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Podcast: The experiential knowledge of God (Met. Athanasios)

This English translation of the sermon of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol (Cyprus), delivered on February 4, 2015, was recorded for otelders (Orthodox Teaching of the Elders) by Peter Eliades.

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Metropolitan Athanasios:

We are at the 9th psalm, verse 11. We had previously noticed this disposition of the prophet which is born in his heart from the Grace of the Holy Spirit and gave birth to feelings of giving thanks to God by watching the miracles He has realized in his life and, more generally, the course of man who hopes in God and the enormous love of God to all people without exception. We had said that God in all people acts without favouritism and loves everyone exactly the same. But we, people, are not in a place to always see this Hand of God and it is proven that as long as we are far from God, a “fog” covers our eyes and we are unable to see the acts of God in our life. However, the more one is fighting spiritually and the more he or she approaches God then our eyes cleanse, our vision cleanses and we see God acting in our lives. We see him be next to us, helping us and covering us from the very first moment of our existence… and this whole feeling, gives birth to this doxology to God almighty, the benevolent, who is always next to his child, man.

David goes on in verse 11 “And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee”. Meaning “Let those, who know Your Name, have hope in You, because You have never abandoned those who ask for you, Lord”. From his experience, David gives us the incitement and the confirmation to hope in God, especially “those who know his Name”. This verb “know his Name, know God” we find it often in the Testament and the texts of the fathers who talk about the knowledge of God. As Christ himself says “to know you the real God and the one you sent who is Jesus Christ”.

 When we speak of “knowledge” in the Testament, what do we mean? And what is this “knowledge” that saints speak of …next to the fathers and the divinely inspired texts? “Knowledge” is not a simple, intellectual knowledge. We say (for example) “I know that God exists who is Almighty, he created the world”. He is three persons, the Holy Trinity, the Logos. The second person became human for us and everyone else we know. We know these facts, we learn them from teaching, studying, catechism, by reading and listening, we accept, we believe in them and know them. But the knowledge for which David and the fathers speak is something much deeper.

Abbas Isaak, as we have said other times, says that faith is divided into two stages. The “introductory faith” and “the faith of theory”. The first faith which says that we believe in God is the one that all people have.  We read, listen about God, accept him orthodoxically and we have no doubt in our mind that He, God is indeed the true God which we are taught. But this knowledge is clearly intellectual knowledge, comes from the brain.  And, of course, it influences on our mental world when faith is powerful and we practice the works of God.

But the true knowledge, the “second faith of theory”, containing the word “theory”—derived from the ancient Greek verb “theoro/θεωρώ” which means “to see”—is this kind of knowledge, this faith which is born not merely out of intellectual knowledge but from the experience of God. Meaning that for man, God is not an object of knowledge, but He is a face with which man acquires personal experience, experience of love, loving union and relationship.  The experience of God in man’s life is that big, that erases and exceeds all other experiences a man has in his life.

This is the knowledge and how is it born? How does this knowledge come to man? Abbas Isaak says it is knowledge that is born out of temptations. Meaning, sorrows. Through the Furnace of sorrows, the Furnace of adventure, trial, difficulty. Through the Golgotha, which takes a different form in every man. In this case, the man has to remain faithful to God and not retreat from his position. Regardless of any storm that can arrive in life, one has to remains in a position of faith in which he believes and accepts that “this is of God”, a lesson from God. The result of this patience in faith is faith of theory, the faith of experience. Meaning that God reveals his face to man and God names man his child and man names God his father and this is now an event tangible.

And something else which is also important.  We listen  many times that we must go on and  translate the Divine Liturgy because people today do not comprehend ancient Greek [in Greek orthodox churches the Divine Liturgy is read in ancient Greek up to this date], especially young people come to church and do not understand what the priests and chanters say and because of this they do not visit church, while, supposedly, if the hymns were translated the people would comprehend them, and they would have a reason to come to church. This proposition, this argument even if it seems justified to a certain extent… we can say that it is not absolutely true for a man initiated in spiritual life. Indeed, to a certain extent, it is good to understand what it is said, but the problem is elsewhere. Even if we translate them in modern Greek people will listen to them… one, two, five times… but the relationship of man with God is not merely intellectual in a way that if you understand with your mind what is said, that is all.

