This Sunday the Orthodox Calendar commemorates St. Gregory Palamas – perhaps the most significant theologian and teacher of the late Byzantine period. He particularly is important when considering the nature of the Christian experience of God. Orthodoxy believes that it is truly possible to know God though He remains unknowable. The mystery of this true knowledge constitutes the heart of St. Gregory’s work.
I first encountered St. Gregory’s writings when I was in seminary in the 70’s. Fr. John Meyendorff’s work on Palamas was pretty much all that was available in English. I read it and found what I saw to be exciting – it held the promise of true knowledge of God. I brought Palamas’ writings into my theology class – there I was told that there simply was no such thing as unmediated knowledge. There is only knowledge about God, not true participation and union with Him. The debate for theology, it seemed, was simply about the nature of mediation and reliability. We are all, clueless.
I realized then that I was in the wrong place – though the story of my tortured journey to Orthodoxy continued for another twenty years. It seemed to me at that time (and to this day) that a claim of unmediated knowledge of God was at least worth considering. How can it be dismissed out of hand?
The Sunday that commemorates St. Gregory is also known as the Second Sunday of Orthodoxy. The previous week marks the formal “Sunday of Orthodoxy” that marks the triumph of the Holy Icons and their return to the Churches. It is an occasion that serves as a summary of all that Orthodoxy teaches. But the “Second” Sunday of Orthodoxy is an occasion that serves as a summary of all that Orthodoxy practices – for Orthodoxy is ultimately a practice and not a system of ideas. It is said, “Orthodoxy is not a belief – it is a way of life.”
St. Gregory defended a distinction between the Divine Energies and the Divine Essence. They are both truly and fully God, but the latter cannot be known, while the former can not only be known but can be participated in. The Orthodox Church holds that true knowledge is not reasoning about something, or an encounter with an object. True knowledge is participation, a communion. It is in this sense that Christ says, “This is eternal life; that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
The most radical teaching of Orthodox Christianity is its assurance that such true knowledge of God is not only possible, but is, in fact, the true nature of salvation. As St. Irenaeus taught concerning Christ: “the Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom all things were made…was made man among men…to complete and gather up all things, to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man…” (On the Apostolic Preaching, 6).
It is this “community of union between God and man” that is the Church. The knowledge of the true and living God is the inner life of the Christian Church. Everything else reduces the Church to a man-made society for promoting and developing ideas. Only if the Church is truly united with Christ, truly a community of union, is it His Body. Nothing less will do. There is no other reason for prayer. We do not speak to God in order to convince Him to do what we wish, nor do we speak to God in order to pass along knowledge which He already has. We speak to God, we pray, in order to participate in Him. We pray in order to know God. There is no other reason.
Indeed, everything we do as Christians, we do for the sake of communion with God, this “community of union.” The sacraments are specifically union with Him. Even our acts of charity and alms are communion with Him (“inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these…you did it unto Me”). We do nothing for Christ – but we do everything through and with and in Christ.
This is the faith that sustains the universe…
As you know I am not a theologian. I am not certain what to do with the concept of unmediated knowledge. It sounds to me that such knowledge, if it does exist, can not be reduced to the particulars of language necessary to define the experience. If this is so, then how can such knowledge be communicated to others?
I believe I have experienced communion with God, at least on a few occasions. In order to remember, let alone communicate such experience to others, I must use my five senses and my mind to reduce such an experience to words.
Perhaps the right question might be, “Of what value is the silence of the mystic?” Yet, the great mystics of church history did not remain silent.
Another beautiful post. The fact that Orthodoxy is a way of life and not just another belief system that’s “more right” than other Christian denominations is what attracts me to it.
You mentioned a long, tortured journey into Orthodoxy. Do you have a post, or series, that details this journey?
Yes, there are words – and the words generally fall short and fail to say what is known. I think a good Scriptural example of this is St. Peter’s Confession of Christ as the Son of the Living God. Christ says to him, “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.”
I’m not exactly sure what the question, “Of what value?” means. To whom? Apparently it is of great value to the “mystic.” And it seems to be valued by God. “Be still and know that I am the Lord.”
Is it fair, right, and true to say that our participation in our salvation and in good works is us getting out of the way and letting Christ save us and do good through us?
Thank God for such insights as these.
I have been grappling to understand prayer until now.
Thank you. This is the most succinct and understandable exposition of the teaching of St. Gregory.
My priest preached a very similar message. He emphasized the Life of God and our longing for it.
It occurs to me that the Orthodox approach of embracing the life of
God vs thinking about Him is the great divide between us and both the RCC and the Protestant world. Would you agree?
Yes. I would agree, but with notable exceptions. There is, within both Catholic and Protestant tradition, various examples of “pietist” movements. Some are more salutary in others. In many cases they were “reactionary” to the extreme rationalism that they encountered in their time. The Moravians, the Wesleys (and the Pentecostals as an extension of Wesleyanism), even some of the early Evangelicals, had this pietism that recognized within Scripture what we teach as Orthodox Christians – the importance of “knowing” God. I say some are more salutary than others, inasmuch as these same movements lacked the wholeness of Tradition to guide them and to protect them for some of the dangers of an unguided experience-based relationship with God. But in their original instincts, they have a great similarity to this aspect of Orthodoxy.
This pietism continues in a variety of ways and places, but lacking the Tradition, it winds up in trouble repeatedly.
What we have in Orthodoxy (and not universally and always, everywhere) is the experience embodied – the inner life reflected in the outer life (such as the liturgies and prayers). The one teaches the other, while the other gives life and living content to the one.
Wouldn’t it be true to say that our knowledge of God is mediated, although it is a mediation of God’s essence through his energies?
After all, one encounters created things through their energies as well.
If I may reply something to Henry:
There are many instances in everyday life when the experience is not fully communicable in words. For those instances we have poetry and music, and the arts generally speaking. Poetry is made with words, but those words are used in such a way that the limits of language are broken in order to express the unexpressable.
This is why the saints who had the gift of conveying their knowledge of God in words are so few, and given the rare title of “Theologian”: St. John the Theologian, whose writing is in the New Testament, St. Gregory the Theologian, who wrote about the Holy Spirit and about the Holy Trinity, and St. Symeon the New Teologian, who is perhaps most famous specifically for his poetry inspired by the personal experience of knowing God.
