... human nature is created and so, is unavoidably mortal; with death man’s entire psychosomatic being comes to an end. All of his psychological and mental functions cease to function: his self-conscience, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, and desire. Man is no longer able to function through the parts of the body in order to speak, to call to memory, to distinguish, to desire, to reason, to be impassioned, and to see” St. Anastasios of Sinai (Odigos, Migne P.G. 89, 36).
The first time I read the words of St. Anastasios, I felt like my life was falling between the cracks. To think of my self-consciousness, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, desire, etc., ceasing to function seemed pretty much like the end of existence. If I were to lack such things what or who would I be? Doesn’t the immortality of the soul promise the continuation of such things?
Time passes and many things begin to happen within self-awareness. I can begin to see that my memory is not so reliable. I understand that I remember the big things, and I’m not concerned with the small things – that I can’t remember why I originally came into a room doesn’t disturb me. What disturbs me comes more commonly from what I do remember. I like to tell stories. The point of an event has often seemed more important than the event itself. But careful reflection reveals to me that sometimes the stories are not quite accurate – and for the life of me – I cannot really tell whether the story that I remember and the event which occasioned it are the same thing. Worse still, I cannot recall the differences.
And what of desire and thought? They change from moment to moment. The desires that I carried to bed are never the ones with which I wake. Where is the center of the self? And what of eternal life?
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain– perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. (1Co 15:35-38)
There is a drive to distance ourselves from the body – for we recognize that the body’s dissolution in the earth will betray us. It will cease to be “me,” and become some other dust. And so we put our hope in the soul, though we cannot fathom what we mean. But it lingers as a repository for the future, the guarantee of my continued existence.
Of course, I am troubled when I watch the occasional dissolution of the brain in this life – a friend who has suffered a stroke – a family member with dementia – and I see that a small insult to the brain removes almost everything I imagined to be the person. So what is the job of the soul and how does it relate to the frailty of my flesh?
Apparently what I really want is something to which I can point and proclaim that its survival guarantees my survival. Some speak of the soul and its immortality in a manner that makes our identity itself inherently immortal. But though the Church teaches that the soul is immortal – it does not teach that the soul is immortal by nature. Like all that is not God, the soul is a created thing. As created, it comes from nothing. Its nature would be – nothing.
The answer to these perplexing questions can be found only in God.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-5)
Apparently, I am already dead. Thus I am concerning myself with the wrong thing. If, in Christ, I am already dead, then what and who is my life that is now “hidden with Christ in God?”
I stand in a strange position. The identity I know, the memories I wish to retain, my self-consciousness, reasoning, judgment, imagination and desires, apparently belong to a dead man, while there is a stranger bearing my name whose life is hidden with Christ in God.
The Cross is the destruction of the ego. The memories, an edited selection of events assembled to tell a “story of me,” are apparently insufficient for the construction of a life. At present they construct a simulacrum, an inferior and insubstantial version of the real thing. The same is true of the desires and imaginations, the faulty reasoning and mis-judgments. They are not the treasures of an identity to be preserved at all cost. It is not the disappearance of these ephemera that will be marked by a tombstone. They were only feeble noises and sterile protests that longed for true existence. That ego wanted to belong, to be loved. It judged itself as wrongly as it judged others. It imagined injuries where none existed and desired lives that were never to be. The truth, were I to admit it, is that I would not want an eternity as such an ego. Just the few short years I have borne with it have been torture enough.
Eternity cannot be anything to be desired if it does not come with freedom. The ephemeral ego is not freedom – it is an impossible past and historical embarrassment.
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (Joh 8:34-37).
But what about me? What will become of me? If the ego is lost what is saved? Who is this new life?
To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it. (Rev 2:17)
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God…(Col. 3:1).
For whoever desires to save his life (τὴν ψυχὴν = soul) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (τὴν ψυχὴν=soul) for My sake will save it. (Luke 9:24)
The hidden stone is the great treasure buried in a field, the which, if a man finds, he sells everything he has and buys it. So why do we labor for that which is perishing?
Glory to God for all things!
Thank you for sharing this beautiful post with us Fr Stephen.
Christos Yannaras, in chapter 7 of his Elements of Faith says this with regards to the body and soul:
“Both the body and the soul are energies of human nature, that is the modes by which the event of the hypostasis (or personality, the ego, the identity of the subject) is given effect. What each specific man is, his real existence or his hypostasis, this inmost I which constitutes him as an existential event, is identified neither with the body nor with the soul. The soul and body only reveal and disclose what man is; they form energies, manifestations, expressions, functions to reveal the hypostasis of man.
Later, in the same chapter he says this about life after death:
“Many religions and philosophies proclaim the immortality of the soul, but the Church is differentiated from all these, because she understands immortality, not as an interpreted form of “survival” after death, but as transcendence of death by means of relationship with God. Death is, for the Church, separation from God, the denial of relationship with Him, the refusal of life as love and erotic communion. How is man by himself, with his own existential capacities which are created (they contain neither their cause nor their goal), able to survive eternally? When all the psychosomatic functions are extinguished with the last breath, the created nature of man exhausted at last its own possibilities for survival.
The Church’s faith in the eternity of man is not the conviction that there is somehow a future “condition” where “something” from man survives, his “soul” or his “spirit”. But it is the certainty that my nature and its existential possibilities do not secure the hypostasis of my life; my relationship with God, his erotic love for me, secure it and constitute it. Faith in eternity is the trust that this love will not stop but will always constitute my life whether my psychosomatic capacities function or do not function.
Faith in eternal life is not an ideological certainty; it is not defended with arguments. It is a motion of trust, a deposit of our hopes and our thirst for life in the love of God. He who gives us here and now such a wealth of life, in spite of our own psychosomatic resistances to the realization of life (of real life which is a loving self-transcendence and communion), he has promised us also fullness of life, direct adoption, a face to face relationship with him, when the last resistances of our rebellion are put out in earth.
