I have often used the example of riding a bicycle as an image of knowing God. There’s no difficulty learning how to ride if you don’t mind falling off for a while. But no matter how many years you have ridden, you cannot describe for someone else how you know what you know. But you know it. I also suspect that if you thought too much about riding a bicycle while you were riding it, you could mess up and wreck.
This, for me, is an example of knowing while not knowing. It’s very common. This form of knowledge is sometimes called “kinesthetic memory.” You know something, but not through discursive reasoning or self-conscious experience. I believe that the knowledge of God, our communion with Him, belongs to something similar. The Fathers describe the knowledge of God as “noetic” knowledge – something that works through the nous, rather than through discursive reasoning or the other experiences that make up our conscious psychology. If you ask, “What is the nous?” The fathers would say, “It’s that faculty by which you know God.”
But first, it is worth noting what it is not. The nous is not discursive reasoning. No amount of thinking will ever yield knowledge of God. That is a straightforward conclusion of the claim that the knowledge of God is “noetic.” Second, the knowledge of God is not a psychological experience, per se. I have stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and felt that terrible vertigo in the bottom of my feet, and the overwhelming sense of its vast and dangerous depth. The knowledge of God is not like that, though it can indeed carry an element of overwhelming otherness. It is not the weepy excitement often associated with forms of ecstatic worship (Pentecostalism). I’ve been there. Done that. It’s not the same thing at all. It is not a “feeling,” nor even an intuition.
Fr. Thomas Hopko famously said, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” He clearly knew what he was talking about.
Knowledge As Communion
The Scriptures speak of knowledge as communion, a true participation in that which is known. The Scriptures are also familiar with discursive reasoning, the sort of factual knowledge that is quite common. St. Paul occasionally uses an intensified word for knowledge, epignosis.” Simple gnosis (the straightforward word for knowledge) would have been sufficient, but he instead employs this intensification. The knowledge that comes through communion is not a fact to be considered, rather, it is a knowledge that in the very act of knowing becomes part of you. The knower and the known share some manner of common existence.
To use again the example of riding a bicycle, we cannot describe the knowledge that we have, because the knowledge itself is not something in addition to us. We ourselves become the knowledge of riding. We become riders in that act of knowing, and no one can know unless they themselves become a rider.
The healing that is inherent in Christian salvation is not just found in what (Who) is known, but in the manner of knowing as well. The abstraction that we call “thinking,” etc., in the contemporary world is a diminishment of what it means to be human. We have learned to focus on a very narrow stream of information, and, in turn, have come to be possessed by the information on which we focus.
Communion is not a refined art to be mastered. It is always present and a factor in everything in our lives, though our culture largely ignores it. To use a sadly common example, anyone who has experienced exposure to pornography must admit that the images do not disappear when the computer is turned off. Studies have shown that such exposure (particularly among the young) makes profound changes in awareness itself. It becomes part of us. This reality is anticipated by St. Paul:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” (1Co 6:15-16)
Knowledge is not entirely a choice, nor is seeing something to be turned off and on at will. Communion unites us to that which we see. It becomes part of us and we inescapably bear it within us. Sin is like a cosmic PTSD, an abiding and indwelling echo of that to which we have joined ourselves. St. Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24)
The Darkened Heart
St. Paul also uses the term “heart” in describing the state of the nous (something that remains common in the Fathers):
…having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; (Eph 4:18)
…because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:21)
This “darkening” describes the effects of a communion with the dark things of the world. The passions (gluttony, lust, love of money, anger, dejection, despondency, vainglory, pride), and the distorted vision of creation that they produce, gain their power when we enter into communion with them. Our thoughts can never be “objective” in such a situation. Rather, we see the world through filters – those of various passions that have now become united to us.
The Path of Salvation
Within the writings of the Fathers, the life of salvation is described in three stages: purification, illumination and deification. These steps are not entirely sequential. Some measure of each of them is present in the whole of the Christian life (rightly lived). But their sequence abides: there is no deification without prior purification and illumination. Given the nature of our life in the world, it is almost always the case that purification forms the greater part of our struggle.
This process is referenced by St. Paul:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your nous, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:2)
Note that St. Paul does not ground this renewal in some form of moral effort in which the will merely tries harder. The problem is within the nous, the heart. And it is that primary cognition of our human existence that must be transformed. It’s for this reason that I said earlier that the healing that is inherent in Christian salvation is not just found in what (Who) is known, but in the manner of knowing as well. It is the cleansing and renewing of the nous (heart) that is paramount in the life of salvation.
I will return to the image of learning to ride a bicycle. There is a two-fold element in that process, analogous to purification and illumination. Falling off and getting back on are the essential elements of purification. Fear and any number of passions could prevent this process from taking place. Falling off is not failure. Not getting back on would be failure. Our moral failures are almost beside the point. Repentance, the refusal to abandon the life of grace in Christ, is the one thing necessary. Illumination comes in time and with it comes a greater awareness and understanding of our failings.
It is vital that we make a beginning in this journey of inner renewal. We do not ignore what can be known through discursive reasoning, but we do not mistake it for saving knowledge. We recognize the reality of sentimentality in our lives but we do not raise it to the level of authentic spiritual experience. With prayer, repentance, and helpful guidance (there is no Christianity without some form of discipleship) we come to hear and know the Shepherd’s voice. We will fall down a lot. What matters is getting back up.
