Pascha (Easter) comes with a great note of joy in the Christian world. Christ is risen from the dead and our hearts rejoice. That joy begins to wane as the days pass. Our lives settle back down to the mundane tasks at hand. After 40 days, the Church marks the Feast of the Ascension, often attended by only a handful of the faithful (Rome has more-or-less moved the Ascension to a Sunday to make it easier). Some excitement returns with the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, which conveniently falls on a Sunday making its observance easier in a too-busy-to-notice world. Lost in all of this, however, is a subtext (perhaps it is the main text).
It is a liturgical practice that in Orthodoxy begins some weeks before Great Lent. It is a frontal assault on Hades.
The traditional name for these celebrations is “Soul Saturdays.” They are celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings offered for the souls of the departed. Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent have them. They make a fitting prelude for Holy Week and Pascha. At Pascha, Christ Himself “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life.” This is the Great and Holy Sabbath – the true and Great Soul Saturday. This is the great theme of Pascha itself. Christ’s Resurrection is, strangely, not so much about Christ as it is about Christ’s action. Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.
The cycle of prayers assaulting Hades reaches a climax on the day of Pentecost. On the evening of that Sunday, the faithful gather for Vespers. During that service, they kneel for the first time since Pascha. And in that kneeling, the Church teaches them the boldness of prayer, the cry of human hearts for God’s solace and relief. Three lengthy prayers are offered, the third of which completes and fulfills the prayers that began so many weeks before in the Soul Saturdays:
Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. (edited for length)
I can recall the first time in my priesthood that I offered this prayer. I had a copy in front of me, but had not read it before the service, nor had I ever heard it. I trembled as I offered the words above…astounded by their boldness. I had never heard such boldness before the Throne of God within the walls of the Church itself. It is also a reminder of the weakness and infirmity of the legal imagery of salvation. The legal view requires of God that He be the enforcer of Hades. To such a prayer He could only reply: “I cannot grant such things because of my Justice!”
The Descent of Christ into Hades itself demonstrates God’s willingness towards our salvation. And the prayer’s imagery here reveals God’s strength:
Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.
On the Saturday before Pentecost, some 49 days after Pascha, the Church offers the last in the cycle of Soul Saturdays. And on Pentecost itself, and now on bended knee, it boldly goes where only Christ has gone before in victory. As was proclaimed in the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:
Christ is risen! And not one of the dead is left in the grave, for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
A beloved friend from my youth who has sustained a boldness in Christ through many trials has said that he doesn’t like to pray “safe” prayers. On this holy day, we leave the safety of our fear and dare to walk where Christ has gone before.
“Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death. ”
Spot on. Thanks for an excellent discussion on the deeper meaning of Pascha and something for us to chew on for tomorrow’s great feast.
In my sojourn as a Protestant, Pentecost never received much notice if any. Pascha is also mostly viewed as you so eloquently stated. The focus was on the cross and the penal substitutionary sacrifice envisioned. In my last Protestant church, the Pastor was at least aware of Pentecost and tried to do something to draw attention to it but nowhere in what was done was there a real understanding of an assault on Hades and Death. Thank you Father for making this distinction so clear.
Does the possibility of repentance exist for these departed?
Yes, the Lord frees those who are unwillingly held by Hades, but is it not evidence yet of His Justice, that the evil one is bound in the abyss?
“Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.”
Is it not the Lord’s Justice that is in operation, and is that not the perfect expression also of love towards those who had been unjustly oppressed by the evil one, and finally, will it not also be the love of God in His Justice that binds also in Hades the souls of men who have determined to be the allies of the evil one?
there’s not a definitive teaching within Orthodoxy on such things. However, the most common teaching is that there is not repentance after death. However, the prayers of the faithful “are of benefit.” There are numerous stories from the lives of the saints describing that benefit, including complete release from such torment. There is a great mystery in this.
I cannot fathom God’s justice, just as I cannot fathom His mercy. I find statements regarding such things to be too easily made. I know that I do not love anyone or anything in the manner that God loves them, and I think only such a heart could reliably speak of these things. What I have from Christ is the commandment to pray for all, and so I do. The mechanics of God’s judgment I leave to others.
You wrote: “There are numerous stories from the lives of the saints describing that benefit, including complete release from such torment”
Can you possibly point out to some books on that stories/prayers?
I’ll need to dig around.
I think it’s impossible for us to grasp God’s justice based on our human cravings for it, because our lack of kenotic-love-for-all that only the Holy Spirit can bestow, keeps us held captives in a mind that is not of Christ’s Spirit (Luke 9:55).
In a more philosophical-theological evaluation of the question, we see that the fact that a God that is love [which necessitates freedom], in truth, couldn’t have a world of self-determining beings – free to say yes or no to Him– without the kenosis of the Cross. And this kind of dictates what He Himself claims: that He eternally awaits the free response to love from all (John 12:32), irrespective of whether this might be eternally denied Him by the devil and others.
But, while those anthropomorphic expressions of ‘just punishment’ do have their place pedagogically, the ontological truth of Who God is, (and of how only His creatures created with such love and unwarranted respect of their self-determination towards Him [created that they can freely be sons of the Father] can also be the inventors and maintainers of their own hell and the Lamb’s eternal slaying) is a wholly different thing altogether.
What we are told is therefore that God is love [not justice]. He has ‘justice’, but God is love, He doesn’t just have love.
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María Gutiérrez, one of the most famous stories is about St. Gregory the Dialogist and his prayer for the Emperor Trajan:
“…On a time Saint Gregory went by the market of Rome which is called the market of Trajan, and then he remembered of the justice and other good deeds of Trajan, and how he had been piteous and debonair, and was much sorrowful that he had been a pagan, and he turned to the church of Saint Peter wailing for the horror of the miscreance of Trajan. Then answered a voice from God saying: I have now heard thy prayer, and have spared Trajan from the pain perpetual. ” (The Life of St. Gregory the Pope).
I haven’t read “The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality”, but they say this book mentions a monk who had a bad spiritual father. One day the spiritual father died and the monk saw him in visions in hell. The monk proceeded to pray him out of hell, which he did.
Father, thank you, I hope you will find the time to expand on this theme.
Alex Volkov, thank you very much.
In all love and please forgive, but could you unpack how the epistemology of condemnation is pedogogically ecclesiolological to an anthropomorphic “Joe Six Pack” like me. I do not get how punishment motivates a transformation of a soul to open up to God while my experience of getting to choose my “tool of justice” closes me in shame to a confused narrowing of what love is.
Somewhere I have read in the Lives of the Saints it states that Pope Saint Gregory the Great prayed for the Emperor Trajan and his prayer was heard…Trajan was saved: the Roman emperor, he who was a pagan, he who killed Christians in the Colosseum! This may be included in the Life of St. Thekla on Sept. 24 if I have my facts correct. I have read others in the Live of the Saints although I wouldn’t call it often.
Russian Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev seems to teach this in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell. Here is a summary:
It’s a slightly sad state of affairs that post-modern man has become so culturally self-justified in his psychological instability as to not be able to benefit from the pedagogy that even small children traditionally could – the rudimentary fear of castigating repercussion.
Of course, there have always been a huge gamut in the personalities of men, those who need no more than a pat on the back to mend their ways as well as those who require no less than a lashing (and still struggle to be moved much) are often all disciples of the same Lord.
