Translations from the Greek

[This is the first of many canons which I will be posting.  St. Arsenius the Cappadocian is famous mostly because he baptized St. Paisius the Athonite, but his claims to our attention go deeper than that.  I have organized the canon in the Greek fashion, in that the irmos is given as a fragment (to inform the chanter how to chant the troparia following).  NB.  “Saint of God, pray for us” precedes the first two troparia.  “Glory to the Father etc.” precedes the third troparion and “Now and ever etc.” precedes the fourth.  My source for this canon will be added soon.]


Ode 1.  Having crossed the sea.

Since you have acquired true joy, inspired Father Arsenius, deliver those who run to your protection from every despondency and madness of the enemy.

You arose like a new star, illuminating us with your holy life; wherefore drive away the gloom of our passions by your intercessions, O saint.

You wholly abstained from the passing cares; therefore you deliver the mind, soul and heart of those who draw near to you, Father Arsenius, from pains.

Heal, O Maiden, as you are sympathetic towards me, my badly wounded heart, and request the forgiveness of my offences by your intercessions with your merciful Son.


Ode 3.  Of the apse of Heaven.

As of old you delivered the greatest number of people from various kinds of diseases, O saint, by your intercession with the Lord, so deliver us from unclean passions and from every evil circumstances, Father Arsenius.

Having magnified in your life the Lord of all, you have acquired the greatest glory, Father Arsenius; wherefore deliver us from great dangers and from the attacks of the destroyer of all.

O servant of the Lord and champion of the faithful, holy Arsenius, guide us all to the calm and saving harbors, to life without pain and everlasting.

In order to save the world, the cause of all things took flesh from your pure blood, O Maiden; wherefore heal my sickly flesh and illumine my mind with the light of grace.

Preserve, divine Arsenius, by your prayers from every sudden attack and evil circumstances those who run to your fervent protection.


Tone 2.  With fervent intercession.

Earnestly entreat Christ, Arsenius, to give us the forgiveness of our offences and healing of passions and health of soul and body and progress in living a reverent life, so that we may attain to divine glory.


Ode 4.  I have heard, O Lord.

Made splendid with the gifts of the divine Spirit, holy Father, freely take pity on us and deliver us from oppressive distress.

Beg for divine strength, Arsenius, to be given to my utterly exhausted soul, so that I may escape every deception and treachery of the destroyer.

As you saved demoniacs from the power of the adversary, so also deliver, Arsenius, us from his unexpected attacks.

You were a divine mountain, densely-shaded with your opulent graces, O Mother of God, from which the Savior descended to the world and saved mankind.


Ode 5.  Illumine us.

Raise our heart, holy father, to the perfect love of Christ, guiding us in peace, Arsenius.

By the mystical rains of your intercessions with the Lord completely extinguish the flame of the passions which causes us to waste away, Father Arsenius.

Crush, wise saint, the subtle contrivances of the enemy, preserving us unharmed by his scheming, we always beg you.

Direct us to the better life, Virgin; ward off the attacks of the enemy and grant peace to our souls.


Ode 6.  My supplication.

You showed forth from God, Arsenius, the saving grace of miracles; wherefore heal all the illnesses of our souls and bodies at every time; preserve me from them untouched, Father, for I have fled for refuge to your protection.

Change the bitter storm of my passions by the stillness of your warm intercession into rest, Father, and guide me safely to the harbor of the divine will, for you have boldness with the Lord.

Numbered in the choir of the saints, as one who has completed his life in a holy fashion, grant sanctification, joy and peace to the monastery of the Theologian, Father, which has acquired your divine relics as a divine treasure.

Since you bore the creator and savior of all from your immaculate womb, save me, Maiden, from the madness of the enemy, and fortify me with the fear of my creator, so that I may walk steadfastly the road of his holy will.

Preserve by your intercessions, divine Arsenius, from every attack and evil circumstance those who run to your fervent protection.

