Years ago, I had a parishioner whose spiritual life was quite rich and occasionally astounding. She cared for a handicapped husband for years with a gentleness and love that radiated joy to people around them. One of her phrases that has stuck with me was, “I know it with my knower.” It was what she said when she was trying to express a spiritual perception of something she knew to be true. There was no syllogism or reasoned argument: some things she “just knew.” My experiences with her made me pay attention when she “knew” something.
I think there is something in her knowing that is related to what the tradition describes as “noetic” experience. “Noetic,” the adjective from the noun, “nous,” has a range of meaning that is difficult to express. For one, it refers to an aspect of human perception that has been seriously neglected in our modern experience. You cannot read anything in the spiritual writings of the ancient fathers without encountering this word over and over. They wrote with ease about something that seems to have been common knowledge. Things have changed such that it now sounds “esoteric.” I am offering a reflection in this article on the meaning of “noetic” and the reality of the “nous,” for us beginners. I am not trying to give an exhaustive study, much less a definitive treatment. Instead, I want to offer some suggestions and observations that might de-mystify something that is as natural as breathing – only you might not know it yet.
When we actually begin to ask questions about how we know what we know, it quickly becomes obvious that it is difficult to talk about. Indeed, if you turn your attention away from something and towards the attention itself, the whole process has a way of disappearing. Even the simple reality of consciousness completely baffles science as well as philosophy. It baffles them, even though every human being experiences consciousness all the time. And though we can’t quite say what consciousness is, when we use the word, everyone knows what we mean because everyone experiences consciousness.
The nous is a bit like that. The harder you “look” for it, the more likely you are not to find it – it will keep disappearing. That fact makes the whole topic quite frustrating for most people. The truth is, we use many mental/thinking/perceiving terms in a very sloppy manner. When we are driving down the road, paying attention to our position in traffic, road signs, conditions, etc., we are not doing something irrational, but neither are we engaging in active reasoning. When you first start driving and have little experience, you are quite likely to use active reasoning, and just as likely to have an accident because reasoning is too slow for the activity. When we drive, we engage in perception. We are aware of many things, but not entirely aware that we are aware. As soon as we focus on a single thing, we are quite likely to lose the perception of everything else.
There is also the strange experience of memory. It isn’t unusual to be stuck in an effort to remember something. We stop the effort and turn our attention to something else, only to have the memory suddenly pop up by itself. It is, at best, a delayed reaction rather than a “willed” action. It is the action of the will within perception that is worth thinking about.
In our efforts to experience God, we often get frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the will. We “try” to see God, hear God, sense God, etc., and come up empty. A great difficulty in the experience of God lies in the fact that He is not an object. Objects, whether living or not, are there to be observed regardless of what they might want. We can “objectify” anything and anyone…except God. The only objectification of God is the creation of a false idol. Even an icon cannot be seen objectively – at least, not as an icon. As a painting or print, it can be viewed objectively, but that is not an iconic manner of existence. It is the icon’s ability to make present what it represents that makes it iconic. An icon is only seen in the act of veneration.
This ineffectiveness of our willed perception gives rise to statements that would emphasize what noetic perception is not. We simply cannot make God be still so that we can look at Him and know Him in some sort of masterful manner. Neither is our noetic perception something that we do for our own sake. We cannot see God or know God in a manner that “makes Him mine.”
Having said all that, I would put us back into the driver’s seat and our attention on the world as our car moves along. This is a situation in which we frequently find ourselves paying attention though not mastering. We become aware and the awareness is simply there. Frequently, this larger awareness is interrupted as we give close attention to a necessary detail. We are then able to return to the road. Many times we seem to avoid this kind of awareness, finding it boring. We turn on the radio, play a podcast, or do other things that, in one manner or another, distract us. This same habit often carries over into our prayers or participation in the liturgy.
Imagine that you are driving your car through a rural scene. You are generally aware of the beauty of the countryside. Going around a turn, you begin entering a valley of Redwoods, tall, majestic, sublime. You continue in the same manner of driving, but, at a point, the beauty is simply overwhelming and you pull over to just sit quietly in the car.
This last experience is a version of a trip my wife and I had during a series of West-Coast speaking engagements. The experience of sublime beauty has a great affinity for the experience of God.
The word “apperception” was invoked in a recent comment that offered a definition of the nous. I prefer Vladimir Lossky’s definition of faith as a way of approaching an understanding of the nous. He describes faith as an “organ of sight,” thus making it somewhat synonymous with the nous. His definition of faith is a “participatory adherence.” And here, I beg the reader’s patience.
Our “objective” knowledge seeks a mastery of a thing, or even a concept outside of us. It is how we know objects. It is not participation nor is it adherence. We want to “use” the objects outside us (or gather information that is useful). Noetic perception has as its work actual participation in that which it perceives. It does not seek to make distinctions, but to know by communion. Noetic participation is more akin to love than to objective knowledge. This participatory knowledge explains how it is that such knowledge seems fleeting. When we turn away from that participation and seek to watch or examine that participation, we have passed over to an objective exercise that removes us from that communion. We may have communion with God – but we do not watch our communion with God. It is not an object.
One faculty that is quite helpful in noetic perception is music, most particularly, singing. The angels are inherently noetic in character, and could be described as noetic creatures. It is not without note that they are most commonly described as singing (ceaselessly). In my experience, singing frequently places us in the place of communion. Ideally, the Liturgy is an extended exercise in noetic perception.
It is a property of our critical consciousness (observation) to question and examine objects and ideas. This is a useful and essential gift. It can also be ruthless and destructive. It is possible, for example, to so examine and observe the love we hold for someone (or them for us), that doubts enter in and crush it. Love does not exist for examination but for loving. The same is true for noetic experience. We may know God. We can also overthink such knowledge into oblivion.
In summary, I would suggest to anyone struggling with “knowing” God, not to overthink the problem. Sing more, think less. Sing from the heart. Sing in the presence of the icons. If at all possible, join in the singing in the services of the Church (I know this is not possible everywhere). St. Paul says:
…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In prayer, work to be present where you are and don’t engage in thinking and observation during that time. Do not watch yourself praying! The Fathers speak of “nepsis,” or “watching.” It is not an active watching (observation) but a guarding against intrusive thoughts and distractions. God called to the child Samuel. The child responded, “Here I am!” That is the place of prayer and noetic awareness.