“If anyone falls, he falls alone. But no one is saved alone.” – Alexei Khomiakov
Roughly 25 years ago I quit smoking. I never think about it now – it has become a thing of the distant past. But I can remember a period of about 10 years in which I struggled to quit. I would make up my mind, throw things away, make a clean sweep, and be back puffing away before the day was over. I felt completely frustrated with the efforts and disappointed with myself. It was not a secret addiction, everyone who saw me could see the young tobacco addict helplessly killing himself. I made jokes about it (as I usually do about almost everything). But year after year the habit continued and every attempt at quitting failed. On a couple of occasions I managed to stay quit for as much as two weeks. Collapsing after such a herculean effort is deeply shaming.
Something changed when I was approached by a faithful Christian couple after a weekend retreat. They were grateful, they said, for the ministry I had offered that weekend and wanted to do something for me. I was flattered and assured them that they didn’t need to. But they had something serious in mind. They told me that they thought my smoking hurt my ministry. I felt the blood rushing to my face as my embarrassment mounted. I felt a lecture coming on. But none came.
They said to me that they didn’t mean to cause me any embarrassment or concern, but that they wanted to offer a fast for me. One day each week they were going to fast and pray for God to give me the grace to quit. And, they added, they absolutely did not mean to put pressure on me.
I thanked them and told them how many times I had quit and failed and said, “If God can take them away, then so be it!”
And that was the end of it, or so I thought. I heard nothing more from them (they lived in a different city). I puffed away day after day with no particular concern or care for what they were doing. But about six months later, Great Lent rolled around. And, per usual, it seemed right to “give up smoking for Lent.” Most years that meant a miserable Ash Wednesday and a guilty collapse by the end of the day. But that year I quit. One day, two days, three days. It was hard. I was miserable. I was frequently angry. Day after day for the first few weeks my will would collapse. But I didn’t smoke.
As the season went forward it was like watching someone else quitting. I was doing something and had no sense of how I was doing it. That didn’t mean it was easy. I was doing something that had always been impossible and I didn’t know how.
At some point, I remembered the couple. I couldn’t remember their names. They were just two more faces from a retreat who made an audacious promise. I never saw them again. I couldn’t remember whom to write in order to thank them. So I gave thanks to God and continue to do so.
That experience was probably my first initiation into the mystery of salvation. We are not saved alone. God delights in communion. He delights in sharing His life.
Almost every version of grace and salvation I had heard up until that time, seemed quite private and was incorrectly called “personal.” Anything that is truly personal is not at all private. Personal existence means to exist in the image of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Father does not exist apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit (the name “Father” would have no meaning in such an existence). The same is true of the other Persons within the Trinity. And if this is true of the Divine Persons, how much more must it be true for us?
And if our existence is not apart from others, then how could our salvation be any different? My experience was not without effort. But neither was it the result of my effort. Some couple, whose names I had forgotten, offered up one day a week as a sacrifice and offering for my sake. Strangers quit smoking for me.
I have read descriptions from the lives of Holy Elders in which some monk labored long in fastings and prayers, in vigils and tears, praying for the salvation of the whole human race. In a few extraordinary descriptions, those prayers were offered, not with a generic sense of “everybody,” but with an overwhelming awareness of the whole human race, person by person. It is a mystical participation in the Cross of Christ.
We tell the stories of our lives centered primarily in ourselves. This happened. I read this book. I met this man. I…I…I…I. All the while some stranger prays from the depths of Hades in union with Christ for us and for our salvation. I do not know how I became Orthodox. I thought about it for twenty years. I loved it from a distance and was repelled by it up close. It was just the same when I dealt with God. Theology is wonderful from a distance.
We are not saved alone. Salvation is the will of God for everyone and everything (2 Peter 3:9). And many have united themselves already to the will of God. And like the will of God, they become part of our salvation.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” “Good” is not something that can be had “alone.” Thank God we are saved from it.
Thank you for writing and sharing these encouraging words, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!
My experience is that your prayers are often answered as long as you are praying for someone else. As a result, when it comes to myself I only ask for wisdom and or help to discern God’s will. I have stopped asking for anything really. Specific requests are for others. Now, when others pray for you I have seen their prayers answered too.
I think you have to live day to day with a sense of wonder, not worrying, but pondering perhaps at what the day will bring, and being open for the unexpected. I have seen the unexpected so often. Oh, yes and don’t forget to thank God at the end of the day for everything.
John B., I’ve experienced the same. Thanks. I once asked my spiritual father if I could pray for someone inserting their name in the Lord’s prayer. He blessed me to do it. So I often will pray, “Our Father…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Sharon’s life as it is in heaven….” And continue with their name to the end. It’s simply another way of uniting myself to them in prayer and us to Christ.
It was much the same with me. I gave up smoking a lot before I quit. While I joke about how I used my powers of procrastination to never smoke the next one (true by the way, that last time), I was sort of forced by my promise to God to get it done. Yes, I was angry that falling down on the job didn’t relieve me of that promise. Relationships are difficult.
Whether or not such things as smoking are the “root cause” of addictive behaviors, they certainly have their own life-sucking reality. Perhaps this is the kind of thing to which Jesus referred when he talked about gouging out an eye that offends. Cigarette addiction got inside of me. It made me think that it was part of me and to not smoke would be to give up a part of myself. Misuse of human faculties is not the same as the faculty itself. We cannot cut out our humanity as Origen attempted and be whole.
Anyway, what I have found important as a route to healing is to first be granted sight. Smoking is like introducing a foreign spirit into the house of our being. We suspect of course. And we struggle in the dark with this thing, having caught hold of something strong enough to shake our being. That is when it is good to ask for help. The love of other people for us can bring light to that struggle. Light takes away the greater power of that thing. Then we are brought to the test. Then we have the power to cast it out of our house and that exorcism is a right demand that love makes upon us. If we fail to do so, that thing in us regains its power and it is greater than before. So if we cast it out the door and shut the door to it (an act that may take some time to be actualized), something new happens. That part of oneself which was energized, like a cancer, to work against us may return transformed. As a part of us healed. So, for example, having cast out a wild animal, a beloved pet dog may return in its place. A guardian and strength. I am of course speaking of aspects of the faculties of our being, not about family pets.
