The Work that Saves

“Do not be careless. Pray as much as you can – more frequently and more fervently. Prod yourself – force yourself to do so, for the Kingdom of God is taken by force. You will never attain it without forcing yourself.”

~ Saint Innocent of Alaska

Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said “No” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperate in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer they hear within themselves is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. Synergy was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)

and

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We really cannot hear the meaning of “grace” in English. In the Greek it carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm a false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction. 

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use. I absolutely do not subscribe to a notion of immorality, or libertinism in any form.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gift-giving life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

52 comments:

  1. Thanks, Father. I think I’ve been reading too much Internet Orthodoxy. 🙂 This is refreshing.

    A few weeks ago at my Lutheran church, we discussed the OT reading where the venomous snakes came among the Israelites. Later said Wow! We’ve just discovered synergism!
    In the OT lesson, the people complained, God sent serpents, the people sought the intercession of Moses that God would “take away the serpents.”
    God *did not* take away the serpents.
    God told his servant to do something. Then that thing was shown to the people and explained, then, when anyone was bitten, he looked at the serpent on the pole and lived.

    Viewed another way:
    You are in dire straits (snakebite/sin)
    You have been given the free gift of salvation (serpent/Jesus)
    You have been illumined through Moses/the Church/ Word with the thing to be done regarding the free gift (look/”work out your salvation”)
    It is now up to you.
    It had not occurred to me until someone pointed out that it was not the will of God to take away the serpents, but to provide the remedy for the bites and prescribe the proper use of said remedy. The bitten could then follow the prescription (look) or not.

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on that.
    Surprisingly, I was neither tarred nor feathered. 🙂
    Thanks again, Father.

  2. Thank you Father. I am saving your post because I get to deal with this issue many times when confronted by my Protestant friends over “works righteousness.” You discussion is clear. I find the sticking point mostly to be what my friends define “believe” to mean. They mean mentally accept without any understanding of synergism or thanksgiving.

  3. Father Stephen,
    In my comment I meant to also says thanks to Scott, because i thought that was very useful example.
    Also it just occurred to me how much this gives understanding to some of the monastic stories that are usually bewildering – especially I’m thinking of the great monk/elder (I don’t remember his name) who was dying. His disciples all knew he was completely virtuous and full of the grace of God, but he said “i have not even begun to repent”. Now it makes sense. Now i understand.
    However, although I love St. Silouan, i’ve really never understand what “keep your mind in hell and despair not” means. I hope you will elaborate on that, perhaps in a future blog.
    Thanks again for writing this refreshing blog – after all, Christ said his yoke is light.

  4. I totally agree Father and it is one reason why I like a formal written prayer rule. Praise and thanksgiving in the words of the most righteous who have gone before serve as a wonder guide in giving thanks. In my past I am many of my fellow church members struggled with praise and thanksgiving in prayer, now it seems natural.

  5. At the risk of giving your internet detractors some grist, the Orthodox view of synergy as you have described it and Martin Luther’s view of salvation (especially as described in “The Freedom of a Christian”) seem very similar to me. The strange thing is that when I first read this work of Luther’s in Bible college I began to realize how far many Protestants have drifted even from their Protestant roots. I say this as an Evangelical Protestant.

  6. Byron,
    It must be that I don’t go on those places…I almost always get this second hand…with occasionally snarky comments and allegations on my Facebook posts. I don’t mind defending what I say…or even being corrected. I do like for someone to actually read what I say, and deal with the larger context. What I’ve heard is a critique that suggests I’ve got some liberalizing agenda. I absolutely do not. My positions on “moral” matters are about as straight-up as anyone I know across the board. And anyone who has read me over the years (or knows me personally) knows that to be the case.

    I’m not sure what it is that makes some out there think that I’m an enemy or nefarious. One friend engaged some folks very strongly (defending me) and discovered that at the rock bottom, the only criticism was that I was an “internet personality.” Which I suppose means I’m guilty of writing stuff that lots of people read and share.

    What I notice is that these people mostly talk among themselves…

    This blog has a rule of entertaining no criticism of a hierarch or priest. There are mechanisms for that sort of thing. Some people major in it as if it was the way to benefit Orthodoxy, when, in fact, they hurt it.

    Btw, I edited my comment viz. slander. Probably provoked someone.

