The Invisible Shame

ringinvisibleThe young hobbit, Frodo, bears the terrible burden of carrying an evil ring to its destruction in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings. As he travels deeper into the darkness of Mordor, he is described as becoming “thinner” and is somehow “less visible.” The Ring itself has the power to make its wearer invisible – but only to those in the world of light. It makes the wearer dangerously more visible to those who dwell in darkness. It is an invisibility with consequences.

Invisibility has held a long fascination for human beings. Its mysterious possibilities are explored in everything from heroic tales of antiquity to modern science fiction. But Tolkien is one of the few writers to make visibility to be a metaphor for goodness itself. In his world, goodness is synonymous with light – the primordial first light of creation. To become invisible is to be less apparent to the light – and therefore more apparent to darkness. There is no middle ground in Middle Earth.

It is a metaphor that holds great richness for Christian thought – for there, light is equally synonymous with goodness. But what about invisibility?

The ability to disappear may not seem to be an issue on a practical level – but it is a deep instinct within our human experience. In the story of Adam and Eve, disappearing is the first reaction to the experience of sin. It is an instinct for darkness as old as sin itself.

We can never become truly invisible, but the desire to hide is often the same thing. And the desire to hide is fundamentally the experience of shame – it is shame’s most profound expression. It is also a revelation of shame’s essentially dark character.

I find it interesting that shame is not a prominent word in modern Western culture. The march of Progress has frequently trumpeted itself as a force for the abolition of shame. Various mores and cultural norms have been overthrown in the name of removing various stigmas and forms of shame. A young college co-ed who pays her tuition by working as a porn star proudly discloses her work and claims that she finds it liberating.

But it is not to be believed. None of it. Shame and the drive for invisibility abound. “Progress” is largely about the cosmetic arrangements of culture – but the depths of the human soul remain unchanged.

Our search for invisibility takes many forms. Conformity yields a common hiding place. No age in popular culture is more shame-driven than adolescence. Children leave the security and safety of innocence and begin to step outside of themselves. They feel naked and vulnerable – unsure of their identities, they sense the stares of all around them. To belong, particularly through outward forms of fashion and behavior, is probably the dominant drive of adolescence. But our present technology has removed even the hiding place of privacy as our selfies and constant flow of information advertise the union of our shame. It is the mistake of Adam and Eve – shared shame is imagined to somehow be safer. 

Created and altered identities provide similar masks. Fashion, in its various forms, hides our nakedness (and thus our shame) in interesting ways. aeexpulsionThe fashions of the young often make no sense to the old (wearing your pants around your knees). And they indeed make no sense when taken as single, individual examples. It is their commonality that gives them their meaning. A Goth is known by his clothing, as is the Hipster and the myriad of other little sub-cultures that populate the world of youth. The wearer, I think, imagines that such fashion reveals something of who they are to the world (“I am hip”). But they in fact do just the opposite. Identity is unique. Personhood is unrepeatable. I am not a Goth, or a Hipster, or a Gansta-from-the-Hood, nor a Preppie member of the club, etc. Intimate, true knowledge, can never be revealed through our efforts to belong. Only nakedness reveals to truth of our identity.

But the nakedness which is all too common these days is an un-nakedness. It is the human body revealed as the object of sexual desire. Immodest fashions never share the true self – they reduce the true self to near non-existence.

The nakedness that reveals the true self is something we most want to be invisible. It is the body of our shame. And this is the strange turn in the nature of our shame.

For shame is always about “who” or “what we are,” not about “what we have done.” And who we are, our true self, is generally hidden, even from our own awareness. It is the self I am afraid to know. Some fear this self because they think there may be nothing there. The various inventions that we create to serve as placeholders of the self are complete ephemera. They are like a mist that dissipates with the dawn.

But the true self remains, feared, unknown, and shrouded with shame. It is as though at the very core of our being there was a private Hades, holding the true soul imprisoned and out of communication. Rumors of its existence reach the outer world and its groans and tremors can sometimes be felt. But it is the darkness of the pit that surrounds it that holds us at bay.

It would seem strange that shame surrounds the true self. Surely, we imagine, the true self would be a shining reality that we would long to embrace. But this is not the case. The nakedness of the true self reveals its nothingness. It is but dust whose essence is the nothingness from which all creation was brought forth. When perceived in the Light, the fragility and ephemeral character of its existence is revealed. We behold it in shame, realizing that it shimmers for but a moment and is gone. “All flesh is as grass.”

It is into this Hades that the crucified Christ descends. The Orient from on High, He is the Daystar that rises in the heart. And to the true self He gives life and existence and holds it in eternal being.

Receiving that precious gift, however, requires that we ourselves embrace the reality of our fragile existence – despite our shame. For the gift is given to the truth of ourselves and not to any of the myriad imaginings we create as substitutes.

This is true humility and repentance. Our shame is not about what we have done, but about what and who we are. Our imaginary selves, clothed in pretense and woven out of illusion, are the stuff of sin. The “wages of sin is death” because sin has no substance. It is our own empty effort at self-creation. We are not and can never be self-existent.

The Elder Sophrony describes our awareness of this empty state within as “mindfulness of death” and names it as a great grace. For it is finally when we acknowledge the complete futility of everything in creation that we see the truth of our existence and the truth of God. The unbearableness of this naked emptiness is the fundamental shame that hides the truth of our being from us.

The imagery of Christ bearing our shame (Psalm 69:7) is significant. This is not at all the same thing as declaring Him to have “borne our guilt.” We do not have a legal problem (though if we had a legal problem He would bear that, too). It is not the things we have done or not done that ultimately separate us from God. It is our refusal to acknowledge the emptiness of our existence and to embrace the gift of true being from God. We seek to make ourselves invisible from the Light that would reveal the truth of ourselves.

But Christ has borne our shame. He not only dies on the Cross, but enters into the depths of Hades. The Hades into which He enters includes the mystical Hades of the human heart where the true self resides. And there He bears our shame. He fully unites Himself to our creatureliness – the Uncreated becomes Created. The Self-Existent unites Himself to the Contingent. God becomes Nothing.

And the shame of our nothingness is clothed in true being. When we meet Christ there – we enter into true prayer and the restoration of all things. We see the True Light and are clothed in incorruption and immortality. Our shame is swallowed up in the fullness of Life and we stand “without shame or fear” before the great Judgment Seat of Christ – which rests eternally on Golgotha.

70 comments:

  1. Wonderful, but difficult. Are you defining “shame” as the result of our sin–the be-ing that we became when humanity turned from God’s Will in the garden? Just want to be sure I’m understanding this correctly….

  2. I am defining shame as the experience of ourselves apart from God – our nothingness. And it abides with us, layered over by our various efforts of self-existence. Strip away everything and come down to the very core of ourselves – and there we experience an existential nakedness – non-being. We have to repent of our efforts of self-existence and, finally, embrace the shame of our utter dependence on God – and then we find the possibility of true prayer.