Can I ask your prayers for us in Chattanooga? There’s been a shooting at a naval center, a local college is on lockdown, and nobody’s really sure what’s going on yet. I only just found out on Facebook.
Your account of quitting touched me deeply. I suspect one of your strongest allies in fulfilling your mission is the ability to be so candid – but included in that is the blunt admission that you don’t have all the formulaic answers and are simply living your life out the best you can. It reminds me of a quote I have. It goes approximately like:
“There is something about the sight of a man saying no with his bare hands that profoundly stirs the hearts of others.”
I would add that there is something about a man saying yes to God with his bare life that stirs them even more. The evidence of your life speaks volumes to the fact that you say yes to Him much more often than you say no, and that the Lord is able to use you mightily. Thank you so much for being willing to do that on a daily basis.
Oh! And you sir! Have a wickedly keen ability for digging up some AWE-some pictures. I don’t know where you find them. With your artistic sense one might suspect you of Photoshopping them yourself, but we all know you don’t have that much time. Still, very impressive!
Thank you, Fr. Stephen and everyone who’s commented. This has given me some ideas and encouragement in dealing with a few issues in my own family. Since I can’t hug any of you for this, just let me say, “God bless you all.” And hang in there, Alex.
I love this story. I too have witnessed miraculous results when praying for the needs of others. In a small concrete way it seems to be the fulfillment of seeking first God’s kingdom and trusting that God will take care of us as we attempt to care for others.
And Alex, I am heartbroken over the situation in Chattanooga. I am praying for you and all the others. My husband is retired Navy and that hits close to home.
“Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” has been running through my head a lot lately, especially today. I’ve also thought on and off all day about what Fr. Stephen has said about giving thanks for all things. That’ll be a challenge in the coming days…
Father, your words are timely, but they’re difficult for me all the same. Over the past several years my wife and I have gone through such a tremendously difficult period of our lives which has been the defining aspect of our nearly four years of marriage.
During this time we saw virtually everyone around us scatter, the vast majority of whom were Christians and some even Orthodox. Needless to say, I don’t feel particularly trusting anymore and this reluctance hinders even my ability to pursue Orthodoxy (I’m not yet Orthodox). Do you have any words that might help me find my way forward?
Thank you Fr. Stephen.
(BTW, I’m reading your book right now. Its very good)
I feel my Oma looking over my shoulder at the screen and nodding at your story. “Ja, that ees often the vay eet goes.” She told me before she died that she would be taking her prayers with her to heaven, and that she would be earnestly praying for us all the time. (A good Mennonite woman who probably wouldn’t want to debate with anyone about whether or not the dead can pray – she just was sure she would.) May I begin to pray with even a tiny fraction of the love she had. And may I begin to pray even a little bit through fasting! That is my struggle with being Orthodox. I am not good at fasting at all.
We may be alone when we fall, however, it is often enough because there are many people who are there, or were there to help us fall. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions, but with so many people who never had any foundation or guidance growing up; take myself for example, it is easy to get lost in the flow of the ways of the world. I spent too many years of my life running in other peoples lanes without any direction of my own. From my adolescence into adulthood, I never took the time to figure out who I was and what life is really worth. I won’t try to take much of anyones time here, but after twenty years, from 16 to 36 of just living the way everyone I knew was living, the only way I knew how, drugs, alcohol, irresponsibility, immaturaty and eventually into relationship with another mans wife, my life came crashing down around me and all those people I thought were my friends for so many years, the few people I knew, the people I cared about, all played their roles in helping me fall when it did finally come down around me. Although they continued on uninterrupted in their ways, I had to cut ties with everything and everyone I knew and walk away. I have seen too much and been apart of too much that was wrong. I’m 38 now, drug and alcohol free, without a friend in the world, trying to start over. I never knew God, I still don’t. I’m not orthodox, protestant or roman catholic, I honestly don’t care about those labels, or the divisions between these churches. I don’t question the faith of anyone who believes, but I just don’t trust going to a divided church and all I really know is pain, the pain I have caused to others, most of whom were oblivious to it and the few who knew it all too well. A very real pain that runs deep, which has made it difficult to want to go back out into the world, to trust again. I try now to just to believe in God, my Creator, because I do feel alone out here.
Your words crossed the eather and entered into me; you are not alone.
Your words triggered memories, always near the surface, with which I carry of a life lived long in death, and I share your pain; you are not alone.
The greatest pain and sense of loneliness I have experienced came from a church.
God was patient: He has used my life of death and my pain and my loneliness to draw me closer to Him.
I am finding I have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in His Church; learning to trust has been slow.
The journey can be long; you are not alone.
Continue to try to believe in God; you are not alone.
Every difficulty is particular – it has details, circumstances, etc., that make it unlike any other suffering. And some difficulties send those who surround us running for the hills. “America loves a winner and cannot abide a loser,” Gen. George Patton said – and he was bragging. But it is tragically true.
First, our weakness is not the end of us. In fact, it is only through our weaknesses that God saves us. Nobody is saved by “doing well.” Of course, our weaknesses are also the points at which our lives often shatter and fall apart. These points in our lives are the razor’s edge – the place that saves us or destroys us.
It is important that we cling to Christ in these moments and periods. And we should keep our attention focused on the goal – our salvation – our being conformed and transformed into the image of Christ. If the goal is changed into “doing well” then we just become, at best, another example of the American Dream which is an empty mockery of salvation.
Weakness often forces us to forgive in order to survive. It requires humility and acceptance. It can create empathy and caring. But we can allow it to darken our hearts and create envy and anger. So, guard your heart.
It is very difficult to follow the admonition: “Give thanks for all things,” particularly if your walk with Christ is still new or shaky. But as much as you can practice it, put it in place in your life. God is with you. I will pray.
Are you in a recovery program/group?
Fellow sufferers: You are NOT alone. Though we make our bed in hell, the Saviour has not forgotten us and will never say “I don’t give a &%#!* about you.”
I’m counting on Him to prove Himself true to everyone who’s posted their pain and grief here. In fact, I’ve been BEGGING Him to help my family and me this past week. You all have given me something to pray for. Thank you.