And it also goes without saying that one ought to move from the basic fear of punishment (a necessary first step) to the noble fear of not hurting a Lord Whose unconditional love is beyond any human concept (an also necessary higher step).
Pentecost Sunday 2005 with Vespers immediately following Divine Liturgy was the first service I attended when were seeking to leave our Anglican church. I was incredibly amazed and grateful at the prayers said during the kneeling vespers service and knew that God is indeed a good God who loves mankind! I do not like to say safe prayers either! God bless you for this blog post! Glory to God for All Things!
This post and the give and take about how “the prayers of the faithful ‘are of benefit,'” raises for me the question of what happens to disciples when they die. Roman Catholics hold to a doctrine of purgatory. Protestants simply say you “are with the Lord.”
I have heard of the “40 booths” in Eastern Orthodoxy. What is the doctrine and/or general opinion around the question of what happens when a believer dies?
Thanks in advance for any illumination you or others can offer.
My understanding is that Orthodoxy does not have some of the hard and fixed sort of static, mechanistic or legal understandings of the nature of what happens after death seemingly common in the various formulations in the Western traditions. Rather, the understanding seems to me to be more dynamic and relational. If I were to summarize, it would be that the state of the soul after death corresponds precisely with its real state before death, i.e., in its disposition toward God and others. God is eternally disposed to love and forgive all, but our capacity to embrace that love and forgiveness varies in kind (yes or no) and in depth (to what degree), and affects how we experience spiritual reality (i.e., God’s Presence) after death. I see the Orthodox image of the “40 booths” as an expression of this dynamic understanding.
St. Gregory of Nyssa taught that since God is infinite, the ascent toward God of the blessed would also be never ending. Similarly, the Orthodox patristic literature has a somewhat more dynamic understanding of the state of a soul in hell (or anticipating hell after death, but before Final Judgement). Something I have noticed about the difference between the state of the faithful (saved) and the faithless (damned), whether this side of death or the other, and which is self-evident when expressed in these terms, is that the faithless, by definition, lack the capacity to pray for themselves and reach out to God for help. Perhaps this is why the Church teaches that those condemned in hell lack the capacity to free themselves from this state by repentance after death, but may be helped by the prayers of the Church. This always reminds me of the story in the Gospel of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof to reach Jesus for healing. If I remember correctly, we are not told whether the paralyzed man had faith or not, though it is clear his friends did. Jesus’ first act was to pronounce the forgiveness of his sins (note: before he asks). Somehow that strikes me as significant for the understanding of the dynamics of our salvation.
There is very little “fixed” doctrine in the details of “what happens.” The Catholic and Protestant positions tended to get very calcified through their arguments with one another, arguments in which the Orthodox did not participate. In modern times, it’s more common to find someone within the Orthodox Church making authoritative pronouncements on this, frankly, because of Protestant and Catholic influences.
There is a traditional bit of teaching regarding the “toll houses” (an image drawn from a dream) that describes the departed going through various trials by demons on their way to paradise. Some Orthodox get quite literal about this – which I find somewhat disturbing. It is, at best, an image by which we may think about the “particular judgment” which every soul undergoes at death. If understood in that manner, it is, perhaps, of use to some. It is an image that certainly can be found in a number of prayers within the liturgical life of the Church.
The “of benefit” is pretty much all you get. But the tradition is quite clear that our prayers are of help to the departed. These prayers include our private prayers, the prayers for the departed in the Liturgy, as well as the offering of alms to the poor on their behalf. This latter was an extremely strong tradition within the early Church and is too often neglected today.
The Orthodox attitude to purgatory is negative – it says too much and is too mired in legal imagery and structure. Protestants have oversimplified everything reducing the faith to a postcard. Good marketing. Bad theology.
Dino, I’m reflecting on your comments to Ben and Subdcn. Andrew in light of my own experience.
What I find is when I was a child growing up in a basically stable and loving home and being raised in a liturgical tradition (Methodist) still recognizably Orthodox in much of its basic shape when presented on a child’s level, accepting the role of God’s “punishment” was a “no brainer”. That is, it was understood as directed at evil behavior and as intended to be corrective–not as a predetermined rejection of a defective reprobate “sinner” by a (for all practical purposes) two-faced “God.”
Later in my teens and early adulthood, I was introduced to strongly Evangelical distinctives about the nature of salvation and the meaning of the Cross, which confused my earlier simple (though accurate) picture of God in his dealings with sin and sinners. This was also complicated by my growing awareness and discernment of my own sin. Largely as a result of the strong Reformed influence within Evangelicalism (Penal Substitution Atonement theory, or PSA, especially as explained on the popular level), the simple, unadulterated and sheer gratuitous nature of God’s love, forgiveness and grace were obscured for me.
This confusion steadily over three decades eroded the bedrock on which my childhood understanding of the Cross had been built to the point where I found myself in a crisis that led to two (mercifully, short-lived) nervous breakdowns within one year and precipitated (through what I consider an act of Divine intervention) the 5-6 year search that led me home to the fullness of Orthodoxy ten years ago. I should perhaps mention these also happened during a period in 2001 -2002 in which there was a shooting in my husband’s department at work in which four of his colleagues were killed and three injured, and then several months later 9/11 occurred! Just to drive home my point, I will add we had major representatives of these Christian traditions strongly influenced by PSA (at least two of these were the offspring of the very famous Evangelist, Billy Graham) very quickly publicly pronouncing the events of 9/11 as an instance of the righteous judgement of God vs. America for our sins!
If this was my experience, I can only wonder how much more for the multitude in this culture from broken families and where the predominant versions of Christian faith, whether embraced or rejected, are those strongly influenced by the Reformers and the Puritans with their powerful images of the Cross as a two-faced image of the “wrathful vengeful deity” (of PSA) and the Self-sacrificial love of Christ!
No wonder we have difficulty embracing God’s love while we understand his “punishment” in such a manner. Because there is so much “Orthodox” teaching (the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the resurrection, etc.) in this Reformed and Evangelical religious mix, it is all the more difficult to disentangle truth from error. Undoing the distortion for the one who has tried to faithfully embrace “the gospel” in this context I’m finding is a lifetime’s work.
Karen: I too have been on a journey similar to yours and I am still trying to sort out all that Reformed/Evangelical religious mix. It is very hard to do especially since I have been Orthodox only since 2013.
Because of the PSA theory, I find that accepting God’s love & mercy are difficult and I’m often waiting for the other shoe to drop, where I get punished by God.
This then sets me up to ponder how scary it will be to die given this “wrathful” imagery I have to unlearn. I would love to change, just not sure how.
Thank you and everyone for their comments. This blog really helps me think and rethink my positions and you all help me grow in the Orthodox Faith.
A note or two on the notion of purgatory…
I do not disagree, Fr. Stephen, that many writings in the Catholic Church attempt to define as doctrine concepts that are beyond our human understanding. While intended to help and guide the faithful, sometimes they lead people to think that they now understand “what happens”.
My sense is that many people’s notion of purgatory suffers from a similar problem as the toll houses that you described, i.e. literal interpretation + imagination -> losing the point. Many Catholics imagine purgatory as a place where one is consigned to suffer punishment (typically like hellfire but temporary) until they have “paid the price”, a price determined by God in light of the state of their souls at death, e.g. minor sins unrepented, major sins forgiven but for which insufficient “penance” was done during their lifetimes.
