A Terrible Knowledge

lucy-book

Greek Mythology made the curiosity of Pandora the primary cause of suffering in the world. She fails to resist the lure of finding out what is in a box she is told to leave closed. Opening the box, she unleashes sorrow and suffering into the world. We humans are a curious lot. We want to know everything about our business and much about what is not our business. In a world that has deeply internalized the notion that everything is a democracy, we cannot bear hearing that not all knowledge is meant for us.

And I know such a man– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows–how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2Co 12:3-4)

We fail to understand that knowledge is an act of communion. In some measure, everything we “know” becomes a part of us, and in becoming a part of us, we are changed. We are injured not only through the experience in which we gain knowledge but through the continuing burden of the knowledge that now lives in us. Such knowledge often leaves us broken and burdened in need of healing and relief. The change wrought by some knowledge can come close to destroying the one who knows it.

We love knowledge. To be excluded from being “in the know” often leaves us feeling ashamed and angry. We trust ourselves with everything and find out to our dismay that somebody else’s business can be a terrible thing.

This is also true with the things of God:

For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:13-14)

The Biblical writer suggests that not everyone is ready for “solid food.” I have rarely met anyone who thought that the verse applied to them.

Valeria Alfeyeva, the mother of Met. Hilarion Alfeyev, wrote a very captivating spiritual novel, semi-autobiographical, Pilgrimage to Dhzvari. It relates the story of a woman coming to grips with faith in the waning days of the Soviet Union. She finds herself and her son at a monastery in Georgia that is in the process of being restored and rebuilt. The abbot is deeply insightful. I was struck in reading it when the abbot becomes very upset with her after learning that she has read St. Maximus the Confessor. He wonders if she can possibly be saved. Needless to say, she was completely taken aback. His advice to her was interesting: “You should read no more in a day than you pray.”

I marvel when I think of how many things of great depth I have read with little or no profit. Among my earliest purchases (during college) was all four volumes of the Philokalia. It was probably worse than useless. The same is true, sadly, of many people who quote the Fathers. They know who said what about this or that, but they have no regard for the actual state of their own heart. They easily become children playing with sharp knives, very likely to hurt themselves as well as others. I had a difficult conversation with a young man who was promoting the Rudder, the collection of the canon laws of the Church. I told him that I almost never read the canons, and keep my copy at home, away from prying eyes. When I need an answer about a canonical question, I call my bishop. That’s what bishops are for. But, all too easily, young prying eyes soon learn to judge bishops and priests and lead their hearts down a darkening path.

There are wonderful things that we do not know, that have, at present, been hidden from us. CS Lewis once said that if you met a saint in the fullness of their holiness, your instinct would be to fall down and worship them. That very thing happens on occasion in the Scriptures at the encounter of an angel. Many people long to see an angel, or to speak with a saint, but they fail to ask whether such a thing would be good for them.

Over the years I’ve become convinced that knowing a little is a good thing, if what you know is the right thing and in the right measure. I read less than I once did, and I read with far more selectiveness. I’ve noticed that some few books I read repeatedly with good effect.

Give thought to knowledge as communion. To what do you wish to unite yourself? What do you want to avoid? Alarmingly, you can have communion with television and movies – a very sobering thought. What have you read that has fed your soul more than any other? Why was that so? Are there patterns in your reading?

Knowledge is a terrible thing – in the original sense of the word.

 

 

 

 

54 comments:

  1. Father Bless

    We live in such an Information Age – it is terrible.

    I think it would be better if it were not so, because even what you say about not reading the canons, but deferring to your Bishop — I have heard another priest say that a good priest should read the canons and be very very familiar with them so that they may be implemented.

    It seems that there are contradictions everywhere. (Yet I tend to appreciate your approach).

    But if I understand you – what you are referring to is about obedience?

  2. Reminds me of this, which I have often pondered with regard to what is too heavy for another or me….

    “And so seated next to my father in the train compartment, I suddenly asked, “Father, what is sex sin?”
    He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case off the floor and set it on the floor.
    Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he said.
    I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.
    It’s too heavy,” I said.
    Yes,” he said, “and it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger, you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.

    Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

  3. Mother said,
    “Straight ahead,
    Not to delay
    or be misled.”
    I should have heeded
    Her advice…
    But he seemed so nice.
    And he showed me things
    Many beautiful things,
    That I hadn’t thought to explore.
    They were off my path,
    So I never had dared.
    I had been so careful,
    I never had cared
    And he made me feel excited-
    Well, excited and scared.
    When he said, “Come in!”
    With that sickening grin,
    How could I know what was in store?
    Once his teeth were bared,
    Though, I really got scared-
    Well, excited and scared-
    But he drew me close
    And he swallowed me down,
    Down a dark slimy path
    Where lie secrets that I never want to know
    And when everything familiar seems to disappear forever
    At the end of the path was granny once again
    So we wait in the dark till you came and set us free
    And you brought us to the light
    And we’re back at the start

    And I know things now,
    Many valuable things,
    That I hadn’t known before:
    Do not put your faith
    In a cape and a hood,
    They will not protect you
    The way that they should.
    And take extra care with strangers,
    Even flowers have their dangers.
    And though scary is exciting,
    Nice is different than good.
    Now I know:
    Don’t be scared.
    Granny is right,
    Just be prepared.
    Isn’t it nice to know a lot!
    And a little bit not…

    stephen sondheim: “Into the woods” – Little Red Riding Hood’s song

  4. Father Stephen,
    This post is very helpful and surely hits home.
    Reading things of great depth…. not knowing the state of the heart… that you should read no more in a day than you pray…
    The key is knowledge as communion. This is a serious concept.
    Reading this post reminds me of Solomon’s warning
    “For in much wisdom is much grief,
    And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
    Thank you for the sound advice on this subject.

  5. Can we read Scripture to our hearts content?

    I like to reference St. John Chrysostom’s commentaries alongside books of the Bible I’m reading at times. His writings seem pastoral, written for the common folk of his day and age. Is it ok that I seek guidence from him too?

    I’ve learned a lot from reading volume 1 of Fr. Dumitru Stanlinoae’s “The Experience of God” set (and a little bit from volume 3). It has really benefitted my understanding when I read Scripture. It helps to escape the protestant-autocorrect my brain usually does. Should I refrain from reading the other volumes? I really suck at fasting and praying. I’m even worse at giving alms.

    In fact, back when I was a Lutheran I read Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” in college for a philosophy class, and though I only understood a fraction of its depths at the time, what little light I glimpsed from it helped lead me to Orthodoxy. I started looking at Dostoevsky as a spiritual guide. I knew I hardly understood the guy, but I had to follow after him and find out what he was about. Maybe it was a mistake, since my ascetic life back then was nonexistent.

    My ascetic life is still greatly lacking. I live like a heathen for the most part. Its is hard to struggle, and easy to sit and read. But all this reading is helping me to mentally understand God in better ways than I did as a protestant, but I’m not certain how its helping my communional knowledge of God. On the one hand, when I get away from reading its easy for my ascetic life to slip back into nonexistence, but then when I start reading again it becomes a persistant reminder to enter back into my struggles. But on the other hand, reading also simultaneously acts as a distraction from the ascetic life -I’m reminded to struggle, but I’m too absorbed in reading to actually do it. Because, like I said, its easier to sit and read all day than to pray, fast, and give alms, often getting a false sense of accomplishment just by sitting on my butt in a comfortable chair.

  6. I think i will start writing my comments in multiple short blocks with “to be continued..” at the end of them. Maybe them I will avoid going into moderation.

  7. I really don’t understand how the moderation thing does this to you.

    But. Staniloae is wonderful, and thick. I read him in little bits at a time. Then I chew. And it takes a long time to swallow. I’ve read and re-read Dostoevsky. When I finally got serious, I started reading commentary on him and it opened up a lot more content for me. I think we often substitute reading for study. If we thought more about studying, we would probably read much better.

  8. Michelle,
    I think I figured out why that comment was moderated. I have a list of words that will automatically put a comment in moderation. One of them is “suck.” There are a list of other scatological terms that will trigger moderation. I will probably remove “suck” since it seems, sadly, to have passed into harmless vernacular. In my day it would have been extremely offensive. Now it’s just “meh.” I’ve now carefully edited the trigger words and it will perhaps be a bit less sensitive. You’d be shocked at some of the things that try to get in as comments.

