Healing the Heart

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

St. Macarius

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

A.I. Solzhenitsyn

+++

These quotes are among the best known (ancient and modern) Orthodox statements on the heart of man and reveal the fundamental character of our spiritual struggle. There is not even a hint in these statements of human beings having a “legal” standing before God or that the Church should have any concern with such notions.

Man, as a fallen creature, is better described as diseased or broken (St. Paul uses the term “corrupt” phthoros in the Greek). The corruption which St. Paul describes is again not a legal term (as “corrupt” often means in modern English usage) but refers instead to a corruption that is similar to the rotting of a dead body. Indeed it is death that is at work in us that manifests itself as sin in our lives. The death that is at work in us is our falling back towards non-existence, or nothingness, whence all of creation came. God alone is the Lord and Giver of Life and true existence is only found in communion with Him. That communion is made possible through Christ Who became what we are, that we might become like Him.

It is the heart, the very core of our existence, that the Fathers dwell on when they look at the work of sin and redemption in our lives. Thus Orthodoxy is extremely “realist” in its understanding of the spiritual life rather than being concerned with legal standing or “debts owed,” etc. It is possible to use such relational language in a metaphorical manner, but the truth of our problem is to be found in the very character of our existence: Is it being transformed into the image of Christ or is it falling deeper into corruption and death?

This concern for the reality of our existence changes the focus and understanding of every action of the Church. Thus in Baptism, the focus is our union with the death and resurrection of Christ and the Gift of the Holy Spirit given us in Holy Chrismation. St. Ignatius of Antioch (2nd century) referred to Holy Communion as the “medicine of immortality.” Penance (confession) is occasionally described by the fathers as a “second baptism,” meaning that it restores the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

A priest hearing confession listens intently for the state of the heart (if possible) rather than simply categorizing and subjecting to legal analysis what he hears. Indeed, it is considered a sin to judge someone whose confession you are hearing. As a good pastor, however, a priest must always be concerned with the state of the heart within any of those for whom he is responsible before God. He cannot change anyone’s heart, but with whatever skill God may have given him, he can counsel and nurture each soul towards the path of healing in the heart and, most importantly, he can pray constantly for his flock and for the heart of each of its members.

By the same token, it is important for every Christian to pay attention to his own heart. Christ makes this abundantly clear when he interiorizes the commandments on murder and adultery, warning:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment… (Matt. 5:21-22)

And

You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28).

It is not that our outward actions do not matter, but that they are only manifestations of the state of the heart:

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).

Most of my writing in this blog (as well as my preaching and teaching in the Church) concentrates on this inner life. Learning to open our eyes to the source of our actions and the absolute need for the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to change our hearts is the most fundamental understanding in our daily life before God. There are a myriad of other things to think about in our faith, many of them serving as religious distractions from the essential work of repentance. It is easier to argue points of doctrine than to stand honestly before God in prayer or confession. Doctrine is important (what Orthodox priest would deny this?) but only as it makes Christ known to us. But the knowledge of Christ that saves is not the knowledge one gains as mere information – but rather the knowledge one gains inwardly as we repent, pray, forgive, and humble ourselves before God. The promise to us is that the “pure in heart shall see God.”

Doctrine is not known until it becomes united to the heart in a continual act of communion with God. Thus, if we are honest, we will profess ignorance and pray for true knowledge.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

A quote from St. Silouan:

The heart-stirrings of a good man are good; those of a wicked person are wicked; but everyone must learn how to cambat intrusive thoughts, and turn the bad into good. This is the mark of the soul that is well versed.

How does this come about, you will ask?

Here is the way of it: just as a man knows when he is cold or when he feels hot, so does the man who has experienced the Holy Spirit know when grace is in his soul, or when evil spirits approach.

The Lord gives the soul understanding to recognize His coming, and love Him and do His will. In the same way the soul recognizes thoughts which proceed from the enemy, not by their outward form but by their effect on her [the soul].

