Why Does God Hide?

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote:

Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought:

You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me. The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe). And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

st cuthbert praysSt. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach. He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

 

 

74 comments:

  1. I needed to read this. I’m in the process of converting, but sometimes have trouble continuing the journey. Sometimes faith and God seem so alien to me. I often chalk it up to my mercurial mood. Sometimes I know it’s the culture I grew up in clashing with Orthodoxy. Every now and then, I wonder if God even exists. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who has felt this way. And, it’s especially comforting to find these issues addressed in scripture and the lives of the saints.

  2. I really enjoyed this, Fr. I know many times, you might ask, “Why do I write?” Does it reach, touch, or move anybody; or is it prideful folly? But, you obey, and you write on. At least on this occasion, let me tell you that this piece was for me, if for no one else. Write on Fr., write on. It is for you to obey and the Spirit to use your words.

  3. I shall have to meditate on this. God, being THE Subject, is not an object nor can He be consumed, controlled or manipulated. I am reading Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s homilies on the Song of Songs and this post echoes what he is illumining from Scripture. It will take awhile to digest but well worth pursuing.

  4. The only thing I know that I have permanently… day and night, wherever I may be, is: First, Faith; Second, Faith; Third, Faith. That’s it! There’s nothing else I can say to you. It animates and guides my life. Since I have faith, if someone were to come to me and say, “Will you go to Lebanon with me?” I would answer, “Yes.” “How can you say ‘Yes’ just like that?” They may ask. “Yes! I say ‘Yes’ because I believe that if it is not for my own good, God will arrange things so that the very same person who invited me will tell me ‘No’ – for instance, there may be some delays with formalities which will prevent our departure and so on. I have seen that occur in my life regularly these past 50 years… as I am now 91 years old!

    I read in the Gospels again and again something extraordinary. Jesus comes and says to the Apostles, “Leave your fishing nets now, and follow Me.” If they had answered, “Who are you? Why should we lose the day’s work? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?” … If they had answered so, what would they be? They would have remained in darkness. They said “Yes” to a Stranger Who came and told them, “Come! Leave everything, and come!” Why? Because they had Faith in God and were expecting the One, Him Who would tell them “Come!” And this is how it began. Whereas, if they had said “No,” what would have happened? … If you have Faith, you will walk on water as Saint Peter did. But if you get frightened, you will go under! Nothing else! It has been like that all my life… I tell Him, “Lord, take me and do with me anything You want, in any way You want.” … This is freedom, great freedom!

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 197-198.

  5. India was my great adventure with Faith and Love of God. I had gone there knowing nothing at all, neither where nor how I would live, in a foreign land with a foreign language, without money. Just God and I on Earth. I never asked anything. I always awaited the Call to any field of action. Because when Christ calls you, you have no will of your own. You go wherever He takes you… Still to this very day, I am so certain that there is nothing I have to think of. I am as I was the first day I set out for India: Awaiting God’s Will. To anyone proposing something, I say, “Yes!” and I go. That is how I traveled all over India. “Come and work with us,” they would say. I went, worked, and left… What I cared about was Love… because if you stop loving, it is as if you stop breathing. Love is the Breath of God.

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 234.

  6. Bless you Father.
    My faith is thin, I see through the everyday to something I just cannot reach.
    I am challenged by other Christians who say they have the way.
    My trust is our Lord that he will sustain me in this time.
    Polly

  7. Fr. Freeman, here I see a classic example of perceiving God’s hiddenness thru the individualistic lens as though God was something hidden and to be found. ( He only and always leaves a witness in what he does, but is never found) I do not believe that God ever hides, if anyone is hiding it is our constructed self/ us who hinders us from seeing God in all things (the earth is his witness too), and therefore God “seems” hidden when he does not appear after our constructs. When we are aligned we will know or will be conscience of our needs and ask. Shame, guilt and many other things hinder us from wanting to be conscious of our need and fill it with our man made God’s, goods and self-deception. The God-life or Godly life is a Life Long process in awareness. In todays world almost impossible to achieve, unless you are a priest or Nun and can commit your whole life to this. But I do think that God is not hidden, and also never can be found…sounds like a paradox, and it is I guess. But in- be- tween I am being found by God so to speak. There is no me finding God, but there is a God finding the real me. That is the understanding I have come to know, and it is good enough for me. I am totally and extremely thankful, and I bow my soul to the Almighty for picking me up, when no one else did, for trusting me, when I could no longer trust myself, for reaching out to me, when I no longer cared to reach out to others, and showing me that I mattered, when I mattered to no one else. There exists nothing between heaven and earth but the space of being found. For some a terrifying place. Blessed is the one who can say: May mercy follow you all the days of your life….You are mine. Very sobering, and that is all I need for living in this crazy world. Grateful and Thankful for belonging to Christ. Amen.

