Saving My Neighbor – Just How Connected Are We?

If you are in the “helping professions,” confronting problems in people’s lives, it doesn’t take long to realize that no one is purely and simply an individual. The problems we suffer may occasionally appear to be “of our own making,” but that is the exception rather than the rule. Whether we are thinking of economic or genetic inheritance, or the psychological and social environment, almost all the issues in our lives are a matter of “connection.” The same is true when it comes to virtue and wholeness. Saints are not a phenomenon of individuality.

There is a model of what it means to be human that is simply wrong, regardless of its elements of truth. That model envisions us primarily as free-agents, gathering information and making decisions. It emphasizes the importance of choice and the care with which decisions must be made. It lectures long on responsibility and the need to admit that we are the primary cause of our own failings. It praises hard work and admires those with creative insights. Success comes to those who master these virtues and we encourage everyone to take them as their models.

This model of human agency is written deep in the mythology of American culture, and, with its global influence, has become increasingly popular elsewhere. Many elements of contemporary Christian thought assume this model of agency to be true and have interwoven it into the notion of salvation itself. The scandalous popularity of the novel teachers of prosperity and personal-success-schemes have raised this model of humanity into something like cult status. But even those who are scandalized by such distortions of the gospel often subscribe to many of its ideas. Those ideas are part of the “common sense” of our culture.

They are also part of the nonsense produced by our culture’s mythology. There is virtually nothing about human beings that, strictly speaking, is individual. Beginning from our biology itself, we are utterly and completely connected to others. The same is true of our language and our culture. None of us is an economy to ourselves. Even those things we most cherish as uniquely individual are questionable.

We celebrate choice as the true signature of our individuality. However, if you scrutinize decisions carefully, they are something less than autonomous exercises of the will. Americans have a strange way of choosing like Americans (often to the dismay of the rest of the world). We are “free agents” who play the game of life on a field that is deeply slanted.

As I noted at the beginning, it is easy to describe the many-sourced nature of failure. With a bit more effort, we could see that “success” is equally derived from many sources outside of the self. It should not be surprising then, to see that salvation (and condemnation) are also corporate matters rather than strictly individual. Indeed, the corporate nature of our existence lies at the very heart of the classical doctrine of Christian salvation.

One of the earliest complete accounts of Christian salvation was written in the 4th century by St. Athanasius the Great. It has long been recognized as a touchstone of Christian theology. In that work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius explains in detail that the salvation of humanity is brought about through the action of God becoming human. The work of Christ’s death and resurrection are not external to our humanity. Rather, their power to work salvation lies precisely in the fact of our communion with Him through the single common human nature that He assumed. Our cooperation with that action completes and makes effective what has been given to the whole of humanity through the God/Man, Jesus Christ.

Our cooperation (a choice) is only effective, however, because of the communion established in the Incarnation. Salvation is not a reward given to someone who chose correctly. Salvation is a new life that is lived as a communion, a mutual indwelling (koinonia).

That primary saving reality, our common nature and its communion with the God/Man, is something that has largely been lost in our modern understanding, dominated as it is by the myth of individualism. Christ’s incarnation is only effective if our humanity has a corporate reality (it would make little sense otherwise). It was classically summed up in the fathers by saying, “He became what we are that we might become what He is.” This is only possible if there is, in fact, a “what” that we all share. This “what” makes possible not only our communion with Him, but also our communion with each other.

St. Silouan famously said, “My brother is my life.” He was not speaking figuratively. Rather, he was giving assent to the very mechanism of our life and salvation. We were created to live as beings-in-communion. Adam declares of Eve, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The story of sin is the story of the disruption of communion:

And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying,`You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:15-19)

The communion between persons is disrupted, as well as the communion with animals and creation, all ending in the dust of death. But even that death is a communal death: none of them die alone.

For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:7-9)

This is the very heart of our existence, and of our salvation as well. In some manner, we carry within us the whole of humanity. St. Silouan called this the “whole Adam.” We could extend that and say that each of us carries within us the whole of the created order. St. Maximus the Confessor called us a “microcosm” (“the whole cosmos in miniature”). The life we live is a life for the whole Adam, the whole cosmos. In some manner, our salvation is the salvation of the whole cosmos. We hear this in Romans 8:

For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…. because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom. 8:19, 21)

Our salvation can be described as the restoration and fullness of communion with God. But that same salvation includes the restoration and fullness of communion with one another and with all of creation. Just as Christ’s communion with us is the means of our salvation, so our communion with everything and everyone works towards that same salvation.

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9)

The modern myth of human beings as individual, self-contained moral agents is not just incorrect. It is also a tool of deception. The myth is often used to absolve us from the mutual responsibility that constitutes a just society, as well as to falsely blame individuals for things over which they have little or no control. That contemporary Christianity is often complicit in this deception is perhaps among its greatest errors.

It has long been observed that the greatest weakness of the Reformation was ecclesiology (the doctrine of the “Church”). Reformers found it difficult to articulate the reality of “the Church” without undermining their own reforming project. From its inception, the Reformation was not a single work, but an immediate work of divisions and competing reformations. There has never been a “Protestant Church,” only “Churches” that were mutually exclusive in their origins. That modern ecumenical theories have invented the notion of the “invisible Church” to mask this essential failure does nothing to address the real problem. Indeed, it has provided the fertile ground for the individualism of the Modern Project with all of its concomitant destruction.

It is deeply scandalous today to quote St. Cyprian’s contention that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” It might be better understood if it were acknowledged that “Church,” in its true form of ecclesial existence as communion, is what salvation actually looks like. We cannot, as individuals, possess that which is only given to us in communion.

 

91 comments:

  1. Father,
    The way you have worded this, one can say that –in a certain sense– in the salvation of one person is contained the salvation of all. And in the [paradoxically coinciding] free-willed damnation of one (though a state of cosmic proportions for that individual), his salvation persists outside of him (in Christ and Christ’s saved ones) but he removes himself internally from it. It is a non-willed salvation. And it reminds me of CS Lewis image of the tininess of hell in the Great divorce.