Ode 7.  The youths from Judea.

With ardent purpose, barren women came once to your divine relics and became mothers rejoicing in their children with your help, thrice-blessed Arsenius.

By your cleansing intercession remove the wounds of my soul and give me genuine means of repentance, as my ardent defender, holy Arsenius, and fellow-citizen of the angels.

The monastery of the Theologian has acquired a divine prize, Father Arsenius—your divine relics, which belong to the faithful, conveying to them divine grace and invisibly filling them with heavenly joy.

Having spread out on us the incorruptible grace of your protection, always ward off from us every wile of the murderous enemy and direct us to the path of salvation.


Ode 8.  The King.

With the holy staff of your divine visitation, guide us as sheep, Father, to the deathless and mystical pastures.

Behold from above those who stand reverently by your relics and give to them, Father, the abundant manifestation of your help.

Protect unceasingly with your fatherly assistance those who lie in terrible slavery, saving them alive from harm and dangers.

Heal, Maiden, my ailing soul and furnish me with tears of repentance, so that I may glorify you, O Full of Grace.


Ode 9.  Fittingly the Mother of God.

Deliver the multitude of the Orthodox Christians who magnify you from all the madness of our enemies, visible and invisible, divine Arsenius.

Being in the chorus with the saints, beseech with them on behalf of us, divine Arsenius, who celebrate your divine victories.

Now that you praise God in Trinity with the angels in the heights, holy Father, ever beseech him to save us who praise you.

We hymn you, Virgin, as the Mother of God, and we cry out the Rejoice with never silent voices to you, for by your intercession Maiden we are ever saved.



The cure for ignorance, say the Fathers, is spiritual knowledge.  What is spiritual knowledge and how do we get it?  Let’s start with defining knowledge first, since spiritual knowledge is evidently a kind of knowledge.

Knowledge is short for knowledge of truth.  We can also say truth instead.   When we say knowledge, we emphasize the fact that knowledge of truth is something we somehow have in us.  When we say truth, we emphasize that what we know is somehow verifiable outside of us.  Let’s take a few examples to make this clear.

If I say that a dog is a barking quadruped and someone asks me to verify that I know about dogs, I can take him to a dog and prove that my private conception of dogs corresponds to the reality of dogs in the world outside my mind.

If, however, I say that a cat is a quadruped that barks, then I do not know about cats, since I cannot take a skeptic to a cat that will bark on demand.  My private conception of cats is not verified by any barking cats outside my mind.

It would seem to follow that spiritual knowledge is knowledge of spiritual things, but St. John begins by saying that spiritual knowledge is not “knowledge alone.”1  He says that spiritual knowledge is “the practice of virtues.”2  This is why we had to discuss what virtue is first in our last post, so that “the practice of virtues” would refer to something specific, that is, the performance of the commandments.  St. John goes on to say, “We should make every effort to manifest our faith and knowledge through our actions.”3  He is implying of course that we should not make every effort to manifest our faith and knowledge through words.

St. Maximus identifies just what happens when we act and think as if spiritual knowledge is knowledge alone:  “spiritual knowledge that is not put into practice does not differ in any way from illusion.”4

In the same way, St. Mark the Monk tells us to “understand the words of Holy Scripture by putting them into practice” and not to “expatiate on theoretical ideas.”5  This is why we find that the saints and the elders often read the Bible and seek help from others in understanding the Bible but are not found conducting Bible studies as we in the West understand them.

We may easily look elsewhere for additional corroboration of this practical view.  In David Mitchell James’ A Psalter for Prayer, the prayer before reading the Psalms asks God to “direct my heart to begin with understanding and to end with good works this divinely inspired book.”7  The prayer further begs of God that the reader be “prepared for the doing of the good works which I learn.”8

In short, the Fathers insist that when it comes to spiritual knowledge, it is all about practice.

We next define more positively what spiritual knowledge is.



