The Soul and the Hidden Weight of Glory

hiddensoulEveryone likes things for various reasons. This is perhaps my favorite piece that I’ve done this year. I’m not entirely certain why. I think that in some way it touches on the fragility of our existence and even of our belief. I hope that rereading it might be a blessing for you as well.

From a Facebook conversation:

Though I wish I believed otherwise, in the depths of my being, I do not believe any part of us survives death. I am, at the center of my consciousness, a materialist, and a reluctant atheist still. I fight this disposition daily, and it is becoming an enormous burden that I wish I could throw off. There are days where my doubt and despair far eclipse my hope that someday, God will really let me know it’s “not all in my head”, or that He will somehow bless me with a profound Athonite experience to solidify and settle my gnawing pessimism, and to extinguish the flames of absurdity and unbelief that engulf my existence. I am really trying to believe. I desperately want to truly believe. I want it more than anything. I desire an authentic faith. I do not however, want to believe something just so I can sleep at night. This struggle is not unique to myself, I realize that, and I take comfort in knowing many a person, way more intelligent than I, has also struggled profoundly with nihilism, and come out from under the weight of it to become a saint.

This is a quote from a Facebook friend, and I deeply admire the honesty and anguish in his statement. It was occasioned by some questioning that I posted myself. And so I take it upon myself to offer some reflections. I hope they are of help to him and others.

The first observation I want to make is on the assurance with which we experience the materialist option. I never seem to encounter anyone who doubts the materiality of their existence. Some will doubt that there is anything other than a material existence – but they always seem certain of that much. I would add that we seem to think we know what a material existence is, and that its existence is rather obvious and its persistence guaranteed.

In point of fact, although materiality is easily observed, it is not easily explained, nor is its persistence guaranteed. Everything about the universe we inhabit is strikingly precise in the most delicate balance imaginable – far beyond random chance. Any variation in the most primitive forces (those that came about in the first moments of the “big bang”) would have resulted in no universe rather than some other universe. There are compelling reasons to say that we are “meant” to be here.

The continued existence of our world (its persistence) is equally astounding. The world to which we awaken everyday is not a testimony to its inherent stability, but to an inherent providence that sustains us in existence. We should wonder not only that the universe exists, but that it continues to exist.

It is possible (of course) to view the material universe as a sort of given, something that can be taken for granted, but doing so is neither philosophically nor scientifically sound. “It is only wonder that understands anything,” in the words of St. Gregory.

“I do not believe any part of us survives death.”

Though death is a great test and visits destruction on our material form, yet it is no greater test of faith than our present existence in a material form. For our very nature is nothingness, and that nothingness should speak and think and long and pray at any given moment is truly a wonder. And it is no greater wonder or test of faith to believe that existence might be given us beyond the nothingness of death itself.

I will press this a bit further. Much that we take to be our “selves” in our material experience shows itself to be quite ephemeral and illusory when it’s examined more closely. And, on the other hand, there is something that has a dogged persistence regardless of how closely it is scrutinized. Observing this yields something of a glimpse of the “soul,” and directs our attention to its proper place.

What do we mean when we speak of the personality? Do we mean a certain set of memories? A collection of experiences and preferences? Is it our set of skills and techniques? How many of these would we have to lose for the personality and personhood to disappear? As a man in his early 60’s, I have already forgotten more than I can remember. Names escape me. I notice that my memory of things is quite selective, and that some of my stories have become suspect (even to myself). My skills are diminished. My hands struggle to find their place on a keyboard and my fingers move ever more slowly. And though I once gloried in my children, they are now adults. I love them, of course, but the children whom I knew are now disappearing within the mists of my mind. The social relations that so often define us are constantly changing. People who once mattered in my life are now dead, while others live at a distance and probably never give me a thought. Our tastes and proclivities shift constantly. Cigarettes, once a constant presence in my life, have been missing for nearly 30 years.

But there is something that remains and seems to have changed in no way whatsoever. That something is not the object of my consideration, but the subject who considers. The old man who now thinks and writes and groans in the morning, is identical with the child who ran with ease and played his games. That subject is the one who remembers, who experiences, who thinks, who decides. But that subject is not itself the memory, the experience, the thought or the decision. Indeed, it would be possible to imagine that subject with a completely different set of memories, etc., yet still being the same subject!