The quote that “when we fall, we fall alone, but when we save, we are saved together” could be taken the wrong way by those indoctrinated by the American dream. It could be heard through voice of Gen. Patton. It rings true to me but perhaps it could use some support and explanation.
From what I can tell the quote isn’t about those in the depths being alone while the winners up top are together. Rather it seems to be about the direction one is facing. When you look down, you see the utter despair of your situation and the lowliness of your very self. But when you look up, you see Christ and others and the hope of salvation. All good things are above ourselves.
No matter what our situation we have a choice about where we set our face: We can look up and give thanks or we can look down, give out death and sink further into destruction.
quick thoughts, drewster
The way that God is moving in my life right now is by way of Thankfulness. I am recognizing more and more that is from God, not taking things for granted. Goodness is not my original invention, it’s all borrowed. 🙂
I see your point. Yes, I think it is very easy to misunderstand the point of my article. There is a “social” aspect to not being alone – when others around us help us pick up the pieces of our lives and carry on. It is a great consolation. But, of course, such kindness, though welcome, need have nothing to do with God. There are kind atheists. One of the most generous and kind men I have known in my life was a Communist of sorts.
But what I am referencing in the article is not the social aspect of our welfare, but the fact that our very salvation, the most fundamental aspects of our life with Christ, is deeply dependent on the help of others, the bulk of which is unseen. Indeed, the bulk of our entire existence is unseen. Moment by moment, the entire universe is held in existence by the will of God in His Divine energies. That same will and energies also working through the saints and holy ones in prayer.
We take existence for granted, as though it were something solid, steady and simply given. But it is actually very close to nothing at all. Indeed, it came from nothing. Whatever existence is, it is the gracious gift of God and continues only by His gracious gift. And everything else that we receive from God, including salvation and life eternal has the same free graciousness about it. Our existence at this moment is itself a promise and a participation in the eternal life that shall be ours.
Like you, I have very difficult time with fasting. The only way I have figured out how to be any better at it is to dedicate my fasting for somebody else’s benefit, a little bit along the lines of the story Fr. Stephen shared with us. It seems easier to do when it’s not for me, but to entreat God’s Grace for the other person. It takes away the temptation to “negotiate/compromise”….
Fr. Stephen and Drewster,
The quote “when we fall, we fall alone, but when we save, we are saved together”, is it really another way of saying this saying: “We go to heaven together, we go to hell alone”….? (I think of this every time I am at Vespers with the same small group of people: choir, service attendants, my priests…)
Jeff and Mike B,
Just believing in God is not guaranteeing that you are believing in the True God. There is no other place than the Orthodox Church where this immediate and real access to God is available. It’s the Body of Christ of which you are a part. The divisions come from broken people, but our Lord Jesus Christ is always available to meet and feed you with His Love in His Church. Don’t deprive yourself of this gift.
no, I realized the errors and pain of my ways after so many years of living what seemed to be.. well, just life, before being tormented and torn apart by finding out that I was in a relationship with a married woman. I didn’t find that out until after we had been together for some time. That is when things became real for me and it all started coming down around me. I never imagined myself being in a situation like that, that is not who I am or what I am about. I was never remotely prepared for a situation like that. Mistakes, yes; poor choices in life, yes, but to be involved in an adulterous relationship is, I suppose what it had to take for me to start making changes and getting serious about finding some purpose and meaning in life. Obviously there is no way to chronicle 20 years on a forum post, but I had been, and still am trying to know God. I figured that with Him, there would be no need for drug or alcohol treatment and there has not been any need for it, as it was not hard to quit those things. I am nearly 2 years clean and sober now. What has been hard though, is looking back over all those years of a life wasted, looking at the landscape of destruction of a life that was. False friendships, false relationships, irresponsibility, immaturity; sins against my Creator. I’ve always had a good heart, I just had no foundation, no guidance or direction and I made a lot of bad decisions. Pain is pain, however it comes. I take responsibility for it all, and I am truly sorry for the things I have done in life. I just feel shell shocked looking back at it all, like a soldier returning from war with ptsd. It’s the anxiety, depression, guilt and shame of it all, the having to walk away from the people that I do care about, the only people I knew. That is what is hard to deal with and not really wanting anyone to know about the life I lived. I don’t need a recovery group, I need God.
I apologize if the last sentence in my previous post came across the wrong way. I just feel like turning to a recovery group of some sort would be lack of faith on my part.
I just need to know God, to find and make peace with the events of, not only my life, but of this dysfunctional world we find ourselves in. To find the courage to grow and get back out there and to do things the right way. I just want another chance to make right my wrongs. I want to smile again, I want to be happy, I want to do good in the sight of God and hope for salvation. I want that for everybody, everywhere.
Thank you for your kind words,
I hope to trust again one day also, I hope that one day all this pain will have been worth it. That through some rhyme and reason I cannot see, I am indeed forgiven my sins against my Creator and for making a mess of what He has provided.
God bless my brother ~
Jeff, God can make good out of any “bad” in our lives! It has been a gift to experience the promise of Genesis 50:20 many times in my life: “As for you, you meant it as evil towards me BUT GOD, meant it for good, to save many”! This has been the theme verse of my life! I’ve been so blessed so many times and seen so many “scars turn into stars”! Not a cliche! Real life! With real people! There seems to be nothing better than being reconciled and seeing Gods light shine in so many people as well as into the dark recesses of my “existence”, soul and deep corners of much shame and “falleness”!
My wife and I studied for 2 years and were lovingly baptized Jan 1, 2012 into this blessed path we were led to in Orthodoxy finding a truly loving and wonderful God who indeed “loves mankind”! Have you ever been to Orthodox Liturgy Jeff? It’s heavenly and healing!
It hit me one day during liturgy after hearing ” and God loves mankind” for the thousandth time, that the oft repeated words from above were like a gentle salve washing me clean from ALL my failures and self destructive ways!
