- We fall down, we get up
- This is eternal life
- Knowing reality by definition
- Pandora and her box
- The lost experience of veneration
- The News and the Good News
- Wilt Thou love God?
It’s All “First Things” Today
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.”
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.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Saving Knowledge)
For many, Christ is a word that represents an idea about a certain individual who did certain things on account of which I may now, by believing those certain things, be saved. It is little different than proclaiming that Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon and that all who believe that he did, will be saved. At least, the mechanism of salvation would be quite the same.
But this is not at all what the gospel teaches, nor is it consistent with the faith of classical Christianity. The gospel says that eternal life is “to know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent” (Jn. 17:3). It does not say that eternal life is to think or believe certain things about Christ, but to actually know Him. And as I described in my previous article, such knowledge must be understood as an actual act of communion.
In the life of the Church this knowledge of God is largely given in the form of sacrament. Christ’s promise regarding the Eucharist is straightforward: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” He does not say “Whosoever thinks correctly about the Eucharistic elements…” The knowing, if you will, comes by eating and drinking, not by thinking. We might well reflect on that knowing experience, but the reflection is secondary.
… Eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood is only the most immediate form of a greater set of practices. But our modern psychologization of belief tends to discount physical actions as contributing very little to our spiritual lives. We frequently describe them as representing something other than themselves – and that something is usually some abstraction.
We teach the hands of a child to make the sign of the Cross, for it will be a primary weapon when he enters spiritual warfare. The very actions that have been vilified now for centuries (cf. “empty ritual”) are, in fact, essential to the Christian life. For if you do not engage in these holy forms of “play,” then the other games of your life, those of the Spirit of the Age, will teach your hands another form of warfare against Christ and His children. Ritual is not optional in the human life. Those of the marketplace and the entertainment world are quickly forming and shaping generations for something other than God. You cannot live such a life of cultural conformity and then wonder why you see no evidence for God.
This habit of denigrating the physical is the constant companion of most people in our culture …
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Material God)
From CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis, having taken a bus ride from hell to heaven is being guided and instructed by George MacDonald. The question of what will be in the end comes up. Will all be saved?
Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?’
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Where All Answers Deceive)
I have said before and will take this occasion to say again that “the coin dropped” on Lewis’s The Great Divorce early in my exploration of Orthodox Christianity in the form of a question to myself: “What are you doing to become the kind of person who wouldn’t say ‘no thanks’ at the end of the outing to heaven, and get back on the bus to hell?”
Greek Mythology made the curiosity of Pandora the primary cause of suffering in the world. She fails to resist the lure of finding out what is in a box she is told to leave closed. Opening the box, she unleashes sorrow and suffering into the world. We humans are a curious lot. We want to know everything about our business and much about what is not our business. In a world that has deeply internalized the notion that everything is a democracy, we cannot bear hearing that not all knowledge is meant for us.
We love knowledge. To be excluded from being “in the know” often leaves us feeling ashamed and angry. We trust ourselves with everything and find out to our dismay that somebody else’s business can be a terrible thing.
This is also true with the things of God:
For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:13-14)
The Biblical writer suggests that not everyone is ready for “solid food.” I have rarely met anyone who thought that the verse applied to them.
I marvel when I think of how many things of great depth I have read with little or no profit. Among my earliest purchases (during college) was all four volumes of the Philokalia. It was probably worse than useless.The same is true, sadly, of many people who quote the Fathers. They know who said what about this or that, but they have no regard for the actual state of their own heart. They easily become children playing with sharp knives, very likely to hurt themselves as well as others ….
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, A Terrible Knowledge)
The example Fr. Stephen then gives of “children playing with sharp knives” strikes close to home.
I’m not sure what those who are strangers to Mary imagine goes on in the life of an Orthodox or Catholic Christian. I cannot speak for Catholics (they’re more than capable of speaking for themselves). First, I know that there is nothing even remotely like worship accorded to her. The entire experience of veneration seems to have been lost within Protestant thinking …
The fear of this experience and knowledge, I suspect, is driven by the centuries-old accusation of “Mary-worship,” as well as an idea that anything or anyone given honor other than God represents competition for God, and denigrates His glory …
But we have forgotten the ancient Christian ethos of honor and veneration. The Scriptures nowhere describe God as “alone.” Instead, He is consistently depicted as the Lord of “Hosts” (a vast crowd). The God made known in Christ is a relational God who is Himself described as “love.” The honor and veneration given to the saints within the Church is simply the liturgical expression of love. It is not worship. Generations of Christians, however, have become estranged from the court of Christ, and fancied the Kingdom either as a democracy, or the King without His entourage. They have forgotten the place of the King’s mother and the honor due His friends. In short, we have become rude in our spiritual bearing and made ourselves strangers to heaven.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Beneath Her Compassion)
I once had a conversation with a friend about monastic hermits in the desert. He dismissed them as of no relevance. “Who even knows that they’re there?” He asked. Of course, I could say the same about any number of average people anywhere in the world at any given moment. That they may be “known” by some tiny circle of friends seems hardly greater than the loneliness of a hermit. But that is only true if we use the false standard of the public narrative [i.e., “the news”]. God knows the hermit is there. The devil knows it and trembles at the sound of his prayer. For all we know, God withholds his judgement and extends His mercy at the urging of this unknown monk.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, World Story – the News and the Good News)
Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’er be gone)
Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir t’ his glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.
And as a robbed man, which by search doth find
His stol’n stuff sold, must lose or buy ‘t again:
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he’d made, and Satan stol’n, to unbind.
‘Twas much that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.
(John Donne, via The Imaginative Conservative)
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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)