  3. What depth! How profound. I couldn’t imagine such depth in Tolkien’s imagery… And I, as I was reading this (after having read some Fr. John Behr), I couldn’t remove the image of St. Peter who (having accepted his shame in humility) three times had to re-affirm his love for Christ having encountered Him risen at the lakeside, corresponding to his earlier threefold denial of Him approaching His crucifixion. The reference to the charcoal fire (Jn 18.18, 21.9) – as Fr John often reminds us-, evoking the vision of Isaiah, who after seeing the Lord in his heavenly temple, cried out, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts”. Before the encounter with Christ, we do not understand how we are sinful, nor even that we are sinful. But after the encounter with Christ we begin to understand the full scope of God’s transcendent and transformative work. We understand all things in the light of that encounter – invited to see even our own past retold with nothing left aside or glossed over as being too shameful or painful.
    Rather, just as in and through death —the one thing that is all-too-human — Christ shows himself to be God, so also in and through our sinfulness and brokenness we come to know the transforming and loving power of God; not that we should thereby sin some more (Rom 6.1-2), but to see ever more clearly how deep our brokenness extends. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirmed, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins.” Indeed, he claims, “the one who is conscious of his sins is greater than the one who profits the world by the sight of his countenance. The one who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than the one who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling among human beings. The one who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than the one who is deemed worthy to see the angels, for the latter has communion through his bodily eyes, but the former through the eyes of his soul.” To plumb the depth of our fallen condition is to scale the heights of divine love. (as described by Fr John Behr)

  4. Knowing what one is, and knowing what is not, yet.

    That could be some damned road back and forth into innocence, and falling things. Some works with what they have been given.

    I do not know why everytime that causes fear, and not tears of joy.
    Of course, sometimes not. But that seems to always be something that does not belong, mostly.

  5. Given what some spritual giants say about paying compliments forgive me but bravo for this… “Our search for invisibility takes many forms. Conformity yields a common hiding place.” My fear is that many people actually use the church for this

  6. Thank you, Fr. Freeman. My apologies for not picking up on it in full.

    And thank you Dino for the additional wisdom.

  7. Byron,
    No apologies. When I first read it out loud to my wife the other night, I got her wrinkled eye-brows. I edited it a little and went with it. It’s actually a very difficult topic – I tend towards the poetic when writing about it because of its difficulty. Only poetry allows us to move past rationality when we need to – or so it feels to me.

    There are passages in Archm. Zacharias writings on this topic that simply stop me in my tracks – so completely that I dare not even quote them. I read them. I live with them. But I still dare not quote them. The truth is so scandalous that we cannot yet bear it.

  8. Father Stephen,

    How would you describe Mary the Mother of God’s sinlessness in accord with this statement, “I am defining shame as the experience of ourselves apart from God – our nothingness. And it abides with us, layered over by our various efforts of self-existence”? Im guessing that she is sinless because she doesn’t try to add any layers in effort to create self-existence, but yet still recognizes her nothingness in a state of falleness (being out of communion with God because of Adam). I suppose Catholics who subscribe to the Immaculate Conception would disagree with my guess.

  9. If I understand you correctly; we come to Confession ‘unclad’ and leave with the new clothing of Absolution.
    But what is one’s ‘garb’ before and after Holy Communion?
    During the Divine Liturgy we are in God’s own Presence; we sing the Angels’ song that Isaiah tells “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the Lord makes Himself present to us in His Body and Blood.
    My sense after Communion is that I’m wearing a spiritual suit of armour, is this truth or imaginary?

  10. Michelle,
    The Church understands the Mother of God’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy Word,” as a confession of perfect self-emptying humility. She stands “unashamed” in the complete vulnerability of her existence before God and is thus “able” to become the Mother of God. This is the great error made by many. Mary is not only chosen – she is able to be chosen.

    Orthodoxy does not approach her Conception in the same way as the West since we do not think in the same terms on Original Sin, but we agree on the sinlessness of the Mother of God. But Orthodoxy does not think of sin as guilt or stain or legal debt – it is ontological (a matter that effects our very existence). She lives “authentically.” God is the whole of her existence. Her self-emptying at the Annunciation is simply the vocal expression of what had always been true in her life.

    We don’t have huge mechanical explanations of how this is so. We simply believe it is so.

    When you approach sin in an ontological manner, it can be seen as synonymous with our non-existence, the nothingness of our nature. We never have an existence that is our own – only the existence that is from God. The pseudo existence that we have at present is our rebellion, the effort to pretend that our nothingness is actually something.

    If this seems difficult to understand – it is. But it is a much better path for thinking about all of this than the typical sin=legal wrong things.

  11. Father,

    Could you elaborate more on: “Our shame is not about what we have done, but about what and who we are.” I understand the main thrust, about non-being and our own nothingness. I suppose I’m thinking more on this earthly plane, what role do our actions, our “sinful” actions, play in our lives? For is it not actions that we must confess in Confession? Should I “feel shame” over my sinful actions?

  12. RC,
    Shame is indeed how we feel about who we are rather than what we’ve done. “Guilt” describes how we feel about what we’ve done. And certainly in confession it is good to confess both. Elder Sophrony directed Archm. Zacharias, when he first became a spiritual father, to encourage the young people “to just confess their shame.” It is primarily the revealing of our shame that strips the heart and allows us to enter into repentance. It is rather rare in my experience for people to weep for their sins in repentance – but shame will come closer to it producing tears than almost anything.

    When we do not deal with our shame, we are often still quite hard-hearted and not at all vulnerable or open to God. It can be very much just on the surface, a sort of laundry list of “sins.”

    But this is very difficult to speak about in this context. Not every confessor understands this and you should always take directions from your confessor, instead of someone like me. Though many priests read the blog as well and I often get private questions from them. I’ve been speaking on this topic of shame a fair amount when I travel and speak and I plan to do much more. I strongly recommend the writings of Archm. Zacharias who treats this very well. I discussed it when I was with him this summer.

    There’s not a lot “should” in feelings. You do feel shame already…it’s there in us all. When I prepare candidates for reception into the Church and they are making their first confession – it is this topic of shame that we treat most of all. It requires a great deal of “safety” to genuinely speak about our shame. There were things in my own childhood that I was unable to mention to a confessor until very late in my life. And strangely, they were not things that were “my fault.”

    Think about the woman taken in adultery in John’s gospel. She is utterly exposed – truly naked – caught “in the act of adultery.” With a crowd standing around with stones in their hands. Think of how Jesus treats her.

    Think of the woman at the well. “Bring your husband…” “I have no husband…” “You do well to say you have no husband, for you have had 5 husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband…” Nakedness. Utter vulnerability.

    These are cases where true repentance is able to occur. The woman at the well becomes a saint. I think many people fantasize about what it would be like to have met Jesus. If it were face to face and personal…it would have revealed your shame. It always did. Zachaeus, Nicodemus, repeatedly. The rich young ruler could not stand the shame of his greedy heart…

    So, yes. Though the things we do wrong should be confessed…it is good to think of our shame. What makes you feel truly naked and vulnerable. What do you not want anyone to know? What are you most afraid to tell your priest? Would you feel safe saying it out loud. If not…then don’t. God gives us grace, as Archm. Zacchaeus says, “To bear a little shame.” A little is enough to start with. Just a little.

    This will sound terrible. But I was ashamed when I first converted, though I did not know it then. And I see this frequently in converts. I was ashamed of how much I didn’t know and of how clumsy I was in the services (I was immediately put in charge of a new mission when I was chrismated – it was an unusual situation – and I felt terrible). One reason I felt so bad, in hindsight, was because I had been so proud of how “competent” and “well-trained” I was as an Anglican. I despised many others whom I judged to be less so. And the shame almost killed me during my first several years of Orthodoxy. I suffered a lot. But as time has gone on it’s gotten better. But it really didn’t get ok until I realized that it was shame that I was feeling and began to treat it responsibly.

    Shame is hateful to us and we run from it. It is almost always the cause of our anger and judging of others. It is also a major cause of depression. But if you see it for what it is, and can turn and face it, and “bear a little of it,” you can be healed. I presently feel less “competent” than at any time in my life and I see that I was never as good and talented as I thought I was. It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s very good for me.