This is a feeble attempt to encourage you! After a rebellious youth then 35 years as a Protestant who could never find that much sought after peace. The peace and assurance We have found through and in our Orthodox walk, through the people, the children, the incredible beauty and deep experiences found in the liturgical cycle, and profoundly enlightening lives and deeds of the Saints and martyrs “such a great cloud of witnesses”, indeed “the peace that surpasses understanding” and the struggles that make our lumps of coal, into the precious diamonds we were intended to be!
“May you find Him now” and be blessed as we have despite our faults and falls. Romans 8:28 is not just a hollow promise. This is a frightening but wonderful place you have come to in your life, that God will use for good! Watch, forgive, and pray!
It’s late! I’m babbling! May God strengthen you and make sense to you out of my feeble words!
Blessings amigo! Adios, (God go with you)! DM
You stated: “I just need to know God”.
God will reveal Himself to you through and with other
people! Look for the “spark”!
My only reason in asking is that “we are not saved alone,” and comradeship with fellow-strugglers is good. I think the life of the Church is best – in an ideal way. But sometimes, though the Church is a “hospital for sinners,” people in the Church can forget that and use the Church for something else.
God give you grace as you give yourself to Him.
Fr. Stephen, can the couples voluntary fast also be considered a way of bearing the sins of others? Is this something we can incorporate into our lives for specific people whose salvation we hope and pray for?
“for he is a good God, and he loves
Mankind…” One of the most wonderful phrases in the Liturgy.
Jeff and Joe: I have suffered things-very,very hard things- as most of us have. I hear the sorrow and hurt in your words. I can only tell you that as you continue to seek God, he is faithful. You will be comforted.
There is a grace that comes through suffering that is hard to describe.
Stay humble, be kind, pray continuously…I will remember you in my prayers.
Certainly. It is a powerful way to pray. We cannot bear the full weight, but we unite ourselves to Christ who bears all our sin.
How true! “We are not saved alone. God delights in communion. He delights in sharing His life.” He shares it with His Son and His Holy Spirit. He seeks to share it with us even if we resist. Often, He uses others to encourage us to that mystical union. That is how we participate in His saving grace.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, and all you fine people for your honest, insightful, and vulnerable comments…the road out of hell is long, narrow, and difficult indeed. We can’t make it alone, and we need more than an individualistic relationship with Christ; we need to encounter Him also through the visible icons of Him that His faithful people become to the weak and suffering.
I find a big struggle for me is the longing for God to just ‘magically’, instantaneously heal me and others whom I have hurt and who have hurt me too. (After all, it would seem that the blind men in the Gospels got healed right away…but of course analogies only go so far.)
In reading this blog and comments I am reminded that God “cannot” heal us and others instantaneously from our disease unless He were to make us automatons, without free will. And indeed He allows us to drink much from the cup of suffering, that we would see the destructiveness of sin and cling to Him for mercy and healing, freely, of our own volition. And I am most thankful that God doesn’t put us through or allow us to suffer anything He Himself did not – at least in the sense of existential pain – as by death He trampled down death, and by His Resurrection opened the gateway to everlasting life.
I too have felt great pain from my former association with a Protestant denomination, and currently many former friends shun me – no doubt in part because I wandered into some unchristian thinking and doing, yet I suspect also in part because of their own weaknesses. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is something I have had to learn the hard way to practice, and also to learn to apply to myself as while I do not justify things like leaving my wife AT ALL (the pain of that still haunts me every day), I was not acting out of malice or the willful intention/delight of causing pain. Sin is blindness, the Foe is mighty, yet far more mighty and merciful is He who is in us and is “slowly” transforming us into His likeness from one degree of glory to another. And the greatest glory, I think, is to be in weakness, humility, and poverty of spirit – hungering and thirsting for God’s healing, for His righteousness to be manifested in us and our fallen world.
Thank you again for sharing your hurts and encouragements, it helps to be reminded we are not alone. And I hope in my rambling you may find some nugget of encouragement and grace too. God bless.
Thanks Fr. Stephen for your reply above. I try to forgive and to give thanks, though I can’t say I try my hardest. Sometimes it just feels too hard or I feel too weary. I know that’s no excuse, but just to say that my emotional reserves are in a seemingly perpetual state of sputtering and I don’t know how to turn to God in any sort of way that might help. I’ve prayed for years….not well mind you, but as I’m able.
What honestly frightens me is that with the razors edge that you mention, I worry sometimes (too often maybe) that I’ve already teetered off in the wrong direction and it causes me to at times feel a very real sense of doom over my life and my salvation. I feel so broken down by so many difficult circumstances that I often wish that God would intervene in some fashion and keep me from falling.
Its like I can accept the idea of God’s goodness along with everything else, but my experience of it or perhaps my perception of it is limited to say the least after years of illness and financial difficulty and isolation. I suppose I wonder sometimes if its all a sign of my eternal fate. Maybe that’s stupid, but the thought is there and has been for awhile.
Dear Joe, I too have struggled with such fear and pessimism concerning myself – indeed I still do. The sayings which comfort me most in these times are the Scriptures such as “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise”…and “the one who comes to Me I will by NO MEANS cast out”. For OCD-sufferers like me, it doesn’t mean “come with perfect faith”, but simply, “come [as you are]”. Also it helps me to remember that God is in the business of reconciliation, not condemnation. There is nothing our Creator desires more than to welcome us home to Him. Hope this might help you in some way. 🙂
Father, I too have long been enamoured by orthodoxy from afar but repelled up close (and I too deal with addictions of a sort, though not smoking). Have you ever written about your journey into orthodoxy? I feel I have picked up some of it along the way, but I can’t help wanting to know more.
Joe said: “I suppose I wonder sometimes if it’s all a sign of my eternal fate”.
Joe, I don’t know you, but I can say with some degree of confidence that you have no idea of who you are or what you are. And you definitely have no idea or even a clue as to your eternal fate. You, like me, are a mess of brokeness, hurt, sin, mistakes, injustice and so on and on.
Only God knows you. You don’t know you.
I have no idea what your circumstances are, but there is a host of saints, Angels, redeemed sinners, healed prodigals, and holy fools, among others, who you belong with. The Church is where all our loneliness and brokenness belongs.
May God bless you where you are. I am sorry for your pain and loss. Pray. Be kind. Attend Divine Liturgy. Wait on God. He is faithful.