  7. Heh, George, as a Lutheran I’d agree and say that Luther would not recognize most Lutheran churches today.

  8. Maria,
    Indeed His yoke is light. One of my favorite passages has always been…”Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Matt.11:28-30. Thank you Fr. Stephen for this reflection. I need to hear it again and again. Paul would sometimes refresh the memory of his hearers. All is gift. That’s why our only right response can be that of a grateful heart in thanksgiving. Even though I’ve lived many decades, I’m only beginning to learn this. When I was about 9, I was with a friend on his birthday. His grandparents, loving people, had bought him a gift. He didn’t like it and in anger threw it at their feet. His action caused revulsion in me even as I child. I knew that the hurt he had given to his grandpa and grandma was terribly wrong. I would have rejoiced in the same gift. What should have been cause of thanksgiving had turned into a hateful act.
    As I said, I’m still in the growing process. At times giving thanks in all circumstances has been for me a sacrifice of thanksgiving. My wife in the last 4 years has faced lymphoma twice. Thank God it’s now in remission. However, during this experience I’ve had to learn to give thanks even with a pit in my stomach. What a GIFT each day is…even with trials. Yes, glory to God for all things!

  9. Fr. Stephen,

    From the quote of St. Innocent you cite, how does the forcing one’s self and the prodding one’s self relate to the “work” of giving of thanks for all things?

    This kind of force and prodding, to me, seems to be the kind of self-willed work that Protestants would say accomplishes nothing towards salvation.

  10. Luther may sound similar to the Orthodox, but I can’t think of anything nice said by him concerning asceticism. What role does asceticism play in the “work” of giving thanks for us Orthodox ? I imagine Lutheran thought diverges from Orthodoxy on this.

  11. Michelle,
    I’ve “labored” at giving thanks for some years now…I learned it from my Father-in-law and it was confirmed by Fr. Zacharias in Essex. But, my experience has often been that of “forcing” myself to give thanks on occasion (or, quite often). The truth is, there is a kind of thanksgiving that is easy – that “even the Gentiles” do as much. But giving thanks for the other stuff, including things I dislike very much, requires some effort. That part seems like a battle. But it is a battle for my heart – in which – perhaps more than anything else is forcing myself to agree with God who is already working in me to give thanks.

    The heart that give thanks is another way of describing a “broken and humble heart.” It is also a much safer, sane way to get there than many other notions of self-mortification.

    I started with the quote from St. Innocent, because I thought it would sound rather counter-intuitive to much of the article – though it is very much in harmony with it – in the vein that I’ve just described. Those who have “accused” me of teaching some anti-morality and libertinism would find it difficult to slander an article beginning with such a quote.

    The whole of our Orthodox life is made up of paradox and contradiction. The “moral” life is, in truth, just as mystical as any part of apophatic theology. I’m only hoping to help a few understand that.

  12. Not to get too far afield…my understanding is that Luther’s primary problem was the vows and their supposedly absolute irrevocability.

    He did make fun of monasticism as seen in Roman Catholicism and his opinion was that working in the places the God placed us among others was the best way to serve those neighbors with the Love of God, from changing your baby’s diaper to driving a taxi.

    The Lutheran Confessions, the “binding” book for Lutheran pastors (who, ironically, take vows to uphold it), speaks against monastic vows if they are made with the understanding that the monastic life is holier than a laymans vocation, and that the vows and the life earn merit or heaven. (Smalcald Articles pt. III, art. 14.)

  13. What I notice is that these people mostly talk among themselves…

    Very true. If nothing else, the internet is used as a giant echo chamber by most people (myself included). Honest dialogue is difficult to engage in, although it is “out there”.

    The idea of giving thanks in all things: I am reminded of the quote from Fr. John Krestiankin that you included in your earlier article, “Providence and the Guarded Heart”. He spoke it as he was imprisoned by the Communists. It expresses such trust in God! A heart such as his can give thanks in any situation.

    The world is governed by God’s providence alone, and in this is salvation for one who believes; in this is the strength to endure earthly sorrows.

  14. Father,
    Belief and thanksgiving as a free response means Christ inspires our person without forcing our person (as a quick side, I always thought all flavors of Protestantism rejected the ability of our person to be inspired, due to being totally depraved and all. Force on God’s part is always necessary to open us up to inspiration. Maybe not for Martin Luther, though? That would be news to me, a former Lutheran).

    Anyhoo, this “labor” in which we force ourselves is simply the forcing of our gaze back to Christ (as Scott aptly described in his reference to Moses and the serpent), so that we can commence with being inspired into thanksgiving? This is what all asceticism boils down too, yes, no??