  8. Dallas Wolf has said what needs to be said beautifully and i cannot improve upon it, so i’ll second what he’ said. Thanks again Father.

  9. Chris,
    Something that helped me in my conversion process was to recognize that the Orthodox Church is “just the Church.” That is, historically and ontologically, this is the one and same Church that has existed since the beginning. Everything else is, to one degree or another, a bit of an aberration. They are, of course, aberrations that we would often prefer over the original. It’s like marriage. A man will always meet women who are more attractive at one moment or another, but their beauty is beside the point. You just stay with your wife.

    I gave up thinking about the “others” when I got married, and I did the same when I began to move towards Orthodoxy. I’ve been married for 42 years. I’ve been Orthodox now for 20. If, on any given day, I meditate on perceived faults in either my spouse or my Church, then I am simply creating misery and make-believe in my head. Such thoughts are beside the point.

  10. “I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest.”

    I have, for the past year, been ‘studying’ Orthodoxy, trying to escape the conclusion that this is the Church to which I am being called. This is not because I don’t want to convert, necessarily, but because it will likely cause conflicts within my marriage and with the rest of my family. And yet, somehow I know that my conversion is inevitable either way.

  11. Fr. Stephen – interesting metaphor! You may be right. Part of my fear of committing to orthodoxy may be tied to my history with Lutheranism. In this metaphor, I suppose the Lutheran church would be the ex with whom I’m still friends! 🙂 I do my best to avoid “shopping,” but I’m weak. And, things are particularly difficult when I get all nihilistic/atheistic. That’s why this was my favorite line from your post: “We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.” It sounds like you’re advising us to accept the risk of seeking God. Make a commitment. Stick to it, even through the difficult spots. Accept the vulnerability that comes with the decision.

    I feel like you and I have had similar experiences, Josh. I’ve visited orthodox churches several times over the past 10 years, but never taken the plunge. Then, recently, I developed some spooky medical problems and I realized I might not have the time to keep vacillating – Lutheranism/Secularism/Orthodoxy, etc. My fiance, with whom I’ve been for 6 years, doesn’t really get my desire to convert. She comes from a very liberal family of Swedish-Americans, so I think she’d prefer that if I were to become religious, I’d stick to Lutheranism! 😀 I hope everything works out for you, sir.

  12. Josh,
    I have faced the same conflicts as has many I know. The good news is that those conflicts most often fade in time and family ties are refreshed. I have seen more than one wife (mine included) that eventually saw the good that conversion does in their mates and jumped in and swam the Bosporus too. Fear not.

  13. “Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.”

    I don’t fully understand this sentence, but I am drawn to it. Thank you, Father!

    Although this might be a paradox, the Church both as a place of worship and an Arc of salvation matches that description. As a Temple of God; I remember a Monk in Mt Athos addressing a young man of our group who wanted to “see the Transformation of the Body and blood of Christ”. He said “if you could see what is happening in every Liturgy you wouldn’t dare approach the Church.”

    As an “institution”, for want of a better term, there is much that is obvious to outsiders who wish to find flaws inside the Church that makes it a dangerous place. If you see me and people like me go to Church and expect to be inspired, you will be bitterly disappointed and run a mile. A younger version of me would reject what I have become, the hypocrisy and emptiness of my participation in Church life. Yet, us lepers seek Christ in that poor, derelict and underserved hospital we call our Church despite our own unworthiness. The healing is not given via our own equipment, methods and medicines, but as an invisible gift from Christ.

