I have a great six-year old German Shepherd named Kota. She is intelligent, obedient, and easily bored. I can train her to do almost anything a few times. She will fetch, roll over, play dead, spin around and do all sorts of dogie tricks—three or four times. That’s it. And unless you have some really good—and I mean really good—treat for her, she just won’t chase after that ball any more.
Kota is very obedient, most of the time. Visitors are sometimes amazed at how Kota just ignores the our domestic geese that we have wandering around our house eating grass. Wild Canadian geese, on the other hand, she knows are fair game and she chases them away immediately. Similarly, Kota knows that even if the gate is left open (and it is open most of the day), she knows not to enter onto the side yard with the chickens and ducks. We can leave Kota alone for several hours at a time and she knows where she is supposed to stay and what she is not to molest. As I said, Kota is a very obedient dog, most of the time.
It’s the rest of the time, the time that is not most of the time, that you have to be careful about. I summed up the situation to a friend recently in the following way: “Kota is very obedient unless she is tempted by easy food, or she is bored—in which case she goes looking for something to tempt her.” On hearing this, my friend said, “Wow, that sounds like a problem lot of people I know have.” And then I thought about it. Oh my goodness, Kota and I have the same problem, only Kota is a dog and has an excuse, I don’t.
When I’m bored that’s when I tend to get into the most trouble. Like Kota, I start looking for something to tempt me. Of course I don’t say that to myself: “Hmm, where can I find something to tempt me to sin?” Rather, it’s more like: “Hmm, where can I find something interesting to watch or read?” And in the age of internet, one often quickly finds things much too interesting to look at. Even with child protection software, my browser can often take me where I don’t want to go. I have to be very careful. I have to navigate only to known sites and stay away from anything that suggests an element of inappropriateness. I tell myself that it’s probably not that bad—but it almost always is that bad and worse. And even material that is not explicitly immoral can rouse up passions of anger or jealousy or fear or self righteousness. Nothing feels better than that rush of self-righteous indignation I feel when, learning about some terrible thing that happened on the other side of the world, I judge and condemn the evil of others. I can completely forget about my own sins as I contemplate the terrible things done by others.
When I’m bored, I’m no better than my dog, so I must attend to myself more diligently.
However, there are other ways I see myself in my dog, lessons I learn from my dog, lessons about trusting in the dark. The scripture speaks of God hiding Himself (Isaiah 45:15, for example). In some Christian traditions, verses like this are taken literally, as though God actually hides Himself in a dark cloud so that we cannot see Him. In this line of thinking, God hides to protect us and to test us. Although there is nothing wrong with this sort of literalist approach, some Orthodox fathers look at it differently. They would read passages about God hiding an anthropomorphisms. That is, they are ascribing to God something very human because from the human perspective, that’s what it looks like. From the human perspective, it indeed seems that God hides Himself from us. We cry out with Isaiah (64:1) “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!” We want God to reveal Himself plainly.
However, what if God has and does reveal Himself plainly. What if God has and is aways revealing Himself. We do chant, after all, every morning in matins (except for weekdays in Lent), “God is the Lord who has revealed Himself to us!” Maybe God has already and is already revealing Himself clearly to us. What if the problem of hiddenness is not on God’s side? What if we are the ones who cannot or will not see? Consider another passage from Isaiah:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened,
That it cannot save;
Nor His ear heavy,
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear….
Therefore justice is far from us,
Nor does righteousness overtake us;
We look for light, but there is darkness!
For brightness, but we walk in blackness!
We grope for the wall like the blind,
And we grope as if we had no eyes;
We stumble at noonday as at twilight;
We are as dead men in desolate places.
(Isaiah 59:1,2 and 9,10)
In our fallen state, not merely because of specific sins, but mostly because of our general condition as sinners, we just cannot see God, the God who is right before us all of the time.
It’s kind of like my dog and me (you were wondering how I was going to get back to Kota). Kota really knows me—as a dog knows her master. However, she does not and cannot know how much she doesn’t know about me. I often confuse her. She doesn’t understand why I leave and suddenly return. She doesn’t understand why I sit on my butt in front of my computer for hours a day and then suddenly get up and walk around the block or pull weeds or touch my toes (ha ha—I haven’t made it that far down since my running days). It’s not that I don’t want to explain to her what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Rather, it’s that she can’t understand. She looks at me with her devoted brown eyes as I explain to her why we can’t go for a walk today. She listens intently and then goes and stands by the door and whines. She heard every word and didn’t hear a thing. It reminds we of Jesus’s explanation for why He spoke in parables (again, quoting Isaiah 6:9): “So that hearing they may not hear and seeing they may not perceive.”