    I hope those are helpful thoughts. Forgive me.

  13. Thank you so very, very much for a thoughtful reply. And thank you for continuing to share your heart with us!

  14. Wonderful, Fr. Stephen.

    I particularly like what you shared of Archm. Zacchaeus’ words, “To bear a little shame.” I wish someone had shared those words with me about 35-40 years ago! Both within Church and psychotherapy at that time it seemed to be taught that ALL must be confessed or exposed or none of it will count – and that certainly made anxiety and shame grow exponentially. Only by the grace of God did I survive it.

    I so appreciate what you shared here as well:

    I presently feel less “competent” than at any time in my life and I see that I was never as good and talented as I thought I was. It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s very good for me.

    I know what you mean. 🙂

  15. Where in Isaiah is it mentioned that Christ bore our shame? Or are you perhaps referring to David in Psalm 69:7?

    Truly, though, a great article. I never noticed that particular thematic dimension of invisibility in The Lord of the Rings, but now it seems quite obvious. The imagery you employ also reminds me of D. B. Hart’s Christ or Nothing, though he takes it in a somewhat different direction.

  16. “For it is finally when we acknowledge the complete futility of everything in creation that we see the truth of our existence and the truth of God.”
    I think that is one of the powerful and poignant statements I have read in a long time Father.
    To keep this in our mind and hearts daily is a true battle.

  17. How does one make one’s shame visible? Are there certain types of shame associated with certain types of behavior?

    For instance the shame of sexual abuse often leads to sexual dysfunction but it can go in any direction, or so it seems.

  18. Thank you, Father, for your reply to me. It is very helpful. I also was curious if general fear of death and anxiety over the basic needs of survival are related to the shame of our nothingness? Or is it simply fear and anxiety over realizing our nothingness, without any shame involved. How would you describe fear and anxiety as being sin?

  19. Michelle,
    A very remarkable quote:

    Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)

    Our fear and anxiety, on a certain level, are indeed a fear of death – which has many, many forms and shapes. Powerlessness, all vulnerabilities, etc. So fear and anxiety are the “sounds of sin” in our life, they are often how we experience the shame of our nothingness.

    Again, it is very important when thinking about sin, not to think of this is moral/legal categories. Thus anxiety and fear is “not a sin” in the moral sense. We’ll get no where by trying not to be afraid or to be anxious. They are only symptoms. The deeper root is our rebellious drive towards self-existence and the refusal to accept the shame of our nothingness. The cure is in the sacraments and the life of faith, as we slowly learn to “bear a little shame.”

    This is part of the wonderment in Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov, the murderer, finds his true being in confessing his crime and accepting his punishment. Dmitri finds salvation in accepting punishment for a crime he never committed and enduring Siberia. Dostoevsky himself found salvation when he was suddenly dismissed from a firing squad and sent to prison in Siberia for 4 years. It was in accepting his crime and bearing the little shame of his punishment, willingly embracing it, that he found true life in Christ. It is the same for us.

  20. I ask the above question because I used to suffer from severe panic attacks. For me panic attack were basically a sudden onset of heart attack, or stroke like symptoms (racing heart beat that caused pain, numbness of limbs, inability to speak, etc), accompanied by the fear of a seemingly immediate death. Sometimes the fear of death came first, sometimes the physical symptoms, but the panic attacks were always related to my guilt over the lifestyle i had been living at the time (I knew I wasn’t obeying God), and also at the same time with a mistrust in God’s existence and/or goodness that caused me to truly sense my life’s inherent nothingness. Im not sure that I was ashamed of my nothingness that caused these paralyzing panic attacks so much as simply my realization of the nothingness my life was while not having any real trust in God. But I still would say they were caused by sin. So, in short is there more than one category of sin related to our nothingness; sins of shame and sins of unbelief/mistrust? Or maybe I was ashamed after all, even though this is not immediately apparent to me?

  21. Thank you, Father,

    I posted my second comment before seeing your response. This is helpful, but I am still wondering how a lack of belief or trust in God are related to shame? Its seems one could acknowledge our nothingness, without a sense of shame that vainly desires to try to fill the nothingness, and yet mistrust God in a despairing, sinful way. I will reread what you’ve written and do a little reflecting on this.

  22. Michelle,
    Only trust in God, our abandonment to His great mercy, can face the shame of our nothingness.

    I suffered from a panic syndrome for nearly 40 years. I deeply understand. At some point, the panic simply becomes about panic, a body-response that seems to go on auto-pilot. I have largely been delivered in the past 2 years or so, as well as learning some things that help me cope when the threat emerges.

    It is of interest to me that a year-and-a-half ago, when I lay on a gurney in the hospital being told that I was indeed having a heart attack, I was quite calm. When they did the procedure to place a stent in my artery, I prayed, breathed, and gave myself to God, choosing not to have any medications. It’s so much easier to die if you’ve already died.

  23. Michelle –

    I suffered from panic disorder for a long time as well. I have come to consider it a gift from God because it taught me so much that has enabled me to help others with anxiety and panic in my work as a psychologist. While it has not plagued me recently, I never consider myself “cured” because I am human and vulnerable – as we all are.

    The things that set off panic in an individual vary greatly. We never trust in God enough – it is a process that is ongoing, hopefully ever deepening. However, I do not think that we should worry or accuse ourselves of lack of trust when we are suffering, lest we simply add to our sufferings with negative ruminations. (I’m not saying that you are doing that – just a general thought for anyone reading who is plagued by the dilemma.)

    I believe that when God allows us to experience suffering of any type, He also allows us much grace to learn and grow from it.

  24. Dear Father,
    Thank you for another encouraging post! I have been reading and listening to you for a few years and find your writings speak to my heart. Thank you for taking the time to articulate the fullness of the faith to a thirsting people.
    I have dealt with shame issues for many years and I’d like to share two Orthodox writings that have been helpful to me. Nun Katherine Weston wrote an article entitled Healing the Legacy of Shame through Jesus Christ. Also many years ago Met. Jonah also gave a retreat on shame, I think parts of his talks are in his book Reflections on a Spiritual Journey.

  25. “Again, it is very important when thinking about sin, not to think of this is moral/legal categories. Thus anxiety and fear is “not a sin” in the moral sense. We’ll get no where by trying not to be afraid or to be anxious. They are only symptoms. The deeper root is our rebellious drive towards self-existence and the refusal to accept the shame of our nothingness. The cure is in the sacraments and the life of faith, as we slowly learn to “bear a little shame.””

    This made me think of the movie “the Island” last I viewed last night. It is about a clairvoyant Holy Fool and the interactions he has with those who come to see him and his fellow monastics (russian with english subtitles on NetFlix). A central theme in his life is an early act of cowardice that he spends much time lamenting about. Without some understanding of the “Orthodox mindset” it would be very easy to see his interpretation and “shame” over this event and his subsequent life before God in a legalistic way. I would almost not recommend the movie to someone not Orthodox.

