Modern Illusions

mirageA “better world” and “making a difference” are deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. They seem to be obvious goals for the human life. My recent articles questioning this consciousness have touched a deep chord for many, some wondering that if such things are wrong, “why bother?” There are two thoughts I want to offer in this article. The first addresses the illusion of the better world and making a difference, while the second addresses what it is that we can do.

The Illusion

Change is a constant in human history. No doubt, telephones, television, medicines, water purification, computers, and many other technological inventions change the way people go about doing a wide range of activities. However, modernity is not about change – it is a story about change. It is a narrative about the role change plays in the world and our part in it. What is illusory about modernity is that the narrative is false.

Generally speaking, individuals labor over the course of their days with a vague hope, or almost religious faith, that they are “making a difference.” We cannot really know what difference we make, or whether, in the long term, the difference we might make will be beneficial or not. The scope and scale of the world are simply too large for anyone to know such a thing. The so-called “butterfly effect” is true – even the smallest action creates change. A collision of atoms on the other side of the universe changes the whole universe. The scope and scale of the world and the long stretch of history make it impossible for us to know whether the change of which we are a part of beneficial or not.

It interests me that my critique of modernity is often met with the suggestion that I want to abandon technology, or that I’m ignoring its place in our lives. Technology and various innovations are not inherently modern. The only thing modern about such things is the place they hold in the narrative of modernity.

Once upon a time, human beings labored using stone upon stone to grind wheat into usable flour. At some point, that method was replaced with larger grinding stones that worked on the basis of a wheel. Later still, larger constructions were powered by animals. And several centuries before Christ (to the best of our knowledge), the use of water-powered mills was invented, creating a method that remained largely unchanged until the invention of a practical steam engine in the late 1700’s. This is a pattern of invention and innovation, all of which took place outside of modernity. Invention and technology is not a modern activity – it is a human activity. The structures of free-market capitalism have encouraged and rewarded this human activity – but change and technology are not some marvelous gift bestowed on us by modernity.

To understand modernity, you have to first untangle the cords of its narrative and its false claims. “Making a difference” and “building a better world” are typical slogans of our age. However, they belong to the realm of political rhetoric (and not only in recent times). A “better world” has been the rhetoric behind colonial efforts, the Communist revolutions, and any number of genocides. Political debate is invariably about competing versions of a better world with little effect other than the faces that stare out from various parliaments. Versions of the better world are not slogans drawn from Christian tradition.

Is technology actually taking us somewhere “better?”

We are, in fact, all headed in the same direction human life has always gone: death. No technology can change this fact. At most, it can create new scenery as a diversion along the way. In general, the term “better” refers to “less suffering.” By a “better world” we simply mean a world with less suffering. But, like death itself, suffering is a fact of life. We suffer in different ways, some of them begotten by technology itself, but no amount of technology will ever change the landscape of human existence into a journey devoid of suffering. In the modern narrative, what is abolished is a reason to suffer. Suffering is understood as evil. But if it is unavoidable, then the modern project will always fail, and by refusing to rightly understand suffering, it renders suffering itself to be unbearable.

What We Can Do

Only an understanding of the Good can provide a proper measure for “better.” But the various philosophies that undergird modernity reject the notion of the Good. Christians in the modern world have all too readily translated the Christian gospel into the terms of the modern narrative. The Kingdom of God cannot (and must not) be equated with an improved world. Though the relief of suffering is often a very good thing, it is not necessarily an inherently good thing. Christ did not die in order to make a better world – He died in order to raise us from the dead.

That Paschal reality unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection and this becomes the measure and true vehicle of our existence. An alternate way to think about suffering is to ask, “How can I help you bear legitimate suffering?” There is no such thing as a non-suffering human existence. In the end, those who imagine the relief of suffering to be the overriding goal of life, will also accept death as a means to achieve it. Abortion and euthanasia are modern efforts whose use is defended as a relief of suffering. Putting someone to death certainly relieves suffering, after a fashion. A massive nuclear strike could end all suffering – for ever. It is, strangely, a logical conclusion that has so far been overlooked.

Overlooked by those who choose to use the language of modernity to describe the Christian life (“better world”) is the fact that such a description or self-understanding makes the Church just one more partner in the common secular effort to make the world marginally better. Christ founded the Church as His body, not as the Rotary Club. The fact that many members of the Church cannot give a description of a substantial difference between the purpose of Rotary and the Church is a testament to the power of the modern narrative. (Incidentally, Rotary has much more stringent attendance rules).

There is a “spirituality” that naturally flows from the modern drive for improvement and progress. Spiritual growth is cast in terms of improvement, getting better. And though Protestant and Evangelical theology classically champion the work of grace, modernity has high-jacked their movements and replaced them with self-improvement. Grace has been reduced to God agreeing to grade us on a curve.

The Classical Christian life, as described in the New Testament, is grounded in weakness and true grace (the Divine Energies). Our modern instincts urge us to try harder and get better. The New Testament tells us that we are saved in our weakness: the way down is the way up. Modernity has turned Christianity on its head and converted us into a society of the above average.

And this is very much my point. The critique of modernity is not the complaint of a curmudgeonly priest. It is a cry for us to return to the faith as it was once and for all delivered to the saints. The modern mind instinctively rejects the Cross as a way of life while the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) instinctively rejects modernity.

For while we are commanded to do good, to share, to serve, to love, to forgive, we do these things knowing that all of our efforts do not change the world. The slogans of “making a difference” and “making the world a better place” are illusions, figments of our imagination. They entice us to plot and plan, argue and harangue. They do not nurture the spirit nor point us towards the way of Christ.

Empty yourself.

102 comments:

  1. Thank you, again, Fr. Stephen! When I was in seminary during the early 70s the concern for students close to graduating “Where I can I serve and have the greatest impact?” This article most appropriately shreds that question. Thank you.

  2. In the end, those who imagine the relief of suffering to be the overriding goal of life, will also accept death as a means to achieve it.

    This is so frighteningly true–and already in play in the West (Europe, Canada, and the U.S.). In February of this year, the Canadian Supreme Court basically mandated assisted suicide for any reason. It’s moving south at a breakneck speed, I think.

    Wonderful clarity, Father. Many thanks for this article!

  3. Yes, I’ve been keeping up with it a bit. It’s the ultimate in the ego-centered viewpoint, I think. There is no realization of the giftedness of life, only the control of it.

  4. This brought to mind Amnesty International’s latest campaign to decrimiminalize all prostitution in order to give the women more rights and benefits. While there is a certain logic to the argument, it just seems very wrong. An example of modernity logic taken too far? I used to trust Amnesty International, now I don’t know anymore

  5. Marjaana, legalizing prostitution failed horribly in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, that “experiment” will undoubtedly be conducted again under the idea that “we can do better this time!”

    Father’s articles are not only timely but they are spot-on concerning how the Modern world works.