  15. Thank you for this meditation, Father Stephen. I have two questions:

    1) What does it mean to give thanks — how do we know we are “thankful”? What is an acceptable thank-offering to God?

    Mulling this question over in my mind reminds me of my old evangelical days when I stood in the midst of an assembly of ecstatic worshippers wondering if I was “worshipping” right (often because I didn’t feel anything). Is thanksgiving, likewise, a feeling? If it isn’t a feeling, then how do we know we are being thankful? As someone who struggles deeply with understanding what it means to love someone, trying to ascertain what it means to give thanks is rather anxiety producing.

    2) We read in Galatians, “For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. (Gal 5:5-6)”

    “Faith working through love” is how I understand the Catholic/Orthodox conception of faith & work. That is, *agape* itself is the “engine” by which we are saved, and faith is the “fuel” for it. Agape/Charity seems inextricably linked to Jesus words, “If you love (ἀγαπάω) me, you will obey my commands.” Is such love what you mean by thanksgiving?

  16. Aric,
    Good questions. It connects a few things.

    1. First – sometimes we “feel” grateful, sometimes we do not. Our hearts are “disordered” and feelings can be quite unreliable. The first and most substantial act of thanksgiving is the one God Himself has provided: the offering of the Holy Eucharist. Of course, God Himself has provided the sacrifice. Christ is the “Offerer and the Offered,” the “Receiver and the Received.” We not only attend the liturgy, we pray the liturgy, and we allow it to extend itself into our lives such that we begin to live the liturgy.The whole of our existence is gathered into the Eucharist.

    The Scriptures are clear about how we “love” Christ: we keep His commandments. A eucharistic existence is one in which everything in our life is acknowledged as a gift – freely given to us. In light of that, we keep His commandments. We give to others. We forgive others. We are kind to others. We lay down our lives (which are a gift) for others. These are the content of love.

    We are told that if we keep His commandments, Christ and His Father will dwell in us. That indwelling is our mutual communion, our life-within-one-another. We cannot make that happen – but Christ does.

    We may or may not feel things associated with any of this. Love is not a feeling either. It is an action. Emotions, when rightly ordered, mirror our actions. But that takes time and repentance (bearing a little shame) and the rest of our living out the gospel.

    Our culture is consumed with sentimentality – it’s rooted in a number of false ideas of the Romantic period, bolstered by some bad psychology (and fostered by a culture that has discovered sentimentality to be the most easily manipulated aspect of humanity and so exploits it in order to mold us into the complacent consumers that we have become).

    We should renounce sentimentality and believe the gospel. We take up the life of Christ in living His commandments. His commandments are neither complicated, nor even all that hard, on the whole. And the gifted-grace of God is constantly empowering us to keep them.

    We tend to go crazy, I think, because we are terribly “introspective.” But what we are seeing is not what we are supposed to be seeing. We’re mistaking our inner life (noise, emotions, self-talk) as our true life. It’s nothing of the sort.

    If we begin to practice the simple things I’ve described above, a slow healing begins and we can slowly come to know peace. Thanks slowly begins to become normal. Even our mistakes become occasions for giving thanks.

    Hope that is of some help. You sounded like you were almost there anyway.

  17. Synergy as grateful response to God’s grace sounds about right to me. In comments it looks as though you are affirming it is possible, even necessary, to cultivate this response as a discipline. That is good. In the midst of life’s stresses, I find it is much more “natural” for my wounded self to fret and complain–which is reaction, not response. On a practical level, I notice if I am called to give thanks in all things and begin to engage this as discipline, this “forces” me to look for and find the “glass half full” part of what is going on in my life–the possibilities open to me because Christ is present–even when things are not going well. When I see the “glass half full”, I open the door to joy and hope, which is my springboard to faithful action. Unlike the mind-over-matter pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps “force” it seems to me we often mistake for synergy, joy and hope come as the result of reorienting ourselves (our attention) to Christ and are infused with the grace of God rendering them effectual motivators.

    Joy and hope seem to be key for me. Jesus also, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 endured the Cross, despising the shame “for the joy set before Him”, and in Nehemiah, there is the well-known call to the people to stop mourning for their past sins, but to rather rejoice in the holiness of the recovery of the teaching of the Law. The people are told to stop mourning, for, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).

    Since I’m also prone to over complicate things, I find hope in the simple story from the desert Fathers where the monk who kept falling into sin came seeking help from his Elder. The Elder told him that each time he fell he should get up again and keep doing so until his death. “I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up….”