When we do indeed turn our attention directly to that subject, and away from experiences, memories, etc., we come to a very different place. It is quite possible to simply be aware, to be present with no regard to memory, etc. Indeed, such present awareness is often described as a “higher” state of consciousness. Prayer, in its most mature forms, has this form of awareness as an almost inherent characteristic.

What is the relationship between this subject, this awareness, and our material existence? Again, its persistence argues for some separation from a purely material account. For, as noted, the subject of a five-year-old is the same subject when it is sixty years old, while the material reality will have completely changed many times over. This doesn’t suggest that our material existence is merely a vehicle, but it certainly suggests that the subject that we call the ‘self’ transcends our materiality in some manner.

There is a link. On the whole, the awareness we have as subject is centered in our materiality. We may even think of ourselves, miraculously, as matter that has become aware. When the Church speaks of the soul, we must remember that it does not mean something that is utterly separate from the body:

Spirit and matter are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent; they interpenetrate and interact. When speaking, therefore, of the human person, we are not to think of the soul and the body as two separable «parts» which together comprise a greater whole. The soul, so far from being a «part» of the person, is an expression and manifestation of the totality of our human personhood, when viewed from a particular point of view. The body is likewise an expression of our total personhood, viewed from another point of view – from a point of view that, although different from the first, is complementary to it and in no respect contrary. «Body» and «soul» are thus two ways of describing the energies of a single and undivided whole. A truly Christian view of human nature needs always to be unitary and holistic. (from a 2002 publication by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece)

So, when we think of many things that make up our experience, and certainly things that color and shape our experiences, we must consider many known aspects of the body, particularly the brain. Our present science makes us increasingly aware of various conditions that are rooted in the brain and its neurochemistry. Anyone with knowledge of these things who is also a pastor/confessor cannot help but ponder their relationship to the soul. A very helpful image is found in a conversation with the Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos:

The image which we can use to describe the relationship of soul and brain is the violin with the violinist. Just as even the best musician cannot make good music if the violin is broken or unstrung, in the same manner a man’s behavior will not be whole (see 2 Tim 3:17) if his brain presents a certain disturbance, in which case the soul cannot be expressed correctly. It is precisely this disturbance of the brain that certain medicines help correct and so aid the soul in expressing itself correctly.

My own take in this is to reflect on the hidden struggle of the soul, often masked by the brain and its disorders. For a person who is biologically prone to depression or any number of problems (for which the Elder strongly recommended medication) there can be a daily, even a moment-by-moment struggle, unseen by the surrounding world-even largely hidden from the individual himself. St. Paul reminds us:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, (2Co 4:16-17)

I can only add to this that—for some—the affliction is far from light and can last a life time. But the weight of glory remains eternal.

The soul (when viewed rightly), represents “an expression of the totality of our human personhood” (as is the body). But the soul frequently remains hidden. Prayer, repentance, silence, stillness and many other spiritual disciplines can help reveal the soul to the subject (the true self) of our life.

So, the end of the matter is a certain attentiveness. We should pay attention to the true nature of the material world in which we live-it is a shimmering moment on the razor’s edge of existence, an enduring testimony to its Creator. At the same time we should pay attention to the true character of our own existence and aspects that clearly reach beyond pure materiality. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and, if we can be still and listen, we will hear the sound of an eternal weight of glory singing deeply in the heart of all things. It says, “Glory to God for all things.”

43 comments:

  1. Thank you Fr. Stephen so much for this beautiful posting. This “subject,” the true self must have been what Mary was experiencing when she sat at the feet of Jesus. Her hidden self had sought out and found the “one thing needful ” communion and union with God Himself. And Jesus’ response to this deep longing of Mary’s heart…”she has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” May my true self always seek and find this good portion as I sit quietly at the Master’s feet.

  2. It’s precisely this kind of philosophical work that is the reason I am Orthodox. It is this “medicine” and this “medicine” alone that has any hope of actually healing me so that I might become who I am.

