Nostalgia for Paradise

IMG_0809_2Recent conversations have brought up the name of Dr. Alexander Kalomiros.  Author of the River of Fire and other well known Orthodox writings, his work was no stranger to controversy. But his work also came from a wonderful heart. Here is a short offering from the small book, Nostalgia for Paradise.

When the ascetical life of a Christian and the privations that he imposes upon himself are beyond the measure of grace that he has been given, a void is created in his soul. Either it will lead him to sin, or it will make him perverse, proud, hard, and unmerciful to his brothers. The wise man puts greater effort into positive virtues and less into negative virtues. Examples of positive virtues are prayer, worship, meditation, study, participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, love for God. In general, their action brings us into contact with God. On the other hand, negative virtues are activities such as fasting, self-denial and self-deprivation, abstinence, asceticism in general, and the “thou-shalt-not” kinds of commandments and rules that are essentially directed to ourselves. It is not derogatory to call these negative for, together with the positive virtues, they form the balance that makes up the spiritual life. If the soul is filled with the presence of God, no place remains for sin. The light casts out darkness by its own power without our effort as long as we keep the shutters of our heart open to it.

Do not seek to understand God for it is impossible. Simply open the door of your soul so His presence may fill you and illumine your mind and heart, warm your body, and enter your veins. Theology is not a cerebral knowledge but a living knowlege that is directly relevant to man and sustains and possesses the whole man. A cold, cerebral man cannot know and discourse on divine things, even if his head contains an entire patristic library. He who is not moved by a sunset, a tree, or a bird cannot be stirred even by the Creator of these things. In order to grasp God and be able to talk about Him to others you must be a poetic soul. It means that you must have a heart that is noble, sensitive, and pure. You must be as an ear that is turned to the whisperings of the Infinite, and as an eye that sees through the bottomless depths while all other eyes see only pitch blackness. It is impossible for timorous souls and stingy hearts to discourse on divine things.

The heart that grasps the mysteries is one that is naive enough to think all souls worthy of Paradise, even souls who may have drenched their heart’s life with bitterness. It is a heart that feels and sings like a bird, without caring if there is no one there to hear it. It rejoices over everything that is beautiful, everything that is true, because truth and beauty are two aspects of the same thing and can never be separated. It has compassion for every living thing that is animate or has roots, and even for every seemingly lifeless stone.

It is a modest soul that is out of its waters in the limelight of men but blooms in solitude and quiet. It is a heart free to its very roots, impervious to every kind of pressure, far from every kind of stench, untouched by any kind of chains. It distinguishes truth from false hood with a certain mystic sense. Its every breath offers gratitude for all of God’s works that surround it and for every joy and every affliction, for every possession, and for every privation as well. Crouching humbly on the Cornerstone which is Christ, it drinks unceasingly of the eternal water of Paradise and utters the Name of Him who was and is ever merciful. Such a soul is like a shady tree by the running waters of the Church, with deep roots and a high crown where kindred souls find comfort and refuge in its dense branches.

Such is the true theologian. If anyone wishes to be so named, let him be measured by this measure. Even he who simply wishes to be a disciple of such theologians must walk in their exact footsteps if he desires their words to be echoed in himself, and his eyes to see light.


  1. Fr Steven, please forgive me my out of place and ill timed comments. I was caught up in a secular politic and had mush for brains. After Confession, and looking at my own writing and thinking. Again I can only ask for you to forgive me.Your blog at the moment is my only real Orthodox connection. I spoke to Fr Tate, in Oregon, and he has advised me to retun to a Church life and ignore my foolish and unspiritual thinking. I admire the way you bring both theolgy and history givein us all a chance to see, the modern failings. As if we did not always fall short of what God wants from us. Thank you

  2. Amen and amen…it is very difficult trying to control, limit, put to death the thousands of thoughts that flood the mind especially in this day and age. Even though at 74 yrs old, the body is seemingly dead but the mind is active it is still difficult. If it wasn´t by the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit I would be lying along the roadside in despair. Blessings.

    (I wonder if that book is still available?)

  3. Father, this was especially well timed for a few things I’ve been going through.

    This is a stark contrast to my last weekend, when in the midst of engaging in an old hated vice, I literally told a friend who confronted me about my constant negativity and cynicism, “Speak only truth. Only evil is true. That is what I am.” I’ve done a bit of soul searching and prayer in the last week; perhaps rather fortunately, it turns out I am much more of a liar than I would like to think.

    If the soul is filled with the presence of God, no place remains for sin. The light casts out darkness by its own power without our effort as long as we keep the shutters of our heart open to it.

