And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders; but to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)
In the above quote, within a single sentence, Moses tells the Israelites both that they have seen with their eyes what God has done for them . . . and that God has not given them eyes to see. Moses must be speaking in some figurative way about seeing and eyesight to claim both things as true. Though the Israelites witnessed what God was doing, they didn’t fully comprehend it. They saw the events but didn’t understand the significance of the events. They saw things happening but didn’t fully realize it was God’s own hand bringing things about. They didn’t see God in the events.
Moses words are perhaps the description of us Orthodox at every Pascha or at every Divine Liturgy. We see the Paschal celebration, we see heaven opened, we see on earth what is in heaven, we see Christ risen from the dead . . . and yet we can walk away without seeing God. God is in our midst and yet we leave the Liturgy unchanged by the experience.
Israel was able to contemplate the face of God in the temple. It was not just some mirage, but a glimpse of God’s face, however fleeting, blink and it is gone. “… like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)
Yet we have to have the eyes to see it at all, to know that is what we are looking at. What was it we saw? Something? Nothing? Did we see reality before us or did we really see anything at all? Every year at Pascha we claim to be witnesses to the resurrection. At every Liturgy we proclaim, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly spirit, we have found the true faith…” Have we? If we have, would we not be completely transformed by that experience, no longer just living in the world and for the world?
Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers; and none of those who despised me shall see it.” (Numbers 14:20-23)
There is a warning in this Numbers passage that even those who have seen God’s glory and signs may not enter into the promised land. Even seeing God’s glory, as wonderful and awesome as that can be, is still no guarantee that we will choose to remain with God. We might see God’s glory but not be able to see the goal of the spiritual life, the life in the world to come where we abide with God.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . . We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brother or sister, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:12-21)
St. John can say no one has seen God, but, despite that, God can live in us even if we can’t see God. We can fully experience God and participate in God even without seeing God! We can love and thus have God abide in us. We first have to love our brothers and sisters in this world, those who we can see, before we can claim to love God. We spiritually move from the known to the unknown. What and who we can see in this world, we can know. If we love and let God abide in us, we come to the God of love, to that which is unknown to us, and yet abides in us. Our hearts and our eyes can be open to see God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)