  2. We hold on to our onions for the sake of ourselves and everyone and everything else.

  3. One of the ways this is manifested is described in the modern psychology of “Family Systems”. The theory and therapeutic practice of family systems describes the individual member of a family who has a problem serious enough to land him or her in a therapist’s office, or who is pointed to by other family members as “the problem”, as the “presenting problem”, because it is recognized this is merely the surfacing symptom of a whole underlying family dynamic involving all the members of the family which must be addressed if there is to be a recovery of psychological and social healing and wholeness for the individuals involved.

  4. It also, does it not, involve bearing one another’s budens– even when we don’t wish to?

    The interconnection of all things is rather amazing. I was blessed to have parents who understood, experienced and taught the inter-connectedness of all things with the Divine.

    While they could not quite make the connection to Jesus Christ, they retained the truth of our nature.

    Once the inter-connectedness is acknowledged and one begins to step into it, a lot of things start making sense. Icons, Sacrament, prayer to name a few.

    Knowing what I knew made it impossible for me to be either Protestant or Roman Catholic. It is also one of the reasons I knew I was home once I got to the Church.

  5. This is why, as an Evangelical, though explanations were offered (as well as various rationalizations for why this was not the modern practice), I could never understand the NT apostolic practice of the Christian baptism of whole households based on the head of household’s profession of Christian faith.

  6. I think that one place our culture’s individualism infects our hearts is in the liturgy. We frequently focus on ourselves in the liturgy – whether it is our sins or otherwise, rather than understanding that we labor for others at least as much as if not more than for ourselves. “I don’t feel like going to Church” is tantamount to saying, “I don’t care about the world or anyone else today.”

    I understand everything that wars against us in this. As a priest, I go, at the very least “because I have to.” Most of the time, that is a joy. But there are times, for various reasons, that I can barely drag myself into the altar. And even when I’m there, I’m more physicially there than mentally. At such times I think in the words of Thomas Cranmer (echoing St. Paul), “And here we present, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice…”

    I’ll come to the altar, and leave it to God to plunge the knife.

  7. So wonderful, Father! Many thanks! I was just reading Fr. Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” last night and he spoke of much the same thing (quoting St. Silouan’s “my brother is my life” as well) in his critique of Evangelicalism.

  8. My own Priest habitually reminds us of our communal nature as a local parish when referring to those unable to come to Liturgy “for reasons worthy of a blessing” (illness, holiday travel, work commitments for midweek services). He reminds us when we cannot be there, those who are present pray on our behalf, both in the sense that they represent us in praying for the whole world and that they pray for us as well.

  9. How important that you write this just now Father. A new drug cocktail has just reached VA and is spreading across the nation. It is called Grey Death and that is its most common side effect and yet people are flocking to it. Why? Your post answers that question. We are not independent moral agents but need communion to live. The secular ideas of the Enlightenment are reaching their full flower and people are alone in the “Sounds of Silence.” I re listened to that old Simon and Garfunkel tune just a week ago and in light of all your previous postings the truest meanings of the lyrics came out in a prophetic statement. We, as a people, are dying in the Sounds of Silence, broken communion and emptiness of the Self. We cannot truly live alone and the pain from it drives us to seek relief. In typical sinful reaction we look for the answer within ourselves as we self medicate for our pain when the answers lies in all of us, in communion. We are not saved alone.

  10. Fr. Stephen,
    Our priest, Fr. Michael of blessed memory, also often dragged himself into the altar, suffering from a heart condition. As a reader I would assist him as I could. Once, when he was particularly weak. I said to him, “Father, you’re pushing yourself too hard. ” He responded, “I’m going to burn myself out for Christ!” A few weeks later he was serving Pascha liturgy. Halfway through he had a heart attack. Not long after, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and reposed at a monastery shortly thereafter. The last time I saw him, 10 days before his death, he still wanted to minister to others. After the two of us spent a bitter sweet 45 minutes together, I heard him call out to a group of pilgrims, “Anyone need confessing?” This and being so weak someone had to wheel him about in a wheelchair. Glory to God that his salvation was communion, with his blessed Lord, and with any others he could minister to.

  11. This makes so much more sense of why the Incarnation itself is salvific…thank you for such clear and truth-filled teaching.

    I know it sounds New Agey, but I wonder if there isn’t something true to the notion of ‘world soul’ or ‘cosmic consciousness’ which is espoused in such places (and I believe goes back to other Eastern/pantheistic beliefs). I understand that – although I’m coming to greatly dislike labels such as this – Orthodox faith is rather panentheistic. Seems like the ontological connection between all things may be a truth of which the perception thereof is scattered in a few places…in fact it was the journey from “two-storey” Protestantism towards this more monistic understanding which landed me on the doorstep of the Church.

    Of course the challenge now is that there are distortions from both sides, as it were, which must be rectified…and as ever this blog and it’s comments are indeed a Godsend.

  12. James Isaac, the new age (nothing new) concept is impersonal as the similar root belief in Hinduism. That is the difference. The Christian understanding is based on the person of Jesus Christ as the God-man, Theanthropos. He who orders all things and makes all things new.

    He is aware of each of us down to the hairs on our head. It is through communion with Him that we are brought together. It is by His grace that we can participate in the connections through prayer, worship and repentance.

    It is vast difference.

  13. There is an element of being an individual who “goes to church”, that is, being an individual who identifies with and participates in the communion of church, in a full sense, not simply attending group functions. Some walk away and some walk towards the communion of church and the salvation freely given us.

    There are those who may attend functions while walking away in their spirit. And the inverse?

  14. James Isaac, Michael B,
    If each human being is a microcosm such that the whole of everything is implied in the human heart, then it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that the human soul is the soul of creation. Perhaps Fr. would care to comment on that.