  6. Thank you Father. Perhaps it might help to think of Modernity as more of a way of thinking about the individual and the individuals place in society rather than in technology. The Enlightenment was the beginning of Modernity and it certainly has changed the way the “Western” world perceives society and faith. It is too easy to confuse “Modern,” meaning advanced technology and “Modernity,” the thought process brought by the Enlightenment.

  7. I just shared this in reply to a question in the prior post but it’s worth sharing here again as it’s so on point to this new post.

    Late Results
    BY SCOTT CAIRNS

    We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
    —Milosz

    And the few willing to listen demanded that we confess on television.
    So we kept our sins to ourselves, and they became less troubling.

    The halt and the lame arranged to have their hips replaced.
    Lepers coated their sores with a neutral foundation, avoided strong light.

    The hungry ate at grand buffets and grew huge, though they remained hungry.
    Prisoners became indistinguishable from the few who visited them.

    Widows remarried and became strangers to their kin.
    The orphans finally grew up and learned to fend for themselves.

    Even the prophets suspected they were mad, and kept their mouths shut.
    Only the poor—who are with us always—only they continued in the hope.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177147

  8. I hope my semi-lightheartedness is not out of place in what has been an excellent series on a serious topic. That being said, the church attendance requirements, if I remember my canon law class, are “miss three Sundays in a row and you’re out” (with a caveat or two, and the ever-present possibility of re-acceptance). However, I cannot say how this compares with the Rotary Club 🙂

  9. I must admit Father, it’s hard to do good with the thought it mind that it won’t fundamentally succeed at helping anything. One can reply that it can have a spiritual effect on ourselves, but so can prayer, and prayer is less fraught with difficulty. Could this view lead us to abandon helping others in the name of saving our own souls through solitary prayer? St. Isaac the Syrian in fact, early in his homilies, says that it is far better to stay in a cell and pray to save your own soul than to go abroad preaching to others, which seems problematic in some ways.

  10. Corey,
    Actually, serving others is much easier than prayer, and it can be more powerful when done right. Working to “make a difference” is working for a reward. That’s what hired hands do. We’re called to be children of God, not hired hands.

  11. Corey, personally I find it easier to give when I am not responsible for all the baggage of changing the world. I can just give and let God do the rest.

  12. Corey,

    I found before I was Orthodox, in my Evangelical church there was occasional lip service to the primary importance of prayer and nurturing one’s relationship with God (with a few happy exceptions to this rule), but the real focus was on the active life (these days I think the buzz word is being “missional”). This is why those wishing to most fully give themselves to God in this tradition typically go to the mission field or at least into full time Christian service. A normal job is okay if I see my workplace as my mission field. Monasticism, if it is on the radar at all, tends to be viewed as an escape and flight from “real” life and ministry. Where this is the focus, even “prayer” tends to become utilitarian–we want God’s help to get the “missional” job done. The focus on winning others to Christ had the unfortunate unintended consequence for some of us of making us feel we were recruits in a sort of spiritual pyramid scheme! Where the active life is a focus in this modern way, it is hard not to get the message that my value to God and others is rooted in what I can do for them. The utilitarian ethic masquerades as encouragement to Christian “ministry”, but can only produce insecurity and activity that is ultimately ego-driven, where the underlying motivation is not love for God and others, but the need to prove my own worth. Meanwhile, classical Christian monasticism has produced desert and pillar-dwelling hermits who, spending decades in their solitary enterprise, became wonder-working Saints whose lives and words serve as beacons to Christ for countless thousands to this day who still seek them out! I can’t help but notice the irony in this.

  13. Reading about how we cannot really know what difference we make, I was reminded of St. Francis Xavier, a large figure in east Asia (where I live). He died hungry, impoverished, almost alone, stranded on a desolate island in south China. By modern standards, a failure.

  14. Karen,
    Very well-described. The “missional” thing as we more or less know it today, dates back only to the 19th century and is an artifact of modernity. It’s the great Christian project for modern Christians, one way or another. Conservative Christians want to “spread the gospel.” Liberal Churches want to establish abortion clinics and gay rights in the third world (they are very “evangelical” in such things). Show me a project. I’ll show you modernity.

  15. The logic of modernity is manifest in the young unconsciously, but explicitly too. Partially thanks to the HBO show True Detective the philosophy called Anti-natalism has become very popular, their main text being “Better not to have been”‘ by Benatar, which has made waves in medical ethics regarding doctors duty to the suffering. And yes, there are Christian Antinatalists, considering the amount of suffering involved birth is seen as immoral. There is even the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and these ideas have even popped up among polititions. The young want an answer, why live ? And are sick of superficial pop answers. I see it as akin to the sexual revolution, a kind of existential pessimistic revolution is happening…

  16. Jonathan,
    Thanks for this. I’ll track down some of these leads and perhaps do an article. Our adversary really is a Murderer – he hates and despises existence and being itself, even his own. If he loved his own existence, he could be saved, perhaps. But every drive towards murder and killing comes from him, or allies us to him and draws his direct attention. This is the deepest danger of modernity – it is, as Pope John Paul II, accurately said, “A culture of death.”

    The Christian gospel calls us directly into suffering, and this alone will conquer death. This element of the gospel is utterly obscured in modernist Christianities. It is also why asceticism is absolutely and essential part of the Christian life. We voluntarily suffer that we might truly live.

  17. Father, you mention “How can I help you bear legitimate suffering?”

    I’m confused by this. Is there illegitimate suffering? What does legitimate
    suffering look like? Isn’t all suffering legitimate?

  18. Johathan, I only gave Antinatalism a quick read but it seems to be focused on avoiding suffering, which Father has mentioned is a staple of modern thinking. I think you are spot on concerning the viewpoint of many younger people. Life has lost purpose for many of them and, if they are not immersed in a “cause”, they often see little worth in it.

    Antinatalism (if I understand it correctly) seems to be the natural end result of that thinking: don’t procreate, just live your life as pleasurably as possible and don’t cause suffering. It strikes me as a pointless, nihilistic experience of life; hedonism with only mild restraint.

  19. Father, to say it simply, your writing has helped me very much!

    I have a few scattered questions which I’ve noticed come up when I discuss such things with my fellow parishioners (Ethiopian Orthodox). Ethiopia’s brush with modernity is recent, but it’s amazing how people have just absorbed it in such a short time.

    And this leads me to one of the questions: Modernity bulldozing effectiveness is one of the reasons people succumb to it or accept it as Truth? How to deal with this?

    Also, when it comes to technology, we tend to conflate technology with the scientific method and in turn with modernity? What do you think of this?

    Finally, many have the impression that in modern countries, not only are people richer, but they treat each other better. They are ending discrimination (and suffering!). They don’t beat their kids. Etc. This proves modernity is Truth, no?

    I have my answers to these questions, but I’d much rather hear yours.

    God bless you and your work!

  20. Alas–hearing of anti-natalism, euthanasia, the hijacking of Christianity by the Modern Project, etc. awakens in me my “fix-it” gene. How can I make this better? How can I save the world from this path? Lord, what would you have me do? I am clearly part of the problem and have spent most of my 6 decades trying to save the world, or my family, or at least the one who is most caught up in questioning whether life is worth living. Perhaps I have met the enemy–and it is me. Lord have mercy!