How this relationship with Him will operate, by means of functions, I do not know. I merely rely on it. What I do know from such revelation of truth as He has given us is that the relationship will always be personal, that before Him, I will be me, as God knows me and loves me, I will be with my name and with the possibility of dialogue with Him, like Moses or Elijah on Mt Tabor. That is enough; perhaps it is more than enough.”
You have put your finger on The Question. I am also thinking about it a great deal. For what it is worth, these are my thoughts to add to yours: Who am I if I am not my ego? I think it is in line with the teaching of the Church Fathers to say that I am the love that I have. God operates in love, and it is through His love that we have our being and our communion with Him. My real self exists only to the extent that I love. And to the extent that I love, I am preserving in myself God’s own likeness in which I was created. Love is not a generic impersonal feeling, but an inherently personal one–the nature of love is to preserve and to cherish the beloved–and so our identity is not lost in the act of loving. Even though our ego is lost, and even though the nature of love is to care about the other and in that sense to lose the self, love also sustains and gives life to what is uniquely me. I am the love that I have. And Love is stronger than death, and God’s love does not change or diminish or falter with the passing of time. This is the basis of my belief in eternal life, and also my understanding of the human person. I’d like very much to hear more of your thoughts. <3 to you, dear Papa
Indeed love is stronger than death, but this needs to be understood rightly. Who is it that loves…? How do I also come to say like God can say, “I AM”. (eternally)
How do I come to recognise (and swap my false and married-to-death Ego) for the New John, George, Mary…
…for the ‘christ’ that Christ the Divine Logos has implanted in one’s innermost depths and whom we only discover with the help of God’s grace, is he who loves…
Is this not why the experience of hesychasm often has the answers to the existential questions?
In the spirit of Christmas this post makes me think of this from “A Christmas Carole” Marley had fallen between the cracks.
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,’ faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!
If I profess it is I who loves then I love the father of lies for I judge my neighbor,hate my enemies and those that persecute me.
Beloved! I think you are right in what you say about love. What I would add to it, and even add it as a caution, is that what we now know of love is not love when compared to the love we shall know. What we now know of love is deeply marked by the ego, no matter how pure it may seem. It doesn’t make it bad, only not as good as it needs to be. Ultimately, the love that will be mine will not be mine. It comes from above. Just as the Son does nothing of Himself but only those things which He sees the Father doing – so our own love must be not from ourselves, but only from Christ, and I find this love in loving Him (self-emptying).
What a joy to share such words with my child!
Thank you for the article. With all of this being said, if all of our decision-making faculties are gone, what makes us a “free” being? If we no longer have the capability to decide, how have we not lost our very essence as an individual, and become robot-like? Did not even the angels have free will, as indicated with Lucifer?
Father Stephen, Thank you for this for it brings up a topic that I find most people have various and not agreeing ideas about. What do Christians mean by eternal life? When does eternal life begin? At conception, baptism etc? Can eternal life also mean life in hell? Is our eternal life only in terms of the future when we get there? Or does our eternal life involve our our present life?
I realize that some of these questions are overlapping.
I may have misunderstood the thrust of this article, but it seems bizarre. It sounds to me more Gnostic or Buddhist than Christian. As a Christian I have always been taught that after the resurrection I will still be me. I will have my memories, my consciousness, etc. Without these things how am I still me? Do you mean to say that we are without these things in the life of the world to come?
Perhaps, James, those things are a shadow of who we are and who we will be.
Do you mean to say they are imperfect, broken representations of attribute we will possess in our glorified condition?
I believe it will be a perfect perspective, a fullness of realization about the healing our brokenness, it has been said by those that are recovering from addictions that they came to a point where they did not regret the past or wish to shut the door on it. Might not be too Orthodox, yet I have to believe that if we are healed then our mind will be fully functioning.
A very good question that goes to the heart of some things. What is the relationship between freedom and decision-making? Our consumer culture makes it the sine qua non of freedom. Indeed, with such an understanding, it would be necessary to posit that we are free to fall from heaven at any time. This, however, doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of our hope in Christ. Our “decision-making” is actually a broken, fallen image of true freedom. It is the use of what St. Maximus called the “gnomic will.” That broken will, has been severed from the “natural will.” Thus instead of choosing what is in fact in accordance with our nature (a truly, whole, “human” choice), we are free to choose anything, including non-human, bestial options. We are not truly “free” to be ourselves. We instead are in a position where we are constantly having to choose whether we actually want to be human.
In our true life, our will is healed. We will choose in accordance with our nature and not contrary to it. There can be many choices available to our nature – Christ certainly was able to “choose” which person to heal, which village to visit, etc. That He did not sin was not a failure to be truly human – He is the first fully, truly human.
Hope that helps. I can clarify further if needed.
@ James — If I understand what the Buddhists say (or seem to say), they speak of a relinquishment of self (one image I have seen used is the candle going out). If I understand our host correctly, he speaks of a fulfillment of self, and argues that our current notions of self actually inhibit that fulfillment. Both speak of our notion of self as an illusion, but, in each case, the phrase means something different.
James, the things you cite as “me,” are not stable in the least. They change all the time. So what is it that is “me?” It is not at all gnostic or Buddhist. But the true self is not the same thing as the neurotically driven identity that we protect and cultivate so carefully. It is a new life. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” St. Paul says. That life is “hidden with Christ in God.” The Christian life consists, in many ways, in coming to know and exist in that new life that is ours in Christ – and the “old man” is put away. Does the new man have memories? I would certainly think so, though I think memory functions differently – quite differently. Consciousness is certainly changed in a profound manner. Our present consciousness is often an extremely lonely thing, an awareness of ourselves apart from all others, highly individualized. To have an “ecclesial” consciousness as some have described it, is to have a truly personal existence. If the Son does only what He sees the Father doing, then the “consciousness” of the Son is always aware of what the Father is doing. He lives always in a fullness of relationship. There are many aspects of this that mark the lives of the saints.
