A Note on “The Noetic Altar”
At the Litany before the Lord’s Prayer in the Divine Liturgy (p. 162, UOC Prayer Book), we ask “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.”
The word “noetic” translates the Greek word noeros, an adjective found in post-New Testament Greek that is derived from the verb noew, which means, “to grasp, apprehend, perceive, have insight into.”
The phrase is translated variously in renditions of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The Prayer Books of the UOC of the USA and of Canada, and the Prayer Book of ROCOR, use the word “noetic.” The OCA Liturgy I, the Liturgikon of Bishop Basil (AOC), and the Antiochian Prayer Book use “ideal.” The Liturgy published by Holy Cross Greek Seminary uses “spiritual.” The old translation by Isabel Hapgood (1905) uses “supersensual,” while the Nassar guide (AOC), following Hapgood to some extent, uses “supersensuous.” The prayer book of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese uses “mystical” and the Greek K-Line press edition uses “invisible.” Obviously, the word causes some difficulty for translation.
The ancient Commentary on the Divine Liturgy by Nicholas Cabasilas (ca. 1350; still in print and highly recommended for devotional reading) mentions the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer, but not this petition. Fr George Dimopoulos’s contemporary Commentary on the Liturgy glosses the word and simply uses the phrase “holy and heavenly altar.”
To return to the original word noeros and its verbal antecedent noew, the idea of noetic knowledge has to do with intuition and insight. The glossary in the four volumes of the Philokalia says noesis (translated “intellection”) is “not an abstract concept or a visual image, but the act or function of the intellect whereby it apprehends spiritual realities in a direct manner.” The intellect (nous) is the means for our inner apprehension of reality. St Theophan the Recluse (19th C 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 must be united in our total personality and approach God intuitively. No parts left outside, so to speak. Without our total attentiveness, prayer remains external to us.
To turn to the phrase “noetic altar,” then, we pray in this petition that we might perceive the heavenly God as Personal, as Holy Trinity, in relationship to us through the medium of the Sacrament. Think of Andrey Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham icon. St Isaac the Syrian (7th C) called noesis “simple cognition,” i.e. no complex arguments, no deductive reasoning, just direct experience and contemplation. No abstractions (God as “ground of being”) and no images (Grandfather in the sky sitting at table). This is direct insight into God. There may be a hint of Platonic philosophy underlying the whole concept, hence the one translation “ideal,” but it has been transformed (as many philosophical terms and concepts were by the early Fathers) from logical analysis (the earthly form relating to the heavenly ideal) to direct insight.
Note that this prayer occurs after the Anaphora – the entire prayer and action by which the bread and wine are set aside as Body and Blood, and we too are “set aside” as Body of Christ, upon which and upon whom the Holy Spirit descends. We are now prepared to see this bread and wine as it has become through the calling down of the Spirit, because the Spirit has also sanctified us as well; we asked “do not take Him away from us, but renew Him in us who pray to you.” That sanctification enables us to approach God with boldness, i.e. with the freedom that Adam possessed before the Fall, which enabled him to relate to God by direct intuition.