Thanks James. It does help a bit at least knowing that I’m not alone in my thoughts. It’s difficult though. Sometimes I’ll read a writer like Fr. Stephen who references St. Isaac the Syrian and I’ll be greatly encouraged, but then I’ll read something like the recent spats concerning universalism and it just seems like there’s this almost zeal for a God who condemns and I become utterly disheartened.
I understand of course that universal salvation is a hope and not a doctrine, but all the same, some seem to want to deny even the hope or at most quickly sweep it away and draw all eyes back to the despair of hell. It’s incredibly difficult to persuade yourself to run towards God for love’s sake when you’re given the impression that its “or else” and a consuming fire is pressing on your back.
I would agree with you that I don’t know who I am or what I am. That’s a bit of what gives me pause in all of this. I know I’m meant to move towards God and to become like God. I just can’t seem to figure out how.
I hesitate to offer too much advice. I don’t know your specific situation, and I am not in any way qualified. But, I can tell you what I’ve read in things written by Saints and Holy Elders. I can point you in the direction I know others have tried and what I have experienced.
Obedience and humility. Whatever our situation, we can always work to be obedient and humble. For example, keeping a prayer rule, attending Divine Liturgy, or keeping the fasts. Or just being kind to our family. Even when we don’t understand all the reasons or feel like it.
Seek meekness. Avoid arguments or conflicts. Avoid trying to understand everything. Be like a child. Trust in the Christ and his Church, then do just the simplest little things asked of you. Orthodoxy is lived, it’s learned by doing it.
I’ve found that taking just the smallest step helps. The Orthodox Church is a place of healing and real freedom.
And seek out a faithful and gentle priest. Don’t pay too much attention to the flaws you see in him or in his parish. We’re all just sinners struggling too.
I will pray for you. You aren’t alone. I promise.
Without getting embroiled in the universalism debate – do not lose heart. I agree that some people write like somethings being stolen or perverted – it makes for a lousy read. You should have hope. The question of our salvation in no way turns on what God might do. That has already been declared – He is not willing that any should perish. Anyone who says otherwise is speaking contrary to the Scriptures. Salvation is for all.
Our doubts turn on whether in the End, all will accept it. That I cannot know, but I do know that right now and every day, I can accept it and nothing prevents me. I may have to endure many things that I cannot imagine, but I trust in God – our Hope and our Savior.
Heh Joe. Sometimes humans and their constructs are not for everyone.
Sometimes that is just stars, and breezes, and whirlwinds.
Maybe not the same for everyone. Sometimes one must wander out and breathe the air, and be exposed, and listen to small things.
Reversion to form and repair can be some exposure, and some entanglement. Kind of the reverse of putting stuff in places, and making sense. Sometimes better the other way around.
But that is mountain and desert stuff. Not easily replicated.
Sometimes, sanity, balance and sanitation just is what is in places that are not settled. He tends to invite and change and use what is not usually attented to by modern Man.
In the midst of all the pain that is being expressed here, and I sincerely feel for you, the pain we create for ourselves due to our ignorance, or by our free choices, or the pain the world dishes out not of our own making/cause, I came across this article of a young man who made recent headlines/ news who took a fall alone, and yet his fall was not made or educated alone. It seems to me, how important it is to know who our Teachers are, and the forces that are at play…….also in opposition.
It truly grief’s me about Christianity, because it is forced to reassess in light of history, and in the process causing so much pain and instability to all Christians. Teachers will be judged more severely. And it will start in the Church. May we all pass the judgments of God, I pray, and may he judge justly, which I know he does, between mercy and justice. He holds all things in balance I trust. God be with us.
This is a Baptist Minister and Ethics Professor at a University writing this article
thank you, as well as everyone else who took the time to respond.
There is a Joy of all who sorrow orthodox church about 30 minutes from where I live. Maybe I will gather the strength to attend one of these days.
“… It’s incredibly difficult to persuade yourself to run towards God for love’s sake when you’re given the impression that its “or else” and a consuming fire is pressing on your back…”
If this is true, then why would anyone ever leave this “middle earth”? Why not dither and procrastinate in the present (this present sin)? With no “pressure” (only an spectral “future promise”) why is one hell better or worse than any other, and what is it exactly that we are “saved” from?
I find this “universalist” doctrine (I know, the Orthodox universalists want to make a distinction with the word “hope”) profoundly flawed and sad. I also wonder if the modern “therapeutic” approach to everything (this runs very deep in our modern minds) does not lead one by a force of logic and necessity to it, for the emphasis on God being the fulfillment of the therapeutic end blots out all His other attributes (for yes, he is High Priest, but He is also “Pantocrator” (kratos – “strong, mighty, ruler”)).
Finally, I am a sick, broken man (in every way – spiritual, mentally, physically). I will not be “healed” of this in this lifetime – quite the opposite, it will be my end. Lord have mercy. This “end” however is the real “beginning”. May God save me from the therapeutic ideal, so that I may be truly saved!!
A universalist claim that all will be saved cannot be believed in, as the temptation is too great to help becoming lax and laissez-faire about the whole thing.
An infernalist claim that some must not be saved cannot be believed in, as the temptation is too great to help not rejoicing in, or hoping for, the torment of real and imagined Others thinking that one is being Christ-like in desiring their damnation.
Also, threatening someone with torture if they don’t let you inside them is not love, but rape.
Thank you Psalti. I can tell that this is wise advice and I’ll seek to follow it as best as I can.
Fr. Stephen, what you say does give me some hope. It brought to mind a saying from another Orthodox person whose name I can’t recall, but in effect they said that because God loves us, He’s always trying to make a way for us.
I finished your book last night and I found the last few pages in particular to be helpful. I want to live in such a way that I’m mindful of the presence of God at all times and in all things, but for so long its seemed like such a herculean task that only monks living in isolated caves and on high pillars could accomplish. Maybe its more possible than I realized, even for one such as myself.
I think I follow, and as best as I understand, I am inclined to agree.
Is it not the case that the notion of the universal hope of salvation extends back through the centuries? There are of course modern spins and rationalities for it among some, but that hardly precludes modern people from clinging to a far more ancient hope. I hope and pray that my grandparents and great grand parents and on down are saved in the end. I hope and pray that my agnostic/atheist brother is saved in the end.