As you noted, this sounds very legalistic: God sets the price for sin, souls have to burn until they’ve paid it. (No wonder so many people reject the idea!) However, there is another way of understanding the notion within the RC Church and I do not think it is so much at odds with Orthodoxy, though you may correct me if I am wrong.
The Orthodox, I believe, refer to God’s love as flowing from His heart like a river of fire that, for those who love Him, is experienced as light and warmth and, for those who hate Him, as a consuming fire. St. Catherine of Genoa, honored in the western Church, wrote extensively after receiving a vision of purgatory and similarly described the “fiery love of God” that purifies. This is a “suffering” that is also joyous. God is not absent in the state of purgation nor is He placing souls in a “place” of suffering. (There is no place where God is not.)
Rather, souls who love God suffer at not being able to experience Him fully. Not having reached a state of perfection during this life, they will, at the time of death, still bear the damage done by sin, e.g. because of weak or incomplete repentance. St. Catherine likens this damage to “rust” that needs to be burned away.
Thus, the soul rejoices at being purified, and “day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed.” (St. Catherine of Genoa).
Purgation therefore is rightly seen as great grace. Already forgiven, our souls are freed and healed in the presence of God’s “fiery love” in order to experience full union with Him.
(Forgive me. I don’t claim to know anything. Just wanting to share an understanding that I have received.)
The pedagogy of a rod used as a measuring tool to carefully gauge and keep a watchful and loving eye on one’s child-craft as master to an apprenticing learner is one of extreme attention to the details of mentored and patient obedience. To lash out is not only unthinkable, but incredibly damaging to the measuring rod, not to mention the unspeakable damage caused to the subject. To “spare” the rod is to build without measuring and without planning–a reckless and crooked endeavor looking for shortcuts and the easy way out of an otherwise beautiful art. A child taught without measure is one who has been modeled roughly and without proportion much like flinging mud at a drooping canvas.
I believe in a loving and forgiving Christ who I shame and hurt perhaps daily. I know that my children have hurt and shamed me. But Christ has never punished me for my shaming and He was not sent to save me from vengeful or punishing Father. The pedagogy of love, even tough love, is not found in punishment, but in forgiveness. Punishment is reserved for the mystery of judgement of which none of us can claim knowledge, experience or prejudice. If we fear punishment, the love of God is not in us. If we choose to punish, more often it results in damage and pain from which healing is greatly complicated.
I used to work with very troubled youth who found themselves punished and detained by the judicial system. My program took them out into the wilderness and for three weeks we loved them with hiking, fishing, camping, climbing, rafting, singing and laughing. Not one of those kids returned into the system’s correctional programs. Not once did I ever have to say anything but be a silent example of peace, love and forgiveness. Many of them sought me out years later and said that if it hadn’t been for our alternative “correction” they would be in a major prison facility still being punished over and over and over. So, you see, punishment only begets more punishment.
And who amongst us can cast the first stone? Evidently, Augustine has cast his.
And thank you Karen for your thoughts as well.
Here is something that I just stumbled upon reading the book “The Orthodox Way” by Bishop Kallistos Ware: “It is of course true that there are many who with their conscious brain reject Christ and hid Church, or who have never heard of him; and yet, unknown to themselves, these people are true servants of the one Lord in their deep heart and in the implicit direction of their whole life. God is able to save those who in this life never belonged to his Church. But, looking at the matter from our side, this does not entitle any of us to say, “The Church is unnecessary for me”…Certainly God is able to save those who have never been baptized. But while God is not bound to the sacraments, we are bound to them.”
Just some food for thought.
That should be “Christ and his Church”…my apologies.
As a former Roman Catholic, I understand what you are saying. I have discovered that many things in the Roman Catholic Church are taught differently in different places. As a student of theology, however, I learned to go to the source and not rely on understandings of various people. A Orthodox Priest friend and I (he is a former Roman Catholic, born, raised and educated) often got into discussions about what the RC doctrines really are. I have found that referring to the Catholic Encyclopedia is the best way to resolve these issues as this is an authoritative source on Church doctrines. I must add that my friend was often surprised when we consulted the Encyclopedia as his education in Catholic school had not given him the official teaching.
After reading your post, I consulted the Encyclopedia and I find the official answer a bit different that what you expressed. I am not saying that you were not taught what you expressed but I am saying that the official doctrine is different that what you are saying. I have found this quite common in both the Catholic faith and in many Protestant beliefs as teachings of the faith seem to vary from the official stances
I include the link only for your reference so that you may review what it says and decide for yourself how it squares with what you have been taught. http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9745. This link should bring you to the article I am speaking of.
I don’t understand the equivocation between justice and punishment. I understand that we rationalize our beliefs and humans have become proficient at mental gymnastics. But, the idea that God is invested in either rewarding or punishing human behavior is 99.5% lost on me. It seems like the kind of idea grounded in the exercise of power in the name of justice than actual justice.
There is a strong strain within some Orthodox teachers (fathers) that anything endured that is called punishment by some is not a matter of retribution – rather it is a matter of healing the soul. Thus, this passage from one of St. Isaac of Syria’s homilies:
I also recommend this article on the blog.
And that is why Orthodoxy is doing differential equations while the rest are doing simple arithmetic.
Because of the PSA theory, I find that accepting God’s love & mercy are difficult and I’m often waiting for the other shoe to drop, where I get punished by God.
I find this interesting, Anna, because I never worried too much about the punishment of God when I was a protestant. Instead I was concerned about the absence of God; indeed, I considered hell the act of being entirely removed from God’s presence. A looming issue in my life since I’ve become Orthodox is that of recognizing that God does not turn away from me in spite of my many and constant sins. There are times I think I would welcome the absence; it is easier to bear than the constant love. The punishment would make sense to me; the love rarely does.
Nicholas Stephen Griswold,
Thank you for your comment. I have seen the Catholic Encyclopedia article – and, although it may use language that causes some to cringe, the basic concept is there.
That purification of the soul after death is possible is the fundamental truth; speculations about how that occurs is not dogma. Consider: if everyone were to be immediately judged upon death and assigned to an eternity of heaven or hell, there would be no point in praying for the dead. Yet, as Fr. Stephen noted, praying for the dead is an early teaching of the Church that has endured in both the east and the west.
The Church (west) accepts St. Catherine of Genoa’s visions of purgatory and the treatise that she wrote. Hence, it is a solid part of the RC Church’s tradition that sin keeps us from God and that we need to be purified if we are to experience His fullness after death.
(If anyone wishes to read a short bio and her treatise, it can be found here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/spirit/catpur.txt)
I wonder to what extent sin is to God what leprosy was to Jesus. Jesus wasn’t mad at the man for having leprosy as if it were his fault or for breaking the law whilst looking for a miracle. Also, Jesus didn’t ask a lot of the man. The leper asked “If you want to, you can make me clean” and Jesus said “I want to” and the man was made completely clean. We talk about sin as coming between a person and God as if the person chose to be susceptible to corruption and perhaps was raised in highly corruptible circumstances. Why isn’t God’s response to sinfulness “I want to. Be made clean.”? Why purgatory? Does this make sense or am I muddying the waters?