  15. Michael, with regard to James’ question re: New Age cosmic consciousness, It does seem to me there is a glass half full and glass half empty answer to this observation. What you have stated is absolutely correct. On the other hand, just the intuitive sense of this kind of connection within those attracted to the New Age seems to me a bridge to Orthodoxy. And, funnily enough, while the Hindu and New Age understanding of “God” is as this “impersonal” cosmic consciousness, on the practical level it is very difficult to speak of and relate to God as “consciousness” in entirely impersonal ways! It seems to always infer at the very least thought and purposefulness. And, if I am not mistaken, many New Age teachers like Marianne Williamson will still equate this “God” with “love” as an altruistic force, not noticing that it is impossible to speak meaningfully of this kind of love at all apart from the free and voluntary, intelligent and purposeful self giving of one for the well being of another, and then we are well on our way to the Christian definition of personhood! At least that is how it seems to me.

    If you have read it, I wonder if you have any comments on the commonalities found with the Eastern concept of the Divine Absolute in a truly classical Christian understanding of the nature of God as described in David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God, juxtaposed against more recent heretical Christian “personal” views of God that in their language locate Him as a Being among other lesser beings, rather than as the very Ground of all being the Orthodox Fathers declared Him to be?

  16. James,
    I think that it’s too possible to confuse the soul and its connectedness to something that it is not. As in the mystery of the Trinity, we are persons. We participate but that is not the same as identity. So, I’m cautious about new age style expressions. The cosmos indeed participates in us in a unique way – but it would be far removed from cosmic consciousness or world soul. For one, soul and consciousness are not necessarily the same thing. The soul is the “life” of the body. As to the universe, rather than speaking of its soul (though there is a “vegetative soul” and an “animal soul”), generally we speak of the “logoi” of created things. This is not the same thing as the soul, but they can be known (as we know through some rare saints).

    We must be careful not to go full walrus.

  17. Wonderful!

    Recently while reading portions of a book on marriage from an Evangelical perspective it occurred to me how many words were used trying to explain that people really are connected with one another in ways that our church simply calls mystery. For some reason this has to be re-explained over and over, and defended in barren, rationalistic terms.

    Modernism really has dealt us a blow but, thank God, it can be overcome by grace.

    Thank you, Father, for this reassuring word.

  18. “Full walrus” made me smile. Of all things, thank you for that one too.

  19. Karen, I’m presently trying to plough through Hart’s The Experience of God (I find his style long-winded and repetitious). I’m not convinced, despite his claim, he is describing ‘a truly classical Christian understanding of the nature of God’. I think he is presenting a classical philosophical understanding of the nature of god, but like all philosophy, it can go no further than an impersonal concept — which remains far short of the Living God.

  20. Karen having lived through my own new age moment 40 years ago many folks came out of that and staggered into the Church needing to be bandaged. While you are right in that it can be a bridge to the Church it has nothing to do with the truth in the new age and everything to do with the expansiveness if real truth in the Church and the paucity of the counterfeit. The not so new age does not represent the preincarnational truth that can be found in Taoism for example. It is a crafted lie that is frequently bound up with the occult.

    Those who want truth will be led to it no matter the obstacles. Those that are willing to settle for less do.

    I cannot stress too much how vast is the difference and how empty the impersonal approach can leave those who get lost in it. The “new age” versions are dangerous.

  21. I feel very blessed to be able to present at this ongoing forum. I read and reread. Much stays with me later. It inspires me , makes my day hopeful. Then I go back and read again. It feels like praying, though I know not to trust feelings. (Still, the uplifting ones help.) Being here with you, Father, and with those who read, also with those who contribute–but especially with so many (Im guessing) silent participants, regular readers like me– just being together this way, through the air, anytime we decide to click “on” and then “open” — what a blessing! Thank you for your important work.

  22. Thomas,
    I read Hart’s EOG. It’s dry and wordy. Many of the Fathers can get sort of philosophical, so that’s not a necessary fault. I find the consciousness thing to be uninteresting to me – though it seems important to him. For myself, I assume that God in His nature is simply beyond knowing and that I would know nothing of God except as made known in and through Christ. Everything that tries to “get behind Christ” leaves me empty.

  23. Michael,

    I value your opinion in this precisely because you have mentioned your background before. Your perspective is echoed and affirmed in the testimony of Elder Sophrony, which I have read, in works like The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, the testimony of others, as well as my own impressions from reviewing some of the teaching (e.g., some of The Secret, Marianne Williamson, etc.) and experiences of New Age practitioners myself. Everything in me recoils in abhorrence, frankly, from what I can only describe as “clouds without water” in Jude’s terms, smoke and mirrors, snake oil, a deadly spiritual counterfeit, fool’s gold, and worse. Yet I keep looking for whatever scraps of truth I can use to connect loved ones caught in this dreadful, spiritually blinding deceit to the fullness of the Truth. I appreciate your clarifying the distinction between Taoism and modern New Age, (the latter of which I also recognize to be related to the occult) because I did wonder if there was some kind of relationship there at least in some of the philosophical underpinnings that I could use, and the answer to that was opaque for me.

    Have you ever written or recorded a more detailed account of your journey in and out of this and into Orthodoxy anywhere?

  24. Thomas, kudos to you on the efforts. I found much the same thing, frankly, but do find certain efforts by thinking Christians like Hart to make philosophical clarifications and distinctions to be of some value, if only to lay some groundwork for talking about the nature of the God revealed in Christ in ways that do not distort that Reality and allow critics to set up straw men to argue against Christian faith. Experience was nowhere near as important or impactful for me as Hart’s The Doors of the Sea (and, even that little book I had to read with a dictionary by my side!).

  25. James Issac,

    I think your observation and perhaps, a proper response to it, is that the question comes down to (it’s actually much larger than this as Fr Stephen’s response to your question points to) is where does knowledge come from? In all of mankind (Adam – as the Church and as some of her particular saints call it) is that all knowledge, whether intuitive or reasoned, comes in one of these two ways.

