Communion with God

The Bible describes various kinds of knowledge. There is the intellectual knowledge of the philosopher. This involves mastering data and logically arranging ideas (cf. Acts 17:21; 1 Cor 1:18-31; 8:1).[1] There also is the experiential knowledge of love. (“Adam knew his wife and she conceived.”) This is the knowledge of fellowship, communion and experience (cf. Ps 34:8; Rev 3:20; Jn 17:20-26). How can a person move from knowing about God to knowing Him? A person can experience communion with God through a process of repentance, prayerful silence, and participation in the mystical life of Christ’s Church.


We experience God through an ongoing process of metanoia (repentance, “changing of the mind”). In approaching the Holy Trinity, we must continually strip ourselves of all our customary ways of thinking. Our notions are feeble and incapable of containing the infinite glory of God. Repentance grows out of enlightenment given by God (Mt 4:16-17). This illumination often comes as a result of hearing God’s words (Ps 119:105; 2 Cor 3:18; Jas 1:22-25; Mk 4:20). It produces a “re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity.”[2] It also involves penitential turning from sin.

The process of repentance leads to an increased sense of spiritual alertness. The Greek term for this is nepsis(watchfulness).[3] To be watchful is to be awakened by God to His holiness and our own sinfulness (Eph 5:8-14). It also is to become aware of our thoughts and to guard our hearts with all diligence (Prov 4:23). When a sinful thought comes to us, we have a choice to entertain it or dismiss it. Mature Christian guides have long stressed the importance of combating intrusive thoughts by not arguing with them or struggling against them, but rather by observing them,rising above them and simply returning attention to God.[4] A life of repentance, therefore, is a life of warfare against the passions.[5] Paul described this life as a process of renewing the mind (nous, see Rom 12:2).

Prayerful Silence

Healthy theological thinking is a process of inward purification. But who can purify the mind and heart? This is not something a person can achieve through rationalistic and systematic musings. St. Diadochos of Photiki wrote, “Only the Holy Spirit can purify the nous. . . . In every way, therefore, and especially through peace of soul, we must make ourselves a dwelling-place for the Holy Spirit. Then we shall have the lamp of spiritual knowledge burning always within us.”[6]

Continual prayer can open a person’s soul to this grace of the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:13; Jn 7:37-39; 14:26; 16:24). The historic Church has consistently encouraged the use of the Jesus Prayer as a means to cut off sinful thoughts and turn to Christ.[7] The Church also encourages the use of a “rule of prayer” combined with spontaneous, habitual prayer throughout the day.

Yet prayer is more than a tool to cut off sinful thoughts. Prayer is the only adequate way to “do theology.” If the goal of theology is union, then prayer is the path to this “unknowing” knowledge. “The one who has purity in prayer is true theologian,” said Evagrius, “and the one who is true theologian has purity in prayer.” Pure prayer involves silence, “the surmounting and arrest of thought.”[8]

Theophan the Recluse described this kind of prayer as “recollecting the thoughts and making the soul ready before the face of God, calling out to Him from the depths of one’s heart.”[9] Theology at its best is an ongoing process of “making the heart ready for the indwelling of grace by constantly guarding its interior purity.”[10]

The Essential Context

Because the Church is the fullness of God (1 Tim 3:15; Eph 1:23) and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), the essential context for communion with God is the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. An individualistic path of sectarian isolation is filled with danger and self-delusion. Two Russian writers, Aleksei Khomiakov and Alexander Elchaninov, summarize the importance of the Church in our own salvation:

No one is saved alone. He who is saved is saved in the Church, as a member of her and in union with all her other members. If anyone believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays, he is in the communion of prayer.[11]

Ignorance and sin are characteristic of isolated individuals. Only in the unity of the Church do we find these defects overcome. Man finds his true self in the Church alone; not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation but in the strength of his communion with his brothers and his Saviour.[12]

Within the Church, the believer may experience both the holy mysteries and a living connection with the Sacred Writings. The Bible is the book of the Church which nourishes our love for God, feeds our prayers, and guides our daily decisions.

The Apostle John revealed the special place where Christians truly encounter God. It is not in the ivory tower of philosophy. It is not in the theological classroom of the academy. It is not in erudite tomes of theological speculation. Rather, communion with God occurs in the context of sacrificial love: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12, NIV).

One does not get a suntan by studying facts about the sun. Neither does one get a suntan by memorizing the ingredients on a bottle of sunscreen. The only way to get a suntan is by being in the sun. Similarly, we do not experience communion with God merely by studying facts about Him. The only way to experience the transformational process of communion with God is by meeting Him in the place where He most fully reveals Himself (Eph 1:23). The mysteries of the Church (baptism, the Lord’s Supper, confession, fellowship, etc.) are normally the places where God can be mystically tasted and experienced in the fullest possible way.


The path to communion with God is a dynamic process. We can experience communion with God through continual metanoia, prayer and “unknowing” in the context of Christ’s Church. This knowledge can be described as “total ignorance” or, perhaps more accurately, as supra-knowledge. It is the knowledge which surpasses human comprehension. The goal is union with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The fruit of this transformation is love.

These truths have many practical applications. First, we should seek to live in continual repentance. A true theologian must seek metanoia over abstract, rationalistic deliberations. “Theology and mourning do not go together, for the one dissipates the other,” says St. John Climacus. “The difference between a theologian and a mourner is that the one sits on a professional chair while the other passes his days in rags on a dung heap.”[13] It doesn’t matter if we’re gifted or smart. In the end, if we’re not being purified and transformed, it profits us nothing (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-3). In other words, picking up a broom and sweeping the floor after church might produce more theological insight than engaging in lofty philosophical discussions.