I can see no sadness in this hope. I can see no cause for shame in holding it either.
I apologize for making mention of universalism. It was not my intention to derail the focus from the actual topic of Fr. Stephen’s post.
Like much in the Church our soteriology is an antinomy. It is hard and arduous work, but the burden is light. It is neither as difficult nor as easy as we think. Christ proclaims that all things are made new, yet the particular and intimate ground of our soul seems quite old, corrupt and leprous. We are transformed in a twinkling of an eye yet grind away for the duration of our lives on earth. It is simple but difficult.
We often feel alone, isolated even rejected but in reality we live and move and have our beings in a state of constant communion that is seldom recognized or appreciated because it is too close. Hidden in plain sight. Everywhere present in each of us around each of us between each of us and all others. We are so easily distracted.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
I appreciate your statements. Are they yours or are you quoting someone?
I was reading your thread and the whole concept of the razor’s edge stood out to me. In fact I was having related conversations with the Lord this morning. How do I know if I’ve simply screwed myself (and others) over just too badly to recover? Maybe I should throw in the towel.
But He reminded me that He is sustaining my life moment-by-moment. He pointed out to me that this very fact – and that He had not already ended my life – is evidence that I have not (and possibly could not) push things too far for Him to recover.
You see, this is the razor’s edge. Are you still breathing? Do you have the ability to exercise your will? Of course you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to answer these questions. Okay then, you’re still living on that sharp edge. So get up and serve Him in obedience and humility to the best of your ability.
There’s no high or good feeling most of the time. It’s not about you. He is a good God who loves you and will provide for your needs. You can ask Him for things just like a child does his father, but most of the time your attention should not be on yourself. Simply get up, meet the day and be grateful that you can spend another day with Him.
Just FYI, I’m mostly talking to myself but I thought you might benefit from this conversation. (grin)
Drewster, et al
We obviously do not choose to leave things to the last moment – but the Wise Thief entered paradise “in a single moment” (we sing in Holy Week). All of his life was headed to that single moment. And so we pray for as much ourselves. We strive, we struggle, but the banality of the American Dream can lull one to sleep, including just grumbling past that single moment.
Just an off the cuff response. Glad you see value in them; everyone else, forgive me if they seem too glib.
Your other comment reminds me, however, of a quote I’ve found very useful:
All sorts of errors, half truths, and dead ends have a long (ancient) and fruitful (just not the kind of fruit you want to eat) history, going all the way back to our parents in the garden. Unfortunately, being old does not make it wise – otherwise, I myself would be getting wiser… 😉
Joe and Jeff…there is a prophetic passage in Isaiah that has long spoken to me of how Christ will minister to the weak and brokenhearted. Chapter 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and smoking flax he will not quench….” I spoke at the funeral of my best friend’s son some 20 years ago. The son had long suffered from schizophrenia and at 24 took his own life. He had been a bruised, broken reed all his life. His Bible was full of notes of his heart’s desire to follow God. But the voices he heard in his head would not relent. Anyway, it was consoling to me, and the family later told me to them as well, that our good God would never add further anguish to such a bruised reed as Mark. Many of the Psalms sound the same note. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (34:18). For Mark, I’m praying that his salvation will somehow be accomplished by a God who is not willing that any perish.
The late Sen. Hayakawa found the moral superiority of nonsmokers objectionable.
Where have you seen any moral superiority in this article?
I know I said I would not post on this site anymore because I know so little about Orthodoxy. But I do consider myself Christian and found this Blog by sheer accident thru another Priest I once met. Episcopal Rev. Carlos Raines was a support and friend to me for a while, and I still do consider him a friend. But this “Ancient Faith” Blog is one of a kind. In my daily living encounters where I have to assert myself in this world I often become fearful of retaliations. (so many experienced) But I have realized that if you want to survive, grow and thrive you have to take risks. And when ever I have done so, and feel this nagging question, did I do right by asserting myself and am I correct,…I then find an article somewhere here on this “Ancient Faith” Blog that supports and strengthens me to have thought and exercised my God given Faith in defense. I am just so thankful for all the people who post here, as well as in other essays. It truly leads me to believe that we are NOT only saved alone, but that we are not sustained alone. Like a Family, it is a community effort. So I just want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone for your courage to speak your minds, question, ails and troubles the communal souls, and I know God delights in every soul that finds food and water for the minds and spirits.
Thank you FR. FREEMAN for bearing with all of us and our questions. I know it is not an easy read sometimes.
Wonderful, thank you Father. Words to live by.
thank you my friend for your words.
Although there is no way here to properly describe some of what I shared, but having now experienced in my life what it feels like to have such little value placed on your life by someone else, especially someone you care so deeply for and knowing that I also, never really knew how, or what it means to truly care about life and seeing it happen everyday, in all it’s various forms in the lives of so many, has allowed me a chance to give greater depth of thought about and also to give that much more meaning to the Life and the Way of Christ, to look at the world around us and to see just how much He has endured, for our sake. The kingdom of man is a truly wretched thing; seeing all of our false ideologies, our passions that are catered for, our seeking of worldly pleasures and entertainment. Our selfish and ungodly ways make for a miserable existence when we do not know better, when we choose to live in the dark and mistake it for light. The old saying about not being able to see the forest through the trees makes that much more sense. I pray for the humility and perseverance to serve our Lord to the best of my ability and try to have a positive influence on the life and lives for whom He wills again. If the world hates me for my developing faith, I hope to find rest in understanding that the world hated and rejected Him first. In taking refuge in His Light and Life, I’m learning now how to appreciate and value the pain of heart.
Early in my catechesis, a parishioner put to rest much of my internal sophistry related to freedom and salvation with the suggestion that God will save all that can be saved.