    What is true, unique and distinct from this is the Revelation of Jesus Christ; meaning the Resurrection, the Church and the Gospel i.e. the gospel as part of the tradition of Church based on the resurrection.

    This is revealed knowledge and this is a huge distinction. This is also an ontology where kairos and cronos time intersect (only what is ontological could do this). This is where experiential truth as ontological occurs as just that – again quite distinct. What is intuited correctly (about humanity) is revealed in the Church by the resurrection.

    Anybody that intuits or reasons their way to the unity of mankind has reached a truth. They have come to the entrance of the Church (I dare say) – they do not see this, nor do we. What is unique and distinct in the Church is the full Revelation of Truth; Truth as a who and not a what. Can that truth ever be intuited? No, no it cannot.

    Remember the Sons of thunder? What spirit did they possess? Who were their energies directed toward?

    Remember the Sons of thunder? Who did they become?

    For us, this is probably the larger question. It’s not about them. It’s about us.

    A saint “believeth all things, hopeth all things and endureth all things.”

  26. Albert,
    I second your words wholeheartedly, and join you in thanking Father for this blog, and all who comment so beautifully. It truly is a great blessing for my life also….

    Now, I have been after Father (for a couple of years now) to call a “blog retreat”…. I would come to Oak Ridge to meet even just one of our great commentators in person, and to participate in the Liturgy and services together..
    Some day I hope Father will consider it… 🙂

    This is my all time favorite comment of Father Stephen’s:

    Fr. Stephen Freeman says:
    May 8, 2015 at 2:51 pm
    Drewster,
    I take comfort when I think of the next life. For paradise is a small town – not because of the population, but because, everybody will know everybody.

  27. Pete, looking back on his own experience, Elder Sophrony has remarked that what may be intuited by man through Eastern religious practice and mistaken for “God” is something of the depths of the beauty of one’s own humanity created as it is in the image of God. He didn’t use the phrase “the soul of Adam” that I recall, but perhaps that would not be far from what he meant. This is, as we know, not God, however, who is as far above and beyond this faint reflection as the East is from the West. Yes, as Michael says, there is a vast gulf between the two experiences, and we cannot reach God as He truly is apart from the work of grace, the full revelation of God we have in Christ.

  28. Thank you Father: We in America are the finest example of this modernism which has spread all over the world . Are we the United States ? Are we E Pluribus Unum ? Do we “In God we trust” ? I can’t watch the “news” anymore, it is the mouthpiece of division and hatred . Left wing . . .right wing. . . it is the same bird . Our Lord prayed for us to be one as He and the Father are One and anything less is out of the will of God . By what athority did we become divided ? I love you all ! Ken

  29. Agata,
    Thanks for posting about the heavenly small town…and no gossiping! I’d love a retreat, as you mention, but we are in California. Not out of the question, but a very long haul. Just visited my ornery neighbor. He’s an old, bigoted red neck. But I try to love him just the same…even with the log in my own eye. I pray we both can be in that “small” celestial city someday.

  30. Karen,

    I think we’re in agreement here, perhaps, showing that was your intent. I also agree with Michael’s point on many willfully staying deceived and going about diligently deceiving others. My point was merely that smug self assurance is never the answer (as to the state of “us” and “them.”) If it wasn’t for St James and St John (i.e., the Sons of thunder) it is certainly not for us.

    We agree that the chasm between the uncreated and created cannot be grasped or bridged but by uncreated grace. My challenge is to question the assumptions about knowing the limits of that grace.

    I have seen all stripes and very unexpected reactions to truth when it’s presented. I am from a large western city which is very liberal and went to school here. I was also raised by militant atheists. Consequently I have always enjoyed dialogue with people that do not think at all like me. True seekers are precious.

    In college I befriended the head of what was essentially the biggest New Age movement on campus. He preached the Cosmic Christ and the Cosmic Buddha is the free speech area about twice a week; week in and week out. I was a young man in my pre catechumen days. All the professional ministers were afraid of him because of his vociferousness. I simply took the time to get to know him and everything changed.

    From the time I started speaking with him he never spoke in the free speech area again. We spoke at length at every conversation, minimally at 2 hours and often much longer. (I was in college, I had time to do such things!) This went on for 4 months when he suddenly died in his sleep. He was as close to the Kingdom as he ever could be from where he came from. He was a seeker, though no one took the time to find that out. I have seen so much.

    I do not know the limits of God’s uncreated grace, but the boundaries of that grace extend beyond our mere imaginings. What the spiritual life does not consist of is a zero sum game.

  31. Fr.,
    Would comment on how the sharing of a common nature is related to and different from the concept of microcosm?

  32. Pete,

    Thanks for sharing that experience! I’d say we are definitely on the same page here. I would love to pick your brain at some length about how those conversations went with your campus friend. These are exactly the sort of issues and situations I find myself wrestling with all the time as I think of those I love. I see clearly that it is the real Christ they love in their heart of hearts, but it seems to me they are being enticed and settling for something much less (but where there is real occult power, and so it seems experimentally “true/real”, whereas their prior “traditional” Christian upbringings had different versions of the Jonathan Edwards “God”, “heaven” and “hell” and explanation of who’s going to the latter…so, there’s that!).

    Pray for us….

  33. Pete, how do “militant atheists” think? How does anyone become militant about a negation?

    Nihilists I understand as their God is themselves and the desire for power.

    I imagine a militant atheist to say something like: “there is no God and those who think their is are going to hell.”

    Help me understand.

  34. David,
    It is the character of our nature as a “created thing” (ex nihilo) that gives it its affinity for the cosmos, such that we can say we are “microcosmos.” We are the “head” of the cosmos, that figure whom God has appointed as kings and priests – most particularly as priests – that we might, within ourselves and through Him offer all things up in the “reasonable” sacrifice.

  35. Karen, to go a bit further, it is really easy for folks to see the simulacrums of the truth in New Age dementia as what led folks to the real truth. That is not what happens. That is a bit like saying breathing carbon monoxide helped me to breathe oxygen.