I just watched the movie, Dr. Strange, based on the Marvel comic books character. Critics decry the movie’s occultic messages and content (and perhaps rightly so), but I couldn’t help noticing the way Dr. Strange ultimately overcomes the Evil One. He takes an element of temporality into the region beyond temporality where the Evil One dwells and uses that in a self-sacrificial way to outwit Evil. More specifically, he uses the ability to turn back time in order to keep coming back from the dead every time the Evil destroys him, preoccupying the Evil One with trying to destroy him, so that it cannot destroy the world. Dr. Strange resolves before the Evil One to endure the suffering and pain of a violent death as many times as it takes until Evil consents to his terms (which is to agree to abandon its attempt to destroy the world).
It seems you can’t have an effective good-overcoming-evil fantastical myth, apart from key elements of the One True Myth that really happened! As I have come to see it, truth is stranger (and better) than fiction (and a whole lot more thrilling, too)! This is true of all the classic western fairy tales, too. Once you understand the full Orthodox shape of the gospel (Christ’s trampling down death by death leading to the theosis of the Church and salvation of the whole cosmos), it is easy to see this.
I thought the same thing when my wife and I watched that film.
I can’t think of the “punishment” of sin as other than the completely intrinsic natural consequence of the process of corruption (and its reversal in the Presence of God) for beings made in God’s image. Jesus in His parables and the Church use images of organic life and death/corruption and of healing and medicine in speaking of the nature and dynamics of sin and salvation for a reason. There are processes and stages of healing (physical and otherwise) that themselves create pain and discomfort until that healing is accomplished. I have come to summarize my understanding by the statement, “Sin is its own punishment, and love is its own reward.” I find it helps to be reminded that even though the Scripture uses images that refer to forces we are accustomed to thinking of as extrinsic to us (e.g., the master’s authority to punish the lazy or rebellious servant) in warning us of the consequences of our actions (or encouraging us to faithfulness through the promised benefits), it uses these by analogy to describe a spiritual reality wholly intrinsic to our actual state in light of the reality that we have our very existence in and from God. I also find it helpful to reflect on the teaching in Fathers such as St John Climacus about the stages of spiritual growth from the mentality of a slave (someone in a state not yet purged from sin) who must be motivated to seek God by the threat of punishment if he neglects this, to that of the servant who is motivated by the promise of a reward, to the completed stage (where salvation in the sense of theosis can truly be said to be occurring) where we have the mindset of a son and are motivated purely out of love for God and our desire for union with Him. I think it is only the last mindset that sees clearly Who God is and what He is like in all His motivation toward us (1 John 3:2).
David A Foutch,
I think I understand what you are saying. Though I have no special knowledge in these areas, I will share a thought or two.
I do not think God is “mad at” us for sin. I think this is a serious misunderstanding of the notion of God’s “wrath”. (I wrote an article on this on my blog which you are welcome to read, if Fr. Stephen permits the link: https://apricelessthing.com/2015/10/13/the-wrath-of-god/)
God forgives us completely. But this does not necessarily mean that we have completely accepted His mercy at the moment of death and are fully ready to experience union with Him. The notion of purification of the soul after death is a merciful one – otherwise our fear of death might be unbearable, aware as we are of our imperfections.
Perhaps this “purgation”, this healing, DOES occur the instant we find ourselves in the presence of His great love. After all, our time-bound minds cannot possibly describe the timeless eternity of God. And our prayers for the reposed, made in time, may benefit us as much or more than the souls who are with God.
Needless to say, my thoughts are only my thoughts. Surely God’s plan is far greater.
With your blessing, a link to your copy of The River of Fire By A. Kalomiros:
This article was the crux to my becoming Orthodox and healed my long, long struggle with a God I could not come to love because I thought he hated me…and the healing continues to this day!
Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire” was pivotal for me, too, in finding my way into the Orthodox Church and recognizing that an insight I had received in response to a desperate prayer was truly from the Holy Spirit and confirmed in the historic Christian tradition.
Karen & Sbdcn Andrew,
I am often reminded of the enormous systemic harm that some western perversions of the Faith must have produced when I read here people’s experiences, and naturally compare them to the innate understanding of [even the most perverted] sinners-yet-believers that were lucky enough to be genuinely ‘cradle-Orthodox-reared’ in their crucial infancy years, and who have no experience of the ‘evil-god’ syndrome within their early psychological shaping. In fact, I sometimes think this is more to do with traditional, ‘old-world’ upbringing that one could only find in villages around the ‘cradle geography’ of Orthodoxy, or those who are alike this.
If such an ‘evil-god experience’ (thoughts) tempts such people later (slandering God’s mercies and undermining their spiritual courage [which is purely hope in God’s mercy]), albeit, from a different angle in their spiritual maturation (like with St Silouan), it still retains a foundationally healthy basis to fall back on.
But I think what’s needed more is to recognize the error in the first, warped world-outlook and the truth in the traditional other one, rather than continuous efforts towards (an almost self-entitling, righteous) modifying of “outdated” expressions in the Tradition which challenge us due to our traumas.
It should simply go without saying that nothing can ever challenge our conviction in God’s mercies…
Dino, et al
Dino is quite right. Context is everything. There is much language in the fathers and the prayers of the Church that, when heard from a damaged heart, can sound frightening or many other things. It is simply a comment on how damaged our culture has become.
One purpose in my writing and attending to many details, particularly things concerning how we see and think, are directed towards the slow process of healing the heart and the acquisition of an Orthodox mind. For me, this is something that is never completed, but is ongoing.
Fr. Stephen, Dino,
I appreciate both of you clarifying, i.e. “some” western perversion (not all western theology is the same) and the insidious impact of our post-modern culture. I am certainly glad that the “The River of Fire” article helped many here who experienced faulty theology to know our true and loving God. At the same time, the disease of our culture affects all of us, including cradle Orthodox (at least in America).
In addition to theological misunderstanding (or poor presentation), I think that another reason why post-modern man “hates” God is simply that to acknowledge His Truth means giving up our own wills – and we don’t like that. And our culture teaches us to idolize our own opinions. I talk to many people who do not accept God because they view the Church’s teachings (east and west) as “judgmental” or otherwise flawed because they disagree with it.
It doesn’t often occur to contemporary man to consider, “Who am I to disagree with God?” Easier to call oneself an atheist or agnostic so as to feel justified in ignoring Him.
Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire” was given to me when I first met and spoke with an Orthodox priest. He simply walked over to a copier and made a copy for me to read.
There is much language in the fathers and the prayers of the Church that, when heard from a damaged heart, can sound frightening or many other things.
I have noticed this in many hymns of the Church. The language used can be considered almost protestant, at times! I recall the extensive debate on the early Fathers on this blog between Fr. Freeman and a Reformed minister. The latter continually quoted the early Church Fathers but never in the proper mindset, always with a legalistic heart.
Sometimes I too can get swept into my own passions when I read a comment that I know is blatantly untrue, and where there isn’t immediately a following comment submitted to offset the former ‘untruth’. The rankled heart I have encourages me to submit rebuttals. But I know argument isn’t going to stop the one who wishes to present ‘untruth’ in its varied forms. I believe that what one is doing who is so engaged is struggling with God in their own heart and are attempting to project that struggle outwardly, to pin it on a person or religion, or political party, etc. This struggle, I think, is deeply connected to shame.
