We Are Not Here to Help

fatheralexanderschmemann_and_alexandersolzhenitsynMy writings are sometimes treated as though I’m offering some new insight. That only tells me that the reader has only just begun to read. I pray God never to be original in my thoughts, for I long for nothing other than the Tradition. At best, I simply bring the Tradition back into the conversation again and again.

I offer here a short passage from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, revised and enlarge in 1973. I read it years ago, and still consider it the most essential reading for any Christian in the modern world. I am utterly indebted to Fr. Alexander for huge swathes of my writing. Here is clear thought. We are not here to “help.”

It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place—and actually does—in all Christian confessions, although it is differently “colored” in a nondenominational suburban “community church” and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this “key” that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help”—not more truth. While religious leaders are discussing ecumenicity at the top, there exists already at the grass roots a real ecumenicity in this “basic religion.” It is here, in this “key” that we find the source of the apparent success of religions in some parts of the world, such as America, where the religious “boom” is due primarily to the secularization of religion. It is also the source of the decline of religion in those parts of the world where man has not time enough yet for constant analysis of his anxieties and where “secularism” still holds out the great promise of bread and freedom. But if this is religion, its decline will continue, whether it takes the form of a direct abandonment of religion or that of the understanding of religion as an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God….

91 comments:

  1. But isn’t it our ongoing struggle toward the truth in our journey to Christ the “help” we truly need? I frequently ask God for help (“Help us, save us, have mercy on us and keep us O God by Thy grace,” etc.) Yes, seeking help, as Schmemann defined in a secular sense is a danger if it is static and an integrated value, but then, where do people begin? If a moment of that “help” allows one encounter with God, then it can be invaluable. I’m not sure everyone came into Orthodoxy seeking truth rather than help, although it is what we need, and certainly we learn and value it in the OC. Perhaps the problem lies in a culture that is altogether consumeristic, that believes we can get or achieve whatever we desire, that we are independent and can control our own lives and destinies, but because it is ultimately about ME, there is no room for the truth that can only arise out of one’s ongoing realization of our powerlessness and utter desperation for God.

  2. Noel,
    Obviously the Church uses the word “help.” But this is not the measure of the Church’s existence. We do it in response to Christ’s commandments. I sometimes shudder when I ask God to save me, since I know what lengths He is willing to take me for the sake of my salvation. I want it to be easy. Sometimes that doesn’t help.

  3. J. Yance
    Religions exist for all kinds of reasons. But the Christian Church, properly, exists to unite us to Christ, to save us. We have commandments to serve, to feed, to care, etc. But our chief purpose is the salvation of all through Christ. But if we are not united to Christ through the Church, then the Church would be a complete failure.

  4. This brings to mind the new phenomena of the atheist Mega Churches springing up that baptize in the name of science, have stirring music performances and rousing motivational speeches to get out and help. Re reading Fr Alexander’s words is a refreshing change from all the pressure of the world to conform to their ideas of what true faith consists of. Thank you again Father.

  5. when I see statements such as ” atheistic Mega churches” and “baptizing in the name of Science” I can’t help but wonder , was I asleep when these things were defined? In other words, please let me (and maybe some others as well) in on your esoteric statements. Thanks.

  6. Thank you for sharing, I love this book. Would you, by any chance, know of any online audio sermons/lectures by Fr Schmemann?

  7. As hard as what Jesus said to Judas about the woman who anointed Him, and to Martha about Mary leaving her in the kitchen alone.

    Which is hard. Especially for some of us who were led (back) into the faith at least in part by seeing how materially dysfunctional the world has gotten in the breakdown/absence of Christian values and adding together two and two of what appeared to be commensurable objects. I still can’t help but sympathize with Martha and Judas in their objections.

    Or, in darker times, the crowd that freed Barabbas who promised a much more worldly solution to the injustice they saw around them.

  8. Father Bless,
    It is the proof of what you said about the secularization of the church. This is its ultimate expression of that secularization

  9. It seems like here in the U.S. we have a very selfish, consumer-oriented attitude towards God (or the gods) and faith. We choose, or even manufacture, the god(s) and the faith that meet our needs the best. We are in full control of the process. But in actuality, one might say that our biggest real need is to die to ourselves, including our needs. I am deeply grateful to the faithful few who preach this, an absolutely essential, indispensable element of the one true Gospel.

  10. I have to say that this is a difficult forum in which to participate, since I can’t respond specifically to your comments to me. In any case…

    What do you mean by ‘Christ’s commandments’? Do you mean the Beatitudes, since they fulfill the commandments given to Moses?

    I have no disagreement with your response. In any case, please allow me to clarify.

    My point was that God takes us where we are at. If we are pleading to Him in the most superficial and ridiculous ways, He is there! If we seek Him more deeply, He is there! Regardless of our insanity and trappings in the world, God meets us there.

    The Orthodox Church provides us with a means by which we are able to encounter God more deeply. Thanks be to God! But we all get there via different routes. So, if God reveals Himself to me via the Church as a means to alleviate my loneliness, He can work through that in order to allow my relationship to deepen. So the secular help that Schmemann refers to may be the entry point to the deeper search for truth.

    The good news is that Orthodoxy provides the way to find that deeper truth, rather than to rely on our church and secular culture to provide this.

    Therefore, I would not discount any entry point for encounter with God…but as a church, where are we, as Orthodox Christians?

  11. Nicholas: Having been born, raised, and currently living in CA, I was surprised at your response to dobergirl, stating that the “atheist Mega Churches” are the “latest rage in California”. I had a laugh, then, when I followed your links. The center of the Atheist Church, according to one link, is in PA, and the other link was about a church in Seattle. This would lead me to question the credibility of your other remarks.

    Please be very careful about what you “research” on the Internet, and then claim as factual.

    California has great diversity. Along with the questionable values and practices, are some of the most compelling influences in contemporary Orthodoxy, such as St. John Maximovich, monasteries such as St. Herman’s in Platina, and a number of other incredible role models to the Orthodox faith.

    Please, then, be very, very careful in your labeling, and at the very least, provide links that would possibly substantiate your claims. Thank you.

  12. Noel Joy Plourde
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/10/atheist-mega-church_n_4252360.html is an example in Los Angeles. According to my original source the movement began in this area and has now spread. My original source was my Professor of Apologetics as class lecture notes which are not quotable as a source because I did not record his source. However I have read articles from time to time (which I did not keep the references) as the information is easily found on the web. The link in the article http://sundayassembly.com/ leads one to an info page on the movement. It is real and it is growing no matter what one thinks of my writing skills. I understand California has more than just this movement as I spent four tours of duty in CA and know that there are real churches there. I hope this helps to dispel any disbelief my words engendered because this is a real movement.

  13. I have erred when I have sought to make love my God – or truth, or beauty or goodness. God is God – truly he is and embodies the true, the good and the beautiful but His being envelopes those realities and extends far beyond what my small mind can comprehend. He alone is Holy.

    I have met many Christians who make love their God – and so err when approaching the altar of the Holy God. I have no doubt that their intent is good – but they miss the mark – and when teaching others who may be weaker, lead them astray.

    There is a lot of pain and unredemptive suffering in this world – and it is tempting to say that love, the medicine, is the cure and bow down and worship it. The medicine however is not the cure – because the sickness isn’t a superficial or even a deep wound – the sickness is death. The fact that God uses our small love in any way to effect a cure – to bring another person to Life – is a sign of His grace not of the efficacy of our medicine. Jesus wept.