The relationship with God is existential which means that the man lives God in the entirety of his existence, in his heart, in the centre of his mental and physical existence. He experiences God as an event which constitutes now for the man unbridled love to God and this experience does not come simply by understanding intellectually what means “take eat” or what is the meaning of “I believe in one God, the Father almighty”. Because, man does not have as a centre of his existence, his brain, his intellect. If the centre of the man was the intellect, the brain then indeed it would be an event intellectually acceptable, but still it will never be possible for this intellectually acceptable fact to change existentially man as a whole. Practical proof is the experience of the church. We all know, most of us there might be a time when we had no relationship with the church and we all remember that during the period that we are far from God, far from the church, we said a number justifications…like for example “I don’t go to church because I do not understand, I am bored etc.” When we entered the church and we saw our brothers, this was forgotten. Nobody is preoccupied with whether I understand or not, but we are preoccupied with whether I experience the Liturgy, or I do not. Because, we, priests, we know what means “again and again in peace let us pray unto the Lord”. We know it in our mind.

 Because, we priests, as I said, know intellectually what it means, but the intellectual knowledge does not help us. It helps us to the least. What helps in the experiencing of God is the rest—work in the orders of God and the spiritual fight, which cleanses our heart and makes us, if we fight, acceptive of this energy and presence of the Holy Spirit. All the more proof, all these centuries our ancestors knew nothing, neither did they understand… which of our poor grandmothers and ancestors knew all those things…? But, truly, they were harmed in no way. Because, they experienced the living tradition of the church and experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit, They went to the church and they might not understand intellectually what “thine own of thine own” meant but they experienced the event of the presence of God inside the Divine Liturgy. They experienced the event of the union of their existence with God. For this reason, this generations who had this experience, succeeded in keeping the faith not intellectually but existentially and gave birth to martyrs, confessors, saints and by no means did the church feel reduced because the men were intellectually, or academically less educated or not. Academic knowledge and education help, but it not so important in spiritual life. Indeed, it is true that the man who learned to experience the event of the existence of God in his heart, this man is now “aware of”,  “knows” the true God who sent Jesus Christ. Also, what prophet David says that “they hope in God those who know Your name”, those who know, who understand, who have an experience now of what means this name of God. The greatness of the presence of God in their existence; it says afterwards “thou hast not forsaken them that seek thee, O Lord” and this knowledge of God is not without result, it’s not a static event which happened and remained there, because it says “thou hast not forsaken them that seek thee, O Lord”…you have never abandoned anyone at any time. Meaning that it comes as an expression and an answer, both deriving from the heart of man, to God. As if the man says “yes we love You, and we try to hope for You in You, because You are the one who never abandoned no man, who looks for You”. And you are going to say: “what about those who don’t seek God?”…and I will answer.

Whether I look for God or not… of course, it is evident from my works, my belief… but God, fortunately, is “the knower of all hearts” and “searches the hearts and reins” says the Testament. He examines and sees in the depths of man and you know that many times our heart has her own language and her own expression, which is independent of logic. And our works and brains might go eastward but our heart goes opposite, westward and the heart herself looks for God and our works might be anything but helpful. Nevertheless, God looks in the depths of the being of man and He sees that what the other man does is not what it looks… but there is a different need from what actually “looks”. And only God can tell this difference.

 Today the science of psychology has reached nice and miraculous conclusions through observation which interpret the seeming attitude of man not based on what he does externally but what he wants to say even if he doesn’t t understand what he does—subconsciously through this external acts. You see a man, a young man, for example, that does extremist things, dangerous things, iconoclastic things and you say “why is he doing those things they are not good” but someone who sees in depth, sees that these externals are expression of the esoteric search of this man of the esoteric need to fill his void, to find a reason to show him importance, give him love, somethings else which is not what appears externally. The same happens, even more, to the man in front of God. We, people, do a lot of nonsense and errors and it is natural that we are small humans with limited powers and capabilities… but God sees the heart of man and as the fair and good Father that he is, He does not overlook man and sets aside these externals and looks in depth, looks at the heart of man and listens to the voice of his heart which voice even we, ourselves, cannot hear… but God listens because he is as the Testament says “He, who moulded the heart of man and has the power, the sensibility—let me put it this way—to listen to the voice of our soul which many times is not expressed through external events. For all these, one comes to say that God never wrongs no man.