    Also to all, thanks for the discussion about panic attacks! I also have suffered from them (starting in my teenage years) up until recently, though for the past few years or so they have largely been “physical”, more benign, and the attendant psychological storm of dread/death/loss of control has been largely absent – and here I largely attribute it to my improving relationship with God and my inevitable death. I was talking to a deacon recently (who sometimes fills in at our little mission parish) who says there some significant work going on combining a certain branch of psychology (the name escapes me) and hesychastic techniques that even the military is looking into to help with PTSD, helping warriors decision making under stress, etc. Unfortunately our conversation was all to brief and cut short but I will follow up with him upon his next visit. Perhaps Mary or someone will have some insight. Perhaps it’s not a coincident that we all seem to have the same predisposition to this sort of psycho/spiritual dread…

  26. Hi Father! I had taken a break from reading the blog for a while. I don’t know…I can only take so much of having my mind blown every time I read a post. I was at a low point spiritually too, and it’s hard to hear anything in those times. Anyway, I’m all caught up now. I’ve got a good sense of the threads you’ve weaved through your posts, and I think your book will be fantastic. I really love this post on which I’m commenting. It describes everything that I’ve been talking with myself about over the last month, and this topic is what’s brought me out of the spiritual low I mentioned. I realized a few weeks ago, we’re all going to die, and, Glory to God, it’s okay. Nothing matters except that we love each other. There is great freedom in death even for the living! In the face of death, it’s all vanity.

  27. Well, I for one have really enjoyed the panic attack sufferers and survivors session we’ve had here in the comments section, lol. My condition has also improved solely because of my improved relationship with God, and by His overabundant grace I haven’t had an attack in over 4 yrs now 🙂 Maybe Father Stephen should start a anxiety disorders support group blog, seeings how there are so many of us, lol.

  28. Michelle and other fellow sufferers,
    I have read with interest the story of Elder Thaddeus (Our Thought Determine Our Lives) who suffered from chronic anxiety for a number of years (and even had to struggle with smoking). His life was inspiring to me – reminding that no human frailty stands in the way of God.

    When I was first battling panic attacks back in the early 70’s, there was no name for them, no diagnosis, and no proper treatment. I was often treated incorrectly, or over-treated. Mostly, I just found ways to survive, to cope, to get on with life and be of some use to others around me.

    Then a few years or a decade would pass with very little problem, only for it to begin again. I avoided flying for ever so long since it was a guaranteed panic attack.

    As I’ve said, I have found real relief primarily through a technique called EMDR, which was developed for treating American soldiers with PTSD. A number of other things have been useful as well.

    All sickness can and should deepen our relationship with God. His strength is made perfect in weakness. What is very debilitating are misconceptions that our faith should make us somehow immune to things, or that if we only had enough faith, we would not have any problems.

    This is especially true of those problems associated with our mental states. But the brain is an organ like the heart or stomach. It is the primary organ through which the soul expresses itself to the world. But it’s still just an organ. If it is impaired, then the soul’s expression will be impaired.

    We should always encourage one another and be careful not to judge in such things.

  29. I came by to say hi and see what you all are up to and now it appears that I have to knock your leek about your pate on Saint Davy’s day or whatever it was that Pistol told Henry. Love you though!

    To become invisible is to be less apparent to the light – and therefore more apparent to darkness. There is no middle ground in Middle Earth.

    Unless you’re Glorfindel, who had great power in both realms. I was hoping that was a theme upon which you were about to expound. There’s a whole sermon to be found in Glorfindel.

    the desire to hide is fundamentally the experience of shame – it is shame’s most profound expression. It is also a revelation of shame’s essentially dark character.

    I think I would argue that shame is not dark in its character any more than nerve endings are dark because they alert us to danger. “Guilt,” my father used to say, “is an appropriate emotion for one who is actually guilty.”

    I might also point out that Christianity capitalizes on shame to a shameful degree. It’s one thing to be ashamed for doing wrong but the Gospels say that hating is equivalent to murder, lust is the same as rape, and calling someone a fool is bad enough to get you a free ride into hell. It seems to me that this level of shaming is equivalent to saying “being human is a sin.” (…more on that in a moment)

    But the nakedness which is all too common these days is an un-nakedness. It is the human body revealed as the object of sexual desire. Immodest fashions never share the true self – they reduce the true self to near non-existence.

    The nakedness that reveals the true self is something we most want to be invisible. It is the body of our shame. And this is the strange turn in the nature of our shame.

    Isn’t this really a Western idea? I think we can readily find evidence that as soon as Western culture was introduced to places like Africa and people were then required to start covering their previously naked bodies (of which they were not at all ashamed), the instance of sex-related crimes dramatically increased.

    In societies in the Amazon, Africa, Southeast Asia, etc the naked body is not a thing of shame at all. I think that this correlation between skimpy fashions and shame is not quite as clear as all that.

    For shame is always about “who” or “what we are,” not about “what we have done.”

    Ah, here we come to the crux of the matter. From a Christian worldview this is true. There is no justice in Christianity. “You are born in sin” and are therefore defective and bad. Bad deeds would not be done but for your sinful nature and condition.

    Whether you have actually done anything or not is completely irrelevant. Of course, if you live long enough then eventually you will do something wrong. But that’s not what you should be ashamed of. You should be ashamed that you are human and therefore a sinner.

    I find this line of thinking very difficult to accept without raising objections.

    Anyways, just wanted to let you all know that I was thinking about you all.

  30. TLO,
    You have managed to read this in about as shallow a way as I can imagine, misunderstanding, misconstruing. I think of you as have the ability to reflect. You did not use it here. Sorry.

  31. TLO,
    The objections you mentioned reminded me of the unfounded objections a heavy metal fan has after getting a superficial glimpse of J.S.Bach’s music, or even vice versa, the objections a Bach fan has to metal after a superficial listen. They don’t [want to] get it!
    Your mind is made up and special interpretative spectacles are firmly soldered on well before reading the above…

  32. Hi TLO,

    Nice to “see” you again. I’m not going to argue any points with you – life’s too short. But I’m glad you stopped by to greet us.

  33. Father Stephen, you said, “what is very debilitating are misconceptions that our faith should make us somehow immune to things, or that if we only had enough faith, we would not have any problems.” I think this goes well with what Mary said earlier, “I do not think that we should worry or accuse ourselves of lack of trust when we are suffering, lest we simply add to our sufferings with negative ruminations.” I whole heartily agree with you both, and hope I haven’t given the wrong impression that I believe that all panic disorders are directly related to a lack of faith in every case. I believe there are as many different causes and reasons for panic disorders as there are the number of individual sufferers; I am sure everyone who suffers from a panic disorder does so in a personal way unique to them.

    But for me, my personal experience with this disorder has always been directly related to my relationship with God. In other words, God was my “trigger”, every time. I went through a dark period in my life where I was very confused about who God was. I was almost 100% sure He existed, but at the same time was sincerely questioning God’s goodness. At that moment in my life everything I thought I knew about Him and His plan of saving the world He created was pushing me towards the idea that He was in fact evil (I only really knew of Calvinistic ideas of salvation and damnation, and I was struggling to find a theodicy that could solve the problem of evil). Ironically, during all of this questioning I also had an intense awareness of the fact that I was living an exceedingly sinful lifestyle of debauchery that made me desperately long for God. I wanted to repent so so badly, but didn’t trust the integrity of the God I wanted to repent to. I was a mess, and my brain and body responded with depression, anxiety, and crippling panic attacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if my genetic biology played a role in all of this, since almost everyone of my immediate family members also suffers from one or more of these disorders. But Ive never had my condition professionally assessed. What ultimately put my disorder into remission was my realizing that i had to give up; I gave up questioning God’s goodness and simply made up my mind that He was good. I also prayed a lot. I tried to go to church here and there. And eventually, in an attempt to give up my debauched lifestyle, I quit my job, quit my friends (drinking and drugging buddies, though I relapsed over and over again), and moved out of state in order to study theology at a Christian University. I was determined to cure myself by surround myself with God. And it worked. Every since then I have been growing towards God, and not away from Him.

