A Noetic Life

 

the-beauty-of-russian-winter

Eskimos really do have over 50 words for snow. In total, there are around 180 words for snow and ice. There is “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving a sled.” There is also “utuqaq,” which means, “ice that lasts year after year” and “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. The reason, of course, is simple. If the information about snow and ice are a matter of survival, human beings develop a vocabulary sufficient to cover their need. They also develop a keen eye for snow and ice. They do not see better or different than anyone else, but they pay attention to certain things that others would ignore.

This simple reality can also be applied to the words of our spiritual life. Modern language can make a distinction between high-definition television and ultra-high definition, or even super ultra-high definition (this latter being so extreme in its resolution that an Eskimo could use it to classify snow). We even have words for sub-atomic particles. But modern language is extremely impoverished in its spiritual vocabulary. The culture has been overwhelmed by the ideas and concepts of psychology, pushing aside an entire vocabulary of human experience. Some of the words of classical Christian experience disappeared long before the modern period (and that is a different story).

Where words are absent, the ability to perceive is reduced. Language and perception work together. There are many things you cannot see until you are taught to see them. Having words for such things is part of the process of learning to see.

A key word from classical Christianity is the Greek term “nous,” and its adjectival form, “noetic.” Western translators early on translated the term as intellectus, which in its English forms is simply incorrect. Modern translators vary in translating it as either “mind” or “heart.” Neither of these is accurate, and both can be misleading in the extreme. Increasingly, some writers are simply choosing to use the word in its original form (my preference).

All of this is by way of introduction. The fact that our modern vocabulary doesn’t have an actual word for what the Fathers meant when they wrote about noetic perception, or when they said that the “nous should descend into the heart” (very important and common phrases), does not mean that what they are describing is closed to us, but does indicate that it is a reality which we largely ignore, like the incredible variety within snow and ice. It’s there, but we fail to see it.

Our culture champions the mind. We think of ourselves as far more brilliant than those who lived in the past and certainly more aware and understanding of the processes and realities of the world around us. In short, we think we’re the smartest people who have ever lived. In point of fact, we have narrowed the focus of our attention and are probably among the least aware human beings to have ever lived.

Our narrowed focus is largely confined to two aspects: the critical faculty and emotions. The critical faculty mostly studies for facts, compares, judges, measures, and so forth. Emotions run through the varieties of pleasure and pain, largely pairing with the critical faculty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This way of experiencing the world is largely the result of living in a consumerist culture. We not only consume things – we are constantly under a barrage of information geared solely towards consumption. We consume everything. Information is more than information – it is information for the purpose of consumption. Even religious notions are governed by consumption. We “like” or “don’t like” Church. We find it useful, or of no interest. People are even known to “shop” for Churches.

The nous is not a faculty of consumption. It is a faculty of perception, particularly of spiritual perception. The modern struggle to experience God often fails because it is carried out by consumers. God, the true and living God, cannot be consumed, nor can He be known by the tools of consumption. Consumerist Christianity peddles experience and ideas about God. It has little or nothing to do with God Himself.

I occasionally use kinesthetic experiences to describe the nous. The knowledge we have of riding a bicycle is not critical knowledge. You cannot think your way into the knowledge of riding. Playing the piano is a similar experience. My reason for citing these forms of knowledge is to point to the fact that we already have some experience of non-consuming knowledge. Interestingly, kinesthetic knowledge is not solely in the head. My fingers “know” how to play the piano. My whole body rides a bicycle.

The Fathers often locate the nous in the heart – the physical heart. By this we should understand that the knowledge of noetic experience extends beyond the brain and rests more generally in the very center of our body, in every fiber of our being. Most importantly, it is not a part of the critical faculty. It is a means of perception and knowledge, but not the means of judging, weighing, measuring, comparing, etc. It is much closer to observation (though most modern people only engage in consumer observation).

Vladimir Lossky, the great 20th century Russian theologian, says:

Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship…

“Participatory adherence” is the key phrase in this description. It is a noetic awareness that does not stand outside what it observes. It is a sympathetic observation in which we ourselves are open and vulnerable to what we perceive.

An example.

You meet a stranger. The most common approach is to immediately engage the critical faculty. We make observations and judgments almost instantly. Emotional triggers may encourage us to make immediate decisions. We may react in such a way as to be guarded or skeptical, or attracted, or even disinterested. In many ways, we are “consuming” the stranger.

Imagine, instead, that you meet a stranger and completely suspend judgment. You do not compare them, categorize them, or measure them in any way. You refrain as much as possible from engaging emotional reactions. Rather, you are simply attentive, observing them with an awareness that does not judge. Imagine at the same time that you not only observe them in such a manner, but that you fully engage your own willingness to see them sympathetically while being willing to allow them into your own life. This is something of what Lossky means by a “participatory adherence.”

But how is this practiced with regard to God?

God is not a static object. He is personal and therefore acts in freedom. We can know or perceive Him because He makes Himself known. By and large, people in our culture are looking for a God who can be experienced by the critical faculty. In short, we want a God whom we can consume. Do I like Him? Do I want Him? Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him? This is largely accomplished by substituting the idea of God for God Himself.

I knew a woman who was a self-professed non-believer, though she was willing to believe. Her husband began bringing her to my parish. She attended faithfully for a period of time. One day she asked to meet with me and told me her story. With tears she said she had been in the Church during a service. She was looking at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis. “Why do I not know you?” she asked quietly. “And then I did,” she said. There was no argument, no promise of experience. There was, however, a “participatory adherence.” She was there and she was there repeatedly. Her question was not a critical examination. If anything, it was a cry of love though she had little hope of an answer.