    We “help” others when we unite with Christ. I must become smaller. We can only “help” others to the extent that we get out of Christ’s way thereby cooperating with His work.

    I am convinced that not only have churches forgotten their telos, they have forgotten how to “get there” to their end. With the passing of generations we have forgotten how to use our physical bodies as the Body of Christ in communion with the saints to burn like a hot coal the incense of our suffering for the life of the world – how to suffer well. Instead, rather than suffering – suffering well – or suffering at all, we offer love, truth, beauty and goodness.

    I was birthed by a Christian saint – my spiritual mother. She did not “help me be born” – neither did she set out to help me or think that she could even bring me to life. She, in her words “shared many simple meals” with me. Those meals looked like two friends, crying together, laughing together, sharing weakness and strength – but above all seeking Christ with us at the table in prayer and giving thanks to Him for all things. Those meals *felt* like being with a friend who at the same time is a trusted confessor. She is an elder. We shared and continue to share the eucharist of joy. Our eucharist of joy culminated in my resurrection – and my drawing near to the Eucharist at the table of the Church.

    How was I so blessed to meet and Elder of Christ’s Church? It’s a mystery and one that I return to and cherish. Imagine a Church full of elders. This is what we have lost. Knowing our telos is not enough without the embodiment of Christ in the physical lives of His saints.

  14. A long-ish post to explain how I believe Fr Schmeman uses “help.”

    In the book, Fr Schmeman is continually contrasting secularized Christianity and religion with authentic Christianity. I took the “help” he refers to in the above pericope (which is from chapter 7) as a reference back to “help” in chapter 6, a chapter on death.

    In chapter 6, referring to our “death-denying culture,” Fr Schmeman observes that secularism “helps” one deal with death by accepting it as natural; therefore, one should simply get on with life and busy oneself with the distraction of the “works” of building a better world. Religion, on the other hand, “helps” one deal with death by attempting to “explain death” and to “reconcile man to it” by offering death as a relief from the misery from this life and a door to the next restful, glorious life.

    Authentic Christianity rejects offering either of these “helps”; rather, it offers the Truth. From ch 6:

    “For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men.”

    This writing often causes me to pause and reflect on why I want to “help” and on the underlying message my words and deeds reveal to me about my own belief and what I transmit to others through them: secular, religious, or Christian.

    Forgive me.

  15. Sharon Joy,
    I thought your comment was fine. The blog machinery puts some things into moderation for unknown reasons. Currently my settings automatically put someone’s first comment ever into moderation and I have a number of “trigger words” that put things into moderation. I had to do this to block a stalker that we had for a while – which has made everything more subject to moderation. I think that mine is the only blog on Ancient Faith that doesn’t moderate all comments. When I moved there I said I could not do that with the blog. The conversation here is too important and even fast-moving sometimes and moderating all comments would just shut it down.

    I’ll hold your comment and wait to hear back. I think it would post fine. I saw no offense.

  16. Noel,
    All conversations on the internet are sort of tricky. Reading your comment I feel a slight disconnect. I suppose the question for me is “What constitutes help?” And “Who defines help?” In a self-absorbed culture, many of the things we want help with are just more of the same disease. It’s very difficult. Someone showed me this article earlier this morning. It rang very true.

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/selfie-prayer/

    I like Joel Miller’s stuff.

    God can and does use all thing for our salvation. But my salvation is for the most part, something that I often do not “want,” or I do not know that is what I want.

    So many terms: relationship, even the experience of loneliness, also can have a distorted cultural meaning. It doesn’t mean we rebuke them or ignore them, but we need healing in a very, very deep level. But the secular help to which Schmemann refers is generally a help that takes us further down the path is destruction – even though it might be exactly what we want.

    Living a healthy, well-adjusted life that we enjoy and that satisfies us is not the goal of the Christian life. It is the goal of the American life. The two should not be confused. Perhaps you mean something different, but it was easy for me to read your comment this way. That Orthodoxy might be a helpful way for me to achieve this other thing (the healthy, well-adjusted, etc.). Becoming Orthodox first made me miserable darned near destroyed me. But it was the one thing needful.

  17. Nicholas: I accept what you say re: your experience of the atheist church; however, I confess that I’ve seen nothing of the sort, and my life and work take me to all of the large cities in CA. I am quite culturally attuned.

    Once again, articles on the Internet are not the greatest of sources…

    But the bigger issue for me was the insinuation that this church is somehow ‘rampant’ in CA. This simply is not true! It is very easy to blame this state for all the evils in the world, and certainly some of it is justified in specific situations, but frequently the globalizations are innacurate.

  18. Noël Plourde, I understand your sensitivity and I am not blaming California for starting this movement. It started in London. My wording is perhaps misleading because you and I define something as being the “rage” differently. Unfortunately, English is a very poor language for precise meanings especially in Theology. By “rage” I meant simply the latest fad. I do not mean to focus on blaming any part of the country but on the fact that this movement is the epitome of what Father Stephen wrote about the secularization of faith in our times. It seems to be the culmination of this movement towards secularization in which God is squeezed entirely out. As to California, I lived there on four separate occasions in my Air Force career and two of my children were born there. I have very fond memories of travelling around in Calaveras County and the fine Mexican restaurant in Frog Town. I know there are wonderful and God fearing people there, but this movement first arrived in L.A. and has caught on which is why I mentioned California. By your challenge to my facts, I learned more by having to do better research so thank you for making me do my homework. Lets pray that the Lord will open the hearts and eyes of the people led astray by this new movement and bring them to the Faith Once Delivered.

  19. Fr. Stephen:

    Thanks for the link. I like Joel Miller’s stuff as well, and this was a very moving piece.

    I do understand the problematic ways in which our culture defines “help”, and I very much agree with Schmeman’s concerns.

    In my work, I am constantly faced with the struggle that what constitutes “help” and “healing” in psychology is frequently quite the opposite. We can offer some pretty helpful insights and understandings, but ultimately, the profession has come to espouse a secular religion of symptom removal, comfort, freedom from guilt, and self absorption. Of course, these interventions inevitably lead to death and despair. And, as a reflection of these false cultural values, Christianity seems to follow suit.

    Yet I also know that God’s spirit is there. Hope is there. I see this every day. So I cannot give up in attempting to be as God calls me to be as one who loves and desires to help others. It is extraordinarily difficult to perceive the need and ignore the wants of the suffering. I know that shoring up the symptoms are not ultimately helpful, but if this activity allows for the tiniest opening to God, then I pray it may flourish in some way. I am not willing to accept that God’s love and compassion, in the moment, cannot change hearts in ways that I do not necessarily witness, and cannot comprehend.

    I agree that the Internet is not the greatest forum for this discussion, and unfortunately, I usually have little time to elaborate. To reiterate: I do understand Schmeman’s definition of “help”, both in the secular and Christian forms. But my point was that it is my hope that God is able to use even these forms of help (the “wants” that lead the soul to death) as a means of “bottoming out”, in order to illuminate the eyes of the heart to greater understanding of the truth.

  20. Noel,
    I think God is able to use all things, and frequently does. If this were not so, life would be hopeless. We do our best, but we can never truly know the consequences of our actions. The verse that tells us that “all things work together for good” is a deep comfort and consolation to me. I think of tragic decisions in my life, or deep failures regarding others and still give thanks that the goodness of God has not turned the universe and its outcomes over to my gross incompetence.