    So my question remains: is there a place to seek God? Can we not find Him in any location where we bear our cross, a little shame and out of sight? Fr Paisios found God in a church in the busiest roundabout of Athens, the pilgrim finds God at the end of an impossibly long journey (much like shopping for the best monastery) at the place she left to seek Him, now a changed woman. And who knows, God might even reveal Himself at the precise moment one realises how desperately pointless it is to live your whole life working so you can spend your wages in a shopping mall. I certainly have not given up hope of a deus ex machina apocalypsis 🙂 The words “I command my spirit to Thee oh Lord” cross my mind every time I am forced to visit a mall; it’s the closest not-so-modern men come to experiencing martyrdom!

    Forgive me.

  14. It is an awesome thing that God is everywhere present and fills all things yet in essence remains hidden. It is an awesome thing that He has chosen to reveal Himself to those who seek Him, yet revealing only the measure each is able to endure, knowing anything lesser or greater would not be beneficial.
    I also appreciate the link to Living the Apocalypse, i.e., our hidden life in Christ, its comparison to Gods’ revelatory character and the contrast to “the obvious”.
    Thank you Father for giving us much to think about.

  15. Thomas,
    Thanks for your story from Mt. Athos. It reminded me of this quote by a very recent Georgian Saint, St. Gabriel the Fool-for-Christ of Samtavro (found The Orthodox World, #308):

    “On the Divine Liturgy:
    If you could see what Grace descends during the Liturgy in church, you would gather the dust and wash your face with it.”

    I look forward to Father’s answer to your questions, but if I learnt anything from him and all the comments here (and reading about the lives of the Saints, especially most contemporary ones), the best place to meet God is indeed in the Liturgy. Which is why we should be in Church every Sunday, as this wonderful priest reminds his flock:
    (Russian speakers will enjoy it even more, since the translation does not do it justice…)

  16. Father bless,

    My own 20 year study is now concluding. I began catechism last Sunday. Thank you for your role in the journey!

    Scott

  17. So my question remains: is there a place to seek God? Can we not find Him in any location where we bear our cross, a little shame and out of sight?

    One of the Saints said that one can find God while watching a fox cross the road. Finding God is not a place, but rather an act of the nous in receiving God’s revealing. The best place to clean our heart/nous is the Church. We go there because we need healing and the body of Christ is where we are healed. Our nous is cleansed and we begin to see God in all of Creation. We take part in the sacraments and begin, at some point, to live a sacramental life. And God is revealed.

    Forgive me if this is too simplistic (as I am certain it is, but I’ve worked with children much of my life so I have a tendency to break things down) or correct me if I am mistaken.

  18. Thomas – Haha! I totally agree with you about malls, lol 😂 i need to go to an Apple Store and the only one near me is in a most horrid of malls. I have been putting it off for months even though i have some substantial gift cards that are eagerly waiting to be used.

  19. Agata! If the English translation doesn’t do that video justice I can only imagine the impact in Russian! The fervor in his voice and his expressions sure spoke to me! I love the way he does not mince words….Lazy! Criminals! Godless! Michael will remove your heads! Seriously, our churches would be empty! Oh we are way too soft here for that! Anyway, thanks for the link, Agata!

  20. Eros does not shop. What does this day to those who are perpetual “seekers”?

    I met Jesus on a hill in northern Illinois some 50 years ago. I was in pain and I asked Him to reveal Himself. He was gracious and did so in a way I could take. My life since has been trying to dig through garbage, weeds, pain and loss to find Him again but not with the sell all approach. He is still merciful to my sinfulness which hides Him from my sight.

  21. Paula,
    “Michael will remove your heads! ” – you picked up on one of the best parts, the word he uses is more like “unscrew”, not just remove…
    I really like his “On Sunday, kak shtyk!”… That is actually a Russian idiom (I had to ask my Russian coworker) – it means “[On Sunday]be there!”, “on the dot!” ….

    There is a very nice video of him talking to young people on Faith.. Just search for the titled “What is happiness” (it has very good subtitles)… He talks about how Modernity stole our thinking, much like what Father Stephen teaches us here about. I have a friend in Europe who knows Fr. Andrey, she said that question and answer sessions with him are incredible…

    “Oh we are way too soft here for that! ” – I know what you mean, this maybe to too much for most people; in one ear, out the other…. But if even one heart is touched, it’s worth sharing…

    I am so glad you watched and liked it Paula…. 🙂

  22. Fr Stephen,
    Sometimes I avoid using the words ‘love’ in describing the life in Christ. This society has trivialized the meaning to an extent that makes it nearly meaningless. My marriage is almost in its 30th year. We express our affection and intimacy in silence and touch not as much in ‘romantic’ words. Rarely are there circumstances that force us to ‘evaluate’ our marriage, thanks be to God.

