What To Do With What You Know

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.

 

42 comments:

  1. I’m reminded of Thomas Aquinas’ s proclamation close to his death: “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” He was close to fifty at the time I believe.

  2. Thank you Father! Outstanding. What you’ve written here is a stinging rebuke to our modern society. I love it!
    I’m reminded of something I once read (perhaps it was from you) of a monastery Abbot who forbade his younger monks from reading the Philokalia, on the grounds that it was far too advanced for them.
    I do have a quick question from the first paragraph. In the account, the Monk states: “You’ve read St. Maximos? How will you ever be saved?” Is the idea here that the woman should be praying, not reading? That she can’t be saved by simply reading quotes from the Saints? Or, is this more like the Abbot who forbade his young Monks from reading the Philokalia?

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    You write, “Information that is not an answer to a question is useless.” I believe it was you who wrote that there are billions of things that happen each second. And yet our “news” massages these down to a mere four or five stories as to what is important that day in our world. Isn’t information of this type useless since it is “answering” a non-asked question ?

  4. Fr. Bless,
    I was recently given an obedience. At Church I am to be didactic only when I am asked questions.
    As a result I have reworked a common liturgical phrase:
    O Lord, button Thou my lips and my silence shall shew forth Thy praise.”

    Forgive me.

    Ben the Abject.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful essay, Fr. Stephen.

    I wonder how many people know an Elder?

    I had the good fortune of spending this past weekend with ‘my’ Elder. Her joy and delight in others – her humility and simplicity – formed in the crucible of suffering, is illuminating. When I told her how grateful I was to have her in my life – she responded “It takes younger ones (who are willing to acknowledge that they are not yet Elders) to make an Elder”.

  6. It seems to me that the Church has the answers to the questions that modernity has deemed irrelevant. Is that not part of the tradgedy of the two story universe?

  7. I wish so much of Orthodox spirituality did not sound like the sound of one hand clapping. It is not the way I experience God or life and turns me off.

  8. “Orthodox Christianity is not a topic to be mastered.”
    As a PhD student in early Christianity who is considering becoming Orthodox, this is particularly difficult for me to let go of (but extremely important to remember).

  9. Father Bless,
    This is very important advice. I graduated from Seminary knowing a whole lot of things, most of which I would now classify as not helpful information. I have learned far more from prayer and reading the Psalms as part of prayer. I think the important point is that Orthodoxy is experiencing the Lord, not a body of knowledge. The greatest distance in a human is that between the head and the heart and knowledge puffs up and fills the head, but does not touch the heart. Experiencing the Lord is what touches the heart. Thank you for this reminder.

  10. I wish so much of Orthodox spirituality did not sound like the sound of one hand clapping. It is not the way I experience God or life and turns me off.

    Steve, I’m not sure what you mean by this. Would you elaborate?

  11. In reference to “one hand clapping” (I’m sorry, but I seem to be forever looking up things 🙂 ) what it says is, it is a clasic Zen koan given to students to aid in enlightenment by leading the mind into a cul-de-sac *with no way out but enlightenment*. Now, isn’t that the bottom line in “knowing God”? Just asking…..

  12. Well, Fr. Stephen, I am over 60, very much aware of how little I know, and not very good at figuring out my questions. Still some of your 2,000 articles have answered some of those unframed questions. I am sure your writing has played a part in enabling me to begin to hear the silence of the the truth a tiny bit.

  13. Couple of things:
    As much as I personally fall prey to seeking head knowledge u over heart, I never really understood the concept of leading people to God through apologetics. In this vein it seems notable that Christ’s final command was for his followers–who frankly had almost no theological understanding–to be His witnesses: just tell about who He is and how it had changed them.

    On a separate note, as a convert to Orthodoxy, I have found the role of godparents to be a conceptually powerful in this need for eldership. I’m not sure the reasons, but it sadly doesn’t seem to play to its strength in many cases, whether the relationship is thought of as a formality or something cultural, or perhaps godparents are often reluctant to invest heavily because they feel lacking in thelogical knowledge. But for anyone reading this, consider how we could better capitalize on this already built-in but often underutilized role within the historical Church.