  3. But there is something that remains and seems to have changed in no way whatsoever. That something is not the object of my consideration, but the subject who considers. The old man who now thinks and writes and groans in the morning, is identical with the child who ran with ease and played his games. That subject is the one who remembers, who experiences, who thinks, who decides. But that subject is not itself the memory, the experience, the thought or the decision. Indeed, it would be possible to imagine that subject with a completely different set of memories, etc., yet still being the same subject!

    Thank you so much for that. You have put into words for me, about me, about all of us, what I have struggled to do without success.

    I am the one who lived those moments that have receded into darkness, and not the memories of them, which have slipped away, and are no more, and the living of which, though I do not recall it, has has made of me today the man who lives as I do.

  4. Me too, it is comforting to know that I am not alone. Thank God for this type of meditations, conversations. I need this “medicine” it is frighten to ponder on eternal life, what will survive of my existence? I need to constantly repent, and come home like the prodigal son, to be connected with life, with the Father, the giver of life. Thank you father Stephen for your thoughts and illumining words.

  5. As important as the articulation of the ontological reality it literally means nothing unless one experiences the personal presence of Jesus.

    With that the struggle to believe becomes a struggle to act and to love.

    The real mystery is how to enter that experience.

    That is why I am Orthodox: because He is present in everything we do.

  6. The real mystery to me is the personal presence of Jesus Christ. Once that is known the struggle to believe becomes the struggle to love and act in love.

    I am Orthodox because He is palpably present in all we do.

    I sometimes think that the struggle to believe is a rational smoke screen to keep us from acknowledging His presence.

    Such effort is, after all, in our control. Or so we think.

    Sometimes it can be as simple as asking to get to know Him without an agenda. He is a real, living person after all.

  7. “…and I am the one who lived those moments…”

    Nothing lived is ever lived alone or in isolation.

  8. I apologize that some comments are getting stuck in my spam folder (delaying their posting). I have recently been attacked by a very disturbed stalker (both on the blog and in my private email). I have had to tighten up some controls to keep his extremely disturbed and profane comments from appearing. It seems to have effected some other stuff as well. I’ll be looking at what I can do to fix this. In the meantime, pray for a very broken young man.

  9. I have often believed that we come into this world whole, and go out in parts, that is we become part of the soil, part of the water, part of the air, part of the mystery. I do not believe in foolishness like we sit in heaven playing harps, or that we are literally born again. If God is eternal life, then we become part of that finally, in His image. (When I say He, I don’t really know what I mean)

  10. Father, what is the connection between the memories and the subject? I don’t think you’re saying that memories etc. don’t matter, but I’m not clear – at least within what you are expressing in this post – on why my memories especially should mean so much to me if they are truly so ephemeral. Thanks for your help with this.

    Dana

  11. Father Stephen
    Bless you for this which has blessed my soul as I prepare for the Eucharist here in wintry New Zealand
    Glory to God

  12. Dana,
    I’m not meaning to get rid of memories – I simply think they are very slippery. The older I get, the more I realize how few memories we actually have, how they are changed and shaped by the way we tell a story, or by a single photograph we see, etc. And when someone’s memory goes (as with Alzheimers, etc.) and people think that they’ve lost their personhood – I have become someone dismissive of memory’s importance. It’s not unimportant, but the present moment is far more important.

    Sometimes I think our memories are too important – like the stuff we own – and they weigh us down. They can indeed simply be something akin to make-believe – little more than sentimental treasures (like those little knick-knack shelves that sat in your grandmother’s house). I see them as an obstacle when you’re in Lewis’ Solid Land (Great Divorce) and you need to move in deeper. Hell in that narrative, would be absolutely full of sentimental treasures. False memories of people and things and not present relationships.

  13. “It’s not unimportant, but the present moment is far more important.”

    That’s helpful, Father. I do tend to lean toward the sentimental, and I understand that it can be slippery.

    D.

  14. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your articles.

    The question of medication is a dangerous one, and even some of the Elders can be wrong. From my experience and readings, it is better to fight the good fight without adding psychotropic medication to “correct” brain function. I will suggest reading Robert Whitaker’s books “Mad in America” and “Anatomy of an Epidemic”; from an Orthodox perspective about the soul and how it is affected by these medications, the following article:

    http://www.thevoiceoforthodoxy.com/archives/articles/Christianity_and_Biopsychiatry.html

    God bless you.
    C.

