One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, "You have not understood it." Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, "How would you explain this saying?" And he replied, "I do not know." Then Abba Anthony said, "Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: 'I do not know."
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – I was joking on Facebook yesterday that I’m enjoying this series on the desert fathers so much (and, according to my traffic stats, my readers are enjoying it, too), that I’m finding it difficult to move on to anything else. I might have to change the name of the blog to Ten Thousand Monks.
These really are, as I keep saying, foundational stories for the spiritual life, and ones which have a startling relevance in our modern technological age. This one, for example. One of the features of our culture now is that it is a knowledge culture, and information age. Everyone has to know about things, and to admit ignorance of a subject or lack of understanding of a matter is a terrible loss of faith.
As an aside, I have never quite understood why it is such a grievous insult to call someone ‘ignorant’ but not so insulting to call them ‘stupid’. To me, ‘ignorant’ is not insulting at all. I am quite ignorant on a whole host of subjects—auto mechanics, real estate, hospital administration, to name just a few that have come up in conversations the last few days. Ignorant simply means ‘unknowing’, and how is that insulting? We can always learn new things, right?
‘Stupid’, on the other hand, is a nearly incurable illness, as far as I’m concerned, the incapacity to use the intellect one has been given to take on new knowledge, to reduce one’s natural ignorance. And there is nothing more stupid, then, than to pretend one knows about something that one does not in fact know, to be unable to say the four magic words that open up for us whole vistas of new knowledge and understanding, “I do not know.”
But this is a digression, sort of. But not really. The key thing in this story is that the monks are commenting on Scripture, and not just on any human matter. It is the Word of God that, above all, it is stupid beyond belief to pretend we understand. This is a perilous matter especially for us priests who are required, by the nature of our orders, to preach on the Gospel. Preaching has to begin from a place of deep humility, a firm conviction that ‘we do not know’ what this passage means, really.
If we begin anywhere else, thinking that because scripture scholar A said this about the passage and B said that and C, D, and E all agree on the other position, that we have ‘understood’ the passage, we have gone badly awry and have understood little to nothing of it. When it comes to God and the things of God, the fundamental and unshakable core of the Christian must be this ‘I do not know’, this deep awareness that there is always more to the matter, always a new level of depth, a new height of meaning, that we are bumbling little children trying to learn our ABCs, while the Word of God is the heights of poetry and wisdom literature and elevated discourse.
This is true, too, even of the dogmas and doctrines of our Catholic faith. Everyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on all those matters; I am a faithful Catholic who adheres to the truth of every word that is written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But we must never think that we understand the full meaning of these words. The defined dogmas of our faith are carefully constructed in their verbal formulations, not to explain the mystery of God, but to preserve the mystery of God.
Quite often in our dogmatic and creedal statements, there is a sort of via negativa at work—we are not so much trying to nail down what we do believe as exclude false statements that we don’t. ‘Begotten, not made’, for example—the Son is not a creation of the Father, but is God from God begotten of the Father. This exludes the Arian heresy (which we were discussing at breakfast yesterday, MH being the kind of place where this topic comes up over the oatmeal). But what does it mean that the Son is begotten of the Father? I Do Not Know.
And because of our ignorance, our unknowing, we can spend our whole lives, and into eternity even, contemplating these mysteries, and constantly penetrating deeper into them, in some ways increasing our ignorance, but only because we continually know how much more there is to know that we do not yet know.
So in a sense we only understand a Scripture passage if our first response is to say ‘I do not know what it means.’ If you think you know, you don’t, and that is deep spiritual wisdom, practical and profoundly relevant in our day, from the deserts of 4th century Egypt.