This is knowledge born of experience;  and the man with no experience is easily duped by the enemy.

God grant us such true knowledge and the healing of our hearts.

Comments

  1. says

    Father Stephen:

    During prayers early this morning (about 16 hours ago to be precise) I distinctly heard the the Lord speaking.

    “Saints!! Saints!! Saints!!” — He said, and in His voice this love was imparted that transcends all understanding.

    At that point I had a vision of an icon but it was not a pleasant one. Behind this icon, a well known US politician was winking one eye (at the world).

    All day today, I have had this very strong sense of God in His one-storey universe. I had to take a position in prayer, but there you have it.

  2. Stephen W. says

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you so much for your blog. Your focus on the inner life is truly what I continually need to be reminded of. Sometimes I would like to make comments and then realize that I have no words. At times there is nothing to discuss, only things to do….

  3. says

    To clarify, the icon was actually portraying this US politician, until it came alive!. Said politician shall, for the sake of decorum, remain nameless.

    We are literally are in the same room Father Stephen. These are not merely constructs you speak of, but truths revealed by the Spirit.

  4. newman5 says

    Stephen, I truly appreciate your heart and the Spirit from Which your words are clearly inspired (especially your emphasis on our own inner focus and relationship with God), but may I humbly ask you a couple questions?

    What denomination are you?

    I was raised Catholic, but decided that Catholicism presented and represented too much unbiblical doctrine i.e. the preist as intercessor between the laity and God, praying to Saints, deification of Mary, infant Baptism etc. Which, I have come to recognize as completely unnecessary and therefore perhaps ultimately heretical and even no different than any number of other worldly appendages that men have attempted to attach to the already perfect Message of Christ. So, I moved away from Catholicism and/or many of its beliefs, and by way of a long journey which led to my true re-birth and baptism in Christ, I have also come to be much closer to Him… although the the closer I now get, the further He seems to be from my ever being truly like Him.

    On the other hand, I am infinitely grateful for my Catholic upbring (for without it, I know I would not be where I am today – in Christ), but now I see Catholiscm itself as an obvious stumbling block to others in my life.

    All of this is simply in an attempt to bring religion itself into question here, just as Jesus did, in terms of how it can either help us in our walk with Him or indeed hinder us along our path to hopefully truly know Him.

    Finally, what do you think of the following verse?

    Matthew 23:9
    And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

    Peace…

  5. says

    I am Eastern Orthodox, under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America, which was granted its autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970. I was formerly an Anglican, and converted to Orthodoxy in 1998 along with my family.

    I am decidedly not a Protestant because I think it is non-Biblical and filled with many unintended errors – though I am quite familiar with it and its many manifestations.

    I have only one Father in heaven. The title “father” applied to priests or Bishops (St. Paul himself referred to himself as “father” when addressing the Corinthians), refers not to the person but to the office of the priesthood of Christ (the only priest). It is ancient practice.

    On the other hand, the verse following the one you cite also suggests that we call no one “Master” which is the word “Mr.” and yet I’ve never seen a Protestant ask anyone anything about that word.

    Generally these are just old battle verses that Protestants have used to trip up Catholics. But I find it to be a misuse of Scripture.

    There are significant differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, though to the outside many things might look similar. However, the split between Orthodoxy and Rome occurred over a thousand years ago. From an Orthodox perspective, many Protestants seem like Roman Catholics in that both have a “Western” point of view, though the Western Church was originally Orthodox as well.

    I believe Orthodoxy to be the fullness of the Christian faith, having maintained the understanding given it from the beginning, without error. The major classic doctrines of the Christian faith, including the canon of Scripture were all fruit of the Orthodox Church. She has also produced more martyrs, even in the 20th century, than anyone else.

    To a large extent, I find Protestantism, even its conservative forms, to be extremely modernist, having succombed to various Enlightenment philosophies (depending on the denomination) and to be particularly infected with American consumerism in most of its American forms.

