Walking on the water: how can we believe in the impossible?

How can modern man believe in God and trust in Him, how can we feel what goes beyond the boundaries of the five human senses: Elena Balayan talks with Igumen Nektary (Morozov). (From their recent book, About the Church, Without Prejudice.)

Christ walking on the water Christ walking on the water

Inevitably awaiting anyone who takes an interest in Church life are the so-called questions of faith, regarding things that go beyond the boundaries of the natural laws of the world’s existence. These things are: the resurrection of the dead, the conception without seed, the incarnation of God, and eternal life itself--all that is impossible to explain by the usual order of things. A person may think about them and arrive at a dead end, because he cannot understand how these things can be. How could someone physically rise from the dead? After all, such things don’t happen. How can one live eternally, what would we do during that eternity--it’s beyond comprehension! How can these questions be answered? Should we think about them and try to somehow come to grips with them, or simply accept them as a matter of faith and stop troubling ourselves?

—I am listening to your question and trying at the same time to listen to my own thoughts and feelings. I understand that for me, the resurrection from the dead, the incarnation, and the conception without seed are not things difficult to accept as realty. For me they are absolutely natural things, because if God created the world out of nothing, established all the laws of the created world and brought them into motion, then what could be impossible for Him? The resurrection of the dead? After all, in the beginning there was nothing at all. Could it be harder to resurrect life than to give it? Or, could it be hard for the One Who established the laws of birth to work the miracle of a birth without the participation of a man? I do not see anything unattainable in this. If I believe in the very miracle of the existence of man, if I believe in the miracle of the creation of the world, then the nature of all the other miracles is not something essentially different from this. A much greater and more improbable miracle is the miracle of my own change from the worse to the better, or the same miracle in another person. That is a miracle much harder to accomplish, because it requires our own participation, and whatever requires the application of our rational will along with the inclination of our heart is always up in the air. Will it happen or not? However, I am absolutely sure about God’s abilities, because He is the God Who works miracles.1

According to your reasoning, there really is a logical chain that can be followed, which leads to the conclusion that for God, nothing is impossible. Then why do these things become a stumbling block for some?

—What becomes a stumbling block is something else: it is not enough to believe in the fact of God’s existence--we have to have faith in God. Without faith in God, man’s belief in Him does not differ in any way from the demons’ belief, which the apostle James talk about.2

How does belief differ from faith?

—This is very simple. I believe that you exist, but I can still lack faith in you, or not consider it possible to entrust my life to you or believe that you are speaking the truth. It is the same in our relationship to God. Faith in God begins when a person is ready to fulfill God’s commandments, which may go against his temporary earthly interests. And I have to say that every act of faith toward God enriches a person, because that person increasingly comes to know exactly how the Apostle Peter walked on the water when he trusted the Savior.3

One of my friends says, “I believe that Christ was resurrected, but I cannot believe in the general resurrection of the dead--it just does not make sense to me.” However, this postulate is one of the cornerstones of our Creed. Could it be said that a person who finds it hard to believe in one of the Christian dogmas is not a real Christian? Or is this a creative process, and a person can become clearer on these truths during the process of his life?

—He can become clearer. But he can also not become clearer, and not believe it. What you have cited portrays a lack of faith, and the salvation of someone who does not have faith in God is questionable, because God figuratively reaches out to a person and says, “Take Me by the hand, follow Me, and I will save you.” But a person who does not have faith does not stretch forth his hand in response, and it is impossible to save him. Where there is no faith there is no love, and salvation is impossible, because only the response of imperfect human love to Divine love can save a person. Everything else is something from the realm of trying to “use” God.

Perhaps faith cannot become perfect right away...

—The Lord said perfectly clearly, Except ... ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.4Trusting like a child means trusting fully, in everything that the Lord says.

That is, a person should cast off all his thoughts, knowledge, and experience?

—Why? After all, the Lord did not say, “as infants,” but as children. Even a young child has his own experience, his own knowledge and understanding about one thing or another. Nevertheless, he trusts his parents because he is sure that their knowledge, experience, and reason surpass his own. Therefore he can very calmly allow them to take him in their arms or lead him by the hand. As long as a person is not ready to have trust in God, his salvation is doubtful. The Lord even says that it is impossible.

One more question from the same realm is the question of paradise and hell. A person is understandably not satisfied by a picture of hot frying pans and wants to clarify according to his ability what these concepts really mean. I have heard the following criticism directed at believers: “You are looking for eternal blessedness; that means that your faith is mercenary and commercial.” What can you say to that?