  15. Cristina,
    With all due respect, I disagree. There are appropriate times for medication. I believe the elder to be correct. I have seen far more harm suffered by people who mistakenly refuse to medicate when it is appropriate. It requires good doctors and discerning priests. But many of the medications of the psychotropic forms have been a godsend. I have read the suggested article and did not find it helpful. It is not written by a priest, nor a theologian – i.e. someone who actually has the responsibility for souls. I also thought that its analysis of modernity and Orthodoxy to be less than helpful.

    I’ve served in my pastoral ministry for 35 years – including a time before the current forms of psychotropics were available. Pastoring people who genuine organic problems (not uncommon) – but without recourse to good medical care is often driven by seriously bad theology. We indeed have Scripture to guide us:

    Make friends with the doctor, for he is essential to you;*
    God has also established him in his profession.

    From God the doctor has wisdom,
    and from the king he receives sustenance.

    Knowledge makes the doctor distinguished,
    and gives access to those in authority.

    God makes the earth yield healing herbs
    which the prudent should not neglect;

    Was not the water sweetened by a twig,
    so that all might learn his power?a

    He endows people with knowledge,
    to glory in his mighty works,

    Through which the doctor eases pain,

    and the druggist prepares his medicines.
    Thus God’s work continues without cease
    in its efficacy on the surface of the earth.

    My son, when you are ill, do not delay,
    but pray to God, for it is he who heals.b

    Flee wickedness and purify your hands;
    cleanse your heart of every sin.

    Offer your sweet-smelling oblation and memorial,
    a generous offering according to your means.c

    Then give the doctor his place
    lest he leave; you need him too,

    For there are times when recovery is in his hands.

    He too prays to God
    That his diagnosis may be correct
    and his treatment bring about a cure.

    From Sirach, chapter 38

    Still true, still applies.

  16. Use of psychotropic meds must be handled with great care. However there are many circumstances in which some minor correction can make a great difference. I recommend the work of Dr. Daniel Amend foe some insight.

  17. Beautiful post, Father, especially where you write:

    For our very nature is nothingness, and that nothingness should speak and think and long and pray at any given moment is truly a wonder.

    It’s absolutely incredible! Could you mention some other Orthodox writers that expand on the themes in this post?

  18. Michael,
    Obviously all medications should be handled with care. The best aspect of current psychotropic drugs (such as the SSRI’s) is that they work with the chemistry of the brain itself rather than introducing foreign chemicals. Increasing seratonin, dopamine or epinephrine can have a very helpful effect. In normal practice these adjustments are quite minor, have very little side-effects, and allow the brain to function in a healthier, more normal fashion.

    The warnings that accompany them should be heeded by both physician and patient. It is also useful for someone to be in a therapeutic relationship as well. They are, of course, not a way to solve life’s problems. Some suffering is not only unavoidable, but necessary to our salvation. But I have seen too many people with a strange attitude to medicines and their bodies and their brains. Depression may indeed have a spiritual component (everything does). But to bifurcate our existence, “this is a spiritual problem” and not recognize that spiritual and physical are two proper sides of the same coin, is almost gnostic. Fasting is spiritual, for example, but is a physical practice.

    I think the elder quoted in the article is quite on target.

  19. Fr. Stephen,
    Too bad the book of Sirach was not included in the Protestant canon. Perhaps lots of silliness and just bad theology in Pentecostalism, Christian Science, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have been avoided.

  20. My late wife’s family is rife with serotonin re-uptake disorders. Virtually all of the women in the family are on Paxil or some similar RX. For some it has made a big difference allowing them to engage with others in ways they were unable to before. Unfortunately, many of the men became self-medicating alcoholics.

    One of the things the Dr. Amen’s work based on thousands of brain scans shows is the impact of purely physical abnormalities in the brain have on our lives. He uses a variety of strategies to help folks understand and deal with the difficulties including nutrition, exercise, etc. He is now working with current and former NFL players for the issues they suffer due to head trauma. But he also addresses the whole spectrum of behavior difficulties.

