by Fr. Stephen Freeman
Eskimos really do have over 50 words for snow. In total, there are around 180 words for snow and ice. There is “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving a sled.” There is also “utuqaq,” which means, “ice that lasts year after year” and “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese. The reason, of course, is simple. If the information about snow and ice are a matter of survival, human beings develop a vocabulary sufficient to cover their need. They also develop a keen eye for snow and ice. They do not see better or different than anyone else, but they pay attention to certain things that others would ignore.
This simple reality can also be applied to the words of our spiritual life. Modern language can make a distinction between high-definition television and ultra-high definition, or even super ultra-high definition (this latter being so extreme in its resolution that an Eskimo could use it to classify snow). We even have words for sub-atomic particles. But modern language is extremely impoverished in its spiritual vocabulary. The culture has been overwhelmed by the ideas and concepts of psychology, pushing aside an entire vocabulary of human experience. Some of the words of classical Christian experience disappeared long before the modern period (and that is a different story).
Where words are absent, the ability to perceive is reduced. Language and perception work together. There are many things you cannot see until you are taught to see them. Having words for such things is part of the process of learning to see.
A key word from classical Christianity is the Greek term “nous,” and its adjectival form, “noetic.” Western translators early on translated the term as intellectus, which in its English forms is simply incorrect. Modern translators vary in translating it as either “mind” or “heart.” Neither of these is accurate, and both can be misleading in the extreme. Increasingly, some writers are simply choosing to use the word in its original form (my preference).
All of this is by way of introduction. The fact that our modern vocabulary doesn’t have an actual word for what the Fathers meant when they wrote about noetic perception, or when they said that the “nous should descend into the heart” (very important and common phrases), does not mean that what they are describing is closed to us, but does indicate that it is a reality which we largely ignore, like the incredible variety within snow and ice. It’s there, but we fail to see it.
Our culture champions the mind. We think of ourselves as far more brilliant than those who lived in the past and certainly more aware and understanding of the processes and realities of the world around us. In short, we think we’re the smartest people who have ever lived. In point of fact, we have narrowed the focus of our attention and are probably among the least aware human beings to have ever lived.
Our narrowed focus is largely confined to two aspects: the critical faculty and emotions. The critical faculty mostly studies for facts, compares, judges, measures, and so forth. Emotions run through the varieties of pleasure and pain, largely pairing with the critical faculty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This way of experiencing the world is largely the result of living in a consumerist culture. We not only consume things – we are constantly under a barrage of information geared solely towards consumption. We consume everything. Information is more than information – it is information for the purpose of consumption. Even religious notions are governed by consumption. We “like” or “don’t like” Church. We find it useful, or of no interest. People are even known to “shop” for Churches.
The nous is not a faculty of consumption. It is a faculty of perception, particularly of spiritual perception. The modern struggle to experience God often fails because it is carried out by consumers. God, the true and living God, cannot be consumed, nor can He be known by the tools of consumption. Consumerist Christianity peddles experience and ideas about God. It has little or nothing to do with God Himself.
I occasionally use kinesthetic experiences to describe the nous. The knowledge we have of riding a bicycle is not critical knowledge. You cannot think your way into the knowledge of riding. Playing the piano is a similar experience. My reason for citing these forms of knowledge is to point to the fact that we already have some experience of non-consuming knowledge. Interestingly, kinesthetic knowledge is not solely in the head. My fingers “know” how to play the piano. My whole body rides a bicycle.
The Fathers often locate the nous in the heart – the physical heart. By this we should understand that the knowledge of noetic experience extends beyond the brain and rests more generally in the very center of our body, in every fiber of our being. Most importantly, it is not a part of the critical faculty. It is a means of perception and knowledge, but not the means of judging, weighing, measuring, comparing, etc. It is much closer to observation (though most modern people only engage in consumer observation).
Vladimir Lossky, the great 20th century Russian theologian, says:
Knowledge is given to us by faith, that is to say, by our participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself. Faith is therefore not a psychological attitude, a mere fidelity. It is an ontological relationship between man and God, an internally objective relationship…
“Participatory adherence” is the key phrase in this description. It is a noetic awareness that does not stand outside what it observes. It is a sympathetic observation in which we ourselves are open and vulnerable to what we perceive.
You meet a stranger. The most common approach is to immediately engage the critical faculty. We make observations and judgments almost instantly. Emotional triggers may encourage us to make immediate decisions. We may react in such a way as to be guarded or skeptical, or attracted, or even disinterested. In many ways, we are “consuming” the stranger.
Imagine, instead, that you meet a stranger and completely suspend judgment. You do not compare them, categorize them, or measure them in any way. You refrain as much as possible from engaging emotional reactions. Rather, you are simply attentive, observing them with an awareness that does not judge. Imagine at the same time that you not only observe them in such a manner, but that you fully engage your own willingness to see them sympathetically while being willing to allow them into your own life. This is something of what Lossky means by a “participatory adherence.”
But how is this practiced with regard to God?
God is not a static object. He is personal and therefore acts in freedom. We can know or perceive Him because He makes Himself known. By and large, people in our culture are looking for a God who can be experienced by the critical faculty. In short, we want a God whom we can consume. Do I like Him? Do I want Him? Will I give Him my life? Do I choose Him? This is largely accomplished by substituting the idea of God for God Himself.
I knew a woman who was a self-professed non-believer, though she was willing to believe. Her husband began bringing her to my parish. She attended faithfully for a period of time. One day she asked to meet with me and told me her story. With tears she said she had been in the Church during a service. She was looking at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis. “Why do I not know you?” she asked quietly. “And then I did,” she said. There was no argument, no promise of experience. There was, however, a “participatory adherence.” She was there and she was there repeatedly. Her question was not a critical examination. If anything, it was a cry of love though she had little hope of an answer.
The tradition uses two other words that are important in this perception. One is hesychia, translated “silence” or “stillness.” The second is nepsis (adjective, neptic), often translated “sobriety,” or “attentiveness.” These are noetic expressions, describing the stillness and attention that are generally required for the nous to perceive what is around it. That stillness is not quite the same thing as peace and quiet. It also indicates refraining from our various agendas. Nepsis is an attentiveness that avoids the distractions of the various passions (anger, lust, greed, envy, etc.).
We can know God because He wills to make Himself known. But noetic living is not a technique, per se. It simply describes the proper grounding for the spiritual life. Thus, whether reading Scripture, praying, attending a service, or simply being still, we actively and quietly offer ourselves to God. We should not expect this to automatically produce some wonderful result (it’s not a technique). But as we engage in these activities with the right mind (noetically, neptically, hesychastically) we do indeed learn to perceive God. We learn to be aware of what our nous perceives.
This is, of course, much more successfully learned with good guidance (such as from a priest or monk, or someone who has knowledge of these things – and not all priests or monks do). Many people simple stumble into this and never have words to describe it. It is a perfectly natural thing.
If there were anything that a Christian could practice that would help nurture this aspect of their life, it would be refraining as much as possible from the consumerism of our culture. It teaches us habits that are very destructive to our souls. Instead, we should practice generosity and kindness, and give ourselves over to the care of God rather than the spirit of shopping. You cannot serve God and mammon.
In the Orthodox service, those attending frequently hear the priest or deacon intone: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”
Let us attend. Indeed.
I offer an afterthought. One means of practicing “participatory adherence” is to say “yes.” And, another word for “participatory adherence” might be “love.”