In such circumstances all I can say is that I’m very grateful for Fr Stephen’s patience and the willingness of my spiritual elders here to speak truth with love.
Regarding hearing from a damaged heart, I have read Orthodox counsel and received counsel from my Confessor to not choose prayers from the many that are offered for use in the Church that use language I cannot readily hear correctly and that consequently reinforces a false understanding. One example is the language that “I am unworthy”. This means in context that none of us *by our own efforts* has a claim on God’s blessing and help, but only because He is good and merciful. Properly prayed, it is a completely realistic expression of faith in God’s goodness and of humility. Prayed from a damaged heart that suspects God must be constantly and sorely displeased with us on account of our many sins and must be propitiated by blood sacrifice (understood in an essentially pagan, not biblical, manner) before He can be persuaded to help and save sinners, however, it easily becomes an expression of craven servility that surely must grieve the all-merciful and completely generous and gracious heart of our Heavenly Father.
I believe it was Kalomiros’ address which made the observation that atheists and agnostics created by western culture are not genuinely atheists. They actually believe in the distant, demanding, judging, condemning and wrathful god of some western presentations, and they hate him (and rightly so, I would add)!
As much as I see and agree with the heart of Dino’s observation about the relatively more wholesome life and spiritual mindset possible in a simple Orthodox village, in the modern world I don’t think this issue of damaged hearts can be neatly divided between cradle Orthodox and Christians raised in Western traditions (not that this was what Dino intended to say). I have read of and seen those raised in Orthodox homes who have had a similar type of damage done by poor preaching, teaching and sometimes gross sin and hypocrisy in their own parishes in the part of clergy, etc., and where doing all the right things prescribed by the Church is emphasized at the expense of a clear declaration and exposition of the gospel (though this is clearly evident in the Liturgy when you have been trained to see it). I know of two cases (a friend from another parish, and my parents’ Evangelical pastor [who preaches PSA!]) of those raised Orthodox who were helped to see and embrace elements of the gospel by Evangelicals in their teen and/or college years. A third, my own Bishop, though he had no bad experiences in his Greek Orthodox childhood church, was not really aware and awakened to the gospel until an invitation to Bible study with enthusiastic Evangelicals in his college years began to open his eyes to the riches of his own faith. Certainly, there were at least as many, and probably more, things in my own Christian background that prepared me to receive and appreciate the riches of Orthodoxy, as that create some struggle for me now with some of the traditional language and practices of the Church.
My understanding is it is squarely within the Orthodox spiritual tradition to understand what is medicine for one among the Church’s various treatments for spiritual health can be poison to another and so picking and choosing from within the tradition what works best for me to nurture my faith and spiritual courage does not mean I am advocating throwing out any of the Church’s traditional language or teaching in a general sense. I am an advocate for the fullness of the Tradition which suggests we have not been given a one-size-fits all code, but rather a living expert Physician, who resides within His Church by the Holy Spirit, and will lead each of us to the right word at the right time for our healing if we trust Him. We each also need to respect the clear and explicit teaching of the Church that we aren’t to indiscriminately apply to others medicine that has been prescribed for our own particular healing.
Your witness about your life story and its relationship to the mentality of PSA is deeply moving. Since becoming Orthodox, I’ve become ever more appreciative of the rejection my mother experienced (and she also rejected the protestant “mind” if I should call it that), when I was so young. I have a memory going back to third grade where I was shown a picture of modern-dressed children sitting at the feet of a biblically dressed Christ, and I realized that who and what I was, wasn’t depicted in that picture. It was a rather stunning realization at an early age that stayed with me my whole life.
I’m grateful of the wisdom of your priest and of my own. As you eloquently write: “We each also need to respect the clear and explicit teaching of the Church that we’re aren’t to indiscriminately apply to others medicine that has been prescribed for our own particular healing.”
In my case, my bishop affirmed the discernment of my priest that I should be baptized into the faith. And I fully respect that others might not need to be baptized but chrismated, and as far as I know that this is not assessed by former church affiliations, only, but also based on the discernment of the heart involved. A few catechumens I have encountered have expressed that they ought to be able to determine their own path and be allowed to partake of the Eucharist as they self-determine their need. (I might describe this as protestant thinking at my blogging peril). Often such outlook comes about when they feel that their former church affiliations should warrant “easy” (ie. not having to “have to go through” baptism) access to Communion. Had they had your perspective in mind (your quote I give above), perhaps they might not have had such objections.
Also in my own experience I find that it is important to have the continued guidance of the spiritual elders in the learning (and unlearning) process toward what one might call the Orthodox mindset. This can be especially difficult in this culture (speaking of the US) specifically. Because of my personal life (and a rather long slog) of self driven appropriation of knowledge against what was considered the ‘normative’ concepts and demographics in the sciences, I recognize that I need to rely on the guidance of my spiritual father rather than pick and choose at my own discretion what readings and interpretations might be appropriate for my heart, faith and growth. Again and against the grain of what is called ‘freedom’ in this society, this is called ‘obedience’, in the Orthodox faith. However, in relating this matter to my family who do not consider themselves Christian, I would not call it ‘obedience’ because that would invoke a serious misunderstanding and push against my following the Orthodox Way. Yet because of my life experiences and what they have witnessed in this society, they would understand what Fr Stephen calls the ‘thinking of the slave’ in the context of this culture–that they would understand, as they would also understand the context and meaning of the “manager thinking” (they would specifically understand the comments between Fr Stephen and Nicholas G in that thread). Language definitely conveys meaning within a cultural and life-experience context. For that reason I realize I must take care in what I write here. All that is seen is my writing, not so much who I am, and I have no control what someone else might see (or not see) in what I write. It is my hope and prayer, however, that what I write might be helpful.
Father, I’ve seen some Orthodox sources point out that we incorrectly translate both Gehenna (the abode of the damned) and hades/sheol (basically just being dead, generally) as hell, when they’re not the same thing. So, on Pentecost, who are we praying for? The righteous dead, that they may be helped on their eternal assent to God, or those in Gehenna?
I think there are those who want to make this careful distinction because they want to argue that we do not pray for the wicked. If you take a linear point of view, then, strictly speaking, nobody is in Gehenna yet, not until after the Last Judgment. I personally don’t pay a lot of attention to the distinction…it seems to largely be a legal construct that makes little sense to me.
You might find this article of interest.
Dee, thanks. Just to be clear, my “picking and choosing” assumes the guidance and care of a Confessor and the spiritual Fathers of the Church (as one becomes acquainted with their teaching). I wasn’t intending to endorse an individualist mindset with that comment. I trust that was clear enough from the overall context of my words, but just in case…:-)
Karen, The depth you present in your writings is always something I look forward to reading. It wasn’t what you wrote but fears about how my own words might be misinterpreted in my earlier comment.
