There is an old mystical Jewish belief that when God created all things, He did so by speaking their names (in Hebrew, of course). It was further believed (and here’s the mystical part) that if you could manage to speak that name in the right way, you, too, could cause it to be. The instinct behind this is true, regardless of our inability to do such a thing. That instinct is that there is a link between the truth of something and its name. When God created the heavens and the earth, and all the things that are in them, He gave them being, existence, goodness, and truth. There was not a single false thing that was created – only true. Indeed the Fathers write about three things that are somewhat interchangeable: Goodness, Beauty, Truth.
This sense of the connection between the words we speak and the goodness, beauty and truth of the world find a connection in the simple injunction: “Do not lie.” We generally think of lying as being sinful because it has the potential to cause harm. And we thus describe certain lies as “harmless.” But there is a deeper problem with lying: it attempts to create what does not exist, or, rather, to uncreate what does. It becomes the enemy of Goodness, Beauty and Truth. We should take to heart the fact that our adversary is named the “father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously (and correctly) said that in the sacraments of the Church, we do not make something to be other than it is, but to reveal it for what it truly is. St. Basil sounds this same theme in his Eucharistic prayer. The priest prays that God will “bless, hallow and show this bread to be the Body of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ…” In Orthodox practice, the most essential moment in the Liturgy is the “epiclesis” the “calling down” of the Holy Spirit on the gifts. This is the “Spirit of Truth.” The Holy Spirit does not make us or anything into what it is not, but reveals its truth.
This pattern is consistent with all of Christ’s miracles. The lame are made to walk, not to fly. A human being becomes truly human at the words and hands of Christ. Of course, revealing the truth of someone is not always welcome (if the heart has come to hate the truth). As Christ walks through the land, people are shown to be what they are. In this sense, Christ is the Judge (Shophet). The Judge sets things right. But the Judge doesn’t set things right by forcing and making them to be right. Things are simply revealed in their rightness, their truth. But this truth is so “truly true,” that sickness and its falsehood are swept away.
In the resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, they say, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road?” The truth, when it is truly and rightly spoken, brings forth a burning “Yes!” within us that wants to leap to its fulfillment. Someone recently wrote asking, “How do we know when our words are true words?” I would say that they are true when they are trending in this same manner (towards the burning “Yes!”). And this points to the strange case of “falsely true” words that injure and maim.
In Acts 19, we are told of the “seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest,” who tried to perform an exorcism saying, “We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches…” The demoniac turns and attacks them saying, “Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are you?” Words alone are not the thing. These were right words, spoken to the right persons (the demons), but lacked the right heart. They spoke what they did not know.
I see this frequently, particularly in the abuse of theology and doctrine. I was asked last year to speak at a writers’ conference. The topic was writing and the spiritual life. One of the more important points of that talk was to say, “Only write about what you know.” This same advice was given me years ago about sermons. Why (or how) could I preach what I don’t know? And yet, such sermons are quite common. They may be factually correct, or morally correct, but they may do more damage than good. Those who are ordained are not charged with repeating what they’ve read. They are charged with speaking the word of God. That word is living and active and can only be spoken “by heart.” I do not mean it cannot be written. But it must be written and known in the heart before it can be spoken and true. Our words fall short of this goal many times, if not most. It is wisdom, however, to understand this reality and hold it in mind when we speak – particularly when we speak of the matters of God.
I spent a week in an icon workshop with the late Xenia Pokrovsky. I recall her statement concerning an icon that depicted a very grievous incident. She declared, “This is not an icon!” I remember looking at it and thinking, “But it’s painted in the correct style, etc.” She said, “It has hate. A true icon cannot have hate.” And I could see that it was true. Nothing that breeds hate in the human heart has about it the nature of truth. This is a hard saying.
We are a people who live by facts (or imagine that we do). We think that a fact “just is,” and is neither one thing nor another – it just is. As such, we think that facts are neutral things. But this is secularism. Nothing in all of creation is “neutral.” Nothing “just is.” Everything exists only as it relates to God. Everything exists only as it exists in the truth. It’s “fact-ness” can be beside the point, and even contrary to the point.
In our digitalized, printed world, we have access to almost everything. The vast discourse of the saints, the details of the canons, the deeds and records of empires, are all available to almost everyone. Someone wants to make a point and assembles a long list of quotes drawn from the saints. Every word written is true, and yet the presentation is not true. It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints! And it is equally impossible to help someone whose heart is in delusion to understand that such a collection can be false – primarily because it was assembled by a false heart.
The Scriptures are abused in the same manner. It is terribly frustrating to be confronted with a vast collection of verses gathered in the service of a false teaching. The same thing was confronted by the fathers early on. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary of an account by St. Irenaeus:
Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματα, λεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (hypothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).
The true “hypothesis” must first be found in a pure heart. How can a heart that cannot see God proclaim God in the truth?
If all of this pushes us towards silence, then well and good. “Even a fool is considered wise when he remains silent.” But it should also push us towards God and the purification of the heart. Only the path of true repentance founded in love, meekness, and kindness, can find such purity. When words produce anxiety, fear, shame, condemnation, and sadness then we should pay attention to their fruit. Perhaps the words are “true” but they are not God’s words-for-you.
A word spoken in due season, how good it is! (Prov. 15:23)
Christ warns us about our words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mat. 7:21). Christ means to draw us into our hearts, into the reality of our communion with Him. We do not find Him in the “letter of the Law” but beneath the letters where He dwells in richness. Even in the words of the saints, what is true must be found within the same heart that spoke them. There are no short-cuts to knowledge, to truth, to beauty or goodness. They only come in true union with Christ.
The Fathers of the 7th Council declared, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Everyone who writes or speaks is an iconographer. Either we make present what is declared in heaven, or we reveal the opposition that is found in our heart. There is only this.
Wow. Very beautiful, Father! And very, very challenging. Many thanks.