    But my conversion to Christianity through the Orthodox Church was unequivocally a strain on us. Unlike the most common conversion, I believe, from a Protestant or Catholic affiliation, my conversion to Christianity itself was an ‘apocalyptic’ path, coming from a “‘non’-Christian” association. One that I feared to take. Love, as it is commonly understood, didn’t figure into the ‘feelings’ that I remember I had when I said “yes”. Rather my focus and fear concerning the impact of my conversion on the ones I loved, were the most salient feelings, I had. But I could not ignore the call, without ignoring what seemed to be some intrinsic part of me and some intrinsic reality of this universe, this creation. It was not my way as a scientist to ignore such unseen things. I had to attend.

    I moved forward to Christ. Trusting in the unseen. Trusting the unseen wasn’t new for me. But acting on that trust, and accepting what might come of my conversion, was part of the cross I believe that we are all asked to take.

    Fr Stephen, I’m grateful for your elaboration on the distinction between seeking, knocking, searching and googling and shopping. Perhaps it was the life I lived as a scientist, pursuing, seeking, exploring unseen things, that helped me to pursue Christ, and to stick with it, even when it seemed so fearsome. I shed many tears before the day of my baptism. My loved one is no longer so challenged by my conversion to Christianity. In the silence remains that unspoken love, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, I believe it grows stronger.

  23. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your blessing and thanks to all the others who wrote about their conversions. It definitely reminds me that my experience is not entirely unique. but neither is it hopeless, despite my fears and self-pity.

    May God bless you all!

  24. In the Prayer of the Hours, we ask to “compass us about with Thy Holy Angels that we may come to the unity of the Faith and the apprehension of Your Glory. ” I think that is a helpful prayer for moment by moment awareness of God’s Presence. Apprehension, as I first understood it was to be aware…to look/seek God’s Glory. My husband said the word is usually more like “take.” Both help me look for His Glory and take it in…usually in Nature but also all around me in people and circumstances. In consciously seeking His Glory…it is manifested. Perhaps that’s why we are called to pray that prayer often… I don’t yet do that hourly, but, then, all prayer puts us in a place of expectation and revelation.

  25. Father Stephen,
    Thinking about your article and the “hidden” God….Moses asked God to show him His glory. However, as you write, it can be a dangerous thing to seek something larger than ourselves which (whom) cannot be objectified. God acceded to Moses’ request. He tells Moses that he cannot see His face and live. So, the Lord said, “…while my glory passes by I will put (hide) you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” Ex. 33:18ff. God adds that Moses will be able to see His back after His hand is removed. In other scriptures we are told that if we seek God with all our heart, we will find Him. But as with Moses, He often only reveals Himself to the extent that we need, can bear it, etc. So risk, yes. However, life without some risk would be life not worth living. Can too much be risked to gain the Pearl of great price?

  26. “Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking…. But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human.”

    Thank you, Fr Stephen.

  27. Dee, I understand what you mean about the word love. It has become denatured like many other words. The transcendent meanings and overtones of most words have been stripped from our vocabularies.

    How do we reclaim the language?

  28. I think one of the greatest contributors to the dilution of of the word love is simply we have only one word really in English that we use to mean a gambit of things. We “love” our spouses, our children, our dogs and our cookies. Obviously we cannot mean the same thing but English has become word poor in this area. We even dilute Scripture in this area because we insert “love” for different words in Greek. Of the three words in Greek used in the Scripture for expressing types of love, we use one word. Agape, Philos and Eros do not mean the same thing and yet we muddle them all together.
    What it would take is for us to stop using “love” in such a universal way and actually work at developing different ways to express the nuances we are glossing over in “loving” something or someone. Instead of “loving” chocolate chip cookies I may have to say that I find them very tasty and satisfying to eat. Obviously it takes more effort than many are willing to expend in this microwave world and the age of texting. I am afraid that with the invention of texting language will be simplified to the point all real meaning will be lost.