  14. Steve,
    If you are Orthodox, then the “mystical” side of Orthodoxy must indeed be annoying. It is, however, a hallmark of Eastern Christianity (and St. Paul, and St. John) since the earliest times. If you are not Orthodox, then I would imagine that Orthodoxy itself would be annoying. However, I think real life is actually quite mystical. If God does not seem hidden to you – then you are quite unusual. I think there might be more to your story than you know. But I’m just guessing.

  15. A Reader,
    I’m glad of that. Still, in my own life, the most important things still rest in silence. It’s my questions, I think, that keep me praying, knocking, asking, etc. I think, as well, that my 2,000 articles are really only about 20 or 30 articles. I find ways to say the same things, mostly. Or so it seems to me…that I know very little.

  16. Your article sheds an important light as to why the ancient and medieval authors preferred the dialogue form- the so-called socratic method of teaching – questions and answers.

    Come to think of it, almost all thick dogmatic and mystical writings are answers to questions someone posed- see St Maximos for example. Also the Ecumenical Councils.
    Summas such as those of Thomas Aquinas are truly an innovation and something rarely encountered in Orthodoxy until modern times.

    And about you writing 2000 + articles, I have in mind something written by Origen and followed on by other Fathers as well: he who speaks the truth says one Word, no matter how many words he uses. And he who speaks lies speaks many words, no matter how few words he uses.

  17. Ben,
    I laughed out loud when I read how you’d reworded that line from Psalm 50/51.
    Thank you!

    Fr. Stephen,
    Bless!
    As I read your article, I was reminded of something St. Paisios had said about not reading the Old Testament until we are spiritually ready (mature) to do so – and at that, only when our spiritual father gives us the go-ahead.
    How I wish I had read his advice before I “got so old”!

    In Christ,
    Eleftheria

  18. Well, fifty years after Jesus Christ revealed Himself to me in response to my deep longing to know He was real..my questions have been reduced to “What is the root of my sin?” and “How must I repent”? I have found the witness here is the answer to the first. The answer to the second is hinted at here but the reality remains hidden only gradually revealed as I continue to ask and, in humility, receive.

    The so-called mystical reality is simply God revealing Himself and His love in and through all things and all people.

    The general approach people take to anything “mystical” is that it is not real (two storey). Yet the mystical teachings and experience of the Church are founded on the Incarnation. God becoming man. The uncreated unifying with His creation in a deeply intimate, personal and ineffable way while at the same time concretely on behalf of all and for all.

    How is it possible to describe such a paradoxical union except by use of paradox?

  19. I have come to think of the process of salvation as a bit like cooking and eating an artichoke.

  20. Theophilus of holy memory, bishop of Alexandria, journeyed to Scetis and the
    brethren coming together said to abba Pambo, “Say a word or two to the bishop,
    that his soul may be edified in this place.” The old man replied, “If he is
    not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my
    words.”

    I have read your words here for many years, Father Stephen, and they always bring me to silence.

  21. Thank you Father. I am more than old enough to be a theologian, and smart enough to know that I will never be one. So when I encounter a discussion about toll houses, or the means by which the Holy Spirit turns the elements into the body and blood of our savior, I remind myself of a line Fr. Andrew Damick used in a lecture and I move on. He said (and I paraphrase) that “the intellect is a singularly inadequate method of knowing the Godhead.” I no longer care about the how. I just need to know the why.