The tradition uses two other words that are important in this perception. One is hesychia, translated “silence” or “stillness.” The second is nepsis (adjective, neptic), often translated “sobriety,” or “attentiveness.” These are noetic expressions, describing the stillness and attention that are generally required for the nous to perceive what is around it. That stillness is not quite the same thing as peace and quiet. It also indicates refraining from our various agendas. Nepsis is an attentiveness that avoids the distractions of the various passions (anger, lust, greed, envy, etc.).

We can know God because He wills to make Himself known. But noetic living is not a technique, per se. It simply describes the proper grounding for the spiritual life. Thus, whether reading Scripture, praying, attending a service, or simply being still, we actively and quietly offer ourselves to God. We should not expect this to automatically produce some wonderful result (it’s not a technique). But as we engage in these activities with the right mind (noetically, neptically, hesychastically) we do indeed learn to perceive God. We learn to be aware of what our nous perceives.

This is, of course, much more successfully learned with good guidance (such as from a priest or monk, or someone who has knowledge of these things – and not all priests or monks do). Many people simple stumble into this and never have words to describe it. It is a perfectly natural thing.

If there were anything that a Christian could practice that would help nurture this aspect of their life, it would be refraining as much as possible from the consumerism of our culture. It teaches us habits that are very destructive to our souls. Instead, we should practice generosity and kindness, and give ourselves over to the care of God rather than the spirit of shopping. You cannot serve God and mammon.

In the Orthodox service, those attending frequently hear the priest or deacon intone: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”

Let us attend. Indeed.

I offer an afterthought. One means of practicing “participatory adherence” is to say “yes.” And, another word for “participatory adherence” might be “love.”

89 comments:

  1. Thank you Father for the clarity that you bring to such words as Nous and Nepsis. It helps me to understand what I read. You are so correct that our language is so impoverished spiritually. We each need a spiritual Father to guide us. Would that there were many of them, but in this age they are hard to find.
    Your explanation for Nepsis has a deep ring of truth and experience to me. As I strive to find the inner stillness the Scriptures, especially Psalms speak to me in ways I never imagined they would. I see things that never appeared to my exegetical eye and I understand in a deeper way. Thank you for putting this post out. It is helping to ie ends together.

  2. Thank you Father. I live in a place where hoar frost is a regular occurrence in the winter, like that in your picture. Its funny but true that I might learn things visually as much as verbally or in the written form. Very often when I study the pictures you select I have an experience of understanding that is likely a noetic experience. I’m also grateful that you mention that it can be stumbled upon accidentally. This is what I think happened when I was studying data and observed Death and Resurrection. I capitalize both because I see this as Christ’s Death and Resurrection. It was a Death to death. But the ‘how’ I came upon it the process is hard to describe.

    I used to encourage ‘divergent thinking’ with my students, which was a way to help them creatively explore the unseen in as many ways as possible– to enable them to find solutions to problems, when no solution seemed rationally possible. This actually is a form of exploration and a kind of openess and a way to say ‘yes’ to whatever ‘nature’ wants to tell us at the molecular/atomic levels. It is also love, and and abiding to the ‘voice of nature’. This is how I might have said it before I came into the Orthodox faith. I didn’t think of myself of a believer of Christianity at all. But I was inadvertently listening to God’s voice. It’s almost like I was trained for that moment. Glory be to God for All things.

    Thank you so much for the picture of the bike in the tree!! May my broken bike be raised on the tree!

    Thank you Fr Stephen.

  3. You have put words on my experience which I did not have, and have expanded and validated my perception, Father Freeman. Thank you for investing of yourself (your participatory adherence) to share these thoughts with us.
    Dee, I appreciate your sharing of ‘divergent thinking’ as well. I think I’ve often made recourse to a similar approach to otherwise intractable problems, and I would echo your saying ‘yes’ as a means of listening.

  4. Concerning the Jesus Prayer.

    Is saying the prayer the participatory adherence or does it lead to the participatory adherence?

    The Jesus Prayer has been stresses strongly by the priest here. We have spoken a lot about monks and hesychia and its history.

  5. Thank you Father Stephen. Once more a post which resonates deeply. Of late I have been pondering the meaning of ‘Repentance’ – metanoia in the Greek. My understanding is that this means ‘Change of mind’ – meta – noetic?? I understand this as a reorientation of the nous, towards God in Jesus Christ. The story of the parishioner before the icon seems to exemplify its meaning. (?)

    I would be most grateful to know the location of the quote from Vladimir Lossky.

  6. Fr. Stephen, thank you for another sage post.

    I have a question about what you have to say regarding consumerist Christianity. You list off some consumerist Christian questions such as:

    “Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him?”

    How does this compare to the saying of “yes” that you have been discussing recently? Thanks.

  7. Thank you, Father. I thought it was very interesting how, at the end, “consumerism” and “nurture” appeared in the same sentence. (“If there were anything that a Christian could practice that would help nurture this aspect of their life, it would be refraining as much as possible from the consumerism of our culture”). We often nurture with nourishment–after all, we are “nourished” with His body and blood at every Liturgy. And nourishment seems consumption. The two of them are so close and so often confused.

    At times, I think that children know their mothers through nourishment, outside of any definitions. While the children “eat” of their mothers (milk) but are not able to describe them (they have not reached the age of speech), they know them better than any other person who could define them, categorize them, describe them. The strange part (which seems unintuitive to a modern mind) is that these mothers are actually “consumed” in definitions and descriptions, as you suggest, and not in the act of offering themselves in nourishment.