“Falling off is not failure. Not getting back on would be failure. Our moral failures are almost beside the point. Repentance, the refusal to abandon the life of grace in Christ, is the one thing necessary. Illumination comes in time and with it comes a greater awareness and understanding of our failings”
Thank you Father! This is priceless.
God bless you and your ministry!
I have experienced the importance of “helpful guidance.” right here , and am so grateful. I would not use the term disciple —“(there is no Christianity without some form of discipleship)”— although I understand the reference and do not mean to criticize for I see how that unifies us and emphasizes our starting point. My own version of the term would be role model, or maybe teacher, I have fallen off my bike many times, but fortunately there has be been a a fellow rider to wait ahead while i get back on. Thank you, father, for being among them . I ride more more carefully now, But the bumps and potholes still surprise me.
The nous is a relatively new concept, or should I say reality for me. It is something that I have become aware of over the past couple of years. I am resisting the temptation to try and get my head around it, because I can’t.
Previous to my reading about the nous in Orthodoxy, I only had the idea of the nous (pronounced as in house in North Wales and much of the UK, where I lived for most of my life) meaning common sense.
I am coming to realise that Orthodoxy has a depth and breadth unequalled in Western Christianity.
In my youth there was a time when I greatly enjoyed falling off my bike. I would peddle hard, make a sharp turn and the bike would slide out from under me and I would slide with it. It was a lot of fun at the time but I suppose I was tempting God (whom I had met at that time but to whom I had not yet committed).
I think that may be a microcosm of my passions as well.
I have been greatly blessed in experiencing the mercy of our Lord yet it seems I still enjoy falling and tempting Him.
Still, when I submit myself and turn from my wicked ways He still leads me to the Well of Mercy that is in my heart because He placed it there or rather it was placed there at the time of my Baptism and Chrismation 35 years ago. Slowly over the years His Grace has uncovered there as I have practiced riding my bike through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and repentance through the Jesus Prayer.
“This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! ”
Forgive me, a sinner.
Andrew, may our Lord continue to reveal to you His inmost mysteries and Truth.
Thank you Michael.
A happen stance that has been quite instructive for me over the years has been the opportunity to attend funerals for friends of different faith traditions: Roman Catholic, various Protestant denominations and a Morman funeral. I went to the Morman funeral unknowingly out of respect for a former boss and friend who lost his wife to breast cancer. Suffice it to say I can never attend another Morman funeral in good conscience. My then boss, A Catholic, and I had the same horrified reaction.
I contrast that with the Orthodox funeral for a dear friend some years later. One of his non-Orthodox co-workers also attended. He was profoundly deaf. He announced in a loud voice as he exited our Sanctuary with a certain joy and wonder: “I have never been to an Orthodox funeral before. “They really DO something!!!”
Even as we mourn and remember those we love, a noetic experience is offered.
Even when the loss is quite intimate, as the funeral for my wife of 24 years about 15 years ago, God is with us. Not some sentimental emotion, but Jesus Christ Himself and His Resurrection . He certainly raised me up as well as my late wife as I was shown three weeks later on Pascha.
I understand your reticence regarding the term “discipleship”. It is an ancient term as I believe you know. We definitely have a culture that encourages a kind of hero worship like that of a yogi or superman. I have had (and suppose continue to have) “spiritual fathers”. And in that regard, it might be said that I was their spiritual child or disciple of sorts (would that I could emulate them!). But that doesn’t require that we be blind to their falling of their proverbial bikes themselves. In fact, by the very act of falling off their bike and getting back on, they are a witness to the life in Christ. Even St Paul, who had the disciple St Luke, had some sort of thorn that he prayed to God for his release. And even the ancient Church had her “posers”. St Paul in the Epistles writes often to churches who appear to be moving away from God in their attraction to a charismatic charlatan. Such admonitions from St Paul come to us as well. Be wary of such characters. For these reasons, when I seek guidance, I pray to God first, then if a “good word” should come to me from the mouth of priest or elder, I thank God for His help.
The Christian disciple is a person who learns by witnessing the life in and often is catechized by a holy elder but also of the Church, herself. They are catechized into the traditions and Tradition of the Church. We aren’t to make up our own stuff nor to idolize the person who teaches. The teacher is role of the Church herself, and we receive her Tradition, and with the help in the person of a teacher or holy elder. Such holy elders do still exist. I am convinced of this when I read the lives (or the words) of the saints. And this can take many forms, like that of teacher or trainer as you say, and in a confessor, and often in a monastery environment. Father Stephen might say more about this. But he does emphasize here the distinction between an authentic knowledge of Christ (and life/communion in) and sentimentalism, which I believe can take a form of ‘hero worship’ which should make us all wary. I think this is an important distinction and topic. The trap of sentimentalism takes many forms. I’ve seen it in one form in the Orthodox Church among an individual here and there, who appear to be sentimentalizing (a form of thinking about rather than living in) their own relationship to God. We are all, each one of us sinners, very much loved by Christ. It is the hardships and the falling off our bikes that reveal to us the authentic path in Christ. As Father says, we get back up and on that bike again. (Thank you, Fr Stephen, for these timely and helpful words!)