  18. I have always thought that the “faith vs. works” debate to be rather absurd – and, as a Catholic, I could never remember which side of the argument I was supposed to be on. To me, it is akin to choosing between inhaling and exhaling – as though I could do one without the other (or consider one more essential than the other).

    As you pointed out above, Fr. Stephen, the “work” of thanksgiving involves learning to give thanks both for the experiences that we like and for those we dislike. It is rather easy to give thanks for what we enjoy. But all that comes to us has been willed or permitted by God and therefore may be part of our sanctification, if we allow God’s grace to make it so.

    It is a work of our hearts to move in this direction, when our sinful inclination is to reject and pull back from God as “unfair” or “absent” when all does not conform with our desires and preferences. This work is difficult even on a small scale much less with the profound sorrows and tragedies we experience in life. Only through grace can our work actually result in any movement toward God.

    I have recently started reading Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s translation of “The Cloud of Unknowing”, thanks to Fr. Aidan Kimmel’s extensive quoting from it on his blog. The anonymous author writes of the “work” of contemplation and God being known only by experiencing His love, i.e. we cannot know Him with our minds. This seems congruent with what you are writing here.

    Although I am only in the early chapters, the contemplation the author is teaching goes something like this, “Lift up your heart to God with a gentle stirring of love. Focus on him alone. Want him, and not anything he’s made. Think on nothing but him. … Here’s how. Forget what you know…” And so on.

    It seems that one of our biggest hurdles in the synergy of God’s grace and our “yes” is our constant need to assess our progress. Am I doing it right, often enough, etc.? This keeps our focus on ourselves rather than on God. It also keeps us analyzing with our thoughts and emotions, rather than allowing ourselves to experience His love in all things.

    When we experience His love, our response is surely one of thanksgiving (Eucharist). But it can be “work” to learn to experience His love – because we often do not recognize it, especially in the unwanted experiences of life. Instead, we tend to associate the experience of God’s love with upsurges of positive emotion – a rather spiritually dangerous thing to do.

    I have rambled on too long. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding.

  19. Fr. Stephen, Apologies. I write and ponder slowly. Hence, I only saw your comment of 10:09 PM after I had posted my own (rather unnecessary) comment at 11:02 PM.

  20. Father,
    Apologies in advance for the tangential nature of this comment.
    “Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,”…”
    I appreciate the point about Phariseeism, but checking labels is the only way to know what kind of poison you’re planning on ingesting. I’ve seen HFCS in the most unlikely places, for example, and if I happen to find milk products as well, it isn’t such a great sacrifice to choose something else…

  21. Ook,
    I understand, but it generally seems beside the point. It is well and good to pay attention to the poisons/chemicals in foods. But “milk products” (lecithen, etc.) should not be treated as dairy, per se. The fast is not a kosher regulation – it points to the general use of foods. Anyone who keeps the fast in its most obvious manner will have done very well, without searching for various molecules of milk-derived additives. It distracts from the true nature of fasting. If someone wants to keep a “stricter” fast, there are more traditional ways of doing it.

    For example, if someone fastidiously avoided the slightest hint of dairy in their foods, they would only have gained fastidiousness, which is frequently nothing more than a passion. Rather, if they wanted to keep the fast more “strictly” then they could practice “xerophagy” (uncooked food), or eat one less meal, etc. These are the traditional means of strictness, not fastidiousness.

    As you say, it’s not a great sacrifice to choose something else…which makes my point. It’s an exercise in “not great sacrifice.” But what is worse, many who do this think they are practicing a virtue when they are not. Fasting is a powerful spiritual weapon which we should learn to use well – not uselessly.

  22. I appreciated the photo of the monk and the wolf, presumably. It depicts a synergy that can be seen in an analogy of the relationship of humans to our pets. Dr. Daniel Henshaw, an Orthodox palliative care physician, teacher and surgeon, stated: “In a very real sense, God ‘knows’ us into becoming real persons. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’ By way of analogy, humans can in a similar, much less exalted manner endow beloved pets with many of the characteristics of personhood, such that a pet can become more than an animal companion and even be viewed and treated as a person. The ability to form relationships has to some degree the power to create persons.”