  1. 1:125.
  2. John Rickaby, The First Principles of Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901), p. 2.
  3. Ibid., 1:302.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 2:257.
  6. Ibid., 1:116.
  7. David Mitchell James, A Psalter for Prayer, 2nd ed. (Jordanville, New York: Holy Trinity Publications, 2011), p. 53.
  8. Ibid.



Preliminary remarks.  I have been pondering the question of church-growth for a long time as I attended churches across four jurisdictions.  The following remarks are best taken as an attempt to stir things up, not settle them.

How can the Orthodox evangelize America?

The first thing we need to do is question how we have always done business in this country.

The typical pattern is that a missionary community is founded, it receives visits from nearby or not-so-nearby priests for many years while money is made or saved up by the community until a building of some sort is erected and a priest can be afforded.  In the next stage, the parish church grows slowly over time until it is big enough to afford to pay for a long-term church to be built.  I visited two churches which made what was supposed to be the community hall the main church building.

The first problem with this picture is that it requires us to pay a lot more attention to money than to anything else.  Money is an extremely unhealthy obsession for anyone, but hypocritical and deadly for Christians.  The fact that regulations and other factors have made churches much more expensive to put up makes the obsession with money worse.

The second problem is that it requires at some point an unhealthy obsession with numbers—the concern with getting numbers up takes on the feverish anxiety usually associated with sales departments of companies in trouble.  We do not see priests pleading with parishioners to save more souls by living pure lives but to invite more people in order to pull the parish back from the edge of the financial precipice.

There is a simple correction for the money-absorbed and cattle-drive approach:  church history.

In the early centuries we find that churches tended to be smaller and the emphasis was on quality, not quantity.  The early church accepted that it would always, except in large cities, be fairly small.  That the gate was narrow (Mt. 7:13) was accepted as a fact.  While Christians became famous among the pagans for their love for their neighbors, nowhere do we find any concerns for parish growth.

This absolute and dead silence on our hot-button topic is striking.  The church of the martyrs never bothered itself with tracking attendance and contributions.  The Fathers have from the time of St. Ignatius been driven by the message of Christ; only heresies drove the Fathers to develop dogmas in a centuries-long, defensive maneuver.  Neither the message nor the dogmatic refinements allowed any space for worries about membership and contributions.

If we want saints like those of the first three centuries, first we need to end our obsession with money and attendance.  Then we we need to read and reread the early Fathers—from St. Ignatius to, say, St. Athanasius—until we have their frame of mind.  We will then know what is important and what is not.  Their books are everywhere available—in libraries, in bookstores, online—and are cheap and easy to understand.  The men who led the charge to evangelize North Africa, Western Asia and Europe have a great deal to tell us about the faith.

If we all devoted ourselves to reading the early Fathers—for that matter, any Father—I cannot predict what everyone is going to think—we might even disagree with one another—but I am certain that no one will be worrying about the next fund-raiser or designing the next cattle-drive through the narrow gate.

In closing, I cannot say I know how to evangelize America, but I do know that our standing operating procedures—fundraising and boosting numbers—are doomed to fail.




The Fathers tell us that the cure for ignorance is spiritual knowledge.  However, we must first clear up the Patristic concept of virtue before we can even approach spiritual knowledge.

St. Maximus says that “virtue may be defined as the conscious union of human weakness with divine strength.”1  This union requires us to make an “effort to transcend the weakness of human nature.”2  These rather vague remarks are brought into sharp focus by his comment that “the soul . . . acquires the virtues by keeping the commandments.”3  If this is so, then the commandments are not legalistic requirements.  Neither are they a list of duties we must keep only because God told us to.  Instead, they have a substantial and practical value to us.  As St. Paisios the Athonite says, “by observing the commandments of God we cultivate virtue and acquire health of soul.”

Which commandments?