  21. Yes. And this is why I attempt to dwell in the micro rather than the macro, and keep focusing on God, surrendering all the brokenness to His care, and in gratitude for His presence and great mercy. There’s no other way to survive the heartaches of the world.

  22. Wow, so the title to this post needs to be revised then?

    “We Are Not Here to Help, except when ….” ?

  23. Noel,

    Could it be that the commandments of God are thus:

    “Yet I also know that God’s spirit is there. Hope is there. I see this every day. So I cannot give up in attempting to be as God calls me to be as one who loves and desires to help others. ”

    But the “key” in which that “help” is offered (the background philosophy and “music” being played and danced to) is a secular key, which you recognize when you say:

    “In my work, I am constantly faced with the struggle that what constitutes “help” and “healing” in psychology is frequently quite the opposite. We can offer some pretty helpful insights and understandings, but ultimately, the profession has come to espouse a secular religion of symptom removal, comfort, freedom from guilt, and self absorption. ”

    Christianity, as such (as preached, as “churched”, etc.) can be a (if we are not careful) an “an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God….” This type of Christianity is a dead end and we have to be on the look out for it. It is allready everywhere.

    In my work, I am sometimes asked to forgive debt that a patient owes. I do it because I am asked, and because God commands it. I try not to confuse it with Christianity/salvation as such (the time is evil – Eph 5:16) , or even that I am doing any good (it could be I am simply enabling bad behavior/habits – I suspect that I often am). I am very reluctant to say that I am “helping”.

    It seems to me one of the insights in Fr. Schmemanns quotes is this idea that we are to Christianly help with some philosophical/practical scheme based in human knowledge (justified of course as “it’s God’s will”) is not Christianity at all. As he says “…. but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.” The fact that this is resisted by our modern minds to such a degree simply reveals our own secularization. We cry out “what, we are not to help!?!? What a scandal! Christianity is about Looooovvvvveeeee!!!!”

    Yet, Christ did not “help”. He died on the Cross, he did not overcome the evil of the world (be it the Romans, or sickness mental/physical, or poverty, or racism, or…. ) when He certainly could have remade the world into the image of heaven. Why not? Why are we, right now, not in paradise instead of this evil time? Why am I going to suffer and die (if not tomorrow, then surely sooner than I want)? Why is everyone here going to suffer and die? Why does He not help and overcome this ridiculous calamity of an existential situation that can only be called an “evil time”?

    Fr. Schmemann says it really well:

    ” The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. “

  24. Today I had a friend send me a link to a so called church organization that she is considering joining . She will not go to an actual church but will start her own home church and use their seminars,conferences and books as her leadership. I looked at the site. There were 6-8 programs offered: How to strenghten your marriage, How to defeat addiction. How to connect with others….etc. I was very sad but had no idea how to tell my friend that this will not bring her closer to Christ, even though they will use scripture to “help” her and the others she will lead. I am in no way qualified but I humbly suggest that this is a better example of the “help” that does not save , than Noel’s relational outreach of help to those he serves. (If I understand him correctly). The Church provides the foundation and materials of faith and worship, the individuals in the church provide the hands of Christ to feed the hungry,visit the sick,etc. These activities should be organic, arising from our own thankfulness and obedience. The Church cannot cease to be the container and dispensor of the mysteries given to the saints by becoming a dispensor of the modern psycological self help gospel. Our priests are gifts given for the building up of our faith. They are not “life coaches” in the secular sense. As a convert, I can tell you that I have found this to be one of the hardest places of heresy to root out. We don’t serve Christ so that we can be blessed and have a better life. We serve Him because He is God, worthy of all worship. It isn’t about us. Truly following Christ will probably make our walk in the world harder, not easier. I am still tempted with thinking in terms of fixing people with Christ—even myself. Thank you for all of your posts. They help me so much in the conversion of my still somewhat heretical worldview.

  25. Fr Stephen,

    can you share some more to explain this?

    “Becoming Orthodox first made me miserable darned near destroyed me. But it was the one thing needful.”

    Thank you.

  26. Napoleonsays,
    Well. That would take you inside the very dark places in my head. Perhaps I should say that Orthodoxy is indeed an inner transformation – certainly in my case of becoming Orthodox and heading right back in to priesthood. It was intense, and, perhaps unlike the position of a layman, it allowed no opportunity to pull back and go slow. In my own case it magnified some things within me to the point that forced me to a point of change – it was salvific in the extreme. But it became a precarious journey at certain points.

    It should not be something to frighten anyone. But I have said from time to time that salvation is messy. That’s my personal experience. I didn’t convert until I was 45. I had a lot of baggage. I was immediately placed in charge of a new mission while also working 2 years as a full-time hospice chaplain, while pastoring the Church and studying in the process of re-ordination. And it was very isolated – nearest OCA parish was about 6 hours away and the diocese was in a bit of turmoil. Therefore, just not an ideal situation, but thankfully, not common.

    But the crisis was met and its was salvific. God is good.

  27. Kathy,
    You may be a recent? convert, but what you wrote certainly rang true with me….we don’t serve Christ so that we can be blessed and have a better life. We serve Him because He is God, worthy of all worship. It isn’t about us…. What you penned is what bothers me so about the evangelical memorial services I’ve attended during the past year. They are a “celebration” of the person’s life. But what about God? What about the truth about life, death and our God? Often these appear to be nothing more than a modern “This is Your Life” show from the old TV program of same name. As a new Orthodox now years ago, one of the services that cemented me in the Church and showed me that it was indeed the true faith, was an Orthodox funeral service I attended for a man I had known for two years. It was not centered on Charles but upon God and giving Him glory for life itself. It was glorious to see Christ magnified so.

  28. Fr Stephen,

    Thanks for your reply. I am a relatively new convert – since July ’13. So many things seem to go over my head, until one day, months down the road, it begins to make a little bit of sense. In some way, i was thinking about my own situation and how since my wife and I converted, we’ve had more peace between us (we barely made it thru engagement and once we were received into the Church, there was a drastic change). In this way, Orthodoxy has seemed to “help” us. I suppose that is a different kind of help than the one Fr Schmemann is speaking of. On the other hand, sometimes I do wonder about my motives…

    By the way, we look forward to you being at our Advent retreat in December!

  29. Fr. Stephen

    So much of this discussion seems connected to something I believe you’ve emphasized elsewhere—that the real meaning of our actions, intentions, and needs is hidden from us. Thus we too quickly call things helpful or unhelpful based on whether they fulfill or frustrate our more obvious desires. Those desires, fallen as we are, are very poor barometers of whether we drawing near to or departing from the “one thing needful” that the gospel offers us in place of “help”—eternal life.

    I’ve been recently re-reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. In the first eight books he expresses continual astonishment at how radically different the world looks when we abandon what he calls “the god of our own good” and find ourselves invaded instead by the goodness of God. For him, this simply reversed the magnetic poles of the meanings he had now seen in his prior life. His purposes seemed to be the polar opposite of those of God. My favorite of these reversals (if I may condense into a nutshell) is this. “I left Africa for Rome to gratify ambition and flee a pious mother’s tears; You O Lord drew me to Italy to meet Ambrose that I might find Your heavenly Kingdom.”