    I have a friend who came back from Afghanistan with PTSD and was on a whole cart load of drugs (as usual). They really did not help, in fact made his life worse (also common). He recently went to a free clinical trial that emphasized exercise, and nutrition but also used artificial brain stimulation. One of the best treatments for him was getting out in the sun in the morning for at least an hour. He is now off all drugs and is leading a much more relaxed, less fearful life. Now if he were only Orthodox and could partake of confession.

    What many folks react to is the knee-jerk prescribing of powerful drugs as a panacea. Such an approach damages many. As with many things, the extremes don’t do us much good.

  21. Michael,
    A problem with medications is that they are easy. It is true that other paths can yield equal or even better results – but we’re terrible at doing what we should. For a number of years my doctor would flag me for cholesterol and blood pressure issues and I kept opting for diet and exercise and did neither. Now, on this side of a heart attack, I am on a bunch of meds (statins, beta-blockers, ace inhibitor, etc.) to do what I did not do before. They’re saving my life – my behavior was typical of many.

    I like Amen’s work. On the PTSD area (and panic disorder as well), the technique of EMDR has been helpful for many, and documented by brain scans similar to Amen’s work. Look it up on youtube. There’s a 60 minutes program on the topic that is a good introduction.

  22. Thank you for this wonderful article. I enjoy your writing. I’m a “non-practicing” orthodox who will always be orthodox in my heart.

    I love your views on psychotropic medication. As a person who hS suffered from what I believe to be biologic /organic brain chemical dysfunction since a young teen, I appreciate your knowledge and openness toward those who need help medically. By lessening the stigma around mental health issues, and considering mental health like any other physical malady, people can be treated without reproach. The care of the soul, is, of course, tantamount to healing, recovery, and thriving in this life. Friendship and care are also needed in a practical manner, and essential for nurturing the soul.
    Thank you again for your kindness.

  23. Becky,
    Thank you. Over the 35 years that I’ve pastored I have truly been struck by how many people attach a stigma to mental questions. I have my own issues and have learned to deal with them appropriately but also to think carefully about them (and through them) in thinking about the soul, the body, the brain and God.

    I think there is a long legacy of “ghost in the machine” thinking in our culture and I see it everywhere, including Orthodoxy. I do not think it is inherent to Orthodoxy, but is simply a cultural artifact, often unexamined.

    If someone has never suffered from a clinical depression (for example), then I suspect that they could easily misundertand the nature of the beast. To be stuck in bed because you cannot form the thought/will/energy to get out of it, but still hate that you are there (etc.) is mystifying to those who have never been there. They imagine (incorrectly) that surely you can “will” to do differently. What is incorrect is that they take their own brain experience to be normative, not understanding they they are just a few molecules shy of being stuck in bed themselves.

    It is easy to see that a man with a broken leg cannot walk. But we do not extend the same consideration to the brain. Many people have moralized the brain, and done a lot of unintended damage.

    With certain brain issues, my first instinct is medical. You don’t talk to someone who is drunk about their feelings. You let them sober up and then talk. Years ago I had a parishioner who suffered what appeared to be a terrible case of post-partum depression, including a desire to harm herself and her child. It was terrible and frightening, and I had been a priest for only a few years.

    But we got her to a doctor. She was diagnosed with a several hypoglycemia. A little bit of the right foods and she was perfectly normal. I was astounded.

    I tend to think body first – then spiritual (they belong together). But if you’re not doing the right stuff with the body (which might include medications) then everything else is a waste of time.

  24. Shortly after I joined the Church, I provided Sunday morning transportation to and from Church for an Orthodox lady who lived in a mental health facility. She talked incessantly during the half hour trips to and from Church, mostly about Orthodox things, especially the teachings of Fr. Thomas Hopko. There was no logical pattern to what she said, more like a flow of consciousness that move from subject to subject. I did not see how someone who was that illogical could be save. I expressed that thought to my priest who said, “She spends her day talking to God and about God. She is much more likely to get into heaven than you or I.” LESSON LEARNED!!!

  25. I just read David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God. He has a whole extended section on consciousness, which is quite helpful. This post reminds me a lot of that discussion.