  29. Nicholas,
    I hope you are wrong about texting. Many pessimistic prognostications never occur, thankfully. Ten years back people bemoaned the fact that book sales were down and e-books soaring. Now, in 2016, book sales are up 6% and e-books down 4%. Most people I’ve talked to would rather curl up with a book, not a cold, hard tablet….I still enjoy the scent of books. 🙂 I also recall books like Future Shock from the late 70’s. Almost none of their “prophecies” came true. It’s hard to read the future. As an old refrain goes, “He alone knows what lies beyond the bend.”

  30. Dean
    Just look at the way things are spelled and grammar mangled to use fewer letters. In my lifetime many people have begun to speak of graduating High School when the verb “graduate” in an intransitive verb and there needs be a preposition after the verb. One graduates from High School as the act of graduating does not impart action on the object. When I was young it was Philadelphia slang to speak thus and yet it is now common place. It can and does lead to confusion. In Philly one says we are going “down the shore” this weekend meaning they are going to Atlantic City. “Down the shore” literally used to mean to walk along the shoreline, not to go down TO the shore. Sadly, our language is morphing and texting is another impetus

  31. Text speak and emojis would certainly speed up the Divine Liturgy. “Lord have mercy” could be shortened to LHM. And, Fr. Stephen would never have to pause for laughter at his homily jokes if we just pulled out our phones and held up a laughing emoji for all to see.

    I’m being silly, of course, but I’ve actually heard there are evangelical churches in which worshipers are encouraged to tweet their thoughts mid-service. Seems odd to me. Disrespectful even.

  32. Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Very good point about the word ‘love’ and the lack of distinction in the english language. I wonder if it might not have huger impact with our very interactions with one another than we might even be aware.

  33. Victoria
    I am sure it does, If we cannot express a concept accurately, we cannot grasp it. It has been my experience in learning about other languages that those things and concepts that matter most in the culture that uses that language, the language contains many words that describe them to express all the various meanings. We have one word for love, this speaks volumes.

  34. Nicholas,
    A thought on language. I think it is possible to become too worried about changes within the English we know. After all, the language we speak – its spelling, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, word meaning and usage, idioms – is itself the result of the English of the past “morphing.” We longer speak what is now considered Old English – indeed, only scholars can decipher it. For that matter, we no longer observe the patterns of early modern English. Even between myself and my own grandparents I notice certain small differences in speech patterns, and surely there would have been such differences between them and their own grandparents. New words and idioms come into existence, shift in meaning, or fall out of usage, while pronunciation likewise has changed over time, and rules of grammar are debated, enforced, or forgotten (a favorite example of mine is the word “silly,” which once meant “holy”).
    I don’t mean to say there is no place at all for teaching and holding to standards, but I think we must also recognize that language always has changed and continues to change. I think we should not be too rigid in holding on to current English (or, more accurately, current American English – itself full of internal variations) as The proper manner of speaking the language.

  35. Michael and Nicholas,
    I think a key feature in this society is a lack of dimensionality in our language, although an ‘english major’ might disagree with this perspective. But language is used as a kind of icon or model of our reality and if we cannot perceive with noetic eyes, can we speak of what we cannot perceive?

    I have a tendency to use the words of dimensionality, in part, because when students in my chemistry class saw models in two dimensions, it was quite difficult to grasp the reality of three dimensions as well as movement, when what they were looking at on the page was static. There is a kind of ‘built-in’ literalness in this society, which I think, unless you have experiences that bring you out of such ‘prisons’ (or prisms-filters) one might not be able to perceive and speak of, what the eyes do not see.

  36. I imagine the study of language would be quite interesting. Even living long enough you learn how language and cultural change go hand in hand. Words deemed archaic no longer used and new ones in their place. What I find interesting is the regional differences…southern, northern, mid-west. Accents always fascinate me. I remember once a group of us (from NY) were driving south to Florida for spring break and got lost somewhere down south. I stopped and asked one of the locals for directions and I did not understand a word he said! Not a word! Speaking the same language! Still makes me laugh!