    Instead, it is the grace and mercy of God making a full course dinner out of pig scraps.

    I was bound up in the new age for about 10 years. After I was received into the Church it took about ten years of reflection, prayer and healing to get back on an even keel even though Jesus protected me from the worst in my sojourne​ in the desert. Some who swallowed it hook, line and sinker ended up dead. Others killed their souls.

    Discernment is learned however.

  36. Karen, you mentioned “The Secret”. I had never heard of it until this past Wednesday, and now twice in one week. Our son said his friend was practicing it and suggested he watch their videos. Can you tell me, in brief, what this is? He wasn’t that interested…just watched the intro.

  37. Geri, the premise of “The Secret” (I have only read/watched enough to get the gist) as I understand it is that the “Universe” basically brings us what we attract, so by changing our own thoughts/beliefs and visualizing what it is we want/need, we can make this manifest itself in our lives to our own benefit. It is the same underlying premise as “Name it-Claim it” Prosperity doctrine or the so-called “Word of Faith” heresy, which is merely the same attempt to manipulate our circumstances by the force of our own will and words using Bible verses and Christian language in what amounts to occultic ways. Joel Olsteen and Norman Vincent Peale who championed the “power of positive thinking” in Christian packaging during the 1950s and 60s and beyond, founding the “Guideposts” publication, are less obviously occultic versions of the same underlying philosophy about the nature of belief and its relationship to the reality we experience.

  38. Thank you all for the comments in response to my pondering. I wasn’t involved with that stuff too too much (although I got familiar with The Secret) and in hindsight it does make my skin crawl. It was like being at the Tree of Knowledge and being tempted to become god without willing submission and sacrifice to the true God; seeking Resurrection without the Cross. And I tend to be of the persuasion which Fr Seraphim Rose put forward that such movements as we see are quite likely harbingers of the eschatological Antichrist.

    Perhaps that’s why this stuff is so attractive to people disaffected with the disenchantment of modernism…it does at least speak to the real ‘enchantment’ of the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all things. Yet like all the greatest lies, it uses the truth to deceive…

    I suppose one really bad habit I must let go of is trying to figure out or intuit the mechanisms of things spiritual. Forgive me if my wandering curiosity has caused any stumbling to anyone. 🙁

  39. Michael, are you familiar with seeker/author Kiriakos C. Markides, who eventually found his way back to his childhood Orthodox faith through a journey that led thru the New Age? The New Age for him was what converted him away from the Naturalism and Materialism that were the product of his higher education in the West and that opened him back up to the reality of the spiritual realm. Only in that sense could it be said to have been a bridge to Orthodox faith. What converted him back by degrees to Orthodoxy was the sanctity and teaching of the Mt. Athos Priestmonk (now Bishop of Limassol in Cyprus) who first aided his research, then (it seems) became his spiritual father. If Markides had, had no prior Orthodox connections from his Cypriot heritage, his life might have taken a very different turn it seems to me.

    If you’ve read his works, I would be interested in your observations in light of your own experiences.

  40. James, I’m grateful for your question, as the connections I have (our family’s chiropractor whose medical and teaching skills have benefitted us tremendously plus some loved ones I’ve mentioned) have created the need for me to learn about this and grow in my own discernment. It’s been a helpful exchange.

  41. I really resonate with the idea that our place within the created order is to offer gratitude and thanks for the goodness of life, the world, and Al things in it.

  42. Karen, I have not. But the lack of materialism is indeed part of it’s attraction but the philosophies suffer from the fact that they lack incarnational reality which tends toward the occult and the desire to manipulate the material. Power becomes the goal. Any intimation of the Cross is immediately dismissed.
    There is absolutely nothing new in that.

    That some people are awakened after a sorjorne in such darkness is not surprising but there is no causation.

    Certainly the seeds of reality planted by the Church in Mr. Markides heart had much more to do with his return.

  43. James, don’t feel bad, the kinds of exploration you are asking are normal and necessary if asked with a heart open to truth.

  44. I suppose what I’ve experienced is that God indeed works all things (and through all things?!) for the good of those that seek Him…even though most often the seeker is consciously unaware. However, in my estimation Michael is correct in saying that it is in spite of the junk purveyed by such esoterica that people are led to the Church.

    For me it was a case of realizing I couldn’t go much further down that road before reaching what seemed like the point of no return that prompted me to read up on the Orthodox​ faith. And when it came time to darken the local parish door, it was quite truly a case of bringing darkness – there was definitely a real presence doing whatever it could to keep me from entering. (I suppose that’s not a bad way of continuing to see things: I still bring in darkness to be exposed and destroyed by His light.)

    But the straighter road is undoubtedly the one better traveled…between the prior Protestant views and the semi-Gnostic stuff it’s taking a while to get to a state of more wellness of being. Without this blog and my local parish I know I wouldn’t be able to get there.

  45. Fr. Freeman,
    Your blessing. Is salvation both individual and communal? I bring to mind two instances: (1) in the OT we find Abraham pleading with God on Sodom’s behalf for the sake of ten righteous people. Ten righteous people could bring mercy to all sinners. It’s a communal salvation… in a sense. (2) In the sixth priestly prayer read during Orthros we read, “working out our own salvation through the grace of Your Christ.” We work out our own salvation through the grace of Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. This inner-working pours out unto others. I recall a time when I was particularly troubled at heart. That morning I had schedule a time to meet with a holy monk-friend of mine, as we sat together his presence, rather Christ’s presence within him, calmed the seas of my troubled heart without a word or action. Simply looking at him was enough (like it’s mentioned of St. Anthony in his life written by St. Athanasius the Great).

  46. Father,
    Thank you for this post. Your reflections in this post resonate within my heart. I am very connected in my work to the helping professions and see so many times how and individualistic approach to working with others becomes a block to both true help and healing.

