Archimandrite Aimilianos in a lecture entitled “On The State That Jesus Confers” says that the basic human problem is that we do not see God. In fact, most people cannot see God, but can only seek Him. This is because our eyes (both physical and the eyes of our souls) are earthly, they are trained to see, to think about and to contemplate only physical things and what can be deduced from physically perceptible things or what directly affects how we feel, that is, the emotional realities that are at work within us—although some people work hard to ignore even theses.
If, however, we want to see God, where do we begin? Archimandrite Aimilianos says that we must begin with what we can do. We can seek; we can come to God with longing. In other words, if you want to see God, you have to want to see God. I’m not being redundant. There is wanting, and then there is wanting. I can want to become a doctor, for example; but if I don’t want to become a doctor more than I want to play video games, more than I want to hang out with my friends and more than just about anything else, I will never become a doctor. There is wanting, and then there is really wanting: wanting so much that it is pretty much all I want. And so we might say that if you want to see God, you have to want to see God more than just about anything else.
Now I may be stating the obvious here, but I should probably make clear that the word “see” is a metaphor. Archimandrite Aimilianos is not talking about physical sight, neither is he talking about some sort of inner vision or soul sight within our imagination. Rather, by seeing God, he is referring to a knowing of and encounter with God that is so real that it is like seeing. He is saying that one can know and encounter God with such clarity and force that “seeing” is the only adequate word to describe the experience. Just as we say that we know something to be the case, to be true, if we see it ourselves, test it, feel it, try it and in many physical ways experience it, so also Archimandrite Aimilianos tells us we can encounter and experience and know God in ways that involve so much surety that this knowledge of God is more real to us than the evidence of our physical senses. In fact, he would say, that this knowledge of God is indeed more real than the whole world perceptible through my senses and my logic, more real because the God whom we can come to know is not merely real, but is the source and ground of all reality. All that is immediately perceptible through the physical senses or through logic or even human feeling are only contingent realities, realities contingent on the One, on the unperceptible God whom we can, nonetheless, come to perceive if we seek for Him.
And yet seeking God is not like seeking things that I can physically or logically see because in seeking for God, we cannot find God. God is not to be found. But, you might ask, if God is not to be found by seeking, why seek Him? Actually the answer is quite simple. God cannot be found, regardless of how diligently we seek Him, God cannot be found, but God does reveal Himself. But when God reveals Himself, if we are not seeking Him, we will not see Him or know him. There is a passage in the Prophet Jeremiah (17:6-8) in which the prophet compares those whose hearts are not turned toward the Lord to a shrub in the desert that doesn’t even know when the rain comes. That is, when we are not seeking God, when we are not longing to see or be touched by God, then when God does come, when God does reveal Himself to us, we don’t see it, we don’t perceive it.
And so if we want to see God, we must seek Him, but in seeking Him we will not find Him; but rather, by seeking Him, we prepare ourselves to see Him when He reveals Himself to us. Someone once explained it this way, “You can do absolutely nothing to make the sun rise, but you can be awake when it rises.”
Similarly, we can be awake, we can be watching, looking, seeking God so that when God reveals Himself we can perceive it. However, it is not as though God is one minute revealing Himself and the next minute not, as though God were playing hide and seek with us. God is continually revealing Himself to us, speaking to us and making Himself known to us in ways that can only be perceived as we allow our minds to be changed—or to use the biblical word—as we learn to repent. To repent means to change your mind, to think and perceive differently. In other words, God is only perceived by us as we change, or rather, as we allow ourselves to be changed. And the very seeking of God changes us because wanting one thing more than anything changes everything.
When we begin to seek God, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we ask God to satisfy our desires; and when He doesn’t, we think that He is ignoring us. We ask God to realize our hopes, and we are dismayed because they are not fulfilled. We ask God to let us feel His nearness, and God seems to stay far away. God does not answer these prayers because they are all, in a sense, requests to stay were we are, requests for God to strengthen what we already think, already envision, what we desire now. In fact, Archimandrite Aimilianos goes so far as to say that God does not answer these prayers because we are asking God to strengthen the very things that God, through repentance, wants to lead us out of.
And so we experience a kind of tribulation, a separating of the wheat from the chaff, a kind of suffering that takes us through what feels like a desert of God’s absence. But God is not absent. God is as near as He has ever been. God is near and is helping us change our minds, helping us to let go of inappropriate or immature ways of thinking about God and ourselves, helping us to let go of ways of knowing and feeling the nearness of God that rely primarily on our more shallow feelings or external serendipitous events that confirm our expectations, our hopes and our desires. God is forcing us to go deeper into ourselves so that we can come to know God more deeply. God is taking away what is familiar so that we can reach out to perceive and know God more as God is and thus to grow ourselves.
Archimandrite Aimilianos gives us a helpful image to understand how we begin to see God when we are seeking Him. He says that we do not begin by seeing God’s face or even his back, but we begin by first seeing God’s hands. We see God’s hands as God kneads us like dough. As our seeking brings us to Church, to the Tradition, to the people of God where we hope to find God, our expectations are thwarted in many ways, not the least of which are our expectations about what we expect from the Church. Instead of the Glory of God, a lot of what we see at first are jars of clay, broken, cracked and misshapen. We look to the place where God’s Glory dwells, and much of what we see in the beginning is the brokenness of others: foolishness, selfishness and hypocrisy—not greater than our own, mind you, if we are honest with ourselves. But still, we had hoped to find something different, we had hoped that people here would be different. And this very disappointment, for many, is the beginning of the kneading.
Disappointment leads to contemplation. We begin to think more deeply, and consequently, we begin to look more deeply, to seek more deeply, and through this contemplation, our eyes are adjusted, we begin to see things differently, we begin, first of all, to see ourselves as we hadn’t seen ourselves before, and thus we begin for the first time to see God, we see God’s hands pushing and pulling and pressing us, kneading us, changing us. Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it this way:
You contemplate the depths of your soul being kneaded by grace, like dough being kneaded into bread. Your soul is now a malleable lump kneaded by the hands of God. You see our soul being worked on, passing through His fingers…. All you see is His hand, as we see it in certain icons, emerging from a cloud in order to bless the saint standing below it. And now you are standing next to God, watching His hand as it kneads your soul.
And this is the real beginning of the spiritual life, of a life with God. Most of our spiritual journey is seeking, seeking and not finding much until we begin to see God: we see God’s hand. We see God’s hand opposing us, pushing us, kneading us, making us into bread. And when we can indeed begin to see God’s hand in all that we do not expect, in every disappointment, in every vicissitude of life, every uncomfortable change and unexpected outcome, when we see God’s fingerprints in everything that humbles us, everything that forces us to trust only in the mercy of God, when we see God’s hand here, we are now, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we are now beginning to see God, we are beginning to see the hand of God.
Thank you for sharing this teaching Fr. Michael. It is a profound icon/metaphor.
This is truly beautiful and inspiring. Thank you Fr. Michael.
I just discovered your blog on Ancient Faith and have been inhaling it. It is exactly what I needed right now, as I am a recent convert and am barely an infant in the spiritual life, of which the content is not mere intellectual pursuit of knowledge about God but real communion with God at every moment through a lifetime of repentance. I see that your blog may not get as much traffic as some of the other Ancient Faith blogs, but please continue writing. Your blog meets a unique need.
Thank you for the encouragement. I will do my best to keep writing. May God encourage you as you continue your journey in Christ as an Orthodox Christian.
Your blog, and this particular post was a gem to find. Thank you for sharing. I love learning new things, I found your post through a Google search “Kneading/Needing” as I am researching for my blog. Blessings to you!