I hope this helps.
Father, my impression of the pietistic approach is that is anti-intellectual and is the reverse side of coin, but still a bifurcation of the human heart. They quickly tend to generate into self-absorbent emotionalism or worse, a gnostic “mysticism”.
as far as I know, I think that we wouldn’t ever say that there exists a “mediation” of God’s essence through His Uncreated energies, since His essence as well as His energies are equally God in Orthodox Theology.
Michael B: “It occurs to me that the Orthodox approach of embracing the life of God vs thinking about Him is the great divide between us and both the RCC and the Protestant world. Would you agree?”
Father Stephen: “Yes. I would agree, but with notable exceptions. There is, within both Catholic and Protestant tradition, various examples of “pietist” movements…”
While I am well aware of some of the failings of the RC, I am quite baffled by these comments. Before I compose a lengthy rant, I will ask you to explain a bit more what you mean. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you. Catholicism (rightly lived, apart from scandals) is about much more than merely thinking about God.
(Since we are on different calendars, we RCs celebrated the Resurrection today – all of you were/are in my prayers during this holy season.)
please, what exactly is unmediated grace?
My answer was perhaps too swift – though not intended in any malicious way. It’s really quite hard to generalize about Orthodox vs. Catholic vs. Protestant, though there are some clear generalities.
When St. Gregory Palamas underwent the great controversies that surrounded his life, he defended Orthodox understanding of the knowledge of God – through prayer and asceticism. His adversary was trained in Italy and held to the scholasticism of the West. Orthodoxy eventually affirmed the life and teaching of St. Gregory – it becomes a touchstone in Orthodox history of the refusal to embrace the scholasticism which dominated Rome until fairly recently.
However, fairly recently is more than a century or so now, and it is very hard to say one thing about Rome, because Rome is, in fact, many things. Orthodox monasticism is one thing. Some monastics are stricter than others, but there is only one Orthodox monastic life – one “method” to use Roman Catholic terms. R.C. monasticism is extremely varied – Franciscan spirituality and Jesuit spirituality, Carmelite spirituality, Benedictine spirituality, etc. This sort of thing, frankly, is rather alarming from the perspective of Orthodoxy. It’s a medieval and modern development (everything being sort Benedictine before).
Some forms of R.C. spirituality are quite rationalist. Some are not. What R.C. theology is “above” that – unifying that – is perhaps harder to say – but it is not the same thing as the Orthodox life. There are R.C.’s who like the Orthodox life and are drawn to it. But to be drawn to it as a spiritual option among options is not the same thing at all. Again, it is hard for the Orthodox to understand these ideas and approaches. It seems to be a sort of embracing of a kind of multi-cultural approach to spirituality that says things about human beings that are contrary to the Orthodox understanding.
But, sometimes, between Orthodox – everything else looks somewhat rationalistic by comparison. It may not look quite that way from within – but from over here it does. Rather than arguing with it – it is perhaps useful to say, “Hmm. To some Orthodox, R.C.’s look rather rationalistic – or seem more similar to Protestants.”
There is certainly mystery within Roman Catholicism – though – from an Orthodox perspective – that mystery seems to frequently become the subject of rational analysis. For example, there are not distinctions between different kinds of grace within Orthodoxy (“prevenient grace,” etc.). It’s just not something we would ever want to do – but it has been something that Scholasticism has done for about a millennium, and has never been renounced. Modern catechisms have toned this down for public consumption – but it’s still there – in the deeper definitions.
Sorry for the upset. Christ is risen!
Unmediated grace, is just grace. Grace is the very life of God, some places described as the Divine Energies (as distinct from the Divine Essence). It is fully God, but is God as He gives Himself to us, rather than God is He is utterly within Himself (His essence). But the Orthodox faith holds that we truly encounter God and participate and know Him in His true life (grace) and not simply through other things (reading about him, thinking about him, etc.). Nor is grace simply “God’s unmerited favor” as the Protestants say. It’s not God’s attitude towards us. Nor is grace a “created effect” as the Catholics said (I have no idea what they say now – I apologize to our Catholic readers but I know that things change in Rome). Grace is God. We are saved by grace, because our salvation is our union and participation in the Divine Life.
Mary, I don’t mean it in a derogatory way or, God forbid, in a triumphalist manner. My experience with Catholicism and observation is that there is a separation between the created and uncreated that does not exist in the Orthodox Church. The office of the Papacy as Vicar of Christ is, IMO, emblematic of the mediation of which Fr. Stephen speaks and why no such office has ever developed in the OC.
The ethos created by the mediation approach,I have never gravitated to. That great holiness arises in the RC I have no doubt, but even there it seems to me there is a different quality to it than what is found in the OC. Can’t really articulate what that is though. It has something to do with the manner in which the Incarnation is accepted and entered into. I find greater wholeness and fullness – less bifurcation in the approach of the OC which is revealed liturgically more than anywhere else and in the sacrament of confession.
The different approach is the root, IMO, of the schism.
Unfortunately, the Protestants have taken the idea even further so that too many have dropped off the cliff of apostasy.
There is scandal and malfeasance enough to go around. All communions suffer from the impact of human sin.
I am trying to link my life experiences with grace. Grace has been for me when I have said, “God, I have really blown it this time and all I have is a mess to present to you.” And He manages to sort it all out and restructure the whole situation.
Father Stephen –
Thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful reply. I suppose everyone’s church “looks” a different way from the outside than from the inside. I do not think that RC monasticism is “extremely varied”, for example, but perhaps it appears that way to you.
I’ve shared spiritually with Franciscan, Jesuit and Benedictine traditions and I see them as quite similar at the core. On the other hand, I might look at the Orthodox and think that there are great differences between the Greek, Russian, etc. whereas you might see those variations in a different light. (I say this by way of example, not because I have compared the Greek or Russian, etc.)
And certainly the RCC has had its share of scholars who like to analyze things – but it also includes many deeply contemplative people, both in its institutional make up and among the rank and file. I have noted that many Orthodox here are quite scholarly and like to analyze things as well. I’m not saying that the RCC hasn’t gone overboard (IMO) with defining things, like types of grace, but I guess I see that as little stuff, compared with the heart of the Church. Certainly not the cause of schism – or reason to perpetuate it.