“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1Jo 3:2) What do you think of the consciousness of the risen Lord?
I agree absolutely that we need to clarify that we love imperfectly, that the ego inevitably gets involved. My question then would be: if we say that it is *only* God who loves in and through us, then there really is no self left. How is this view different from Ekhart? He would go so far as to say that we have no true self, that our identity is God. (For anybody else reading this, Ekhart was condemned by the Catholic Church for heresy. I am not aware of any specifically Orthodox commentary on his thought.) I am deeply uncomfortable with Ekhart, but it may also be that I am misreading him. Hard to say definitively what he meant.
*Eckhart. Whoops! Silly me.
Father, that does help answer some of my questions. I think I understand what you mean about how our memories are very selective in this world. When I read what you wrote, I had a flash of thought that came into my mind of eternity, and being able to see everything all at once, sort of “through the Lord’s eyes” in a sense. At least perhaps with some of the wisdom of the Lord? Without the bias of our own projections, but able to see everything as it actually is. Is this what you mean? To see everything existentially. Not just in the dimension that is, right now.
Also, the age-old question…What becomes of the relationships we have on earth? Spouses, parents, friends? What are your thoughts on this?
I think we get a taste of the new life in Liturgy every Sunday. I look at my wife and see a wholly different person many times: shinning, younger, different but none of that suffices. I know I am quite different than I am at any other times. I can’t say how.
Beyond that, well…….St. Symeon and others like him might be able to say. For me, I find that I am better off not even trying to consider it. Too much speculation.
You’re right, Mary. I misstated. Our love is “from” our communion in Christ. That is, it is not self-existent.
I can only assume those relationships are changed (like everything else). They’re currently so encrusted with my ego.
In Buddhism there is no distinction made between created and uncreated.Everything is a process, impersonal, co-dependent arising, and without beginning. This is in essence emptiness of self.
The indescribable experience of parinibbana after death is sometimes referred to as a flame that doesn’t burn, but this is not understood as meaning annihilation. Elder Sophrony refers to this as the divesting of the person on the plane of eternity. However, eternity is not understood as being endless time, but rather the simultaneous presence of all time.
The self-emptying love of Christ is deeply personal and entirely different. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” – Matthew 18:20. God is indescribable love.
Wonderful post Father,
Father Seraphim of Platina once said it was impossible to move beyond Orthodoxy – you could only go deeper into it or run away (and that is ultimately futile).
Merry Christmas to all from Australia.
What a wonderful conversation…!
There exists an experience imparted to the glorified Saints that explains this issue quite well, I can think of quite a few examples from the Fathers, (even some contemporaries like Elder Sophrony have talked about this in some depth and each with their own style), but one in particular is of the Elder Charalambos (whose humility was so intense and well practised that I thought he was just an ordinary person in his presence, no matter how I tried not to) -spiritual child of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. I wish I had more time to ask him about it when he was still alive, as I have only read it in his memoirs after he slept in the Lord.
Here goes (this is what happened to him also):
God bestows on man a kind of all-consciousness, an awareness (in overflowing love) of all other persons, of the billions of souls, of angels of stars, he truly becomes a cosmic “ecclesial hypostasis” that, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit can both conscious of ‘being’ himself (his true self – an image of Christ) and of loving all. He loves to the measure that he forgets himself though -this is the paradox for our reasoning mind- but he also “IS” (in the image of Him Who truly IS) the more he loves. It is God’s love, as He is the “soul of our soul”, and His Uncreated energy is communicated to us and fuels our love, however, this loves becomes ‘mine’ too, through God’s unfathomable benevolence. He bestows on man – briefly, yet never to be forgotten in this life or the next- His own omnipotence, omnipresence, and love to the extent that the particular person can sustain it.
The Saints sometimes have this experience in the Uncreated Light, sometimes not… It is just one “sweety” as Elder Paisios used to call this of many others that God bestows on his children.
Ok! Let me withdraw my original comment, in that case. I am trying to express an idea, but clearly I’m not there yet. I can see where I overstated.
I’m just grabbing some popcorn to watch this conversation.
I am not smart enough to offer anything but I’ve been thinking about this particular thing (what is permanent? Love) as well. St. John Chrysostom has a nice treatment of it in his homilies on 1st Corinthians 13. Bernard of Clairveux has a whole chapter on the impossibility/imperfectability of loving God in this life.
I know it’s iffy drawing theological conclusions from experience. However.
When I had my near-death experience, I would say that what happened was an intensification and coherence of awareness and intention. It is certainly true that the “channels” of the body were lost as far as I could tell. I recall the stages of withdrawal from sensation. First, I could no longer see any light. Then, I thought I was floating but soon realized this was because I was experiencing the residual impression of location and position. That soon faded. I became reoriented around the presence in the darkness. Then, when I had to react to that presence, I found that thought no longer took any time at all and that… hard to describe… thought was the same as movement. Thought and movement and willing were all one.
Of course I have no idea whether I was still linked to my body in some way during those moments so I can’t draw any firm conclusions. However, since that time I often have dreams in which I am visited by deceased loved ones. Previous to becoming Orthodox I saw my uncle who had committed suicide, shut out from a family gathering. He looked at me so sadly that I had to pray for him even though I believed I wasn’t supposed to. (Whoever reads this, say a prayer for James, please.) More recently, I thought I held my miscarried daughter Anastasia in my arms. She smiled shyly and said, “You smell good.” My mother Carolyn’s appearance had changed drastically but I still recognized her at once by the “flavor” of joy that is distinctly hers.