    The scary thing about The Confessions (and this discussion) is that it drives home how very ignorant we can be of what true “help” is. It’s possible the help we want may run directly counter to our need for God. Perhaps this is why St.Paul said that that it’s the breakdown of help that may lead to true healing: “When I am weak I am most strong.”

  30. I don’t think “help” is the correct word–Jesus didn’t say “help”, he said “Feed the hungry”, “visit the prisoner”, “peacemaker”, “show mercy”–and I believe we do these things because we love God, and we desire to be obedient to Him, not out of obligation, but out of our love of God.

  31. Grateful, Kathy, for your comment–for what you added, Dean. And for all reflections. This has been a very inspiring post+comments. Important work here, Fr. Stephen. Thank you, thank God.

  32. Thank you, Father. This post makes me better understand (I almost typed “helps”) your previous posts about how we do not get “better.”

  33. I often wish the path towards God were clearer. In ten years of being a Christian I’ve experienced so many disheartening false starts within Protestantism and all its fads.

    Since 2008 I’ve prayed that God would reveal the truth of His church to me and in that time I’ve been led to Orthodoxy, but now that I’m right at the doorstep, I hesitate. In truth, I’ve hesitated for years already.

    I worry maybe that I’ll be too miserable within Orthodoxy, or even that having exhausted most other possibilities that I’ll start to believe that God is just a myth.

    It’s easy to recognize that “it’s not about me” in some sense, but when you’re not really sure that there is a “Him,” it’s difficult to act with any degree of abandon with regards to the comforts of this world.

  34. Joe,
    One of the harder things to learn in convert to Orthodoxy is how to quit “looking.” For what’s it worth, when I became Orthodox, I simply began to consider that there was nothing else on earth – that I was finally where I should be and that I would make the best of it. There are plenty of flaws, dysfunctionality, etc. in Orthodoxy. It is not the “perfect” Church – it’s just the one Jesus actually started and that has preserved the faith, in a true communion. In that sense, “It don’t get no better than this.”

    It is nothing less than the authentic Christian life. But we Americans are always looking for a better life (not living the one we have). Become Orthodox, then just be Orthodox.

  35. I was just reading in Fr Seraphim of Isle of Mull -and communicating it to a dear fellow believer- how easily our hearts close and we might end up looking open on the outside but closed on the inside when the reverse is what is needed. It is then manifest as reading endlessly but never settling on anything, asking for advise but never following it to the end, ‘knowing everything yet practicing very little, always looking for something new, something else, (because it’s so much easier to keep looking for the truth even after finding it than it is to face the Truth, embrace it and allow it to transform you). Few Christians do not recognise themselves in this description after a time of spiritual warfare… It’s not just converts.
    But we mustn’t be put off by the barrenness that follows the honeymoon period of the passage of the Red Sea, we mustn’t compromise by making the subsequent ‘desert’ our home because we start seeing that we cannot enter the ‘promised land’ without the help of God who works through “a secret hand”, so let us stand fast…!

  36. I worry maybe that I’ll be too miserable within Orthodoxy, or even that having exhausted most other possibilities that I’ll start to believe that God is just a myth.

    Joe, I’ve run into some of this as well as I approach becoming a catechumen. It has been, I think, the closest I’ve come to simply giving up and becoming an atheist. What keeps me going, even when I cannot “feel His presence”, is the Truth of encountering Him. Once I embrace that encounter the rest, although incredibly difficult and at times frustrating beyond measure, I embrace to grow closer to Him.

    When I am away from our temple, I long to be there worshipping. When I am there worshipping, I chastise myself for being so easily and, it seems, constantly distracted by my passions. I am regularly reminded of the Monk who, when asked what they do all day, replied, “We fall down and get back up, we fall down and get back up, we fall down and get back up….” Falling down is discouraging but, at the same time, being connected to Life and Truth brings hope and the ability to love, and equally important, allow Love to be given to oneself. I struggle with the latter more-so than the former because I know my sins so well.

  37. I see the truth in what you say Fr. Stephen. Really I should count myself incredibly fortunate. Not only have I found that for which I prayed for so many years, but my wife has found it along with me.

    I feel a bit ridiculous in truth, having been unwilling to take that next step. The fault lies in me and my own lethargy.

  38. Dean
    I could not agree more! I cannot imagine how the prayers for the dead were ever abandoned for slide shows and funny stories! I realize this is not on the topic of this thread but I wanted to say that I have been experiencing the same thing at non- Orthodox funerals. It is very puzzling but is probably a side effect of making Christianity about us.

  39. Byron,

    Apologies for not responding sooner. I hadn’t seen this until just recently.

    I do appreciate your words. I had a friend who became Orthodox before me and within a year she became a zealous atheist. The justifications she ran to were utterly flimsy for a person of her intellect and so I couldn’t help but think that this was a sort of emotional escape.

    On the other hand, my sister and law and her family became Orthodox and found a very welcoming and supportive church.

    My experience has been…not the greatest. When I was deathly sick I reached out to the local Orthodox priest and he ignored me for a year. I was not unpleasant or belligerent. I simply expressed that I was home bound (which is thankfully no longer the case) and that I was wondering what I could do to become Orthodox.

    I know he received the messages because I was persistent and met with him in person over a year later and he told me that he wasn’t about to go meet with some random person because in his words, “I could be a muderer.”

    I can and have forgiven the man, but the impression it left was undeniable. How can you submit to the authority of someone you don’t respect and don’t trust?

  40. Joe, I am very sorry for your experience! I think it is difficult to allow others, especially those we consider leaders, to be fallible. Or even afraid. The only thing I can recommend is to remember that your priest is also on the same journey as you. Building trust and respect takes a great deal of time; be patient and open to it happening. I remember Fr. Freeman stating that forgiveness requires reestablishing relationship. Forgive him daily. Pray for each other.

    God bless you!

  41. “I know he received the messages because I was persistent and met with him in person over a year later and he told me that he wasn’t about to go meet with some random person because in his words, “I could be a muderer.””

    Joe, I literally laughed out loud when I read that. This is not an entirely appropriate reaction, but it is not without reason either. I have my own “war stories”, though not something quite like yours. We have to remember that “the Church” has this body made of people who are real sinners just like me and you. Priests are just people, and have the same demons as the rest of us – including in this case, an irrational fear of “randomness” and “murderers”. What would it look like for the Body to be made up of nothing but the brave, the calm, the law abiding, and the loving? Why, it would look like…something that does not exist – not even in the Eschaton.

    I have met some real chumps in my 20 years in the Church, some of them ordained. There was this one guy (not ordained) who accused my wife of stealing and pushing it to the point of bringing her to tears. I consider it a miracle of Grace that I did not kick the guys teeth in, sending me to prison (rightly so 😉 )

    “How can you submit to the authority of someone you don’t respect and don’t trust?”

    Remember, it’s not his authority you are submitting to. He has none. No priest or bishop does. Nobody has any authority at all. Even the archetypal “good man” has none:

    And Jesus said unto him, “Why callest thou me good?
    There is none good but one, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18)

  42. Joe,
    It’s often hard to understand how different the world of an Orthodox priest can be when compared to a Protestant pastor. It doesn’t excuse anything – but the nature and character of pastoral care can be very different. So often we are not on anybody’s radar, and we’re simply “hit” on by people looking for something other than God. It’s also true that some priests, particularly within a strongly ethnic setting, are simply uncomfortable and unsure outside their comfort zone.