I appreciated your response as well. I don’t quite know what you mean by “I find greater wholeness and fullness – less bifurcation in the approach of the OC which is revealed liturgically more than anywhere else and in the sacrament of confession.” I am interested in knowing about your perceptions of bifurcation in the RC…I’m certainly not going to try to discuss the papacy – other than to say that Francis is a most welcome new leader, IMO, :-).
None of the above comments are meant to be argumentative. One of the beauties of this blog is that, in the sharing, we may learn to understand each other more, misunderstand each other less, and all grow in our faith.
(Fr. Stephen – my comment didn’t post. Please remove this note if it shows up. Not sure why that is happening again.)
Dino, you said:
“as far as I know, I think that we wouldn’t ever say that there exists a ‘mediation’ of God’s essence through His Uncreated energies, since His essence as well as His energies are equally God in Orthodox Theology.”
Mediation need not imply that what is delivered, or the deliverer, is not the real deal. If it did, then the mediation of Jesus between God and man would be some sort of meaningless abstraction.
Nicholas & Lina,
Unmediated Grace (especially as stipulated by Saint Gregory Palamas), first and foremost, describes the Light of Mount Tabor, the direct experience of the Uncreated Light of the Triune God.
The Union of God and Man comes through that ineffable dialogical reciprocity which, in such a state, passes all human understanding, yet it is, somehow, a comprehension of the uncomprehensible, a direct encounter of the Father in Christ through the Spirit.
This is however, the most direct experience available to a human being – it is unmediated in that sense as there is no created ‘intermediary’, but the Uncreated communes directly with His creature.
This is a copy of a response posted on Fr. Aidan’s Eclectic Orthodoxy which has discussion concerning this article on unmediated grace.
By “unmediated” grace is meant that when we encounter God’s grace – in whatever manner He gives it, we encounter God and not a created effect. God gives Himself to us, and not something else. I should have written in more detail (causing less confusion). The business of a weekend left me writing on the fly – not a good practice.
In the sacraments we encounter God – not simply something “holy” in a lesser sense. The debate about created/uncreated grace ultimately touches on this point. The additional point that it is possible for the creature to behold the uncreated Light is also part of that debate, but we still encounter the uncreated when we encounter God.
I do not so much think of the sacraments as “mediating” God. They are a means of receiving grace – but it is truly grace – God’s very life – that we receive. How we perceive that varies according to the measure of purity, etc., of a believer (“blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”).
I struggle like most in drawing near the sacraments to perceive anything more than my senses yield to me. I’m more aware of my sins and the distractions of my broken brain than anything else. But I trust that what I receive is God Himself – and not a creature still at a remove.
This also relates, I think, to the understanding of knowledge by participation, which, though originally a Platonic idea, is pretty common through the Eastern fathers (certainly among the teachers on prayer). To know God, requires participation (koinonia) and not something else. This participation ultimately has an unmediated quality – or it would not be participation.
Is this helpful?
All I know is that I have counted upon God’s grace to guide me through the vicissitudes of life. And at my age that is a lot of years. I have kept Him busy picking up various and sundry pieces of my ineptitude of living.
In my youth we recited this confession from the BCP: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. ”
and then it continues” but thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare thou those who confess their faults, restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord; and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
To me, it is God’s grace that has mercy on me, it is God’s grace that has spared me and restored me, both spiritually and physically. And it is God’s grace that helps me to live a godly, righteous and sober life which I hope is to the glory of His Name.
Years ago I heard a sermon on the meaning of the Hebrew word “checed”. We were told it meant peace, light, knowledge, provision, children, healing, consecration, unity, gladness, amazing grace, the cup poured out for us. For more info on this word, look in Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words.
When we ask God to have mercy on us, we are really asking for all of the above. And He provides. Often though we don’t even recognize it. Try spending a day or two looking for God’s grace and mercy.
This last liturgy I experienced was overwhelming…the constant remembrance of what our Christ did as the Second Adam (fulfilling what the 1st Adam failed to do)..along with the meaning of the what I put into my mouth, the bread & wine…the true body & wine…that I can experience the forming of Christ in me and a foretaste of His life now in this life…the thought of looking at my other brothers & sisters in a new way of seeing Christ being formed in them…and the compassion to help in their problems or difficulties….this insight was God´s grace & mercy to me to see what I may/can do in Him. A start of knowing God by experience.
“I struggle like most in drawing near the sacraments to perceive anything more than my senses yield to me. I’m more aware of my sins and the distractions of my broken brain than anything else. But I trust that what I receive is God Himself – and not a creature still at a remove….This participation ultimately has an unmediated quality – or it would not be participation.
Is this helpful?”
But is not the Eucharist the apex of the sacramental lives we live? And as you EO say, “salvation is created” and the man Jesus Christ, is both the mediator between God and man and God Himself.
The mediation of Christ has a different meaning. Christ is God in the flesh, and not the flesh between us and God. When I encounter the Mediator Christ, I encounter God.
When I eat Christ in the Eucharist, it is God whom I receive. St. Ignatius of Antioch refers to the Eucharist as the “Body and Blood of God.”
Salvation is “created” but salvation is also “uncreated” or there is no salvation. God became man so that man could become God.
“When I encounter the Mediator Christ, I encounter God.
When I eat Christ in the Eucharist, it is God whom I receive. St. Ignatius of Antioch refers to the Eucharist as the “Body and Blood of God.” Salvation is “created” but salvation is also “uncreated” or there is no salvation….”
Please know I say “Amen!” to all of that.
Still, I don’t know what you mean by “words”.
“This participation ultimately has an unmediated quality – or it would not be participation.”
I guess I don’t understand what the unmediated quality is here.
The more I read this blog, which I enjoy very much; I keep thinking of the reasons people come to the Eastern Orthodox church. Do you think it is because many of us are obsessed with perfectionism? I say this because we look upon this faith as something that the West can’t touch.We are right and true and the other side is wrong and not as good. I still think we sound better on paper then in reality.