The impression left by these sorts of dreams, as opposed to that left by other sorts of dreams, is such that I don’t worry about losing myself or my loved ones in Heaven. When I bring up the topic with other Orthodox women, they generally seem to have had similar experiences.
The first time that my two-year old daughter saw a photo of my mother, taken shortly before her death, she began shrieking ecstatically, pointing at it, and then pointing to me and saying “Mama!” She clearly recognized her grandmother who died before she was conceived. Then she fell to kissing the photo.
I’m sure St. Anastasios is not wrong but I conclude that with the removal of the grossness of this flesh, things don’t get fuzzier but clearer, don’t disperse, but condense, don’t get lost but found. But I imagine that the progress of understanding and the reorientation I experienced would, if continued, soon move a person into a very different quality of mind.
For instance: the physical terror and pain I had just experienced and the fact that my heart had, as far as I could tell, just exploded in my chest, was immediately lost to view in the immeasurable terror of that presence and the enormous question of my response to his power and courtesy. And yet I felt that my previous life experiences and my previous responses to situations had something to do with my response to that presence. I acted as I was habituated to act, somehow. So that wasn’t lost. It felt familiar even in the utter strangeness and surprise. My sense of self wasn’t gone by any means – it was intensified and simplified at once.
I recall that C. S. Lewis had fears about whether he would be able to know or recognize his loved ones in heaven, whether there would be continuity. The story goes that he appeared after his death to a friend demonstrating that these fears were unfounded.
I also read in Olivier Clement that some church teachers believe that Christ appears to each person in the moment of death and their true choice in regard to him is then revealed. It seems to me that it would be impossible to truly forget anything in that presence or to lose oneself except by trying to escape him… but at the same time that the reorientation of all one’s attention around the relationship with him would have the effect of a different kind of “forgetting” – something like a reordering of one’s estimation of the degrees and kinds of importance assigned to everything. Also, there’s simply no possibility of retaining one’s grip on anything one had previously held onto. Perfectly impossible, in that presence. Empty hands are non-negotiable then. The “Eternal Memory” is HIS memory – what we keep, we keep by his courtesy and power.
But what they experience who wake into light I don’t know.
Fr. Stephen, your true self may feel like a stranger to you, but I suspect a lot of us would recognize you pretty easily.
I used poetic license to speak of that self as a stranger. I pray that sometimes it is he composing these lines. The wonders that will be revealed to us are wonderful beyond imagining.
so much depends upon
me – or so i had imagined –
until one day, i was no more.
it is hard to say just how it happened.
it was a gentle, loving sort of thing
hardly noticed for all its power –
much like morning dew
imperceptibly drawn into
sun’s warming rays
or like summer’s long shadows
sinking with setting sun
into peaceful darkness.
once gone, all the longings,
needs and rages of old
seemed but a bit of dust.
it was, in the end,
only the Light that mattered –
glory upon glory to Him.
AR, Thank you for honoring all of us by sharing something so personal. Your post is so very comforting! I am reminded of Julian of Norwich (1300’s). When she was 30, she nearly died of an illness and much of her experience matches yours. Also, I was struck because you talked about God’s courtesy, and she also talks again and again about His “courteous and homely[familiar, intimate] love”. Here is a short quote: “this was most comfort to me, that our good Lord, that is so reverend and dreadful, is so homely and so courteous.” Just what you describe as well.
I loved your comment here…
“Thought and movement and willing becoming all one” strikes me as a description Saint Porphyrios would use concerning the soul without the body. Having been through a similar experience I also attest to this.
However, the Grace inspired experience I described above is something entirely different – infinitely ‘bigger’…
How we perceive God, how we think of Him especially after an actual encounter says more about us than it does about God, I think.
Each encounter with God is unique and unrepeatable not because God changes thought. Each encounter with God is unique and unrepeatable because each of us as human beings is unique and unrepeatable.
That is, I believe, one of the many reasons that the Church has always approached God in apophatic ways. We can never adequately describe what God is because He is always more and different than that. Even the most general of statements: God is love is open to a virtually infinite number of understandings and misunderstanding.
It is those who are least experienced who are most certain about who and what God is.
The trouble with sharing of experience is that it can allow folks to think that “God is that way, not this” and end up doubting their own encounter or worse, searching to encounter God in that specific way.
That is why my son, wiser than I, always says two things when asked about God and the Church: The Nicene Creed and, if they get through that and actually want to know more, he says: “come see”. He is deeply impatient with discursive sermons that are more than The Apostle and Evangelists sermon late in life: “Little children love one another” or more than about a paragraph in length.
Especially in this season perhaps we should consider deeply Luke 1: 26-38.
wow, i’m amazed at the response to AR’s personal experience. many have shared on here and have gotten either “no comment” or told they were delusional…seems like a very exclusive club. thank you fr. stephen for your words and wisdom and i’m aware that this is an orthodox blog, but i’m gone…peace to all.
Easton, experience is experience it is the context and the interpretation of the experience that has to be considered. The only person who has been called delusional that I remember is Dionysio. Among other things, he asserted at one point that he had tasted theosis and thought that people could be Christ-like without Christ.
While some of that was later clarified, the overall tenor of his comments was deeply troubling to me as I have seen many walk the road he described to a troubling end–far away from God. That is why I challenged him, out of concern for him. I am sure others did the same. He said at one point, “This is a tough blog”. It should be tough because the test we go through as we approach God, our Cross, and the journey it entails, are tough and the temptations frequent. Fortunately, we are not alone in our journey and we have people to help us carry our Cross, just as did Jesus.
The Church is a crucible that allows for safety when encountering God because we have 2000 years of knowledge that tells us, or should, what is and what is not authentic and what is good for the soul and what is not.