    But, I’m glad it worked out.
    Fr. Stephen

  43. I can certainly understand that priests are working out their own salvation the same as any of us and by no means do I expect perfection. I just felt profoundly disappointed.

    My wife and I were already planning on moving in year or so. The cost of living where we are is absurd and rising. I don’t know whether I can bring myself to move forward with Orthodoxy until then though. I do understand the benefit of working through things right where you are, but I often wonder if working out my own salvation might not involve a longer road into the church.

  44. I don’t know what to make of “we’re not here to ‘help'”. It seems to me that the reading of the Parable of Judgment is one of the foundational points in the Tridion and a key reminder that on this Earth we do not and cannot work out our salvation on our own, but only in relation to others. Salvation is a triangle with others – real people, not abstract “humanity” – at one vertex. And the expectations are concrete ones: feed them, give them drink, clothe them, welcome them, visit them in affliction and imprisonment. Likewise I understand our Church’s teaching on monasticism to be that it is not enough that a person retreat to a cave or the deep woods to be alone with God – that if he/she is successful in overcoming the passions he/she must return to the society of sinners and be a light to them in their struggles. If these teaching don’t entail an obligation to help, in both material and spiritual terms, I don’t what would.

  45. Richard,
    I absolutely do not think that Schmemann had in mind a notion that we are not to clothe, feed, visit, etc. They are actions that are inherent in the commandments of Christ. When he writes extensively on this point, he focuses on the notion of helping people to cope or just get by – more or less adjusting to whatever the world demands. In that sense, he is thinking about the Church as a mere adjunct to the world’s project.

    I very much recommend reading him.

  46. Richard,

    Feeding the hungry, helping the needy, consoling the distressed etc are certainly actions that effortlessly emanate from the Christian. They might at times require effort too, but the objective is that these actions become a thing that radiates of its own accord, manifesting a ‘cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7).
    I think that indeed we are always connected but I would clarify some of the points you made concerning the ways this is acted out.. I could be wrong, but I have come to think of these points concerning our “[ontological] connection to all through our [bodily] separation from all” (Evagrius the Solitary) in this way through purely Orthodox influence…
    In Orthodox thinking, we do not just ‘help’ in order “to make a difference” to this world (which is God’s business and a dangerous self-appointment for a human), we do not, primarily, even help [“act”] to become “channels” through which God’s business is done (although this certainly does happen); in other words we haven’t a ‘utilitarian’ approach that concerns itself with ‘the most efficient’ and ‘the best action’, but an ‘ontological’ approach that is primarily about union with Christ, encountering Him in stillness, subsequently seeing Christ in all, and not forgetting that all secondary consequences of this union, remain secondary. The secondary might be the visible proof of the primary, both might emanate from the one source but that does not make us mix up the two. All this is contained in the very pertinent statement : ‘we are hesychasts, not activists’…
    A monastic might therefore both be called, as well as not be called back out of his cave (there’s probably many other St Mary-the-Egyptians who will only become known to us at the eschata…) The love of neighbour brought about from the union with Christ on that [monastic] path of ‘separating ourselves [bodily] from our brother [which] heats that flame of love for him inside which causes the sight of his countenance to be as that of an angel of light to us’, as St Isaac the Syrian states, might only become manifest in prayerful intercession for the world. It might ‘help’; in fact it might even ‘help’ by averting an entire world war, but the outcome of the world’s fleeting affairs (understood apart from an eschatological perspective) is not what primarily concerns them. What concerns them is the will of God, that “all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Also, knowing full well from personal experience what is required for human freedom to mature, their experience might even prevent them openly preaching the road they followed and make them favour prayerful intercession instead.

  47. So, you are certainly onto something Richard, as regards the truth that: the particular, concrete, specific personal encounter with another person in love, in Christ, is the palpable proof of one’s genuine union with Christ, but there is even more to what the Spirit of God can bring about in a person than that demonstrable verification of His abiding in the man’s heart. The ‘general’ is a poor description of the ‘cosmic’…

  48. Saint Isaac the Syrian is most clear on the correct understanding of the connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor. He excels even more though, in proving that solitude and stillness are not lacking if they never get the chance to ‘come back out of their caves’ to demonstrate specific rather than ‘general’ love.
    He often reminds us of our objective of purification, that might appear ‘self-seeking’, and the discernment needed in accomplishing it: (“A harsh and merciless heart will never be purified. A merciful man is the physician of his own soul.”)
    Those who withdraw from their neighbors and from the specifics of ‘helping’ for the sake of acquiring the ardent love of God in stillness are the ones unto which the cosmic, universal love of all is bestowed: “The commandment which says, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’ (Mt 22:37), more than the world, nature, and all that pertains thereto, is fulfilled when you patiently endure in your stillness. And the commandment that speaks of the love of neighbour is included within the former.”
    [Part I, Homily 44]
    “A person who has stillness and converse of knowledge will easily and quickly arrive at the love of God, and with the love of God he will draw close to perfect love of fellow human beings.
    No one has ever been able to draw close to this luminous love of humanity without having first been held worthy of the wonderful and inebriating love of God.”
    [Part II, Homily 10]
    “In the case of the person who has been deemed worthy to taste of divine love, that person customarily forgets everything else by reason of its sweetness, for it is something at whose taste all visible things seem despicable: such a person’s soul gladly draws near to a luminous love of humanity, without distinguishing between sinners and righteous; he is never overcome by the weakness to be found in people, nor is he perturbed. He is just as the blessed Apostles were as well: people who in the midst of all the bad things they endured from the others were nonetheless utterly incapable of hating them or of being fed up with showing love for them. This was manifested in actual deed, for after all the other things they accepted even death so that these people might be retrieved. These were men who only a little bit earlier had begged Christ that fire might descend from heaven upon the Samaritans just because they had not received them into their village! (Lk 9:54) But once they had received the gift and tasted the love of God, they were made perfect in love even for wicked men: enduring all kinds of evils in order to retrieve them, they could not possibly hate them.
    So you see that perfect love of fellow human beings cannot be found just as a result of keeping the commandments.”
    [Part II, Homily 10]

  49. Fr. S and Dino, Thank you for your thoughts. I understand that the help Christ directs us provide in our lives is not part of any secular social program of improving human material conditions, nor any Enlightenment program of advancing human freedom, nor any Marxist program of creating a socio-economic paradise for humanity on Earth. I understand. These points notwithstanding, however, we Christians and our Church surely are here to help. And many of our Church clearly agree. The sisters of our local Orthodox monastery are moving to create a half way house for victims of human trafficking in our region. Their spiritual father has labored long and hard to create soup kitchens in our area. The encounters in stillness of these blessed people with Christ have carried them back out into the world along a path truer than any arrow. They are here, now, in this place, to help all the icons of God around them.

  50. I think, Richard, that what is being lost here is the primacy of intimacy with God over “helping” in the world. The latter is not unimportant but the former is what we are called to, as this is our salvation. The call of Christ is not, as you point out, a program of meeting social needs but a calling to meet and take part in the “divine love of God”. This love comes first and foremost and produces, in some form, the love of humanity as God loves us.