    I have a Protestant ancestry. My family produced 50 ordained Baptist pastors during its years that we’ve been in America. I guess I broke the mold. I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, became Episcopalian at age 15, and converted to Orthodoxy at age 43, having long believed that Orthodoxy was what it claimed to be – the Church founded by Christ. But its a very long story as to “what took me so long.”

    I think there are riches in Orthodoxy, such as the living experience of the inner life, that has been richly maintained in ecclesiastical life, that do not exist except in newly minted psychological forms (which are still quite on the surface of things) within Protestantism. The baby was thrown out with the bath many times in the history of Western Christianity.

    Orthodoxy has never “reinvented” itself, but has lived a continual life of faith (not that its members are perfect – we have as many sinners as anyone else), bearing witness to the saving grace of God given to us in Christ and the reality of salvation, despite heresies, official oppression from Emperors, Tsars (occasionally), Islam, Communism, modernity, etc.

    There are a number of resources on my blogroll that provide much detail on the Orthodox faith.

    That’s a very long answer, forgive me. And forgive my frankness in my statements re Protestantism. I don’t mean to offend. I certainly consider that anyone who names Jesus as Lord, is a Christian, though I would pray for them to know the fullness of faith. Probably a majority of Americans have no knowledge of Orthodoxy other than the names Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. We’re working on correcting that.

  6. says

    Hiya Newman-

    I only presume to speak for Father Stephen because I know the answer to your first question.

    He is a member of the so-called “Eastern Orthodox Church,” although such an appellation exists in truth only for the sake of clarity with the outside world. Orthodoxy understands itself to be simply “the Church,” founded by Jesus Christ and the ministry of his Apostles. (This self-understanding is essentially the same as the Roman Catholic self-understanding, which, I daresay, agrees with the self-understanding of biblical figures such as Paul, the pre-Nicene Fathers whose works address the topic, and the Nicene Creed itself with its “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”)

    The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church were in full communion until the early Second Millenium. The reasons for the schism between the two churches are complex and I’d rather not attempt to go into it here. Suffice it to say, the Eastern Orthodox Church is the historic Church of such regions as Greece, Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa, the Holy Land, and Russia (among others).

    Because it knows itself to be the direct historical descendant of the church communities which were first established by the apostles, Orthodoxy claims to be both the oldest and the truest expression of the Christian religion.

    Just so you know, I am a Protestant myself (although one who is seriously considering converting to Orthodoxy). I hope my answer has done justice to Fr. Stephen’s positions and self-understanding. If it has not, then I humbly request correction.

  7. Robert says

    Father Bless!

    “There are a myriad of other things to think about in our faith, many of them serving as religious distractions from the essential work of repentance.”

    Ever so true!

    I have found from my own experience my heart to be exceedingly apt to self delusion, deceitful, and always looking (consciously or subconsciously) for a distraction – often religious in form, such as concern about doctrine and gaining knowledge.

    “But the knowledge of Christ that saves is not the knowledge one gains as mere information – but rather the knowledge one gains inwardly as we repent, pray, forgive, and humble ourselves before God.”

    But what is the pro-active way to go about our lives, Father? The “essential work of repentance” to which you refer is often purely re-active, coming after the fact of falling to the side. The “distractions” you refer to are all around us, and indeed within us. I know from experience it is the Holy Spirit who breaks this spell, but how to “gain” more of Him is beyond me. And last time I checked, monasteries don’t take married men! :)

  8. Isaac the Syrian says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your response to Newman5 brings up a question I have been meaning to ask you. I know that you already created a list of Orthodox books you have found the most helpfu,l and trust me when I say I printed it out and will make my way through each of them, but if you had to recommend a single book for a non-Orthodox person to read to give them a general understanding of the EOC, what would it be?