The PSA model is not something I’m particularly fond of. It seems to be ubiquitous in this culture, along with the pride and condemnation that the thinking requires, and it seems to have a close history with imperialism and slavery at least in the US. To the best of my knowledge I am not conflating these histories, but if I’m incorrect, I will be attentive to correction. My grandmother (my mother’s Seminole mother) was subject to a (white-European) step mother who literally thought my grandmother was her slave. My grandmother ran away from home at 11 years of age to join up with her birth mother’s family in southern Florida. Her story also was rife with the denigration (and shame) she experienced. Words in such settings were not seen as trivial. They held power. ‘Positive’ sentimentality associated with the ‘good intentions’ of this religious talk was considered virtually meaningless. As a child much of this went over my head. But now that I call myself a Christian, after a lifetime of not calling myself that, words and behavior and the contextual meaning of both remain important to me. At the same time I resist the judgmental attitude in myself that I have been subject to. Still, my hair almost stands on end as an immediate effect of hearing an Orthodox person using the word ‘evangelize’ as a positive statement about ‘where Orthodoxy needs to go’ or what a parish needs to do. This is due to my early experiences with ‘evangelical work’ and its associations with PSA.
A few years ago I visited Ft Moultrie near Charleston, SC. I had not known it before reading the park brochure, but Osceola is buried there. There are a few towns throughout the country named Osceola, one in Iowa near where my husband’s father grew up. I don’t know much about the man, but I know he was a valiant and courageous person who cared about his people, and I was honored to pray Memory Eternal at his grave (though silently – husband would not have understood…).
I had to smile about your comment and how you react to the word “evangelize”. The Catholic Church has, for some reason, decided to start using this term and it makes my hair (almost) stand on end too! And I have never belonged to an evangelical church.
Words are such funny things and we are complicated creatures. Is Jesus my “personal savior”? Am I “saved”? Have I been “born again”? I cannot deny the importance of any of these questions, in the context of my faith and how I understand it – but the words set off a reaction.
I must remind myself that neither “their” words nor my words have any value apart from love. So I must work on that and respect all, whether believer, different sort of believer or unbeliever…Reading Mother Gavrilia has been an inspiring example of this sort of love.
This response was so unexpected, thank you so much Dana! I am so grateful. Your prayers mean a lot to me. Osceola has had a lot of good and bad press but he remains a hero among a number of the Seminole. He has been figure of leadership and courage to me.
And thank you Mary. You have certainly listed a number of “trigger words” for me, too! I appreciate your reference to Mother Gavrilia. I’ve heard of her and believe I’ve read some of her words, but it has been awhile and I need to go back and re-read her writings.
Isn’t it sad to see how a perfectly good word, “evangelize,” has gotten such a negative connotation by virtue of its association with a distortion of the gospel (PSA theory) and manipulative styles of persuasion, judgmentalism, and superiority complexes? I have had a couple of culturally American cradle Orthodox in my parish complain about Evangelical or Pentecostal relatives or friends questioning their salvation simply because they are Orthodox and trying to sell them their particular denominational version of faith, and I know exactly how they feel because my brother was in a fundamentalist cult for ten years that considered Christians in all other denominations (even other versions of fundamentalism) as “unsaved” and they approachex me that way, too, even though I was a committed believer and had myself recently been a short-term missionary overseas doing campus evangelism among nominal Roman Catholics (self identified as Roman Catholic when asked for religious affiliation, but answered “no” when asked on the same survey whether they believed in God)!
I can’t say I know from experience all that you describe going through (and your mother and grandmother going through) on account of your Seminole background, but I well believe it, having read bits and pieces of this nation’s shameful history with its treatment of Native Americans (and Africans). I can’t help but feel my own share of “white guilt” about all that. I’ve found so many aspects of various traditional native cultures (especially Native American) beautiful, deeply human (unlike our industrialized and commercialized Western consumer culture), and rich in art and meaning. There is so much we moderns need and can learn from those who still maintain these kind of traditional cultural roots. Likely it gives you a bit of a leg up in assimilating the “one-storey universe” of Orthodoxy. I would have chosen full Orthodox Baptism as my mode of reception into the Church, but I was told by my Priest it was not an option under that jurisdiction’s Bishops for a believer already baptized in water in the Name of the Trinity as was the case with me, so I chose to submit to the Church in that regard. (In our multi-jurisdiction situation, I could probably have opted to ask for reception in a local ROCOR parish and been received by baptism, but I had no personal connections there.)
The recent posting on evangelism has caused me to do some reflection on the terms evangelical and evangelism. Indeed, these terms have taken on the same flavor as the words “Used Car Salesman” to many. I am forced to reflect on how the modern approach to instant salvation sounds a great deal like peddling “Get Out of Purgatory Free Cards” by the infamous Johann Tetzel. I wrote a longer piece in reflection but will not post it here because it is off course of this discussion, but Karen and Dee, you have touched the center of the problem with these words.
One of the primary tools of the modern project is to corrupt the language. It is everywhere. We are faced with the task of recovering the language at least in our own communications. That is frustrating because even with the word marriage I have to say: marriage is the union between one man and one woman practically everytime I use the word. The alternative is to remain silent which is to consent.
Evangelize in an Orthodox context means to care for people in the name of the risen Christ out of love. To give as God gives-mercifully.
thank you for helping this protestant come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Jesus!
Nicholas, that’s an interesting and insightful parallel you draw between many modern presentations of “the gospel” and Tetzel’s selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages.
In fairness to probably the majority of those who would identify as Evangelical in their Christian faith, their sometimes obnoxious and a bit forced and reductionist attempts at evangelization of their neighbors (even Christian neighbors!), is rarely (if ever, in my experience) the result of any character flaws or especially prideful motivations that we don’t all share. Indeed, most frequently, it is also the result of real humility and desire to be obedient to Christ and a sincere concern for the eternal destiny of fellow human beings–especially those they love and care about. Many, if not most, are really pretty far out of their comfort zones in even broaching the topic in potentially hostile territory, and to even make the attempt is a sincere desire first and foremost to honor God. It is the distorted and reductionist teaching that is at fault, not the people who in all good faith believe this is what the gospel means and seek in various ways to conform their lives to it. Almost all of my closest friends for decades have been Evangelicals, and they are really beautiful people, too. What comes across as “superiority” is often only the misguided attempt to uphold and defend the superiority of Christ to idols (misguided because both “Christ” and “idols” tend in this model to be understood in too superficial and nominal a sense and too hard and fixed a line drawn between the real spiritual condition of those those who profess Christ explicitly in these terms and those who don’t).
The hypocrisy of which I speak is not in the rank and file of the congregation. The individual people are struggling to find their way with what light they have. I am speaking of the leadership. I can see by example the “snake oil” salesmen mentality of those who preach on TV and sell their ministry through coercion. They are not hard to spot. I also speak of the many leaders who are doing essentially the same thing. I was educated in a Protestant Seminary and I learned of the cynical way that congregations are manipulated by their pastors deliberately. this
One example is how I was taught to lead into the offering time. The prayers before we were taught are the time to “prime the pump” by verbal manipulation. An example of this is asking God to convict the hearts of the congregation to dig deep in their wallets. Add to that the selection of the “special music” either live or recorded (along with a video) to make people feel as if the could solve a problem in the world if they would only give a little more.
These are the folks who are “selling” salvation. It is not the average congregant who is trying to be faithful
Please forgive me. I haven’t had an experience in which someone who was trying to evangelize me (not using Micheal B’s meaning) who didn’t seem to project the certainty that they were going to heaven and the person they were speaking to, who did not profess their thinking, as ‘not going to heaven’ and that is not my experience alone but those of my family on separate and several, if not many, occasions.