    I only state it this way as there seems, from the comments, a viewpoint that “helping” must be completed discarded based on Father’s writing, which is not true. He is, as I understand, saying that our love for God must be so great that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). We know that Christ does not call us to hate, but He does call us to love God first, foremost, and with all our being. This does not exclude us from loving others (“helping”), instead it empowers us to do so in God’s Will and Spirit.

    The examples you provide of the sisters of the local Orthodox monastery and their spiritual father are examples of the love of humanity rooted in the love of God. But it is important to realize that the calling of the Church is not in the actions they take part in but rather in the heart in which their actions are rooted.

    If I have misunderstood your writing, Father, please correct me. Dino, if I have misunderstood your comments as well, please correct me. Blessings, all!

  51. Byron,
    That is ‘spot on’!
    Man cannot authentically love. Only God loves. That Love makes no discriminations.
    [Human] Partiality of one over the other is testimony that what we consider to be love is nothing of the sort, it especially isn’t the Love that God has. It is therefore only through God that we can ever come to truly love others. We will fail most miserably if we deceive our selves that we can love others, get on with all, in a ‘Babelic’, direct-from-human-to-human way.
    Only from human-to-God-to-others can we ever do this as it is God who is Love. The first commandment is the vertical staff -the longest one – of the Cross. It is upon this staff that the second commandment, the horizontal staff, rests and not the other way around. For a human to become like God in love of another requires the ontological transformation that comes from communion with Him.
    p.s.: It is also perhaps noteworthy that, even from the very secular point of view of the Church, (if ‘seculars’ are being honest, they admit that) Her greatest contribution is not her social help, which naturally stems from Her, but the existential fulfillment it can offer through enlivening one’s direst relationship with the Creator of all.

  52. To add to what Byron says, I would disagree with this statement:

    “……These points notwithstanding, however, we Christians and our Church surely are here to help.”

    No, we (as individuals or the Church) “are not here to help”. That puts to much emphasis on the person-as-helper, almost as if the reason for his existence (or the Church’s) is for worldly comfort, a worldly reconciliation with fill_in_the_blank suffering and death. Richard did not “mean” it this way (he says so explicitly), but what is it about this language that fails – and what is it about love that is so easily perverted into worldly “help”

    To quote Fr. Schmemann:

    “For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. ”

    We are commanded to love our neighbor (in very practical terms – feed, clothe, visit), but is Love a synonym for, or even analogous to, “help”? If we are commanded to love, but the Love of God itself “fails” in the sense that it does not seem to “fix” the world, what is it about Love that seems to be a “failure”, or perhaps a triumph in failure or weakness? Let me correct myself, there is no “seems” to it, the Love of God does not “fix” this world/age – the real evil that surrounds us “proves” this.

    Is this what the practical commands of love (what everyone seems to point to when they want to use the word “help”) are – God saying “it’s all in vain, but you go ahead and ‘help’ your neighbor simply because I command it, even though he is going to suffer and die anyways”.

    Is the small, ultimately defeated (and thus a vanity of sorts) “practical help” that we are commanded to provide for our neighbor only meant to be a taste, a drop of water at the end of the finger in which we cool the tongue of our neighbor why they and we are tormented by the flames of this age? Is this all simply a mystery that we are not equipped to plumb?

    I suppose we could pull back and declare we are pushing the language too far here (i.e love, help, etc.), but I think then we lose the deep thing Fr. Schmemann is pointing to if we do. Why did Christ bring us a Cross, and not Power to overcome the world (this world that is very broken and so obviously needs “help”)?? Wait, He did, and it is a Cross…help, the ultimate help, which *is itself* suffering and death – the very thing we are trying to “help”?!?

    The mystery is deep no doubt about it. This guy is saying something about this mystery I think:

  53. Dino, Byron, Very inspiring exchange, very helpful. Thank you! This issue has been a thorn (not painful, but troublesome) for years. As I look back, I realize that I had things a bit mixed up. It is so good to hear thoughtful conversation here. Thank you again, Fr Stephen, for your work.

  54. And to Christopher: I always read your words carefully. They keep me thinking, on track. Really appreciate that.

  55. Richard,
    Again, caring for the poor, needy, hungry are commandments of Christ. Fr. Schmemann was not disparaging this at all, nor am I. But it is not our purpose. It is what we do, certainly. But you yourself actually say this. You did not say, “And they leave with their bellies filled.” They do, and it is not nothing. But if filling bellies were our primary role (“we’re here to help”), then the Church could be replaced by feeding programs, etc.

    And there are Churches, now highly secularized, who do a very good job of just that, and have diminished their Christian mission to nothing more. And they bless false unions (and other wrong things) under the same guise of “helping.” Under the Soviets, the Church was forbidden to carry on any (!) eleemosynary activities (only the State could be your benefactor). And yet the Church was necessary – even more than ever.

    Of course, since there are many nuanced meanings of “help,” all of this can be contradicted ad infinitum. I think Fr. Alexander’s words are clear in the meaning and import – and true.

  56. Fr. Stephen, I am not contesting anyone’s commitment to commandment. Not yours, whose thoughts expressed on this blog I very much appreciate. And not Fr. Schememan’s who was the teacher at St. Vladimir’s of my own priest, whom I revere. But being a convert from Baptist upbringing, I see a secularism that I think you don’t. I see Gk. Orthodox churches in my area completely taken up with service to a small insular ethnic community that is all too willing to confine it’s mission to itself. The threats of secularism to that church – to my church – are not, in my view, ones of post-Newtonian mechanization of the world picture, or “disenchantment” or the loss of a sacramental view of the world, served up as an offering to God. The threats I see are manifest in relentless focus on Greek schools, dance groups, Greek Independence Day, Ochi Day, Glendis, Protomaya’s and, worst of all, endless Greek festivals that occupy 50% of attention in every Liturgical year. THAT is secularization. And answer to it, again in my view, is what it has always been: service to others. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. The Parable of Judgment doesn’t see our Lord questioning this or that person as to what they thought, or their motives, still less whether their worldview was sufficiently sacramental. He asks them, simply, “What did you do?” Did you ante up? What skin did you have in the game? I was simply observing that the best of us, in my opinion, understand this and are out there in the world trying to help – to staff, in the words of our brother Roman bishop Francis, the great “field hospital” that is the Church in its ministry to all the billions of mortally wounded.

  57. Dino and Byron, I think a difference between us is in whether one believes access to God’s intimacy can come in the absence of others – whether our salvation can be worked out in the absence of real concrete persons besides ourselves, including that annoying Abba X in the next cell, who makes too much noise when he eats at table and whose snoring, quite frankly, gives me migraines. (Monasteries are no escape.) If that is *not* possible, as I believe our Church teaches (we’re not Protestants), then our relation to God is always triangular in the way I offered: it always passes to Him through others. And if that is true then the question of our relation to others is always part of personal salvation. And what is that relation except love? And how is that love made manifest except in service? Therefore, respectfully, insofar as we hope to achieve intimacy to God in this world, we *are* here to help. It’s not just commandment, Christian duty, an expression of a joyful personality – still less humanitarianism, worker solidarity or social conscience. It is what we must do we reach Him.

  58. “The Parable of Judgment doesn’t see our Lord questioning this or that person as to what they thought, or their motives, still less whether their worldview was sufficiently sacramental.”