  8. Father thank you,
    However, by the “participatory adherence” you consent that “we are open and vulnerable to what we perceive”. For “Yes” and “Love” in our modern culture much faith and inner strength is required…

  9. wrote this around 2009 when the descent of the nous became real…I’m from an evangelical/charismatic/southern background as you’ll see
    Has Your Nous Descended?
    Has Your Nous Descended
    (to the tune of the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”}

    Has your nous descended to your heart today?
    Has the stillness of unknowing caught your gaze?
    Has you wand’ring attention found its native home?
    Has your nous returned to your heart

    Refrain
    Has your nous, found your heart?
    Has your gaze seen the stillness of the Lord?
    Has the gate to theosis opened through the grace of God?
    Has your nous descended to your heart?

    2. Have you warred against the passions with the Jesus Prayer?
    Have you stilled the senses and the mind?
    Have the demons fled from your humility?
    Has your heart been prepared for your nous

    3. Has unceasing prayer been your way of life?
    Has your body been weaned off of the world?
    Has your thought life gathered to the Jesus Prayer?
    Has neptic vigil made you aware?

    4. Has the bread of repentance been your daily fare?
    Tears of Compunction and of sorrow filled your heart?
    Has bodily stillness led you to your inward Sabbath rest?
    Has the Jesus Prayer set your life apart?

    5. Has the hesychastic pathway called you on to God?
    On to union with the Divine?
    Has the stillness of unknowing found your ceaseless gaze?
    Has your nous returned to its home?

    6. Has the grace of God brought unceasing prayer?
    Has visionary prayer come into your heart?
    Has what He is by Nature, come to you by grace?
    Do you practice divine Sonship as your art?

  10. Thank you Father for a very enlightening article. Where in the world, exactly, is that church? It’s magnificent!

  11. You list off some consumerist Christian questions such as:

    “Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him?”

    How does this compare to the saying of “yes” that you have been discussing recently? Thanks.

    Adam, while I do not in any way speak for Father, I would say to your question that we say “yes” in accepting what is given to us by the grace of God. Our acceptance, our “yes”, is rooted in thanksgiving for what we cannot choose or take; it is a humble recognition of our brokenness.

    The other questions, “will I”-“do I”, are centered on ourselves making a decision; they are ego-centered and are not about humble acceptance. Rather they reflect our perceived control of everything. They are an aspect of how we consume what is around us “for our own betterment (by us)”.

  12. Father,

    I really love your example of “participatory adherence” of meeting a stranger (and the one of your parishioner’s wife especially!).

    It reminds me of how Fr. Meletios Webber taught to look at/meet people “from the heart” as opposed to from “the head”.
    I have shared this on the blog once before and somebody even reported trying it in a business meeting, with surprising results.

    I guess that ties into the fact that Fr. Meletios always taught to prepare for praying the Jesus Prayer by first descending from the head into the heart (finding your heart before praying, shifting the awareness of your being there), and saying the prayer from there. I forgot about that, thank you for this beautiful reminder, to “attend” more…

  13. Adam,
    There can be an element of decision on a certain level in saying Yes. But saying Yes is a sustained offering of self in communion with God. Consumerist Christianity ultimately works in a legal/forensic model that is mostly governed by notions of morality and reward and punishment (including for religious acts such as “I accepted Christ”). The actual life of such a Christian is his own, God is just one more external thing that he reacts to and chooses to make a “part” of his life. God is a good God and He doesn’t reject such a life, but it is shallow, often lacking in communion, and easily manipulated by the constant barrage of cultural media. It is a Christianity of the passions. Many people literally have no idea that there is any other way to be as a Christian and, sadly, their leaders don’t know it either and they are never fed the fullness of the truth of the Christian life. It is an ersatz Christianity, invented largely in the 19th century, mostly in America, put in Europe to a smaller degree.

  14. Father
    Thank you for another clearifieing post. The issue of noetic prayer is a a subject I have pursued for some time. I am currently reading a book by the Welsh author Ester De Waal entitled “The Celtic Way Of Prayer.” As I spend extended periods of time in the Celtic lands I am very taken with the way the Celtic Christians had no separation of their spiritual life from the daily routine; all was one endeavor. As I read the beautiful, simple prayers of these people from past centuries, I sense their deep, vibrant relationship with God in all things. God grant us freedom from consumerism.

  15. One problem with translating νοῦς as nous is that, to most Englishmen, ‘nous’ means ‘common sense, practical intelligence, “gumption”‘. (I suspect that is why the English translation of the Philokalia doesn’t use ‘nous’.)

    I think North American, Australian, and New Zealand English would best use ‘nous’ (after all, English has a well-established tradition of ‘stealing’ words from other languages), but I don’t know how to get around the British English colloquial use of ‘nous’. There isn’t any obvious word of which I’m aware.

  16. Subdeacon John,
    To are large extent, I think the Celtic spiritual life was simply Orthodox spiritual life. It has its own ethnic flavor (as does Orthodoxy across the world). But there is nothing unique to Celtic understanding that is not common to all of Orthodoxy. What was unique, if you will, was its primitive Orthodox coloration in a sea that eventually became filled with Latinized misunderstandings.

  17. This post is a good encouragement. In my quest for so-called knowledge of God, I realize that I am under the tyranny of a peculiar weakness, and that is a frank inability to /really/ believe in anything that I can’t somehow see in my mind. And by see I mean ‘draw a picture of.’ I feel that this is a handicap and that I am missing something both far more excellent and far more obvious, but much of the time I am simply unable to dispense of it. That it is tied to a consumption mentality makes a lot of sense to me. I think it is important to slow down, to still the voracious appetite that tries to devour everything it comes across.

  18. Fr. Stephen, Yep, Thomas was spot on. Nous as used informally in Britain, “good judgement or practical ability.” Anyone with a bit of nous would have known exactly what to do.