Thank you, Albert, for your comment and helpful reflection. I hope I’m not too presumptuous to respond and beg your patience.
I recall Father talking to his bishop about sin in his life and his bishop giving him the rather curt advice to “do a rope and get on with life”. To use the language of the article, falling is not where our focus should be. We should be focused on riding.
True enough Byron!
is the experience of God through the nous (noetic prayer), akin to what Martin Buber writes about in I and Thou? Or am I making a wrong connection?
I hear you concerning the word “discipleship” and how it can trip us up. I believe words like this and “slave” and many others are stumbling blocks particularly to those in North America. Part of it is due to our rebellious nature, but it also comes from our binary mindset. Everything is either black or white, right or wrong, things we run from or run toward. Either we are absolute mindless slaves, or we are wary, worldly-wise and cynical.
It’s hard for us to envision a middle ground where you pay great attention to a spiritual guide and yet are able to use all your faculties when engaging him/her. Often the cure is similar to taming a wild horse. Allow a rope to be put loosely around your neck but demand lots of length. And then. Over time. We slowly learn to trust. It is a slow process, but then…God has plenty of time.
Drewster, et al
I think discipleship has gotten a bad name through its abuse (spiritual abuse), which has been rampant in various quarters, and Orthodoxy has no exemption in this either. There is, however, the discipleship of the Tradition and what has been received in the Fathers and the Liturgies, etc. That, I think, is far more common, and safer.
It’s been years since I’ve read Buber, so I’m not sure how to answer.
it’s been years since I read Buber too and I’m probably barking up the wrong tree. With your use of riding a bike as a way of understanding God, what came to mind was, when riding a bike in a way we can become one with the bike (although the bike still remains a bike and I remain myself) and are not thinking about riding, but riding in the moment so to speak. Therefore is noetic prayer in some sense like this with the heart/soul becoming one with God, yet each remaining distinctly what they are?
Noetic knowledge is knowledge by participation (communion). So, yes, there is a becoming one, while remaining distinct. It is also one of the reasons that noetic knowledge of God also yields knowledge of the true self.
The chance to participate in God’s Life is the only reason I am Orthodox and, likely, a key reason I am still alive. There is something, someone frequently in a corner that will reach out to me or others with a welcoming and helping hand. It began the first time I set foot in an Orthodox Church and has not stopped since. Usually when I need them the most. It is a life full of joy, struggle and expectation.
Thank you for this Father Stephen
Rich fare indeed and so much illumination
In an age which at once idolises and denies the body it is such helpful corrective. I may not have read carefully but when you mentioned knowing God being like riding a bike, it elicited a recognition within me. Also it reminded me that ‘the eye is the lamp of the body’ (the reverse of what we are taught that the world) – that what we look at we come to know in some sense bodily.
Last evening I watched an episode of The Crown, a dramatised account of the reign of Elizabeth II. It featured as a thread through the plot, the story of the mother of the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Being born deaf, she was though slow and life became intolderable for her. She was admitted to a psychiatric institution where she was treated unspeakably. Yet she did not take this into herself and became a nun, giving her life to love and good works. In her final years she was reunited with her son from whom she’d been separated, and in a powerful scene asks of his faith, which he tells her is ‘dormant’. She tries ot explain to him why she desires him to explore once more, and finally struggling to put it into words says ‘faith . . . is everything’. This resonated with me, and I think is another way of saying what you have done above. I will have to take some time with all of this – thank you once more
The picture made me feel sad I have to say (my heart went out to the poor kid face down, legs spread), and had me pondering the metaphor further. Perhaps it is the mindset with which we get back on the bike that is all important. If we get back on being left feeling bad, or stupid, or like a failure, or even a miserable sinner (of course no-one would ever be made to feel that in churches … :-)) then our subsequent learning to ride may be harder and even if it does happen it may have introduced shame associations buried deep down that then become blockers to better or more enjoyable riding – and there may be a conditioned something there to be worked through. But if the “get back on” experience is made to feel natural and good then maybe the knowledge experience you describe has a higher chance of happening and repentance does indeed become seen as no more or less than “the refusal to abandon the life of grace in Christ” (the article is worth it just for this description of repentance by the way), and our falling off but a graced and necessary helpful step towards our Illumination.
I can’t help thinking that there is a great burden here on our spiritual elders about how to walk with care and love. Maybe that photo should be put in the textbook for seminarians as a guide on how to think of the wayward?
Thank you, Fr. Stephen.
Thank you for this encouragement Fr Stephen.
Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of spending some extended time with my 4-5 year-old grandson. He loves his bike (and almost everything else). When he came to the house yesterday, I noticed a band-aid on one knee, and bunches of bruises and scratches on his bare legs. As usual, he was full of energy and joy. I asked about his “injuries.” He had spent 2 hours with a young friend biking their own made up circuit of “BMX” tricks, all very safe and simple. But, things being as they are, he had accumulated a few bumps and bruises.