  37. Sorry for a continuation of my thought–

    Then if the language is using something that we do not perceive, our own use of it is relegated to a ‘common’ referent as it is used by others. I’m not a linguist either, but I believe there is a description of how language changes by its use and becomes different over time. Not just in how it is spoken but the understanding/meaning of the words used.

    Which is another reason why frequent immersion in the Liturgical life of the Church is so incredibly important.

  38. Paula, Ha! you didn’t interrupt. I could have waited to complete the entire thought in one go.

    I grew up in the deep south and had a deep south accent when I went to a boarding school in the north. At first I was asked to repeat myself often. Overtime the accent and idioms went away. Then I moved outside the country and then returned. All that time didn’t have a southern accent. Then one day while I was in a job interview, perhaps out of nervousness, my accent came back in force. It was a shock to both me and the interviewer. I laugh at the experience now, but was a bit of a wild crazy experience in the moment. I couldn’t make my mouth behave!

  39. The experience was like having flatulated loudly in the middle of the interview. In the moment I wished I had a magical vacuum cleaner to suck all the words out of the air.

    Sorry for this diversion. Words and how they are spoken can be funny sometimes.

  40. I have been thinking a lot about sacrifice and pain. (Actually I’d rather call it sacrament, in the view of the long run and what “has become obvious” as you so wonderfully put it). That place where we give up everything else for this one pearl of great price seems to be an ongoing process. And I balk, always coming to crossroads and painful choices. But thank you for this Father.

  41. Dee
    I am not sure if it is the language that lacks dimensionality so much as our culture, especially as our culture is a creature of the Modern Project. I believe the effect of the Modern Project flattens reality to the dimensions of cause and effect leaving out all other possibilities. Our language reflects our culture. An example is the state of the Vietnamese language in the middle 60’s. They had one word for anything mechanical. It could be anything from a bus to a spark plug. It didn’t matter it was that one word. At the same time they had 22 words for rice. They had separate words for types of rice and for stages of its growth and cooking. Rice was important, machines were not. Teaching them to fly or to use or maintain equipment was very challenging as instruction had to be in English and the vocabulary taught before instruction on any subject could begin.

  42. It’s not just that language and its words changes as cultures change, but it’s human consciousness that changes and is reflected in what it is doing with words. In this, I am strongly indebted to Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings. His work is very helpful in thinking about what is going on.

    Many of my articles are reflections on words – words that no longer mean the same thing – or words that have been lost and need to be recovered in order to understand the faith, etc.

    Nicholas, your observation about the “flatness” of modern culture is spot on. I’ve haven’t found a better word for the phenomenon. We have an amazing shallow understanding of almost everything: people, politics, physics, etc. The level of general knowledge in the culture is extremely limited – very little history, no philosophy, very little literature, only the scantest bit of religious knowledge. Many other cultures, including the ancestors of our own, were far more sophisticated about almost everything.

    Oddly, we have an amazing level of technology…but most people have no idea how it actually works…but are certain that because they have a smartphone, they are superior to any culture that has gone before.

    When you get into discussions with people about gender-fluidity (as an example), they will begin to cite “science,” but have no clue what science actually does or does not know or think…only that they “read this article” or something and therefore…but our technology is not what is driving things. It’s the culture. The culture is flat and empty.

    Some years ago, I attended an art show here in TN. It was at a major Art College. There was, on display, a lot of talent and technique. There was, however, almost a total lack of beauty. There was technique but no soul. It’s like our present music. Technique, but no soul.

    We need to learn how to live, to cultivate the soul, while we are growing in Christ.

  43. Ben
    I am not concerned that language changes except when meaning is lost. Consider the Modernist idea in religious circles that one is “saved” by “believing that Christ is Lord. Yes, Scripture says that, but does it mean what evangelicals interpret it as. Most people today understand beleving means simply to mentally accept a fact. However, that is not what the Elizabethans who first used the word to translate the Greek “Pisteuw.” This is the Greek verb to faith. It is an active verb that describes action. Believe was pronounced Be Live and meant to live out the truth proclaimed. It is a far cry from today’s anemic understanding of the word.
    It concerns me that real meaning is being lost and a very distorted view of truth has become the norm. Yes, language morphs but when meanings are lost, we are the poorer for it. I find increasingly that people do not understand discussion as anything but a personal attack and they themselves attack the speaker not the ideas. Rational discourse becomes impossible especially when the meanings of words are not shared in common.