  19. Thomas,
    that has been my issue with the use of the word Nous in English, forcing me to either compromise for the usual suspects (mind, heart, intellect) with which I am never entirely happy, or to use longwinded multiword descriptions for that unique faculty of a person (the Nous), which becomes tiring.

  20. Dino, Thomas,
    It is interesting that nous has popped up in British slang (I don’t think it’s a very old usage). I will bear it in mind when I’m in Britain. Britain has a long tradition of the classics (Latin and Greek). I wonder if it came in through the “Public Schools” route. In America, our slang comes from some other planet.

  21. Even in modern Greece, due to the secular bombardment of us all, it can sometimes be clearer when speaking to some youngsters to supplement the word nous with other words, it’s just fantastic that you can also keep the proper term (nous) when explaining something, e.g.: “Your nous, as in your ‘attention’, or your ‘soul’s eye’, must descend to the dark depths of your heart, stay there while invoking the Lord’s name and seeking Him relentlessly.”

  22. How do repentance and confession apply to the nous?

    Does one ‘train’ the nous?

    Is ‘head in the heart’ accomplished before prayer, or is it accomplished by prayer?

    Thanks.

  23. Terry,

    Very good questions! I look forward to Father’s answers…

    But your questions reminded me of something Fr. Meletios Webber always emphasized about spiritual life and efforts: that we must “do it”! Not just think about it but “do it, like Nike!” (he likes to say: get a old fashioned kitchen timer, set it for 10 min and pray the Jesus Prayer in your room behind closed doors, pretending nothing else exists in the world, just you in front of God’s presence….).

    I really appreciate it how Fr. Stephen stresses that experiential aspect of our faith, we have to actually “do” these things (“Live. Love. Eat. Breathe. Pray.”, go to Church, participate in the Mysteries, give alms…), not just think about them. I think once we give the “doing” a try, we will be surprised by what we discover and experience.

    P.S. BTW, Fr. Meletios’s book “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil” would also be a wonderful addition to your reading list…. What people are recommending here for you are really wonderful books, and this one is also…

  24. I am definitely going to share this post, Fr. Freeman. Thank you. Perhaps this could be the subject of a second book. 🙂

    I’m starting to discover that this perception inevitably calls forth surrender, a certain sacrifice of the mind, will, senses, everything really, first–and that only in that surrender comes healing, forgiveness for others and oneself. The surrender, though, is again full of paradox: a short shift of thought, but it seems at times impossible to make. The survival-mode mind and distraction-loving passions throw up all their chaff and clatter, fear and anger.

    When I attend the Divine Liturgy it presents a powerful, sacred moment that draws that surrender out of me. Not so much cognitively, either. It just happens, and only then and there in that specific way. Peace in His presence.

    Lord, have mercy. Let me be your mercy.

  25. Dino,

    Thank you for fixing my “possessive form”. 🙂

    A Greek fixing Pole’s English grammar. Combined with a discussion on “nous”.

    Such wonderful things happen only on Fr. Stephen’s blog… 🙂 🙂 🙂

  26. Terry,
    As a rule the imagination hinders the nous. Our attention mustn’t be drawn by it. All things that draw our attention – our nous – to them, (whether of the imagination, of the analytical reasoning faculty or of the outward senses, eg watching a film) [with the exception of God], work against the natural (the un-fallen) order and make the Nous slave to the senses rather than the reverse.. The nous should be the king that reigns over external as well as internal senses. It should be directed first inwards (to avoid free roaming and consequently passive captivity instead of active sovereignty) and from there God will ‘pair up’ the nous with His Spirit so that it will be lifted to the Heights of His Kingdom which are first encountered within the heart itself. Repentance literally means “a change of nous” in Greek so that we train it to stop being voluntarily captive to the senses etc and set it resolutely upon God. We then interpret everything from His point of view (if our repentance is genuine, so that repentance is not, as some suppose, a ‘remorse’.)

  27. Hi Terry, Father Stephen will have a fuller answer. My thought is that the imagination is driven by our desires and will, whereas the nous is ‘driven’ by grace of God, being open to God’s will regardless of our desires. What we imagine can sometimes get in the way, or obstruct the nous–I think. Remember I’m young in the faith. Let others with more experience weigh in.

  28. Dee, Thank you.

    Does that mean imagination is anti-grace and anti-nous?

    That it has no positive influence, spiritually speaking?

    What about creativity?

    Thanks, Dee.

  29. Terry,
    Creativity is a very good question. I think, for example, I could not possibly write without some element of creativity. I’m not sure I would call it imagination – imagination is not the only form of creativity. There’s a great caution in the tradition regarding imagination, mostly in that we not mistake imagination for the real thing. But the arts have a very deep and long history in Orthodox life – thus – creativity is deeply imbedded. The greatest iconographers are never mere copyists (though some who don’t know what they’re talking about will suggest that copying is exactly what an icon should do). Neither, however, do they simply “make things up” and paint their imaginations.

    I love classical music. One of the highest forms it ever achieved can be heard in the fugues of JS Bach. A fugue is actually written according to strict rules (a canon). But the genius lies in the creativity within the rules. The rules did not limit creativity – but they saved the world from some really terrible music for a long time. 🙂

    The spiritual life, I think, has elements of creativity within it, or it is certainly not opposed to creativity. However, there is an inner guide – that saves both the creativity and the artist.

  30. Father, you are absolutely correct on creativity. At its best it is a personal response to a noetic impulse, at its worst a mere surrender to the ego and the passions.

  31. Actually, Father, the OED has that colloquial usage of nous going back to 1706!

    Dino, I’d be interested in what long-winded multi-word descriptions you have used to translate νοῦς. I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past day. The best I’ve managed is ‘spiritual centre’ (but I’m not enamoured with it by a long ways).