One of the interesting differences between Orthodoxy and the Western churches is their understanding of the commandments.  At least in the English-speaking West, most people think the commandments are the Ten Commandments.  However, when the Fathers talk about the commandments, they mean the commandments of Christ.  For example, when St. Peter of Damascus writes about the commandments, he does not write about the Ten Commandments but the Seven Commandments—i.e., the Beatitudes.5  St. Macarius of Egypt takes a broader view:  “the abode and resting-place of the Holy Spirit is humility, love, gentleness and the other holy commandments of Christ.”6

So how do we know which of these commandments to keep in the course of our daily lives?  How do we know what God wants of us?

St. Theophan the Recluse replies that “we certainly know this from the commandments he has given us.  Is someone seeking help?  Help him.  Has someone offended you?  Forgive him.  Have you offended somebody?  Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace.  Did somebody praise you?  Don’t be proud.  Did somebody scold you?  Do not be angry.  Is it time to pray?  Pray.  Is it time to work?  Work.  Etc. etc. etc.”7  It is clear from St. Theophan’s words that it is “the individual events with which each of us meets” which inform us of which commandments to keep.8

Another way of looking at the commandments is provided by St. Paisios.  When a nun asked him how she could be saved, he replied decisively, “with love and humility.”9  They are, he adds, “the easiest means to salvation; they are what we will be judged for.”10  So not only are love and humility the only questions on the final exam, so to speak, but they are the easiest ones we could ask for.  Every final should be so easy.

To sum up, any virtue is the union of divine strength with human weakness.  If we read the New Testament closely and live our lives attentively, we will know which commandments to keep and thereby acquire the virtues proper for us.  St. Paisius emphasizes love and humility; if we humbly keep the two great commandments, we will naturally want to glorify God and intercede for our fellow men.

Now we may answer the question of how spiritual knowledge is the cure for ignorance.



  1. The Philokalia, tr. G.E H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, vols. 1-4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1995; reprint, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 3: 230.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. 129.
  4. The Rev. Fr. Peter Chamberas, trans., Saint Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual Counsels (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece:  Holy Hesychasterion, 2006), vol. 5, Passions and Virtues, p. 157.
  5. Philokalia, 3: 93-100.
  6. Ibid., 346.
  7. St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, tran. Alexandra Dockham, 3rd ed. (Safford, Arizona: St. Paisios Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), p. 74.
  8. Ibid., p. 75.
  9. Passions, p. 212.
  10. Ibid., p. 213.



Interruption:  On the Fathers and the Elders

I mentioned the Fathers in my last post without explaining who they are and why they are important, especially to this blog, so let’s do that now.

Anyone who reads early church history will find that a select group of men are constantly referred to as “the Fathers.”  At the very sketchiest, we may say that they are the movers and shakers of the Orthodox faith.

Less sketchily, the Fathers are those men who “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).  On one front, they defend the faith against heretical tampering and so “guard the deposit” (I Tim. 6:20); on another front, they “make money” (Luke 19:13), i.e., define or amplify the deposit.  Many were bishops, others were respected for their learning and piety.  This definition is by no means airtight, but it captures most of the men who are so called.

The Fathers often had to maintain or define the faith against emperors and bishops; a lot of the Fathers were therefore persecuted in some way.  For example, if we look at three famous fathers, we find that St. Athanasius (a bishop) was exiled several times, St. John Chrysostom (another bishop) was walked to death in exile, dying finally in central Asia and St. Maximus the Confessor (a learned monk) was tortured, and had his right hand and tongue amputated.

One amazing thing about the Fathers is that their writings rise so easily above the controversies and details of their day.  For example, I have seen people with no academic training bowled over by St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters.  They responded immediately because he, like most Fathers, speaks directly to the reader and only about the essentials of the faith.  This is largely because the Fathers knew what was important (defending or explaining the faith) and wasted no time with what the learned pagans of their day valued (showing off their learning, observing the socio-literary conventions of the day, making inside jokes), so when we read them centuries later, they are as accessible and vivid as they were when the ink was wet.