I don’t think so – though people have their own reasons. Orthodoxy is what it is – the fullness of the Christian Tradition. It is certainly cogent (it holds together) in a clear manner. But any one who comes on account of perfectionism will either fall away or go crazy (or be a pain in the neck for their Orthodox brothers and sisters as well). If someone wants to argue with others – it can help put together arguments that are really nifty – but so can the Calvinists and Romans, etc. I encourage people, both here on the blog and in my parish to give up arguing as a useless activity.
Whatever may be the “perfection” of Orthodoxy – it does not extend to my sorry soul. It has not given me a fulfillment of perfectionism, but guidance on the journey towards union with Christ, and the sacrament that is that union.
But the option to what you suggest would be to say, “Everybody is sort of true and everybody is sort of wrong, do the best you can.” That is, indeed, Protestantism and is of a piece with our culture. As such, it feels very comfortable. Orthodoxy is what it is, and would be that even if we compared it to nothing. In fact, these comparisons are useless unless someone is using them in making some significant life decisions. That seems to be the case with many readers on the blog. Everything sounds better on paper.
Reality is messy, very messy, filled not with theory but with the spiritual corruption that is the present state of the human soul. It has been so from the beginning of the Church and has not changed. Did someone lead you to expect something different? If they did, they did you no favor. It is also possible that you weren’t listening to everything that was said. I was told it was a mess, and I had to hold my nose to become Orthodox. But I had been holding my breath for my entire life before that.
There have been numerous articles on this blog about the messiness – including of the Orthodox Church. Our sins stink to high heaven. Despite that, we manage to have some useful conversations.
By “words” I meant – the problem of multiple meanings. A “mediator” can be something that “goes between” and is therefore something that also separates. Christ is the Mediator, but does not separate. The “mediation” of Christ is a reconciliation – He brings together that which had been separated. Participation (koinonia) is not participation is there is no true sharing.
“He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of Christ.” Christ does not simply legally remove our sins. He takes our sin upon Himself – He makes it to be His own (yet not Himself becoming a sinner) – that we might take on His righteousness (though it is not a “righteousness of my own”). He is united to us in our death. He really dies. Yet death does not defeat Him. He defeats death and His life now becomes mine (I whom am dead in my sins, etc.).
Participation requires that there be a true sharing. My life is united to His. Like the hypostatic union that is discussed with regard to the Incarnation – I still remain truly my own Person – I do not become Him and He does not become me – but He takes of mine and makes it His own – and in the life we live in Him – we take of His and make it our own. There is a true sharing. His life is my life. My life is His.
In this there is no “mediation” in the sense of something coming between that is neither Him nor me (such as bread or wine). What I receive in the Eucharist is His life – truly Christ’s own Body and truly Christ’s own blood. Nothing “mediates” His Body and Blood to me. Nothing stands between me and His own true Body and His own true Blood. Thus, I describe this sharing as having an unmediated quality.
I appreciate you responding to me in such a quick matter. When I was received into the Orthodox Church I did my whole history research, experienced the Byzantine liturgy and talked to priests. I have a background in history so I was always open to how certain groups experience reality depending upon their location, era, etc. some priests did stress that they were right and the whole western experience was corrupt, come to think of it most orthodox books I read stated that too. Catholic experience was not something old enough to be given credit. Protestant churches I knew were very subjective to the person. In some ways the Catholic Church developed the way it did due to various attacks against it, yes even before Luther. Can I really be the sole judge of if what they did is wrong?? That would be subjective. I do stress I think we live in a bubble, I recently had a talk with a orthodox priest and I told him my concerns, no outreach to others, no helping the poor, no change really. I just think like I stated we sound better on paper then reality. Reality is even at a local one, outside of the many books I have read; we are very self enclosed. Kudos to all these religions that do help people. Before I hear everyone say sorry for my experience etc, the Orthodox Church stresses the local church being the church. Well if the local church does not do these things then there is no real practicing of the Gospel. I love the theology, but I am starting to see major holes in practice. I think people join the Orthodox Church because they do think its perfect and it’s just not true at all, the theology is even limited to eastern understandings of God; the Copts won’t even agree with us about Gregory palamas. The Eastern Orthodox dont even represent all the eastern churches, there are major issues that still divide us, so we can’t say we are the one true church if we can’t even receive communion with them. In some ways we have more in common with Rome then them. From a historical point of view Rome has always tried to influence the East so the papal claim does have major win points even before 1054. Are they perfect no, but neither are we; at least they speak with one voice. Anyway thanks for your concern Father,, your quite the thinker.
Just some random thoughts the Catholic Church has many different rites, Byzantine, coptic, together under one, we don’t have that.
I refrain from arguing on this matter. But, since you are interested in history, then consider the history of Orthodoxy over the past millennium. A large part of that time it labored under the Turkokratia. Ponder it. What it meant. And ponder Rome’s long position in the West – with freedom and resources. Then ponder the beginnings of freedom in Greek and Balkan Independence. Then ponder how the West betrayed the Orthodox when it supported Ataturk’s ethnic cleansing in the 1920’s – clearing out half (!) the population of Turkey and sending them to Greece – that has had to absorb them. The list of historical insults (I don’t mean someone being rude – but acts of violence, etc.) to Orthodox lands – including Britain’s long-running fear of Russia under the Tsars, ponder the Communist yoke, etc. all of this has left Orthodoxy with a rich history and the inheritance of the ages – but impoverished, weakened, just trying to survive. etc. I’ll readily grant that “on the ground” there are lots of weaknesses and failures. But Orthodoxy is the story, not of American enterprising Evangelicals, or the waning empires of Rome, but of the surviving peasant peoples of Eastern Europe. Sorry if it doesn’t meet the standard test of comparison. I’m a missionary, committed to Orthodoxy in America. I’m not interested in comparison shopping. Rome’s “big tent” is also an example of Roman Imperialism and of “rice Christians” in many instances. The Eastern Rite (Unia) is a deep wound for Orthodoxy, and Rome knows it. It’s not about choice, and options, and inclusivity. If it was that, then American Byzantine rite married men who wanted to be priests wouldn’t have to travel to Eastern Europe to be ordained (just to note one of many continued historical insults). Read a lot, lot more history and then report back.