    I don’t remember if I read it in his book or heard it in one of his many online videos, but Metropolitan Jonah (formerly OCA, now ROCOR) suggested consciousness. It doesn’t work for me — methinks it too easily confused with the medical meaning.

  32. Thomas, et al.

    I’ve always found Fr. John Romanides attempt to elucidate the nous for moderns interesting. But it is also quite problematic because of the literalism with which modernism applies to language. I’ve always found Fr. John’s writings to be very problematic for the common reader not well versed in Orthodox spirituality.

    Fr. Romanides likened the nous to the Central Nervous System (Spinal Cord) which transmits information throughout the entire body and is one integrated whole. It is responsive to reality (both physical and psychosomatic) and this is much like Fr. Freeman’s discussion regarding riding a bike. Muscle memory or motor function is a matter of the CNS “remembering” and “acting” on participatory “intuition.” One can read as much as they want about riding a bike…but it will not allow them to actually ride the bike. It may even retard their learning the motor skill. They must ride the bike.

    Fr. John goes on to discuss the disconnect between the intellect (brain) and the “spinal cord” and heart in order to convey the darkening of the nous in a modern context. The benefit of the analogy is that it renders the nous as present everywhere in the body, not as an isolated “thing” within it, which “heart” tends to do.

    If one studies cardiology and the relationship between the heart, brain and CNS, one finds many corollaries that can help elucidate the noetic faculty and its relationship to discursive reason. Cardiology in particular and the electrical nodes within the heart as they relate to cardiac automaticity are a wonderful way to understand a corollary to the nous and discursive reason. Unfortunately, few people outside Paramedics, ER doctors and cardiologists. etc. could follow the trajectory of the analogy as it pertains to Orthodox anthropology.

    For the life of me, I cannot think of a single word in English that could convey the meaning of nous. I think this is a good thing. It requires people to stretch their notions outside of pre-defined meanings. It is sort of disheartening to hear that nous has a colloquial usage in British English. I can point to the Greek word nous to an evangelical American and they will not have a frame of reference for it…so it can force them to seek. Having a watered down colloquial meaning for a word already in one’s lexicon allows them to think they understand the term.

  33. Thomas, Onesimus,
    I have tried various compromises in English for nous. I have never come to a single one I prefer but try to pick out the one better pertaining to the discussion. When speaking more generally, philosophically, anthropologically, the terms ‘spiritual centre’, ‘apperceptive faculty’ and especially ‘soul’s eye’ sometimes have to do the job. When speaking more practically on the Jesus Prayer and it’s descent to the heart, the terms ‘attention’, ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ or even ‘awareness’ are often better I find.

  34. For what it’s worth I have began describing it as the place in us where we commune with God. Obviously it can also be darken or never entered. It is neither an abstraction nor ephemeral.

  35. Thank you all for these beautiful descriptions of the nous. I especially like Fr. Romanides’ idea which includes the actual connection to the physical heart and its reach throughout the whole body. Is there an article or a book that you can recommend, Onesimus?

    I would like to add another image to all the ones above, that of a mirror. It was in Fr. Meletios’ book where he likens our nous to the mirror which each one of us has been given to reflect the Glory of God. Through the Fall, and our consequent sin, that mirror is dimmed and darkened (or as Michael said, we are not even aware of its existence), and prayer (and participation in the Mysteries) removes that dirt, and polishes the mirror to its pristine state.

    This became especially meaningful for me when I had an opportunity to work at 3M in their LED lighting and reflective materials division ( I was so excited to work on Light, but 6 months after I started, the whole division was shut down, not enough profit in Light!).

    It turns out that for something to be perfectly reflective (they have a film that is 99% reflective, as opposed to most standard materials used, such as silver and aluminum being ~70% reflective), it needs to contain material layers which correspond to every wavelength of the light spectrum. It always made me think about how the Church gives us direction to “clean and polish” every single area of life, how we need to “be perfect” to be accounted worthy to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. No layer can remain unclean, or the light will be distorted and the reflection will not be true… And the more reflective the material, the further and the more it can transmit and spread the light (as in daylighting applications or in light output from a light fixture).

    Just some useless info, most people roll their eyes at me when I share how I think 3M specular film technology relates to spiritual life… 🙂

  36. I am writing a follow-up article on the noetic life. I will make the point that one of the typical problems in thinking about the nous is the tendency to isolate some lesser factor in our conscious life. That is moving in the wrong direction. The nous is a larger factor in our conscious life. It is not a refinement of awareness, but a largeness of awareness. The tendency to think in ever increasing refinements is the age-long tendency in Western thought to divide and reduce.

    The nous is a faculty of the whole human being. This is one of the proper meanings of the “mind in the heart.” God has not come to reside in some lesser part of the soul. He has come to unite the soul with a larger existence. It is the true spiritual abundance of life.

    Even hesychasm is not a state of “less noise.” It is a state of increased hearing (awareness). It is a stillness that allows the movement of the world as well as the stillness of God to be perceived.

    I think that our use of words for “nous” will become more useful when we let them run in the right direction. Larger rather than smaller.

    “Greater awareness.” and the like.

  37. All of this has been helpful.

    Is the noetic life not a personal experience of the Incarnational reality of God becoming man?

    Do we not become less, smaller, so that He might become greater?

    The narrow way that becomes the entrance to the fullness of who I am?

    The nous is clearly of the Holy Spirit because the more we seek to define it, the more elusive it becomes. The more we chase it, the less we catch. Yet if we learn to sit, focused and attentive to God filling all things, the more likely we are to enter that sanctuary of wholeness knowing we are connected to everything else by the grace of Christ and all is in perfect harmony. All seeming dichotomies dissolved or rather their wholeness revealed?