    Eleven years ago we brought a little pup into our house. He was a mess as a puppy. He did not understand our language, even a little bit. He didn’t make eye contact with us or have any intention of pleasing us. He didn’t cuddle and seemed not to be able to connect with us. It was clear we were different species, living in different worlds. But he was living in our house, and in time these things changed. In fact it has taken years. He understands important bits of our language and lives with the rhythms of our household. He communicates his needs to us and we are happy to fulfill them. His purpose has evolved into that of pleasing us, which he has learned how to do, and he loves cuddling and spending time with us. He is most proud of bringing in the morning paper for us each day, even delaying eating his breakfast until his job is done. At night he comes to my side of the bed to receive a goodnight scratch, then goes to his bed when I tell him to. We know what pushes his buttons (eg the mailman at the door), so we do what we can not to lead him into temptation (by putting him in his crate when the mailman is due).

    We have been brought into God’s house for the purpose of union with Him. Our efforts at obeying His commands are not so that we can be more moral, or better persons, but so that we can enjoy living with each other.

  23. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your comments on fasting. Moderation/balance is needed here also. C.S. Lewis wrote that the devil doesn’t mind which side of the horse we fall from, just so we fall off. When I taught ESL my aide was a wonderful Sikh lady. I once gave her a candy bar. The first thing she checked was the label to see if it contained egg. It did. She politely gave it back to me.
    This is a little beside the point. I’ve seen Muslims praying with beads and once at a Buddhist funeral I saw the faithful with their jade prayer beads. Do you know if we borrowed the prayer rope from others?

  24. Dean,
    The origins of the prayer rope are lost in the mists of time. What is true is that virtually all religions use some version of it. So, I think of it like chanting, or kneeling, or prostration. It’s just a natural thing. Only Protestantism insists on being unnatural when it comes to such.

  25. Another thought from this morning:
    From Psalm 89, which struck me this morning as it hasn’t before, but since reading this yesterday, it resonated:
    “Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us,
    The years in which we have seen evil.”

    A couple weeks ago I was diagnosed with a hernia. I told my friends “If I am a Christian, then I would thank God for giving me a hernia. I will try.” I’m still trying. I think I’ll be trying for a while. 🙂

  26. Re: prayer beads… I remember a discussion on your blog some years ago about the role of music in prayer–the Church sings most of her prayers, and we noted singing, unlike most spoken language, engages both sides of the brain. In an analogous way, man’s use of some tactile mnemonic device in prayer, in a similar manner to lighting candles, burning incense, bowing one’s head, kneeling and prostrating, makes prayer in all its aspects more a matter of our being and not merely a matter of our words. Just a thought…

  27. To me, it is akin to choosing between inhaling and exhaling – as though I could do one without the other (or consider one more essential than the other).

    I really like this illustration, Mary b. Many thanks!

  28. “Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects.”

    A wonderful reminder and distinction. My ongoing journey to receive and live into the Orthodox paradigm (mind) has brought the realization of two contrasting presuppositions that govern how one considers issues like this.

    One presupposition holds that two things must be balanced, held in tension, or an equilibrium established because they do not belong together. They inherently oppose one another. It is a presupposition that cannot embrace the reality of theosis.

    The other presupposition holds that the two things DO belong together (were made for one another) and synergy is the key to union (theosis) not balance or equilibrium.

    As you indicate, one presupposition (paradigm) is driven by a moral intent, however subtle, while the other is inspired (fueled?) by gratitude.

    And, yet again, the spirit of gratitude can become the target of moral effort instead of an “effort of yielding and of availability.” The Jesus Prayer / Centering Prayer can be, secretly, just one more moral effort to “attain synergy.”

    This way of “making sense of it” may not be altogether accurate on my part. I offer it with that disclaimer.

  29. Karen, you have a very valid point. I often use my prayer rope and find that it helps me to focus on my prayer even though I often forget how many times I have been around the rope. When I try to pray continuously without I find myself distracted and stop praying. I also feel that I am deeper in prayer and less in the world when I use my rope.

  30. My late wife, Pamela, made exceptional prayer ropes (of such a quality that our priest highlighted them in her funeral homily remaking how blessed he was to have a Pamela made rope).

    Prayer goes into the fashioning of each knot, indeed each knot within the knots(I believe there are nine smaller knots within each of the specific knot that is “counted”). It is a craft that is passed down and blessed, not unlike iconography. Using a well made prayer rope connects you to the prayer life of the entire Church. Faithful use of a rope strengthens you each time you use it.

    Counting is the least of it’s functions.

  31. “Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work.”

    A wise counselor told me years ago when I was worried about what was my “responsibility as a Christian”: Responsibility = > response – ability. We are always responding to God.