Joe, Jeff – As I read your threads, it brought this amazing prayer identified by the Orthodox Church as a pre-communion prayer to help us prepare for Holy Communion. It offers much hope and captures much of how we may see ourselves as we approach Christ. I hope it encourages you to ‘come and see’. This prayer from St Symeon the New Theologian was written about 1000 years ago but captures what seems timeless to me. Perhaps, your feelings and situation won’t seem as unique if you ‘try on’ this amazing prayer
From sullied lips, from an abominable heart, from a tongue impure, from a soul defiled, accept my supplication, O my Christ, and disdain me not, neither my words, nor my ways, nor my shamelessness. Grant me to say boldly that which I desire, O my Christ. Or rather, teach me what I ought to do and say. I have sinned more than the sinful woman who, having learned where Thou wast lodging, bought myrrh, and came daringly to anoint Thy feet, my God, my Master, and my Christ. As Thou didst not reject her when she drew near from her heart, neither, O Word, be Thou filled with loathing for me, but grant me floods of tears, as with most precious myrrh, dare to anoint them. Wash me with my tears, and purify me with them, O Word; remit also my transgressions, and grant me pardon. Thou knowest the multitude of mine evils, Thou knowest also my sores, and Thou seest my wounds; but also Thou knowest my faith, and Thou beholdest my good intentions, and Thou hearest my sighs. Nothing is hidden from Thee, my God, my Creator, My Redeemer, neither a teardrop, nor a part of a teardrop. My deeds not yet done Thine eyes have seen, and in Thy book even things no yet accomplished are written by Thee. See my lowliness, see my toil, how great it is, and all my sins take from me, O God of all; that with contrite soul I may partake of Thy spotless and most holy Mysteries, by which all that eat and drink in purity of heart are quickened and deified. For Thou O my Master, hast said: Everyone that eateth My Flesh and drinketh My Blood abideth in Me, and I in him. True is every word of my Master and God; for whosoever partaketh of the divine and deifying grace is no more alone, but with Thee, my Christ, the three-sunned Light that enlighteneth the world. And that I may not remain alone without Thee, the Life-giver, my Breath, my Life, my Rejoicing, the Salvation of the world, therefore have I drawn nigh unto Thee, as Thou seest, with tears, and with a contrite soul. O Ransom of mine offenses, I ask Thee to receive me, and that I may partake without condemnation of Thy life-giving and perfect Mysteries, that Thou mayest remain, as Thou hast said, with me, a thrice-wretched one, lest the deceiver, finding me without Thy grace, craftily seize me, and having beguiled me, draw me away from Thy deifying words. Wherefore, I fall down before Thee, and fervently cry unto Thee: As Thou didst receive the prodigal, and the sinful woman who drew near, so receive me, the prodigal and profligate, O Compassionate One. With contrite soul I now come to Thee. I know, O Saviour, that none other hath sinned against Thee as have I, nor hath wrought the deeds that I have done. But this again I know, that neither the magnitude of mine offenses nor the multitude of my sins surpasseth the abundant long-suffering of my God and His exceeding love for mankind; but with sympathetic mercy Thou dost purify and illumine them that fervently repent, and makest them partakers of the light, sharers of Thy divinity without stint. And, strange to angels and to the minds of men, Thou conversest with them oftimes, as with Thy true friends. These things make me bold, these things give me wings, O Christ. And taking courage from the wealth of Thy benefactions to us, rejoicing and trembling at once, I partake of Fire, I that am grass. And, strange wonder! I am bedewed without being consumed, as the bush of old burned without being consumed. Now with thankful mind, and grateful heart, with thankfulness in my members, my soul and body, I worship and magnify and glorify Thee, my God, for blessed art Thou, both now and unto the ages.
Of course you’re right. I was just pointing out that your problem seemed to be with the modernity of the notions rather than the validity of the idea itself.
Thank you. That is some comfort. I can truly say that I never imagined a decade ago that I’d be such a broken down person today. I cannot change the past though and so I have to reckon that whatever present suffering I face is for some ultimate benefit. On some days, perhaps even most, despair looms over me and I cower with such feeble prayers and such dim hope that I can’t imagine not being consumed by the darkness. On others though, there’s just enough light that I’m able to find courage enough for the day.
Thank you for that prayer. I have to say it inspires a bit of awe to read it. I can’t imagine a prayer of that depth coming out of this shallow pool. My best hope maybe is to pray that I can experience a repentance that genuine and true. I almost feel false in my own mind when I ask forgiveness. I regret my sins, but I see my nature over the years and struggle to understand how it can be otherwise when thus far it has not been otherwise.
Awe and wonder can be an amazing place for new beginnings with and in Christ.
I like the simplicity, repeated by Father Stephen, of the words from Father Alexander Schmemann’s last homily on Thanksgiving Day 1983
“Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy”
There is great hope for us all in this foundation of a fullness in thanks. And it seems possible that filling my awareness, attitude, and actions with thanks; I have begun a journey quite consistent with final words from the prayer of St. Symeon the New:
“Now with thankful mind, and grateful heart, with thankfulness in my members, my soul and body, I worship and magnify and glorify Thee, my God, for blessed art Thou, both now and unto the ages.”
I would love if you could write a blog of reading recommendations, books that have really enriched your mind and deepened your faith.
” I was just pointing out that your problem seemed to be with the modernity of the notions rather than the validity of the idea itself.”
I am looking for the root of the recent resurgence of the universalist error, and why some (if not all) would be attracted to it. I do think modern “therapeutic” presuppositions about what “salvation” is and means (and that most/all of us are influenced by) is a (large?) part of it. It goes beyond mere sentiment, into unexamined assumptions about salvation, theodicy, God (particularly God as Love) “love” and it’s character/relation to our present “fallen” life and the “new creation”, even our relations as persons to each other.
I don’t grant any “validity” to the idea (the error) itself. I don’t see how one could truly attend to the services for the Sunday of the Last Judgement (let alone the rest of the life of/in the Church) and then seriously propose it “as an idea”. Some Chestertonian pithy comment about being lost in your head is appropriate here…
I think you’re looking in the wrong place for “sources.” I know a few of the Orthodox thinkers who are “universalist” in their writings. I’ve had that conversation with them for some years (including with Met. Kallistos Ware). It’s not a sloppiness, nor a modernist nor liberal idea. Primarily, it is driven by meditations on the goodness of God – and pretty much nothing else.
