The Folly and Necessity of Rationalizing the Supra-rational

Several years ago I was leading a book study on St. Theophan the Recluse’ The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It.  I had read the book at least twice before this study, so I was going through it a third time as I prepared for my talks. As I read, I was excited to discover that I seemed to be understanding his broader ideas and not getting so lost in the details.  I often get lost in the details when I’m reading a spiritual book.  By getting lost in the details I mean that I tend to focus a great deal on what I don’t understand, such as the exact meaning of the words or the precise inner reality they refer to.  However, going through The Spiritual Life for the third time over a ten-year period, I felt that I had a pretty good handle on the words St. Theophan uses (or at least the English translation of those words) and at least an approximation as to the inner realities the words refer to.

In fact, I was thinking that I comprehended what St. Theophan was saying well enough to make a diagram of his understanding of the soul and the working of the passions.  I was pretty happy with this diagram, and in fact, I still use it in catechism classes (with several modifications based on my reading of St. Maximus and St. Isaac).  However, when I showed this diagram to my spiritual father, he was not impressed.  When I asked him why, his short answer was that he didn’t care for St. Theophan’s works.  This made me very nervous, so I pushed him a little more and discovered that it was not St. Theophan or his writings, per se, that he didn’t care for.  What he didn’t care for, and which in fact he considered to be dangerous, is the tendency many people have of systemizing the inner life.  By this point I realized that he was not really referring to St. Theophan at all, but to me.

The danger, my spiritual father explained, is that any systemization of spiritual realities is both wrong and thus misleading.  Systems, definitions and diagrams of the inner life are, in a sense, by definition wrong because they are an attempt to reduce to something that is merely rational that which transcends our rational capacity.  The spiritual life is known and experienced, but because it is supra-rational, it cannot be spoken of in rational categories.  Which does not mean that it cannot be spoken of at all.  Irony, metaphor, and apophatic statements can sometimes point toward supra-rational, inner realities, or to what such realities are not.  However, the word ‘sometimes’ is key.

My spiritual father has said more than once (as do St. Theophan and many others) that in order to perceive the inner reality that someone speaks of, you have to have experienced something similar yourself.  Here great caution and humility are called for.  It is an easy step into delusion to think one has shared a spiritual experience or perceived an inner reality similar to that which one reads about or hears from some holy father or mother.  Great care is called for.  In fact, I think it is best to assume that one doesn’t understand much of what a holy person is speaking of, and to hold tentatively what you think he or she might be referring to—as though you have only the vaguest notion.   Particularly, we must be careful not to think we know.  St. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians comes to mind: “If any man thinks he knows anything, let him know that he knows nothing as he ought to know it” (1 Cor. 8:2).

There are a couple of images that I have found useful in this regard.  One is the walled rose garden.  For example, I might walk down a sidewalk next to a walled yard and smell the roses on the other side, and thus might rightly say that I know that there are roses on the other side of the wall.  Yet, I don’t see them.  I don’t know what kind or how many or how they are arranged or cared for.  I actually know very little about what’s on the other side of the wall.  But I know that I smell roses.  When I read spiritual writing, I often have a sense that I know what the writer is speaking of.  However, I am quick to remind myself that “I know” as I would know that there are roses on the other side of a wall.  I certainly smell the sweet scent of roses, of the spiritual reality the writer is referring to, but I am even more certain that there is much, much more that I simply do not perceive.

The other image that I have found helpful is the ascending helix.  A helix is a spiral shape, like a spiral staircase or a spring.  Each time you make a circuit, you are above the exact same compass point on the floor, but at a higher level.  Similarly, when a holy person speaks or writes of some inner, spiritual experience, the fact that I understand anything at all I attribute to the ascending helix of the spiritual life—sort of a spiral ladder of divine ascent, if you will.  The fact that I understand anything at all of what a holy person says is due to the fact that I have been at a similar spiritual place as that which holy person refers to, relative to some compass point on my spiritual floor.  However, because I am at a much lower spiritual level, I can assure myself that there is a great deal that I do not even know that I don’t know.  Or to mix my metaphors, because the spiritually mature person is at a higher place, he or she sees clearly over the wall that which I only faintly smell.

Systems, definitions and diagrams of spiritual realities can, however, be useful in an apophatic way.  In my discussion with my spiritual father about my diagram of St. Theophan’s conception of the soul, I pointed out that I had found the diagram helpful in a catechetical context.  Almost all of my catechumens have had a very poor, often freudian understanding of the human psyche/soul.   Using the diagram, catechumens have been able to identify many of their false understandings of how the inner life functions and to embrace more helpful and more patristic, dare I say it, categories and vocabulary.

At this point, my spiritual father conceded that such a diagram might prove useful in a catechetical context.  But he encouraged me to emphasize to the catechumens that the diagram is not the reality—it is only a tool to help identify false conceptions of the soul.  So, I will often tell those I share the diagram with that it is not a diagram of the soul but a rough metaphor or symbol.  It exists to help beginners to begin, to help beginners learn some helpful categories and terminology to start talking about the inner life.  However, the diagram and the categories it seems to define should be soon forgotten and replaced by the actual experience of the inner life gained by attention to spiritual things.

Having said all of this about my diagram, I think it is only fair that I share it with you.  You who are beginners might find it a little helpful, and those who are more advanced can ignore it completely, for you will see immediately that it is misleading, as are all attempts to rationalize the supra-rational.

The way of deification


  1. Hi Father Michael,
    The article made sense to me and I am someone on the way bottom rung. There were things beyond me, but your overall meaning came through.

    I hope everyone is well. Love, Aunt Marlene

  2. Dear Father,
    I just saw your diagram for the first time. The heart, and the spiritual reality behind the physical world accessible via the heart, are the same colour! I imagine you did that on purpose. 🙂
    The helix idea is very helpful too.

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