A broader use of the expression “the Fathers” is often used to include men and women who were simply influential in the church, often monastics who did not enjoy learning.  The Desert Fathers are the prime example.  Many of them only survive in sayings recorded in the various collections, like the Anonymous or Alphabetical collections.

The Elders of medieval and modern times are the heirs of the Desert Fathers.  The authors of their lives often refer to the wastelands they typically sought out for solitude as “deserts,” their log cabins as “cells” and so forth.  The Elders of, say, Russia and Greece, are rarely illiterate; many of them (like St. Theophan the Recluse) wrote books or letters, but others (like St. Leonid of Optina) survive like the Desert Fathers in the testimonies of their disciples or admirers.  Elders typically do not weigh in on dogmatic or political issues; they console, instruct, correct or enlighten their pilgrims.  I say typically, since St. Seraphim of Sarov’s conversations with Motovilov are nothing if not an amplification of the faith, and his letter to Tsar-Martyr Nicholas counts as political involvement.

Whereas the Fathers weigh in on dogmatic issues and the application of the faith, the Elders take dogma for granted and focus on how to apply the faith.  Therefore, for many people it is easier to start by reading the Elders.  Of course, the lives of the saints are for most of us more important than anything else.

An important role played by the Fathers and Elders is that they define the Orthodox unity of faith.  People can read the Bible and walk away with the most amazing variety of opinions, so the Bible is no guarantee of the unity of faith.  The unity of faith can only come from the Holy Spirit, not the Bible.  If the Bible were sufficient for the unity of faith, Christ would have not talked about the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth (Jo. 16:13); he would have said the Scriptures would lead us instead.  Anyone who reads the Fathers is guided toward that unity of faith; if we are guided by the Fathers, we enjoy the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The purpose of this blog is to help believers understand and set aside their doubts about the faith.  My conviction is that what we find in the Fathers and Elders is enough to do this; I hope that my readers will eventually realize that they do not need to read a blog as badly as they need to read the Fathers.

Nevertheless, like the Fathers I will also refer to philosophy—mostly logic—when that seems to be the shortest path to the truth.  I do this because logic is the faculty God gives us to make sense of things and ultimately to survive.  “Facts,” said C. S. Peirce, “are hard things which do not consist in my thinking so and so, but stand unmoved by whatever you or I or any man or generations of men may opine about them.  It is those facts that I want to know, so that I may avoid disappointments and disasters.  Since they are bound to press upon me at last, let me know them as soon as possible, and prepare for them.  That is, in the last analysis, my whole motive in reasoning.”1

However, logic does not help us by telling us what to think; it can only tell us how to think once we have settled on what we think.  When Louise Jefferson asked Mr. Bentley why he as an interpreter couldn’t straighten out the world at the United Nations, he might have been describing logic when he responded, “I can’t tell them what to do; I can only tell them what they’ve said.”

To round off this discussion, the reader deserves to know how I select which Fathers, which Elders and which philosophers to guide my thoughts.  The only possible answer is given by Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, the editors of that remarkable book, The Practical Cogitator.  Against the charge that they have depended too heavily on “some few” authors for their anthology, they say, “It is not for us to be more egalitarian than the uneven bounty of nature.”2  I have been reading the authors cited in this blog since junior high; if I find more plunder in Aquinas or more treasure in St. Maximus the Confessor, it is due to just this “uneven bounty.”

At the end of the day, if the reader finds fault with my choices, he may console himself that I, like the aforesaid editors, work “on the firm basis of personal choice.”3


  1. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, ed., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, NY:  1931; 3rd printing, 1974), vol. II, Elements of Logic, p. 173.
  2. Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, ed., The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology, 3rd ed.; rev. and enlarged with an introduction by John H. Finley, Jr. (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. xxi.
  3. Ibid.



What states of mind fall short of certitude?