Let us know this thing, no man among the billions of men that lived on this world from the first man that appeared to the last man today, from the cannibal of jungle to the most modern man who lives in the most advanced country…God has the way to speak with this man and endow him with all the powers not to wrong another man. For this, at the final day of judgment, no man will be able to say: “God I was wronged in my life”. Αs we usually say “I was wronged” or as we say to God “if I was not married to this husband, or if I was not in this city or if I did not do this job or if I lived in another era “I would not be that man”… “No!”.

At that day we will see that God did everything for us and we lost, we scattered, ignored His beneficence and this is going to be one of the eternal tortures of our suffering in hell that we scattered, threw away and were unconcerned for the great beneficence of God . I say this—because to all men—and I believe to each and every one of us this question is born. “What if I was not in this position, if I did not have not these kids, if I had not this mother-in-law, if I had not this husband, if I had not this job…”I would not be like that, I would have been better like that”. And I say if I was not at Lemessos and I was at Mount Athos I would have been much better. However, I answer to you, and say… with these words “you come to blame God?” and say “you know God, if I was not here and I was there, I would have been better!”. This is something impossible! At that day (of final Judgment) that our eyes will open, we will understand that in our life, in our circumstances, in our personal lives of each and every one of us to the last detail, God was present and gave us everywhere and at all time all the possibilities for our salvation. For this it says “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God [Romans 8:28]. It does not say “most of the time”, “half of the time” or “almost all” but “all things work together for good”. So, when we see something not working for good, it means that we do not love God in an absolute way. If we loved him perfectly, then everything would “work together for good”. Nobody, ever, will feel that he was wronged by God at any point of his life. We need to take this seriously into consideration. So when we fight, let us not have the thought of evasion, or rejection of our cross or what they said to Jesus “if you are Son of God, come down from the cross”. This sentence, this “secularized” sentence to change road, to throw your cross, to come down of your cross and say “you know, I do not want this cross. I will change manners, I think the other way is better”… “it is not like that! It is not like that!”. The man wherever he is, he fights there, with the reality that he faces now with this children, with this health, with this illness, with this home country, with these people, at this time, with all reality. Absolutely nothing can stop man’s course to God, only our freedom. If we say “I don’t want”. “I don’t want”. In this case, indeed, man, with the freedom given to him by God, can change his course and cease this obedience to divine will.

But, even then, God sees in the depth of our heart, sees what we really want instead of what we say silly and naively.  Of course, this feeling stems from the certainty that God “never abandoned those who seek for him”. And, we must to our abilities to keep in our heart this desire of God, to ask for God as the psalm in Vespers says “The rich have become poor and hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing” .”Those who seek God” and who is “the man that seeks God?”. The one who feels that in his life he needs something more than what he already has….the one who did not take satisfaction in material things who did not take satisfaction in the present, the temporary, the ephemera, the one who understood that his existence on this world, concerns something beyond the things that see and touch and taste. The one who maintained in his heart that his being and his existence seeks for something more perfect and deeper.