I’ll tell you, I don’t particularly care for this thread, not because it is untruthful or anything but because delves into matters that, IMO, are best left private in the context of the spiritual director/confessor interrelationship.
It reveals too much and tempts others to do the same.
“Spiritual experience” is just another bit of consumerism if not approached properly and in the proper context. Unfortunately, it is probably the most deadly thing offered for sale in the market.
Easton, I think you’re drawing wrong conclusions…but I understand your reaction. If you’re calling me out, then I hear you loud and clear. Point taken.
On the other hand, you don’t know the backstory. Sorry to have been upsetting.
Thank you Mary Benton for the post. I’ve read it already several times. It strums a deep resonant chord in my soul.
Fr. Stephen, I understand.
Mary, thank you. I love the quote from Julian of Norwich. My experience was extremely sketchy compared to that, but I was astonished to perceive so much power coupled with such a complete absence of force or compulsion.
Easton, I have talked to my confessors about these things and have a clean bill of health. Poor Dionysio was wandering around loose and might have picked up anything anywhere. His insistence that we recognize him as equal to our own church fathers and his lack of awareness of Jesus Christ as our point of contact with God made his spiritual influence problematic. Always, we judge the experience by the doctrine, not the other way around.
Michael, the private bits were left out. I shared what I thought could be useful for general consolation when taken with proper caution. I have freedom in the Lord to do that. Mainly because, as Dino said, this isn’t like revelation – it’s not something that implies any level of sanctification. It’s a normal human experience that our society shames into silence because of a pre-occupation with scientific proof.
I would imagine that at least half if not most of people in an Orthodox Church have an experience like this at some point – perhaps have seen a saint… my son’s sunday school teacher remarked with a complete lack of self-awareness that she had conversed face to face with Christ in her living room. Far from being a source of temptation it helped me to realize the common nature of my experience and to not be panicked by a false sense of specialness.
Can I draw the conclusion, from this article, that I could, one day, cease to exist. Do I have the choice of falling between the cracks and ceasing to exist or will I always be immortal by grace?
Thanks so much for considering this question.
A wonderful and, for me, timely reflection. Thank you.
I was just thinking this morning about the quality of our memories and their rather subjective and tenuous relationship to actual events in our lives.
This post is all the more poignant to me in that my husband and I are just recently encountering in a very concrete way the impending mortality of our octogenarian parents. Just over a week ago, my 82-year-old mother had a heart attack and was diagnosed with stage-3 heart failure. She needs bypass surgery for all five coronary arteries, but has no suitable veins in arms or legs with which to do most of that. Her heart is also too weak currently for surgery, but she is too able-bodied to be allowed to continue to recuperate in hospital or rehab, so must try to recuperate at home, learn a new lifestyle, with support only from my father whose short-term memory is becoming very impaired and a disabled sister who lives with them. From a human perspective, this is a very dicey situation. This will be a very different Christmas when we visit them (Lord willing) next week. Prayers would be very appreciated.
I hope easton will come to understand that “delusion” is a technical term in Orthodoxy, something we all face. Faith is facing reality instead, even when it is hard or impossible for us. Sorry to see him go.
Just finished reading the entirety of the thread. Thank you Silouan, AR and others for what you have shared.
AR, it seems to me it is not even just Orthodox who experience that interpenetration of Eternity with this temporal life (as in your dreams). This, being part of the spiritual reality we humans inhabit, is a (potentially) universal human experience.
I’m always concerned when such visitations/glimpses/revelations of the nature of this one-storey spiritual reality are then placed in doctrinal frameworks that are less than fully Orthodox, but I do believe, even in many of these encounters among non-Orthodox, the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit are often evident. As you mentioned, as in the case with another commenter, it is when the explanation for the how and why of these encounters veers outside of the Tradition that we need to be extremely cautious. Though we may not be able to embrace those less than fully orthodox explanations, I don’t think that means we necessarily need to reject the experience itself as having been inherently deceptive.
It is my understanding that existence is God’s gift to us and they He sustains us in that. Also, that He also wants not just being for us but “well-being.” I would think that pressing forward towards Christ is essential to our well-being.
Karen, I completely agree. This happened to me as a Baptist and later as a non-denom. That someone is functioning in this way is not proof of his theological positions being correct or incorrect, whatever church he is in. It is evidence of the Lord’s kindness and his original designs in creating that person.
Likewise, if the explanation offered cannot be accepted this may be a temporary misunderstanding and may not reflect on the experience itself. It took me 15 years and a couple of conversions to start to make sense of what happened to me and my conclusions are not firm.
Perhaps it was merely a rookie mistake that brought Dionysio to identify his experience with the highest and rarest spiritual experience out there instead of with something more commonly accessible. Maybe he thought we were all claiming to have experienced it ourselves, I don’t know. I know why I responded as I did and maybe I was right, maybe wrong. Sometimes I think we should all just let Fr. Stephen handle the inquirers from outside – or at least those who address him personally – especially as it’s not a forum but his personal blog!
However, what I saw then and still see, in Dionysio’s comments, is the talk-patterns of a deeply manipulative person. Someone who gets his kicks by tantalizing religious people with the opportunity to convert him, only to leave them in the throes of all the negative feelings associated with failed moral responsibility. Dionysio said he was open to learning but left exactly as he came, deflecting our attention from his inability to change by openly accusing us and especially Fr. Stephen of being the reason for it. Thankfully Fr. Stephen knows better than to take the bait. Dionysio had a lot of people expressing deep concern for him in various ways, but responded by wracking them with guilt, repeatedly calling them unloving and labeling himself as humble just for being here, as well as by exaggerating, representing their caution as accusation. He was extremely well-spoken and used our terminology beautifully as well as moving us with his story of “suffering” (sacred word to us) but he did not respond to any attempt to help him use our terminology more accurately. He seemed unable above all to tolerate any certainty regarding Jesus, although he professed openness to the idea. He wanted us to be less emphatic about our Jesus, but he scathed us for challenging his divine essence theory. His parting shot, laced with guilt, was that we had somehow “proved” that it’s disrespectful to others if we say with certainty that Jesus is God. If he grew up Catholic, he knew what he was saying. Either we take the bait and the seed of doubt is planted, or we take the other bait and feel guilty for having participated in his damnation.