First off – he was having fun. Shame is an “interrupter” (biologically speaking). It is the interruption of excitement/joy that, over time, becomes enmeshed in the emotional world that we name shame. What I note of my grandson’s fun, is that he has great emotional support and encouragement, such that his momentary failures don’t overwhelm him and leave him afraid of getting back up.
It is interesting, I think, that “morality” has often triumphed in the Christian life. That is to say, that we are fearful of our moral lapses and failures, overwhelmed by guilt and such. We “bury the talent” lest we lose it. Though I’ve been chided from time to time (by those who don’t understand what I’m saying) by my push back against moralized Christianity – it is important that we not lose the joy and excitement of the spiritual life itself (riding the bike). We have traded the sheer joy of union/communion with God in all things for the joyless fear of moral uprightness. It’s why the publicans and harlots enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees.
My grandson teaches me so much.
excellent observation and insight. I recall talking to a Roman Catholic priest some years ago and he said that ‘most of the Christian denominations in the UK, have succumbed to middle class respectability and think it’s Christianity.’
That seems the point of the Prodigal Son, yes? Infinite joy is offered, and yet your bargaining, score keeping, and moralism do you no good. Come empty or don’t come.
The substitution of middle class morality for Christianity is one of the most scandalous mistakes of our age. It made Christianity derisible. Of course, post-modern “wokeness” is just another form of bourgeoise morality (with added high dudgeon). America seems to be a constant breeding ground for such nonsense, under the heading of “revivals.” Make no mistake, the current a-wokening is simply another American religious revival.
I’ve always thought my pursuit of Christ very odd. I can’t see him, or touch him, or laugh with him. I can’t know him like I know you, or a lover, or even a character in a book (even Christ’s personality is shrouded in the gospels.) Everything that makes a person particular and knowable is absent from God, and so we’re left pursuing… what exactly? (And why am I pursuing it, again? Because the saints warn us against the pains of hell?) I suppose I’m afraid of missing out on the most important thing in the universe, but I don’t want a “relationship” with an entity because I’m afraid of what the lack of it will do.
It’s so frustrating that God would make us relational, physical beings (in relation to particular, embodied realities) and then only make a particular embodied appearance for a very small window in human history, leaving 99.999% of people unable to be with him.
This “communion” you speak of, which transcends our understanding, how can it be said to mean anything unless it also transforms our understanding? I’ve been partaking of communion for years, and *feel* just as alone, unhappy, and angry at whatever “God” is since the start. My time in silence before God, my stepping out of the way so that God can work in me instead of me working in me, my time at Liturgy, reading scripture, avoiding attachment to pleasures and passions (which is extremely difficult and frustrating) for what?
I want to know God badly, but I don’t know why, and don’t know how. Why would you want to know someone you’ve experienced, and how do you experience something (someone?) who is so utterly other you can’t even know him with the VERY FACULTIES HE GAVE YOU!?
Paul asks us to be transformed by the renewing of our *nous*, but then he doesn’t tell us *how* (nor does he tell us why!) Please help.
Correction to that previous comment: “why would you want to know someone you’ve *never* experienced…” I might add, experienced in a quantifiable way (kind of the whole point of this post)
I also might add, thanks for your patience throughout the years, Fr. Every comment I’ve written on this blog has been from a place of disquiet and lack of peace. Thanks for your charity in the face of probably what seems a mean spirit.
Your comment about the “get back on” being made to feel good and natural struck a chord. I think it’s all about training. Via the morality training Fr. Stephen referenced – whether that’s from “Christian” sources or modernity – we are taught that all pain is bad. Not so.
Watching children go through learning (like riding a bike) is very instructive. They are extremely pliable and it doesn’t take that much work to train them that falling down and getting minor abrasions is okay and that the best course of action is to take a deep breath and try again.
I was listening to a podcast by a neurobiology professor, and he was saying that this exact moment (represented here by the falling down) is the window of opportunity for learning. Either you decide to flee pain or to embrace it. And embracing it is the doorway to personal growth and skill acquisition, not to mention success. Very interesting and also very opposite of what we are told on a daily basis from most sources.
To take a leaf from St. Paul’s passage in Romans, we don’t try to fall in order to learn. But when the fall comes, we take it in stride as a necessary part of the process. This understanding, I think, can become instinctive and perhaps even noetic. We come to know that we know it, and therefore don’t get alarmed when it happens.
In fact, St. Paul was talking about sin. Sin = Falling. But it’s not the fall that kills us. Through God’s work on the Cross, the fall has become our path through death and on into new life. It is the not getting back up that spells our doom.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never, in the whole of my Christian life, made a decision that was based on the fear of hell. By the same token, I’ve never used its threat as a motivation in speaking to others. I suppose I could have (in both cases), but I’ve never found it useful or salutary. That said, I would say that it’s a lousy reason in the life of faith. I counsel against it.
What I suspect is the case (for you), is that what you’re describing is a set of wounds, a cluster of things, that make what you’re describing very problematic. I understand that, and were I your priest, that’s where our conversation would center. Understanding yourself, understanding what’s going on, coming to terms with it one way or another. And, that’s not easy.