  26. Karen,
    I devoured that book which is a rare thing to say about a DBH book! It was helpful without being final. Probably influenced this article, though not consciously. What did you think of it?

  27. Father, I liked the book. I found it quite accessible, unlike The Beauty of the Infinite, where I discovered within about 30 seconds that it “was all Greek to me” because I didn’t have the necessary background in philosophy to follow it. On the other hand, EoG was also accessible to me to some degree because I find you have been discussing some of its concepts for years on your blog in distinguishing the modern mindset from the truly biblical one. I recently joined a private online discussion forum where that book was one of the topics of discussion. I wrote there that in many of the things DBH discusses, it seemed to me you and he had been in each other’s “back pocket” sort of (eavesdropping on each other).

  28. Karen,
    Though I have some mutual acquaintances with DBH, he’s beyond my league. But we have some similar questions. I’ve been working on forgiving him for dissing Dostoevsky in an article a few years back. 🙂

    I suppose something we have in common is paying close attention to the “Apophatic” fathers. Of all the writings in the Church, they alone come close to answer my questions, or draw me deeper towards answers or better questions.

    Strangely, the question of unbelief seems among the most important. It’s especially important in a secular world because unbelief is so terribly common. But the apophatic fathers (The Cappadocians, St. Isaac, St. Athanasius to a degree, St. Dionysius, Maximus) all work from “what we don’t know.” They don’t mind clearing the decks to look at things. Christians who have not “cleared the decks” strike me as people who are living an “unexamined life,” and their thoughts seem shallow or too pat. In a word, they’re boring to me and sometimes just annoying. A good solid doubt (not some nonsense like Dawkins) but meaty stuff like Dostoevsky – that’s worth encountering. D’s chapter in the Brothers K, entitled “Rebellion” precedes The Grand Inquisitor. It is a devastating attack on God from the problem of evil. And Dostoevsky was a believer who dared write such a thing. And he was still a believer afterwards. That is a man I want to read and understand.

    DBH has a massive vocabulary, and is sometimes undisciplined in using it. I think he could, at present, be another GK Chesterton. I believe he is that good. But he would have to take on the humility of being more easily understood. I wish he would. He’d sell more books – and help more people. Perhaps God will do that for him. I thought that EoG was a step in the right direction. He’s young enough to have some productive years but old enough to do theology. Theology is not a young man’s thing. You don’t know that when you’re young. Chesterton writes like a very wise and old man. Lewis is almost timeless.

    The real questions are all timeless.

  29. There probably aren’t very many categories of people whose toes (or egos) DBH hasn’t stepped on at some point! He definitely has a snobby side. We can pray he grows out of that, and I, too, look forward to his working to write more for the common thinking person and not just the scholarly crowd. To that end, he could also stand to learn to write shorter sentences sometimes (says the queen of run-on sentences, yours truly! ;-P). I forgive him for all of it for his eloquent debunking of sub-Christian theodicies in The Doors of the Sea! He also pays rather nice homage to Dostoevsky (and St. Isaac) in that book, I think.

    Thank you for the hat tip to the “apophatic” Fathers. If you hadn’t listed them, that would have been my next question. I was going to ask if perhaps some of your commonality with DBH was your classical post-grad education.

  30. Pelagic Heart
    (Memories of Drifting)

    Rootless & adrift
    I was.
    A life
    upon so vast and relative a sea as time & space.
    In hope
    and despair
    of land that I had never known
    where I could simply
    be.
    Without hope
    except that my very being cried out
    that because I was
    as I was
    such a land must be.
    And what I thought
    were islands
    and even continents
    I found
    were just the gathered lives
    of others like myself
    adrift together
    rather than face voyaging alone.
    But with them
    there was no higher ground
    (there was no ground at all)
    only that some were
    held aloft for a time
    upon the hopes of others.

    You are Rock and Sand and Soil.
    Transplant me
    to Your higher ground
    and let me never see the sea again.

  31. Father Stephen,

    Skimming on google books through some pages, I get the impression that Hart’s book uses some themes from Florensky’s Iconostasis- especially in regards to consciousness. Is this correct ?