  21. Another modern illusion might be “living up to your potential.” This is one I struggle with constantly–the nagging thought that I am not. The urge is to create utopia within ourselves by imposing our idea of “potential” instead of living in the Kingdom as it really exists.

  22. Nicholas,

    The illusion of “living up to your potential” has been particularly seductive for me.

    Worse, the quest to do so, and the anguish over failing to do so, has often caused me to fail to simply live.

  23. I don’t see a conflict per se between one’s potential and the Kingdom of God. Being wholly contingent creatures makes potentiality a fact of life. The Kingdom is here, breaking into our contingent existence, and is to come, requiring us to reach up to it.

    Of course, if by potential we mean some modernist concept, then yes, this would be incompatible.

  24. Jonathan – I’m not making the HBO True Detective connection. Is antinatalism the underlying theme/philosophy of the program? Thanks.

  25. Doug,
    Yes. There’s legitimate suffering – that which one must unavoidably bear. And there’s illegitimate suffering – that which I impose on myself because I refuse to do anything different.

  26. The main character in True Detective, Rust Cohle, calls himself a “philosophical pessimist” declaring :

    “I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

    This pessimistic spirit has been growing for awhile, but now it has a vocabulary and intellectuals articulating its basic tenants into an actual movement. The show has launched numerous articles on Misanthropic and Philanthropic Antinatalism.

    Besides Benatar, Ligotti’s book ‘The Conspiracy Against the Human Race’ is popular, and Cioran’s texts.

    I consider this immensely important, and utterly ignored. Frankly, if indeed God is dead, or a mere deist divinity, then philosophical pessimism provides the really logical, ethical worldview as the sensible alternative.

  27. I should say the main enemies of Antinatalism & philosophical pessimism are actually the new atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc because of their blithe belief in progress and naive insistence that without God life can still be a worthwhile, positive endeavor. In fact they are very amiable to religion as they at least are able to acknowledge such things as evil and moral depravity and are under no illusions that science will alter the basic and terrible facts of death and suffering. Religion has it right – without God, there is no hope. Period.

  28. The fact that suffering is universal to the human condition does not mean there can be no concept of the good for those who do not buy the Christian hope of resurrection. For those of us who think only this short life is certain, we have the opportunity to do what God apparently does not — intervene to alleviate what suffering we can for as long as we can. The fact that better is never perfect does not make it not good. It must be good enough for now.

  29. Oh, but Arnold.
    There is a sense in your comment of the modernist complaint about God – that He apparently will not intervene to alleviate suffering. Which, of course, begs the question of whether or not He’s supposed to. And though the Christian faith taught us to care about those who suffer, it did not teach us that suffering has no use or meaning. Only the despair of unbelief thinks this – not having yet shaken off the remains of caring that Christ has taught us.

    Good enough for now also begs, “Good enough for what?” For what. I completely understand the doubts and questions viz. the existence of God or of Christ and His resurrection. But, modernity simply plays with the toys of Christianity (alleviating suffering) while actually bothering to get serious about what matters. It’s just bad theology. It’s ok to have a bad theology – but it’s poor to put it forward as an argument or excuse for anything.

  30. I believe one elder said, that the key to salvation is to keep your mind in hell and not despair. This conception of salvation is based upon the understanding that we live in a fallen world rife with strife and suffering, and part of salvation is living in this world and not using various methods to escape the suffering this world presents us with. The point he was trying to make, I think, is based on the understanding that our joy and healing, is not through self-willed improvement, which often inflates our egos and distracts us from the reality of the world and ourselves, but through emptying ourselves, our will, our vain and idle imaginations, to hand ourselves over to the grace and mercy of God who transforms us and unites us with him that we might find joy in his love and vision of his glory, rather than finding ways to escape the reality of this world. As Dostoevsky wrote through father Zossima in the Brother’s Karamazov, “All the saints were happy!” I believe this to be true. Also, Dostoevsky prophetically dismantled all of the utopian dreams of progress of modernity in his writing, noticing that all modes of avoiding physical suffering, inevitably both led to the limitation of free will and also to the church of the Grand Inquisitor that cannot enact any real salvation, only offer material ease. I think that this post doesn’t emphasize enough that the point of asceticism and the Christian life is not to suffer, but to suffer rightly, that in suffering the weakness of our flesh and the problems in this world, we meet God and in this humility find joy. The joy in partaking in the divine life of the trinity. At the same time, I think Father Freemen’s critique on modernity is the most necessary critique of all. Modernity’s theology of material progress, of social change independent of God, destroys the kerygma of the disciples. The Kingdom of God is not of this world. At the same time, I do believe we are responsible to do our part in helping others materially. Helping to feed to starving and to meet the needs of those around us is important. St. Basil tells us this. But salvation is always by emptying ourselves out to enter into union with Christ.

  31. “…by refusing to rightly understand suffering, it renders suffering itself to be unbearable.”

    The great paradoxes of life, eh? The more I run from suffering, the more I suffer; the more I try to live, the more I die; and the more I die to self and embrace the Cross, the more I then live.

    That’s what St. Luke means in Acts about ‘turning the world upside-down’ (not the modernist Christianized ‘missional’ view…)

    Thanks again as always for your timely and profound insights, Father.

  32. Robert, potential for what?

    Is there not a difference in each person living up to the best in themselves and the modern idea that posits a necessity for doing so “to make a difference” ?

    Certainly the Orthodox paradigm of theosis posits that we all have the same potential: union with God.

  33. re: theosis – exactly!

    re: difference – I was responding in particular to Nicholas’ comment about “living up to your potential.” If “theosis” is the potential, then I don’t see the conflict. If we fill it with modern ideas, then yes that is not good. But we shouldn’t point to “pontentiality” as the problem, it is the modern ideas rather that are to blame.

  34. Robert,
    But, you see, this is playing with words and not understanding them. Potentiality is indeed Aristotle. However, Aristotle’s potentiality is the fulfilling of one’s nature. Modernity’s potentiality is a maximizing of impact, money, talent, etc. It’s not at all the same thing. It is absolutely essential, it seems to me, to hear modernity for what it is and to cease reading into places where it is not.

  35. Robert,
    Again, modernity has co-opted language – taken many terms from the tradition and reinterpreted them, hijacked them, for its own project. Theosis is not the fulfilling of a potential, by the way. We are not “potentially” God. “We are mud that has been commanded to become God,” in the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa. But, as mud, we’re potentially only mud, nothing more. It is God’s condescension that makes us divine and nothing within us.

    “Fulfilling our potential” is simply more language for “developing,” “growing,” “evolving,” “progressing.” And this is not the way of things. We do not grow into theosis, we shrink into it. The way down is the way up. We “behold Him face to face,” which means bearing our shame. “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.”

    Modernity is always the language of achievement. It is anti-grace.