How true Father. The Canons of the Church are Canons, not cannons and yet they are used as the latter sometimes. The Truth can uplift, heal and restore, but the truth used in hatred can be a deadly weapon. I have always wondered about the real meaning of God speaking and creating through words. I certainly have heard the Protestant version of the Hebrew thought that if we say the right words in the right way we can create things too. I know this to be a pagan concept. I wonder if the language of God speaking is a metaphor for the Word being the agent of creation.
To some degree the image is correct. Christ heals with a word. But the integrity of God and the nature of the Divine Energies are such that God and His word(s) are not utterly separate. When Christ says, “Ephatha!” (open) – it is so. It was said by one of the Fathers that had Christ not said, “Lazarus, come forth!” and had just said, “Come forth!” All the dead would have been raised.
When Christ simply spoke your name, it was enough to make you want to follow Him. We have become so alienated from our own words, as well as others, that we are almost deaf.
As I had the joy of studying iconography with Xenia Pokrovsky, I appreciate fully what she said concerning a true icon not being about hate. We too must be icons of Christ full of love.
I read your blog assiduously and have been greatly enriched by them. Thank you for being the beacon of light that you are.
I agree Father, we are careless with our words at times hurling them like cannon shot only, hopefully, to regret it. The fact that words cannot be recalled should, but does not, make I out a watch before our mouths and a guard before our lips. At least when I write, I can reread what I say and edit it before I hit transmit
We have spoken with each other enough to know that my adversarial persona isn’t intended to tear down. I also know you well enough to know that you don’t want people turning off their brains and just accepting what they are told. However, your post may put some (perhaps only me…) readers on the defensive, which isn’t your intention. Although, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with a person being confrontational. Consider your statement: “It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints!” What I get out of this is that “resisting the saints” is a problem. It isn’t clear to me why I should be concerned about this. For example, the scripture says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:8-10). First, truth is its own authority and that authority is not to be altered by the apostles, saints, or angels. Second, those who alter the truth are to be regarded as accursed by those who would stand by the truth. Third, you cannot seek the approval of people (saints, apostles, or angels) and seek God’s approval. I understand that at least initially the only sources of “truth” were the testimonies of those who reported what they had seen and heard (1 John 1:1-4); therefore, the truth was delivered by the apostles. Ergo, the truth was/is apostolic. However, what the Scripture does NOT say is just obey and believe the apostles, saints, and angels. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world…We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” The task is to determine whether the teaching is apostolic. And in doing this, I would assume, entails knowing what the sources of the apostles have to say. And a few scriptures to boot: “Only a fool believes every word he hears” and “let God be found true and every man a liar.” So, to say that someone is resisting the saints seems beside the point–unless, are you saying the saints are infallible?? These verses set the stage for conscientious objection because they place the burden of thinking through the tradition and the scriptures on individuals, and what happens when a person honestly disagrees? It is easy to say, “Well, they must not be of the truth and they’re heart must be wrong.” Anyone can say that. That is the easy way out. On the one hand, you don’t want to waste your time with people who only argue for the sake of arguing. On the other hand, there may be good reasons why individuals may diverge with the Orthodox church and the saints.
Consider your statement: “It is impossible to argue with such things – you are resisting the saints!” What I get out of this is that “resisting the saints” is a problem. It isn’t clear to me why I should be concerned about this.
David, my understanding of what Father was illustrating is not the infallibility of the Saints but rather the buttressing of the argument being made. I think Father was using the illustration to show it is the heart we must present and engage, not the logic or even the apparent wisdom of the argument itself. The argument is not the point; the love of neighbor is. Just my thoughts.
Fine. Then what do you think is intended by “You are resisting the saints!”?? Why does that even matter?
Just to be extra idiotic…think about this statement: The true “hypothesis” must first be found in a pure heart. How can a heart that cannot see God proclaim God in the truth?
I agree with this statement in its entirety. But, it is problematic for obvious reasons. The writers of these kinds of statements usually assume they are the ones with pure hearts or the authority they have submitted to have pure hearts. “You can’t understand what I’m saying because your heart is impure. And I think that this does some explaining of the statement “You are resisting the saints!”
I couldn’t help but be reminded by these words of the following Scriptures:
Matthew 7:28-29 “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
John 5:39-40 “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. “
The intention of “how can you argue with this, you are resisting the saints!” is that when someone is reciting a long list of quotes from the saints, or even a long list of quotes from the Scriptures, but are, in fact not speaking the truth because their heart is darkened, there is no way to argue with them or refute them – because there’s all these quotes that they claim is supporting them. But the real problem is their heart.
Confrontational language is of a certain use – but it will never – in the long run – bring us to the truth – not in it’s proper form. Rationality itself won’t bring us there – confrontation is, at best, an exercise in rationality. When it’s not an exercise in rationality, then it’s much worse.
Ultimately, the truth is only known noetically. Anyone can say, “Well they must not be of the truth and their heart must be wrong.” Yes, that’s true. But there are no purely “objective” standards by which we can judge. Ultimately, the truth reveals itself for what it is in the light of Christ. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything…in fact, I think that’s pretty much an exercise in futility. If someone wants to know, then I can share what I know. And that’s pretty much what there is.
I cannot explain how it is that God draws people towards the truth, but He does. Someone asked me once what “outreach” program we use at St. Anne. I replied, “I answer the phone.” I should add that I answer my email as well, and we welcome people. Don’t know how they keep showing up – but they do.
I know very well that it is impossible to answer a question that is not being asked.
Byron is right. I was putting those words “resisting the saints!” in the mouth of my adversary – someone assembling a long string of quotes to make the point of their darkened heart. You misunderstood. I was describing a not too rare inter-Orthodox conversation that I’ve had more than once.
David, the saints aren’t infallible, they are glorified and a great cloud of witnesses.
Arguing with saints who went before us in faith (Heb 11) is not what a Christian desires. Rather, it is to join their number and take our place in the body of Christ who also calls us forth, like Lazarus from the dead, to live before His face.