  32. Karen,
    There’s more than a little commonality in the education stuff. He did his work at Virginia (I think) while I was at Duke. Both programs had more than a little Post-modern, Deconstructionist influences. All of that influenced me greatly – without my swallowing any of its assumptions. But I cherry-picked it. When I first read DBH’s work on Beauty, I was immediately transported back to Duke and many of the conversations there. We corresponded about it. He said that the book should have been about 45 percent shorter – it began as his dissertation, I think. Dissertations are pointedly meant to be a showplace of erudition and mastery. His subsequent books are far more readable. The Doors of the Sea is probably the best of its type.

    I wasn’t actually angry with him for his Dostoevsky dissing. He characterized a lot of converts as ex-Episcopalian, Dostoevsky fans (it hit too close to home!). And he went on to say that Tolstoy was a better writer. Tolstoy was a better writer, but no one ever credits him with life-changing. Dostoevsky is a wild read – but he is repeatedly cited as a force in conversions. He’s one of the most honest, least doctrinaire Christians I’ve ever read.

    I cannot hold a candle to DBH’s erudition and scholarship. A number of people cite him as the smartest person they know. I’m just a broken man who is working out his salvation and writing about it.

  33. Thank you, Father, for validating my analytic skills! 🙂 I have never read what DBH’s formative spiritual influences were. I think I read somewhere that his brother is Roman Catholic. Do you happen to know his background in that respect?

    Very few people can hold a candle to DBH’s erudition and scholarship. I’m really glad you work to put the cookies on the bottom shelf for me and the rest of your readers. It is more than a little helpful. I learned somewhere many years ago (probably in college), and I really believe it, that if you cannot reduce what you are saying to a level where a small child can understand the bottom line (especially regarding spiritual matters), you, yourself, don’t really understand what you are talking about. By that standard, I have a long way to go, and I have noticed that many times, the more obscure a person becomes in their theological explanations (in academic terms), the more clear it becomes they don’t really have a clue themselves what they are talking about!

  34. DBH has a brother who is a Roman Catholic priest and one who is a priest in a continuing Anglican church (Robert Hart–he writes for Touchstone–is the rector of St. Benedict’s ACC parish in Chapel Hill).

    DBH studied at both Duke and UVA. I think he spent the last year as a visiting professor at St. Louis University.

    The Doors of the Sea is a great book (and the one I’ve read the most), but the Experience of God is also wonderful. His fiction is very interesting (The Devil and Pierre Gernet).

  35. Dear Fr. Freeman,
    Why do you find less “doctrinaire” Christians appealing? FWIW, I do too, but I’m not sure why–maybe because they aren’t speaking in Christian cant? Because what they saying you know has been masticated in their own mind/spirit?

  36. Gene,

    I can’t speak for Fr. Stephen but I know I prefer them because their words seem distilled. It is as if they have learned that silence and peace are closer to wisdom than a volume of words, and therefore one should think more carefully before breaking the silence. Maybe like Treebeard.

    Some saints seem to have achieved this more than others, those like St. Marcarius, St. Seraphim, St. Theophan, or even Francoise Fenelon.

  37. Gene,
    By less “doctrinaire” I do not mean less Orthodox. But, that said, what interests me is not someone’s ability to repeat what they’ve read, but some indication that they have actually understood and “masticated” it, such that the Word becomes flesh. That is actually the only “Patristic” model. When this has not taken place, it’s mere scholasticism and leaves me high and dry. It’s also boring.

  38. I guess that’s why saints sound so original, even when they’re not.

    I’ve read a lot of Fr. Sophrony, protégé of St. Silouan. In his biography of the latter, he related an incident involving other Athonite monks that intrigued me. One of them said something like that if all the scriptures were obliterated, the Church could shortly reproduce their essential elements. Now I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean a word-for-word reconstruction (like the last scene in “The Book of Eli”). But reading Fr. Sophrony, you get the impression that he’s living moment to moment with the same Spirit that informed the apostles. And I bet what he would say about a situation wouldn’t differ too much from what they would have said about it, subject to the digestion and contemplation of his similarly spirited fellows in the bosom of the Church, of course.

    Scholasticism isn’t just boring. It’s like the schoolmen beat the life out of it.

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