, and sure enough, the first day I came downstairs to the lobby, she was in the coffee shop. So, I started my conference by having coffee with Sr. Vassa. My wife joined us. We did the interview later that morning and then went to lunch with her. It was very nice to get to know her. She’s a very knowledgeable scholar with a very, very good wit and humor. Lot’s of fun.
Here’s a plug for Sis. Vassa and her ministry. I first knew of her through her AFR podcasts. At that time she was a professor of liturgical studies, I believe in the University of Vienna. She holds her doctorate in the same field. Since that time she has resigned her position there and is now doing full time ministry in several areas. She has a daily reflection via email. She also does video series, such as one on the liturgy which are great for small groups or home schooling. She also offers weekly podcasts on many areas of church, theology and family life. I really appreciate her obvious love for our Lord and his church. And, Fr. Stephen, as you note, her wit and effusive personality sparkle throughout her teaching. I find you two to be of kindred spirit.
The commentary on shame is very helpful. Thank you Father.
Thank you Father Stephen. Among the rest, this stands out in a certain way today: “God does not exist in general but is transcendently particular.”
I was writing a commentary on the final reading in Matthew. Trying to say that Jesus’ authority doesn’t extend only to His divine nature, but to His glorified human nature. And therefore, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And it was precisely the particular I was trying to write about; that this isn’t pie in the sky but rather the Resurrection is present with us all the time in every moment. “In the particular” puts it just so. In every moment there is possibility for encounter that gives us all kinds of “Resurrection” and the power of the Cross. Thank you for writing about shame, it’s surely connected to the Cross.
There is a sense in which our relationship with God is a progression towards becoming ever more fully particular.
Thank you Fr. Stephen. That is beautiful!
Sorry for multiple posts, but just got me wondering (yes, wonder!) if that has to do with nature of time and the eternal that is in the moments. “More fully particular”
I don’t think of it in terms of time, per se. Rather, that as we become what/who we are truly created to be, we become yet more truly unique, as such, more particular. CS Lewis once opined that the more “real” something is, it is thus able to “pass through” the less real. And so, this created order seems less solid to higher created orders. We tend to think the opposite. That the more “ethereal” something is, the less dense, etc.
I suppose it’s an act of ontological imagination, since we don’t have good words for any of this. But we move (according to the Fathers) from being to well-being to eternal-being. It is a movement towards greater and greater “reality” inasmuch as God is the only truly existing One (and thus the only One who can properly be said to be “real”). That which is “general” is actually not real at all, only an imagination.
Our sin moves us away from being (towards non-being). We thus become less real, more generalized.
It is like the fads of youth. The young want to be “unique” and they crave an identity (it would hide their shame). But, rather than becoming truly real, they become like each other, somewhat generalized. So you have a “hipster” or a “goth” or any number of sub-groups of less truly existing things. There is no “hipster” or “goth” etc. (bond nor free, Greek nor Jew, etc.) in the Kingdom of God. Instead, there is Janine, or Stephen, or, whoever our new names that are revealed. I will not belong to a category, but I will exist uniquely as myself, in a beauty that has no comparison, other than its reflection of the Beauty that is God.
Fr. Stephen, thank you!!! Clearly the lives of the saints show what you say. To become “all flame” seems to be what you are saying. I speculate that the vision of “light” or “flame” is the only way we can perceive that depth of reality.
Thank you Raphael for the talk by Fr. Seraphim
Thank you for posting the video. I fell in love with Fr. Seraphim the first time I heard him. He has a purity of heart and a clarity of vision that is rare. He’s also sold me on Fr. Sophrony. I will have to “buy the book” now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about your question. It goes to the heart of the matter here. It also is indicative of the way we approach things mentally all the time. “What is this new thing called unknowing? What is the technique I must learn?” But I find that the truth is almost always simpler than we are prepared for. If you think in terms of normal human relationships, this “unknowing” is kind of an intentional stopping of our efforts to manage the other person.
If we “attend” God in prayer (or at any time), we are simply there, open, ready for anything. Fr. Stephen was talking earlier about this attentiveness, i.e. the deacon saying “let us attend!” It’s not done with the mind as much as with the whole person.
If you come face to face with a lion, you attend! That is done out of fear. Fear may be the beginning of wisdom, but ultimately it is done out of love. One of the most wonderful things about falling in love is that we are very attentive at this point in the relationship. Now, we use part of that attentiveness to collect data in order to decide who the other person is.
This act itself is natural and not wrong, but we often use the information to manage the other person, to put them into a category and marked their case as “closed”. But with practice we can learn to collect that information without drawing conclusions – or at least hold conclusions that we are okay with having changed and destroyed all the time.
So unknowing isn’t really a technique as much as a cessation of an old habit that dies hard, namely the management of our relationship with God.
hope this is helpful, drewster
Drewster, your comment to Nes was incredibly helpful to me. Thanks!
Father, I wonder if you would have comment on Drewster’s insight about the nature of the “unknowing” with God and others we must do from your own experience or the words of the Fathers?
This was stupendous, thank you my dear Brother <3
Perhaps it is best to meet God with humility, not shame. As someone named Bill once observed, meeting God melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I stood and shivered for so long (AA).