  9. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 130, Septuagint, (131 for everybody else). The first 2 verses read: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” When I find myself getting too big for my britches and looking into things beyond my depth, I remember this verse. I also remind myself of ideas I’ve gleaned from reading a whole lot of George MacDonald over the years: i.e., In order to be ready oneself to receive more knowledge, one needs to be putting into practice the knowledge one has. Or, even closer to his actual words: do the thing that lies next to you, and the next thing will become apparent.

  10. Father, several years back I had cause to read the canons on marriage in the Rudder. I was amazed at the nature of them. Since the cause was genuine and not mere curiosity I benefitted but I doubt that I will go there again. So easy to lose one’s way.

    The canons, for instance, depend so much on actual living context. Only the priest or bishop guided by the Holy Spirit can know how to read and what to apply and how much. A Cross to bear I am sure.

    Seraphim Rose of blessed memory wrote that to know the Fathers one had to acquire the spirit of the Fathers. Pray, fast, give alms, worship in repentance and forgiveness. I find if I concentrate on those things in proper order it helps calm my itching ears.

    What one is given to know is one thing. A totally different thing regarding what one can share.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  11. Never read more than you pray!

    What wonderful and difficult advice! Just last night I felt the need to read, as a distraction from my own mind. I picked up C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which I am in the middle or reading, and read a chapter. Simple and wonderfully effective. I do not feel damaged. 😉

    Of late, I have felt the need to lighten my reading load. And I need to pray and learn to pray. Timely advice, Father. Many thanks!

  12. “I read less than I once did, and I read with far more selectiveness. I’ve noticed that some few books I read repeatedly with good effect.”

    Am in total agreement.
    More prayer w/ little of TV, dutiful “reading”, and internet.
    (re-read proven good works is excellent advice however).

  13. I’m very grateful for this article, Father, I needed to hear/read this, and ‘take it to heart’.

  14. One of my favourite Irish authors is the late John Moriarty (Dreamtime). In a video interview with another celebrity, he posed the question: “Is our culture nourishing or ‘vampiring’ me?” It was a rhetorical question, as the latter is clearly the case.

    Thank You Fr. Stephen.

  15. When I started on my spiritual journey, I began with St Theophan the Recluse – THE PATH OF SALVATION.

    I remember, and have held true to his saying, read until you are full. Meaning don’t read for reading’s sake, rather, read only as much as you can understand – or need to “chew on” / pray or meditate on until you grasp the basic concept / meaning / or understanding.

    Over time, as you continue to advance, things you thought you knew fall to the wayside. While other deeper meanings will appear leading to a deeper level of understanding and warming your heart.

    Your heart / nous needs to be “nursed” and guided by the Holy Spirit through your synergy with Christ residing in your heart / nous.

    As you progress your nous will become your barometer. It allows you to FEEL and TASTE the reading you are consuming. Your nous also guides you during prayer. Warming with good thoughts, and cooling with negative ones.

    Reader John

  16. Father Stephen,

    Is there a commentary on Dostoevsky that you would recommend, on any or all of his works? I’m also learning to appreciate the value of a good scholarly commentary (thanks, Joyce!).

  17. Love this post Father! Thank you!

    I always remember that you once recounted the story here of when your professor S Hauerwas walked into class and stated that his students had no right to even offer up opinions on theology. I love that. We think we know everything and we desire to know everything. Truth be told, we know very little. I could be wrong about this, but I think the problem is getting worse. If you don’t think so, peruse Facebook for five minutes. When my wife and I are driving with our kids, if we turn down a street we don’t normally drive on, within two seconds there are screams from the back seat…”where are we going?!?!”

    I desire to read the Philokalia, yet I won’t even obey what Christ said in the Gospels. Lord have mercy.

    Lastly Father, I’m reminded of something else you wrote that ties in nicely here. It was a post of yours from 3/27/14 entitled “There are no opinions in this article.”

  18. As a young Orthodox, I heard about – and instantly acquired – John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. I prayed to John every day for nine whole months before he gave me permission to read his work. It was grueling – every day I would pass by it multiple times on the shelf, see it, and desire so fervently to open it and peer within. Beg John, but the door remained closed. When I finally received permission, I marveled at the wisdom with which it was withheld from me until the proper time. I just wasn’t ready. I’ve been Orthodox for almost a decade and I’m barely in to the 2nd volume of the Philokalia (and certain I’ve missed the vast bulk of what is there – if indeed I have “gotten” any of it at all). Some knowledge is, indeed, terrible.