  38. Agata, it is always wonderful to see people think about these things and make these connections in their everyday lives! Glory to God for all things…

  39. Thank you Matt!!!

    I think so also, I think the Lord is pleased when we notice and appreciate (and are thankful for) the great beauty, complexity and simplicity, and “interconnectedness” of His amazing Creation…. But from most people (my kids especially, since they are the most frequent audience for my ideas :-)) I only get the eye rolls… 🙂

  40. A couple of reflections along these lines.
    1. The bicycle metaphor of knowledge reminds me of the early scene in _Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell_ when the English magicians don’t believe that Mister Norrell is capable of actually doing magic. No one _does_ magic. Hurumph.

    2. One way that I have encountered/reflected on Nous is that it is not _only_ the faculty of apprehending God, but it is the faculty of all apprehending, all perception. Its highest operation is seeing god, but it includes all seeing.

  41. Michael,
    ‘The place in us where we go to meet with God’ This is a most helpful suggestion. Of late I’ve been pondering ‘the tent of meeting’ and its place in the life and worship of the people of God. So, Joshua remains there before the Lord. The tent, we are told is ‘outside the camp’, a phrase which recurs in Hebrews 13 ‘so let us go to Him, outside the camp . . .’ So it is the place of being with Christ. Insofar as I know anything in this respect, and it is little, there is a resonance there

    Thank you

  42. Father,
    Wouldn’t you agree that part of the difficulty with the “mind in the heart” notion (communicated into words, and it’s potential subsequent misinterpretation for a novice in such matters) is that, in practice, it can be an extremely focused concentration of one’s entire being into a single point (without anything reductionist going on here), a leaving behind of everything for the sake of God alone in absolute repentance, which in turn, and through the action of the Holy Spirit, leads to the enlargement of one’s heart to truly cosmic dimensions…?

  43. I believe that especially in theological texts the use of “nous” or”noetic” has much broader and complex meaning than the heard-headed use of the (isolated) word “nous” (=more logical thinking). The expression “noetic”=”with the nous” e.g. life cannot be explained by mere physical connections and interactions, means that the perceived is also influenced to a very large extent by the sentiment and the “heart”, thus as Father Stephen notes is “greater”, “wholer”, constitutes a “larger factor of the conscious life.” (i am greek cardiologist).

  44. Here is a passage that came to mind where St. Paul draws together the relationship among sacrifice/surrender, worship, and mercy with our nous, in this case noos.

    “Present your bodies…” Interesting.

    Romans 11.33 – 12:2
    ————–
    O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

    “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”

    “Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

    For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

    I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your νοός, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    ————–

    St. Paul leads from this into an admonishment to humility, unity, and love among the believers with particular and practical applications. It would be proper to assume the two are connected–the renewal of the nous with an awareness and perception sensitive and expansive enough to prosper in holiness and virtue: humility, service, unity, love, a renewed nous that sees and knows why and how to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

    The text I’m using also defines νοός as, “mind, understanding, intellect, attitude, thought, opinion.”

  45. After reading comments, an idea occurred to me: a play on the CNS (central nervous system) — perhaps CSS, the ‘central spiritual system’. One might take it a step further: as the brain is the main control area for the CNS, the heart is the main control area for the CSS.

  46. Terry,
    The Fathers speak about the “darkening of the nous.” Essentially, sin and the passions darken the nous. Poverty is not a sin. It can certainly wreak havoc on the passions, though not as thoroughly as wealth does. Disease does not necessarily darken the nous – sometimes it might serve the opposite effect. Death – as in being surrounded by death? Again, it does not necessarily darken the nous.

    Christ has far more to say by way of warning about wealth and power. The modern idea of life thinks that poverty, disease and death are the greatest enemies. They’re bad, but they are far from our most dangerous enemies. Real evil and corruption are found in the halls of power and in the hands of money men – much more than most people know.

  47. Fr Stephen – do you think “nous” relates at all to the ancient Greek reality of “common sense” (NOT the modern meaning of that phrase)?
    If so, it would be easy to see the development of the modern colloquial British usage of “nous,” beginning with previous equivocation to the ancient meaning of “common sense,” then naturally devolving to the modern meaning of that phrase.

  48. Justin,
    I do not. It does not have that meaning in ancient Greek. However, it’s use as a slang British word should just be attributed to a culture where Greek and Latin were widely taught, and taught well. My wife, interesting, is about as intense a reader of Brit Lit (and an English major). She’s never encountered the word. I believe the word of our Brit’s about its use in slang – but it seems to have missed a literary trail. It’s utterly foreign to American English.

  49. Just following up on Dino’s idea that the nous is the eye of the soul, is it fair to say that the eye with which I see God is the very same eye with which God sees me? That is one of my favorite quotes by Eckart and it dovetails very nicely with Augustine’s notion that God is closer to me than I am to myself, or the image of our souls being temples of the Holy Spirit. So, in a sense, is the nous also the Nous?

  50. A side thought on John’s question: perhaps it is the image of God within us that draws us to Him? It is not so much a matter of “sight”, as we seem to commonly label it, but a matter of a crying need for communion with God, of being whole. Instead of using a “sight” metaphor, would our nous, in one sense at least, not be a way we “see” God but rather the way we attain communion with Him. I believe you used this picture before, Father: is it our facility to “attend deeply to the presence of God”.