  9. Hugo says

    This is wonderful, Father. Really wonderful, and wonderfully done. Thank you so much. As a jack-Presbyterian, fitfull Anglican and reluctant Methodist myself, I know nothing of your saints or of their iconic meditations and incantations, but I’m not a strawy Pauline student nor an unthinking or recent consumer of the late Solzhenitsyn, and with whatever I do or don’t bring to the Table, I fell that your essay — your sermon — is seamless and gifted.

    With humility and gratitude,

    Hugo

  10. says

    Isaac,

    Probably Timothy Ware’s (Met. Kallistos Ware) The Orthodox Church (Penguin Press). It’s sort of the standard classic. I would be interested what other converts found most helpful in this area?

    Robert,

    What is the pro-active way? I think of repentance as pro-active and not reactive. I would even say that repentance is the proper and right state of man. “A broken and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Strangely, God Himself is humble and lowly in heart.

    Proactively repenting: give alms generously, forgive easily and quickly, be even quicker to ask for forgiveness from others, pray – small prayers or Scripture verses as much as you can continually through the day. And embrace everything that happens in your day as being under the grace and hand of God, thus saying, “Glory to God for all things.” It’s hard work filled with distractions. But rise from distractions and pick up the work again. If you are Orthodox, make frequent use of the sacraments of the Church – there is such a power in the grace given to us in the sacraments that nothing exceeds them in giving us what we need.

    I do not mean to disparage sacraments in non-Orthodox Churches, but since many of those Churches do not believe the sacraments to be a means of grace, I cannot recommend something that I don’t know what it is.

    When I go to Church to “work” each day, I make a prayer with Scriptures as I enter. It’s simply an effort to “remember God” as the fathers describe it.

  11. Isaac the Syrian says

    I personally found Mathew Gallatin’s “Searching for God..” helpful, but I can see how it could be off putting. My priest currently recommends “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil” by Arch. Meletios Webber to enquirers.

  12. says

    Father Stephen,

    Today in reading into the differences between the east and west in a piece by Father John Romanides on another orthodox website I came to realize something. I really don’t understand where Orthodox is coming from I only thought I did.

    I was attempting to view it from my prism which approaches everything from the view of sin, forgiveness and salvation as if it was legal standing. And everything as rational and theological.

    As the concepts of nous, logos and dianoia were explained I found it hard to follow. I’m still working through that and probably will be for along time.

    All of this connects to your healing the heart post here for me because I now think I understand that what you are saying is not that our heart is healed from a peace of mind point of view but rather healed in the “noetic” sense of heart. Then that in turn leads to a closer communion with God and in turn does ultimately lead to peace of mind and many other benefits.

    Am I completely off the mark here and babbling incoherently or am I grasping in some small sense what the eastern view would be ?

    And assuming I’m somewhat on the mark let me ask about what you mean when you say above, “That communion is made possible through Christ Who became what we are, that we might become like Him.”

    A big question that goes unanswered for me in my protestant view is why was the sacrifice of Christ necessary for forgiveness why couldn’t forgiveness just have been extended, etc.

    Would the eastern view be that it wasn’t to clarify a legal standing but it was the act of a perfect man ( in the noetic sense ) entering into communion with God that somehow paved the way for us to enter into a communion with God that simply was not possible before Christ ?

    Is that ultimately what you are meaning by this statement and is what I’m saying complete nonsense or is it in any way what the orthodox view is ?

    Struggling to understand.

    Regards,

    Lucias

  13. says

    You’re getting there.

    The Orthodox understanding of salvation is very much not a legal thing, but a matter of union. Thus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross (which no description can possibly exhaust) is an act of His union with us in our death that by death He might conquer death and make a way for us all to eternal life.

    Good things to read: The Anaphora (prayer of consecration of the bread and wine) of St. Basil the Great. It’s easy to find on line.

    St. John Chrysostom’s Anaphora also uses this imagery. It’s worthwhile to see how the early Church prayed the sacrifice of Christ.