Because if the person is satisfied and if he or she feels “I am fine, I have no need any more, I feel nothing, I seek nothing” or “there is nothing that incites me to seek for something else”, this person has become satisfied and this satisfaction wears us out like the static water which gives birth to  many microbes and bacteria and goes off. In the same manner a man that has stagnant waters and is satisfied. And God, the Good, our Father, the good medic, when we he sees his children to be satisfied/content, but our heart asks for God, he gives us the possibility of sorrows and temptations that come to us and shake us, to use them in order to wake up and understand that it is not the present things, you cannot be satisfied in present things, present things are relative, everything is relative. Only God is an absolute size, is an absolute existence in which a man is satisfied and he can say “I am content in God’s embrace”. Everything else, unfortunately, is relative and man cannot take rest in relative and temporary things…not even in the noble and necessary ones. We see a lot of times people who feel their lives collapse and they become a wreck and lose any meaning or purpose. For example, because they had a difficulty in their marriage and the wronged-person says “since my spouse betrayed me, for me there is no purpose or meaning in my life”. Of course, he/she has his/her right and sensibility, But, somebody comes to say that there has been a mistake in this case. The purpose of your life, of your existence—which expresses all your being—was built upon a man, however good and necessary he/she might be”, if you built your everything on that man, well don’t you know that he/she is a man, he/she is a “limited size”, one time he/she will leave , will sleep, will not bear, sometime he/she might betray you, he/she will not be able to live up to your expectation. In that case, our life will come to have no purpose anymore? We understand that we built and support our existence on things that are not absolute, they are limited, and, when the time comes, when that big earthquake occurs, we break down and together we collapse and lose our entire life. However, it is a necessity to go through these earthquakes and reconsider our edifice and the basis on which we stand and to realize that present things are not permanent neither are we, neither can we imprison ourselves in temporary things. The time must come to liberate ourselves and set them free in this spaciousness and safety of the existence of God. Yet, we make the mistake. You see, somebody loses his position, someone else his wealth, other his health, other his glory, whatever…we built on these things, we built on these things and the time of temptations come and we see ourselves to get scared,  to frighten before the probability of the collapse of “my economy”, I might lose my money, my wealth, my family, my husband, I might lose the simplest thing, which, however, is still so important to us. We must learn not to idolize, not to turn into idols, things of the present, but to know that the absolute size that satisfies man is God and everything else is relative, it is temporary. They are events of the present life. Beautiful, necessary, consoling, good, they consol and give strength but unfortunately—these and with them us—we are only passing through this world. (Hebrews 13:14) “For here have we no lasting city, but we seek one to come” as Apostle Paul says. In the heart of saints, this feeling was born in the absolute. We do not have in this world a lasting city. Not only, we will leave and we know it, but we seek the one to come. We search for her, we expect her, we desire her.  Why? Because we experienced the event of the relativity on the one hand and the absolute secureness and certainty of the Kingdom of God on the other.

In the next lyric verse, David, through this expression of love says: “Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Sion: declare his dealings among the nations”. Sing praises and give thanks to Him, who dwell in Sion and declare to nations, his achievements and his works and his greatness. Is it not a feature of love to overflow? A man who loves and this love is alive in his heart, he can’t keep it within him…and the love of God overflow, it is endless, it is not something static, it is something dynamic which fills and overflows and spreads everywhere and is without end and it is a thing that appears and spreads and does not expire and is expressed with this exhortation to all world and creation to sing, praise, give thanks to God who “lives in Sion”. Of course, God does not live in a city, but Sion is the temple of God, the throne of God. And where does God live? And where Sion is if we take a deeper look at it?”.

God lives in the heart of man with his uncreated Grace and energy. This God when He resides in our heart then our heart becomes a temple of God, becomes truly Sion, a place of residence of God and man feels such energy in him, such grace, such power which he cannot describe neither can he keep it in himself. I remember, an elder in Mt. Athos, a monk who was a man of much prayer, old in age. It was afternoon and he left his cell to go to Vespers and he had a prayer rope, a big one in his hand, as usual and besides his old age, he was happy, the face was joyful, his beard, his moustache, his hair were all smiling, you were watching a man, old in age but with a spiritual youthness and a “euphoria” miraculous. I saw him, I asked him “what is going on?”. He answered me “we are having celebrations, it is impossible to withhold this situation inside me”…because, indeed, inside this man God was a permanent resident, what is said as “we will come to them and make our home with them.”  (John 14: 23). God resides in the heart of man and the man sings, praises and is happy and give thanks to God but he also does something else. It is said “declare his dealings among the nations”. Meaning tell the nations the deeds and the greatness of God.   

You cannot hide this treasure. You cannot. St. Chrysostomos says “it is a treasure which has this important particular difference from all other treasures of the world. Take the usual treasures we have, our money, we hide and guard them because if we give them away they will reduce… This treasure, however, as much as you give him away, it increases and as much as you hide him, it reduces. This is a big mystery of this heavenly treasure. “Spend him and it will increase, keep him and it will decrease”.