    Not directly, but a worldview that is sacramental is the answer – “the righteous” in the parable lived a “sacramental” life, one of sacrifice. People don’t’ simply “act” – they have an organic understanding of the world and their actions only make sense in it to the extant that they are coherent with said worldview. Yes yes, we do many things out of unconscious habit and the rest, but we strive for a human alignment (a sanity) of our thoughts with our actions.

    Besides, those who focus on what you perceive to be an ethnic tangent ARE doing what they believe to be “a sacrifice”, which is to say they are sacrificing many things to pass on a tradition that they believe is part of Tradition and which will help retain something that is opposed to secularism. I am not saying they are right, but I can see the reply to your answer (i.e. “service to others”) being “But that is exactly what I am doing!”. Frankly, they would be more right than wrong…

  59. Richard,
    What you describe is a problem, but it has complexities within the Greek community. Like the sins of others, generally, it is best to let them deal with it. I spent the better part of this last week at Hellenic College, Holy Cross Seminary in Boston (the Greek Orthodox college and seminary), at a conference entitled, “Speaking to Secular America.” What I can say is that the problems you note are not being overlooked. I was profoundly moved by the depth of the faculty and the commitment to evangelism, confronting the world, and addressing their own unique struggles within the Greek community. I was very moved and excited.

  60. then our relation to God is always triangular in the way I offered: it always passes to Him through others.

    I would say our relationships as Christians alway pass through God to others. Our main difference seems to be in how we see Christian relationship flowing. I am seeing it as flowing through Christ, first and foremost. You seem to see it as us helping others and this brings us to, or closer to, Christ (please correct me if I misunderstand you concerning this).

    In terms of salvation, our salvation requires communion with God.
    God requires that we love our neighbor.
    It is in communion with God that we reach out to those around us.

    We seem to be caught in a form of the chicken-and-egg argument.

  61. Richard,
    I fully agree with what you are saying regarding how God invariably places us in contexts where “that annoying Abba X in the next cell, who makes too much noise when he eats at table and whose snoring, quite frankly, gives me migraines” and that I must prove the authenticity of my love towards God through my love towards said neighbor… You are very correct.
    However, that does not mean to say that God’s intimacy cannot come in a place where there is a withdrawal, an absence of others – that would make some of the greatest anchorites such as Mary of Egypt, Arsenius the Great, Isaac the Syrian etc frauds!
    But that solidarity with our brother, which inevitably becomes manifested in the solitary prayer for the world (in that stillness where that “luminous love of humanity” is granted to those who have renounced everything for the sake of God) is no ‘abstraction’, it is not something that you and I decide upon doing either of our own will! It is an entirely Holy Spirit inspired thing! St Isaac has answered that in the earlier quotes hasn’t he?
    That our Church teaches that our salvation passes through our brother is, in fact, exhibited in its utmost degree, only in that solitude that allows for the pure prayer for the entire Adam.
    St Isaac is clear that, “the commandment that speaks of the love of neighbour is included within the commandment which says, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’ (Mt 22:37), more than the world, nature, and all that pertains thereto, which fulfilled when you patiently endure in your stillness. [Part I, Homily 44]
    The saint won’t allow us to believe that the ‘activism’ of the second commandment (which –it goes without saying- will become manifested, put in practice on concrete persons wherever appropriate) might ever take such a primacy over the ‘hesychasm’ of the first commandment as demonstrated in stillness: “No one has ever been able to draw close to this luminous love of humanity without having first been held worthy of the wonderful and inebriating love of God.” [Part II, Homily 10]
    He even answers (before being asked by us on the matter of which of the two commandments spawns the other to avoid us getting it wrong) the matter of this undeniable ‘triangulation’ of our relation to God via neighbor and how it can only ever be ‘powered’ by the first commandment and not the other way round:

    “So you see that perfect love of fellow human beings cannot be found just as a result of keeping the commandments.”
    [Part II, Homily 10]

  62. Richard,

    I came across this from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, speaking on Isaac the Syrian, which deals with this exact same issue, and makes it very clear indeed, I quote (it is a worthy read):

    “Speaking outside the narrow context of the eremitical life, Isaac emphasizes the necessity of good deeds for the sake of one’s neighbour. He objects to the words of a certain monk who says that ‘monks are not obliged to give alms’: only that monk, Isaac says, is not obliged to do so who ‘possesses nothing upon the earth, who earns nothing for himself among material things, who in his mind clings to nothing visible, and does not endeavour to acquire anything’. The cenobitic monks are not free from the necessity to give alms and to perform acts of philanthropy for their neighbour. As to hermits, they cannot give alms, but they must have mercy, which should be revealed not so much in good deeds as in prayer concerning the whole world. At the same time deeds cannot be avoided, especially if the situation requires immediate action for the sake of someone who suffers: ‘“Blessed is the merciful man, for he shall obtain mercy”, not only yonder, but here also in a mystical way. Indeed, what mercy is greater than this, even that when a man is moved with compassion for a fellow man and becomes a partaker in his suffering, our Lord delivers his soul from the gloom of darkness – which is the noetic Gehenna – and brings her into the light of life, thus filling her with delight… And when it is in your power to deliver the iniquitous man from evil, do not neglect to do so. I do not mean that if the affair is far removed from you, you should go and cast yourself into the work of this sort, for deeds of this kind do not belong to your way of life. If, however, the affair is placed directly into your hands and is within your power, then take heed to yourself, lest you become a partaker of the blood of the iniquitous man by not taking pains to deliver him… Instead of an avenger, be a deliverer. Instead of a faultfinder, be a soother. Instead of a betrayer, be a martyr. Instead of a chider, be a defender. Beseech God on behalf of sinners that they receive mercy’.

    This universal love, about which Isaac speaks, cannot be obtained by deeds of philanthropy or, in general, by human effort: it is a gift which we receive directly from God. Isaac’s teaching on how the love of neighbour is acquired can be depicted in the following scheme: a person withdraws himself from his neighbour for the sake of life in solitude and stillness; through this he acquires an ardent love of God; this love gives birth in him to the ‘luminous love’ (hubba šapya) of humanity. St Isaac writes: ‘A person who has stillness and converse of knowledge will easily and quickly arrive at the love of God, and with the love of God he will draw close to perfect love of fellow human beings. No one has ever been able to draw close to this luminous love of humanity without having first been held worthy of the wonderful and inebriating love of God’.