    This gives me hope.

    Lord have mercy.

  4. Fr. Stephen, that quote I am saving it into my file of Orthodox gems. It is quite beautiful, but so also is St. Nicholas, our model of meekness and self-control, punching Arius in the nose, Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple, and the donkey opposing the madness of the prophet Balaam. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.


  5. This beautiful post (and the comments) reminded me of an illustrious and typically paradoxical sounding dictum of the ascetics:
    “the measure of a man’s purity of heart corresponds to the measure that he sees the sinfulness lurking in it”, especially appropriate on this Sunday.

  6. Thank you father for this beautiful post. Thinking of the last article on creation I thought this quote appropriate. “Everything is old, like the defeat of ones defeated long ago–defeated from the beginning, since even the beginning of history is itself a defeat. Thou art the only Novelty, my Conqueror; after the first man Thou art the only New Man. In the sleepy caravan of history, Thou art the only unexpected oasis….” St. Nikolai Velimirovich.

  7. I never knew I wanted to be a “theologian” until I read this! Thank you so much. I needed this today.

  8. Thanks for this, Father! Dr. Kalomiros could be controversial, and too overstated and one-sided in his views, including his critique of the West; but I know that I’m just one of many converts for whom the reading of his “River of Fire” was a liberating ecstasy. If I may steal and alter some words from a Keats sonnet to explain that experience: “never did I breathe [the] pure serene” of the gospel, “Till I heard [Kalomiros] speak out loud and bold./Then felt I as some watcher of the sky/When some new planet swims into his ken.” The new and joyous planet that swamp into my ken was the “good news” as embodied and experienced in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. I had what I think was a typical response to that work: “In my heart [or “nous”] I always knew that this is who God must be!”

    Thanks for sharing this particular piece, Fr. Stephen. I think it’s immensely helpful in preparing for Lent and I’m just delighted to become acquainted with some more wisdom from the good doctor. I read it at supper tonight to my family

    A longer work that speaks of what Dr. Kalomiros discusses briefly above is Mother Maria Skobtsova’s: Types of Religious Lives

  9. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    In the same spirit as you have written above i would like to stick up for Fr. Serephim Rose. I don’t believe that you have read his works. His book on geneses agrees with you on all most every count. He did not believe in six 24 hour days of creation. He did not believe that you could know how long those days were. He insisted that the gneiss account should be taken literally, that is that God actually did the things recorded there, but not historically. He simply pointed out that we can not know much about the nature of reality before the fall. He did not think that the earth is “young”. He said that we could not know how old the earth is. He simply pointed out that science can not know either.

    The one thing that He was very insistent about is that evolutionary theory is very anti Christian. He said that it is ” a different thought pattern”. And can only lead to evil things.

    He did an excellent job of presenting the patristic mind on these subjects. You should be encouraging your readers to take up his books. He was controversial, to be sure, but so are all good men. You of all men should realize the difficulty of putting pen to paper. I would expect you to be much more sympathetic to this great writer. He. too, had a good heart. And I would rather read one sentence of his than all of what Dr. Kalomiros wrote.

  10. Poor Adeline
    I like your name. I had an aunt Adeline. However, I do not agree with what you said about Dr. Kalomiros. As Brian stated his River of Fire has also greatly influenced me. I read fr. Rose’s biography by fr. Damascene. I later picked up his Soul after Death. But it depressed me so that I put it down halfway through. I kept saying to myself that this is not the lover of mankind God that I see in Christ’ s parable of the prodigal son (whom we saw again only yesterday). I can’t buy into his literal tollhouses either. As Metropolitan Hierotheos notes in his book on the afterlife these tollhouses should best be seen as demonic attacks in this life. But I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come nor any created thing (I’m doing this from memory as I’m on my phone) can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  11. Poor Adeline,
    Your reading of Fr. Seraphim is very generous. I know some who knew him personally and they loved him, as I’m sure I would had I had that privilege. He was a holy monk. I am familiar with his debates with Kalomiros more than the Genesis volume.

