In a world driven by information, it is more than a little easy to mistake knowing something as important and good in and of itself. As such, the acquisition of spiritual information is something of a going industry. In a Russian novel written back in the 90’s, a woman intellectual encounters a monk who is restoring an ancient monastery in Georgia. During a conversation, she brings up a quote from St. Maximus. The monk is startled and says, “You’ve read St. Maximos? How will you ever be saved?” He went on to tell her that she should never read more hours in a day than she prayed.
It is scandalous in our time, particularly where information is seen as an essential element of democracy (and we imagine the spiritual life to be as rightly democratic as the political life), to be told that there is knowledge that is bad for you or knowledge for which you are not yet suited. It is the case.
Years ago, I was told that I should only speak about what I know (this came as advice to me from a senior priest who was speaking on the topic of preaching). “You always have a right to tell your own story,” he said and advised that my preaching should stay within the bounds of my experience. It was a hard word because I was young and had very little experience. It remains good advice to this day.
I have extended this rule to my writing, which is one of the reasons that you will not see me holding forth on some topics. I come dangerously close to breaking this rule whenever I think out loud about science – though it seems unavoidable.
There is a reason why the word “elder” carries such weight in Orthodoxy: theology and wisdom are not the province of the young. I have met very brilliant young minds in theological settings, but they are generally minds that do not know what to do with what they know. One way of thinking about this has to do with questions. The same older priest who told me only to speak about what I knew, also told me not to answer questions people weren’t asking. And that advice continues to guide me.
You cannot know something for which you have no question. You can gather and retain information, but you will never know it until it actually becomes your own, something that can only happen because of questions. Information that is not an answer to a question is useless. Why would you want to bother with it?
I suppose we could speak of applied knowledge versus mere information. We had a family conversation about trigonometry recently (my oldest daughter is a mathematician). I confessed to having no idea whatsoever about the topic, though I had a class in it in high school and apparently got a ‘B.’ My observation was that no one ever bothered to tell me what trigonometry was an answer to. I learned from my daughter that it had something to do with triangles. Most of what she said was beyond my ken.
It is this same reality that tends to make theology a work of the elderly. It is said that the best math and physics are done before age 30. The best theology is done after age 60. The nature of the questions in theology are often not the burden of the young. Of course, some of the questions of the young no longer matter after age 60.
This reflection suggests a path for the knowledge of God: pay attention to your questions. The result of this path is that you become far more aware of what you don’t know than of the things you think you know. Mere information fades.
I had a series of conversations last year with a troubled young man who was accusing me of various heresies. Throughout our exchanges, my concern was to turn his attention away from his ill-digested information (certain so-called Orthodox websites do more harm than good) and towards his own soul. His delusion was to see dangers where there were none and to ignore the danger that was immediately present within. I failed. He has not fared well.
Orthodox Christianity is not a topic to be mastered. If it is rightly understood, the Orthodox faith is an account of “everything.” It is not a subset of religious knowledge or a compendium of doctrines. It is the whole of existence, created and uncreated. Most of the faith cannot be spoken. The less of the unspoken that surrounds any given statement, the more likely that statement is to be wrong or distorted.
St. Ignatius of Antioch observed: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” He also noted: “The more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him.”
All this, of course, comes as a stern rebuke to someone who has written over 2,000 articles. I will say, however, that my greatest accomplishment is in what I have not written. It is perhaps only there that I shall find salvation.