    The scheme which is offered by Isaac is therefore different from the one we find in the 1st Epistle of John: ‘He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?’ According to Isaac, someone should first love God whom he does not see and by means of this draw near to the love of his neighbour whom he sees, or rather whom he does not see either as he has deliberately withdrawn from seeing him. To acquire the love of one’s neighbour by means of good deeds is as impossible as to acquire the love of God by means of the love of neighbour:
    ‘To come from the toil and struggle with the thoughts to the luminous love of humanity, and from this, to be raised up to the love of God – for someone to complete such a course in this life, even up to the time he departs from the world, is impossible, however much he struggles. Because of the commandments and out of discernment it is possible for someone to compel his thoughts and to purify his sensibility with respect to them (i.e. the others), and he can even perform good towards them. But for him to attain to a luminous love of humanity by means of struggle, I am not persuaded to admit as possible: there is no one who has so attained, and none who will attain it by this path in this life. Without wine no one can get drunk, nor will his heart leap with joy; and without inebriation in God, no one will obtain by the natural course of events the virtue that does not belong to him, nor will it remain in him serenely and without compulsion’.
    The question is here of a special and highest form of love of one’s neighbour, which is called by Isaac ‘luminous’ and ‘perfect’, and which is a gift from God that does not belong to human nature. It is not therefore a natural love of human beings, domestic animals, birds, wild animals and so on, which we might encounter in some people, but a supernatural love, which is born from ‘inebriation’ with the love of God. The luminous love of neighbour is that sacrificial love which makes one like God, who loves sinners and righteous equally: ‘In the case of the person who has been held worthy to taste of divine love (hubba alahaya), that person customarily forgets everything else by reason of its sweetness[…]
    Living far from people and remaining internally alone, one can and must show love to others: ‘Rejoice with the joyous and weep with those who weep; for this is the sign of limpid purity. Suffer with those who are ill and mourn with sinners; with those who repent rejoice. Be every man’s friend, but in your mind remain alone. Be a partaker of the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even men who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over the man who is falling and cover him. And if you cannot take upon yourself his sins and receive his chastisement in his stead, then at least patiently suffer his shame and do not disgrace him… Know, brother, that the reason why we must remain within the door of our cell is to be ignorant of the wicked deeds of men, and thus, seeing all as holy and good, we shall attain to purity of mind’. Thus the luminous love of neighbour, when someone does not want to see another person’s sins and infirmities, seeing only his advantages, is born from the heart that is purified and the mind that dwells in stillness and that is totally freed from worldly affairs.
    Isaac’s understanding of human love is directly connected with his view of the divine love, and his teaching on God as mercy is reflected in his notion of a ‘merciful heart’ in humans. If God is love by His nature, everyone who has acquired perfect love and mercy towards all creation, becomes godlike: his perfect state of love towards creation is a mirror where he can see a true image and likeness of the Divine Essence.86 All the saints ‘seek for themselves the sign of complete likeness to God: to be perfect in the love of the neighbour’. Characteristic in this connection is Isaac’s famous text, with which I would like to conclude this paper: ‘And what is a merciful heart? – It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God’.

  63. I don’t see it as a chicken/egg question so much as a time/context issue. I am not a monk, so my time is spent mostly in interactions rather than in solitude–and even then I am preoccupied with responsibilities that involve others: family, colleagues & work-related persons, parishioners, friends, neighbors. So either I see these interactors, whom I am placed among but also drawn to because of a natural affection (hopefully) as God’s people who are also images of God and guides back to God, or I live with them as necessary distractions until I can gradually be open through prayer to God’s gift of love that makes it possible, eventually, to truly help others as a result of this love. Oversimplification of course, but a concern nonetheless. How to be open to God and to love in a busy world.

  64. Albert,
    It is indeed a time/context issue ‘in the world’ and it does create a (somewhat “schizophrenic” but most fecund) bifurcation. However, within the right knowledge of what has been explained above, one can, within their measure, even in the world, get close to such love through grace. Within this right knowledge, their watchfulness and ‘solely-focused-on-God-motivation’, in keeping the commandments will discern correctly. It will safeguard –as far as is possible- an inner and perhaps even an outer (within measure) context that might even approach that of a coenobium at times. It has to be said that there will inevitably be a great deal more ‘rebuilding’ (at night) of what becomes unavoidably ‘demolished’ (in the day), as compared to a hermit’s context… But God often rewards such an intent (despite its actual execution or not) in the world, expecting less than what is required from a monastic…

  65. Dino, thank you very much for your comments here. I found them to be most helpful. I loved the homilies from St Isaac the Syrian and I loved this quote: “We’re hesychasts, not activists.”

    Thanks again.

  66. Albert, have your read Anthony Bloom’s “Beginning to Pray”? He speaks a great deal about managing time. This morning I opened it to a random page and read on this subject. It was very helpful and addressed a great struggle in my life in ways I had not considered.

  67. “…‘To come from the toil and struggle with the thoughts to the luminous love of humanity, and from this, to be raised up to the love of God – for someone to complete such a course in this life, even up to the time he departs from the world, is impossible, however much he struggles. Because of the commandments and out of discernment it is possible for someone to compel his thoughts and to purify his sensibility with respect to them (i.e. the others), and he can even perform good towards them. But for him to attain to a luminous love of humanity by means of struggle, I am not persuaded to admit as possible: there is no one who has so attained, and none who will attain it by this path in this life. Without wine no one can get drunk, nor will his heart leap with joy; and without inebriation in God, no one will obtain by the natural course of events the virtue that does not belong to him, nor will it remain in him serenely and without compulsion’….”

    I don’t think I have ever read anything on this that is so clear and to the point. The red light on my “garbage detector” is always illumined when I brush up against that certain strain of sentimentalized “christianity” that preaches the opposite of this. It seems to be everywhere. All part and parcel of a lost anthropology, and Humanity that has forgotten what it is I suppose…

  68. I will definitely look for that book, Byron. Thank you. Bloom has been recommended to me before. This may be the right place for me to start.

  69. Albert, thank you for your comment from 11/1 at 7:49 AM. This is something that I struggle with greatly and think about often. Well, let me re-phrase that. I don’t think I can say I struggle, because I lose at it all the time. I want to be sure I’m following you on this point you made:

    “So either I see these interactors, whom I am placed among but also drawn to because of a natural affection (hopefully) as God’s people who are also images of God and guides back to God, or I live with them as necessary distractions until I can gradually be open through prayer to God’s gift of love that makes it possible, eventually, to truly help others as a result of this love. ”

    Are you saying here that both of these are equally good options? I want to get this point, but I’m confused (a common occurence for me). Or, are you saying that one of these is better than the other?

    Dino, in your reply, you stated that there has to be a “rebuilding at night.” Would you be so kind as to unpack that a bit further for me. Does this rebuilding amount to prayer, silence/solitude, reading and meditating on Scripture, or is there something else that you were getting at?

    Thank you both for your time.

  70. “Dino, in your reply, you stated that there has to be a “rebuilding at night.” Would you be so kind as to unpack that a bit further for me. Does this rebuilding amount to prayer, silence/solitude, reading and meditating on Scripture, or is there something else that you were getting at?”

    Speaking for myself, the answer is yes. I am married, so I have a wife, kids, a dog, a job – all need (or ask for) my attention, seemingly from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. I often wake up in the middle of the night (Frederica Mathewes-Green speaks of the same thing – and of course it’s part of the routine in a monastery) and pray. I don’t necessarily intend to do it, as I don’t get enough sleep as it is, but it often is the only time I get to talk to God without at the same time attending to someone or something else…

  71. Fr Stephen,
    I always enjoy your blog as one outside the Orthodox tradition. I read For the Life of the World nearly 30 years ago and you have made me think that I should return again to its wisdom. I appreciate the tone of comments on your site and the sincere desire that so many of those who comment seem to have to learn, share and encourage one another.

  72. So, yes it does just (this rebuilding) amount to prayer, silence/solitude, reading… all under His eyes at night…

  73. Alan,

    Rereading, I can see that the two are not opposites. I’m not sure that I was on to anything. I leaned towards the “either” statement (that persons I meet daily are “images of God and guides back to God”) because that’s partly what I had been taught way back. Bus how that actually works I have no worthwhile thoughts. Dino seems to have some, and I am listening.

    In the “or” statement, I shouldn’t have used the phrase “necessary distractions.” Muddled. Persons are not distractions.

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