To all that I say “no.”
This comes with prayers for your family.
AR, prayers greatly appreciated! I accept what you are saying about Dionysio’s comments as a distinct possibility (probability). I didn’t feel qualified and didn’t have the time to analyze them in that much detail and was glad for others to respond according to their own discernment and conscience in that. My bent is to give the benefit of the doubt until I am proven wrong. In commenting on the universality of the one-storey experience, I actually had in mind a much wider set of examples from my own experience with others–similar, likely, to what you have encountered.
My mother celebrates her 87th birthday today while my father is in rehab recovering from illness. I understand what a fragile time of life this can be and will be praying with you as we both journey to see our octogenarian parents next week.
I always appreciate your comments here – thank you for your often wise and clarifying words.
AR, you certainly do have the freedom. In fact, the sharing of one’s experience in Christ is essential. Perhaps I am making too much of mine before that the ego ruled and the spiritual experience was a mark on the gun belt so to speak. Not that you are doing that mind you, it is a red flag that always pops up in my heart.
The Orthodox language, in English, is so easily hijacked and taken from the context of the mystery of the communion of the saints and turned into something nasty.
It kills people unless there is repentance. Even then the scars linger for a long time.
BTW the temptation to which I was referring is mine, no one else’s.
The Orthodox life is repleat with one-storey experiences.
We just have to be careful that they are used for the glory of God.
I don’t presume to give a better response to your question than Fr. Stephen’s. But I will share an experience that caused me deep reflection. The poetic response I posted yesterday seemed to fit this discussion for a reason…
I read the poem to some friends a few weeks ago and a friend asked, “if you are no more, who is narrating the poem?” At first, I thought she was just being concrete. But reading this post and discussion gave me a different perspective on it.
The “I” that is no more is the one that thinks so much depends upon her – i.e. the false self, aka ego – that must be surrendered in order to truly live as God made her to live. The narrator is the true self who sees the absurdity of the old self, finding fullness of being in the presence of the Light.
So as “I” cease to exist, I begin to truly live. (Or something like that – both my words and my understanding are woefully inadequate.)
Walt Whitman was bothered by discussions like this. He wrote,
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
I do not feel this way, but his point to interests me. Is it better to live (with Christ) rather than to think about and analyze living (with Christ)? –a false forced choice, of course, but what if the one clouds the other. e.g., thinking a lot about death is in itself an an act of the ego in that I am concerned primarily about what will happen to me. Is that bad? No, but what if it complicates simple faith and trust? (not arguing against theology here, just telling a story on my self : the more I analyze, the more I want to analyze – and I often wind up farther behind the group of disciples, struggling to catch up so I can hear.) Said with great respect and an admission – I love reading this blog, both Father Stephen’s reflections and the range & depth of comments.
Still thinking on this question of what is left without the ego/ false self. If it needs to be framed in theological terms, maybe you could say it is the “little l” logos. Christ is the Logos, but each of us is created with an inner logos because we are created in His image. And perhaps you could say that this inner true self is also the part of us that is capable of loving and glorifying God. The ego gets in the way of real love, but when it is gone, there will be nothing to prevent us from loving fully and as we ought. And just for fun, here is a sweet little poem by Mary Oliver that seems capture this idea that each person has an inner logos:
“So every day
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
Of the ideas of God,
One of which was you.”
Dear Father and Mary, thank you so much for your responses. My question is borne out of the idea that not-existing could be an option for humans. My current understanding is that I will be immortal by the grace of God (either basking in his eternal love or experiencing hell because I cannot accept his love). I’m interested to know if we humans even have this as a choice. Such a valuable discussion; thank you.
Mary H – thank you so much for that lovely thought and poem from Mary Oliver. And your earlier reflections on love as well.)
Neal – I don’t think we can know whether God allows this option but I hope you are not wanting it. Why want non-existence when the joy of union with God is offered freely?
(If it were to be allowed, I think it would only be as a merciful alternative to an eternal hell of suffering. But I am only speculating, based on other discussions here and with Fr. Aiden.)
Again, according to my understanding, “non-existence” is not an option.
Someways of thinking about it. Non-existence as an option is a function of a linear time-line, “now I exist, then I don’t.” But if in eternity “all times are present” (some have stated it like this), then non-existence isn’t an option, because you exist. “Non-existence” would mean that you never existed, and this cannot be because it’s simply not true.
Thus existence is the given – and everything else is an answer to the question “what kind of existence?”
The conundrums raised by this are often the elements that press some towards a final reconciliation with God of all things. Which is, perhaps, a different conversation.
The desire for non-existence, is, if you well, a manifestation of hell or the wounds of hell. “Hell,” I have written in places, cannot have “true” existence – God is not the author of evil. Everything that He created is good. Thus “hell,” at best, is a distortion of something good. A distortion of true existence. The nature of “evil” and “sin” in the language of being and existence is a desire for something other than true existence and well-being. It is a movement and dynamism away from true existence and non-being. But an existence that is not a “true” existence is a “false” existence, a lie. It is why lying is so serious in all its forms. Hell is a lie, in this understanding, and an effort to live in a lie. The devil is the “father of lies.” He seeks an existence other than the one he was given by God and he seeks to destroy and pervert our true existence, thus he “was a murderer from the beginning.”
