In Homily 27, St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of two kinds of confidence. The first kind of confidence is what we generally mean when we say someone is confident. That is, the person is sure about what he or she is doing or saying. St. Isaac tells us that this kind of confidence is spiritually dangerous. It is dangerous because we live in an age of changeability, or “ununiformity” as it is translated in the Holy Transfiguration edition of St. Isaac’s text. This ununiformity refers to the mutability or inconstancy we experience in this world. Things and people don’t stay the same.
On a basic biological level, human beings change. Not only do our bodies change with age, but even on a moment by moment basis, our moods and our ability to think clearly are easily altered by what we have eaten, how much sleep we have had or how we feel about what is happening around us. (Excitement or fear release adrenaline, for example. Other chemicals such as endorphin, dopamine, and oxytocin are also influenced by the foods we eat and external stimuli, dramatically affecting our moods, our ability to think clearly and how we feel about what we think or experience—thus further influencing our body’s chemistry).
If this changeability truly occurs on a merely biological level, it is even more certainly occurs, according to St. Isaac, on the intellectual and even the spiritual level. St. Isaac says,
“The different states of men’s hearts and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them…are greatly assisted by the ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds concerning God’s judgements.”
That is, people don’t think the same way about God, about God’s judgements (about what God is doing in the world and in their lives). As you probably know already, two people can have what seems to be exactly the same experience, but draw very different conclusions based on that same experience. Two people can hear the same lecture, for example, but go away with very different conceptions of what the lecture was about. Two people can read the exact same prayer or bible verse and one be profoundly touched, encouraged and motivated by it while the other person seems to get nothing at all out of it. Even the same person can one day find profound comfort and encouragement in a particular thought or reflection, but two days later see nothing at all profound about the same thought.
Modern western culture wants to deny, or at least seem to limit or control, this mental changeability. Culturally speaking, it seems that in the west science provides the mirage by which we are trained not to attend to this changeability. We tell ourselves that science is about the careful observation of measurable and repeatable phenomena, and thus we comfort ourselves that consistency in thought is possible, that there is indeed a foundation on which to base our confidence. However, as anyone who has spent much time in the world of the academy knows, scientists are not very good at listening to one another, despite the facts; not very good at putting aside their egos, even in the face of observed phenomena; not very good at acknowledging the whole truth—especially the bits that don’t fit well into their theory. Scientists are, basically, just like everyone else: struggling to make a living and a name for themselves within a structure that is generally agreed upon, a structure in which certain incongruences are politely overlooked while others are focused on.
Then suddenly, every now and then, a conceptual revolution or profound paradigm shift takes place, and how scientists see the universe deeply changes. But this change, this (we might say) evidence of changeability, does not produce humility in the mass of us scientifically-minded, university-trained thinkers—although it does seem sometimes to produce humility in a few of the most gifted and best trained scientific thinkers—but for most of us, a change in paradigm (such as the development of quantum physics) only increases our confidence as we arrogantly exult in our new found bit of insight and lament how misguided the previous generations were.
We do not stop to think that if the foundational paradigms of science have been changing throughout history, then certainly they will continue to change. Humility is called for. Confidence, as St. Isaac suggests, must always be tamed by fear. And this is the beginning of wisdom, as the scripture say, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” It is the beginning of wisdom because, according to St. Isaac (and as I have said previously), it is our awareness of the changeability that we encounter within ourselves, among ourselves and in our interaction with the universe, that begins to save us, that begins to humble us so that we can be enlightened by the Grace of the Holy Spirit to start to see what is behind what is seen. This seeing what is behind or beyond what is seen takes place through what is called contemplation or theoria. And of course what people perceive through contemplation differs greatly: to quote again St. Isaac: “different states of men’s heats and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them” come from the “ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds.”
This reality of “dissimilar ways of thinking” and “different states of men’s hearts” when it comes to the understanding of God, is for many, one of the most disturbing aspects of their growing knowledge of God. As well-trained western thinkers we assume along with Immanuel Kant that anything that is really true will be perceived as true in the same way by all well-informed and clear-thinking people. But, as seducing as such a philosophy seems to be, just a casual glance at the turmoil of the world today (and since its creation, for that matter), should be sufficient evidence to prove that Immanuel Kant was wrong. Nonetheless, facts have never hindered philosophy. Like the clear-thinking makers of foreign policy among the western nations, we just assume that everybody is basically just like us; and where we differ, it is only a matter of training: if we educate others and train them to think clearly, they will certainly come to see things our way. That’s how most of us inheritors of the western philosophic tradition think about almost everything unless we intentionally and with great effort try to think differently.
