That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
The testimony of a first-hand experience of God is what is most needed in our witness to the world today. Without the conviction that comes from a direct knowledge of God the most we can offer in the marketplace of spiritual ideas is one more belief system among many others. What makes Christianity unique though, is that it is much more than a theory about the spiritual life. It is a living relationship with the very Creator of that spiritual life.
Father Matta El-Meskeen, also known as Matthew the Poor, lived his life in the prayer-birthed experience of God. Recognizing the importance of such a witness for the world, he moved as a young man to the Tunisian desert in order to more profoundly seek God for himself. He believed that what he learned of God in the experience of his own life could become a light that testifies to the reality of this same possibility in others. In his book The Orthodox Prayer Life, he speaks of his motivation he had for becoming a hermit.
So many books tell about Christ; so many preachers speak about Christ; but so few people live and speak with Christ. What had attracted me to the solitary life and absorbed my mind was the idea that once I had found Christ this knowledge would be turned into prayer for the whole world.
More than a theology to believe in, the gospel is an action of the Holy Spirit that we observe from the vantage point of our own lives. Prayer introduces us to the immediacy of God which then becomes the certainty from which we bear witness that such an experience is also possible for others. It also becomes the motivation for our own continued pursuit of God.
There is a story of the desert fathers that wonderfully illustrates the tenacity that this first-hand experience produces in us. One of Abba Hilarion’s disciples asked him a question about monks who give up on the spiritual quest. The Abba replied with a story,
Consider the hunting dogs which chase after hares. Imagine one of these dogs sees a hare in the distance and immediately gives chase. The other dogs that are with him see this dog run off and take off after him, even though they have not seen the hare. They will continue running with him, but only for a time. When at length the effort and struggle exhaust them, they give up the chase and turn back. However the dog that saw the hare continues chasing it by himself. He does not allow the effort or struggle to hinder him from completing his long course. Nor does he allow the turning aside of the other dogs behind him to put him off. He goes on running until he has caught the hare he saw.
The way this story applies to the value of first-hand knowledge is obvious. It also suggests the strong motivation that the experience of God provides for us to remain in the chase. Because we are certain of what we have seen, even when we have lost sight of our target, we do not lose hope that it actually exists.
The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.