  22. Fr. Stephen
    In my somewhat superficial and general perusal of Orthodox writing, I came across a statement that bothered me a great deal . The author was, I think well respected, but I’ve fortunately forgotten his name. Anyway he made a statement to the effect that real faith required no evidence. As I thought about it, I considered what is said about Abraham, the “father of faith’, that he believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. It may be a small thing, but it didn’t say “he believed in God”. Clearly he had a reason to believe.
    The statement I mentioned above sounds rather like belief in knowledge or information and though both are valuable, I certainly wouldn’t want to put my life on the line for, say, algebra. If I’m remembering correctly a part of the Greek word ‘martyr’ means witness, not just someone who has died for a cause. In fact, in a courtroom someone who is called as a witness, but has no direct experience with the evidence, but only has what others have said is rejected . His evidence is hearsay. It seems that many of the “debates”, O.K. arguments, I let myself become ensnarled (visual pun) in end up with me defending my interpretation of something, my “turf”. This is perhaps the main reason I very much appreciate St. Thomas who was apparently unwilling to base the rest of his life only on the testimony of others. He went to his death, not because he was defending principles, but because he had had an experience with the risen Lord.

  23. Mark,
    As an evangelical I read lots of books such as McDowell’s, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” These are certainly not bad books to read. But I do not believe that anyone has ever been argued into becoming a Christian. At some point one has to experience the personal Christ. Now at certain times in my life as an evangelical, Christ was very real to me. His grace often wooed me. And grace can come to us in many ways. As Orthodox Christians we believe that we experience Christ sacramentally…principally in the Eucharist when we partake of His body and blood. We understand that in John 6 Christ was not speaking symbolically; else why would some at that point fall away from Him? His words were hard. He let them go. And we do not dismiss His words as merely spiritual. One does not get sick or die over a symbol. We also experience Him in anointing with chrism, in baptism, etc. And prayer is right up there with the Eucharist. It is a wondrous thing to sit in the nighttime in His presence. A verse that has always meant much to me is John 5:39,40. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
    The early Christians did not have the scriptures as we have them until the fourth century. Yet they turned the world upside down! We love the Bible as Orthodox. I hear it proclaimed in liturgy much more than I ever did as an evangelical. Yet they point us to Christ. Neither the scriptures nor any evidence can save us. Only he can. “I know my own and they know me.” John 10:14. So yes, many evangelicals know and love Christ. But I believe His fulness is found in Orthodoxy and in her tradition (2Thess. 2:15). Tradition, we believe, is the Holy Spirit’s living/abiding presence in the life of the Church. So, evidence, okay. But life in its fulness in Christ, so much better.
    Twenty two years after becoming Orthodox I still often feel, after a liturgy, that I have been born again, again!

  24. Mark, Dean
    There is, I think, a place for evidence…it’s what witnesses are for. And though my own witness to my encounter with Christ is important, the necessarily subjective character of that experience is easily assaulted. On a bad day, we can be somewhat shaken. In a bad period, faith can take a beating.

    I had one of those bad days recently. Something came across my threshhold, innocent in itself, but it touched off a cascade of historical-critical doubts. I was trained in those doubts and you never quite shake something that is part of your training.

    Rather than argue with myself and my own thoughts (a pretty useless exercise), I sat down and turned on a youtube lecture by Gary Habermas. He’s an evangelical, a scholar, and one of the single best apologists I’ve ever encountered. He’s honest. He really respects his audience and anyone he is engaging, and he was trained in the historical method in a secular university. But his reasoning and presentation of historical and reasonable facts is extremely solid (and quite convincing to me).

    It only told me things I knew, but I found great comfort in hearing them presented so well. He’s much better than McDowell because he actually reads and studies people who disagree with him, takes them seriously and thinks. I would love to me him someday.

    The evidence takes us to a certain place – but from there we have to pursue God Himself – never anything less. “I know whom I have believed…” St. Paul said.

  25. Fr. Stephen,

    I like Mihai’s quote above: “He who speaks the truth says one Word, no matter how many words he uses. And he who speaks lies speaks many words, no matter how few words he uses.”

    I have found it to be so true. To phrase it another way: he who speaks the truth keeps repeating himself; he who lies keeps coming up with new ways to deny the truth.