Still, because Kota and I spend a great deal of time together, she has come to know me quite well in a doggie sort of way. She knows a suitcase means I’m leaving. She can tell when I’m sad or happy. She knows the sound of my car before it turns into the driveway. All this she has picked up just by stubbornly hanging out with me.
I feel sort of the same way about my relationship with God. I stubbornly “hang out” with God as best I can through prayers, readings, and ascetical disciplines—these are the ways the Church has taught us that we can draw close to God. And somehow by spending time with God, by stubbornly hanging out, I get to know God, the hidden God, the hidden God who has revealed Himself. I think the “stubbornly” part is important. Kota gets all excited and jumpy when I get her leash out or pick up her food bowl. However, even when I seem to be ignoring her, there she is, snoozing near by, gnawing on a bone or just sitting and sighing, waiting for me to pay attention to her again. She doesn’t know why I seem to be ignoring her. She doesn’t, she can’t, understand about computers and blog posts and all of the reasons why I don’t take her outside and play with her right now. Still, she stays by my side. When I get up, she gets up. When I sit down, she sits or lies down—often with a disgusted look and a groan. Oh how like my dog am I!
But it is this very being together, this waiting, this staying close even though she doesn’t understand, this is how Kota has gotten to know me as well as she has. Similarly, if I know God at all, and I think I do a little, then it is only because I have hung out with Him. I have said prayers and read books and practiced ascetical disciplines even when I didn’t understand what it meant, I didn’t understand how it was supposed to make a difference, I didn’t understand where God was in all of it. But slowly, slowly, I have come to know God, the God who is hidden and has revealed Himself. Slowly, I’ve come to see and know in some small ways the God who is always there, always revealing Himself. In fact, it is often the times when God seems hidden, when all I think I know about God is challenged, when God just doesn’t do what I was so sure He would do, it’s then, through those times, that I come to know God best. All that I think I know of God is burnt down and what is left is a small spark, a glowing ember under a pile of ash. And somehow in that ember is everything, a knowledge that surpasses understanding.
So when the Church speaks of knowing God, it does not mean that we know God as God knows Himself—the distance between the human mind and God’s mind is much further than the distance between my dog’s mind and mine: it’s the distance between Creator and created. Yet still we can know God. God has created us with the potential of knowing Him. Even I, sloth that I am, even I in some way am “in His image.” His Holy Spirit does abide, somehow, even in me.
And so, because God has revealed Himself and because I do indeed have the potential of knowing Him, like my faithful dog, I try my best to follow my Master wherever he goes. Sometimes, it seems that He leaves me in the dark; but when He does, I just have to wait. He always comes back. I just have to wait, and listen, and hang out. There is so much that I cannot know, but I don’t want to let that keep me from knowing what I can know. I don’t want to let my unfulfilled expectations keep me from knowing God, the God who leads me beyond all of my expectations.
You had me at… “I have a great six year old German Shepherd…” Haha! Mine is now eight and he, too, is great. Wonderful analogy. Thank you again.
Thank you Fr. Michael. My husband and I have often observed how ignorant but still faithful our dogs have been. Lord, help me be as good as my dogs were.
I like that you include aspects of your daily life in this blog. It helps make your thoughts “incarnate” and also because, as a recent convert, its good for me to get glimpses of Orthodoxy in daily life. When I first encountered Orthodox spiritual writings I thought every Orthodox person must be constantly engaged in spiritual activity and it was an expectation that somewhat paralyzed me. I saw Orthodoxy in the vacuum of books without the palliative of seeing the everyday lives of other Orthodox Christians. I think I’m finally on the mend from that, but it’s a process.
The books and spiritual writings can be a two-edged sword (cutting both ways). Orthodox life is about transfiguration, and although that is seen most clearly on the mountain top, it is revealed to us to prepare us for the crucifixion once we come down from the mountain.
And just the other night I remember now asking to see Christ’s face and wondering why the very next day I was confronted by so many shameful memories of past sins and my unbearable weaknesses and feeling terribly empty–forgetting until reading this article that the previous night I had prayed to see Christ.
the 6th week of Lent…it is beginning to really be enough already!
Thank you so much Father!