    We were created for communion with God, but broke that possibility in the fall. Christ unites Himself to us to raise us up to what we were always meant to be – the image and likeness of God.

    Your insight on the heart is the sound of a coin dropping. Stay with it. It all holds together in a seamless manner and will take you into the Scriptures in a way never before possible – not to mention Communion with Christ.

  14. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    You asked “I would be interested what other converts found most helpful in this area?” I agree that The Orthodox Church is probably the best starting point.

    For what it is worth, I made an annotated list on my blog a while back (in two parts). Here is a link to the first part: http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com/2008/07/orthodox-books-for-beginners.html.

    Here’s the link to the second part: http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com/2008/07/matthew-gallatin-author-of-oustanding.html.

    (Sorry, I don’t know how to put a hotlink into a comment in WordPress).

    Of course, as you well know and most of your readers know as well, which book to give someone depends on several things, including their theologica/church background, how far (if far at all) along they are on their pilgrimage to Orthodoxy, and the content and intended audience of the book.

    I hope that these lists will be of help to some.

  15. Lucy says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. This is one I will need to read repeatedly. Reading your posts continues to deepen my faith and my understanding.

    “But the knowledge of Christ that saves is not the knowledge one gains as mere information – but rather the knowledge one gains inwardly as we repent, pray, forgive, and humble ourselves before God. The promise to us is that the “pure in heart shall see God.””

    Your writing (and podcasts – I listen to you, among others, on ancient faith radio) motivates me to gain that inward knowledge, ironically perhaps, since I have learned so much about my own faith from reading your posts. :) And I sure wish my library carried some of the books on your list!

    A book that was meaningful to me was Orthodox Worship by Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstell. I, too, like “Thirsting for God…” although I read that as a convert, so I don’t know that it would really help someone who was searching. I do remember thinking that he was saying what I was thinking, only much more eloquently. But honestly, I’d have to say that simply going to liturgy and reading the service book was the most helpful for me (the one at my church has all the prayers – including the ones said by the priest – and explanations for many of the prayers and things we do).

    Thank you, again!

  16. says

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your reply. Pro-active? I find my day to day existence preoccupied with banality and the mundane, i.e. creating a living, money, maintaining property and belongings etc. I see them as blessings from God (dont get me wrong) – however I find them all amounting to one huge and powerful distraction. I am not edified by these things, no matter how I try to spin it. When I go to work, I am not actively working on gaining that inward knowledge. So it seems a distraction and a waste as far as gaining that healing. I find the time period between the Sundays too long. I pray at home by myself and family, but too short and shallow (it requires time – and with our busy lives this is hard to come by).

    Perhaps I am simply longing for a deeper experience with God. Which is good, but I feel frustrated as I don’t know how practically I can accomplish this: much seems to get in the way. I am conflicted, in other words. I want my work to draw me closer to God, but it doesn’t. It seems mundane to concern myself about how to bring a product to market.
    Does it come down to sheer will power – discipline? How do I prioritize my life so that God is first, given my profession and position in life?

    I realize you may not have answers to all these questions, but hopefully my previous post makes more sense now. Perhaps my struggle is one others identifiy with, and we can learn from this together!

  17. says

    Thank you. I feel like I have been waiting a while for this post. I am not disappointed, and will need to consider and absorb some of it. Thanks also for your fine answer to my question!

  18. Carol says

    Dear Father Stephen,

    To answer you question about books helpful to converts, I would agree that “The Orthodox Church” by Timothy Ware is the best, especially if followed by a reading of his book “The Orthodox Way”. The first explains history and practices: the second helped me to understand beliefs, mindset and worldview.

    Thank you for your posts – I’m inspired by every one.

    Blessings,
    Carol

  19. says

    Robert,

    I know that many share your frustration – it is difficult. Perhaps I should have suggested “give thanks in all things.” That, too, is a good spiritual practice. If you hunger for God, you will find Him, even in your work. But it needs to be God that you hunger for, which is always hard to maintain such a focus.