According to Rickaby, the first is sheer ignorance.1  The only question about ignorance is, as Rickaby observes, culpability:  “A surgeon need not know what the eccentric of a steam engine is, but he ought to know what a tourniquet is.”2  Rickaby’s example implies that blameworthy ignorance depends on whether something is relevant to us.  Therefore, if our doubts about the faith are due to ignorance, we must know things that are relevant to our faith.  But relevance itself depends on purpose, so we must first ask what the purpose of the Christian life is.

There are many Fathers to whom we could turn for this purpose.  I happen to like St. Theophan the Recluse, who says that our purpose in life is to attain to the “blessed life beyond the grave.”3  It follows that we must use every means necessary to secure it.  “The means are the works [done] according to the commandments.”4  How do we select these works?  They are presented to us “by each instance of life.”5  St. Theophan sternly admonishes us that “it is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors.”6  He goes on to say that “everything that you do here, no matter what it is, will be a work; and if you do it with the consciousness that such a work is according to the commandments and that God wants such a thing, then the work will be pleasing to God.  So it is with every small thing.”7  How small?  “Each step, each word, even each movement and glance—everything may direct one to walk in God’s will and consequently to move each moment toward the ultimate goal.”8

If the purpose of the Christian life is to attain to Heaven, then what we must know at all costs is the means which will serve our purpose.  There is no shortage of opportunities, as St. Theophan says, so why do more people not go to Heaven?  The answer is ignorance of the commandments that turn our daily chores and random circumstances into God-pleasing labors.  Because we do not understand how to look at our daily routine, not realizing that (in the words of Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron Monastery) we can “in a single moment . . . find eternity.”9

Therefore, we can well believe St. Mark the Ascetic when he ranks ignorance as “the first among all evils”10 and “the mother and nurse of every vice.”11  In his most vivid language, he says that “Hell is ignorance, for both are dark.”12  For if we do not know that it is life beyond the grave that matters, how will we avoid wasting all the time of this life?  If we do not know that “every small thing” is important to God and to our salvation, how will we avoid squandering innumerable opportunities for our salvation and for the salvation of those around us?  How many people hate their jobs because they would rather be at church, not knowing that, as Fr. Vasileios says, “the effort that [they] put into making a living . . . is in itself a prayer”?13

In short, we want to cure the ignorance which makes Christians indistinguishable from nihilists and atheists.  What is its cure?



  1. John Rickaby, The First Principles of Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901), p. 43 f.
  2. Ibid.
  3. St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It, 3rd ed., tr. Alexandra Dockham (Safford, Arizona: St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), p. 74.  Three caveats follow.  First, St. Theophan is not the only Father whom I could have cited; my choice is to some degree arbitrary.  Second, the letters which I have quoted contain a good deal of information not here noted but which I urge the reader to read carefully to get a fuller picture.  Finally, St. Theophan is not a pietist; he tacitly assumes on the part of his correspondent dogmatic agreement.  Later on, he reminds his correspondent that “the entire order of Christian life is thus:  believe in God, in the worshipful Trinity that saves us in the Lord Jesus Christ through the benevolence of the Holy Spirit; receive beneficial powers through the Divine Mysteries of the Holy Church; live according to the commandments of the Gospel, being inspired with the hope that God, for the smallest, feasible labor of ours, for the sake of faith in the Lord Savior and obedience to him, will not deprive us of heavenly blessings.”
  4. Ibid., p. 75.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 74.
  7. Ibid., p. 77. Here as everywhere else in the Fathers, the commandments are short for the commandments of Christ.  The prominence of the Ten Commandments in Orthodox confession manuals seems to be due to modern reliance on Catholic sources.
  8. Ibid., p. 79. Cf. Archimandrite Vasileios, who described an old monk at work in his garden thus:  “His digging was a prayer.  Each step, everything he was doing was a prayer.  The dirt—everything—was a prayer” (Archimandrite Vasileios, p. 167).
  9. Archimandrite Vasileios, “Everything Is Prayer,” The Orthodox Word 279 (July-August 2011), p. 164.
  10. The Philokalia, tr. G.E H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, vols. 1-4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1995; reprint, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 1:133.  But ignorance does not act alone.  In St. Mark’s view, ignorance, forgetfulness and laziness are the “three powerful and mighty giants of the Philistines, upon whom depends the whole hostile army of the demonic Holofernes” (1:158 f.)  The three giants are mutually reinforcing, but laziness “supports and strengthens the other two” (1:159).
  11. Ibid., p. 157.
  12. Ibid., p. 114.
  13. Archimandrite Vasileios, p. 171.