David, re: Fr. Stephen’s segment on “resisting the Saints”
I believe the intent of what Father is saying here is that just as there are those who misuse the Scriptures to say things that are actually unScriptural (because they are not being applied with true wisdom), so there are those who misuse the teachings of the Saints in the same way, so as to cast shame and make the one they are trying to influence or convince (wrongly and in ignorance) feel they are resisting the Saints and not just the wrong application and abuse of the Saints’ teaching. Try rereading it that way and see if it makes more sense.
Whoa! Glory to God for All Things! Thank you for writing this, Fr. Stephen Freeman!
Ha! Well, I see I was typing simultaneously with Fr. Stephen and he has confirmed my interpretation for David. (Good to know I was tracking with him in this post! That always helps my sanity!)
No, David. But I think your own heart’s issues are making you hear things that are not being said. Or fearing that they are being said.
You seem to be ignoring:
If it just pushes towards an argument, then it won’t really go very far. There are reasons why, on the blog, I do not engage very much in give-and-take. Some amount, sure. But more than some, no. Ultimately, it is take-it-or-leave-it. There are so, so many sites for argumentation. For me, it is a “weariness of the flesh.” If I had been engaged in that for 11 years (the years of the blog), I would have either quit long ago or been withered into someone I wouldn’t want to be.
Forgive me David, it seems you might be mis-reading and mis-interpreting Fr Stephen. A topic that is expressed within an Orthodox perspective might sometimes need a life lived in the faith for a time to fully understand. This does not reflect a condition of the intellect but a condition of the heart, and the meaning of ‘the heart’ is quite different in meaning from that used in this culture. I’ve read Fr Stephen’s words on similar topics in the past. But this time this essay illuminated much for me, because of just recent experiences in my life that have helped me during this reading to understand what is meant. There are layers here which I know you get. But there is more, which takes time living in the faith to understand fully. Though Fr Stephen is engaged in helping readers understand his point, it also takes an open heart to receive and understand.
Sorry Fr Stephen it takes time to write on a small screen and before I submitted you had already answered David. My words were redundant, my apologies.
Point taken. Clearly I was mistaken.
I was drawn to the Orthodox Church because the calvin-esqe monergism that defines all of Protestantism continually led me to the logical conclusion that, according to commonly shared human values, God was unjust. Under Protestant terms and conditions I couldn’t figure out how to come to complete rational certainty that God was good rather than evil.
Because of this I welcomed whenever the Scriptures spoke synergistically, rather than assuming a rhetorical understanding that favored the monergistic spiel.
Anyways, my brother never felt the same way. He continued to happily march down the Protestant path. Synergism poses a much greater evil than monergism in his mind. But when I compare myself and my brother there are no qualitative reasons why I would happen to be the one to find and follow the truth, and he remain on the path of darkness. It seems to be a matter of mere circumstance rather than quality. My heart isn’t any more pure, and I do not deserve a purified heart over him. Hopefully he will find the true path, but regardless there any many, many people who have loved and died with purer hearts than mine who never found Orthodoxy. And yet I have found Orthodoxy. I cannot make sense of it.
Actually, I don’t expect feed back from anyone on the blog. So no one should ever feel compelled or obligated to respond. I may offer a perspective, but that is all it is. Feel free to ignore it. I’m not offended by that.
It’s funny. When I was attending the Thai Buddhism center in STL the monks there used to tell me that it would take at least ten years of practicing Buddhism before I would be able to understand the answers to the questions I was asking. A similar answer was given by Hinduism. The power of perspective is interesting. Sarah Moses and other holocaust survivors have told me that it has taken them their entire lives to reconcile and integrate the horror of their experiences with their faith. From my conversations with John Dominic Crossing, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman I gather they have similar notions regarding their understanding of doubt.
David, I appreciate the opportunity Fr. Stephen gives us all to comment and interact with each other. I learn a lot more by trying to understand the diverse perspectives of others than from merely being lectured by an expert of sorts. Oftentimes a perceived conflict or a misunderstanding is the key for all to a much deeper, more thoughtful understanding than would have been possible otherwise. I would much rather have an honest and mutually respectful disagreement with someone than be stuck in an echo chamber with a bunch of like-minded others who share the same blind spots and prejudices. The only kind of questioning or disagreement that is truly unproductive I’ve found is that coming from someone who is unyielding in their intent to be vindicated at all costs as “right” in a fixed agenda they bring with them to the “discussion” (a.k.a., trolls).
My point of reference and validation for the various observations about the nature of some kinds of knowledge–and in particular the ability to understand a particular culture or tradition’s language or questions– depending on experience over time is my background in developmental psychology, and particularly the ground-breaking research of Piaget. I understand this as an organic process common to all learning because of how we are wired as human beings.
I have seen many hearts that were far more pure than mine, no doubt. What I think is that we cannot judge much of anything “before it’s time.” Many things appear one way in this life, but are, in fact, another. This is especially true of people. I frequently think of this verse – taken from the Septuagint version of Exodus: “For with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalek to all generations.” (Exod. 17:16 LXE) There are fierce battles going on in the human heart that are unseen. The work of salvation is, I think, largely hidden. Christ knows and sees this – and we can only entrust one another into His hands. Pray for your brother – God alone knows the truth of him and of his heart.
It’s problematic to suggest any particular manner of how people respond to what you say on the blog. Not everybody’s reading everything, every day, except me. In that sense, conversation has to more or less go by pretty public rules. People read things and respond by what they see. I have to read things and treat them in that manner, as well. There I times that I delete a comment, even though I understand it – but see it as problematic for the larger discussion and conversation. I sometimes send a private email in such circumstances.
The comments, like the articles themselves, serve a purpose greater than any single commenter. It’s not a public “board” (or whatever they all those sorts of internet things). It’s a conversation that, for better or worse, belongs to me and serves the purpose of the blog. And that’s how I manage it. I like to “manage” it as little as possible.