The few hints, as in St. Isaac of Syria or even St. Silouan and a few others, are all rooted in the question of the Divine Goodness (and certainly in nothing else). Several of those thinkers are probably more versed and immersed in the fullness of the tradition and liturgical prayers than either you or I. And I haven’t found them to be “in their head.”
The tension between the Divine Goodness and the violence of the Old Testament has been around since the earliest centuries of the Church. Christ Himself rebuked the disciples for their desire to “call down fire from heaven.” So long as we continue to preach the goodness of God, the tension will remain.
I readily accept the place of judgement, hell, etc. in the Tradition. But I think that we must never be glib about it. I utterly believe that we ourselves must follow Christ into Hades and wrestle there with the goodness of God. I don’t think we can speak about hell and judgement from the outside. That is a fearsome task.
“I think you’re looking in the wrong place for “sources.””
Yet, I don’t believe you would say that the service(s) for the Sunday of the Last Judgement are “wrong”:
Assuming the modern universalists are interpreting Nyssa/Maximus/Isaac/Silouan/et al. correctly (something I don’t grant), it would be the prayers of the Church, Tradition, and Scripture that would correct them (and not the other way around), right?
“The few hints, as in St. Isaac of Syria or even St. Silouan and a few others, are all rooted in the question of the Divine Goodness (and certainly in nothing else). ”
This I don’t doubt. However, it is that very “Divine Goodness”, the character/shape/direction/topology of “love” (i.e Love) that universalism is in conflict with Scripture/Tradition/services/prayers of the Church. Love, is in the end richer and deeper than the universalist dream – thank God!
If anyone speaks in the name of “love” (about “the question of the Divine Goodness”) then it is the above which informs them – they don’t inform the Church/Holy Spirit.
I “get” that Judgement, Hell, it’s permanency (granting all the usual understandings about our limitations in relationship to chronos, eternity, eschaton, etc.), are very very difficult from our human perspective. That does not mean however that they can be re-reinterpreted into a universalist matrix – unless one simply wants to go ones own way.
“we must never be glib about it”
I agree. I do not believe the Church’s prayers and Scriptures are “glib” however in relation to the reality and nature of Judgement and Hell. Our modern disposition to it however might in the end be. I know of the theological and philosophical erudition of the modern “interpreters” of the above Saints and their alleged universalist “hope”, “flavor”, “tendency”. I have been lurking and observing for a while. In the end however, it is not of the Church and of the head – no matter how sophisticated/learned. It is my belief that the Church of the East has had the ecclesiastical character of “survival” for the last 1000 years or so, and if this was not so, this universalist tendency would have been corrected already. Now that I see random folks popping up claiming to be “Orthodox universalists” who do not have the erudition (and responsibility) of a Hart for example, well I think this has gone one step too far (and probably has for a while)…
I certainly agree about what is authoritative. However, I do not think it is accurate to describe the Church as in a “survival” mode for the last 1000 years. There have been very important conciliar condemnations of heresy – Calvinism by the Council in Jerusalem in the 17th century, and Moscow’s treatment of the “Name Worshippers” and the “Sophia heresy” in the 20th century.
For one, I don’t think there’s any particular “upswing” in universalism – other than internet traffic – created by certain postings and articles. The internet can easily give false impressions.
The liturgical tradition, as well as Scripture, stands and will stand. But the “tension” as I’ve described it is, real, and not just a function of culture. I recall talking about this with my first Orthodox spiritual father. He said, “To flatly proclaim universalism would be beyond the teaching of the Church. But not to hope for it would be failure of the heart.”
That describes where I am. The hope is required by the heart, but more than that is more than can humanly be said in the matter. I am concerned that sometimes (and this is what I meant by “glib”) Christians (Orthodox included) work hard to silence the inner tension and make a very comfortable peace with hell and eternal punishment. In its darkest forms (as among some Calvinists) it is dark indeed – and even frightening.
In our Orthodox life, I think that it is not that kind of darkness (generally), but a genuine concern to guard and preserve the faith unchanged. In that case, we can labor too hard to promote hell, if you will.
It is not the conclusions that concern me so much, as the state of our hearts in the matter. I have little truck or patience with the “sloppy agape” of the liberal world. The love of God is quite fierce (and righteous altogether). St. Isaac’s writings are extremely clear about the reality of hell…he only holds that it has some sort of end. I see that primarily coming from his heart. He is an interesting figure about whom I wish I knew more.
But as for me…I tremble in our services and know that the warnings are meant for me.
being away and just seeing your comment I thought of this one interesting thing worth mentioning -just a long trail of thought really- it is based on the fact that the greater one’s advancement towards true deification, the greater their awareness of their own sin and of the infinite worth of all others becomes. Inevitably, this leads to an internalising of passages such as those on the ‘wheat and the chaff’ or the ‘sheep and the goats’. As Bulgakov once said, it becomes clear that there are no saints that are perfect and no sinners that do not contain elements of virtue. All goats have some sheep and all sheep have some goat in them. The eternal fire and the second death, do not -in this understanding- apply to different people but to different elements within each person. The eternally pre-existent good remains the eternally remaining good, but the once non-existent evil that came into creation through the free will of freely self-determining creatures (moving towards or away from God) is -in this particular understanding- burned away as an element rather than as separate persons.
I had to share your comment… turns out the picture accompanying this article was rather scarily on topic!
I was thinking along similar lines early in my catechumenate when I was trying to deal with that whole damnation issue – and it was thinking along these lines that may well have kept me from fleeing the church when I heard the various psalms about destroying the wicked during my first few attendances at vespers!
One additional proviso did come to mind at the time, though: if
(a) God’s judgment will burn away the evil in us;
(b) We have made it so that certain evils are intertwined with our fundamental identities in a way that we would not (and will never) differentiate our selves from that evil (cf. the way the ghosts in The Great Divorce keep going back to hell); and
(c) God’s judgment will not annihilate our fundamental identities,
then right there is a model for how we could be kept burning indefinitely.
(I’m also reminded of Solzhenitsyn re: willingness to destroy a piece of one’s own heart.)
That reminds me of something I heard once:
“When Christ returns, He will burn away all evil – the question is how much of me will be left”.