  36. Spiritual growth is also a paradox. It doesn’t mean what it sounds like what it means, like almost everything we say in our faith. That’s why it’s called “spiritual” growth. Heck, people use the word as if they actually knew what the word “spiritual” means. And they are clueless.

  37. So what does “spiritual” mean? I’m watching the San Francisco talk as I stay up with my firstborn–10 days old today.

  38. We may be mud but we are the only mud made in the image and likeness of God. A fact which gives what I can only call potential even if that can only be realized through the Cross….and in a sense has already been realized.

    “Spiritual” is a word I don’t really like because it is so volatile in meaning. No matter what one thinks the meaning is one can always say with Fezik: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

    I don’t know that I have grown in many ways probably not since I first encountered Jesus except that the older I get the more I realize I have no control over what happens and precious little over how I respond and how much I depend on God’s mercy.

  39. Boyd,
    Hard question. It obviously differs from “material,” but shouldn’t be contrasted with it. In the NT, its contrasting word is “fleshly” or “carnal,” again, not a word that actually means “of the body.” It has, on the one hand, a primary reference to where something is centered – as in “centered in God,” (spiritual) or “centered in self” (carnal). To add to the frustration, we can say that “spiritual’s” meaning can only be spiritually known! That’s really unhelpful.

    We can also say it is “noetically known.” The nous is a faculty of the soul that perceives spiritual things (when it’s working properly).

    But, cutting to the chase, when people say “spiritual growth,” they tend to mean either “moral progress” or “growth in religious stuff.” I would rather say it is “becoming a different kind of being.” That doesn’t mean being a better something that I already am, or adding to what I’ve got. But a different kind of being.

    For one, you have to meet such a being to see what the content of that statement means. So, I can have a conversation with a rural Baptist here in Tennessee. One of us uses the word “spiritual growth” in a sentence. The other thinks he knows what it means. My comment is saying that such a statement, in our common tongue, is pretty much not at all correct. However, the true content of spiritual growth is very difficult to put into words (and even harder to find in reality).

    Let’s use another example. What happens to the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, is closer to what I have in mind as the content of “spiritual growth.” Apply that to our lives and then use that in a conversation.

    Blessings to your newborn child and many years!

  40. Theosis is not the fulfilling of a potential, by the way. We are not “potentially” God. “We are mud that has been commanded to become God,” in the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa. But, as mud, we’re potentially only mud, nothing more. It is God’s condescension that makes us divine and nothing within us.

    Who was it that said, “we become by grace what He is by nature”? I remember this quote but not the context. It seems to fit here.

  41. If I may also add to the above (and really simplify it), I think something is Spiritual to the exact degree that it comes about because of the action of the Holy Spirit.

    Human effort in something that’s so strongly ‘of another One than me’, is mainly all about our efforts to be less self-preoccupied in order to be singularly God-focused in everything we do.
    The end of this is to live and act and think only as “I, Christ”, with no self-preoccupation but as Christ Who could say “I and the Father” or simply, “Father!” when nailed on the Cross. That complete, kenotic, focus on the Other is the mode of being of the the Holy Trinity, which means that the Third Person abides in such a person in fullness and everything that they say or do is then Spiritual. (Not spiritual)
    May God grant us this!

  42. A strict definition of the word potential is “possible”. In no way does it connote the necessity inherent in modern thought.

    We are sinful mud for whom God has made it possible to commune with Him even be in union with Him but not by any act of our own will except in an apophatic sense.

    Contrast this to Jesus becoming man “by his own will…”

  43. Modernity (people really – we should be speaking of particulars) subverts words and concepts, but it doesn’t mean we throw out the traditional Christian meaning, just like we don’t throw out Christianity because people have subverted it.

  44. I object to stretching this anti modernity talk too far, I get the purpose, but it amounts to overreaching which is much like people who claim Christianity is not a religion. It makes for a great headline but doesn’t hold up against scrutiny and in actuality serves to discredit.

  45. Father my point is that the idea of a person “reaching her potential”, as conceived of in the Orthodox sense, is not modern at all, and it therefore shouldn’t stop us from using such language. There’s much in Tradition that speaks of telos and skopos, and concerns in part to our movement (reaching out) towards it. It is of course not at all as modernity envisions such reaching one’s potential.

    I propose that instead of giving up that which has been hijacked we reclaim true meaning. Reclaim powerful Christian ideas such as goal, religion, potential, fulfillment, person, purpose, reason, and so forth.

    I see a Christian struggling in this com box (Nicholas above) with the idea of “potential” because the word has been tagged as modern.

  46. Father,

    Perhaps more constructive:

    Is there place in Tradition that we can speak of personal potential? If so, in what ways would such speech be framed and qualified?

  47. Father Stephen,

    Are you familiar with Archbishop Averky’s book “The Struggle For Virtue”, subtitled “Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society”? The introduction and first chapter speak well to the theme of this post and to many of comments made on it. Last night I picked up a stack of books I had bought but had not read that was on top of my bookcase to put them in their place and when I saw this one, I set on my bed and started leafing through it. Ended up putting it down about four hours later. Great little book just as the priest who suggested it said it would be. BTW, it is addressed to lay people, not monks.

  48. Robert, somehow my lengthy response to this got lost. Must have mashed the wrong button. I’ll try again tomorrow. In short, let Nicholas speak for Nicholas. It’s ok for someone to struggle. If the critique of modernity did not cause any struggle then it wouldn’t have been written well or clearly enough.

    The problem is “narrative” not words. Many words are fine, outside of the modern narrative, which is false. But we’re so captivated by the narrative that it needs to be forcefully deconstructed before we’re able to re-appropriate certain words and concepts. Don’t short circuit the work.

  49. I see a Christian struggling in this com box (Nicholas above) with the idea of “potential” because the word has been tagged as modern.

    Just to clarify, the struggle is not because the word is tagged as modern. The struggle is that there is pressure, both internal and external, to “live up to my potential.” It’s that nagging thought that you should always be producing something, doing something, learning something–or else! “Why have I not achieved X yet?” It is a distraction from God and is, exactly as Fr. Stephen says, driven by shame.

    In my very brief comment I was proposing that we think of “living up to your potential” as a modern concept alongside “making a difference” and others discussed in this series of posts. The discussion around “potential” in this thread has been very interesting. It all seems to go back to “The Unmoral Christian.” This current series is its social and cultural analog.

    It is quite liberating to realize that we do not have to be great, especially for a Millenial like me. If my generation has a characteristic passion, I think that “living up to your potential” might be it.

  50. It is folly to think we can make the world better, this much I can understand and accept. What then can we do in the interest of moving towards the good?

    As an example of my thinking, I have wondered whether a Tolkien or a Lewis could even arise within Orthodoxy or whether by its nature, it would constrain them. Too often of late Orthodoxy has brought to mind an image of the elves departing middle earth. They are wise….noble even, but they are forever sad, somewhat cold, and little concerned for the cares of a dying world or the people who perish along with it.