  51. Father,

    Thank you for these wonderful words. I take part in a small discussion group split just about evenly between thoughtful, sincere atheists/agnostics and Christians of various stripes. We read short texts, alternately from theistic and non-theistic viewpoints, and share thoughts and reactions. It’s a marvelous group. I am thinking about bringing your post in to the group for reading as you’ve done such a wonderful job expressing the idea that God is not known through intellectual effort, questioning, or examination, but rather through, as you say, “participatory adherence”. I think, though, that what the atheists/agnostics in our group will hear is a call to a path that is open to all, regardless of religious belief – like a set of “spiritual practices”.

    Would agree that what you’re describing here – noetic perception of God – can be achieved “simply” by following the practices you describe: attentiveness, non-judgment, fighting the distractions of the passions and of consumerism? Does one even have to believe in God to practice these things? Could one have an awareness of God through practicing these things – perhaps without even realizing that you are actually attending to God?

  52. John,
    These practices, such as they are, are not utterly effective “in and of themselves.” They are part of the work of grace. I would never discourage anyone from such practices, but they, like everything that exists, are ultimately of no benefit apart from communion with God in Christ.

    But many atheists, etc., are often very wary of anything that makes them feel like you’re trying to make them join something or the like. But it’s not something that we have to convince them of. Just do it, live it, and become something that they might want to see.

  53. Elder Sophrony teaches that prayer–in the sense that Dino explicated in his marvelous comment (August 30 at 3:25 pm)–is in fact a creative activity. “Prayer is infinite creation,” he wrote somewhere, if I’m remembering the quotation correctly.

  54. Is prayer ‘infinite creation’ because of how it effects God, or how it effects the one praying, or some other reason?

    Thanks.

  55. Terry,
    The Elder meant that it was because it participates in the life of God. God alone is the Creator, but invites us into a true communion with Him. Sophrony, I think, was trying to help us see and understand the wonder of what prayer truly is as communion with God.

  56. Terry,
    Father already answered your question, but maybe I could add what I read in the books of Fr. Zacharias, the disciple of Fr. Sophrony.

    Church Fathers remind us that God does not need anything from us, nothing “changes Him”. We see in the example of the Saints what great potential it has to change us though…

    But there are some things “God appreciates”….. A specific list I remember from the books and lectures (it often starts as a list for monastics, but is then expanded to apply to the lives of all of us):
    1) pure prayer (and doing all our work “purely”); 2) monastic obedience (being humble and obedient in all circumstances of our life); and 3) giving thanks in trials and tribulation (in illness, persecution, difficulties of life).

  57. Thanks, Fr. Stephen. This has revealed a lot about some recent experiences I’ve had here in Ghana. The tribe I live with is very spiritual, and we sort of see each other in a way I’m not used to in the US. It is wonderful and soft.

  58. Thank you for explaining the concept more clearly than I’ve seen elsewhere.

    A hesitation I’ve had in praising the nous is the passage Jeremiah 17:9 (NKJV)

    “The heart is deceitful above all things,
    And desperately wicked;
    Who can know it?

    How would you contrast the nous with the heart in this sense?

  59. Michael,
    It’s a good question. The constitution of the human person tends to be different between most of the OT writings and those of the NT and later Fathers. The verse in question, by the way, reads very, very differently in the Septuagint: “The heart is deep beyond all things and is the man himself. Who can know it?”

    The nous can indeed be darkened, however. As Christ said, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.” (Mat 6:22) In the same manner, the nous is the lamp of the soul. If it is darkened (with the passions) then there will be darkness throughout. But it is not inherently dark.

    The notion that man has a fallen nature and is, by nature, wicked, is not the teaching of the Church. Man is fallen “from his nature,” i.e. he finds himself unable to live in accordance with his true nature. Natures themselves don’t fall. A nature is the very essence of something – that which makes it what it is. Our human nature makes us human. If it fell, we would not be human beings. We would be something else.

  60. “The constitution of the human person tends to be different…” between the OT and the NT.

    Is that because we have actually changed because of the Incarnation?

    I have often thought that even though the OT is about Christ the earthly part we can’t really understand because everything changed because of the Nativity. It a sense it is impossible to know or understand what actually happened historically.

    Just a thought.

  61. Michael,
    I do not think so. I think it is simply a change in language and culture. Both the NT, to a small extent, and the fathers, to a greater extent, use the vocabulary, and a modified version of the common philosophical understanding of human constitution that was part of the discussion within Greek culture. The NT has much stronger links to the Old with only small influences from Greek culture. But the Fathers definitely borrowed the Greek understanding, modified it and adapted it as a way to describe the human constitution.

    It is wrong to say that the Fathers were “Platonists,” but it is wrong to say that their vocabulary was not. Indeed, several Platonist ideas became important in the expression of dogma.

    The Incarnation turns our attention towards the human constitution, in that we considered how it is that Christ is both God and man. He reveals both to us. The notion of personhood is a good example. It, more or less, did not exist as a rich concept prior to Trinitarian theology. Greek culture (which included its vocabulary of philosophical terms) made it possible to give a very careful and subtle expression to these things.

    I’ve often wondered whether the controversies surrounding Christ’s Divinity and Humanity (Nestorianism, Monophysitism) were not driven partly by the inadequacies of language. A number of the major figures among the Nestorians and the Monophysites were primarily Syriac speakers and writers. Just thinking out loud.

  62. Father Bless,
    I too have that suspicion that language has a great deal to do with the founding of some of the heresies as well as the schism after Chalcedon. I know the subject of schism and heresy is far more complicated that merely linguistic difficulties, but these difficulties could have been the seed of corruption that started them.
    It is not lost on me either that since the Father’s work in Councils on personhood, that our concepts in the secular world have not advanced much. If we fully understood what it means to be a person such issues as abortion and euthanasia would have an entirely different tone in the deliberations in society.