I would completely agree with the Buddhists, Hindus, etc. (not very sure about Pagels and Ehrman). I would assume as a matter of respect that I don’t really understand them. Indeed, one of the most bothersome things about “Perennialism” (the thought that, in the end, all religions are saying the same thing) is that it disrespects all religions. It is, a fairly typical, Western form of intellectual imperialism and arrogance. Not surprising, though.
“Either we make present what is declared in heaven, or we reveal the opposition that is found in our heart. There is only this.”
I know that my heart isn’t right. I feel the contentiousness there even now. I struggle to understand why, after ALL I have done and after ALL I have been forced to suffer at the hands of a brutal man, why am I still alone…on the inside? Why is my inner world so cold and dark when I have begged God to remove the veil?
My participation in this blog reminds me of a quote from Thomas Merton “Even when he tries to do good to others his efforts are hopeless, since he does not know how to do good to himself. In moments of wildest idealism he may take it into his head to make other people happy: and in doing so he will overwhelm them with his own unhappiness. He seeks to find himself somehow in the work of making others happy. Therefore he throws himself into the work. As a result he gets out of the work all that he put into it: his own confusion, his own disintegration, his own unhappiness. ”
I apologize sincerely for the confusion.
Don’t give up, David. You are still ahead of the game if you now recognize you were once confused. It is very hard when an inner wound keeps tripping us up and distorting what we see and hear around us and distorting our response, but it is something no human being can entirely escape. Some wounds are deeper than others, but God/Truth is on the side of our healing, so we are never without reason for hope. This blog is usually a pretty safe place to make mistakes (unlike a lot of places in this world and on the Internet!).
Merton is a keen observer. My own thoughts are that purity of heart is rare and we are all wounded, deeper in some ways than other. God is calling us to Himself in order to heal us. An important thing, always, is simply identifying the nature of our wounds and paying attention to how that is displayed in our lives. We “bear a little shame” and keep working with the grace we are given.
I honestly think there is so much more grace at work in us than we know – and sometimes that’s for our own sake (that we don’t know).
I had a recent bump in my faith (private story) that staggered me for a couple of days. The end of it, was a deluge (this morning) of realizations of many things I was ignoring that completely contradicted the bump. Frankly, the bump helped.
A general comment: The article can easily be taken to be primarily about what not to say, or how not to say it. More importantly, I think, is that there is something that can be said, that God’s word(s) can be spoken. The Word whose word healed the sick continues to speak to our hearts and they “burn within us.” It is looking for those words, spoken well, spoken rightly, to the right person at the right time, are an amazing icon.
A common experience of those who have spoken (directly) with saints is their stories of how a single word, a single phrase changed their lives. I met a priest in England who relates the story of meeting the Elder Sophrony. He was a young college boy. But the Elder spoke a single sentence to him…and it changed his life. It became the “word” that has illumined his life ever since.
Years ago, during the early years of my Anglican priesthood, I met an Orthodox woman, a former Anglican nun, who had just completed a 2 week silent retreat at a monastery I was visiting. I asked to meet her. I was curious about her story (I was already very curious about Orthodoxy). She spoke little. I spoke a lot (as usual). When I finished she smiled and said, “Fr. Stephen, you think a lot. Someday, you’ll think with your heart. Then you’ll be Orthodox.”
Her words both stung and excited me. The stung like a terrible rebuke (touching my shame over my constant garrulousness). But they excited me – that there was such a thing as thinking with my heart and that it could change my whole life. I had no idea then what it would look like, but I knew in that very moment that her words were the Truth (with the capital T).
I only saw her once again. Many years later I saw her in a coffee hour at an Orthodox Church my family was visiting as we prepared to convert. I rushed to her and (garrulously) reminded her of that encounter. I wanted to say, “It happened!” She smiled. She had no memory of meeting me. I swallowed my embarrassment. It had been not about “me.” It had been about God’s word to a soul – to the me I didn’t yet know, and still know only a very little.
I can relate to your mystification about the why’s and how’s of becoming Orthodox (or not). It’s similar for me. What I know for sure for me was that God led me to Orthodoxy, not because my heart was purer than my non-Orthodox family and friends, but because I had reached some similar realizations as you about the logical implications of some non-Orthodox teachings that blocked my communion with God in that context and made me a misfit there as well. I was desperate for an answer (and one that denied the nature of Christ as God and Man and the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection revealed in the Gospels was not an option). I don’t know what would have become of me had God not intervened in His grace! I have come to the conclusion I was shown Orthodoxy because it had become necessary at that point to my salvation. If becoming Orthodox (or in some cases even Christian) at this stage in their journey was essential (in that same way) for the salvation of my loved ones, God would intervene for them as well. I also bear in mind all that God did in my life and the truth in which He established me long before I became Orthodox and which set the stage for all that has come after.
This discussion has been helpful – thank you, Fr. Stephen, and all who have contributed.
David Foutch – you said something that summed up part of the dilemma I felt after the previous post. It is a natural tendency for us to assume that the other person (not me) is the one whose heart is impure or who is saying true things in false ways, etc. How do I know it is not me?
I didn’t ask the question to seek personal reassurance. I initially asked the question with a certain curiosity -but I began to feel its potential for becoming an obsessive dilemma. (I have a talent for obsessive dilemmas, BTW, although God’s grace has eased that up considerably over the years.)
What I became aware of as I read this article and the comments is that I simply cannot know! And, as you wrote, Fr. Stephen, that is probably for my good. In other words, as a sinner, I need to live a life of prayer and repentance – joyfully, of course. I must ask the Spirit to guide me when I write or speak. I need to pray for humility and a pure heart.
But I am not meant to know what God has accomplished in me in this regard. Nor should I be too concerned about it, lest I keep my gaze fixed on myself instead of Him. I trust Him (not me) to be at work – my job is to say “yes” and then stay out of His way. And I strive to remain watchful to minimize my inevitable stumbling and to repent when I become aware of my missteps.