  47. Dean,
    Thank you for your reply to my comment.
    I am in Minnesota, so it’s a bit of a trek for me too. But going to see and hear Father Stephen speak is always worth the effort (I first met him in San Francisco and went again to Diamond Springs for a most wonderful retreat). I wonder if St. Anne’s will have its Celtic Festival this year again? Can we come then Father?! 🙂

  48. Karen, thank you for your prayer…His grace be unto you and yours as well.

    Christian, thank you also for your reflections. Your first example calls to my mind how the righteous are the salt of the earth, preserving it from (utter?) decay. Which is helpful because despite all the evil we are exposed to in our culture (masquerading as good) and how despondent I am tempted to become as a result, the reality is that the righteousness of the few works far more good by proportion than the evil of the many (including myself). I can’t imagine where we’d be without the Saints…

  49. Agata,
    In a previous post a while ago I believe you and another poster, (was it ‘Jay’?) talked about how to locate in the comments or on a page particular search terms. I’ve used the search function within this blog, but that wasn’t the route. I think the search engine used was google. Do you remember how that was done?

  50. Dee,
    I am happy to share the search trick! And I want to give credit to the author of the advice, so here is his whole post.
    [from my experience, if you know a couple of words that go together, you can put them in quotes. For example if I want to find what Dino said about St. Mary of Egypt {I love ALL his Saints stories}, I put “St. Mary the Egyptian”, as only he calls her in such a way 🙂 … ]

    So Reid, thank you again and again, and some more!! 🙂

    Reid says:
    December 9, 2016 at 7:00 am
    Dino, try going to your favorite search engine and prefixing the instruction

    site:https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings

    to your search. For example on Google or Bing you can type

    site:https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings metanoia

    to find all pages on which metanoia appears. Then on the page press CTRL-F to search on the page for the word.

  51. Fr Stephen,
    I’m attempting to learn how the Orthodox Way distinguishes between ‘evil’ as a ‘direction’ away from God, and the ‘Evil One’, which is a noun that today we replace in our prayers for the “Our Father” prayer for example. Similarly, (I think similar) is the way to perceive ‘Anti-Christ’ as an entity living as human being (?).

    Within each of our hearts, there may be the boundary between the ‘sheep and the goat’. Does the ‘Anti-Christ’ present it (him?) self there?

    Orthodox nuns during the Soviet Era were imprisoned because they said that the would not serve the ‘Anti-Christ’ and I believe they were martyred. They were speaking of the Soviet regime, I believe, as the ‘Anti-Christ’. Is ascribing to that regime that term in that way a usage of ‘type’?

  52. Michael and Karen,

    A key point in discussing these matters with atheists is that we really do bring assumptions to the conversation that may not be at all what atheists we tell us they believe. It’s actually quite offensive. It’s much like if an atheist said to the Orthodox, well, I know you believe in the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ with an angry Father figure pouring out his wrath of his son.

    For one group their approach is to work double time in affirming a humanity without God and no need for it. What I point out here is that this affirmation may possibly come from another place – to suggest such a thing that if true, would be the deepest “affirmation” possible of humanity (something far more grand) , which is that Christ as a person, was fully God but he was also Fully Man. If there is a God, he is not your problem anyway.

    That is a key point. I do not try convince them of this – just pointing to a reframing and contextual setting that may be quite different from their assumptions – that they are merely theories, without an ability to test the model. They believe in empirical ‘evidence’ and this is their own standard.

    A second group doesn’t look at this much or even at all. Their approach is to look at the universe and say, “hey, everything looks pretty impersonal to me. I don’t see any attempt of God reaching out to humanity.” In all of this, what we are attempting to establish is common ground and not for them to concede a point in a conversation necessarily. (the human ego is way too big and self important for that, know what you are dealing with!!)

    What I point out to here is that, in the classical definition of “God” is that, essentially, “God” is sloppy verbal shorthand anyway and you don’t believe in that. Fine. What we are really talking about here is something that is the “ground of all being” (whatever That is) and the source of all being. All of their basis for knowledge (reasoned or intuitive) is what they would call empirical and would completely affirm this belief system i.e., a set of affirmations and not a negation. I agree with them on the conclusion to which they have arrived.

    Because this ground of all being cannot be known (which I agree with – you are right in your assertion!) this knowledge “can” therefore only come from ‘the other side’ and in a different mode or means. By definition empirical knowledge falls short. Our tools at hand will never “reveal” this kind of knowledge.

    In all of this, the goal is to align what we hold to be true, without necessarily spilling our beans on the entire ‘plan of salvation’ to their patterns of thought. They can’t hear it. It’s this very thing they ‘know’ to reject.

    Small steps, bit by bit…. Since knowledge is vacuous anyway, it’s really none of my business what someone ‘believes’ since even our definition of what that means has largely been lost. An authentic understanding of faith blows their mind anyway. Depending on the person, I may point out to them that with the tools they have, they’ve arrived at a very plausible conclusion that is at the very minimum honest.

    If there is a knowledge “beyond knowing” – and this is what we are talking about – it would necessitate something beyond our means. It’s just that simple. I repeat that more than once. That point needs to be heard. The conversation can go anywhere from here. Do not challenge + affirm as much as you can about their point of view. When in Rome….

    What they describe as the multi-verse or any such thing is merely a god, an object or thing and at which point I am not too concerned with what one calls it. It can begin to dawn on them that their definitions are weaker than first imagined undermining to an extent their arguments by it.

    People can become threatened because of their own ego attachment to their ‘ideas.’ It’s best to back off here because people (the Church included!! Can only take so much) For anyone that can follow this argument and this is rare indeed, I would suggest an entirely different grid – a paradigm shift which is centered on the “event of all events” – that is the resurrection which reveals within it all that ecclesiological and eschatological i.e., the uncreated, enveloping all that is created and ‘makes sense’ of everything by it.

    In the end, it is love and not argument that wins the human heart, because we were born for this.