Were our relationship to God-in-Christ “quantifiable” – it doesn’t seem to be much of a solution. Judas had such a “relationship” and it did him no good (and that’s just the most extreme example). There’s not an “if only God would…” solution to what you describe. I do not take it to be the problem (“if only God would..”). I think it feels like the problem many times – but I think it’s delusional.
Instead, I think discovering the fullness of who and what I am is part of what God is doing in me/us. Our modern lives are extremely attenuated – they’ve been reduced to a shallowness of perception in so very many ways. I’ve lived a “Church” life since I was around 15. During those years, I’ve been all over the map, with lots of dead ends, wrong turns, etc. But, by God’s grace, I’ve been able to say, “This is not it,” when necessary – and find a way to properly get back on the bike and keep riding. Many things about communion with God seem “obvious” to me now in a way they never did years ago. They are obvious like the ability to ride a bicycle is obvious when you’re riding.
One of those things has been the importance of giving thanks. Even if I’m giving thanks to the God-I-don’t-have-a-clue-about-and-who-makes-my-hair-hurt, it is still essential in my life and heart. It has become the center of my prayers, everyday. In those prayers of thanksgiving (for all things, or at least as close as I can get to that), there come moments of clarity when the communion seems utterly palpable (even obvious). Other times, I’m just befuddled. I’ve come to take the state of my mind (clarity vs. befuddlement) as less than important. It helps.
There is a powerful place of shame in our lives – it is what creates the anger in us for the most part. Reading about other people’s “easy” spiritual life can feel shaming if your own experience is not like that. That’s why I find it important to say – some days I’m completely befuddled and the universe seems utterly mute.
St. Paul did tell us how to be transformed: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He illustrates that by his own existence and way of life.
Don’t worry too much about not getting this right. Have you ever read Fr. Tom Hopko’s 55 maxims? I find them very useful in this regard. Keep writing, keep asking. You’re not alone.
Thank you, father. I guess the question then regarding Saint Paul is, “why” – why present our bodies as sacrifices so as to be transformed by the renewing of our nous? It goes against our nature (which god made) to die to ourselves. I guess all this would make a lot more sense if I was so in love with the beauty of Jesus that I just had to do whatever it took to be closer to him. But it’s never been like that. And so I wonder why the gospel has any power in people’s lives if they don’t actually feel a sense of insatiable attachment to a person, the person of Jesus. But since I don’t feel that attachment, it all seems unintelligible.
I continue in the faith because I recognize I don’t understand the nature of the universe, and I trust that the Christian saints understood it better than I. Not sure why exactly I trust them over say, Buddhist monks, but maybe that’s the gift of faith? At least in some small part.
I have read the maxims. They are extremely difficult for me. It’s discouraging, for example, and seems to paint God in a merciless light that we should, as his children, “expect nothing but to be fiercely tempted to our last breath”. I wish instead we could expect and depend on the mercy of God to overcome that which destroys us with power and ease. But it seems it pleases God that this life be one of pain for us, which has always confused me because it seems natural for us to seek pleasure and that which yields pleasure.
I don’t say this disparagingly against myself, but maybe I’m just being a baby. Turns out pain and sacrifice are required for maximal pleasure, and I’ve been OK with settling for less because I don’t like pain. I hope one day I can be strong enough to follow hopko’s 55. I suppose I’ll deal with the theological question of whether it’s my effort to endure pain or God’s grace that has achieved my happiness later.
I’m grateful for your pastoral heart and ministry.
being a Christian is not an easy life. It is by no means the ‘opium of the masses,’ (opium is the opium of the masses) which I’ve had people quoting Marx directed at me on numerous occasions. Neither they nor Marx understood Christianity.
I’m not sure if this is applicable in your case, but at times we can go through a perplexing and even internally painful experience, when to the mind God can appear distant and nonexistent, or even perverse.
I think this could be a period of our false understanding and expectations of God are being challenged and purified.
Dear Nes, I wonder whether part of the answer to your musings (which I have often shared) lies in the response that Father gave to my last comment. I rather suspect that the only sane reason why any of us do keep on doing this faith thing is that we get some sense at some point of just how right it feels, or even if we’re lucky how exhilarating it can be, just to be riding the bike. Once we feel that sense of being upright and moving along then it’s hard to go back and stop once we know it is there. If, however, you have never had that sense then all you are going on is watching other people seem to enjoy it. My suspicion though is that you have had at least some personal sense of it though, otherwise you would not have persisted this long and still be reading these blogs.
As long term readers of these comments may recall one of my obsessively favorite scenes in Scripture is the story in John 1:35-39 of Jesus’ first encounter with the disciples. The sequence is this: two disciples of John the Baptist (so they’ve decided they need to change) are standing around when the Truth (Jesus) walks by. John points Him out and they hear John. They start to follow. The Truth turns around and asks them “What are you looking for?” (So, Nes, what are you looking for? (really, deep down) …. Jesus’ first words in St John’s gospel a terrible and piercingly deep question). To which the very first word to come out of their mouths is “Rabbi” (which St John underlines means teacher). They go on to ask where the Truth is abiding, but that’s a whole thing in itself.
