I Do Not Know

I Do Not Know August 29, 2016

Paular Monastery, started building on 1390. A place for peace and meditation, where 11 Benedictines monks are living just praying. By Jesus Solana [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Paular Monastery. Photo by Jesus Solana [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.'”[1]

Here we have a saying which highlights the need for our humility, to understand our limitations in regards the truth. We must not hold our opinions of the truth to being more than the opinions they are. They can be full of insight, indeed, those who have attained wisdom will have invaluable insight to offer – but that insight must always be understood as being limited and none of us can be said to know the fullness of truth for the truth comprehends us and not us the truth. This is true especially in regards to Scriptural interpretation because Scripture is a means by which the truth is disseminated to us. When we read and interpret the text what we get is only a partial understanding of the mysteries within it; what we have to offer might be invaluable in itself but if it closes us off to other, alternating interpretations, then we do not yet know the way to engage Scripture. In our story here, only Joseph, who said he did not know the meaning of the text, is shown to know the way to engage it because of his humility and willingness to admit he did not comprehend the meaning himself.

Abba Joseph was an important monk – he was Abba Joseph of Panephysis, and several of St. John Cassian’s conferences were with him and those in his monastic circle. Joseph’s background makes this particular quote even more pertinent – if anyone would have been expected to know and understand a passage of Scripture, it was him; he was a learned man. “He came from a very distinguished family and was the leading man of his town in Egypt, which is called Thmuis,” St. John Cassian explained in his introduction on Joseph.[2]“So utterly fluent was he not only in the Egyptian but also in the Greek language that he would speak very beautifully both with us and with those who were completely ignorant of the Egyptian tongue by himself and not through an interpreter, as others did.”[3]

Joseph demonstrates that it is possible to be learned in the way of the world but still be open to wisdom, to be led beyond what we have learned and to continue to seek the transcendent truth. He was learned but he was also wise. He knew, like so many wise men before him, that he did not comprehend the truth, and so he could not know the full meaning of the text read to him. He knew he had to cut off all pretense if he wanted to truly be united with the truth. For him the path to spiritual fulfillment was found in engaging the living flame of God, to be purged of all things which would keep us away from God, to live our life fighting those passions which would put out the flame of love wherever they could be found.[4] One such passion is to hold too high an opinion of one’s own opinions; here Joseph proved, as he would later in life, that he was king and ruled over his passions instead of being ruled by them, and so he is able to point the way to wisdom, to the flame of God’s love.[5]

And so from this we should discern a basic Christian principle: when dealing with the truth, we must not lean on our understanding. We must realize we do not possess the fullness of the truth in ourselves and so we should not babble on as if we do. This is not easy because, recognizing this, we are also called to help others, to explain to them what we do understand, to help point them forward and make sure they go on their way to truth. This is done in and through humility, where we always keep in mind our ignorance and let others know it so they do not look to us as to having all the answers and become attached to the few things we do understand. The immature tend to think the little they have learned and understood is all that is needed and so are quick to explain and show the limits of their knowledge, but the wise will learn from all, adding to their wisdom because they know they do not know and are open to learning more.

Thus, the more we have come to experience the truth, the greater we realize the truth actually is, and the more we discern that we do not really know.  This is always the way of truth and those who are on the path of truth will demonstrate this in and through their words and deeds. Anthony was able to discern Joseph was following the way because of his humility in speech. When we are asked about the truth, it is important to be humble and to admit the limits of our knowledge like Joseph, for this is the way we can be open to the truth and learn from it but also we make sure we do not put others under undue restraint by assuming what we tell them is all there is to know. If we think we have gained what there is to gain already, we have closed ourselves off from the fullness of the truth; and when we teach it to others, at best, all we have given them is its simulacra.

“If you are well intentioned,” St. Stephen of Muret wrote, “your first response to God’s word will be to assess yourself according to its measure. Listen with a bad will and you are bound to twist the words around, to exonerate yourself while blaming someone else.”[6]  When St. Anthony asked monks to interpret the text for him, he was acting as a teacher, trying to determine which of them truly understood the way to read Scripture was to be open to its transcendence instead of trying to impose the limits of their particular understanding upon the text. Were they willing to be judged by the text by acknowledging it transcended their interpretive skills, or were they going to show off and impose a limit upon the text by declaring their opinions to Anthony?  We were not told which text they were given, nor how they interpreted the text. Neither of these mattered – what mattered was their disposition to the text. All of them but Joseph, the last to be asked his interpretation of the text and so the oldest there, did what they thought they should do and told Anthony how they interpreted the text; each showed they had not yet understood the way to engage the text. Joseph responded with the wisdom which Anthony wanted them all to possess, and he could only have done so if he himself had lived by it, otherwise, he too, would have thought he had the key to Scripture and would have offered it to be denounced by Anthony as well.