    Karen,

    To your question specifically I couldn’t tell you all that transpired or any ‘methodology’ I may have applied 27 years ago. Just that I was zealous, knew the scriptures back and forward, had been exposed to certain Orthodox teaching such as The River of Fire and the Orthodox Priest I had lengthy conversations with was the most intellectually deep Priest I may have ever met (that story was an incredible ‘change’ meeting too)– but this was still new to me at the time. I was blessed indeed. My friend had come as close the Orthodox Church in his setting that was available to him. God is tender and merciful. I know this firsthand.

    The most famous quote of St Seraphim is apt here.

    What I can tell you is that any need we may to have change another person is both controlling and pathological -and that is not the God (Ground of all being) that I know.

    Pray for them that they go in peace… holding nothing against them.

  53. “What I can tell you is that any need we may [have to] change another person is both controlling and pathological–and that is not the God (Ground of all being) that I know.

    Pray for them that they go in peace..holding nothing against them.”

    Thank you for that one Pete! And thank you for your participation in this blog thread.

  54. Dee,
    My answer to your question is “awaiting moderation”. Hopefully Father will approve it soon and you will be happy on your way, searching away for treasures on this blog… 🙂
    Agata

  55. Dear Father Stephen,

    Well, you called ME out. Ha! I didn’t go to Divine Liturgy yesterday and I had some pretty fancy words to wrap around the reasons, but yours hit it spot on.

    You said: I think that one place our culture’s individualism infects our hearts is in the liturgy. We frequently focus on ourselves in the liturgy – whether it is our sins or otherwise, rather than understanding that we labor for others at least as much as if not more than for ourselves. “I don’t feel like going to Church” is tantamount to saying, “I don’t care about the world or anyone else today.” (snip)

    That’s about right. My dad taught me this even as a young Methodist, when I was a teen. “It’s not about you.” So my Sunday of Anarchy is past, for now. Thank you again.

  56. Karen, I did write a brief account for Journey to Orthodoxy several years ago that you can find if you search for it. Not particularly good.

    My safety net was an actual encounter with Jesus Christ before I got involved so I kept looking for Him. I wanted the Truth. Also I was not involved in the hard core new age stuff. In fact, the group I was in focused on Jesus Christ and even had a really brief liturgy.

    The best question a Christian asked me when I told him I was looking for the truth was, “What happens if where you are now isn’t the trurh? What will you do”?

    Had to answer that I would change. A simple conversation on a spring afternoon about 40 years ago but I remember it.

    For me it was those little moments with faithful Christians that planted seeds years later.

    Wish I could be more help.

  57. Pete, Michael & all,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it. The conclusion I keep reaching about sharing one’s faith is that every person and journey is unique in its particulars, and God is well able to lead all to Himself. We, in ourselves, are very limited. What I need to focus on trying to do is act and speak from my own faith in humility and integrity, not trying to adapt myself either in one direction or the other to control another’s response, but simply responding in compassion and integrity to whatever another’s actions or reactions may be. Whether we can find common ground or not, my hope would to keep nurturing bonds of love with others regardless of what beliefs they may hold.

  58. How beautifully said Karen!
    Your words remind me of this wonderful quote from Elder Epiphanios:

    “God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us… We must first look at our soul, and, if we can, let’s help five or six people around us”..

    It’s so wonderful to have this place where we can safely ask our questions and have them answered with Love and in Truth.

  59. Agata,
    Thank you for that reminder from St. Epiphanios. I had read it sometime back, but had forgotten it. For me those 5 or 6 are mostly found in my family and a few neighbors. I remember watching Jessica on “Murder She Wrote.” She would have these close friends all over the U.S. Made me chuckle. No one has that much time! because time and listening are required for such friendships. Dee, Karen and others above have mentioned that we simply have to love those around us and never judge. Most of us, if we ever change, are like cactus. Prickly, and like the cactus when change does come it’s so slow as to be almost imperceptible. But even that saguaro eventually reaches toward the sky. So there is hope for even cactus and slugs. 🙂

  60. Agata, that quote really impressed me, too, when I first read it a few years ago! It’s such a great antidote to the not so realistic or healthy messages we former Evangelicals often got from the pulpit about our role in the salvation of others–messages that essentially involved the use and perpetuation of guilt and scare tactics!

  61. Dee
    As I understand Fr Stephen, and I could be wrong, evil is the movement away from God. The Evil One is the one who is all about this movement and all his actions and energies are directed away from God.
    As to the identity of the Anti Christ we have to first understand that Anti means against and the Greek word which is used is Ante which means in place of like a Vicar. To spell it all in Greek with English letters is Ante Xristos, the replacement for Christ. It can be any number of different people and the Lord even referred to it as a spirit. There are many things and people who try to substitute themselves in the place of Christ in our lives. I remember a Coke ad featuring Joe Green that claimed football was our religion. I was say that was a movement in replacement of Christ as the NFL plays on Sundays when we should be in worship.
    Now we can wait for Fr Stephen to answer and see how I did on my input

  62. Karen, if you want to continue our conversation more in depth you can write me at gpgb at kans dot com.

  63. Nicholas,
    Yes. Evil as movement…this is common in the fathers. There is no such “thing” as evil. Everything that God created, He created good. Thus, by its very nature (the “what” of something) everything is good. It did not become bad. But the good things (like various beings) that are free, can choose to ignore their nature and move in a direction that is not proper to what they are.

    Thus, our nature desires to be united to God. But we can choose to desire something else (death) and move towards that. But we don’t “become” the motion or its direction. We remain good, while “doing” something bad. Doing something bad, however, does not change our nature into something bad.

    Our salvation is about enabling us to live in accordance with our nature.

    People have a bad habit of speaking about evil in substantive terms. But evil is not a substance. It is not a thing. It can be applied to a “choice” or a “movement.” (The Fathers used “movement” as a term to describe action).

    It’s not unlike the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A gun is a thing and, as a thing, is “good.” We might ask, “Good for what?” But though a gun can be used to kill a human being in an evil manner – the gun doesn’t become evil. The will that pointed the gun and pulled the trigger was “moving” in a wrong/evil direction.