I mention that story because it feels to me very much tied up in the dynamic of both the learning to ride imagery and I’m hoping may be helpful in your musings. I know I’m still a Christian because I have got the bike riding bug (even though I am not very good at it at all) and because I have discovered that this invisible Jesus really is the great teacher within – and discipleship is the single most important relationship as those first disciples pointed out by it being the first word to come out of their mouths.
I can’t quite explain exactly how any of this works but it seems, as Father’s article says so well, just seems to be noetically true for me. I do agree though that this whole faith business can be very frustrating, particularly when one is not a good rider, and there is an awfully big hill coming up (or down) …
this woke business has really spread around the world like wildfire and is more infectious than covid.
During the 1990’s there was a lot of talk in UK media about the dumbing down of education, culture, etc. It doesn’t seem to get mentioned anymore. I wonder if that is because it has become a success and paved the way for this current woke business?
Perhaps a different approach might be helpful: to remind ourselves of the love and care of our Creator and God (directing us to trust and thank Him), through the small things that are within our creaturely experience, especially things that have the dual ability to make us think that they are at once ‘wholesomely pleasurable’ as well as ‘still lacking in fullness’, some examples:
I catch myself loving the cuteness of a child, or watching over my own child, despite its naïve clumsiness, and it suggests to my mind that, “God must see us (his children) with far greater love and care than this, despite our many problems”.
Or I remember the ecstatic element of erotic love and am noetically transported towards the thought “how much better would communion of the soul with its Creator be”.
There can be numerous such good thoughts intentionally cultivated – it is much better than the cultivation of the numerous tetchy thoughts we tend to usually examine (the whole world seems to wallow in them).
It is an effective spiritual practice.
Speaking for myself the more I look here or there the easier it is for me to be distracted and misled by my passions. When I look through my self in repentance that He is present and I move toward wholeness by His mercy. I have a similar experience with some icons. Right now a small icon of St. Xenia. By some grace that icon is “deeper” and more “transparent” than the others. I look at her and Jesus is present in 4D. Real. If I remember the accounts of folks meeting Jesus in the Scripture, it all makes sense.
I had a similar experience the first time I entered an Orthodox Sanctuary. There was Mary with Jesus on her lap–her arms out stretched welcoming me.
The seemingly endless nature of my own sins and the sins of others work to make me forget in the 35 years since-repenting through the practice of the Jesus Prayer and looking through the windows of icons always helps — and at least one such icon always seems to be there somehow.
His mercy underlies and interpenetrates everything. Solid but “unseen”. All I need to do is repent to see and experience Him. But repentance requires that I put down my shame and acknowledge the existential reality of my self-imposed exile from Him.
If I am correct it explains Dee’s perception of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus in an experiment in quantum chemistry perhaps.
His mercy endures forever. May He grant it to me, a sinner and to us all.
Yes, it helps if you are in love with Jesus. I confess that this is true for me….and I love Him to the extent that I should be ashamed that I do not love Him better. I was drawn to Him even as a child. At some point in my critical adulthood, I also became utterly convinced that He was raised from the dead. In this, I found St. Paul to be my primary witness. At age 18, I gave away what little that I had and lived communally, turning over all of my factory earnings for His sake. I have been disappointed by myself, and by other Christians, but never by Jesus.
I think that what I have done in my life that is of any worth would have been impossible if I did not love Him. I may say more tomorrow, but I have to retire early tonight. I’ve got a two hour journey in the morning to reach a Church where I’m filling in for a vacationing priest. Blessings.
Nes, I am very moved by the cry of your heart in longing for God, in tears actually. You may be closer to God than you realize. The closer to God one is, the less one “understands” or necessarily “feels”, assuming one has been faithful all along. If one comes to know God within, how separate can God seem at that point as one becomes closer? I know I had and have expectations about what relationship to God is or should be like, but I pretty much have had to throw my expectations out the window as time progresses. I have been in the same territory you describe, and it is challenging, perhaps the most challenging thing about spiritual life, at least so far in my own journey. It is nice to have warm feelings, or to feel one understands what God is, but being God’s friend or lover may be well beyond those and one has to walk in blind faith. There is a deep literature among the saints’ writings, Orthodox and also Catholic, about various stages in the spiritual life that seem “dark” and removed from God, i.e., the “dark night of the soul” and the “dark night of the spirit” in Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross. I don’t know who the Orthodox writers would be on the same subject. I also think of Mother Theresa, who had a beloved relationship with God in the beginning of her ministry, but spent most of her many years ministering to the poor in what felt like abandonment by God (she has been criticized for this in print, but just continued on in her path no matter what she felt like). When I feel like this, I keep coming back to St. John’s teaching that God is love. Where true love is, there is God. (There’s a beautiful song, “Ubi caritas . . .”, which is moving and captures this.) It would be nice if we could go to church when we feel far from God and be loved wholeheartedly by the people there; too often that is not the case, or even worse happens and that is a grave sin. We are supposed to be there for each other, and no more important a time to do so is when someone else’s relationship with God seems frayed. But, in the absence of that, God is everywhere, and love is everywhere, not just in the church. Being aware of the moments when love is present is a way to stay close to God during the day — being with children, caring for someone, a stranger’s kindness, caring for a stranger, interacting with a loving animal, feeling the awe of aspects of nature, and the many times when love shows its face, including in the image of God in another. Keeping an eye out for pure love in oneself and others is a way forward; at least that’s what keeps me going, always widening my understand of what pure love looks like so I know it when I see it and then I am not alone any more. I also agree about our wounds interfering — it is important to figure out what those are, and how they affect one’s image of God and oneself, and find ways to be freer to seek God. They can be transformed, Jesus had his wounds visible after the Resurrection, and can be a way to be close to God. Suffering is a kind of path to God when lived out in righteousness. So, you are in good company with the rest of us seekers and persons suffused with longing for the Beloved. Never give up your longing — it will lead you to God.