  19. Wonderful post!

    It reminds me of how foolishly I have tried “race to the top” much of my life – without ever acknowledging to myself that that was what I was doing.

    Whether it be spiritual books or piano pieces, I also wanted to start with the most difficult. I couldn’t be bothered learning the scales – give me the difficult music! Which, of course, I only learned to play in a mediocre fashion because I never laid the groundwork.

    Much of my reading too was taking on the challenging texts – or reading just to finish a page or chapter so that I could go on to the next. Only as I have gotten older have been given the grace to see how much of my energy in this regard was focused on ME.

    Knowledge attained this way is often just information. It totally misses the point of “communion” inherent in truly knowing with the heart and not just the intellect. I would not have thought this true of me before, of course, but when I make myself “god”, I have no faults. 🙂

    This whole style I’ve indulged in reminds me of the words my friend, St. Therese of Lisieux, gave to the novices she led: “You want to climb the mountain, whereas God wishes you to descend it. He is awaiting you in the fruitful valley of humility.”

    Back in February of this year, I posted here that I was starting an online discussion on “Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way” by Matthew The Poor. Though discussion has dropped to a minimum, I’m still studying and praying my way through this book 10 months later. The process of posting on the book as been so good for me – regardless of whether anyone reads it – because I am truly delving into the book, “communing” with its truths in a way that I would not if it were just a casual read.

    Thanks be to God who puts up with – and then rescues me from – my absurd vanity.

  20. Thank you Father Stephen! Search for Knowledge is good, but Wisdom may be in your heart, already.

    Love & Blessings to all Mankind.

  21. I wish I could have worked earlier in God’s garden. I wish I could’ve toiled more. I wish I could have stopped and dined with Him in His house more often. I wish I could’ve *seen* that a clean garment was needed before taking communion. I wish I would’ve trembled in fear and tearful thankfulness for his sufferings. I wish I could have *heard* the church’s bell calling me. I wish I knew how much He loves me and how patiently He is waiting for me. I wish I knew earlier that softening a proud heart doesn’t take decades, but persistent moments of shame, moments of despair because you want so much *to see*. I wish I knew that there’s not enough knowledge or books that could teach like true repentance does, true repentance through the intercession of the Theotokos. I wish I *knew* he is present everywhere and in everyone. I hope I could desire to be anywhere He wants me, anywhere as long as I’m with Him. I hope I could find myself in everyone. I hope I get to pray for everyone as I would pray for myself.
    There’s so much more, so much more, I wish it could have been different, and yet, He is paying us so abundantly not because we are worthy, but out of his mercy.
    Pray for me, Fr. Stephen!

  22. So much to ponder here, both in the blog posting and in the comments.

    Father’s observation that we can have communion with television and movies may explain at least partially why I’ve avoided most TV and movies for the past several decades.  But my reading habits were awful in my younger years and I think I’m still recovering/trying to heal from that.  Some of what I read in my childhood – books that were considered appropriate for children – harmed me both psychologically and spiritually.  They are still considered to be appropriate books today by the larger culture in which I live, but I kept them away from my daughter.

  23. Wow Z! That was heavy. I believe that is the closest I’ve come to witnessing a true confession… written in words, no less.
    God help us redeem our time!

  24. Father, bless: could you put together a recommended reading list for those of us who are addicted to reading? I would love other books that benefit me as much as I think your blog posts do.

  25. It is oddly coincidental to me to hear these things: just last week I was sharing with my husband that my “smart” phone has become a Pandora’s Box and that every time I say, “I’m just curious…” I should see that as a big yellow warning light. I had stopped visiting Facebook a few months ago (I think it’s impossible to actually get rid of the app), but now I have had to delete the Google News app (how many times a day does one need to know “what’s happening”–if that were even true). To decide that I don’t need to know everything the world wants me to be obsessed with; that I need to enter more into prayer and scripture–this is part of the Nativity Fast this year and, hopefully, into the future. My Deacon husband suggested that I try to do what the saints do…St. Seraphim came to mind. I believe he read the Gospels (all of them) at least once a week, etc. At this point I’m only reading about 30 minutes/day. But, it’s a start.

