In homily 47, St. Isaac introduces his famous three degrees of knowledge, which I have spoken about at length before. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at some aspects of the first degree of knowledge.
St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Because Paul sets up this contrast between knowledge and love, it’s easy to assume that they are somehow opposites, or tensions that must be managed. One is tempted even to speculate that knowledge—specifically knowledge about spiritual things, knowledge about religious practice and rules (sexual morality and meat sacrificed to idols, in the case of 1 Corinthians)—that such knowledge is bad and must be done away with so that love can reign. Not a few Christians have succumbed to this temptation and have given up on dogma, on teaching, on knowledge ostensibly so that they can just love. However, the majority, in my experience, seem to ignore this verse altogether, stressing knowledge (“knowing Christ”) as the means to salvation, forgetting about love almost completely. And unfortunately, this “knowing Christ” which is considered all important tends almost always to break down into a mishmash of mere knowledge of doctrine or teaching about Christ and how Christ saves us (by works or by grace, etc.) mixed with a few personal mystical or liturgical experiences or encounters.
What St. Isaac calls ‘natural knowledge,’ is, I think, the kind of knowledge St. Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8. Natural knowledge “discerns good from evil” ; it is a natural discernment that every human being has “without being taught” because “God has implanted it in rational nature.” In other words, all creatures who can reason (angels and human beings) naturally have this ability to discern good from evil. St. Isaac says that “through teaching” this natural reasoning ability “receives growth and assistance.” He also says that this ability to discern good from evil, this “insight” as he calls it, can be destroyed, or veiled: “we veil this natural knowledge by means of our pleasure-loving will, [and thus] we forfeit all these good things” (i.e. things that come from the ability to discern good from evil). And so for St. Isaac, teaching, teaching about good and evil, gaining and passing on knowledge about what is good and evil is important both because it provides growth and assistance to those who have retained the natural knowledge implanted in them, and to remind or awaken the consciences of those who have lost it.
But what does this have to do with love?
For St. Isaac, knowledge is not something to be held in contrast to love; but rather, knowledge is the beginning of a process or journey that leads to love. Knowledge is the infancy of love. And just as a July apple is hard and green and bitter, so knowledge when its growth into love has been hindered, only makes us proud (pride being the spiritual equivalent of the upset tummy that comes from eating green apples). But when knowledge has matured, St. Isaac tells us, it ‘surmounts’ even what is natural to attain to love. And so, if we return to 1 Corinthians with this insight of knowledge progressing to love, we might say that the solution to the problem is not to do away with knowledge, but to allow knowledge to progress into love.
What does this progression of knowledge to love look like?
When we do not veil (or cover) what we might call our conscience in order to please our pleasure-loving will, we experience three things, according to St. Isaac. First, a “continual pricking of conscience.” When we do not ignore or veil our natural knowledge of good and evil, our conscience is continually bothering us, continually reminding us by an uncomfortable feeling, what St. Isaac calls “pricking.” It reminds us of what is good that we are not doing and of what is evil that we are yet doing.
The second thing we experience when we do not veil our natural knowledge is “unceasing remembrance of death.” Now one way this is experienced is by a vivid awareness that I and everyone I know is going to die. However, most people I know can’t survive very long with such a vivid awareness of death. Rather, most people most of the time experience what St. Isaac calls “remembrance of death” as a profound sense that something is wrong. Something is wrong with the world, something is wrong with people, the system is broken. It is a profound sense that death is at work in the world.
And this leads to the third experience, that of “a certain anxiety which is a torment until a man departs from this life.” This anxiety, St. Isaac tells us, has elements of sorrow, sadness, fear of God, shame and grieving over past sins and failures. However, despite these negative aspects of the anxiety produced by the knowledge of good and evil, this anxiety also moves us toward God by motivating us to diligence in our duties (spiritual, moral, material, relational), attention to and care for the community and the common needs, it moves us to prayer and spurs us to strive for virtue (what is good) and have contempt for the world—that is, contempt for the passions that war within us, which St. Isaac refers to as “the world” when he wants to refer to passions generally.
“All of these good things,” St. Isaac tells us, “are found through natural knowledge.” What good things is he talking about? The good things are the three uncomfortable feelings (pricking of conscience, remembrance of death and tormenting anxiety) and the behaviours they produce, both negative (mourning and shame and fear of God) and positive (diligence in duties, care for community and motivation in prayer).
You might ask, “These are the good things?” Yes, these are the good things because they are the natural healthy response of a sound mind and a clear conscience living in a dying, sinful, terribly broken world. These are also good things because, according to St. Isaac, these are what lead us to love, real love, God-like love that overcomes the world, that even overcomes nature. Here’s what St. Isaac says:
All these good things are found through natural knowledge. So, let every man compare his works with these. For when a man is found amid these things, he is walking on the path that is natural. But when he surmounts them and attains to love, he is raised above nature, and the struggle, the fear, the toil, the weariness in all the things he does, pass away from him. These things are consequences of natural knowledge, and we find them in ourselves when we do not veil it by means of our pleasure-loving will. We are amid these things until we attain to love, which frees us from them all.
And so the knowledge that puffs up which St. Paul speaks of is the immature knowledge that comes naturally to those who have not veiled their consciences. It is a knowledge that must also be taught so that the ignorant can learn (or relearn, or have their sleeping consciences awakened) and so that those already aware of these things can grow and be assisted. It is a knowledge that without maturation, makes one proud. The knowledge that puffs up is the information, the dogma about what is good and evil that has not matured through suffering, fear of God and repentance into love. However, when the knowledge of good and evil is allowed to work and grow in us, a process takes place, an uncomfortable, often wearying process that involves sadness and pricking and shame and prayer and diligence and striving for good. And this process leads us to the place where we attain love, a love that raises us above even nature itself and surmounts all of the tumult and struggle and toil that brought us there.
This love, then is the love that builds up. This is the love that is produced by knowledge matured, knowledge that has suffered, knowledge that has brought us through the fear of God and repentance to the love of God that even causes us to despise the struggle, to forget the shame: Like the juicy red apple of October no longer remembers the green bitter apple of July. Or to use one of St. Isaac’s metaphors, “Thus fear [of God] sets us in the ship of repentance, transports us over the foul sea of this life (that is, the world), and guides us to the divine port, which is love. Hither proceed all that labor and are afflicted and heavy laden in repentance. When we attain to love, we attain to God.”