The People of God, as they narrate God’s greatness as they speak about God, as they tell to nations, to the world—here in the Psalm by using the word “nations”, he refers to the non-Israelites of that age— we can say to these men, to our brothers, who ignore the greatness of God, it is impossible for the man who lives and experiences the presence of God to silence…and to hide this treasure and to cover him and say nothing and keep it for himself…this self-contentment, this “it is enough for me” attitude…it is not an indication of healthy spirituality…you cannot hide the greatness of God…it is impossible.

A prophet in the Old testament said “I thought to silence and never speak again”—because whenever he spoke they almost killed him “to silence and never speak again of God” and then inside me this word , this feeling became Fire, a fire burnt inside me and almost incinerated my existence and it was impossible for me to silence, it was an impossible thing, I wanted to go and shout to the whole world and proclaim the greatness of God … not for something else, but from endless love and an inability to suppress this feeling of the presence of God inside me. Abbas Isaak, who was a hermit, says somewhere “I became stupid and I cannot silence. “What has happened to me?” and I grab the pen and write, write, write all the time for the greatness of God and this wealth of God appears from inside my heart. Indeed, I turned idiot and naïve because I cannot silence, and I cannot silence about wealth and greatness of God. With this, the problem of settling with an individual salvation is pinpointed.  Is it enough for me to know God and say nothing to my neighbour and not to speak of God?. If yes, this is certainly not an overflow of the presence of God in me… I am a self-contented person, who has settled with what he has found and that is enough for him. This thing is not an indication of a true and healthy Christian. St John Chrysostomos says there is no “colder thing” than a Christian who hid this treasure and has benefited no other man in his life. The coldest thing is to see a Christian who has settled. “It’s ok for me I am settled with God and now I don’t care, I don t say anything I don t preoccupy with my surroundings”. One will then say “so what is the answer…let’s pick up a bag and start knocking on doors to preach…?” ”I did t say this” these things happen by themselves…like in our life when we have a big joy, this big joy we can’t keep it for ourselves we want to share it with others so we become partakers with other humans and they partake with our joy.

This applies in our case as well, if you have found God inside you, then you cannot hid him, you are going to “speak” Him, you are going to announce Him, you are going to be His witness, you are going to confess Him, you are going to say to your brother next to you about Him, and this presence of God, humbly and beautifully. No need probably for many words, but certainly you cannot hide this treasure, it is not allowed. If the Gospel judges us, because the Lord says “I was naked and hungry and thirsty and in prison and you did not take care of me”… Imagine—if for a simple piece of bread which you are going to eat and be hungry again in 5-6 hours—God judges us like non-loving people… Think then what happens when we see our brother next to us, hungry and thirsty of the eternal food. God is the true bread the life of the world and how can we come to say “I don’t care, I say nothing, I don’t deal with, I don’t speak, I don’t reveal this mystery… then indeed I think we will be guilty because we hid this treasure and put this “light under the bushel”. And not only are we to be judged but this is also is an indication that our spiritual life is not healthy, something is going on, it means that our living has imperfections, shortages , some illness, a spiritual microbe which does not let her function correctly, because if you really love and whoever has the Grace the first thing he feels inside him is this big love and love does not seek her own, love cannot hide things for herself. Immediately, she gives them away, she offers them, she “advertises them” so to speak…so everyone can live and come and see. As St. Silouan [the Athonite] said and it is written on his icon and it was the desire of his Soul and he said “Lord, if I could go to the tallest place of earth and shout so that all people can hear me and say how much You Love us, just this”… it was the desire of his heart and afterwards he said  “I pray thee, O merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know thee by thy Holy Spirit”. It was his fervent praise and desire that “everyone would come to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit”. You see, he was a hermit, an ascetic monk but the real feeling of the experience of God, turned him immediately “global”,  to hug and fit the whole world, the whole Adam and to give birth to the desire so that “all the peoples of the earth would come to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit”.  

This English translation of the sermon of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, delivered on February 4, 2015, was recorded for otelders, Orthodox Teaching of the Elders, by Peter Eliades.

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