—I have thought about that, and would like to say that I have never seen anyone in the Church--out of those who come to me as a priest, to confession or just to talk--who lives with a dream of paradise or the fear of the torments of hell per se, in their pure form. All of these people have something else--the desire to be with God, which is paradise, and the fear of being left without God, which is true hell. How that will actually look in eternal life--frying pans or pots--is not so important, because being with God or without God is incomparably higher than all these ideas.

Can these seeds of hell or paradise be felt within you here on earth, so that you might understand what you are dealing with?

—Of course. A person in the Church feels this. Even a person outside the Church feels it to some degree, but he only feels a state of anxiety, fear due to God’s abandonment; a state, the nature of which he does not understand. The state of being with God is something he cannot feel, because it is not yet a subject of his own experience--he does not strive for it. But the most terrible thing there can be in all of this is to be left without God forever--something a person of faith fears more than anything else.

Why can’t anything in eternal life be changed? If life continues, why can’t its qualities also continue? It seems strange that we can perfect ourselves in this life, but we cannot do so in the next.

—In this life, a certain vector of motion toward eternity is given to a person, but in eternal life, there is only the unfolding and revealing of what that person acquired here on earth. In this life there is a moment of moral choice; in eternal life that moment does not exist.


—Because there, God is obvious to every person. There, there is no faith; instead there is knowledge. These are two completely different states of being--here, and there. Here is the determining state; there, the eternal unfolding of the state already determined on earth.

You say that a person outside the Church can feel his abandonment by God. But after all, he probably does not recognize his state as God’s abandonment. He can interpret it as, let’s say, a bad mood, depression--something that happens every day.

—He simply does not know what to compare it to, because the experience of abiding in grace can only happen in the Church. There is also the experience of falling from this life in God through sin or carelessness, and then a person begins to feel these two poles of existence here on earth.

But how can man, a bodily, temporal, tangible being, enter into a relationship with an infinite, invisible, intangible Being, Who cannot be completely known? Can this be called a “relationship” in the sense that we usually give to that word, like a relationship between family and friends?

—We know about God what He deigns to reveal about Himself, and He reveals it diverse ways: in Holy Scripture, which is sometimes called Divine revelation; in the world that He created; and in our own selves, because we can see the image and likeness of God in ourselves, however far we have gone away from this likeness. Alongside of all this, the Lord reveals Himself to a person in His communion with him, the reality of which one who seeks God and desires to live with God has no doubt.

Blessed Augustine5 said these remarkable words: “Thou didst create us for Thyself.” Of course, not in the sense of “for Thyself”, as if we were some sort of necessity to Him. He created us for Himself in the sense that there is no one or nothing in this created world in which man can find peace, joy, and consolation other than God. And the same Blessed Augustine says, “Our heart finds no peace until it rests in Thee,”6 because the bottomless depth of the human heart can only be filled with the bottomless depth of the Divinity.

Man is a being created for communion with God. Therefore, the question of whether it is possible or impossible is probably moot. If we look at the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, we see that God continually appeared to the first-created man, communed with him, taught him and raised him; that is, this communion was entirely direct. But man was something different then, and capable of this direct comprehension of God. Only later did man and the entire visible world change, and this caused an extreme complication in man’s relationship with God.

As for the theological explanation of how man’s communion with God takes place, St. Gregory Palamas7 formulated the Church’s teaching on uncreated Divine energies; that is, on Divine grace. Divine grace is that very method of God’s communicating Himself to man and the world, because when we receive communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, we receive in God a real way, and enter into communion with Him. At the same time we cannot say that grace is something external to God, because grace is essentially God Himself. This is not an artificially derived explanation: in the teaching on uncreated energies is expressed the ascetical experience of the whole ancient and modern Church, which people experienced earlier and continue to experience in the Church.

It could be said that man’s communion with God takes place in this way. And the main condition for this communion is faith, because faith reveals to man the vision of the spiritual world, and mainly, the vision of God in his life. Furthermore God Himself overcomes the gulf that separates us--the gulf between His sanctity and our sinfulness, between His greatness and our lowliness, between His perfection and our imperfection. Christ says, Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me8--and these words as if reveal the mystery of God’s relationship with man. God Himself knocks at the human heart, and it is only necessary for a person to respond to this in order to enter into communion with God.

And how can God’s call to man be expressed? For a person who has not yet found faith this is very difficult to understand. You talk about uncreated energies; how can they be felt? We understand how warmth, cold, or fire can be felt, but how can we feel what goes beyond the boundaries of the five ordinary senses?