But maybe an imperialistic Church yields richer, more organized, affluent and noble results. Given some time of recovery, maybe Orthodoxy will be able to compete.
You need to read a lot more history of Orthodoxy in America – who the Orthodox are – where they came from – how short a time they’ve been here. A large number of OCA parishes are still struggling to have a full-time priests. Lots of us have to support ourselves (I did that for my first 3 years). We haven’t had universities or hospitals and there has been precious little Orthodox wealth. They are the children and grandchildren of miners and grocers. And they struggle. At the time they were struggling here, there was not a well-developed institution back home (as Rome had). Back home was either under the Turks or the Communists. They’ve had to send money back home instead of keeping it here.
But it’s really great to have converts drop through and note how bad of a job we’re doing. If you want to be Orthodox, then roll up your sleeves and go to work. If you don’t then roll up your sleeves somewhere else.
But if you’re going to read history – read a lot of the recent stuff and think about it’s implications. If you don’t think about why things are the way they are – then reading history has been a waste of your time.
Sorry to be harsh. But it’s like having white people drop around African-American neighborhoods 30 years after the end of Jim Crow and noting that African-Americans aren’t doing as well as their white neighbors in the suburbs. Have you been in ethnic parishes and not wanted to learn the real history of these people?
There are reasons things are as they are, and it’s not because their Orthodox and not Roman (or whatever). It’s way more geo-political.
End of my rant.
Father, thank you for your rant:) Most of the churches in my area are ethnic and I have been to them. It seems you place blame more on me then addressing my questions raised. When a person walks into any church or anywhere for that matter, don’t we as Christians have to treat them good. I have tried to engage these ethnic parishes as you say, so I take offense at your tone; if I didn’t care I would not even ask you or the priest I did about these concerns. In 10 to 15 years most of these ethnic churches will be gone. No orthodoxy because priests and ethnic groups( to one I which belong) have been hurt. If anything I sure care more then a lot of the people who go to these parishes. You don’t know how it feels to walk into a church and be the only one under 30 there. Anyway thanks for addressing my question.
The Orthodox Church is not a mental or historical concept but a living community that transcends time and place and yet is rooted in time and place. It requires a commitment to life long submission to the love of Christ in one’s local community.
I spent 39 years in the desert of the world and the last 26 in the embrace of the Church. I still find things that require adjustment and catch me by surprise.
The thing is, I have to engage the reality at an ontological level for it to mean anything.
Joseph, I also had to change parishes because my initial parish was not a good fit. At one point I had to drive over an hour each way. There was one person of whom I read who would travel 4 hours each way on Sunday in order to worship. Eventually she started a mission closer to home.
There were a couple of women in my home town who were concerned about the lack of concrete support for women to avoid abortions. They prayed and began a ministry that is continuing to grow and help more and more mothers and babies.
One does what is possible and what is necessary.
“Orthodoxy is the story, not of American enterprising Evangelicals, or the waning empires of Rome, but of the surviving peasant peoples of Eastern Europe. Sorry if it doesn’t meet the standard test of comparison.” is so very very true… Keep that in mind!
The visible Orthodoxy in Greece, where you simply walk to one of the 5 or 6 closest Churches in any big city is one thing; and Orthodoxy in some other big cities of the world is often an etirely different matter as some have come to realise. Add to that, that their establishment is a slow process in the midst of corrosive and subtly hostile cultures and you might see things in a very different light.
There is far more one needs to know before they judge the shortcommings of the visible Orthodox Church in the west.
Besides, the more fiery one maintains and stokes one’s faith the more they will gravitate to that hidden burning core of Orthodoxy that maybe few find… I see this time and again…
Even in the most “consecrated places” (such as Mout Athos) one might discover that they must search for that ‘burning core’ quite a bit and struggle to find it…! However, our mind’s “ideals” are the ultimate enemy to enjoying that truth. To such a degree they can serve the enemy, that even in the most perfect manifestation of the Church on earth, these “ideals” can turn what is an objective Paradise to a subjective Hell, – all based on comparisons with “ideals” we hold dear to…
Of course we must have the highest ideals, (we won’t throw the baby with the bathwater in lack of discernment knowing that “ideals” can be the enemy), but we also know that ideals can, sometimes become our worst enemies. Patience is discernment and discernment is patience.
again I must say that your knowledge of that history (that not even all of us “easterners” know any more, yet we used to know it well and take it for granted), is largely unkown in the West and I think more people need to become exposed to it.
We see an effort to obliterate that knowledge even in Greece lately – please keep exposing it more! Thank you!!
First of all, I benefited from that rant as well. There are analogies between what you say and “my people” (that is the mostly poor German immigrants who fled to American from Prussian in the mid-nineteenth c.). We also are not so impressive in the worldly sense.
As I read your comments to me here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2013/03/30/unmediated-grace/#comment-80012… I sense that EO and the confessional Lutherans have a surprising amount of things in common. Your words seem like they could have been Luther’s words. Though he did indeed distinguish between justification and sanctification in order to counter Roman error, he often spoke exactly as you do about what our relationship with God is like. I also note that Martin Chemnitz, one of our great 16th c. theologians, seems to have been a disciple of the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, and this is reflected in our confessions.
Enjoyed your words. Obviously, I agree that mediator is not to be interpreted in that wrong way you put forth (I suppose there are some who might look at it that way in some sense?)
Sorry for my tone. It was defensive and combative. I indeed believe you care about these people. I think I remember from an earlier comment that you live in the Northeast. That is an area that has a good number of Orthodox parishes, but an area in which those parishes are frequently dying (as you described – no one under 30). You’d likely find similar things in a local mainline Protestant denomination. It’s an area where the economy is often as moribund as its cultural institutions. People are leaving – moving elsewhere. I live in the Southeast – in the Sunbelt – and things are almost opposite.
I well imagine that in those parishes, the older people have given up hope to a degree. They have seen things decline – their children are grown and have moved away. You’d think they would fall all over someone young and make them welcome. But I suspect that internally it requires more energy than they have. It’s a tough place.
I know a few priests who have managed to help such parishes turn around. They are very gifted and blessed of God – but very rare. May God give you grace in a tough area.