An example of the thinking the last time I was brought by a family member to a mega Church in Florida some years ago.: I was introduced to the pastor as a grad student in chemistry his response was “oh you’re one of those people (he had been condemning ‘intellectuals’ in his sermon as belonging to the devil) his tone wasn’t friendly and I said “actually yes I am”.
I don’t want to place people into a pigeon hole. But this is unequivocally not what Michael B is talking about. To call it evangelical because someone as good intentions– at least to me, is not a good idea. The rank and file in exuberance want to be seen as ‘part of the congregation’ appears to follow without apparent trepidation about the consequences of these actions described here. Among us writing in this thread this experience looks like the exception rather than the rule. But it seems to happen as a rule with me and my family.
It is the distorted and reductionist teaching that is at fault, not the people who in all good faith believe this is what the gospel means and seek in various ways to conform their lives to it.
Karen, I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this observation. The issue is the reductionist mentality towards God and the scriptures. This mentality is evident throughout our materialist society and is one of the key failings of Protestantism (and Humanism) in general IMHO.
It is ironic that Orthodoxy is belittled for its fullness while the more limited, and incomplete, message is glorified. Then again, it is easier to cast simple (and vague) messages in one’s own image. The fullness of Orthodoxy defies recasting by the modern culture.
Nicholas, I tend to agree, though my experience is more limited than yours (I haven’t been to seminary).
Dee, I’m sympathetic to your experience (having had to briefly suffer a version of it myself). If I may, I would like to explain where I might still (very gently) suggest a small adjustment in your perspective for at least some of those who inevitably, as a result of false presuppositions they are taught, will make an arbitrary and, therefore, false, distinction between those outside the belief system, who are presumably “going to hell” if they don’t “repent” (meaning, for all practical purposes, change their opinion) and those who are–not by any virtue of their own worthiness or moral superiority, but only because they have “trusted Christ”–“heaven-bound.” The real culprit here is not the hearts of the Evangelicals, who likely (if my experience during that phase of my journey is any indication) don’t see themselves as really any different in their intrinsic moral worthiness than those they seek to reach. They might even see strengths and moral virtues in you they recognize are superior to their own and admire that, but they have been taught that to affirm that perception would be an obstacle to your recognizing the insidious and deceitful nature of the “sin” that infects us all and the wholly gratuitous nature of the “salvation” offered in Christ and thus your need for God, and so they fear that to acknowledge that would compromise the effective communication of “the gospel” that we can’t save ourselves by our own virtue, but may only be saved by “faith in” (too often for all practical purposes reduced to “having the right opinion about”) Christ, and (in a supreme irony!) that they would thereby be endangering your soul! I hope you can see a little what a bind this puts those in this belief system in. The real culprit here is the nominalistic thinking that pervades modernity and these modern theological systems, and which seriously handicaps the spiritual discernment and understanding of (often very well-meaning) Christians taught these nominalistic versions of Christian faith. The good intention doesn’t mitigate or excuse the falsity and injustice of the message, but I hope it would help to separate a little the person from the error in which they are embroiled, and find in that person, however deeply buried, a true image of myself.
I was always extremely conscious of how Evangelical presentations of the gospel could come across to those totally outside the system (whose God-given spiritual intuition was still intact–exactly how you experienced it), though I didn’t always perceive as clearly as I later came to understand how intrinsic that intuitive perception was to the actual meaning and implications of the message itself. I was acutely uncomfortable with presentations of the gospel that made too great a distinction between the presenter and the one to whom the gospel was being presented because of how far from reality that message was to this common intuition, and so I was never a very good “evangelist” for my own Evangelical faith (though, hopefully, a little better advocate for actual trust in Jesus Himself for that very reason perhaps!), even though I actually even went so far as to go to the mission field for it.
Today, I finally had some time to catch up on reading this blog (still have two posts from Fr Stephen to read, along with comments).
For Karen: I think you are referring to the movie Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch made in 2016 and not Dr. Strange, starring Peter Hooten made in 1978. The former is centred on a neurosurgeon; the latter a psychiatrist. Both are based on Stan Lee’s character in Marvel Comics.
This perception is reinforced by the traditional usage in Papal Christianity of listing various devotions with the number of days it remitted from a person’s consignment to purgatory. It is standard teaching of the papacy that purgatory is a temporary place for those not bad enough for hell, but not yet good enough for heaven.
But the aspect of purgatory most troubling to Orthodox Catholic Christians is not the idea of an intermediate state, but the teaching (and still taught) that some people have done more than necessary for heaven who have earned a surplus of merits which go into the ‘Treasury of Merits’ from which the papacy can dispense (for those engaging in various devotions) to reduce time in purgatory. Such teaching is false and un-Christian.
Mary also wrote:
Instead of closing a blockquote, I started a new one. The final ¶ is mine, not a quote within a quote. Apologies.
That sounds like something from a Papal Christian devotion emphasising body parts (e.g. ‘Sacred Heart’), not something I would hear or read from an Orthodox Christian!
Thomas, I believe she is referring to the imagery used by Kalimiros in River of Fire.
Link here, if you have not read it: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/
Byron, I am familiar with The River of Fire, but to make sure, I took another look at it. I see nothing there about anything flowing from ‘God’s heart’.
Thomas, you may be considering the imagery to literally. There is, for example, an icon of Christ enthroned with a river of fire flowing out from beneath His throne. The river itself could be considered to flow “from God’s Heart” (and it is widely considered, as I understand, to represent His judgement). If God’s judgement is indeed His mercy, then it is proper to say it flows “from His heart”. Just my thoughts.
Thomas, thanks. Yes, I watched the 2016 version.
Dino, (in response to your post dated: June 7, 2017 at 2:52 am),
Forgive if I have misunderstood:
Just wondering how the following excerpt from Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a context which “retains a foundationally healthy basis to fall back on” irrespective of trauma or maturation? If all error, struggle, or heresy can be somehow contextualized, then too often, they can be justified. Irregardless of how “dated” a supposed view is regarded as “old world,” it is built upon by further synthesis of gnostic generality and loss of specific application to the particulars of human suffering and mercy becomes a very mute point:
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction.” –Jonathan Edwards.
And yet more from Jonathan Edwards:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”
…I am requit in silence and shame to such banality from which I suspect Kalomiros finds context for his critique. My parents were sent overseas as missionaries on these very words, of which were read along with scripture after the evening meal and from which maturation should now find a “healthy” warning?
I’m pretty sure you did misunderstand Dino’s comment. The “healthful
foundation” to fall back on to which He referred was that of life as a simple Greek Orthodox villager with all that implies (I.e., patristic language and assumptions about God, not Jonathan Edwards’ theology). Edwards represents perhaps the apex of the perversion of traditional biblical language, subjecting his hearers to the “evil god” of Western distortions that may traumatize even one who grew up in a Greek village if they encounter it later in life (though they at least would have their childhood experience in a Greek Orthodox village to fall back on to recover from that).
So, basically, it seems you and Dino are both saying the same thing here. Reading your comments, yikes!–so glad I was brought up Methodist! Lord, have mercy! But, boy, what a depth of insight zeal, and appreciation you now have for Orthodox truth. That’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Forgive me. No Orthodox Christian should be asked to account for Jonathan Edwards. Dino, our long-time commenter and friend, is simply speaking from the depths of native Greek culture and the spiritual context of the Holy Elders with which he is quite familiar.