—This truly is difficult to feel with the five ordinary senses. But that is just it--herein is made manifest the amazing humility, the amazing meekness of the Divinity. If the Lord were to appear to every person visibly, even in a small fraction of His mightiness, then the question of faith would fall away. It would be a kind of demonstration before which no man could stand, for everyone would have to fall down trembling at His feet. But the Lord never pushes nor especially does He force the human will. Therefore, He simply appeals to what is best in us; to what, regardless of our fallen sinful state, nevertheless remains in every person, and as if reveals Himself to that better part of us. It is an unfathomable mystery of the human heart--why one person sees and recognizes God, while another does not see and does not recognize God. Everything in this case depends solely upon the person.

During the days of His earthly life, Christ walked the earth, and there were people who only seeing His eyes, His face, understood without words Who stood before them. They left everything and followed Him. To some of them the Lord manifested one or another Divine miracle, while others, without any miracles, miraculously ascertained that before them stood the One for Whose sake they would leave everything, and Who they would follow even to the ends of the earth. Others, even after seeing the miracles Christ worked, remained absolutely deaf to the manifestation of the Divinity and became Christ’s enemies, thirsting to betray Him to death--which they in fact did with particular cruelty, crucifying Him on the Cross.

The same thing happens in our own lives. Christ gradually reveals Himself to us in the same way. And it must be said that the more conscientious a person is, the better he relates to people, the more alive will his soul be and the greater are his chances to see Christ in his life and recognize Him. Christ is especially close to each of us in all the good that we do, and it is easier to recognize Him in this. Although, it does happen that a person who is absolutely hardened and cruel can in one moment inexplicably experience a true rebirth from this very meeting. This is also a mystery.

There is a regrettable unfairness in the fact that some can know God, while others just don’t seem to be so favored...

—No, it must never be said that way. If a person wants to be better than he is, if he is learning to love those around him, if he is learning to sacrifice something for their sake, in this way he paves a path to the knowledge of Christ. But if he has no need for all of this and his will is directed in the opposite direction, the direction of sin, then he may not meet Christ on that path; that is, the main thing depends upon each person. People choose everything themselves, however unconsciously it may be; but the choice is always according to their hearts’ inclination.

There is yet another important point. In one of his books, St. Theophan the Recluse talks about a shocking thing. He says that if a person is seeking the truth and not comfort or happiness, or something that fits his idea of a convenient, prosperous life, then in this unmercinary search for truth he will definitely find Christ. He cannot pass Him by, for the very search for truth will inevitably lead him to Christ.

He seeks the truth, and not happiness... But isn’t happiness synonymous with truth?

—No, of course not, because people can have very different ideas of happiness. For one person happiness might be a wealth of money, for another it might be the opportunity to rule over others, to humiliate and demean them. For another, happiness may be the opportunity to do his own will unhindered and with impunity, to satisfy his basest, cruelest instincts. For example, what is happiness to the demons? A demon’s dark, monstrous happiness consists is seeing people perish, because every fallen angel knows what his own terrible end will be, and it is his joy to see God’s beloved creation go to the same place, to that same abyss. Unfortunately, although all are created in the image and likeness of God, some of our contemporaries’ idea of happiness is very similar to the demons’, for there are many these days who enjoy the destruction of people like them, and rejoice in their perversity and corruption.

But wouldn’t that be “happiness”, quote, unquote? It isn’t real happiness, after all.

--Many do not know what real happiness is. Any happiness that man seeks outside of God is only “happiness”, quote, unquote. Of course, there are totally monstrous ideas of happiness and there are, let’s say, decent, good ideas. When a person sees happiness in a family, in love, in doing good, this is a more perfect idea, although is not entirely perfect, because happiness can only be given to man by the One Who created it.

Archdeacon Andrei Kuryaev once related about himself that because he always had a scientific bent, he finally came to believe in God through logic: having thought about it and compared this and that, he understood that God exists; that is, for him is was not some irrational epiphany, but something like a scientific conclusion. Does that mean that one can find faith by a rational path?

—Undoubtedly one can, but it will be an epiphany nonetheless. I will explain why. For every honest scientist, the presence of God is nothing other than a scientific given, because any correctly, logically thinking person cannot but understand at some point that God exists. We pose the question of evidence--there is in fact very much evidence, because in trying to clarify for ourselves something concerning the origin of the world, we always run up against a certain “default figure”--there should be something in that capacity. That something is the Primary Cause of everything; nevertheless a large mass of scientists throughout the course of many centuries have sought out fantastical explanations for the existence of the world and reject the only logical, explicable Primary Cause. It is another matter that when the honest scientist comes to the conclusion that God exists, he may call Him by various other names. He might call Him “Something that is,” as some people say; he might call Him Reason, or something else. The next stage is when he has to figure out Who this Existence, this Reason is. Again, purely logical conclusions can lead a person to the fact that God is first of all a Person, and not some abstract Reason. And reading the Gospels convinces the logically thinking person of the reliability of everything written there, and that Christ truly is God.