  51. Joe,
    To do good we must know what good is, seeing a St Seraphim of Sarov, a John of Kronstad, a Paisios the Athonite, a Sophrony Sakharov, an Aimilianos of Simonopetra or just witnessing first-hand an old sanctified granny in Romania (or a young convert on the right path even -I am thinking of the holywood actor Jonathan Jackson for example) is illuminating and has nothing to do with any sense of their ‘departing middle earth’… Plus, where else can one see and hear, witness first-hand, the fullness of that wisdom, pure from the corrosive admixture of modernity ? Tolkiens and Lewises exist in Orthodoxy but having far greater representatives they’re relatively overshadowed in the eyes of some of those that are interested in the purest source of the Light.

  52. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a sanctified person first hand, or at least nothing comes to mind, so much of this is just abstractions in my own mind.

    As for encountering the fullness of that wisdom, it troubles me still because Orthodoxy has proven the rock upon which the faith of friends has broken and so they’ve lost all hope and embraced pure secularism and modernity. I perceive that many Orthodox people struggle to take to heart the notion of being all things to all people and instead favor a culture, either their own or else romantic notions of one borrowed.

    Perhaps I misunderstand this or perceive it wrongly, but I cannot deny that I am distressed by it. I see great value in pointing out the sickness of modernity, but if its just for the purposes of looking at it distantly and with a resigned sigh of futility, I can’t help but wonder what’s the point? If there are these important truths to be shared, why do they remain so persistently cloistered away? It has the appearance of stillness and holiness, but I pray that this is not appearances only.

  53. Joe,
    The purpose is, on the one hand, to be freed from delusion (of course there are others). And, so that, we might give thanks to God for all things in the freedom of the Spirit. This is the path to union with God. It is how we live in union with God.

    If we only get bogged down in the critical discernment, it would indeed produce a sadness. I have such days. But it’s not the whole of it.

    If someone could and did give thanks always for all things, they would never fall away. I think many are “dashed” on the rock of a form of despair because they, for whatever reason, have not learned to live the hope.

    Our hearts are deeply shaped towards “making a difference”, etc. There are plenty of people who are simply dashed on the rock of realizing that it’s not working. Even secularists get dashed. It’s a very dark thing. It is absolutely essential, however, that the heart be reshaped in the image of Christ. The giving of thanks for all things is the simplest, and straightest path of salvation.

  54. Joe,

    First I want to say I appreciate your writer’s ability to phrase things so well. You obviously have a gift with words and I resonate with that.

    Your parallel of the Orthodox with the elves is poignant – and perhaps accurate when looking at the Orthodox as a whole. But that is not the case with Fr. Stephen and this blog.

    You see, first we have to stop trying to make the world a better place before we….well, stop trying to make the world a better place. This comes through contemplating just that topic. In a sense this is the very work of emptying ourselves. It is the first 3 steps of AA: There is a God. I’m not Him. So I’ll let Him.

    Fr. Stephen’s continuous stream of articles are a pounding of the surf against the growth of modernity which has become a stubborn and cancerous tumor in our souls. This growth compels us to do. We must do. The world and everyone one else depends upon us doing. There are variations on the theme (fulfill your potential, make the world a better place, etc.) but the end result is the same: we must do! And by our nature we WILL do, but the motivation is wrong.

    In truth God created as human beings first and foremost. Our primary purpose is to be, out of which doing will naturally occur. But all of our doing isn’t what makes the world go round. We have to stop acting like it does.

    And this ties in with your comment of Orthodox as elves. Our modern mindset wants us to go out and spread Fr. Stephen’s message worldwide – ironically trying to make a difference in the world, the very thing the message is advising against. The message is for individual souls. The message is to empty ourselves, follow the commandments, and look to Him for all things.

    As St. Theophan says, “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.”

    If we follow the commandments, we will try to care for widows and orphans. In truth we may not make any noticeable difference in their lives. Doesn’t matter. Our job isn’t to manage results, it is to be human. That doesn’t seem very motivating, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but it IS what we’ve been given to do. And it is enough.

  55. Fr. Freeman, I remember something that Elizabeth Elliott wrote. She said, I think in the book, A Basket full of Crumbs, ” Do the thing at hand.” It may be washing the sink full of dishes, listening to a grandchild, mowing a neighbor’s yard….all not to make a difference but simply to live simply and humbly, to help the widow and orphan, to keep oneself unstained by the world. I believe to live this way is to live in hope and is a good antidote for despair. And surely to give thanks to God for all. Still thanking Him for your writings and all the comments.

  56. As an example of my thinking, I have wondered whether a Tolkien or a Lewis could even arise within Orthodoxy or whether by its nature, it would constrain them.

    I’m not sure it would constrain them. I tend to think they would simply continue to write and think and live. Truth, rightly understood, has the effect of freedom, not constraint.

    If we follow the commandments, we will try to care for widows and orphans. In truth we may not make any noticeable difference in their lives. Doesn’t matter. Our job isn’t to manage results, it is to be human.

    A conversation I had with a friend at my parish this week noted that we both have a bit of trouble giving money to the homeless begging by the side of the road(s). He rightly pointed out that alcoholism is very high among the homeless and it is possible (indeed he has seen it and gave an example) that the money we give them will only go towards cheap alcohol. Then he noted that, when he spoke to our Priest concerning it, he was advised to give anyway. Father noted that we are not called to control what others do with the gifts and Grace extended to them, we are simply required to extend them as best we can. As Drewster rightly stated, “Our job isn’t to manage…”. I struggle to remember this!

  57. Thank you for your recent post, “More Illusions.”

    “’becoming a different kind of being.’ That doesn’t mean being a better something that I already am, or adding to what I’ve got. But a different kind of being… What happens to the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, is closer to what I have in mind as the content of “spiritual growth.”

    Salvation is becoming the being we were originally created to be and dying to the false/illegitimate being we have chosen to become.

    The bread and wine “manifest.” They change in the sense that they cease “not manifesting” so to speak, and participate in “manifesting” – which is what right being first is and then “does.” The bread and wine are still bread and wine and yet they are also the body and blood of Christ Jesus. They are no longer “merely” bread and wine. What has “changed” is the kind of being they are – manifesting being vs. non-manifesting being.

    “Growth” would mean the ongoing (dare I say “unceasing?” [1 Thess. 5:16-18]) manifestation of the fullness of “true being” that already fully exists. It is not about change in the sense of adding missing parts or becoming who we aren’t yet. Growth, is a word we could use if we understand it means manifestation – the showing forth of who we already are (Theophany).

    An oak tree is an oak tree all along the way in its “growth.” Its growth is not a matter of becoming more of an oak tree than it was a year ago. It is the manifestation of its being fully an oak tree from the very beginning.

    The only way for manifestation to occur is for us to die to the wrong being; and rise to right being the manifestation of divinity in humanity – deification – through ongoing repentance and obedience in love.

    I am not supposed to sail off toward the horizon like the elves. I am to be IN THIS WORLD in this way with a spirit of gratitude, gentleness, quiet presence, and trust.
    Whatever “difference” it makes is up to God. It is not my business to measure it or others.