A friend recently asked me this question: if I were a musical instrument, what instrument would I be? After pondering briefly, I said a bamboo flute – empty/hollow on the inside, with the breath (Spirit) making the music through that emptiness (and the holes in me!). I cannot say that this is truly how I live – but it makes a good image to guide my heart.
Thank you all again.
David, all of us at some level think we are alone, isolated and living in dark caves but Jesus Christ, unlike Plato’s cave rescuer, comes to us from even deeper in the cave than we have gone.
He was born in a cave, buried in a cave and arose from a cave.
As much as it seems otherwise, we are not alone. None of us. Sometimes the only time I can realize that however is when I just sit quietly and listen.
Hinduism and Buddhism accentuate the aloneness. Christ reveals the incredible inter-connectedness of everyone with everyone else through Him, in Him. St. Augustine, like Jonah tried to run from Him and he found Christ waiting for him when he arrived.
It can be tough to take–not being alone especially since we are often united in our common suffering.
May God keep you, guide you and protect you. Everyone on this blog is with you and you are with each of us.
BTW, I began to learn prayer when I walked past my folks bed room one night when I was young. My father was there seemingly alone in the dark contending with God much like Jacob did. Being contentious is not always a negative.
I think I have had a near inverse experience. Although Protestant theology depicted God as someone to me that was not worthy of worship, I never felt like a misfit or was uncomfortable around them. In fact, I’m quite comfortable with myself wherever I go. However, I have told my family (Lutherans) that I was Orthodox before I knew what Orthodoxy was. My reading of Dostoevsky, particularly The Brother’s Karamazov, the mystical understanding I had of Matthew 5:8 and Luke 17:21 as well as the parables in Matthew 13 among many other reasons made Orthodoxy seem NATURAL to me. At first it was like finding what I had been looking for my entire life. (And I actually think that I can put an age to that.) However, having been associating with a congregation for some time I have never felt more alone in my life. I have never felt more misunderstood and overlooked by God. The loneliness is deeply interior. All of this is confusing to me because I feel like God has shown me the promised land only to tell me that I cannot enter.
My honest hope and wish is for the union of all and for the blessing of each one here.
Peace, brothers and sisters.
I should perhaps clarify that no one was making me feel like a misfit in my former Evangelical context (though that might have changed had I been completely open about my convictions/misgivings). Rather, I felt that I could no longer embrace certain aspects of that theology very central to their understanding (particularly Penal Substitution Atonement theory in certain of its aspects) and I felt myself to be a misfit and a bit of an imposter because I could no longer buy into so much taken for granted there. I am naturally compliant by nature and like to be “invisible” in groups, but I also have to be able to do that with integrity, if that makes sense. I can’t fit in by pretending to be something I am not. I can adapt in externals without much problem, but not in core convictions!
I feel for you in your experience in your Orthodox parish now. I can imagine a little of how lonely it must feel. I think no matter where we go, the vision we may be given through the Holy Spirit of the depth and beauty of Orthodoxy will never quite be matched by the more human realities on the ground and the brokenness we encounter in the concrete setting. (We are not fully in Paradise, and all battles won, just yet!) I had very brief experience in two other Orthodox parishes (before I found my present parish home) where, for different reasons, I did not find a good fit for me or my situation. Had these been my only option, it’s not hard to believe I might be very much more in your shoes. There are times despite the support and welcome I feel in my parish, I also still feel very alone, but for Christ. It is only because of Him I feel a connection to others. Michael is right, though. We may feel alone, but because He is there (and the Lord’s Mother and the Saints with Him), we are never really alone. Fr. Stephen (and others who regularly comment here) have often been a great help to me as well. I have been reading here for nearly ten years and there have been many times this has served as a spiritual lifeline for me.
It is interesting that you describe your present experience as “misunderstood and overlooked” by God. It is, I think, not true that God overlooks us, much less misunderstands us. It is how you feel. So the question isn’t “why is God doing this?” Rather it is, “Why do I feel this?” Our feelings are useful to indicate what is going on inside of us – but not very reliable for much of what is going on outside us. I think the loneliness is a key – and that there are causes within that create the loneliness. It’s those causes that will need attention and healing – and the deeper the cause the slower the healing. Sometimes we come to the promised land and discover that it’s a place of healing. And healing is, in my experience, most often slow, frequently painful.
Given the depth of what you describe, if it were rather suddenly and “miraculously” healed or disappeared – I would be extremely skeptical of it God’s action and quite concerned that deep emotional/psychological issues were at play. When it comes to the experience of the human personality, “sudden” is almost never a good thing.
God give you grace.
I was born into an Orthodox family and attended church faithfully for years. I felt very alone for years and ended up leaving for about 4 years after I got divorced. When I returned, I realized that I had judged people there, and I had judged God. For me, it was because of how hard I was on myself – perhaps lots of truth, without love. It took a lot of time and taking very small steps towards the voice of love to even go back. I see more love now.
That was (and continues to be) my healing. The healing is unique for each of us, but the Healer is the same. I pray for you as I write this.
This is the mystery of loneliness: we are all alone, estranged from the crowd of people around us by the brokenness of this world. Some are more aware of it than others, perhaps because tragedy and circumstance strips away everything else from them.
The blessing of this painful manifestation of loneliness is that it can cause us to discard our former pretense of being able to handle everything – through logic and other grown-up methods – and simply run to God as the child we are. When we are “in our right rational mind”, this approach seems like folly. But when we are forced out into the open, this vulnerable state is what allows our heart to be soft and lovable again. It is only in this condition that ultimately find the communion our heart seeks.
What a beautiful image:
“A friend recently asked me this question: if I were a musical instrument, what instrument would I be? After pondering briefly, I said a bamboo flute – empty/hollow on the inside, with the breath (Spirit) making the music through that emptiness (and the holes in me!). I cannot say that this is truly how I live – but it makes a good image to guide my heart.”
You nailed it!