    For one, be patient, everything works slowly (even in a monastery). It’s good that you hunger for Sundays.

    There’s so much more to say. I’ll be praying.

  20. Handmaid Anna says

    Father Bless,
    In my sojourn to Orthodoxy, I was Presbyterian and then Anglican. One of the first Orthodox books I was given was The Way of the Pilgrim. It was a tremendous help to me in understanding true humility and repentance because, I could easily relate to a simple day in the life of this simple pilgrim. It opened up the world to my closed, supposedly Christian, heart.

  21. newman5 says

    Stephen, I hope I did not offend you either. My questions and comments were only a means of introduction.

    I would still argue, in Jesus name, that a.) in 1 Cor 4:15 and 1 Thes 2:11 Paul was talking to people whom he initially led to Christ and that b.) the most accurate translation is Paul saying that he “begot” them spiritually, in Christ, through the Gospel. Not that he was suggesting that they should actually refer to him as “Father”, for I’m sure he recognized that this would be contrary to what Christ Himself said, not to mention confusing, as Christ, and Paul as well, referred to God alone as “Father”.

    In other words, because you have never been my spiritual father, I see no rationale, in Christ, that I should refer to you as such, but most importantly, I should not do so because I would be thereby disobeying Christ who specifically told us “do not call anyone on earth Father…”

    Your claim that my logic should also apply to us calling anyone “Mr.”, because it is the same as “master” (which Christ also told us not to use when referring to anyone), is really not a fair argument. First of all, the title Mr. and the word master are not the same word; they may have come from the same word or root, but they have certainly come to mean two very different things. The point Jesus was making is that when I call someone Master, it thereby places someone else above Him, which of course is the most profound tragedy. And the reason He told us not to refer to anyone on earth as “Father” is because that would displace God the Father in the very same way and thus would represent the very same ultimate tragedy for us.

    The bottom line question that you and certain religions seem to have dismissed as unimportant (correct me if I’m wrong), is: Are we or are we not all equal in the eyes of God, at the foot of the cross? Anyone referring to you (or anyone else in this world) as “Father” a.) undeniably dismisses Christ’s command not to, and b.) runs the very real risk of confusing you with, or looking to you for, that which they can only find through their own personal relationship with God our only true Father in heaven, through Christ.

    Please understand, I am not interested in adhering to the Protestant way or the Orthodox way or any other way, that is, if it is not totally aligned with the one and only perfect way of Christ.

    Also you refer to Christ as “the only priest” – but of course, you must know that this is not accurate. There were many priests even before Christ and there have been many who have come after Him. We are each priests who are truly living in or committed to Christ.

    If Orthodox Church is the true church, then I am already part of it. I do not believe there is or can ever be any valid separation between the true believers who make up the true Body of Christ. Nor do I believe anyone in this world (aside from Christ) has ever been able to define who is or is not part of the Body of Christ. Mostly, all attempts to do so by men, have been unbiblical and thus inspired not by the Holy Spirit, but by weakness or self-centered, self-aggrandized notions.

    Having said that, the distinctions between various religions must be discussed among those truly interested in finding and knowing the way of Christ, in terms of whether they submit to and closely follow His perfect message and way… without adding things to it and adjusting it to theoretically make it “better” or more palatable or easier to understand etc. There is no need for any of that, and to the extent that any of us are willing to buy into or follow this or that religion – because it seems right enough – i.e. without doing the hard, sacrificial and most often very painful work of seeking Christ and doing what it takes (which He made it very clear we all must do) to truly know Him, then we will each no doubt fall into something that leads us, by way of false doctrine, to something less than His perfect, freeing message.

    But there is no question that this work of discussing and defining all of that which religions have largely been overlooking (for millenia) is rarely fun work. It requires that we be willing to pull out the sword of truth and point not to any church, but to God alone and the one and only perfect representative Whom He sacrificed for us. In other words (Robert), sharing Him and His perfect message, and hopefully never being afraid to stand up and defend Him before any and all who may be misleading others (whether individuals or religions or cultures) about Christ and His perfect message – this is my calling and my purpose… and there is nothing that could possibly be more fulfilling and rewarding.