Modernity in all its forms cannot abide suffering. That is the ultimate hypocrisy because im its denial and suppression of suffering in inflicts great suffering. But the suffering modernity refuses the most is the suffering of repentance. Repentance is the ultimate defeat of modernity.
To live a life of repentance, truly, is to be free. I am far from doing it as judging and wanting to “fix” things and other people comes more easily to me.
All the more reason to repent.
Well said Michael. It’s easy to give in to the temptation of rigidity, on the one hand and complete laxness on the other hand. The narrow path leads to suffering, either from within or from without, or both depending on which part of the world you live.
Andrew, I believe that part of the suffering of a life of repentance has to do with genuine empathy. The fact is that the people of the Church, me most of all, are not necessarily easy people to share our lives with.
Indeed, a good part of my 35 years in the Church has been spent dealing with difficult people some of whom have hurt me deeply.
I can allow the Holy Spirit to transform that hurt/wrong by my repentance into empathy for others thereby allowing God to overcome OR I can nurse a rememberance of wrongs that demands the wrong done to me be recognized and the people who did the wrong be punished or forced into repentance.
Since I perpetrate wrongs against folks every day, the only cure is to get ahead of the wrongs by my repentance.
Then, by God’s grace, I can come to forgiveness.
I have found that I cannot forgive anything unless I enter into God’s mercy by my own repentance.
That does not trivialize or deny the hurt done to me–it just allows my hurt to be healed. Even if I do not want it to be quite yet.
indeed what a struggle it is to allow God to heal us at times, when we find it hard to forgive and let go of sins committed by us and those committed against us.
As you do rightly say it’s only through our own repentance and most importantly God’s loving grace and mercy.
A few months ago by God’s loving mercy and grace I was able to see clearly something from thirty years ago and was able to forgive and let go. We want quick fixes, but ‘God’s ways are not our ways.’
Andrew, what a mercy. There is much like that in my own life I am sure but I have not gotten that far yet. I gives me hope though for some I love as well as for myself.
Some of your recent writings prompted a question about icons. The Seventh Ecumenical Council said “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Christians today are unable to write Scripture and have it recognized as Scripture. However, Christians can paint new icons and, if they have certain characteristics, they are recognized as icons. Scripture is also said to be “inspired by God” although I am not certain if this is said of icons. How are we to understand these differences between Scripture and icons if, in some sense, they have a similar purpose?
You can judge an icon by Scripture, but you do not judge Scripture by an icon. In a sense, an icon is not saying anything of its own or anything new. It is a lens that allows us to “see” what has been “spoken” before (even when what was spoken before is being spoken anew in the life of a contemporary saint).
Thank you Michael. ‘Keep on keeping on,’ as the saying goes.
Many thanks, that’s very helpful. Also interesting is that the Orthodox tradition regards icons as an essential part of the faith even though they do not say anything new on their own. Presumably this is because “reading” Scripture and “seeing” or “understanding” are very different things.
First of all, I just want to say that this is a lovely article and conversation.
I find the comparison between the spiritual life and riding a bike very funny. I suffer from an inner-ear problem that results in some balance issues, which means that I am *terrible* at riding a bike. Even the slightest bump will send me flying. This is also an apt description of my comical attempts at being a “spiritual” person.
I love the idea that a core part of the spiritual life is simply to get up again, no matter how foolish you feel. Nothing is more spiritually destructive than self-pity.
The focus on kinesthetic memory and a knowledge that transcends discursive reasoning is also very prevalent in traditions such as Zen Buddhism, which I (poorly) attempted to practice for many years. The concept of wu-wei in Taoism also has similar connotations. The idea of “doing by not doing,” of entering a flow state where we become united with the action itself, where it flows freely from our creative and intellectual potentials in a beautiful and dynamic way.
One difference in the Christian tradition is that so much of the language surrounding the “nous” is centered on the heart and the experience of love. One can become united with the Tao, but I am not sure that one can love it. But one can obviously love Jesus, the Tao/Logos who becomes incarnate. Noetic knowledge seems profoundly intimate and erotic, grounded in the uniqueness of our personhood rather than in the deconstruction of the self that is so central to the East-Asian religions.
I agree with Nes, though, that achieving this knowledge is very difficult. It is a tall order indeed to love God/Jesus. I’ve been (poorly) attempting to practice Christianity for many years and I can’t say I love the guy. I like him a lot though. Even if St. Paul was wrong and Jesus wasn’t resurrected, he is nonetheless undoubtedly one of the most hilarious, punk-rock holy people to ever walk the earth.
