By Fr. Stephen Freeman, September 2, 2016
“I see what you mean.”
Language holds many secrets that we ignore. Some of the secrets are quite old. If we pay proper attention, we are able to discover things that we already know, but did not yet know that we knew. The phrase, “Now I see,” or other various uses of “seeing” as a form of “knowing,” is quite ancient in its insight. The Greek word for knowing is εἰδῶ, and though it is not readily apparent, its root is the same as the Latin word “videre,” to “see.” The connection between seeing and knowing seems instinctive on some level. Though, if we think about it, the kind of knowing to which it refers is itself quite interesting.
For example, when we think of the kind of knowledge that is often described as “objective,” “seeing” is not at all the right word. Imagine that you have the opportunity to encounter God face to face. I will give you two words for this encounter: “look” and “see.” I could “look” at God, and perhaps (in my imaginary scenario) come away with a description. But “looking” does not imply any level of knowing. God is encountered as object.
When we look at objects, we are often doing nothing more than engaging the rational, critical faculty of our mind. There is no particular investment in the object itself. This is the knowledge I have described as “consumerist” knowledge. My grocery store is full of objects. I buy some and eat them.
But if we say, “He saw God,” there is a different kind of knowledge that is implied. Indeed, it would be possible to “see” God, and yet not be able to describe or even relate what you saw. It is not the knowledge of an object – it is an encounter that is rooted in communion.
“Seeing” with the sense of “knowing” implies much more than simple observation. It infers a knowing with understanding, or knowing that somehow includes communion. “Now I see,” intimates that the one who sees is somehow different as a result of the seeing.
There are no “objects” in the spiritual life. Everything that exists carries with it the possibility of communion. Our place within creation is not as the master of objects but as a point of communion.
Many people who struggle with their faith imagine that things would be different if only God would give them more evidence. I have been told by atheists more than once that their lack of belief is God’s fault. “If God wants us to believe in him,” they think, “then He should have made things more obvious.” However, God is a good God and does not give us what is damaging to the spiritual life. The kind of knowledge being demanded (objective) is of no use, and would indeed be spiritually harmful if it were given.
Christ said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a statement that declares that good people will go to heaven. It is a statement about the nature of spiritual sight and spiritual knowledge: it is directly related to the heart. Plenty of people had an objective experience of Christ. His miracles occurred in the presence of crowds. But Christ did not come to give this form of knowledge. Judas saw all of the miracles, and, doubtless, performed his share along with the rest of the Apostles.
Christ said in St. John’s gospel: “This is eternal life: that they might know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The knowledge to which Christ refers is a knowledge that takes place only as communion and coinherence. We cannot look and gain such knowledge – it has to be seen.
In my previous article I wrote about the faculty of the nous, as understood in the Fathers. It is the use of this faculty that lies at the critical point of our seeing God. One of the classical definitions of the nous is the innate faculty through which we may know God. Purity of the heart can also be described as purity of the nous. The nous is not some special faculty set aside for spiritual things. It is the very heart of our existence. And although the nous can indeed be said to focus into a single point, it is also true that it represents not a narrowing of perception, but an expanding.
The Fathers describe the nous as “darkened” went it is unable to do its proper task. This is the same as an impure or hardened heart. When the nous is darkened, every other form of knowing and functioning is acting in spiritual blindness. The nous is understood to be the faculty that should govern the whole of our being. That the critical rational mind, together with the passions, are enthralled by a consumerist culture is not particularly the fault of either. The fault lies in the absence of a properly functioning nous.
If anything, this points to our lives as something that is rightly lived in a “whole” manner. The nous is not a substitute for other forms of cognition, but other forms of cognition cannot substitute for the nous. The ascetical practices of the Church are seen as the primary tools for the healing and development of the noetic life. When the disciples asked Christ about their failures in an exorcism, Christ told them, “This kind only comes out with prayer and fasting.” Such practices, together with generosity and kindness, repentance and confession are essential to our life. They are not a “style” of Christianity – they are necessary to the wholeness of the soul.
This noetic training in the traditional practices of the Orthodox faith is the meaning of the “solid food” described in Hebrews:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 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 5:12-14)
It is commonplace in Orthodoxy to describe evangelism as “Come and See.” I have had more than a few visitors in my parish who clearly came to “look” at Orthodoxy. However, you cannot “look” at a way of life. Rational arguments, discussions, explanations, personal stories and the like certainly have the power to attract (and sometimes repel). But none of them represent communion with God. At some level, true salvation begins in a noetic experience between the soul and God. And this cannot be forced or managed. It is an intrinsically holy action in whose presence we can only be silent. St. Paisios noted that a person could be converted at the sight of a fox or a bear – the matter belonged, he said, to the “disposition of the soul.”
The life of solid food is often strenuous and people are tempted to substitute easier quicker things. Rationality, or even irrational passions, are often used as a false basis for the spiritual life. It breeds arguments and judgments and is revealed by the energy of the passions that surround it. Such a life is also very prone to doubt (which may be covered by yet more passionate noise) and produces depression and anxiety (among many other things). We were not created to live out of our rationality and passions. We are noetic creatures.
The Psalmist encourages us to “be still and know that I am God.” Such stillness is a reference to the noetic life rather than mere peace and quiet. “Come and see” is not just a word to those who don’t believe. It is the continual word of God to the soul of every believer. It is worth noting that the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that Christ’s word to His disciples after the resurrection was, “Peace be with you.” It is an invitation to noetic communion for every soul.
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/09/02/seeing-believing-noetic-life-part-2/.