    Anyway, thats why I brought up my panic attacks in the first place. I feel like I could have read this article about sin being the shame of our ontological nothingness apart from an ontological union with the God of Life and Love during those dark years in my life and agreed with every single word, and yet still retained my idea that the God who actually did exist was an evil God (I needed proof that God was good, I wanted a rational theodicy). All it would have meant to me back then is that my life really was a black pit of nothingness, and that the hell of living life in a black pit of nothingness would prevail forever, because no good God of love to commune with existed in order to free me from the pit. I would have recognized the futility of all vain attempts to eradicate the shame of nothingness. And if you accept the truth of your nothingness can you really say you are ashamed of it? But accepting the nothingness without shame does not necessarily mean you are in communion with God, it just means that you’ve accepted hell as your rightful home.

    Anyway, I hope Im making sense. If not, I am sorry about that. I am aware that may be I am overthinking the whole thing.

  34. Michelle,
    I truly understand. I was just being aware that we are being read by many others and I was adding my caveat about not being hard on ourselves, or somehow condemning our spiritual life. We are so broken and still more easily bruised!

    I think that it is indeed true that these things have a spiritual root, and that they can be both a means of our drawing close to God (remember St. Paul’s thorn) and a means of being repelled. All things are in God’s hands.

    My disorder came dangerously close to destroying my life, and its healing has been among the greatest things of wellness to happen to my life – though the wellness is far more spiritual in nature than the simple freedom from a disabling condition.

    It is a story that I might write about in a decade or two – should I live so long.

    But, God has blessed me with a deep empathy for others who suffer as I have. I am an adult with ADD (not diagnosed until I was 58 and it feels silly to me sometimes). I endured a panic and anxiety disorder for years as well as periodic bouts of depression. I could go on, but that is enough to be circumspect. But my pastoral work has made me keenly aware of people with OCD, Bi-Polar, etc. and I feel a deep kinship with them even when it is not my own problem. It has been an interest of mine over the years, because of my own life, to think carefully and deeply about the nature of having a spiritual life with such handicaps. I think it is more than possible – it might be the only thing possible.

    I know that anything less than Orthodoxy, or Orthodox-like, was and is insufficient. God has so far been merciful enough to keep drawing me further into understanding – and so I keep writing. I once told Fr. Thomas Hopko that the more I write, the less I know. He said, “Keep writing! Some day you’ll know nothing! Then you’ll be holy!” I pray that such a day will come.

  35. Michelle,
    you make 100% sense to me. What I’ll try to quickly say might sound paradoxic:
    Periods of apparent ‘God-forsakeness’ (as Elder Sophrony often speaks of) can come both before and after our adult repentance. Since every person who comes into the world has an (even if still infantile) experience of Grace, God’s subsequent apparent ‘hiding’ is experienced for mixed reasons – including our sins, our impurity of heart, and His pedagogy, (and even [later and after having ‘met’ Him in great power] His honouring, recognising, belief in us -which can, at the time feel like Job’s test – but that’s not for now.) Irrespective of all this, our adversary will invariably approach and whisper incessantly either: “God is evil” (that’s why the devil is called ‘diabolos’/slanderer of God), or “there is no God”.
    The adversary might even visibly appear to some (as a providence of the good God who meanwhile remains hidden for our good) and actually end up thus destroying what he (the devil) is trying to produce…We know and we trust that God’s hiddeness is always for good – it’s mainly a corollary of His infinite respect and love for His creatures but also a lot more than that. Moreover, in all stages of a persons progress, beholding God can potentially be the most dangerous thing that can happen to self-centred man, let’s consider for instance how much more difficult it would be to fight with the chief [fallen] angel once he has such a ‘footing’, in order to add to his whispers that we are “not as other men are”(Luke 18. 11).
    The end agenda of our adversary is not our sinfulness though, whether of desire or anger or even pride, what is concealed (his ultimate goal) is our desperation.
    But then again, desperation from everything except God (perfect hope in Him in other words) and acceptance of that ‘shame’ of utter dependence is our salvation in Christ on the other hand.
    Finally, it is only in the light of the encounter with God (that usually follows a terrifyingly humbling encounter with the adversary which experience can prepare the ground for abiding humility), one’s eyes are opened to fathom the true depth of one’s endless dependence upon God. (as in Isaiah’s vision)
    I might attempt and come back to this important point when I get some time.
    May we all come to see God’s providence in all things which passes all understanding.

  36. I think Father Stephen’s article on [the transcendence of] “Suffering and a good Death” is very relevant.

  37. I deeply sympathize with Michelle and Father Freeman’s experiences and with your panic attacks and anxiety in relation to your internal mental understanding of God. I suffer from severe scrupulosity (religious orientated OCD and anxiety disorder), with the deep anxiety, panic attacks, depression and difficulty in thinking and functioning that results from it, and I certainty resonant with some of the things you describe, of something coming out of nowhere it seemed and twisting everything in your thoughts relating to Christianity and God. For myself I am plagued by continuous blasphemous thoughts, severe doubts about everything relating to Christianity, concepts, ideas about God, humans and so and so on, storming around in my head, usually being unable to get away from a particular thought or idea or twist on a idea my brain comes up with for that day or week, making it difficult to think clearly and producing great anxiety and fear of myself with varying degrees of panic attacks (I found an article in pravmir.com entitled Blasphemous thoughts and Despair on the experience of the Holy New Heiromartyr Kronid with this, that describes the experience have with it eerily, but it a comfort to that holy people have gone through it, because if such clear followers of Christ face it then there is hope, perhaps it will be of help and inspiration for you and anyone else as well). For a very long time I had no idea what was going on, it didn’t even enter my mind it was a form of OCD, I thought I was damned and a thoroughly wicked and terrible person, and found being in Christian environments, talk and language hard to be around or read, and ended up fleeing all Christian things, suffering extreme depression and suicidal thoughts (working on the logic if I could end my evil – at least to my perception – it would be better for everyone, God, my family, others around me so I don’t somehow infect them and this would keep getting worse for to in being judged) and planned it out a few times only more rational fears and what such a thing would do to my family managing to stop that. Only in the last few years have I know what is wrong and made steps to try and manage it. For me it doesn’t look like it will go away, and as much as I enjoy and learn from blogs such as Father Freeman’s it remains difficult. In fact the Sunday after next will be the first time in around 7-8 years I’ve gone into a Christian environment when I plan to attend Father Louth’s church in Durham here in the UK (which will be my first visit to an Orthodox Church), which I’m both hopeful and scared about at the same time, but I’m steeling myself of the coming attack because I must get myself there.

    Anyway I just really wanted both to say I understand and I both impressed by just how far you have come, I find it quite humbling having son idea just what such a struggle is like.

