In his discourse “On Spiritual Knowledge,” St. Diadochus of Photiki writes, “We do indeed affirm that the soul, when pure, perceives God’s grace, tasting it in some ineffable manner; but no invisible reality appears to it in visible form…” When we first read this, we can scratch our heads and think,” What does it mean to be pure? What does it mean to “taste it in some ineffable manner”? And what the heck does that last part mean?”
Let’s break these three questions down:
1) What does it mean to be pure?
In the Eastern Christian tradition, a heavy emphasis was placed on the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). For them, this phrase described the whole trajectory of our growth in the spiritual life. The idea was that as the individual experienced transformation in Christ, they would no longer be ruled by the clouds of disordered thinking, feeling, and desiring.
This liberation involved an approach which emphasized the purgation of both the body and the mind. In this way, their understanding of asceticism stressed that both our interior and exterior life must be brought to a place of greater stillness and spiritual harmony. Then, as the believer cultivated stillness through asceticism and watchfulness, the fire of divine love would begin to emerge from the depths of the heart. This fire of divine love was for them what it means to “see God.”
2) What does it mean to “taste in some ineffable manner”?
As strange as the phrase may seem, we must begin by recognizing that the author is using the world “taste” analogously. In many spiritual writings, the language of our bodily senses is used to approximate spiritual experience which, as the authors consistently insist, is beyond the grasp of language. Thus, St. Diadochus is trying help us to understand that as we learn to navigate the interior silence of prayer, our discernment takes on a new direction.
For the most part, early on our discernment is governed by attention to external actions. As we mature both in the spiritual life and in the course of ordinary human experience, we become aware of interior source of our external actions (i.e. our thoughts, feelings, and desires). St. Diadochus is trying to explain that there is an even greater awareness of God’s activity which goes deeper than our interior life.
In the Eastern mind, an emphasis on this ineffable encounter was described in terms of the “heart.” In this way, as we develop greater mastery over our interior life and greater stillness begins to settle in, we are able to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in a mysterious way that goes beyond our ability to express; a kind of intuitive sense of God. While remaining distinct from the physical sensation of taste, it nonetheless bears a certain resemblance to this faculty.
3) What the heck does that last part mean?
And this brings us to the last point. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the mission of the Trinity is to bring believers from visible to invisible realities (see ST I.q.43). Along these lines, he envisions a kind of progression whereby recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior leads us to recognition of his presence within the fabric of interior life by means of grace.
This later development should help us to have a greater appreciation for St. Diadochus. He is explaining that an awareness of the Divine indwelling goes beyond any knowledge and experience that can be derived through our physical senses. Thus, true spiritual knowledge and experience “transcends” our nature. This teaching is important because Church Fathers from both the East and West agree that a Christian who remains attached to the comforts and joys of this world will never be able to make this ineffable journey into the unknown. While the things of this world will always provide us with comfort and temporal joy, the recognition that true happiness is found only in God, and thus transcends both the natural world and our limited human understanding, is central to the Christian faith.
With that in mind, let us seek the Lord with complete abandonment and dedicate ourselves anew to the path of conversion and transformation!