I want to talk about a section of the Liturgy this time around. This was inspired by both my wife, Connie Susan, and by one of our candidates for chrismation this year whose name is Hugh. Hugh asked me a couple of weeks ago, “What does the phrase ‘the noetic altar’ mean in the prayers?” At the litany before the Lord’s Prayer in the Divine Liturgy we ask, using the Ukrainian Orthodox prayer book:
That our loving God who has received them at his holy, heavenly, and noetic altar as a fragrant spiritual offering may in return send upon us divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord.
I’ve thought about this before myself, but never really spent a lot of time researching it. As my beloved wife would say, asking a question that requires research is like giving candy to a sugarholic in my case. So I looked up how the phrase is translated in the numerous copies of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which I happen to own and are on my shelves at home.
The prayerbooks of the UOC, the Ukrainian Church of the USA and of Canada, and the prayerbook of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia all use the word “noetic.” The OCA Liturgy books one and two, the Liturgikon of Bishop Basil, and the Antiochian prayerbook use “ideal.” The Liturgy which is published by Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA, the Greek seminary, uses “spiritual.” The old translation by Isabel Hapgood uses “supersensual,” while the Nasr guide of the Antiochian Church, following Hapgood to some extent, uses the word “supersenduous.” The prayerbook of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese uses “mystical,” and the Greek Kaline Press edition, a memorial edition, uses the word “invisible.” So obviously the word causes some difficulty for translation.
The word “noetic” translates the Greek word “noeros,” an adjective found in post–New-Testament Greek, not in the New Testament itself. It’s derived from the verb “noeo,” which means “to grasp, to apprehend, to perceive, to be intuitive about, to have insight into.” [In] the ancient Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, by Nicholas Cabasilas, written somewhere around 1350, still in print and highly recommended for devotional reading—one of my favorite books in my library, as a matter of fact—Nicholas Cabasilas mentions the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer but not this particular petition. Fr. George Demopoulos’ contemporary commentary on the Liturgy glosses the word entirely and simply uses the phrase “holy and heavenly altar.”
To return to the original word, “noeros,” and its verbal antecedent, “noeo,” the idea of noetic knowledge has to do with intuition and insight. The glossary which you find at the back of all four volumes of the Philokalia says, “ ‘Noesis,’ translated ‘intellection,’ is not an abstract concept.” I’m quoting: “But the act or function or intellect whereby it apprehends spiritual realities in a direct manner.” What an extraordinary phrase. The intellect, the nous, is the means for our inner apprehension of reality, particularly the reality of God.
You remember that St. Theophan the Recluse, 19th century Russian, says over and over again that we must join the nous to the kardia, the heart, for true prayer to occur. He means that we have to be united in our total personality, and we have to approach God intuitively, no parts left outside, so to speak. Without our total attentiveness, prayer remains external to us.
To turn to that phrase, “noetic altar,” then, we pray in this petition, it seems to me, that we might perceive the heavenly God as personal, as Holy Trinity in relationship to us through the medium of the sacrament. Think of Andrei Rublev’s “Hospitality of Abraham” icon, the quietness of that icon—and yet the energy that comes from it, when we perceive the heavenly God as personal Holy Trinity.
St. Isaac the Syrian called noesis “simple cognition,” that is to say: no complex arguments, no deductive reasoning, just direct experience and contemplations. No abstractions like “God is the ground of all being,” and no images: the grandfather in the sky, sitting at the table. When we speak of noesis we’re speaking of direct insight into God.
There may be a hint of Platonic philosophy underlying the whole concept, hence the one translation that we heard: “ideal,” but it has been transformed as so many philosophical terms and concepts were by the early Fathers of the Church from logical analysis in which the earthly form relates to the heavenly ideal to rather the concept of direct insight.
I think it’s terribly important that this prayer occurs after the anaphora. The entire prayer and action by which the bread and the wine are set aside as the Body and Blood of Christ, and we, too, are set aside as the Body of Christ upon which and upon whom the Holy Spirit descends. “Send down upon us and upon these Gifts,” we pray, “your Holy Spirit.”
In Western liturgical practice, this is referred to by two words. There is the consecratory epiclesis. The consecratory one is that which invokes the Holy Spirit upon the Gifts in order that they might be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. And then there is the communal invocation of the Holy Spirit. We pray that we might become the Body of Christ. And as has been said in many places and times, the Body of Christ on the altar and the Body of Christ that we are are not two realities but only one.
We now become prepared, through this prayer, because it’s after the anaphora. We’re prepared to see this bread and this wine as it is become, through the calling down of the Spirit, because the Spirit has also sanctified us as well. We ask, “Do not take him away from us, but renew him in us who pray to you.” Three times we ask that. And that sanctification, that setting-aside of the community which is the Body of Christ, that sanctification enables us to approach God with boldness.
Another one of my favorite words in Greek: “paresia,” that is, with the freedom that Adam possessed before the Fall, which enabled him to relate to God by direct intuition. On the basis of this, this hinge if you will, this prayer that speaks about receiving these Gifts on the heavenly, holy, and noetic altar as a fragrant spiritual offering, we now pray that God might in return send upon us divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit—and it’s done. In the very speaking of the words, it is done. This is not symbol. This is not allegory. This is Christian reality. We have become the Body of Christ, and we receive the Body of Christ.
On the basis of this, you can understand why, in the early Church, there were those sentences about “Let the catechumens depart. Let no catechumens remain” because the catechumens have not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism and chrismation. So of course they were dismissed at that point. We don’t do this any more, but we do well to think about the fact that those who remain, who are already chrismated, those who remain who have received the gift of the Spirit now see God as the heavenly reality, now see God as the mystical presence, to use that one prayerbook of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese, now see God in a spiritual way, to use the liturgy published by Holy Cross Greek Seminary.
We are in relationship with God in the same way in which Adam was related to God before the Fall. We have been restored through the one sacrifice of Christ, as it says in the epistle to the Hebrews. Through that one sacrifice, we have been restored to the presence of God so that we might again see him on his noetic altar.