  22. says

    Newman,

    I do not nor have not asked any reader to address me as father. If you have a problem with it in conscience, then please do not use that title.

    It is certainly the case that I am in no way worthy of such a title or respect.

    It is received Tradition of the Church, however, that the use of the title for a priest is an honor given to the priesthood of Christ, whose priesthood is sacramentally present in the Church through ordination. Thus, I submit to the authority of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    We have very different starting points – your assumptions about Scripture are quite modern and contrary to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church (including the earliest). Without common ground, it is difficult to discuss anything. I am citing Christ as He has been received and taught by the Church through the ages – you are citing a private interpretation of Scripture.

    If you have genuine questions and do not mean to just write and attempt to correct the Orthodox faith. But endless arguments are of no use to any of us. May God forgive us all.

  23. Subdeacon James says

    Father bless,

    This former scholastic Roman Catholic found The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation by St. Theophan the Recluse the most helpful book in my conversion. My conversion can be summed up as a continual, ongoing repentance, moving from knowledge about God to the very beginnings of knowing God. St Theophan also taught me that the heart not the mind is the center of a person. Consider the following from St. Theophan:

    “The principal thing is to walk before God, or under God’s eye, aware that God is looking at you, searching your soul and your heart, seeing all that is there. This awareness is the most powerful lever in the mechanism of the inner spiritual life.”

    Kissing your right hand.

  24. William says

    And if I am to interpret Matt. 23:9 in the full strictness of its letter, then I am also not to call my own dad “father.” But that, of course, makes no sense because my dad is most definitely my father and it would be just lying or posturing to say otherwise. The following verse says “do not be called teacher,” yet I have never heard anyone shunning such a term, which is widely used in Paul’s letters, in every church I’ve ever encountered and in the general public. Jesus spoke these words while discussing the pride of the rabbis, who loved to be recognized as such and to be seen as superior. Notions of superiority are not found in terms of address, but in attitudes of hearts. This is, of course, a danger for most of us in our various callings, especially those who hold positions held in some degree of respect. A verse such as Matt:23:9 needs to be understood in a way similar to the understanding of the words in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Note that Jesus refers to human men as fathers here, and note that few followers of Christ actually hate their families or their lives and, this verse notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe they should. In fact, Ephesians 5:29 says no one ever hated his own flesh, and John 2:11 says that he who hates his brother (obviously in the extended sense of the word, but not excluding the strict sense of the word) is in darkness.

    I don’t say all of this to play interpretive games, but simply to show that there is more to understanding the word of God than simply reading a single verse and deciding we by ourselves or in our own group, detached from the Church that has existed from the beginning, know what it means. That is why we turn to the Church and the spokesmen and women it has always esteemed in order to see how those filled with the grace of the Spirit read such things.

  25. Hugo says

    Excuse me, Father Stephen, but I’ll have to pray about and ponder this for several days, as typically the “Marian Cult and Cultis” is the real deal-killer for me. I honor her, of course, as I honor Peter, but didn’t Peter’s multiform denials mean that NOT ONE of us was or is innocent, INCLUDING Our Lady, mother of Jesus?

    I can attend to her in special contemplative humilty, and with discipline, but not more so than I would do toward the other Saints. I’m sure you’ve dealt with people such as I many times; and you’ve indicated recently and in the past that this presented a conflict for you, too.

    Please just let me pray, and then I would appreciate your guidance, I’m sure enthusiastically.