Lies and murder! These are direct assaults on true existence. They cannot succeed, for only true existence is sustained from God. It is only the patience and forbearance of God that allows our feeble lies and efforts at false existence.
In terms of the self, the “me” that is hidden in Christ, is my “true self,” the self, the person intended by God for me in the fullness of my existence. It has been birthed in Christ and is even now beginning to be shown forth. It does not yet appear in its fullness, though in some it is shining forth more than in others. The call to each of us, as a new creation in Christ, is to enter in to the fullness of being in the image of Christ (from glory to glory).
There is a tendency – as in your question – to think of “me” or “I” in relatively static terms. Thus “I” experience heaven, or “I” experience hell, as though the stable thing is the “I.” But God is the only truly stable existence. The “I” that resists the love of God is a “false” existence, and fantasy and ephemera. It is but a “puff of wind,” in the words of Scripture. I don’t mean to create a sort of spiritual schizophrenia – though St. Paul describes one in Romans 7. There is, at present, both the false self and the true self, the old man and the new man, the old me and the me that is in Christ. And the false and the old are passing away – but the true and the new are being renewed day by day. Learning to let go of the one and embrace the other is a key part of the inner spiritual life.
So, thinking of Mary Holste’s question, who, then is the “me” or the “consciousness” that is embracing or not embracing? Again, this is not static either. The “me” that we experience is sometimes one and sometimes the other. There is a reality – a “consciousness” of sorts that is being birthed in us – of which we often only have a glimpse.
The quality of the new “consciousness” is not at all the same as the other. And I think this often raises great difficulties for us. We prefer the old ways and trails – even though they are false paths. The pathways of fear and anxiety, suspicion and envy are very familiar. Repentance is often abandoned in favor of various projects of “improvements.” Thus we try to work on our suspicions and envies, to improve me them, to “get better.” We don’t need to get better. We need to be raised from the dead. Resurrection is not improvement – it’s a new life.
Just thoughts in the morning…
Most of us choose to reject God’s love or not with each passing moment, and associate freedom with this capacity to choose. However, Saint Maximus tells us, “A perfect nature has no need of choice, for it knows naturally what is good. Its freedom is based on this knowledge.”
The term ego certainly does take a beating. It has become synonymous with self-cherishing despite it merely being a term of references to the inmost I that differentiates us from others.
For instance, when we come upon a perfect stranger and greet them with a genuine warm smile, with no discriminating thoughts or judgments of any kind, and they us in return, it is a simple sharing between two persons, as if like one but not.
Dear Father, love those “thoughts in the morning”! 🙂
Mary Benton, thank you for your prayers and you kind thoughts and words. Of course, the prayers and thoughts are entirely mutual. Happy birthday to your mom. May God speed your dad’s recovery. Joyous Feast to you and yours!
Karen, I’m sure your way is better. My bent is often protective and it’s difficult for me to know how much of that is trauma and how much love. Thanks for your gentle words.
Michael, sometimes telling someone who could benefit, so one doesn’t have a secret to keep, simply takes that ammunition away from the enemy. Other times, the attention expected or recieved could overpower the soul’s flickering desire for God to be glorified. To God’s glory… God’s glory is everywhere, to be aimed at in many even opposing actions. I imagine we glorify him in different ways both by keeping secrets and by telling them. I’m sure you know best what right for you.
“We don’t need to get better. We need to be raised from the dead. Resurrection is not improvement – it’s a new life.”
Very well said, Fr. Stephen. Thank you.
Thank you all for your responses. I need to take the time to digest it. This has been so helpful; I’ve yet to find another forum like it.
Albert, I appreciate the quote from Whitman. I admit I do feel that a little. Pseudo-religion is indeed a problem. The religion of anxiety instead of gentle sorrow, of self-hatred instead of humility, of a vainglorious philosophy of divine essence instead of the darkness of waiting for God…
Everything that can be done for good, can be imitated badly. It takes time to begin to find those places in ourselves where a religious action can be done sincerely. (The space that feels like ‘inside’ to us may not really be our heart.) And the “voice in the head” that we have long believed expresses our true thoughts is hard to silence, very hard. Our own real thoughts so often buried, silenced, in self-righteousness or play-acting or various forms of trauma. How long will it take to water it into sprouting again?
“Convert issues” – the plight of those of us who have already had a religious formation that has misdirected us – is something that doesn’t appear in the classical literature of the church as far as I know. Thanks to God for this blog, then! But I try to hold spiritual advice lightly. Better not to think about death, etc. if it doesn’t help.
And when praying, to leave aside chattering at God or pathos… for me personally, repetition causes a problem even though many people use it with profit. I simply leave it aside. No “normal” practice of the Jesus Prayer for me, then… to relax, speak his name once and then try to be quiet and listen is all I can do. I sometimes think my best chance for spiritual growth is during my sleep, even though monks will tell you that sleeping is bad for the spirit! As Alice Meynell wrote,
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,–
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.
St. Porphyrios says that whatever is in the mind is in the heart. He recommends busying our mind with the Psalms, the music of the church, the prayers and services, as often as possible so that we can have God in our heart more often – even if we can’t “find” our heart. This will cause our “good self” to grow without direct effort on our part, he says. I like to memorize a psalm, try to sing it to a simple melody while washing dishes. A little thing that helps a lot. There’s also the audio Bible if you can bear it or ancient faith radio.
I have been thinking about the question you asked elsewhere, about how you seem to think differently when you are in church as opposed to outside. In a way this is hopeful for you as it shows you are currently able to join the common spirit that prevails during Church. I wonder if the answer is to keep occupying your mind as much as possible with the mental activities the Church provides and trust that the conversion of your mind will proceed apace!