    I hope and pray God blesses you all deeply

  38. Grant et al,
    As I sympathize intensely with what you have been exposing here, I would like to draw attention to the Orthodox (‘hesychasm-based’) techniques of dealing with all this. Please, Father and all correct me where I err.
    In a nutshell, the method is ignoring these thoughts and feelings. Even disregarding them when they lead to sin. Pay no heed, even if the very Devil himself keeps appearing to you and everyone can see you shaking and collapsing in shock and tremor. Continue relentlessly refusing to focus on the aftereffects and to remain disinterested in trying to get to the bottom of why this happens… If we can focus as much as possible on believing God is gently looking upon us even in the midst of Hell, where the excruciating panic makes this clearly impossible, if we can –even a tiny amount- philosophize watchfully on it, ie: recapture a distance from our own sensation of utter panic, we will see that Christ, crucified yet exalted, utterly absent to our subjective experience of that time, is somehow utterly present.
    It is as if we bring on (almost self-suggestively) the sense of Grace that the saints have in heaven whilst in the midst of hades. Little changes on the surface, but demonstrating that intent of trustworthiness on God can eventually transform everything.
    There is profound wisdom in this action of watchful ‘ignoring’ our thoughts etc.
    As Christ spoke to Saint Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not

  39. Michael and Dino,
    It is correct to say “the thoughts are not your own” as in “this is a thought that I am consciously choosing to have, or that I am somehow generating from myself.” It is an artifact of the brain or its chemistry or other sorts of things (even demonic suggestion). Dino’s observation of “ignoring these thoughts and feelings” is also correct inasmuch as we seek not to empower them, to confuse them with our own chosen thoughts, etc. It is certainly not wrong to pay attention to them in the manner you would pay attention to a cut or a broken bone – acknowledge its pain and get it medical attention.

    But it is important to recognize in these “brain events” that these are not the products of the “self” – our willed, chosen way of being. They are the sounds, emotions, effects of something wrong and broken – that might be mitigated or fixed, or if not, then “ignored” in the holy effort to continue to live before God. He does not despise our struggles – rather He is on our side and upholds us despite our struggles – or even more so – He makes our struggles His own through His union with us.

    “Why does he not take it away.” The path of our salvation is marked by the Cross. Our healing and union with God are not without suffering – but in its very midst. We should always support one another and do everything to comfort one another.

  40. In my conversation with the deacon the other day he said something that struck me, he said the military has a saying; “self control is a limited resource”. He then went on to relate it to hesychastic techniques. Self control must be built up, and likewise can be used up. How many of us have walked into the house after a long and trying day and the wife or kids immediately demand something and *snap* – patience is found to be solidly past empty. This conversation confirmed for me why our Christian ascesis is so important in relation to our involuntary sufferings (in this context our panic syndrome and similar disorders) as in so many other things. If we have not practiced, and become skilled in, the denial of ourselves, the right handling of the demonic suggestions, and our trust in God then we break sooner rather than later. If we have not practiced getting up after we stumble in even the smaller ways, then when something really pushes down we do not have the spiritual “muscle” to help us through a truly trying and very terrifying event (such as a panic attack). “Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?” Our ascesis is as much a part of the “rewiring” our brain as EMDR, controlled breathing/counting, etc.

    Of course, as Fr. rightly points out panic syndrome and and other similar disorders are not always merely spiritual disorders. In my case and others here there is a strong physical side as well (which it must be remembered is wholly involuntary). In my past medications have been a larger part of the solution (though now they are less so – though at certain times like getting on a plane I simply make the sign of the cross and pop my pill 😉 ). For me, other strategies help such as maintaining an above average level of bodily fitness. May the Physician of our souls and bodies comfort us and guide us in our efforts to build the muscle of Faith, Hope, Love, and self control!!!

  41. Dino,
    Thank you for yours comments to me and Grant. They are quite enlightening and helpful, especially about the hesychasm techniques. This is kind of how I learned to cope before I ever new what hesychasm (or Orthodoxy for that matter) was. It makes perfect sense now.

  42. Christopher,
    I think that there can always be situations one step ahead of our current progress, no matter how practised we are, situations potentially capable of re-disclosing our weakness; and this is a good thing. We ought to retain this sobriety-producing memory of death/weakness, and couple it to the seemingly incompatible (but only on the surface), joyous trust in God’s providence and final ‘overcoming of the world’. Of course, our ascesis is invaluable in reclaiming that short period of reaction time (something equally applicable to addictions which remove this short period of time through the cultivation of a ‘passion’). But, paradoxically, both keeping one’s mind in Hell is part of Christ’s admonition to Saint Silouan, as is despairing not. The two combined are the sure path to the acquisition of the tremendous power of humility.

  43. Dino,

    I think we agree. Part of the difficulty in discussing this is it is all too easy to read “self-control” in a way that leads to a sinful assertion of the self over God and our nothingness/death and not give it an Orthodox, “self emptying” content. It is difficult to describe what a panic attack is to those who have not experienced one. You are as a man possessed, quite literally lost in physical and mental dread. Unfortunately, the “reaction time” as you so well put it is lost and so I do not believe that this form of “keeping one’s mind in Hell” is beneficial – and I judge this by it’s fruits which are depression, despair, mental and social and spiritual “dysfunction”, and the like. This is not to say that the overall experience of suffering of panic syndrome can not be a road that leads to spiritual discernment and a better relationship with God – it has for me – it’s just that one has to have the correct “relationship” with this form of suffering. I suppose I would say that to “to keep ones mind in hell” one first has to have the “self control” to “keep one’s mind” and not simply lose yourself in hell. In a panic attack, there is a profound sense of loss of self and thus there is no self control left to “despair not”. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the metaphor. I admit I have not yet made a study of St. Siluan and his disciples…

  44. Christopher,
    I do agree (with both your comments above)…
    It is the memory of the experience of hell that comes in most handy (to those who have tasted some of this in order to intentionally put ourselves there when confronted by the most subtle forms of pride), but always despairing not (as in St Silouan’s experience). When unexpectedly being plunged in hell though, despairing not takes most priority.

  45. TLO,
    Forgive me for coming across somewhat harsh, (I read the removed comment) but you just seemed to me to have leapt straight into an awfully misconstrued reading of what Father wrote, one that, to me, demonstrated strongly once again, that your long acquaintance with Christianity was not one with Orthodoxy at all. (plus tone has to adhere to ground rules.)

    You sounded like you had been immersed in a lot of Frank Zappa… 😉 which you might take as flattering, but I don’t exactly mean it as such, as he always struck me as someone who never really took the time to discover Who it really is he had ‘unbound’ himself from. He hadn’t the patience or desire to. But once he had made up his mind that religion is anti-intellectual and ‘ignorant’ he cemented his disgust to any opposition to this unconscious new god of his magnificently fortified atheist opinion so that – as Peter Atkins has also unfortunately once exclaimed -, he wouldn’t ever be able to be convinced…
    But the “gods” people like Zappa (-Atkins is a bit of a different kettle of fish-) discard we also reject, and your discovery of the truth that we do believe in is severely thwarted by your already exhausted patience.

  46. Grant-

    I would like to share something that helped me with the particular OCD dilemma you described – I can empathize with your suffering. (I am simply sharing my experience, not attempting to give psychological or spiritual advice, of course, because I do not know you personally.)

    When I used to suffer from blasphemous and other horrible obsessive thoughts (yup, OCD, along with the panic disorder), of course, the natural thing was to try to make the thoughts go away because they caused such a sense of horror and shame. And it seemed that the more I tried to make them go away, the more they plagued me. It felt like an inescapable shame because, even if I could bear telling anyone what my thoughts were – and I couldn’t – I knew my mind would create even more horrible ones, perpetuating the shame despite might efforts to dispel it.

    But God gave me a way out. I first had to accept that it was an illness (or a suffering), not easy for me, proud person that I am. Then He enabled me to see that any illness or suffering can be offered to Him and become a prayer, an act of love. It was not easy to accept that about THIS form of suffering because it seemed so especially anti-God, but I had to trust that God knew I did not choose to have this condition. Then, when I felt afflicted, I accepted the suffering, allowing it to become prayer and offered that prayer for someone else out of love for them.

    While this practice was not easy nor the positive outcome instantaneous, it brought relief. It enabled me to stop fighting the thoughts and it lessened the shame over time, freeing me from the trap. I still have an OC-style brain and probably always will; thus, I never claim cure. But I praise God for this gift.