    What makes an action or movement “evil?” Anything that is a movement contrary to the true nature of a thing/person can be described as “evil.” At the very heart of our existence is being. We are gifted with existence as our very first reality. The Fathers say that we have being, and are meant to move towards “well-being” with the goal of “eternal being.” Eternal being means being united with the life of God.

    Moving towards non-being can be described as “evil,” indeed it is the rejection of God’s first gift. The devil is called a “murderer from the beginning.” He simply hates existence – his own and all the rest of it. It is rebellion against the good will of God. Most “evil” has the characteristic of disintegration – a movement contrary to union. We become fragmented from God, from others, from ourselves, ultimately from our bodies, and our bodies from themselves…i.e. we rot in the ground.

    It’s a very useful way of thinking about things…very much the mind of the fathers.

  64. Thank you Father. I understand completely. I particularly have an issue when people try to deescribe evil as a power that the Good of God must combat. I always point to the Legion of Demons that possessed the poor soul in Mark 5. The demons were powerless before Jesus, they had to beg for permission to haunt the pigs that are unclean and lowly in the eyes of the Jews of the time. The Lord has this power even in an unclean land full of gentiles, graves and pigs. Demons have no power.

  65. Thank you both Fr Stephen and Nicholas for yourhelpful responses. Nicholas, I always appreciate your approach in looking at the texts in the original language– very helpful.

    Fr Stephen, might it be possible to release Agata’s message that’s in moderation? I look forward to what she wrote to help me search the comments in this blog.

    Thank you so much for your help and friendly response Agata! 🙂

  66. Dee,
    You are always welcome to contact me directly on gmail, I shared my email here more than once over the past few years. It’s “agatamcc”.
    But hopefully, if Father releases my comment, others will benefit too… it’s my great joy to share it…

  67. It’s done. It had more than one link in it – which puts it in moderation automatically. No problem. My wife and I were watching yet another English murder mystery on the telly. It’s hard to believe anyone is still alive on that fair isle.

  68. Fr. Stephen,

    Your 7:25 PM comment today was very helpful. I know you have said similar things before but this is particularly well-expressed and explained. Thank you.

  69. Yes I agree with Mary. I’m printing these (Fr Stephen’s and Nicholas’ responses) to help me keep my understanding (and my heart) clear.

  70. Father,
    A minor little detail… I have come across a theologically unclear use of “nature” in some prayers and pedagogical homilies in the Greek language: Although the foundation is always the same (ie.: that nature is good as you just explained), and the same saints will talk very clearly about this in other places, they seem to then use the word nature in another way and say that ‘my wretchedly corrupt nature… and so on”. It’s as if they distinguish between [the theological term of] the common nature of all, (which is invariably good), and the personal manifestation/hypostasation and “dedication” of that common nature; or better still, they use the same word “φύσις” (nature) to mean both the common essence of all in most places, as well as the particular momentum one has acquired through their movement (whether it is against, according to or above their nature – παρά φύση, κατά φύση, υπέρ φύση). I recently came across these two synonymous yet different uses of ‘nature’ in Elder Aimilianos.

  71. Dino, neither holy nor a scholar but does not the double use reveal the admixture of light and dark with which we all struggle; our existence if not our final state? It is easy for me to think that my sin is not really a part of me which leads to persistence in the sin. Think that might be the sort of thing the prayers are getting at?

  72. Reid says:
    December 9, 2016 at 7:00 am
    Dino, try going to your favorite search engine and prefixing the instruction

    site:https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings

    to your search. For example on Google or Bing you can type

    site:https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings metanoia

    to find all pages on which metanoia appears. Then on the page press CTRL-F to search on the page for the word.

    Tried this with Duck Duck Go and failed. I did, however, find a “Confessionally Reformed” forum and a humorous/sad/frightening discussion entitled “Catholic or Orthodox, which is worse?”. I guess I’m just not doing it right (or maybe it only works properly with Google or Bing)?

  73. Dino,
    Yes, I’ve seen that, too. It that sense, “nature” means “what I seem to tend to do all the time.” Of course, in Protestant-land, the two are utterly conflated. The Calvinist notion of a “fallen nature” (depraved, etc.) permeates our culture, even on the non-theological level.

  74. Byron,
    I only use this search trick with Google, and it always returns the results from this blog. Your Duck Duck and Go must not have been ever that close together… 🙂
    But there are some results with two ducks and a go…
    One other trick is to add the year (as it appears right after the first part of the url), then you get the results for the given year’s posts only. I used it to search back all the years I missed….

    Good luck!

  75. A clarification on the search tip:
    The http/https is unnecessary. Also unnecessary is the all the stuff after the domain name.
    site:blogs.ancientfaith.com is sufficient.
    This search tip can also be used more broadly. For instance to search stuff on U.S. government websites use
    site:.gov

  76. Byron, the search tip does work on DuckDuckGo (which is my default search engine). Perhaps it doesn’t like the excess stuff (see previous). Also, you cannot have any space between the word site and the colon nor between the colon and the domain name.

  77. Thomas,
    Thank you for these helpful details. I thought Byron was searching *for* duck duck and go, not *on* DuckDuckGo – this the first time I heard of this site…
    Learn something every day… 🙂

  78. Duckduckgo is nice, but I prefer Startpage.com because it gives me the same results as Google. Just as Duckduckgo you get full privacy protection.

  79. A question arising from Dino’s question regarding the use of the word nature/physis: is it possible to draw an analogy between God as being essence and energies and us being, in His image, also ‘composed’ of such? I’m not sure if it’s proper or not to include energies as part of God’s nature per se.

    But if it is, then perhaps it might be useful to think of our essence being good while our energies are evil insofar as they are misdirected. Thus ‘nature’ in one usage would refer to our good essence; in the others which Dino referenced, to our corrupted energies.

    As ever, I stand to be corrected. 🙂

  80. Every being has “energies,” in the patristic understanding. In God, however, He fully is His energies as well. Energies can be translated as “actions.” That might help.

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