Fr. Stephen did answer your original question, that being
Father’s answer was “No.”
What the “West can’t touch” is the Fullness of the Truth. Orthodox means Orthos-right, true & doxa–glory, worship, belief. Orthodoxy is not just another belief system among literally tens of thousands out there (Protestants alone have 38,000+). Part of this is because the West, both Protestant & RC, have adopted the theology of the Social Gospel in which the mission of the Church is focus on the establishment of social programs rather than making disciples of all nations (i.e. spreading the Gospel). Many well meaning converts to Orthodoxy, especially those from Protestantism, enter the Church because of the Fullness of the Truth & then want to change the Church into what they came from.
This is not to say that social programs are wrong as there is a great need for them in our society, but the mission of the Church is to spread the Gospel, not the Social Gospel. If the Gospel is taught, social change will occur in our society as the lives of the faithful are changed. This is a slow process & not instantaneous. Few realize that it was the Russian Orthodox Church rather than the government that operated hospitals, institutions for the elderly, mentally ill, orphans & physically handicapped before the Communists took over & decimated the Church. Part of the reason the current institutions are in such sad shape is that the government no longer has the funds to support them & neither does the decimated Church nor the impoverished that people in the Church.
I had a well-meaning evangelical speak much as you asking what my local parish did for social justice locally in order to refute the validity of the Orthodox Church. We are very small & struggling just to keep our doors open. Our priest & his wife both have to hold secular jobs (very few & scant locally) just to keep a roof over their heads, but they willing & gladly do so because there are Orthodox Christians locally that need a priest. My answer to the man was that we focus on a charitable need & collect money for a different charity each month. His answer to my return question of what did his group do for charity was “Well, we don’t do anything at this time because we are building another church over here.” They were using all of their resources to build franchise churches (their 4th) to the exclusion of charitable works while yet holding other faiths to a standard they weren’t willing to adhere. FWIW that standard–that perfection—exists nowhere because all groups are comprised of fallen human beings. Only God is perfect.
Only one under 30? Really? When my mother took me to church the first time I was 3 & she was 30. We were the only 2 that were under the age of 60. And we were until I was 13 when another family moved into the area. There was no “children’s church” downstairs or Sunday School other than adult Sunday school up stairs before worship service. My mother & I were greatly edified by this. From those older people I learned about the love of God & faith practiced in a mature fashion that ultimately lead to my reception into the Orthodox Church. My mother & I both left that church when I was 16 because the new young crowd had changed it into nothing more than a social club & outreach program rather than a place of worship.
Rather than lamenting that you are the only one under 30 how about trying to learn from the experience & maturity of those “old 30-something folks”? I am now almost 50. I now realize that at 20 I was far less “wise” than I thought I was…I was well-meaning but dumber than a box of rocks spiritually. At 50 I also realize that box of rocks was & is a genius compared to myself even now & I continue to learn from those older than myself in my Church.
Thank you Father Stephen for your reply. Funny thing is if some of the priests that live around here acted like the ones you described I am sure it would be different, regardless of people’s social class. I still think it’s because they are comfortable in the status quo. Thanks most of you for your answers. Rhonda just because you are 50 does not make you wiser then a graduate student :)I have worked with quite a few closed minded older people.
There are many similarities between Orthodoxy and some of the early Reformers. I think that is true for good reason. The Reformers often went to the basics and asked very sound, fundamental questions. Working from Scripture and the Fathers, they often arrived at very similar answers as the Eastern Church. History continually intervenes. The time of the Reformation was one in which international communication was nearly impossible. There were occasional contacts – although the East was in a very weak theological position at the time (the Turkokratia was pretty much near its height).
These commonalities reveal themselves repeatedly in situations of modern dialog.
Related to other parts of this conversation – it would be very helpful for people to ask the historical question: “What happened to the Orthodox?” “What has survived of Orthodoxy?” “Has its essential character changed over the centuries?”
There are several key points in its history:
1. Did Orthodox Catholic Christianity undergo an essential change in the Post-Constantinian era?
If it did, then all bets are off on Tradition or historic Christianity. Continuity has been lost and its every man for himself.
2. Did the schism with Rome change the essential character of Orthodox Catholic Christianity?
My own opinion is that it had far more effect on the West than on the East.
3. What effect did the Turkokratia and Muslim domination have on the Orthodox faith?
It forced it into a defensive inward-looking position. Frequently corrupted its bureaucracy. Destroyed the cultures that it had built – or greatly impoverished them.
4. What effect did the Western Enlightenment and Reformation/Counter-Reformation have on Orthodoxy?
It brought very strong, attractive and alien elements into contact with it – particularly in the Russian Empire under the Tsars after Peter. Eventually, the intellectual classes were largely Westernized and alienated from Orthodoxy. Monasteries were often suppressed. The counter-Reformation produced the Unia in Eastern Europe and had strong impacts in certain areas of Orthodox thought.
5. What effect did the liberation of Greece and the Balkans have on Orthodoxy?
It allowed for the beginning of a renaissance of Orthodox life and thought. This was greatly hampered in the Turkish crisis of the 1920’s. The same has been true of the Communist Yoke that arose at near the same time.
Has any of Orthodoxy survived these things? I strongly think the answer is yes. Particularly in the monastic life – a continuity has been maintained, though strained. There has been a strong internal movement to recover and rebuild the Orthodox Church across the world. Beginning in the diaspora in the West in the 20th century – there has been a strong movement to restore Orthodox intellectual institutions. With the fall of the Communist Yoke there has been a huge revitalization of Orthodoxy in many places. It will take several generations for this to reach anything like normal.
But today, it is possible to find true Orthodoxy and be rooted in it. But everywhere in the world, Orthodoxy is coming out from under one form of oppression or another (or struggling to). There is no Orthodox paradise to which we can point. There is only prayer, much work and sacrifice. And everywhere, the greatest temptations the Church has ever known surround it.
I think this historical moment is a blessing to Christians everywhere. Many of the best things that Christians enjoy in many places are fruit that originally grew in Eastern soil. The recovery of a true, Trinitarian theology is one. The Eucharist character of Christian life is another. The recovery of icon and symbol is beginning to be another. The liturgical character of the true Christian life is yet another.