The purpose of this strand of the blog is to explore religious doubts.  Experience suggests that people have a number of ways of dealing with religious doubts.  The more high-brow read up on apologetics to look for arguments that will rationally squelch them.  The more squeamish may sweep them under the rug and pretend they are not there.  Others try to drown their doubts in raw emotions at revivals.  Finally, some resort to anti-intellectualism and so regard thought itself as an occasion for sin.

All these very different ways of handling doubts have one thing in common:  none of them look at the doubts themselves very closely.  What would we learn if we looked at the doubts themselves?  This blog will explore the different types of doubts which have been brought to my attention by fellow believers, so that others may learn how to deal with their own doubts.

Doubts are so troublesome because people tend to regard all of them as some kind of moral defect.  We will examine some doubts that qualify as defects, but there are other kinds of doubts.  It is not enough to say that doubts form a class, though.  We must also see them against their proper backdrop—certitude.

We first affirm (with Thomas Aquinas) that the intellect seeks truth.1  When the intellect is assured of its possession of truth, it experiences certitude.2  The mind with certitude assents to something for reasons which do not allow any “solid, reasonable misgivings.”3

How does certitude work?

One example is the distance of my home from work.  I have used the odometer to find the distance.  I have measured the distance more than once.  I have no “solid or reasonable misgivings” about the odometer itself; the readings are consistent.  I am sure that if I used any number of other cars, the distance would be the same.  In short, I enjoy the assured possession of the truth that my home is a certain number of miles from work.

Another example is taken from what used to be called the Laws of Thought.  One of these is the Principle of Contradiction, which Richard F. Clarke, S.J. defines as “nothing can at the same time exist and not exist.”4  I enjoy certitude about this principle because there is no way to corroborate simultaneous existence and non-existence.

To illustrate, suppose I have one cat, and I see it go into the laundry room, which conveniently has no exit.  I can verify that the cat is there by seeing it.  Again, if I have one cat and I see it leave the laundry room, I can go in there and verify that the cat is no longer there.  So far, so good.

But if I am told by someone that the cat is in the laundry room and is not in the laundry room, how can I assure myself that the cat is there and is not there at the same time?  Not only can I not imagine the violation of the Principle of Contradiction, but I also cannot imagine a way to prove its violation without resorting to underhanded, verbal tricks.  Therefore, I have perfect confidence in the Principle of Contradiction.

Now, as Rickaby observes, we do not and probably cannot know all things with certitude, yet certitude is the ideal.  If the intellect seeks truth, then its proper function includes acquiring the greatest number of truths.  This it must do without forgetting that some opinions may necessarily remain undecidable, so that we must also experience states of mind which fall short of certitude.  Without this range of states leading up to certitude, we are liable to err either by demanding that all opinions and knowledge produce certitude (dogmatism) or by rejecting certitude out of hand (skepticism).

Our next step is to discuss just those states of mind which fall short of certitude, which will bring us to doubt.


  1. Aquinas Summa Theologiae I, Q. 16, Art. 1.  Aquinas follows Aristotle in defining intellect as a power of the soul and not its essence (see Q. 79, Art. 1).   Aristotle decribes the intellect (nous) the power by which the soul thinks and understands (De anima, bk. III, ch. 4).
  2. John Rickaby, The First Principles of Knowledge, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1901), p. 42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Richard F. Clarke, Logic, 4th ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1897), p. 33.