  58. I realize that my words may seem to contain echoes of those modern sentiments, but allow me to clarify and speak more plainly.

    Fr. Stephen, you would likely be willing to acknowledge that this blog is not a necessary activity for you in the true sense of it. It may be a natural extension of the good you have within you and it may fulfill a personal need, but there is an expenditure of energies required on your part of which we are all the beneficiaries. What motivates you to speak then, rather than to remain silent? What compels you to this particular action as opposed to another?

    And now to bring this back around, I’ve heard many times on this blog the sentiment that if we wish to become Christians, we must first become poets. If I understand the intent correctly, it is a two fold awakening to true beauty and a shaking off of the blindfold which literalism imposes upon us.

    I think it only natural then and very human indeed that this sub-creative impulse, as Tolkien spoke of it, is the natural extension of this idea. Stories are more powerful than truth alone. They allow us take within ourselves that which we might otherwise reject out of its bitterness or even sweetness. Yet even enemies of the truth know this and use it in order that the world will consume their poison.

    So it comes down to this…we have need of good stories and more of them. This is as much for our own sake as it is for others. Its the difference between a world where Lord of the Rings is perceived as a shadow of the truth, and one in which Game of Thrones is.

  59. Fr. Thomas: Very well said, sir.

    Joe: I totally agree with the need for good stories. I love stories. Who doesn’t, really. But then we can only pray for God to send more good storytellers. And they have to agree to simply be what God has made them to be. Most things are outside our control. In the meantime we have to tell the good stories with our lives the best we can.

  60. Joe,
    Indeed, we need good stories…and more of them. Both Tolkien and Lewis were fruit of an age that has nearly passed (and barely ever existed in America, perhaps never). Both deeply trained in the Classics, literature (good literature), on a level unknown but by a few today. There was also cultural and spiritual support for their vision, poetry and other writings in a manner that again, barely exists today. It is very much worth noting that Lewis’ greatest fans are probably in Evangelical Churches. I recall visiting his grave in England. Looking for it, I found the groundskeeper. He led me to the grave and said, “It’s only the Americans who come.” I think we hunger desperately for the very poetic world that we find in him.

    There is, interestingly, a rebirth of literature, film, etc., going on in Russia. I just finished newly translated book, Laurus. It will, in time, become a classic, I think. It probably could only be written by a Russian, for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure that we (America) could produce a Lewis or Tolkien right now. England might have a chance. At least their educational institutions have not gone utterly stark-raving mad as have ours for the large part.

    The Church is never really “alone.” Certainly Orthodoxy presumes an integration into the cultural around it. It’s quite difficult in America for that very reason. We have a very “awkward” Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is quite long-term. When a Church building is blessed, for example, it is blessed to be a temple until the “end of time.” They should be well-built. 🙂

    I harbored deep hopes that the fall of the Soviet Union would mean a rebirth and renewal of Orthodox Russia, and with it, a cultural flowering. It’s very, very early, but already there are signs that this is happening. I pray for it to flourish.

    We need, as a cultural foundation, a commitment to learning – being immersed in the Great Tradition. If Rome can get past some of the present temptations, it can be a very important ally in such things. But great literature, including poetry, is a fruit of a much larger tree with great roots. I have a long view. I write because I have nothing better to do as I wait to die in repentance. It is a form of preaching – something I have been appointed by God to do to my last breath. But God alone knows the fruit. I don’t need to. If the fruit were to be great, knowing it would destroy my soul. If the fruit dries up and withers, then may God toss it into the fire along with the vast sins of my life.

  61. I’m at something of a loss. If we’re operating under the belief that God just makes things happen, then what need have we of seminaries? Why not just pray for priests and wait for one to show up? The point is that we have this reasonable expectation that to be a priest requires something more than simply calling yourself one, and likewise so for artists and storytellers. These are crafts which take time and effort to do well. If we’re so much in the habit of staring at our feet trying to figure out which step to take next, I’m not sure how this can come about. If makes every step seem frivolous.

  62. Joe,

    If I may add a suggestion:
    You said:
    “I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a sanctified person first hand, or at least nothing comes to mind, so much of this is just abstractions in my own mind.”

    One of the most profitable pieces of advise I have encountered (and employed in the recent years) on my spiritual path was a suggestion to go visit monasteries…. I think it was Matthew Gallatin, an AFR podcaster and philosopher whom I heard say that first… Ever since, I take an occasional vacation at a monastery, and (slowly but surely) it’s actually becoming my preferred destination to refresh and re-energize, both emotionally and even physically. There you might actually meet an “enlightened” person… Maybe not exactly the Saints Dino has listed, but a Romanian granny, or a young man like Jonathan Jackson (maybe not as famous, but equally sweet and authentic). Go without expectations, and you will be surprised by the Grace you receive…..

  63. “this blog is not a necessary activity for you in the true sense of it”

    “I write because I have nothing better to do as I wait to die in repentance. It is a form of preaching – something I have been appointed by God to do to my last breath.”

    If the Son of God is the Word of God, then, in my understanding of “Word of God,” then peaking/writing is not an extra-being. It is not simply the “thing we do because of being.” If we are to become by grace all that Christ is by nature, then speaking/writing – voice/word – is an aspect of our right being by grace.

    The other thing I would note is the consistent theme throughout the Old and New Testaments of the need for explanations. The idea that we should be able to comprehend/appropriate the Gospel without a lot of explanation and guidance is, in my opinion, not the witness of the Holy Tradition. I think it is a mistake to try and make the Gospel “reader friendly” so a person could understand it without the community of faith. Thank goodness that the Gospel requires me to ask others, “What the heck does that mean?!” and “Oops, I guess I used the wrong words, thanks for helping me comprehend the truth more deeply.” Thank goodness I have the companionship of Metropolitan Jonah in my life as well as others with whom I can ask silly questions and get patient responses of explanation. I offer as an example, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8.26-40) and Jesus’ own explanation of the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13.10-23)

  64. Fr. Stephen,

    But why can we not simply study and read good literature ourselves and so learn from it? I went to public school, but it does not forever and always define the nature and scope of my education. And along similar lines, if such a thing is possible, why should a writer of the same ilk as Tolkien and Lewis be such a difficulty in America?

    Can we not work with Rome to to bring about these kinds of renewal?

    I appreciate your candor with regards to the nature of your writing. I feel much the same, but still…something about all of this tears at me in way which I can’t explain.

  65. Father Stephen,

    I’m just about through Laurus, myself! What a delightful, humbling, magnificent work! You’re absolutely right— I don’t think an American could write the same story without falling prey to cynicism.

    I forget who suggested the book here in the comments, but thank you!

  66. On the word “spirit”: if you read the introduction to G. L. Prestige’s “God in Patristic Thought” you will get a sense of the difficulty. It is probably best described as a synonym for “divine nature”. “divine nature” is of course “uncreated”, “holy”, “God”, etc – everything we are not as we (mostly) lead carnal lives (not to be simply equated with with modern notions of materialism). So to “be” spiritual, is in a profound sense to participate in the uncreated.