I have no hesitation saying Jonathan Edwards’ ‘god’ is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God I worship. Unfortunately, there are people, claiming to be Christian, who worship the god of Jonathan Edwards.
I would so much say a different God but certainly a very different view of God as revealed by Himself in Christ. This is the unfortunate result of trying to reason outside the box of revelation by Christ using philosophical tools and concepts. It started with Anselm and Neo-Platonic philosophy. The concepts he used of the divine were pagan as Neo-Platonism is pagan and the end result is heresy just as the Fathers stated in Chalcedon. To paraphrase their thought: One can only go as far as the edge of the self-revelation of God. To go further is to step into heresy. They were applying this to the discussion of the two natures of Christ, but it seems a very good universal principle to be guided by. The radical Reformation has gone way past the boundaries of the self-revelation of God and applied human reason to almost all aspects of Faith. Our reason falls well short of the Truth.
Thomas, anything that steps away from the reality of the Incarnation, as each one of the folks you mentioned did, steps away from the truth. The trouble is that the Incarnation is such a radical and incomprehensible act of mercy, a mercy that we are unworthy of that it is difficult to accept.
Unfortunately the god of Jonathan Edwards is rightly rejected by anyone who has a heart. It has led many such people to reject God altogether, assuming that Edwards was right.
It is easier to believe that God condemns us from afar than to accept His presence and radical mercy. Then to take the next step of not only His separate presence but His kenotic offering of union in love to the point of non-carnal, but conjugal union–well, that really is crazy.
Nicholas, I think the misuse of philosophy is far earlier, at least as early as Arianism.
You are correct but the reason I start with Anselm is because his work led to the concept of an Angry God that demands punishment. I would hazard a guess that all the heresies since the beginning have their root in philosophy and mans’ reason
Karen, Father and Dino,
I am reminded of a story told by a Priest visiting an earthquake flattened village in Greece where he came upon an elderly woman crying out and bashing an icon of Christ on a rock for she had just lost her whole family and many of her village neighbors in this devestating disaster. I am sorry, but no one is immune to feeling at some point confused by a God who sometimes seems angry. There are many “cradle-Orthodox” who I have personally met who have been shaken to the core by devestating genocide caused by war and they found their way back to God, not by any patristics or old-world purity, but by “cradle-Christians” right here in America–evangelicals! There are many examples of Ukranian refugees who have found their way into Baptist churches of whom I’ve had opportunity to ask how they got there. It was because they felt in some way betrayed by their “village church.” Granted, I don’t know the context, but many are coming from very harsh circumstances and their trauma led them to see God as being angry and judgemental with them, but they found love and healing, for whatever it is worth, here in evangelical and pentacostal church communities.
So no, Karen, I don’t think I will ever fully understand or even believe that there exists a simple Orthodox villager who hasn’t wondered if God isn’t angry and hasn’t felt dangled over a fire while in the midst of repentance for their sins. The “truth” within unmodified Tradition as taught by the Elders is truly challenging for everyone irregardless of how “geographically” cradle they may be.
Otherwise, where would the struggle be? I assert that in some way, all of us struggle in an “evil-god” syndrome for this is sin, this is our shame, this is our constant battle to accept God as love. And so, I hope my clarification is indeed misunderstanding. I “bash” the icon of Christ every day because I am in a reality that does not make sense and distorts God’s love into something evil. This is not an excuse, it is confession and I do not believe anyone is immune to this struggle, even the Church Fathers, or there would be nothing to their spiritual direction.
I don’t think we disagree. See the third paragraph of my earlier response to Dino here for more context to my last comment:
And it is also good if we do disagree–I have learned much from this discussion. Thank you!
Incidently, have you read or heard of Alexandros Papadiamandis? Considered by many to be the “Dostoyevsky of Greece.” He wrote many of his stories from his native Aegean island of Skiathos, a very traditional Orthodox setting from which he was raised. One of his classics, The Murderess, written in 1903, and many other of his short stories, brings to light the real struggles of Orthodox communities in the “honesty” of Dostoyevsky’s voice. You might also find his Tales from a Greek Island, The Boundless Garden, and The Merchants of Nations to be other examples of the irony found in traditional Greek village life, written by a devout Orthodox native Greek.
I think Karen’s phrase, ‘hearing from a damaged heart’ – as well as its antithesis (i.e.: seeing through a healthy prism) – can elucidate our understanding of how and where we go wrong in our interpretations.
It is a matter of heart, (clearer still would be the term ‘Nous’ here), and the outward context, (‘old village’ or not) only comes into it “statistically” – meaning that there’s greater or smaller likelihood of naturally seeing things not-from-the-worldly/western/self-absorbed-perspective but from the God/Christ-centered-perspective, according to how one has been influenced by their surrounding context. That exceptions will always persist is not an argument here.
A healthy heart, wards off misinterpretations;
and the breadth of possible interpretation (of God, man, heaven, hell…all that exists) truly ranges from heaven to hell.
We a closely-related conversation a while back with Mary Benton regarding a favourite phrase of Elder Sophrony which can be taken the wrong way. Based on his firsthand experience, scripture and tradition, he posited that the commandment of love reaches its zenith only to the degree that we “hate ourselves”(Luke 14:26). This is perhaps the wisest, most practically concise description of how to fulfill the commandments, how to trust in God, how to be a disciple of the crucified One, how to escape the root of all evil (i.e.: self-love [St Maximus]), and how to essentially commune of the invincible power of the Cross. However, the modern, westernized mind easily misinterprets this for something toxic or unhealthy, loosing the ability to see God’s secret hand inside and outside irrespective of the magnitude of one’s tribulations (for this is what , St Ignatius’, Sophrony’s and Aimilanos’ concept of self-hate produces). Lengthy clarifications are then required and soon, the conciseness and succinctness is lost – (which I why this is better understood in a 1-2-1 prayerful conversation instead of a blog).
It is similar here with the dangers of pedagogical ‘threats’ which our “rights-nurtured” western minds struggle with – especially after one has been exposed to the ‘angry-god’ perversions of minds like Edwards’ instead of being steeped in the unshakeable conviction of God’s boundless love that a peasant (like St Silouan’s Father) might innately instill. You then pick up Maximus, speaking of God’s ‘threats’ (as a good thing) for instance, and mistake him for speaking of what you know from your own understanding as wrath, instead of correctly reading that God’s threat (e.g.: ‘if you eat of this you will die’) is His respectful saying that, what you want I will give you, you are a god to Me and I will not impose a prison on you and will be crucified for you instead, in order to still maintain the possibility for you of escaping the prison you yourself will choose… This is not however a very complex understanding for traditional Orthodox “peasants” – it might seem like mental gymnastics to a westerner but this is the first thing that in my experience is allowed entry into the traditional Orhtodox mind without suspicion of it containing delusion…
Thank you so much for taking the time to detail out your position so carefully. There are many gems in what you have explained here and I respectfully submit to your wisdom having evidently a closer connection to authentic Orthodoxy then myself. Like you say, we Westerners have a tremendous depth of damage that results in a pattern of misinterpretation. My heart is truly unhealthy as a result. Please forgive my shameful self who desires more to win an argument then a friend. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts to come, but please remember this blog participant, sbdn andrew, a simple-minded fool who tries to sound academic rather than confess it.