Second, we should be careful in choosing what to read. The wise theologian will guard against an unhealthy obsession with books. “It is wrong to become too much attached to reading,” writes St. Theophan. “It leads to no good and builds a wall between the heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry.” (Elsewhere Theophan describes a healthy, spiritual kind of reading.[14] Alexander Elchaninov likewise offers helpful advice to young people about spiritual reading.[15])

Third, we should seek prayerful simplicity of thought. (This does not mean shallowness of thought.) Devotion to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42) can protect the heart from the fragmentation of excessive rationalizing. Communion with God is experienced in the context of “the simplicity of devotion to Christ.”

"Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand relates that, when he was in communist prisons, those of the educated class were the first to break under torture and betray their friends, and the seminarians were the first to deny the existence of God, simply because they trusted their thoughts. . . . Elder Paisius of Mount Athos, a beautiful, innocent soul and a much-loved spiritual father of our times, gives this advice: “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost; he hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. Therefore we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts. Live simply and without thinking too much, like a child with his father. Faith without too much thinking works wonders. The logical mind hinders the Grace of God and miracles. Practice patience without judging with the logical mind.”[16]

I once visited an orthodox monastery in West Virginia. As I was browsing through the bookstore, I had a memorable conversation with one of the monks. I told him I had a limited budget and asked, “Which one or two books would you recommend above all others?” Without hesitation, he replied, “The prayer book.” This is the path of true theology which ultimately leads to wordless wonder and praise.


[1] Unfortunately this is the kind of knowledge often used by “systematic theologians.” In writing to a young person, Alexander Elchaninov warned about “common (youthful) errors in the practice of theology: 1) the assumption that all questions can be solved; 2) the conviction that the solution of these questions is a purely intellectual, discursive process: that is, a process independent of inner, spiritual effort, of the purifying of the heart and the mind, of prayer.” The Diary of a Russian Priest (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 199.

[2] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), 113.

[3] Cf. Mt 26:41; Mk 14:38; Lk 21:36; Col 4:2

[4] Hiermonk Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao (Platinga, CA: Valaam Books, 2002), see pages 315-318. “When we go within ourselves and truly begin to stand apart from thought, we begin to distrust the calculating machine of the lower soul and its problem-solver, the ego. We begin to grow sick of our stupid judgments and our well-fed egos. . . Throughout the life of our ego, we have become habituated to trusting our problem-solver and its thoughts and feelings. To practice watchfulness is essentially to practice distrusting them.”

[5] Ware, 116. Passions are “any disordered appetite or longing that violently takes possession of the soul: anger, jealousy, gluttony, avarice, lust for power, pride, and the rest. . . . Our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy. . . . The passions, then, are to be purified, not killed. . . . To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but ‘Transfigure.’ ”

[6] St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 260.

[7] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976), 209-210. “This presence must become a constant and conscious attitude – prayer must become perpetual, as uninterrupted as breathing or the beating of the heart. . . . The method of interior or spiritual prayer which is known by the name of ‘hesychasm’, is a part of the ascetic tradition of the Eastern Church, and is undoubtedly of great antiquity. Transmitted from master to disciple by word of mouth, by example and by spiritual direction, this discipline of interior prayer was only committed to paper at the beginning of the eleventh century in a treatise attributed to St. Symeon the New Theologian. . . . The whole of the attention must be given to the words of the short prayer: ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’”

[8] Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 13.

[9] Theophan the Recluse, quoted in Lossky, Mystical Theology, 211.

[10] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 211.

[11] Aleksei Khomiakov, “The Church is One”, paragraph 9, in Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, 216 quoted in Ware, 107-108.

[12] Alexander Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest (Faber & Faber, London, 1967), 87. Quoted in Ware, 108.

[13] St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 139.

[14] St. Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and E.M Palmer (Faber & Faber, 1997), 168. Theophan acknowledges the value of judicious, spiritual reading: “That you devote a little time in the morning to the reading of spiritual books is a very good thing. . . . This reading with prayer preceding strengthens the soul and gives it strength for the entire day. Doctors say you should not leave the house on an empty stomach. With respect to the soul, this is fullfilled by morning prayer and reading. The soul is fed by them, and sets out on the business of the day nourished. . . . Get a notebook, and in it write down the thoughts that come to you as you read the Gospel and other books in this manner: “The Lord says such and such in the Gospel; from this it is obvious that we must act in such and such a way; for me this is feasible in such and such instances; I will act thus; Lord help me!” This does not require much effort, but how much benefit comes from it! Act in this way. Your thought will come into focus and become inspired. The Spirit, moving in the Scriptures, will enter into your heart and heal it.” The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It (Wildwood, CA: St. Xenia Skete Pr., 1996), 146.

[15] “Allow me to say something about your reading. All that you have read until now was for the development and the strengthening of your Christian thought, your Christian outlook. But this is not enough; not only is it not enough, but such kind of reading should decidedly become secondary. Christianity is not a philosophical system, it is life, a special way of life, and this must be studied continuously – literally every day. There are masters of this divine life who started with the first steps and who attained such lofty heights that one does not always understand them when they speak about these summits. You must read them. They are, of course the Holy Fathers, the ascetics, heroes, giants in their faith and zeal for life in God. Here are the chief figures, roughly in historical order: Saint Anthony the Great, Ephrem the Syrian, Abba Dorotheus, Macarius the Great, Saint John of the Ladder, Isaac the Syrian, Simeon the New Theologian. First one may read our Russian authors – Innocent, Ignatius Bryanchaninov, Theophan the Recluse, John of Kronstadt. They are steeped in the spirit of the Fathers I mentioned just now, but express it in the language of our time, applying it to the conditions of our life.” Diary of a Russian Priest, 201.

[16] Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, see pages 315-318.