  12. Davidp, Yes, Nostalgia for Paradise is available. I purchased a new copy from my parish book table within the last couple of years. (Just Google for the particulars.) When I bought it, my fellow parishioner working at the book table commented something to the effect that Dr. Kalomiros’ was deep/not an author for neophytes (he used different words that I can’t now recall). I spontaneously hugged the book close and blurted out that Dr. Kalomiros was my friend! This was because my experience with “The River of Fire” was every bit as revelatory and healing for me as Brian describes above for many converts. Dr. Kalmomiros’ exposition of this patristic teaching about the deeper nature of heaven and hell in that work was a conviction that God had put in my heart in a moment of spiritual desperation and crying to Him for greater understanding prior to my discovery of Orthodoxy. Dr. Kalomiros’ overstated critique of the theology of the West didn’t really bother me–in fact, that was liberating, too, because it was the very strains of thought in western theology that Dr. Kalomiros’ critiques so strongly in that address that had become so very troubling to me I found I could no longer trust the “God” revealed in such a theology, and consequently was in a deep crisis of faith because, at the same time, I could not reject what I understood of Orthodox/orthodox Christology to which, in my background Evangelicalism, these troubling elements of the atonement theories of “satisfaction” and “Penal Substitution” were wed. Discovering “The River of Fire” was my “eureka” experience that Orthodox Christianity was my true spiritual home.

  13. There are several passages in St. Porphyrios’ book “Wounded by Love” that echo this. Lovely, absolutely lovely.

  14. Poor Adeline and Dean,

    Besides his sobering The Soul After Death, Fr. Seraphim also wrote the beautiful and joyful, “God’s Revelation in the Human Heart, originally a lecture given to college students near the end of his life. It has none of the “gloom” that does seem (I agree with Dean here) to cling to some of his works. I think neither Fr. Seraphim nor Dr. Kalomiros should receive uncritical acclaim, but they both also deserve the thanks of many for the light they’ve shed on the faith. I’m so glad that two other responders have mentioned how the “The River of Fire” helped open the treasures of Orthodoxy to them; in the same manner Fr. Seraphim’s Revelation of God in the Human Heart softened my brother’s heart towards God and opened that heart to Christianity. Together, both men brought many to the fullness of truth in Christ’s church and much in their works also provides ongoing sustenance for those within her. If the saints in heaven have not always agreed with each other on earth, then surely there is room for these two good men, disputants though they were within the boundaries of the Church.

    And that reminds me that it was to share some wonderful sustenance (and not debate personalities) that Fr. Stephen posted the selection above. It is the merit of the reflections and not the nature of the author that might best engage our attention. Victor mentions how St. Prophyrios echoes the same words as Kalomiros and I think Mother Maria does as well in the selection I mentioned above;so he has at least two saints (and probably more) to, so to speak, back him up—or better to remind us that these are not just “his” words!

    C2006 by George Engelhard

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the DARKNESS that I am and make me the LIGHT.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the WAYWARDNESS that I am and make me the WAY.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the LIE. YOU are the TRUTH.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the LIE that I am and make me the TRUTH.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the DEATH. YOU are the LIFE.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the DEATH that I am and make me the LIFE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the SIN. YOU are the HOLY.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the SIN that I am and make me the HOLY.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the PRIDE that I am and make me the HUMILITY.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the ANGER. YOU are the HOPE.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the ANGER that I am and make me the HOPE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the ENVY that I am and make me the CONTENTMENT.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the COVETOUSNESS that I am and make me the CHARITY.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the GLUTTONY that I am and make me the TEMPERANCE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the LUST that I am and make me the PRUDENCE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the SLOTH that I am and make me the FORTITUDE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the DARKNESS that I am and make me the LIGHT.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the WAYWARDNESS that I am and make me the WAY.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the LIE. YOU are the TRUTH.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the LIE that I am and make me the TRUTH.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the DEATH. YOU are the LIFE.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the DEATH that I am and make me the LIFE.

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the SIN. YOU are the HOLY.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the SIN that I am and make me the HOLY.

  16. We still offer this book in our parish bookstore, one of my favorites. One always needs to remember that when reading any book it must be done within the Orthodox understanding and that the overall tone is Orthodox. Not all hearts are prepared for everything that is in a book so we must be like the honeybee and take that which is relevant to our lives and leave the rest. That said, this is one of my favorite books and worth reading as long as one remembers the above. Thank you Father for this and all your blogs, they are certainly good water for a dry soul.

  17. Keep in mind Fr. Seraphim was not against Kalimaros, just disagreed with some of his ideas.

    We must read both with care and prayer.

    My reaction to Fr. Seraphim’s book on Genesis was how mired I was in a material mind in ways I did not expect. Kinda the same reaction I had to River of Fire.

  18. Thank you for this beautiful post which I read on a dreary day at work surrounded by people suffering enormously. It lifted up my heart and made it sing! Thank you!

  19. It seems to me that Dr. Kalomiros is echoing St. Paul’s instructions to the church in Philippi: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” The scriptures direct us far more toward “positive virtues.” Of course, St. Paul seems no great fan of asceticism.

  20. Ralph,
    I can’t imagine why you would think St. Paul is no fan of asceticism. He clearly practiced a very normative Orthodox faith.