    Hugo

  26. says

    Hugo,

    God give you grace. When I first bumped into this (devotion to Mary) I was in college. It took at least 9 months of prayer, head-scratching, occasional panic attacks, and reading, and then everything just seemed to fall into place. The pity was that it was another 23 years before I became Orthodox and was in a context where that devotion could actually flower and take its proper form and place. It is generally believed by the Orthodox that through a singular act of grace, Mary was preserved from any act of sin, though we do not believe or teach that she was conceived immaculately (it just doesn’t fit in the Orthodox understanding of sin to say that). But she makes no boast before God of sinlessness, for to say this would also be to claim somehow to be not in need of God (in an Orthodox understanding of God). Her humility, rather than sinless, etc., is the proper focus.

  27. Margaret says

    Thank you for this posting, Fr. Stephen! It is so encouraging!
    I also appreciate the comments and your kind and patient responses. God is with us!

    My worries are great and fruitless, I know this and yet I continue; then I read this posting and am reminded to pray continually and meditate on the word of God and in the tradition of the Church whenever possible. I feel the need to add that Our Lord is seemingly constantly reminding me that He alone can help me to redeem the time as Ephesians 5:15,16
    recommends.

    I have found the Orthodox Study Bible to help me tremendously with my life as a convert to Orthodoxy now for two plus years.

  28. Robert says

    Dear Hugo,

    The Theotokos is unique among the Saints.

    Which of the other Saints bore God in their body?

    She is therefore highly esteemed and takes a very special place.

  29. says

    I think that, perhaps, this question would be better suited to the more recent post you have on the Theotokos, but since this was brought up in the context of this thread…

    “It is generally believed by the Orthodox that through a singular act of grace, Mary was preserved from any act of sin, though we do not believe or teach that she was conceived immaculately…”

    This has been a question of mine for some time. From what I recall asking our catechist about, my understanding is that Mary did not willingly sin, but she may have sinned unintentionally (thinking here of the prayer before communion, “forgive my transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary…committed in knowledge or in ignorance). This seems to correspond with a book I’ve read by St. John Maximovitch on the Theotokos (particularly, the chapter in which he addresses the idea of Immaculate Conception).

    At the same time, I’ve also heard some (such as you in the quote above) that seem to say that God preserved her from all sin.

    I was wondering if you could please clarify this somewhat?

  30. says

    There is a slight range within Orthodox thought between St. John Maximovitch’s “involuntary” sin and the understanding of being preserved from all sin.

    Generally, the title given her in the Liturgy is “most pure, most blessed, most glorious, Lady Theotokos, and ever-Virgin Mary.”

    Whatever happened in her life, it was surely a singular act of grace (“full of grace”). That God preserved her and that she maintained her integrity is another way I’ve heard it expressed.

    Her, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word,” is an act of profound humility, itself evidence of the grace given to her. It is simply believed in the Church that she maintained this same humility throughout her life, and by that was “without sin”.

    But Orthodox thought on the matter does not turn on this, thus the possiblity of discussing it or approaching in various ways.

    There is a recognition that her union with Christ was itself unique (of course) and that this relationship was not interrupted by the simple fact of His being born. The union between them is expressed in the prophecy, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, also.”

    Hope that helps some. Forgive my vagueries.

  31. Bill M says

    One of the things I find attractive about Orthodox theology – at least, how it is presented here – is the “vagueries.” It is enough to say she is “full of grace” and to meditate on that. To become bogged down in just what this means, how it is measured, how it affected the cellular structure of the placenta (forgive my crudity) – these seem to me to be the pursuits of minds that want knowledge without wonder, information without obedience. (This is not to discount knowledge, or information, or even theory. They have their places.)

  32. says

    Thank you for clarifying things! As Bill noted, I do appreciate how Orthodoxy allows for the “vagueries;” I was just wondering if this was a case of that, or if there was, in fact, a more definite teaching that the Church has passed down.

  33. PJ says

    This is ridiculously belated, but whenever a Protestant gives me guff about this “father” business, I immediately quote 1 John 2:13-14, wherein the Beloved Apostle clearly addressed spiritual elders as fathers (pateres).