Then why do you say that this is an epiphany?

—Because often people will suddenly break that strong chain of logic and say, “No, it can’t be so.” The reason he breaks the logic is that he does not accept it with his heart. Fr. Andrei was able to get to the end of that logical chain and see the entire picture because he accepted it with his heart. He did not argue with the obvious. However, the majority of people argue with the obvious. If a person accepts that there is a God Who created this world, that this God is the Holy Trinity, and that Christ is the Son of God Who came to earth to save the human race, then one more conclusion follows: This means that every one of us must do everything He commands us to do. This turns out to be the testing rock that can destroy all former edifices, because the person does not want to fulfill what’s been commanded. Then the roll backwards begins. The person starts finding excuses: why isn’t this so, why not that, and so on.

Another difficulty is that many of us still have a deeply-rooted Darwinic theory of the origin of the world as being the result of a big bang, and other such things...

—But do stereotypes really prevent a person from believing? Do certain ideas really prevent him from faith? We are among people who came to church, we see representatives of all different professions and views, including former specialists in the area of teaching scientific atheism. That means that stereotypes did not prevent them. No, these mental ideas are more like an external layer, a shell, which fairly quickly peels off. It drops away momentarily when the heart turns to God.

Faith presupposes the readiness to take a step and walk on the water, like the Apostle Peter. This is what saves a person, this truly does require the feat that was once demanded of the Apostle Peter. When a person believes in God and does everything that the Lord has commanded him, he takes that step upon the wavering surface of the water, and God never deceives him. Only after taking that step does a person obtain not just faith, but faith based upon experience, and it gradually turns into the most important kind of knowledge that can be given to another person, albeit hidden from the world. One can become no more than an example of this faith, which another might want to follow. Having followed it, he will also experience it, and will also obtain faith as something already learned by experience.

1 Ps. 76:15

2 Js. 2:19

3 Cf. Mt. 14:28-31.

4 Mt. 18:3.

5 Blessed Augustine (354-430, commemorated June 15/28)--an outstanding Christian theologian, and author of the famous autobiographical book, Confessions.

6 Blessed Augustine, Confessions, vol. 1, chap. 1.

7 Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas (1296-1359, commemorated November 14/27)--a Byzantine theologian and establisher of hesychasm, whose theological teachings, have as their spiritual nucleus the contemplation of uncreated Light, transfiguration, and deification of man.

8 Rev. 3:20.

Andreas Moran6/30/2015 11:39 am
I have just found this and would say that it is a very useful article for some of the convert faithful in the west (including some clergy!). So many in the west suffer from their confidence in their intellect being a stumbling block to faith and trust. They seek rational solutions to their questions.

I once asked Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou) how people acquired faith. He said much the same as Hegoumen Nektary. Faith is a gift from God, he said. Why do some people receive this gift and others not, I asked. He replied that the answer is humility; when God sees even the smallest amount of humility, He draws that person to Him because having humility is like having the simplicity of a child. I asked him why some people have humility and some not. He said, that is the mystery of the person.

The distinctions Hegoumen Nektary draws between belief,faith and trust is important and people should understand this difference.
OrthoChristian.com9/21/2013 12:56 pm
The original text was: непорочное зачатие, which could be translated as immaculate conception, but as you noted, this is also a Catholic term with a different application. Therefore, the text was changed to: "conception without seed", which you will more often find in Orthodox services.
M. Pastukhov9/19/2013 6:41 pm
Perhaps this was a poor translation. INCARNATION is probably the word they were looking for.
Michael Donley9/18/2013 11:29 pm
How refreshing to read Igumen Nektary's clear-cut, "simple" yet profound answers!

However, I would draw attention to a misleading phrase in the above text; namely, "IMMACULATE CONCEPTION".
In English, this phrase refers NOT to the manner in which Jesus was conceived but to the Roman Catholic dogma that Mary was herself conceived "immaculately" (i.e. "without sin") in the womb of her mother, Anna. This is obviously a teaching that neither Elena nor Igumen Nektary would accept.
Both Elena's question and Igumen Nektary's answer clearly have to do with the fact that Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb without a human father. Nevertheless, it is not possible in English to refer to this belief by using the phrase "IMMACULATE CONCEPTION".

Yours in Christ,
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