  21. Just for example, his comments to the Colossians:
    “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
    I think that would qualify as normative, and doesn’t seem very much in favor of asceticism. Perhaps I misunderstand “the privations that [one] imposes upon himself”?
    I don’t think we would ever accuse St. Paul of advocating excess and sensuality, but at least in this context, he seems to be advocating against self-imposed privations.

  22. Ralph,
    St. Paul seems here to be referring possibly to the rules of kosher – but fasting (which is normative asceticism) was clearly a common part of his life as it was among all of Christ’s disciples.

    Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1Co 9:26-27 NKJ)

    It is only within modern strains of Christianity (and certain early heretical sects) that asceticism is not commonly practiced. Orthodoxy has never known a form of Christianity that is not ascetical. We don’t expect to earn anything through it – grace is free – but we understand that if we are unwilling to accept such discipline we become illegitimate children (as is said in Hebrews).

    I don’t mean to over-react – but asceticism is generally never disparaged in Orthodoxy. It needs to be rightly practiced and not abused – which describes every commandment of God.

    But we must fast. We must pray. We must keep watch.

  23. Yes, Father Stephen.
    The three “whens” in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says…” When you fast, when you pray, and when you give alms.”

  24. I do not disagree with you, of course, Fr. Stephen.

    However, I have sometimes thought of fasting a different way. Today, for example, when I had time to eat lunch I was too nauseated to eat more than a few pretzels. Later, my stomach felt better but I had no time left to eat a meal because of my work schedule which extended far into the evening. In a sense, I see this as a natural “fast” given to me by God. If I accept it without complaint (not claiming total success in that), I learn through my bit of suffering to not over-value what I want and to unite myself with others who suffer far more than I do.

    I cannot say that this sort of experience is rare for me. However, it does not stop me from practicing planned fasting (or other ascetic practices, as long as not abused). Yet there may be times in life when our natural “fasts” or suffering are such that bearing them graciously is as much or more than we can handle physically or emotionally.

    It has saddened me at times, in my Catholic tradition, to see people who are so afraid to break the rules of fasting that they lose the spirit of them. (I know you are not advocating that sort of thing – just reflecting on my experiences…)

  25. Mary Benton,
    Many people get stuck on the does and don’ts of fasting, never getting past the rules. But they often get stuck in the same way regarding God, stuck with the ideas and the psychological projections but never reaching anything beyond.

    Fasting must be coupled with prayer – and both are a reaching out or reaching in – reaching towards God. Without this “reaching” they can be useless exercises. It is good to teach our children to fast, when they are of age, and to observe the practices of the Church, but they must above all learn the inner life of the Church (and thus their own inner life). This is far more difficult. St. Paul said to the Galatians, “I groan until Christ be formed in you.” If Christ is formed in us, then we will fast truly – for Christ fasted and He will fast in us.

    I like the practice of “serenely bearing our trials.” It is a life fast. I tell older Christians that age will ultimately set the most difficult fast of all.

  26. I echo the sentiments of Brian McDonald above. I was also very intrigued by the concept of positive and negative virtues. In our world it is quite common to believe: positive = good, negative = bad.

    But his concept somehow more rational, more sane – and less riddled with guilt. Using this mindset I can better regulate my life: subtract more of the world’s influence here (fasting) but then don’t leave a vacuum; replace it with prayer or whatever is appropriate. The world was filling a void in me, so whatever I replace it with should be of the same “shape”.

    I certainly don’t mean to sound like this can be turned into a formula; it’s just that my past experience has been so laden with emotion – and the idea that if something is good, then more of it is always better: more fasting, more prayer, more reading the Bible.

    The good doctor’s approach seems much simpler and yet much more intelligent about the use of the virtues (or spiritual tools). Thanks once again for sharing this wonderful selection.

  27. I was also intrigued by the notion of positive and negative virtues. As Drewster2000 said, we tend to think positive=good, negative=bad. Here’s another example of something negative which is good:

    Several years ago, I read a book about the Ten Commandments by a Quaker theologian, Vernard Eller. He argued that God wants us to be free, and that the “negative” commandments: “Thou shalt not…” give us more freedom than “positive” commandments.

    By way of illustration, if I hire a painter and say “Paint my house green” (positive command), he has very little freedom. If I say, “Don’t paint my house red” (negative command), he has a whole rainbow of colors he may use.

    God’s negative commands keep us from enslaving ourselves. Likewise, when I fast–whether from food or from TV–I discover that I was becoming a slave to that thing, and I praise God that I can be set free by His power.

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