Christ is Risen! Thank you, Father and all for the comments and discussion. I have a small question based on a slightly side matter inspired by the article. If I understand correctly, speaking a name with the right spirit can call-out the essence. This is why we must say the Jesus prayer carefully, as it calls the Word of God to us. I wondered whether the ‘right’ heart is a contrite heart, or whether it could be a grateful, happy, thankful heart? I appreciate that the tomes of the Philokalia would be a good starting point, but wondered if someone much better read than me could offer guidance. Thank you.
There was a controversy in the early 20th century over the nature of the name Jesus. There were Russian monks who declared “The name of God is God.” It was condemned as over the top. But the instinct makes sense, even if it was incorrectly and falsely stated. We must say that the name of God (Jesus) is not “just a name” “just a sound” or “just stands for something else.” The Church treats the name much more profoundly than that.
The essence (ousia) is not in the name (I think). That indeed would make the name God Himself in His utter transcendence, etc. Rather, I think it is better to speak of the name as an Icon – and icons do indeed make present what they represent. But the Fathers taught that this representation was “hypostatic” rather than “of the essence.” But that gets very technical. (This topic was part of my thesis years ago at Duke).
On a contrite heart – I think thanksgiving is ultimately the key. A truly grateful heart, in the fullness of that meaning, is, in fact, the very heart of contrition. I’ll write more on this fairly soon.
Father would you say that a real name properly spoken makes present the named analogous to an icon or is it more than that?
” I don’t know what would have become of me had God not intervened in His grace! I have come to the conclusion I was shown Orthodoxy because it had become necessary at that point to my salvation.” -I never thought about this before, but I think this absolutely true for me too! Anything short of Orthodoxy would have kept me on the path of despair. Thank you for your reply!
You probably aren’t aware of this, but this is not the first time you’ve shared with me the quote about Amalek and the secret work of God. I’m slowly warming up to this new found knowledge that I will never attain proof and absolute objective certainty concerning the things of God and the salvation of my loved ones. It is a hard lesson for me, to live dangerously by faith rather than in the safety of certainty. I have a tendency to want to take hold of the uncertain, and therefore fearful, things in my life and control them. If I can control them, I can eschew the danger and make them safe. In this way I have often attempted to “control” my brother by pushing Orthodoxy onto him, but this is not speaking in love and truth, as your post here points out. And I must admit, I also have a tendency to want to be right, which also often finds its way into the mix when I approach him about these things.
But anyway, it’s time to let go of trying to control this. I am not the source of my brother’s savlation. In this respect I am powerless. And God wishes for my brothers’ salvation far more than I do anyway, so why be so anxious? I must trust God. I need to let go of the controls and trust God to safely land this thing.
Anyway, thank you for your reply, and especially thank you for all that you do on this blog of yours.
Yes. “properly spoke” is quite a question and is so much more, I think, than we know.
I’ll say, that when Jesus spoke someone’s name, within them, as if they had never known it before but suddenly they did, the person he addressed saw themselves – the truth of themselves. He names people, “You are Peter.” And Simon had never known that he was Peter, and can hardly believe his ears, and believes later, after denying Him, that he’ll never be Peter, only to hear it again, “Simon, do you love me (3x). The “Peter” is given to him in “feed my sheep.”
The Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I think it works the other way as well – Scripture does with words what icons do with color.
So I’ve repeated myself? No doubt. It is a very important verse for me – because letting go is so essential and so very hard. That trust in God’s providence is, I think, pretty much the same thing as believing in God. And it is this that is so hard for us.
And He knows it so well and loves us anyway, and does good for us anyway.
I had a long conversation with one of my daughters tonight and shared with her that I can see God’s hand in my life so clearly – but only in hindsight. In hindsight I am astounded. I try to flip it around and trust it forward (there’s an interesting turn of phrase!).
I also am working at extending to all whom I love. Either God is for us, and there is no worry, or God is not for us and there is no hope. There really can’t be any other possibilities.
Christ’s death says God is utterly for us. Christ’s resurrection says there is nothing but hope. Despair is absurd in the light of the resurrection.
Michelle, I understand your dilemma, but God provides. Tough to remember often, but nonetheless true. It really takes a lot more faith to believe that I can figure things out even more that I can fix anything.
Thank you, Father – very clear, and very helpful.
Slightly off topic…
Fr. Stephen, Michelle caught you repeating yourself. I was reflecting on the fact that each person only has so much to offer. Each one’s life is only about so much. I find it a tendency that older people will tell the same stories and make the same points. Some of this can be written off to our deterioration perhaps, but there is also that sense that I am on this earth to do one thing.
While this may seem obvious, the world around us keeps trying to get us to play God, to unconsciously believe that we can do anything and everything – and shame us when we don’t live up to that outrageous standard – and then offer to sell us something that will get us there.
It’s a lie. I only have so much to offer. God designed me that way. In fact community comes about because everyone has their place – and that’s place, not everywhere. It’s important to remember this. I expect you will repeat yourself even more as you get older, and that’s okay. In fact it’s better than okay; it’s what it looks like as you find the role you were created to play.
There is a story about the Apostle John. In his later years when someone asked him a question he had the same answer “Little children love one another.”
So, Father, you are in good company.
There is only one truth so the answer can be repeated forever because it does not change
We usually think of truth in two different ways. One, treats truth as a brute fact that can be used in proof of something else. And our degree of certainty increases as a function of the number of facts we can martial in an argument. The other way is the ol’ “I know in my heart it is true.” This is more intuitive and typically regarded as less rational. Regardless, these two ways of relating to truth only mediate a psychological sense of certainty.
Everyone reading this blog knows all that. It’s elementary. However, the mind is continually clutching and grasping at the world. When we turn the mind to God there is nothing there for the mind to grab and so it gets upset and so we feel upset or even lost.
Quiet the mind. Move our attention to the heart.
Uncertainty also is a basis of hope. What we hope for is important. What we hope for is like a Buddhist koan: It reveals something of who we are.
Dare we hope that all people will be saved?
this “In hindsight I am astounded. I try to flip it around and trust it forward” is also the key rousing that my own reading of that Exodus 17 :16 passage usually produces.