Each of the younger monks assumed too much for themselves and so what they offered was presumption, and presumption is not the way; Anthony had to tell each of them that they were incorrect, that they did not understand the text. Notice, he did not say that what they told him was erroneous; just that they did not understand the text. So long as they leaned on their own understanding their understanding was going to be incorrect. The lesson should be one which we still follow today. We must not assume our reading of Scripture is ever going to be authoritative. We can interpret it many ways and still not come to a conclusive interpretation because behind whatever we have to offer will be the transcendent truth Scripture points to and so more meanings which we did not offer. We must always be like Joseph recognizing we do not know the full meaning of any text in Scripture, so that we can follow through with the dictates of Scripture itself, to not lean on our own understanding so we can be open to God and what new things he has to teach us.  “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:5-7 RSV).

And so the path to truth is found in the realizing we do not possess it, that we do not comprehend it; we must be constantly willing to engage it again and again, and come to know more and more of it in the process; anytime we think we know the truth, we stop the process of learning. We must always realize with Joseph that we too can and should say, “I do not know.”  This is easier said than done, because even this can become the means by which we close ourselves off from the truth. Thinking we are wise in the recognition of our inability to comprehend the truth, we can close ourselves from learning more of it, saying it is a worthless endeavor, thus turning humility into an excuse to avoid the truth itself.  If we are not careful, in can make us say there is nothing we can know, and become pure skeptics instead of humble servants of the truth. The key is to realize that we are truly learning, to continue going forward in learning while keeping in mind that whatever we learn is small in comparison to what we do not yet know. It is the way of humility which allows us to learn more, but humility must remain leaning on God and not our own understanding lest we either close ourselves in pride or in skeptical nihilism. This humble attitude is necessary and once we establish it as our way of life, we can then take it as a good that we need others to help us as St. John Chrysostom explained:  “Likewise, in the case of virtue as well, do not convince yourself that you are wise, but that you have need of others and of help from God. Nothing is worse than a person’s thinking he is sufficient to himself. This way leads to ignorance; such people cannot bear to learn from anyone, they are conceited and feel superior to everyone else.”[7]

We should always keep in mind our fundamental incomprehension of the truth when we are asked about it. We should be humble and admit that what we do understand is less than the truth itself and that we do not want to be hasty in our declarations when others ask us our opinions. Those who are wise understand this; but we tend to be foolish and want to show off our understanding, and so we quickly give answers to questions we are asked, never really comprehending the question or the many ways it can be answered, because we want others to think highly of us. Our pride, therefore, harms us and others as a result. “For their hasty judgment has led many astray, and wrong opinion has caused their thoughts to slip” (Sir. 3:24 RSV).  We might have studied a great deal and so have some insight to help people who ask us questions, but behind it all we must remain with the humble “I do not know” so as to remind others whatever we do understand is less than the truth and that they should not rely upon us as if we know more than we really do. And when dealing with Scripture, this is especially important because Scripture is not the domain of any one particular person to control. The Holy Spirit guides and gives us the understanding we need, but no one person will interpret it on their own, and so no one person can be said to know the full meaning behind a Scriptural text.[8] “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2 RSV). We must desire understanding and not assume our opinion represents it. We only understand it in part according to the way the Lord has inspired us who will continue to give us more understanding the more we remain open to

Anthony, therefore, took the time to humble those who came before him, to remind them all that so long as they rely upon their understanding, as long as they think they can and do comprehend Scripture by themselves they have yet to attain true wisdom. Joseph alone knew he did not know, and so he showed us all the way. Let us always keep in mind the path which Joseph followed and follow it with him, for it is the only way to the truth.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 4.

[2] St. John Cassian, Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 557

[3] Ibid.,  557.

[4] “Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, ‘You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.’” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 103.

[5] “Some brothers happened one day to meet at Abba Joseph’s cell. While they were sitting there, questioning him, he became cheerful and, filled with happiness he said to them, ‘I am a king today, for I reign over the passions,’” ibid., 104.

[6] St. Stephen of Muret, Maxims. trans. Deborah van Doel OCD (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2002), 59.

[7] St. John Chrysostom, “Commentary on Proverbs” in Commentaries on the Sages: Volume Two. trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 58-9.

[8] In this fashion, Peter told us, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Ptr. 1:20-1 RSV). Prophecy itself is anything which is said on behalf of God – all Scripture, therefore, is prophecy and so this statement is true for all Scripture and not just parts of it.


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