    I will pray for you as you take the step of going to church again. I have come to believe that prayers made during times of suffering are very powerful prayers. We naturally fear suffering but, in Christ, we can learn to see it as a grace and a wellspring of love.

  47. Oh Mary, thanks for saying this. You won’t know how much it helps. Grant, I am with you (I deeply understand, I share, I pray with you)

  48. Mary,
    I concur with this method. I know of a case where a Christian football player actually managed his schizophrenia in a similar manner – a little trickier, no doubt.

    My mind is often “inundated” with the multitude of ADD stuff – too much information – too many distractions. It happens in the altar. Like you, I make it a prayer. I cannot make it go away, but it doesn’t have to make me crazy. I do “the one thing needful” and let the noise play on. I do not enjoy it, but I am able to serve and to be of use.

  49. The reason I emphasized that all those OCD and ADHD and suicidal thoughts do not belong to the people who experience them is two fold: 1 they are’nt ontologically and 2. there is a place, so I understand, within each one of us that is a fortress of sorts where all the demonic and worldly crap just can’t go. The is only goodness and joy and the freedom to pray.

    In most of us that place is quite small and only the grace of God and the prayers of others can get us there. The saints know the way. Many live there and expand that space. Apparently St. Silouan’s was quite large.

    Offering ones infirmities to God for the healing of others also enlarges that space.

    It is there we meet our Lord.

    Thank all of you for your prayers.

  50. Thank you for taking the time to comment on your own experiences Mary and Father Freeman, and your advice, understanding, and also to you albert, for your understanding and prayers.

    One of the things have been amazed by over the past two or so years, is how many people do struggle with this kind of OCD condition, I knew nothing about it before a chance discovery searching for reasons for being plagued with blasphemous thoughts (as I said, I assumed I was evil and demon dominated and cursed for a long time, and thought was was damned and damning myself more each second) it hadn’t before entered my mind it could be OCD or any such condition. That itself was a major change, and since then I have been working to letting go of the thoughts and cycles and ignore them, like a faulty alarm going off in my head that I can’t turn off, just annoying and irritating noise and so on. Of course sometimes the problem and trap can be that I then fall into getting obsessed about getting my head into a place of accepting this and feeling I have accepted this, and not engaging or getting anxious over them, which is in reality exactly the same problem and thing, just shifted and linked with those thoughts.]

    So letting go, not letting the ongoing assaults and cycles sweep me in or define my perception of reality, of learning to as you say accept it as a symptom of my condition, like ringing ears with tinnitus for example and getting on with the reality of things is a major focus right now. An image I sometimes for living with this is the Lord Jesus asleep in the fishing boat as He and the Apostles were crossing the Sea of Galilee and a fierce storm swept across it, but will the Apostles were afraid He wasn’t worried or perturbed in the slightest and slept on. He saw the truth of things (He is the Truth) and wasn’t bothered in the slightest by it all, and I feel it is the same with me and all those struggling with these disorders, and panic attacks and so on, we are distracted by all the noise and fury of the storm sometimes (well I am, I shouldn’t project to much onto others), but He isn’t worried by it in the slightest, it does bother Him or affect His love and hold of us at all, He is perfectly at peace and knows the reality of the situation, of ourselves, of others, more than we ever can, and such storms are small and pitiful things to Him, a thing of sound and fury but no substance, not worthy of His attention or getting up for, and that it doesn’t confuse Him for a moment like it does me, and I can live and put my life to that reality. My condition, and the storms in my head aren’t greater than He is, there is nothing that is, and nothing is greater than Him and His love, and nothing as St Paul says can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and if I say it can, I’m lying to myself because nothing is greater than God. So I take comfort in that, and in that image, that it’s not a storm for Him to get at all bothered about because it’s nothing but sound, fury that signifies nothing and what is nothing to Reality Himself.

    Anyway I’m sure if that helps anyone else, but it gives me some comfort, and if it does help anyone else then all the better for it. The other and I think really beneficial thing that has come from all this is I’m learning it is I had made God to small, I had reduced Him down in my mind to my thoughts and feelings and moods, and I had made an idol of this concept, and lived in my thoughts and cycles letting them dominate my life. But God is not a thought or concept, or some psychological trick of mine, and neither is faith or belief, I don’t have to work up some emotional state or mood, and have learnt and have had to make it a matter of my life, of acting and living out and in orientation to the truth, to He who is the Truth, and to His love, of deciding to act in love and committing myself to living towards Him, He is not my feelings or certainties or some emotional sense, He’s is larger than any of that, and mistaken Him for my own thoughts. Faith was something that is lived out, is acted out and lived out, and lived with Him, and others, love and responding to love was a choice and action and commitment and not a feeling.

    And so, with fear at first, but now I have taken up a number of things, such as morning and evening prayers, I have used an Orthodox prayer book, and though thoughts come, usually I try keep on, and offer up the prayers despite or ignoring my thoughts, I realise now they aren’t me, they don’t define my true self, and thus certainly don’t define God in the slightest or the reality of His love (writing it out shows how absurd it is to think it, but the emotions and mind can make it quite hard), so this has been very good in this respect. I think my previous embrace of Christianity was really quite Gnostic, all about inner feelings, conversion experiences and knowing you were saved and such like, and a quite separated idea of reality, and I reduced God in my mind to something that wasn’t God at all, and made everything a feeling and mood, and existed there and didn’t really engage reality. That love and faith are not feelings but an orientation of my life, a decision with my life and actions and commitment towards God and towards others.

    It has also brought me to have a far greater appreciation for the reality of God’s infinite love and grace found in Christ Jesus, as a lived out reality and not some emotion and feeling but an engaged reality, that He has brought blessing out of a curse and life out of death, and I have found I am able to bring this into the lives of others that are hurting or in pain, or feel they have no hope, it’s not perfect but it has made me able to both know others pain and to come into it and help see light, and for that I thank Him with all my heart.

    And I really want to thank you Mary about offering up the very storm and suffering as a prayer and offering, that is something that had not occurred to me, and is I think very helpful. And perhaps as I seek to help others that can be part of such an offering, as I don’t think I could without this, sometimes as we are we need such things to start to really see. But that was truly wise and profound to engage and make such things a prayer, this is something I put into action.

    Thank you all for your love, concern and prayers, I hope God blesses you all richly, deeply and reveals a glimpse of His infinite love for you all.

  51. Grant,

    You have born witness to His infinite love more powerfully than I ever could have. Thank you for sharing this.

    To Him be glory.

  52. I too, like many others, have suffered from vain and evil thoughts. I have tried to deal with them like flies – I change the subject in my mind to something clean and say a prayer. Sometimes I get carried away with the more compelling thoughts and often need to cut them off midstream. Treat them as if they come from outside. In the name of Jesus Christ, command the demons to depart. With God’s help you have the power to dispel them. Believe it. It is a fierce battle we all must wage. Don’t be afraid to take it on. You have help.

  53. “…I had made God to small, I had reduced Him down in my mind to my thoughts and feelings and moods, and I had made an idol of this concept, and lived in my thoughts and cycles letting them dominate my life….”

    I suspect we all struggle against this tendency/temptation – regardless of whether we suffer from the sorts of mental/physical conditions we have been discussing or not (I know I do). I have noticed this sort of narcissistic and “psychological” way of “defining” God quite a bit lately in some of those around me. Fr. Stephen (or anyone else), have you written an essay on this particular subject, and in particular do you have a suggestion as to what and how we might respond in a positive way to these people (if anything – as more often than not I find silence and a prayerful “response” is the best way…)?