It is very sad that the overwhelming English translations are missing the “with a secret hand” though. The septuagint has this ( secret hand) clearly, and it is a profound mention of God’s providential hiddenness.
In a similar way looking back over my life it seems quite amazing that only through the rather deeper understanding that I acquired to become a professor in chemistry, plus the added effects of my disequilibrium with the cultural ramifications that I had experienced within that profession, led me to questions and to a skill set to observe the icon of the Cross (Death trampling down Death) and Resurrection in the physical world.
If anyone would have told me chemistry would lead me to Christ, with the heart that I had and very negative outlook I had of Christianity, I might not have pursued it. In fact, my reasons for going into the sciences had nothing to do with a love of chemistry. Rather, I had to take chemistry as a prerequisite for the courses I wanted to take and ended up learning I had an deeper interest in the field than I had anticipated. Pair that with the “luck of the draw” to have a incredibly good scientist/chemist (who by the way was Chinese/Canadian) as a mentor in my undergraduate studies, I would not have been able to see the “magic” of chemistry to lure me in. His outlook itself was magical and infectious. He gave me a research job in his lab while I was still an undergraduate, and that experience alone put me into a different sphere of learning. All I can do is express wonder and gratefulness for this sojourn. And it gives me hope, as others have expressed here, that what happens now, no matter how difficult and wearisome and sad it might sometimes be, that it all is indeed in God’s Hands.
Last, when I taught chemistry, especially in those areas that seemed to really stretch students’ understandings, it seemed that I could never repeat the kernel concept or relationships (equations) too much. In fact it happened often, that students would say “you never told me that!” but in fact I had done so several times. It indeed depends on the circumstances of the listener to hear and integrate what they hear with what they know. And then after the fact, discover that they still didn’t acquire the understanding they needed to perform well on my tests. The skill set I sought in my students was the capacity to be able to transfer and apply their knowledge to new problems–those they hadn’t seen before. This skill or knowledge, means incorporating what you know as a ‘fact’ to a process of induction (not deduction). This required practice, and practice often requires repetition of cognitive processes to be able to recognize what might apply to a new situation. All of this a process of learning.
To Fr Stephen, please repeat as much of whatever you have written before, as you are inspired to do. I can never have enough. Each essay has been food for me. And each time I take this food, I am in a different place in my life and the food nourishes me when and how it is most needed.
I find I have been doing little more than repeating myself now for quite some time as well! Drewster said it quite well it seems to me. In the end, all there is, is the “one thing needful”–love God and love our neighbor (even the one who is our “enemy”) as ourself. We never get past plumbing the depths of that, and each of us has our own unique journey into those depths with the unique gifts that journey imparts to us to share with others.
Ah, Dee everything you write lifts up my heart. Thank you.
David, regarding hope for all people to be saved, I have begun to wonder if the role of an Orthodox Christian is not so much formulating and argument that will motivate someone to change their behavior and more of simply loving them.
The life of St. Phanourious gives me hope in this regard, that our salvation can be a source of salvation for those we love.
I have also found the theme from Harry Potter that the enemy wants you to feel alone a good reminder. The enemy sows seeds of mistrust in God and encourages us to feel abandoned.
My priest recently gave 12 sermons on AA and how the 12 steps from AA can inform all ‘sinaholics’ The theme that I cannot fix myself but must allow the ‘Heavenly King….. (to) come abide in us and cleanse us from every stain and save our souls’ was like balm to me.
When words produce anxiety, fear, shame, condemnation, and sadness then we should pay attention to their fruit. Perhaps the words are “true” but they are not God’s words-for-you.
For me this is a significant sentence, because it relates to communication. All things were created by the word (and it was good), and the word was God, in him and thru him and for him all things were created and has it’s being, it IS , I am,…. ….according to and in relation to his being and the world, culture etc. There can be nothing other, ….we assume standing outside that relationship, there is no real outside his relationship, or I would not breath and exist. I think that is the greatest lie. (my cultural understanding may be different, but that does not make me outside of God) God has his being in everything in relation to a balanced life. Nature and man. Everything that does not follow ,eventually finds death. Man too, leaving behind (his life) and what was worth that added to the continuum to life. There is nothing worse in Life, than to lie or be lied to. Yes, I totally agree with Fr. Stephen on this point. Nothing is WORSE than a LIE. IMHO the greatest SIN of all. God help us, the naked truth ….who will and can stand? Untruth may not be a lie if spoken in ignorance, but never lie to your Maker or my Maker if He speaks the Truth, it is and will always exist relational. I may be in Kindergarten, you may be in Junior High, am I therefore unwilling to see and know what you know? perhaps we all have our own educational path in matters of spirit, perhaps there is a new Generation that comes after me and you, as Jesus said: greater things shall ye do, because I go to the father, and then gave his spirit to the world to receive. I hate all the divisions of Christianity, because we find no place, and yet are in all places. How can this be good.? Perhaps stagnation-proof, I don’t know, I am going in circles and really need the right word at the right time. A real Christian person, not a system of thoughts, practices, verses etc…..is anyone still a real human being, am I not still a real human being?
Your question drew to mind this about Saint Silouan
This story is on page 48 of his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.
“I remember a conversation between [Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction,
‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
Obviously upset, [Silouan] said,
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
[Silouan] answered him in a sorrowful countenance:
‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’”
Saint Silouans words are a deep testament to the hope of all Christians.
Love could not bear that and yet Jesus talked a lot about hell. I cannot help but feel that the tendancy toward universalism is a bit too much the spirit of this age. A passion if you will. A way of ignoring our own sins in a feel good generality that is sentiment at best a deep dark lie at the worst.
The heaven/hell dicotomy is most likely an antinomical mystery. Many, many heresies arise by emphasizing one of such a pair over the other.
While it is true that the “sinners in the hand of the angry God” is heretical it is not countered by the equally heretical proposition that there is no judgement or that the judgement is a “judgement” with no consequences.