    This simply leads back to what Dino was saying, and of course to even come to such a place one would have to truly, fully, (as Fr. points out at the end of the article) “empty ones SELF”, because the SELF has an “idea” of the spiritual (and the attendant plans, judgments, etc.)…

  67. Agata, a good suggestion. I’ve never been to a monastery. These things are difficult for me on account of my illness, but on a better day I might be able to make the trip.

  68. Sorry. I think faster than I type. I meant it to read:

    “If the Son of God is the Word of God, then, in my understanding of “Word of God,” then speaking/writing is not extra to being.”

  69. Joe,
    As a minister of the word, a former Pastor in the Church of the Nazarene and currently a Deacon in the Orthodox Church I came to the realization early that I cannot “fix” the world. I have not the time, treasure or talent to correct what is wrong and my ideas of what is good are relativistic, and therefore not perfect. If I struggle to “better” the world, I am just as likely to create unintentional harm.
    I went to Seminary to learn the faith, to learn to express it and to learn what constituted true faith and what was man invented doctrine. I also learned to serve others. I did four years of Prison ministry and learned the hard lesson that I cannot “fix” either the inmates or the culture they live in. What I could do and did was invite them to know the Lord and to learn to accept Him and His ways. Some fully accepted and were changed by their encounter and some paid lip service. I did not make the world better or another better. Those that accepted Christ made a good choice.
    I am not responsible for their choices and I cannot make their choices for them. All I can do is to introduce them to the Lord and let them make their choice. So, as clergy, my job is not to try to fix people or the world. I am to be the salt and light that draws them to He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the one who fixes the human heart, note that He does not “fix” the world.
    I cannot “fix” what is broken because I am part of what is broken. I am not sad because I cannot “fix” things. I am filled with joy because I belong to a community that does know the Lord and we live a different life. I made my choice and others have made theirs. Seminary taught me how to make the introduction and how to talk about the Lord in truth but they could not teach me to fix the world.
    As to just reading good literature on our own, Christ called to be a member of His body, which is a community. One cannot be solo and expect to arrive at a satisfactory end. This is one of the misunderstandings embedded in Modernity. Salvation is an “all us all” thing. He prayed for “us” to be one.

  70. Joe,

    I suspect the answer to your quandary lies in the answer to this question:

    Is there place in Tradition that we can speak of personal potential? If so, in what ways would such speech be framed and qualified?

  71. The bread and wine are still bread and wine and yet they are also the body and blood of Christ Jesus.

    So much to think on here. Many thanks, Father!

    It may be a natural extension of the good you have within you and it may fulfill a personal need, but there is an expenditure of energies required on your part of which we are all the beneficiaries. What motivates you to speak then, rather than to remain silent? What compels you to this particular action as opposed to another?

    I wonder, Joe. Just as Truth frees, might it not also free our ability(ies) to be thankful and praise God more fully? If the bread and wine of the Eucharist “manifest” in full as Christ’s body and blood, what might our “manifesting” be? Could it be that it may be somewhat different for each of us, although always directed towards God? Poetry, writing, and song may all be part of our manifesting as fully human to glorify God and, acting as priest(s), offer up His Creation back to Him. I really think you (and others here) have said as much.

    If this is true, then why would “a step” in this manner towards God be “frivolous”? These actions, as I understand it, become an act of thanksgiving and salvation in us when rightly directed towards God. Please forgive me, but I don’t see the disconnect that you are implying in your posts.

    And please correct me if I am misunderstanding your thoughts or, everyone, correct me if I’m driving off a cliff in my thinking. Blessings!

  72. Joe,
    We certainly should do as much, but there’s still more than just studying a reading. Lewis and Tolkien were the product of generations of a culture that permeated their lives. In America, almost everything is “do it yourself.” I could build a house by myself…but it would never be as good as what I live in now. All I can say is that you may not have enough of an appreciation of just how remarkable Lewis and Tolkien truly are.

    There are books that “sound” like their stuff, but are very much just cheap knock-offs, precisely because the author is simply not well-educated in the sense that Lewis and Tolkien were.

    I went to public schools,too. And I majored in Classics in college (Latin and Greek). When I finished college, I doubt that I was as well-trained or knowledgeable in those subjects as L and T were when they finished the equivalent of High School. I’ve seen a couple of tests given in the “6th form.” I could not have passed them.

    I could add to that. When I finished seminary, thus, another 3 years beyond college, I later entered the doctoral program at Duke. It was highly competitive. When I got there it was really obvious that I was not the “sharpest knife in the drawer.” I was ahead of most when it came to languages, but behind most when it came to philosophy and modern theology.

    We had some exchange students from Germany in the program as well. They were incredibly better educated. America is very, very uneducated in areas such as the Arts and Literature. Again, people can certainly write, but producing another Lewis or Tolkien would be an anomaly and a miracle.

  73. Interestingly for the reference to the Elves leaving Middle-Earth, in the context of the whole of Tolkien’s saga this is actually the point at which the Elves finally relinquished their desire to ‘make a difference’ in the world, a desire which had led to the creation of the One Ring in the first place. They finally learned to trust in God and his providence. Think of Galadriel renouncing her ambition to become queen of the world, in order to diminish in power and remain just herself. I believe Tolkien said that he regarded that as the central scene of the whole book.

  74. Andrew,
    Yes. In Tolkien, the “original” or dominating sin is acquisitiveness and wanting control. We see it in Smaug. We see it in the dwarves and the Arkenstone. We see it especially in the Ring. And in the end, Middle Earth is saved by an act of mercy, rather than an achievement. Frodo cannot throw the ring away. He failed. But Gollum (who cannot throw it away) bites his finger off, and accidentally falls into the Crack of Doom. But Gollum had been spared by Frodo as a strange act of kindness and pity. That is what saves the world.

    The most iconic event in “modern” history is WWI and its aftermath (from which the world still suffers). The Western Powers forged a ring at Versailles and we’ve had no peace since.

  75. I apologize that I won’t have time to reply to everyone who commented on my posts, but I have read them all and will think on what you’ve said.

  76. Joe,

    Don’t just “think about it”. Do something a little more practical, for example actually spend 15 minutes sitting in silence and saying the Jesus Prayer. If you just think about it, you will get no benefit, but if you do it (Fr. Meletios Webber says: “Just do it, like Nike”), if you actually pray, God WILL recognize it and will come to you in a way that YOU will recognize…. But you have to DO, not THINK….

    “Say nothing. Think nothing. Imagine nothing. Do not pray. Do not move. Just wait for His presence. Wait for Him to notice your silence, your stillness, your death. Wait for Christ, and He will come, because love forces Him”.

    ~from chapter titled “Prayer by Night”, Killer Prayer, Founders’ Booklet Series, The Orthodox Monastery of All Celtic Saints.