It’s a lovely thought, and a lovely image, Father Stephen, but perhaps some will have to wait until they are grandparents to embrace the image! There is in grandparenthood a distance as well as a consuming love – we can lovingly feel for the little one while seeing the miracle of his certain getting up and trying again, with the certainty his little body will learn without his knowing it is learning.
We women who have been mothers also experience this ‘nous’ when in spite of our minds and hearts, our body goes on to do the right thing, and the baby is born. It’s a miracle! But you are correct, and it even begins with walking, with every thing that a baby begins to ‘know’ how to do. We adults tend to think we (our minds), are in charge – no, we are not.
Peter fell off when he was frightened in the water; he fell off when he was frightened to admit he knew Christ. Paul fell off his horse. They both got back on again (with a little help). John? Why, he’s the beloved disciple; he’s that little grandson. As are we all.
The secret is in that last commandment at the Last Supper. “Love one another as I have loved you.” We mightn’t have His presence, or feel that we do, but we do have one another. To love.
God is smiling at us.
Of course loving Jesus is a difficult thing – perhaps because we know it should be the very greatest love of all. What I think I understand (when I’m at my best) is that He loves me/us that way unfailingly. And, “at my best,” usually means on those days when I’ve made a fool of myself, denied Him again, fallen off my horse and drowned. He simply continues to love.
Orthodox Christianity, at its best, is so deeply grounded in reality, despite our reputation for “mysticism.” True mysticism is nothing more that actually experiencing life in its depth. My favorite saints are the holy fools. It is their genius that reveals all of this so well.
I should add that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, all bets are off. As St Paul said, “Then of all men, we would be the most miserable.” St Paul not only believed it, he knew it, and knew many others who knew it as well.
Jesus is Risen from the dead and He continues to open the way for us even as we struggle with our sins. By His mercy, He showed His Resurrection to me on the Pascha three weeks after the repose of my wife, Pamela. Why is anybody’s guess but He did. I a sinner for sure but He showed it to me any way: Christ IS RISEN!.
About loving Christ and living in Him:
When we read the Bible, particularly the Gospels, we read of magnificent things. Miracles, changes of heart and lives. These things still do happen, of course. But like a marriage, there is always the up and downs (not even so spectacular as falling off a bike) and a kind of mundaneness that we might think of as ‘cooling off’ or dryness. We have become familiar with our prayer rule and the routines around our prayer life and Church. This is precisely when, we are taught to “hold fast”, and to resist the temption that either our own love or of that of God, the Holy Spirit has waned from our hearts. It is a sort of silence that begs us to go deeper, even to observe what might appear to our eyes as trifling, unimportant things, and to seek God there.
St Silouan wrote of his experience when he believed the Holy Spirit “left” him. But this perception seemed to have been caused by a number of things, perhaps his unhelpful expectations of what a holy life was and his self-perceived “advances” or lack of them in the spiritual life. But he held fast. Then when he stopped fearing ‘hell’ (“Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”), that is, a hell in this life, he became less fearful of his own death. His heart seemed to open up to love, and in turn, to receive the fullness of life in the Holy Spirit.
I suspect many of us are in denial of our own pending death. The truth is we are always dying by degrees. But when we are aware of the truth of it, when we are close to embracing our death, it seems we remember our love. I am an old woman. Perhaps this is just a comment that comes from such a heart and mind.
Dee, you are not old! Your body may have less elasticity and more pain, as does mine, but you are not old. Being”old” implies a linear reality which, you know better than most, does not exist.
Your soul, by God’s grace and design, partakes of the uncreated and the infinite, even as your body deteriorates and falls apart.
Matthew 4 has a great deal to say in that regard, especially verse 17: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And verse 4: ” Man does not live by bread alone. ”
I have always marveled too at verse 2: “And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.” After He had completed the fast He was hungry but even then He did not give into the temptation of the evil one to turn the stones into bread to satisfy His bodily hunger.
That Chapter is rich and I could go on as it applies to being old.
Our fast is not yet complete, thank God and we can still partake each day more deeply of the heavenly food of repentance.
God be with you always.
My wife just called me with a ‘God moment’: We have an abundance of tomatoes in our garden this year and Merry took a few with her to share at work. She stopped by our local post office to pick up the morning mail and was sharing there as well. An 80 year old woman came in driving a newish Cadillac. Merry gave her some and the lady was ecstatic–offering to pay for them. Merry declined the money of course but seeing the lady was wearing a saint’s medallion, Merry simply ask the woman for prayers as Merry is having major back surgery on Aug 16. Recovery will be long and painful but I have to say, my wife us one if the youngest people I know.
May God hold you both close and grant Merry healing, Michael!
Indeed, Michael I echo Byron’s prayers. May God grant you and Merry many more years in peace, joy and healing. I’m in a similar boat with a back injury that is decades old but seems to cause more problems as I age. I’m tying to avoid surgery but it might be inevitable. Nevertheless I’ve discovered that slow swimming with a kick board and fins helpful. I’ve been quite surprised by the positive effects. Healing can be slow. May God also grant you and Merry, patient endurance and sweetest joy.