The nature of that judgement has not been revealed to us. If it were we would not be able to take it. It is tough enough to deal with our own particular part of it.
Salvation and I assume judgement is unique, intimate and deeply personal. Small. We cannot know what Jesus has in mind for another and He warns us against speculating about such things.
We should heed His warning.
I agree that there is a form of universalism that is little more than a passion – and it is rooted in the legal model of judgment. In a proper ontological view, there is no such thing as “no consequences,” primarily because the consequences of our sins are not a punishment or something dealt to us by God – they are a description of the very state of our being.
It is in that same light, however, that it is correct to say that God does not abandon us, ever! What the outcome of His not abandoning us is has not been given to us to know. Given the pervasive nature of Calvinist-inspired thoughts on this in our culture, it is little wonder that people want/need to say out loud that God is good and that His love has no limit – ever. I tend to hear little more than that most of the time.
While it is appropriate to maintain the belief in both Heaven and Hell, our immediate tendency is to fill in all the missing information – which we invariably get horribly wrong. Relating to things we know very little of, one saint said, “We know nothing of God’s judgement, only His mercy.”
Our place is to look towards our neighbors and love them – not decide how they’re lives are going.
I am not sure Saint Silouans words universalism but rather “hope” – and the hope of Christians should not scandalize. It is God’s to judge salvation but in loving our neighbor we shouldn’t we hope in Gods mercy rather than our own “perceived” security?
Father you are correct of course, but there is another form of universalism (not found here) that is truly about the shattering of any and all “Thou Shalts” in accord with Nietzche’s Zarathustra. Thus it is anti-legalistic but disguised as love, non-judgemental tolerance, etc. Sometimes using the law to destroy order and goodness.
It is quite seductive in the initial stages. I doubt that anything I said applies to anyone here but is an expostulation against the spirit of the age which is becoming increasingly and openly nihilist. That spirit and it’s author will use even good things to destroy us if he can– as described in Gen. 3:6.
I think it prudent to guard the hope in our hearts too and not dilute it and adulterate it with speculation. It becomes too easy for me to disregard my own need for repentance because I am weak. I am warning myself most of all.
It is important to note that none of the Holy Fathers, including those who hold to a complete and final apokatastasis do so without a hell. Repentance is not optional in any of their treatments.
What are your thoughts regarding the Slavophilist’s “naming” movement? As supported, I think, by Buglakov and Florensky to name a few.
I’ve read pretty much everything there is (in English) on the topic – but the only way to have an authoritative position would be to study the Russian material. That said, I think that Bulgakov and Florensky (as well as the others) made a terrible mistake by thinking of this in terms of ousia rather than hypostasis. It gave their thought a sort of essentialist ontology which is fraught with problems. Working with hypostasis as the primary category (as in the nature of iconic representation) has a way of “safeguarding” things from essentialist errors.
St. Theodore the Studite, writing on the Holy Icons, was careful to make a distinction and described an icon as a “hypostatic representation.” Thus when we say that an icon makes present what it represents, we do not mean in the manner of a sacrament. The bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. We can say “This is His Body.” We do not say that about an icon of Christ. Christ is hypostatically present in the icon, but the icon remains wood, paint, etc. We can say, “It’s just a painting,” and be correct.
The name “Jesus” is Jesus in the same sense that an icon of Jesus is an icon of Jesus, not of Peter or Paul, etc. Hypostatically, it is Jesus. But not as the Body and Blood are.
It is a subtle point – but the Fathers of the Seventh Council managed to work out some very subtle and refined distinctions. That work was largely ignored through the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Indeed, when I was doing my work at Duke, in which I wrote on the theology of icons, I found very little development of the notion of hypostatic representation, but I brought it to the fore in my work. I think it is still neglected and should be better attended to.
Wow….I know I’ve written this here previously, but this is your best post yet Father. Lots of pure gold in the comments as well. Thank you Father and to everyone who has commented.
Father Stephen, Since this thread of comments seems to be coming to an end, and because I cannot theologically discuss terms such as “apostatastasis” without sounding like a dunderhead, I’ll close with this. Someone once asked, “Are you premillennialist, amillennialist, or post-millennialist?”, to which the other replied, “Pan-millennialist.” “Pan-millennialist, what’s that? ” “It’ll all pan out in the end!” Yes, thank our merciful God, it will. Even Origen had conflicting thoughts about it, so what can I add?
So, in other words (essentially?), maybe we cannot say “in essence” but “in name” as the “person” of God, as knowable “in Jesus” as unchangeable, but not in the same “knowable” identification by name and symbol of what Augustine, or of Platonic idealism, in the same (mis)understanding that human nature is thus unchangeable? Thus, the order of theology seems to point towards the hypostasis or person prior to the attributes or essence. Christ IS not because of His attributes(as operations or energies) or even His essence(?), but IS Jesus as person first and foremost from which “radiate” His Godly essence “cloaked” in His divine-human attributes. We come to know Jesus by name, through relation to person, as we are “qualified” by His attributes and finally mystified and apprehended by His essence. Name and thus icon does not mystically “contain” essence, but are “windows” to experience of Jesus in person? However, somehow, “in the name of Jesus” seems to be loaded with an image or “value” perspective framed in experience of relation originated from Jesus or it reverts to a “nameless” personage easily mis-interpreted as then empty of “essence.” The power of the word “Jesus” as “the Word” that can “move mountains” is not from our pronouncement, but from Christ’s pronouncement of Himself through our incomprehending, but obedience?
I find the mystery of person and essence to mostly be beyond my understanding.
I can only admit to inelegant questioning. Perhaps Fr. Sophrony says it best: “God, the Personal Spirit, and man qua persona are joined in one in the eternal Act of Divine Life. Thus do we come to know God.”
“That word is living and active and can only be spoken “by heart.” I do not mean it cannot be written. But it must be written and known in the heart before it can be spoken and true.”
Indeed. Thank you and thank you for all you publish. Your writings shed light upon my days and my heart.