  32. Wow, Helen! I love that definition of responsibility. I can’t believe I’ve never heard or recognized that before. The onus of personal responsibility in American culture seems to me to be one of its weightiest burdens–As an eldest-child and perfectionist. I have tried to send it away, but it still creeps back to condemn me…

  33. “We tend to go crazy, I think, because we are terribly “introspective.” But what we are seeing is not what we are supposed to be seeing. We’re mistaking our inner life (noise, emotions, self-talk) as our true life. It’s nothing of the sort.”
    Thank you for this, Father. The eventual realization of the truth of this some years ago and resolving to ignore it, allowed me to more clearly hear what I was supposed to be listening to in the first place. What a lot of baggage that was.

  34. Elm,

    I would add t to this; that the liturgy itself is “call and response” and that squares perfectly with Luke 4:18 where Christ “inaugurates” is public ministry. He initiates the call which is highly liturgical (language). He simultaneously initiates the pattern of response by it. The whole of our lives are liturgical (our lives, in fact, are liturgical – our response to his call constitutes our lives and is proper to our nature) i.e., the response to that loving initiated call.

    Any synergy, which in turn, points to ascetic “effort” can only be viewed by its source (as the Lover to the Beloved), which is the liturgy and specifically, its center. We are called to respond. This is our nature and thus, the only thing ‘proper’ to it i.e., the response of love to love.

    Synergy and asceticism is rooted in the liturgy (call & response) and most specifically, tenderly and lovingly, in its center; that is the Eucharist.

  35. Fr Stephen,
    In the book of Job, after the many tragedies that befell him in chapter 1, it says,
    “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said:
    ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    And naked shall I return there.
    The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
    Blessed be the name of the Lord.’
    In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”

    Do you think that Job’s response, while not saying the exact words, “thank you” to the Lord somehow falls into the category of giving thanks? I can acknowledge God’s giving and taking away and worship Him and have some sense of gratitude more than I can say the words, “thank you” to God regarding certain things that have happened or that continue to happen. These words of Job cut to the heart. They have always struck me as the truly proper way to view life, while at the same time not diminishing the anguish of what has happened to him. My mind wrestles with this, but my heart is deeply moved by his words.

  36. SW
    I was thinking this same question yesterday. How does a thankful heart manifest in those truly awful times. I think Job did give thanks. It brings to mind Psalm 116 which says “what shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me – I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord”. How many hearts harden during tragedy? Can the remembrance of the Lord and calling upon His name in those difficult times that can break a person be thanks, Fr Stephen?

  37. Father, bless.
    I am still a fairly new convert but this struggle of woks/grace has been the main issue of my 30 plus years in Christianity. Sometimes I have gone down the path of a tyrannical works mindset and then completely gone off the path as a reaction.
    When I started toward Orthodoxy, I decided to stay away from most of what was on the Internet because the fruit of reading it was not a draw toward God and prayer, but a return to the frenetic desire to please an unpleasable Deity. I knew that was not going to get me closer to God.
    When I read the scriptures and I see the pattern or rhythm of righteousness, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, I see them as a road or path that God has carved out for us and I am so grateful. Indeed, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do God’s handiwork which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10
    It seems a good and happy way to live that brings balance and wholeness, though certainly not always easy and often a struggle against my natural slothfulness.
    I think sometimes too that it is like working a 12 step program. The health and recovery happen as you follow the steps or path that is laid out, but that does not mean it is easy. But such joy and freedom along the way!
    Many blessings and thanks, Father Stephen and all who are here.

  38. Father Stephen:

    I was very interested to see your 7:59 post. You used to write frequently about your father-in-law. I have not seen any references to him in a long while. On the other hand, your writing often reflects more and more of what you have described his spirit as.

    I don’t know about that. 🤓

  39. Victoria, the answer to your question is yes but only if we realize what Job did–nothing is mine, all is a gift, I have no “right” to anything: evenven a right to life. A hard saying in a world defined by “rights” and one in which everything causes an offense to someone, especially thanking God.

    Giving thanks to our Incarnate Lord, God and Savior publicly is beginning to be an act of revolution.

  40. Fr. Stephen,
    Beautiful article: as always!
    As you wrote about “self-loathing” and Elder Sophrony, immediately his picture on the cover of Met. Vlachos’ biography of him came to mind: the Elder is sitting with a beautiful, peaceful, joyful presence and a humbly confident smile. It is obvious in this picture that his “self-loathing” has nothing at all to do with the contemporary emotional understanding of this phrase. By his prayers may I obtain a little of that Spirit he obviously possessed so abundantly!

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