    Just to add: you have set themes and your many attempts to communicate them have been very welcome. This is probably because they are “long lost” pieces of wisdom that I find hard to hear and even harder to comprehend – not to mention almost impossible to assimilate into my life. I need the blessed Chinese water torture if I’m going to hear it above the roar of our age and then to get any of it into my thick skull.

    Thanks for your many words which are in the end just one word.

  26. Thank-you, Fr. Stephen. My own initial encounter, that is the one I was conscious of, was enough to get me going. It remains something I can’t deny though at times I’ve tried to find other explanations for what occurred. Nevertheless, it was a start and since then knowledge (information) and experience have combined into something more organic, if you will, and helps me deal with what you have called a two storey worldview. I still have to remember that I’m not following some cleverly devised master plan of human origin, but a person who is the way.

  27. Bless, Father.

    I’m adding this post to my favorites.

    “…pay attention to your questions.”

    This is a path? What does it look like? What about “old souls”?

  28. BTW….Blessed New Year to all!
    “The spirit of the Lord is upon me; because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…”

  29. Fr. Stephen,
    Going back to not answering questions people are not asking….Should this apply also to speaking to others about Orthodoxy?
    Should we only speak to others, give them something to read, if they first have shown an interest in our Orthodox faith? I don’t like being pushy but I don’t want to be ashamed of our faith either.

  30. Dean,

    “Be ready to answer for the hope that lies within you…” I think it makes a big difference where you’re coming from when you open your mouth to say something to the person in front of you:
    –Are you trying to save someone?
    –Are you selling something or promoting a brand?
    OR
    –Are you thinking of that other person, putting yourself in their shoes and reaching out to help with whatever you have: a band-aid, some money, your time, the good things that have helped you in similar situations?

    For me the key is usually whether I’m trying to manage a situation and make it all better in my own eyes; or if I’m simply responding out of the best of who I am and reflect Christ in doing so.

  31. Fr. Stephen, Yes. I just thank God and you that you do write. It is quite amazing how many times you have posted an article that spoke directly to something I was struggling to understand just at that time.

  32. Dean,
    I think there are many natural settings where questions are asked. Pay attention to the settings. I wear my cassock everywhere…I get lots and lots of questions. Things like, “Are you a rabbi?” …It’s the South, people are just not sure about stuff…

  33. Hi Father, when my dad talks about reincarnation or something I know to be false, should I say something like ‘I don’t agree with that’ or ‘that is not something I believe in’ or should I just let it go and say nothing. Sometimes I do one thing and sometimes another. In particular he refers to me as an object of luck and when I said to him that it sounded like he was praying to me he did not object. His subsequent comments provided more evidence to confirm it, mixed in with a clear heresy as well.

    It is like he speaks the language of Mordoor. It hurts to hear it. He was told he was an unlucky person in a childhood horoscope and he believes it despite many blessings. I wish he knew this beauty and hope of Orthodoxy.

  34. Nicole,
    God knows his heart. Pray that in your conversations something will reveal something of his heart that you can speak to. I wouldn’t worry about correcting him – he very likely already knows what you think. I know as a parent that “connecting” is deeply important and can be very hard when your children are adults. There’s nobody else in your life that you love so much and yet have a hard time connecting with.

    You’re saving your father even when you don’t know it. Love him. Ask for openings. Don’t worry. It’s beyond your control.

  35. Bless, Father! Once I embraced Orthodoxy, it is precisely the mystical side of it that freed me. It freed me from the constant quest to study Sunday School lessons. It freed me from those endless Baptist sermons. It freed me to strive to know God by listening and responding to the Holy Spirit’s urgings within me: call your neighbor, listen to others, show love to those that love me and those that hate me, be in the presence of monastics, learn how to be a real human being not just through study but by listening to that still, small voice within me. I thank God for the mysticism of Orthodoxy. It helps me to see how much I am loved and so lovingly woven toget her with others in this fabric of creation. This mysticism has helped me learn how to love others. It has helped me become human.

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