Even those who do not become Orthodox benefit by contact with it. That is almost universally agreed. I believe this is because Orthodoxy represents the root of all Christians. The details of the historical events I noted above (and there are more) are worth a great deal of study. They may yield a great deal of fruit as we enter more deeply into a Post-Christian era.
“Look down from heaven, O Lord, and visit this vine which Thou Thyself hast planted with Thy right hand.”
Thank you. I find that account to be compelling and hearing it blesses me. It seems to me that this tracks with the suffering of our Lord, who did not experience earthly glory or power. I for one am one who wants to treasure what we have in common, be honest about what divides, and to keep talking.
God bless you,
That was an awesome post by the way.
Joseph, you can use the search tool at http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/directories/parishes
to locate all of the Orthodox Churches in your area.
At 50 I in no way consider myself wiser than a graduate student (nor anyone else for that matter), just more more mature, more experienced (32 years & counting in the labor force) & just as educated with a graduate degree focusing on the social problems & justice issues rampant in our society, specifically American society.
Closed mindedness is by no means a quality of old age; it runs amok throughout all ages. A graduate degree(s) is no guarantee of wisdom nor does it offset a closed mind. What many call closed mindedness in older people is in reality maturity & experience. Many times what the “open-minded youth” fail to realize with the “closed-minded seniors” is that the seniors have been there–done that. They have already learned the hard way that what is proposed by the young does not work & may even be detrimental.
I have worked in the military on overseas deployments to countries that are not even up to third world standards. I have worked in the penal system where I have dealt with persons that most of society (secular as well as religious) has abused, taken advantage of & then rejected as having no redeeming value long before they were incarcerated.
Society, both secular & religious, has treated these people like trash & told them they are trash for so long that they now believe it. When they act like trash, then society, both secular & religious, throws them away just like trash into institutions where they usually only get worse. Well meaning people see this & social outreach & welfare programs soon abound thinking that they will remove the causes of them being trash (poverty, crime & etc.) by dumping money at them. The problem is that these programs are still treating “trash” rather than people. With all that free money lying around others who may be barely scrapping by see no reason to continue working for a miserable pittance when they can have more & better given to them. The well-meaning welfare/social outreach meant to help has now created more “trash” & the need for more programs. The cycle is both self-defeating & self-fulfilling. These people do not need another welfare & social outreach program as these number to infinity already (been there–done that). The academic elite & researchers are even beginning to realize this.
They need to be taught the love of God & treated as the persons created in His image that they are. They need to be taught that they are not trash & that they too may experience the love of God, i.e. the Gospel as well as the love & support of the Orthodox Church. As they heal & gain hope they will in turn begin to help others heal. Thus the love of Christ as taught by the Church will spread throughout society as it historically has.
In America though, this is proving harder than ever for the Church. With the Communists & Moslems the enemy for the Church was easily identified. Not so in America where the there is material affluence & prosperity previously unknown in history. Combine this with the Protestant mindset of pick yourself up by your bootstraps individualism which has resulted in a culture where everyone, regardless of social class, is focused on “getting theirs” & “getting ahead”. God in this culture has become nothing other than a neat concept for most.
Well-written and certainly wise counsel, Rhonda. Joseph, that at this stage of your years you are already seeking and following to the degree that you are is commendable. I won’t pretend to be able to add to the many excellent responses you have already received. I will, however, greatly encourage you to plant them in your mind and in your heart, asking God to allow them to take root. The fullness of the Orthodox faith is there but it remains my responsibility to live it. If and when I fail, I have only the mirror to point at. Father Stephen, thank you again for your blog, your courage, your humanity and your candor. We all benefit from it.
Rhonda – I found myself reacting a bit to your comment. I have deep respect for you and your experience but want to add a couple of thoughts to yours.
In no way do I disagree with the notion that people need to be treated like people and taught that they too are beloved of God. Simply throwing money at problems does not resolve the deep brokenness in many of the poor and incarcerated.
On the other hand, simply throwing God at people doesn’t resolve everything either. (I know that is a bit blunt.) Certainly God is the only one who can truly bring anyone healing. However, people often find the seeds of their spiritual healing in the context of psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment or the church that offers them a free meal and a smile. And some people need considerable time to heal and they need housing, food, healthcare in the meantime. Some people are too broken to heal in this lifetime and need the support of society.
Trying to address these issues is more complex than an either/or, IMO. It is interesting to note that, in my city, some of the most effective service programs are administered by church affiliated groups (The Lutherans here are amazing – hope you are reading, Nathan!).
I am not saying this to criticize any of the churches who do not have the resources to do this. I am just mentioning it because sometimes people are more open to the spiritual when they see it at work in others. Often our compassionate actions are the first evidence many will see of God’s unconditional love for them.
Well, said & an either/or scenario is not what I meant to imply at all in my comments. As James 2:15-16 says, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” I actually propose both.
It takes “…the love & support of the Orthodox Church…” & those in the Church. For example, when an incarcerated person gets out in my state, they are given $50 & made to buy a $38 bus/train ticket, thus leaving them $12 with which to start their lives over…no place to live, no job prospects. With no place to live they cannot even get welfare as they have no home of record/mailing address & etc. $12 will not even buy them a state issued ID card (cost $15) also needed for social programs, job applications & enrollment in school. It is no wonder that my state has a 67% recidivism rate within 3 years. The nation-wide percentage for recidivism is over 90% within 5 years. If they can get gov’t subsidized housing it is invariably in gang/crime/drug infested areas which is the same environment where they came from originally. These areas are also woefully short on educational & job opportunities.
Those in the Church can help them by providing a stable & supportive environment for the very long transition back into society. They can provides leads to jobs/education/counseling, food & clothing, transportation, care for children & if possible housing. This transition back into society takes years & much more than $12. I know many that have taken ex-inmates & their families into their homes at great financial cost. There are social programs that provide these services, but they do not & cannot provide a stable living environment & acceptance which is key to changing lives.
This is merely an example of what I have seen work & I do not propose that everyone should throw open the doors of their homes to any & every ex-inmate as parents are responsible for the safety & stability of their homes & children. As always discretion & discernment should be key.