  26. Fr. Freeman… The previous post needs to be deleted. Not sure what that’s about, but the video is disturbing.

  27. Geri,
    Sorryh, it was spam. I did not look at the image, assuming it was possibly pornagraphic. I struggle to keep these things off. Sorry for any pain. It’s a “terrible knowledge” they offer.

  28. Father,
    I’m sorry that you encounter and have to moderate such terrible things on your blog. I wish it weren’t so. It’s sad.
    Makes me appreciate your efforts all the more. Thank you. God bless.

  29. Thank you Paula for your kind words!
    And thank you, Fr. Stephen for tending this blog! All of us are thirsty for your words, and thank God the stream is never getting dry, but rather leading to new streams of water! 🙂

  30. I’m reminded of Eve…

    “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    The root of mankind’s fall is the desire for forbidden knowledge.

  31. Father Stephen et al,
    is there a way to do a search inside the comments sections for a key-word?
    Or, failing that, perhaps to see a list of all comments that’s a little longer than just the five most recent comments at the top right? Not to worry if there isn’t, [but I would love to know if there is perhaps some technical procedure that I am not aware of but other know of]. I have always sought to be able to search for some past “gems”, which I know are hidden in some very old and long comments thread on a topic that comes up again and again, however, that’s quite a battle and occasionally it’s actually impossible to locate. Thank you.

  32. Thank you Father. That would be a most welcome enhancement to a blog of such a nature if it can ever be implemented in future!

  33. Dino, if you go to the search it edit function of your browser there should be a function “Find” or “Find on page”. On phones where the comments can go to multiple pages you will have to go to each page.

  34. Father, I’m going to ask the same question that Michelle asked: “May we read Scripture to our hearts content?”

  35. Dear Father Stephen,

    Could you please remind us the name of the singing group you once introduced us to, singing Christmas carols “acapella”? I remember a song about Mary, but not enough details to find it….

    With Reid’s suggestion on how search the blog archives, I am like a “kid in a candy store” today… Thank you again Reid!! 🙂

    Agata

  36. Father, I have struggled to love my elderly parents and over the past year fallen flat on my face in front of them so often.

    What I see in them is self destruction being called wisdom (I am just destroying myself a different way through anger)

    But I have been thinking that perhaps I do not know my dad. Theoretically he could be a saint one day. This is what God wants. There could be an icon of him one day. I have wondered about that icon

    That is the true him. Instead of thinking I know him I have been trying to say I don’t know him but hope to one day

  37. Many times I find myself reading and rereading the same books as well as this blog. I have a hunger for something that feeds my soul, because my prayers can be dry and flimsy. I read with the hope of the Holy Spirit opening my eyes. I pray not to read for other selfish reasons, however I keep wondering if God will speak louder and clearer, if I keep reading about Him. It has occurred to me as of late, (and I saw that you had commented on this Father Stephen,) that God will reveal Himself as He sees my readiness, and I should not be preoccupied with myself in that way. Pray for me.

  38. Dino,
    Thank you so much!

    I recently visited a monastery and the Fathers sang the “Oh come oh come Emmanuel” at the end of each service, as they were venerating the cross and leaving the church…

    It was amazingly beautiful.

    Especially since, as they are on the old calendar, all services were related to the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, and our anticipation of Christ with Her…

    Thank you again! Pentatonix has a nice rendition of “Oh come oh come Emmanuel” too. Not as beautiful as the monks’ though! 🙂

  39. I wonder if there is way that this blog could be organized along thematic lines? Granted it won’t help search comments for particular discussions as those tend to meander all over at times, but it would help to reread particular posts on specific subjects.

  40. Byron,
    The tabs at the top can be used to find topics. I’ve also located some good possible add-ons for a comments search. Gotta talk with my Ancient Faith Web guy – probably Monday.

  41. Hi Nicole from VA,
    I just wanted to comment that I am experiencing much of the same stuff you are with regards to older parents. After much frustration, I have resigned myself to the fact that I can only do so much. I keep reminding myself that they are God’s children, and He has a plan that I may know nothing about for them. May God give you strength…

  42. Hi Nicole from VA,

    May God give you and your parents strength and patience! I have heard it said that the encroachment of old age with all its “distinctions” is actually a means of purification by which God allows for the elderly (and those who care for them) to prepare/ become purified for death/eternal life. May it be blessed!
    Eleftheria

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