And we in our spiritual lives seem to have this same incorrect philosophical assumption. We assume that true spiritual insight will be the same for everyone. That spiritual truth will be seen and understood the same by everyone who really encounters it. But St. Isaac tells us that “The ununiformity of theoria, which in one soul changes and varies, is [caused by] the incomprehensibility of God’s eternal mind.” He goes on to warn us that “if nature, which is inclined to aberration, should receive here the real truth, it would die by reason of the impetuosity of aberration.” That is, so long as we are in this world, so long as we are subject to changeability, “the real truth,” or the revelation of God as God, would kill us because we are broken and cannot take it, not in its full form.
Our capacity to know and encounter truth, especially spiritual truth, is kind of like a pipe that is designed to carry so many litres of water per minute. If that same pipe gets twisted and turned and shrunk and kinked, then the amount of water it can carry is dramatically diminished. And, in fact, if you try to put too much water through that perverted pipe too fast, you will burst the pipe (btw, the word “perverted” just means “twisted’).
Or to try a different metaphor, it is as though we are attempting to read a letter, but we can only read every seventh word. What we do read in the letter is indeed genuinely what the author wrote, it is completely true in that sense; but how each one understands the letter varies—especially if we each understand a different word among each set of seven, or if, like me, we only really understand every tenth or twentieth word. Humility is called for.
We all, as St. Paul put it, “see through a glass darkly.” So we not only need to listen to one another, but we must also accept that we may never quite see things the way a certain holy man or woman sees them; we may never quite get out of certain spiritual disciplines or practices what other people get out of them. We have to accept that we are different and that’s OK. We are all twisted in different ways, all broken at different joints, all struggling with different handicaps. But God in His love knows this about us already. That’s why the contemplations are different: God is giving to each what he or she needs to take the next step, to straighten out one part of his or her pipe. That’s why we have to trust one another, be patient with one another, and give one another the benefit of the doubt. Basically we have to love and be patient, not only with one another, but also with ourselves.
St. Isaac tell us that our experience of changeability not only leads us to humility, it also teaches us to lift our spiritual eyes to God who is above all of this variableness. He says,
“But when the understanding withdraws itself from [the changeable world] and ascends solely toward the Existent One by beholding the properties of that good Nature which possesses eternal knowledge that precedes all existent things, and by beholding all His properties, then immediately fear is cast out and the mind is sustained by confidence.”
For St. Isaac, confidence returns. No longer is it a confidence based on a presumptuous understanding of worldly things—no this confidence “breeds contempt and an impetuous way of thought,” according to St. Isaac. Confidence in or based on anything seen only leads to arrogance, to a further twisting our our souls, making it even harder for us to perceive what is real, to perceive what is behind what is seen. However, humility based on the fear of God has the ability to “bind up” or even “bridle” to some extent impetuous aberration, or changeability, so that we can to some small extent lift our eyes to God who is beyond change. When we do this and we begin to behold in our inner mind “the properties,” what I think the Greek Fathers might call “the energies” of God, then a new kind of confidence is born in us, a confidence in God.
And this is the confidence that casts out fear. It is the confidence of the martyrs, the saints, and the holy men and women who have manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives amid what St. Paul calls “this crooked and perverse generation.” This is the confidence we all long for, but we cannot attain—at least not until we let go of our confidence in what is seen, confidence in what we think we know, confidence in that knowledge which St. Paul says “puffs up.”
But it is a fearsome thing to let go. That’s why all of the evidence in the world does not persuade us that we really do not know, that we really are dependent creatures, that we cannot figure things out nor can we actually keep all of the balls in the air. We have to move to dependence, to humility, to the fear of God. This is the only path to the confidence that cannot be shaken, to the confidence based not on what is seen, but on what is not seen. This is the only path to the confidence that casts out fear.