  54. If, as CS Lewis once exclaimed: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good”, then, couldn’t the inevitable and repeated failed exertions of those who suffer from the aforementioned disorders can be considered a potential aid to acquiring this humility? Of course, one’s familiarization with hell and desperation in order to help their battle against pride is not without its dangers, but with the unrelenting replenishment of our resolved trust in God, it leads to heaven and unconquerable hope…
    We know that faithfulness and a firm repentance invite abiding Grace, humility and gratitude safeguard it. These four qualities seem fundamental – from the initial stages, all the way to those highest ones, when a saint becomes a mediator for the entirety of ‘Adam’.
    I always remember Christ’s curious admonition to St. Silouan (+1938) in order that he be entirely freed of the shackles of clandestine pride and the devil’s authority, it was to: “Keep his mind in hell and despair not.” St Silouan responded heartily by willingly making his “bed in hell” (Psalm 139:8), in the firm knowledge that ‘God is even there’. This rendered him invincible in the humility born of the remembrance of deserving the deepest of hells, whilst not despairing of God’s love. It also ultimately steered him to bear the despair of all peoples of all time, and prayerfully bear this hell –in the image of Christ– without ever himself losing hope. His subsequent remarkable prayer: “I pray thee oh merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know thee in thy Holy Spirit”, evinces this Christ-like love of cosmic and eternal dimensions, as it does Silouan’s personal familiarity with Christ in the Holy Spirit.

  55. Dino,

    Your recent quoting of C.S. Lewis reminds me of why I am sometimes tempted to say “Saint Clive Staples Lewis”. I would agree with what you say with the caveat that we remember that these types of disorders are (well, not necessarily) moral failings in the same sense of considering and then not following a commandment of God, for example. They (for most) arise out our “blood guiltiness”: the consequences of the fall and our mortality. We are no more “bad” for suffering them than we are “bad” for suffering a headache, or cancer. We are however to treat them Christianly as all our other sufferings and “hang them on the Cross”. Speaking for myself, humility and patience have been two big “take aways” from my struggles with panic attacks.

    “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good” – unrelated to panic attacks, this really struck me today. My wife and I had an experience with an employee of a certain airline yesterday while traveling. To say this person was rude to us (and others I noticed) might be an understatement. My thoughts towards this person where not kind. My reading for the plane was Elder Thaddeus, so I was immediately reminded of this, and thus my lack of charity. Mr. Lewis reminds me today of why this happened…

  56. Sometimes I think we over complicate all this (at least so my dear wife tells me). I know for a fact that the saints and our Lord listen and respond to her prayers because, in part, she prays like a ‘littl’ kid’.

    All of this can be subsumed under the two great commandments: “Love God with all of your heart mind soul and strength; love your neighbor as yourself.”

    My shame is due to my lack of love (or the lack of love on the part of someone else). The only way I know to overcome such lack is to repent and forgive entreating God’s mercy. We can think about it or we can do it. Not much middle ground that I know of.

    Which brings me back to my favorite quote from Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

    The quality of mercy is not strained.
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
    Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown.
    His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
    But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
    It is an attribute of God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show like God’s
    When mercy seasons justice.

    Our attempts at justice (especially for ourselves) always seem to preclude mercy in my experience. For instance when someone treats me rudely, it is an affront to my sense of right and wrong. “That just ain’t right! I demand justice!” or some such conversation goes through my poor, sinful head.

    There is one caveat. Real mercy/forgiveness requires some kind of personal encounter with the risen Lord. There, if we can stand it, we tend to see just how bad we are in a manner that goes far beyond mere morality.

    As good as Mr. Lewis was, I’m not quite sure he grasped this final point. But I am probably wrong.

  57. CS Lewis saying, “no man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good”, can be seen another way:
    Unfortunately our age is not interested so much in ontologically becoming ‘good’ anymore, it is merely interested in ‘feeling good’ – we see this in the type of spirituality that seems to flourish.
    The saying is not about morality in my mind, and therefore makes it relevant (to the topic of these disorders) not so much because of any moral or ‘blood guiltiness’, it simply (in the context of any illness, whether somatic, psychological even spiritual) aids in humility.

  58. “As good as Mr. Lewis was, I’m not quite sure he grasped this final point. But I am probably wrong.”

    Rest assured, your wrong 😉 . The Screwtape Letters come to mind, as does the essay “On Forgiveness” in collection “The Weight of Glory”. C.S. Lewis was no “mere” moralist.

    I think you are right Michael, as soon as we look for “justice”, it is our “justice”, and Mercy is nowhere to be found…

  59. Another part of C.S. Lewis’s corpus that comes to mind (when thinking about Lewis as a mere moralist) and does not seem to be very widely read is his science fiction trilogy. Another book of course is his “Pilgram’s Regress”, which starts out of course in a land called “Puritania” and a boy trying to find “the Landlord” after a remarkable spiritual experience – best described as an encounter with the Lord…

  60. Lewis was not a theologian, but he managed to intuit so much quite correctly (and brilliantly). He occasionally moves in a moral direction (rules, etc.) but never in a truly forensic manner. Much of his work has a way of intuiting an ontological understanding – which is the brilliance of his work. I think it was in reading him as a teenager that it first occurred to me that there had to be a different way to think about all of these things than the forensic/moralistic manner that permeated the only Christianity that I knew.

    It was finding the ontological understanding of the Fathers and of Orthodoxy in general that I found my home – the truth – as well as the only thing that has ever made any sense to me. I owe Lewis a debt. He taught my heart to want something better than I knew.

  61. “Lewis was not a theologian”

    I remember hearing a recording (this was years ago – the only thing I remember about it is that it was on a cassette tape – I think it may have been a recording a student made in class at St. Vlads) where Fr. Hopko was commenting on the Abolition of Man. He admitted that he did not understand all of it, except that he was “sure that it happened” (i.e. Lewis’ warning of the catastrophe that was about to happen in the thought of western man). Someone else (perhaps it was Kreeft – probably was) once remarked that Lewis was perhaps the best “natural law” apologist of the twentieth century. Despite it’s fault’s, I have always liked the English strain of “natural law” in such thinkers as C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Newman, etc. Kreeft has a neat little book called “Between Heaven & Hell” where he has John F Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley all in a socratic dialogue with each other after they die (they all happened to fall asleep in the Lord on the same day in 1963), and each of course representing a strain of thought in the western mind. I say all this because I think Lewis was more of a “theologian” than some give him credit for. This is not to say that he was primary a “theologian” – apologist would be a much better term, and he himself resisted any effort to call him such…

  62. Christopher,
    Lewis was a believer and a clear-headed thinker (the latter being exceedingly rare both in his day and in ours). And he was a properly educated man. He was not a theologian, in that he did not think in those terms – that is – in the terms of the Church and its formal thought. But he was an orthodox believer, who did not question to traditional dogma of the Church. Rather, as a clear-headed thinker, he sought to be its apologist in the manner of Chesterton (also not a theologian).

    They did their work as they did because the professionally trained theologians of England were largely “men without chests” as Lewis described in the Abolition of Man. Lewis lampoons such men in the figure of the “Episcopal Ghost” in The Great Divorce.

    I think he was an extremely keen cultural observer – something lacking in many theologians. Were the English theologians of his time more keen and wise observers of the culture they would not have ended up as lackeys of the devil in the destruction of their own church and society.

    I’m using “theologian” in a particular sense. It is, of course, classically stated that a “Theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.”

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