Also, if you can get used to Byzantine chant… it teaches us how to feel with more precision than any other music. Feeling is one half of thinking, after all.
Bright Upright Joy
Courteous Patient Appeal
Still Sober Contemplation
Burning Quiet Wonder
Sweet Harmless Sorrow
Tender Generous Confession
Glad Gentle Thanksgiving
Father, my comment was eaten!
Thank you, Father, for the useful post and to all commenting for the shared wisdom. I feel (like Neal) that I need a great deal of time to process it. Millions of questions arise in my head (the “unravelling” at work) and since I read too little from the saints, my only protection against their sweeping avalanche is a quote from ‘The Wisdom of the Sands” by Exupéry:
“O Lord, I pray that some day in the fullness of time, when all things created are being garnered in, thou wilt open the great door of eternity’s grange to the garrulous race of men and, like a good physician healing them of their sickness, expunge all meaning from their questions.”
Albert, one more thing… since grace and faith are passed from person to person, probably the most important thing you can do to grow in the faith is to spend time with and hold conversation with mature Christians.
All the best.
Father Stephen, thank you for the time and energy you expend to maintain this site. I feel as though I am part of truly spiritual, truly Christian community. And thanks to AR, who listens carefully & digs deep in her comments. (It would be a blessing to meet and talk with each person, but for now I’ll settle for typed notes and future readings from our father and so many brothers & sisters.)
How I love these words: “Nobody fear death”, (Saint John Chrysostom proclaims them on the night of the ressurection), and “From death unto life, and from earth unto heaven Christ our God has brought us”.
So, if we have found the invlauable ‘pearl’, then that prophecy we read from Jeremiah must apply to us:
On that day that they take us down into our grave, if we have been striving to find Christ in our heart, if we have spent our life in such a manner, even if we think we haven’t achieved what we have set out to acheive, (still stuck on the process rather than having tasted the ‘end’), Christ Himself will come and embrace us and we will see that death is simply our true birth.
We will see the futility of the ‘old ways’ and we will thank God for our tribulations more than for anything else (as Elder Paisios used to say) in that new light.
These words make my soul sing, Dino. Amen.
This article totally got me to see my faith in a new light. Very good
Dino while what you say is true in the eschatological fullness and we pray that we all repose “in a place of brightness and a place of verdure where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away” we still recognize the existential sorrow in the parting that death is, if only for a season, by weeping and wailing.
Yes the ressurection is also expressed and celebrated but that is the genius in the life of the Church. When one looses one’s spouse it is as if half of one’s soul is ripped away and yes, Christ is there in the midst of that pain and raises both up, but the wounds are real for both I think much as Jesus resurrected body still carried the marks of His Crucifixtion. No longer bleeding and inflamed and excruciating but there nonetheless
Let us not diminish the physical too much.
Did you lose your wife, Michael?
Yes right before Pascha several yeas ago so I know both the pain and the experience of the Ressurection — the pain didn’t go away really, it was just overwhelmed with joy and the certain knowledge that as He raised me He also raised my wife.
Plus God in His mercy brought me together with an incredible woman and the granted the economia to be wed to her. She also had lost her spouse–on the same day three years after mine.
Neither of us forgets that pain, but we value the joy more and knowingly opened ourselves to the pain again because the love and mercy of Christ are greater. Each of us prays that we be the one left behind again if we can’t go together. We each acknowledge the love we each still have for our reposed spouses and respect the tears that still come from time to time.
Our marriage has been a blessing on our respective children as well and next Sunday we get a new son as my son’s best friend is received into the Church with me as his sponsor. His natural parents are AWOL unfortunately.
God is good. Our Incarnate Lord knows our sufferings and gives us joy through those sufferings if we allow it. He makes all things new but the spiritual muscle built by the existential sorrow here will still be part of us.
Without that, can gnosticism be far away?
Glory to God!
A genuine testimony, Michael.
To lose someone too soon, without preparation, really is cause for weeping. The wailing is not even a choice, I know. Jesus himself wept…
Some bury their children, some see their loved ones murdered or lost in senseless horror or to a ravaging or painful disease. Even the peaceful loss of a grandparent revisits us with tears decades later on Christmas Eve. It’s all obscene considered by itself. The stark fact is that we all lose everyone eventually, through death. It’s as if we are all already dead people, walking around on a three day’s leave outside our coffins, saying a prolonged goodbye to this dear old world. When the music starts, we have to go and lay down, regardless of who we must leave behind.
Through Christ, as you have testified, the reverse becomes true as well: we all gain everyone, eventually, through death. Not only that but we gain more than we lost… the full ear, not just the single grain we laid in the ground. It’s as if we are all already resurrected people, walking around on a three day’s mercy-trip through this gigantic coffin of a world. When the music starts, we have to rise up and greet our Beloved.
Two different realities exist in the same space for a time, but one must be done away with and the other hold true.
“…the spiritual muscle built by the existential sorrow here will still be part of us.”
Yes, I think that must be true, because the spiritual muscle is part of the second reality, even though the sorrow that built it is part of the first. I hope so… otherwise the tragedy would be permanent. I think we’ll want those muscles (well said!) for the grand chase. Not only that but I’ve heard it said that the consolation for everything we undergo in this life will far outweigh the sorrow, in the end. The more we’ve suffered, the more the Lord will console us. Not to minimize the truly agonizing experiences under which we are bowed in the mean time… some more than others. But I think this must be what elder Paisios means in Dino’s quote.
Thank you so much for sharing your painfully-gained treasure with us.
So, do you feel that a focus on joy vs. sorrow is somehow a focus on spirit vs. body? Is this what you mean by referencing Gnosticism, a denial of the body by denying the reality of pain?
“lay down” should be “lay ourselves down” or “lie down.”