  77. Metropolitan of Mesogaias Nikolaos recounts this story that is pertinent to Agata’s [earlier] suggestion:

    Several years ago I was approached by a young student. With much reluctance, but with the intensity of a demanding seeker, he said he was an atheist, but that he would love to believe, but could not. All his years of trying and seeking were to no avail. He talked with professors and highly educated thinkers, but hadn’t satisfied his thirst for something serious. He listened to me and he decided to share with me his existential needs. He requested a scientific evidence of the existence God. “Do you know integrals or differential equations?” I asked. “Unfortunately, no,” he answered, “I am of the Philosophical bent”, “Too bad, because I knew such evidence!” I exclaimed, clearly jokingly.

    He felt embarrassment and somehow paused. “Look,” I said, “Sorry for being facetious. But God is not some equation or mathematical proof. If it were so, then all the educated ones would believe him. Know that God is approached another way. Have you ever been to the Holy Mountain? have you ever met a hermit? ” “No Father, but I think I might go, I’ve heard so much! If you tell me, I can go tomorrow. Do you know any educated ones to go and meet there?” “What do you prefer? An erudite who can daze you or a saint who can wake you up?” “I prefer a scholarly erudite. I fear saints”. “Faith is a matter of the heart. Try with a saint. What’s your name?” I ask. “Gabriel,” he replied. I sent him to a hermit (Saint Paisios). I described how to access him with all the necessary instructions. We agrred on a diagram. “You’ll go,” I said, “and ask the exact same thing: I am an atheist, and I want to believe …. I want an evidence of the existence of God”

    “I fear, I am embarassed” he replied. “Why shy away and be afraid a saint not be shy and scared of me?” I asked. “Just go ask the same thing.” In a few days, he went and found the ascetic discussing with some youngster in his yard. Just across there waited another four sitting on some logs. Amongst them Gabriel cowardly found a position to sit. Less than ten minutes passed and the conversation of the old man with the youngster was over.

    “How are you doing guys?” he asks. “Have you helped yourselves to a sweet? did you drink some water?” “Thank you, Elder”, they replied with a somewhat condescending worldly courtesy. “Come here,” he says addressing Gabriel and separating him from the rest. “I will bring the water, you take this box with marshmallows, and come closer so I can tell you a secret: It’s fine being an atheist, but having the name of an Archangel and being an atheist? This is the first time I have come across such a thing!”

    Our friend nearly suffered a myocardial arrest from the revelatory surprise. How did he know his name? Who had revealed his problem to him? What did the elder mean to tell him?
    “Father, can I talk to you a little?” he could only murmur. “Look, it’s getting dark, take a turkish-delight, and drink some water and you’d better go to the closest monastery in order to spend the night”.

    “My Father! I want to speak, can we not?” “What else is ther to say my lad? The reason you came?”
    “To this question I immediately felt an opening of my lungs”, he later recounted, “My heart became flooded with faith, my inside world warmed, my questions were becoming all solved without any logical argument, without any discussion, in the absence of a clear reply with words.”

    Inside me automatically all ‘ifs’ and ‘whys’ and ‘buts’ came tumbling down, the only theing that remained was what to and how from here forward “That which the thinking of many educated scholars never provided him had been effortlessly bestowed upon him through a subtle hint of a saint, graduate of only the fourth grade of primary . The Saints are very discreet. They make the surgery without anesthesia and yet it is painless. They make the transplantation without opening your abdomen. They uplift you to inaccessible peaks without the stairs of cosmic logic. They plant faith without tiring the mind…

  78. Joe,
    We obviously must do things, and we obviously are able to make various things happen. And that becomes the temptation. We can make some things happen, but not all things. As I noted in the article, the complexity of so many things is beyond the ability to understand or grasp, much less control. So we proceed with humility. But we proceed.

    Seminary, as you note, is a good thing and generally necessary. But it is never enough. The most essential thing is to know a good priest. Discipleship (which is a form of handing on the tradition) is the most important and necessary thing.

    God doesn’t just “make things happen,” or not quite the way we think about it. I like to say that God “causelessly causes” because when you look at something He has done, it baffles the mind wondering how it was done.

  79. Dino,
    Thank you for this beautiful quote…

    My favorite sentence is:

    “They plant faith without tiring the mind…”.

    How appropriate for so many of us reading here and trying to grasp the ungraspable with our minds… And “the one thing needful” is to just relax into the hands of God and trust Him with as a small child would…

    May God grant each one of us to meet such a Saint for our life….

  80. We can meet such a saint if we have complete trust in God and utter openess in a sincere confession of our entire life, it can momentarily transform a good priest into a true saint that has that very effect (described in Gabriel’s exeprience) on us….

  81. I find Gabriel’s protestation that he feared saints instructive. Is not sin persistent in part because on some level we use it to assuage our fear of life?

  82. “May God grant each one of us to meet such a Saint for our life”

    and

    “We can meet such a saint if we have complete trust in God and utter ope[n]ness”

    I suppose my “take away” with these wonderful comments is the more I repent and obey in a quiet spirit of trust, the more open I become to finding and being counselled by the Holy Spirit in all persons. “In as much as you did it unto one of the least of these, you did it unto Me.”

    I suppose also that God makes what we usually think of as Saints or “sanctified persons,” available to us for our salvation in light of the fact that we are not yet able to repent deeply enough — purified — to “see” and “receive” the gift of Christ Jesus in each and every person we meet — even the “least-est of these my brethren.”

    I suppose…

  83. I dont believe in the modernist ideas of progress, but at the same time it true that there are healthier and less healthy societies, and that one major factor in the degree of health has to do with structural issues of power relations in the society. I am certainly not holding up modern-day France as my ideal kind of society, but to suggest that there is no appreciable difference between contemporary France and France at the end of the Ancien Regime is preposterous.

    Unintended consequence are unavoidable, but that does not mean that we should walk though life blindfolded and abandon responsibility for bringing our intelligence to all situations. If I am considering moving with family to another city for work, there are a huge number of unknown and unpredictable factors that will determine what this move actually brings, but I would not, on that basis, just abnegate responsibility for the decision. Instead I gather what information I can about neighborhoods, church community, schools, etc, and then make the best decision I can.

    Healing comes from Christ, but that healing is meant for all parts of human life, including social and political matters (the government shall be upon his shoulders). This healing does not proceed by seeking to implement grand ideological schemes, as in the modernist systems, but it does require our continued thoughtful, prayerful, and repenting engagement with this part of life.

  84. SB,
    France is definitely different now than at the end of the Ancien Regime. Germany, circa 1939 was greatly improved compared to its life 200 years before – or perhaps not. If things are measured solely in terms of safety, health, material prosperity, your case will, from time to time, be plausible. However, if, for example, it could be demonstrated that those modern, prosperous people also murdered one third of all children in the womb, (and I could go on stacking up the present consequences of our enlightened world), it might be that prosperity is a curse.

    I in no way have suggested some form of Quietism. The “continued, thoughtful, prayerful and repenting engagement” with this part of life is simply keeping the commandments. Which was already part of my point.

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