I have also seen communities revitalized when the social program administrators & law enforcement cooperate with the local community leaders to determine what the community needs to reintegrate these people. We do not need more government programs which only enslave & trap the disadvantaged, we need wiser use of what is already there. Unfortunately with gov’t programs it’s an all or nothing deal. Unfortunately with non-gov’t programs there no discretion to thwart those out to make an easy take. I once saw a very poor family contact numerous religious outreach programs providing food for a Christmas meal as well as Christmas presents for children. They got presents & food from 5 different organizations with no compassion for the 4 families & their children that did without due to their greed.
In the past religious organizations have been excluded from this process under the false auspices of separation of church & state as well as political correctness. But these religious organizations have much needed networking resources in which to guide & direct according to need. They also provide a moral & spiritual stability in a culture that is increasingly working against morality & spirituality.
As usual for blog comment streams, the conversation’s changed directions a few times since I thought to comment. Forgive me if this is long and rambling 🙂
“Unmediated grace” was a new term for me too, though it encompasses a number of concepts of experiences that I’m familiar with in Orthodoxy. (Thank you to Fr. Steven for putting it all together so succinctly!) The grace you described sounds like it fits with what Fr. was teaching, but I wouldn’t say grace is limited to seeing God’s hand guiding our lives. It is also what burned in the heart of the disciples on the road to Emmaus when the risen Christ opened the scriptures to them, what left Wesley’s heart so “strangely warmed” – I have felt it glow in my heart of the upon receiving the Eucharist, if only I pay it any attention. It has been a great encouragement as I stumble along this path. It is also the feeling of freedom and release after a particularly difficult confession, and the inspiring peace that slips in during those fleeting moments when I manage to quiet the jumbled thoughts of my “broken brain”. I have heard that that the newly illumined shine with the uncreated light as they emerge from the waters of baptism, much as Moses’ face shone when he saw the back of God, if only one is blessed to see it (I haven’t been so blessed, but I know of one who has). All that and more, if I’m understanding Father’s words correctly, counts as unmediated grace. I hope that helps.
A couple things to keep in mind: 1)the age of the educated convert is quite recent. When my parents converted a mere 30 years ago, a lot of the information that’s now at our fingertips, in our libraries, and on our music stands simply wasn’t available – or, at least not in English. There’s an incredible amount about the faith I was born to that I’m learning as an adult; things my parents and Sunday school teachers didn’t know was there to know. It could be your local priests haven’t read up on the topics you wish to discuss, or haven’t had to think about them since seminary since none of their other parishioners have known enough to ask. I have heard of priests being so unused to being asked anything about the faith that they’re hostile to questions. Fear of getting it wrong can come out in ugly ways. It could be that you aren’t getting satisfactory answers because entering into debate with such an educated convert feels intimidating. 2)a dying church is rarely in a position to help those outside its own membership. When a parish is struggling to keep the lights on and the heat running, outreach is a hard sell. For some, the only outreach that can be offered is prayers, and those, at least, happen at every liturgy. Any effort counts, even if it cannot be empirically measured. 3)I also know what it feels like to walk into a church and be the only one under 60. It’s hard to connect, hard to relate, but that hardly means that Christ is not present. May God keep you as you soldier on.
Joseph, your experience is not the way it is all over. However, Orthodox culture in the U.S. definately needs to improve and there are a lot of folks working to make those improvements. That includes some partneship with others where it is feasible.
Fr. Stephen is high on the list of those working to make positive change. FOCUS North America is one of them. The various prison ministries the Church sponsors are others (my brother participates in one in Indiana). The Treehouse here in Wichita is another as well as the whole vision of an Orthodox Community that Bishop Basil and the Catherdral parish are slowing building. That vision includes extensive community outreach, a school, inquirers classes that go on year ’round, a planned monastary, a full and expanding cycle of services, support of missions (local and international spiritually and monetarily), special events and retreats including a diocese wide men’s retreat next weekend with Fr. Joseph Honeycutt, etc, etc, etc.
The work of Fr. Moses Berry and the community of Theotokos Unexpected Joy in Ash Grove, MO yet another. St. Mary of Egypt Church in Kansas City another.
There a lot of opportunities for you to get involved in some way with Orthodox ministry and outreach, worship and prayer. It may take some travel, some creativity and a little more effort that what one might find in communions that have been working in the U.S. culture for centuries and have established social service agencies all over, but they are there. You could always start one yourself God willing.
There will always be problems, we will never fit particularly well in the U.S., IMO. The East Coast is one of the places that needs renewal, IMO, but there are fine parishes and bishops on the East Coast as well. That’s why I posted the locator link.
One thing that does not need to change, however, is the Church herself so if you expect not to get at least some defensive reactions from people when you say, “you need to do better”, that is an expectation that is not going to be met.
I’m sorry if my comments sounded like an attack. That is not how they were meant, but I didn’t bother to count how many had already been made. Please forgive me.
I can’t help but to add that I’m one who, along the lines of what Michael mentioned, has very few parish options. I can drive either 140 miles north or 100 miles south. I chose to go south. From the first time I stepped foot through the doors 2 years ago, my experience could not have been better. Ours is rich with Greek ethnicity…people who welcomed me with open arms and treated me as a long lost daughter…people of all ages and backgrounds…a godmother who has filled a place in my heart that I didn’t realize was empty…a priest who…well there simply are not words to describe him and his dear wife. Living within Orthodoxy, watching and learning has exceeded anything that I could read in the many books I’ve read. (And, that’s saying something because I love to read.) Some could argue that I’m still in the “honeymoon phase.” That’s fine. All of the best marriages begin with a honeymoon, so I’ll take that.
This is incredibly similar to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. One might consider ST I-II q3 a4 where he says, “Our Lord said (John 17:3): “This is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God.” Now eternal life is the last end, as stated above (02, ad 1). Therefore man’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, which is an act of the intellect.” In ST I q12 a2 more specifically, he states that the blessed in Heaven will see God not through any similitude but directly, or in other words, without mediation.
towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas – (even though he sounded very different/almost the opposite to St. Gregory Palamas earlier)- evolved into a position which had remarkable similarities to Palamas.
At the highest level-communion with God–the theology is the same.