  63. Nicholas, you are right. The tragedy is that the two storey secularist paradigm does not allow for personhood. Neither does paganism. Worth is either a utilitarian calculation or a question of power (wealth, position, etc) or the capriciousness of the gods and fate.

    I once had a short debate with a anti-Christian feminist in which I explained to her that without Christ, she would still be chattle.

    I briefly reviewed the state of women in pagan cultures such as India and also under Islam compared to the deference, kindness and dignity with which Jesus treated women.

    She had no response.

  64. Michael,
    They cannot respond because their argument is Ad Hominum and emotion based. Facts destroy their position because they do not know how to deal with facts. A perfect example is the Presidential campaign so far. Very little has been said about facts, real viable programs are not discussed but the polemic and vitriol have reached an astounding high.
    I was at our local abortuary yesterday and watched a five way cat fight. In one corner were the Roman Catholics doing the Rosary and minding their own business. Nearby was a fundamentalist Baptist (who believes in the “Trail of Blood.”) He was haranguing them and calling them non Christians. In another corner two conservative Presbyterians were duking it out verbally with an Evangelical who was trying to lead them to salvation. On the side was another Presbyterian admonishing a Mormon about them going to hell for their false beliefs. Not once did I hear a theological point to the discussions. As I occupied the Neutral corner quietly praying the Jesus Prayer, I heard nothing but judgmental polemic and Ad Hominum. In the mean time three women went in to the Murder Mill and no one addressed them in any fashion and the noise between the protagonists was too loud to intercede anyway. I am sure we “Christians” won zero points with them.
    If three souls had not just gone in to destroy themselves and their babies, it would have been hysterical. As it was, it was a testimony to the lack of ability for rational discussion between people professing to be Christian. The pagan world is not any better.

  65. Nicholas,
    Your description of this incident is chilling. I think something is afoot (demonically) in our nation/culture. It is like the spirit of Babel has fallen. Even those who might have commonality are driven to hatred. Very troubling indeed.

  66. Father Bless,
    In all perspective, we were standing in front of the Gates Hell itself. I often experience unseen warfare and direct physical consequences as well. A month ago a man threatened to shoot us, claiming to have a .45 in his truck with our names on it.
    Two weeks ago we were face to face with a man who seemed possessed. He had the most evil eyes I have seen in my life. Yes, our culture is on the descent into the pits of Gehenna as we sacrifice our children to Molech.
    Actually that scene reminded me most of the 16th Century and the Wars of the Reformation. The thin veneer of civility hammered out in the secularization of faith at Westphalia is only a gauze covering and not very thick. I often see this kind of hostility if I am fool enough to try to talk to someone about the Original Gospel much less trying to dispel the Forensic view of Salvation. I have learned to keep the focus at the Murder Mill on the task at hand and try to recall peoples’ attention to the mission. That we can agree on.

  67. I certainly agree that our modern Western education preps us to believe that we are the smartest people ever. We’re above those people wearing rags who were in the French Revolution, certainly above the idiots in the Dark Ages (why do you think they were dark, for goodness sake). And Lordy, we cannot even compare our modern intellect with the common morons of Jesus’s era, with their dirty feet and simple minds actually believing in the “miracles” that some vagrant radical performed until the local powers had him killed to stop it. Human intelligence is evolving, getting smarter every generation, right. Darwin said it (or at least somebody he influenced anyway).and it is undisputable fact.
    Why, to believe what Father Stephan says in this essay, one would have to believe that people in the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had as much native intelligence as we do today; that folks in King David’s time had the same capacity for abstract thought and observation as 21st century humans. I mean that idea would dictate that Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato were not just autistic savant outliers of genius, but members of a whole society of educated people who developed words and communication concepts to deal with depths of philosophy and ethics that are so intricate that we are the comparative morons.
    Please forgive the satire.
    This whole modern society premise that I described was so ingrained in me that it took years of Orthodox study and prayer to realize how wrong it is and what damage it continues to do all of to the Western world. If people in the 1st century are as intelligent as folks today, then de facto, we have to pay attention to what they say about what they observed, saw heard and thought. After all, they actually saw Christ, were taught by Him, corrected by Him, sent out and taught other apostles by Him; those in turn taught others always the same unchanging truth of the Gospel. Since we have no intelligence gap advantage over the ancients, and since they are closer in time and attention to detail to the source of God’s incarnation and greatest revelation, Christ on earth, we must revere the Fathers, and heed their words, not look for excuses to disbelieve them or put a modern spin on it.

  68. God bless you, Father.

    I learned a new word, noetic. And two more to accompany it, hesychia and nepsis.

    I believe this noetic prayer, and the disciplines of inner silence and disciplined attentiveness to the Real which should tend to coax it into our hearts as we dwell in love on the One we know loves us, is what I have sought for for so many years, even before I became a Christian, and which, by the grace of God, I have begun to know with growing strength and purity.

    Yet I have a question, and I’ll pose it here for anyone here who may be able to offer insight. Being myself a Latin Catholic and wannabe Carmelite, I wonder if noetic prayer is what people like St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross refer to as contemplation, and specifically as infused contemplation. This stage of prayer is recognized as the entrance into “passive” or “mystical” prayer properly so called, where our own subjective experience is that God takes the lead, and our role could be expressed as being one of “participatory adherence,” in the wonderful phrase cited from Lossky.

    I suspect this is so, which would indicate to me that I am not being introduced to something entirely unfamiliar to my experience.

    I came to this after reading today, in a blog post from a Byzantine Catholic, about differences between the spiritualities of the Christian East and the Christian West. The phrase “noetic spirituality” caught my attention, and I was drawn to find out more. I know very little about the East, but I think I will have to read further, because it seems there is a rich vein here.

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