  44. Dee,
    There are two other books that are more to the point. Poetic Diction, one of his earliest and best, and the very readable History in English Words. But, perhaps at least as worthwhile, are some of his essays. I don’t have my volume at hand this morning, but I’ll try to track it down later today and cite the primary essay I have in mind.

    Both Lewis and Tolkien accepted Barfield’s ideas on language and can both be seen to have been deeply influenced by this in how they treat words. Given that both men were giants in the academic field regarding historical literature and language, that is really saying something. Barfield was a lawyer! Actually, could have been a great academic. As a young man, he was an Anthroposophist, following the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and it shows in some of his work. But, happily in Barfield, that influence became a means of helpful insight rather than a destruction of classical thought. I suspect that Lewis and Tolkien had much to do with a moderating, Christian influence on Barfield. He is seriously recognition as the theoretician within the Inklings, certainly by Lewis and Tolkien.

  45. On words and meanings and how they can either change over time or can be distorted depending on the situation of the speaker or the hearer. I hope this isn’t too much of a detour from the original intent of the article but as the conversation has shifted towards words….

    It’s not only the word “love” that has lost it’s depth and nuance but so many many other words – and I find that as a parent I come across this often. We want our words to be “words of Life” and this is essential in a Christian home (also most difficult for many reasons – some of which are the limitations of parents / children and the culture).

    As my beautiful children have entered their teenage years and of course naturally wanting more and more independence – both needed and deserved – they are often rebelling against the wrong things, and in this struggle I have found that words and their meaning are so very important – especially in keeping the parent child relationship one of respect trust and obedience.

    With our oldest it was the word “sheltered” that kept coming up. She was one to listen and obey her parents and trust them. Her friends (from Church and school) always made fun of her and told her she is “sheltered” and all of a sudden we are at odds. It took a while (of prayer really) before my husband and I realized we need to take back the word shelter and remind her of what a good word it is – and that through Scripture where there are so many many instances of shelter being sought. As I was reading your article, I was thinking how God can hide and be sought in our language – and “shelter” is certainly one of those words in which God can hide and be sought.

    For our next daughter – who trusts her parents and knows they love her – it has recently been the word “control” which is hilarious because our kids enjoy an extraordinary freedom within the parameters we have set. The word “control” has become between us and is causing resentment.

    My husband and I are hopefully in the process of throwing it away all together – and trying to replace it with something like “guidance” or “counsel” which is a more spacious positive word and don’t put us at odds with each other.

    We are rolling up our sleeves for our third daughter….

    Pray for our Orthodox Christian families because it is a struggle to keep our kids in the fold and parent them toward the Kingdom….

  46. In my above comment I was not inferring that texting would not flatten language, it is just my hope that it will not. I too love words. The first time I noticed a difference was in grammar school…not “grammar”any more! In our home we said “divan.” I noticed most other kids said “couch.” When I was in AF basic training, lots of the recruits were from NY. For a soft drink they used “tonic.” Boys from Texas said “sodie water. ” From middle CA we used “Coke” in a generic sense, for any soft drink, like “Jello” for anything gelatinous. In the last few years I’ve noticed younger folks using “so” as a filler to begin a sentence. We always used “well….” Speaking of folks, I very much dislike the word “guys” for men and women. ..what happened to “folks”? I once read, like you Nicholas with the Southeast Asians, that the Inuit have over 30 words for “snow.” And our one word for “love….” Spanish has at least 2, “amar” and “querer.” Let us not shortchange English, though. I once read that it has a larger vocabulary than any other. It is just that is not utilized. Language is fascinating!

  47. An interesting space to see the fluidity of language is Instagram. I am on it for my girls – who are on it too. One may add hashtags to posts and that sets certain category of feeling or depth to the post. There are hashtags that are combinations of words that I have seen people use which are rather profound. I never really thought about it since this thread of comments … but I imagine the younger generation will take some of these words into their vocabulary.

  48. Spouses seeing transformation:. My brother is an Orthodox priest. Several years ago and man desired reception by the Church but his wife did not. My brother met with them both to get the wife’s approval for her husband’s Chrismation. She said yes with one exception-her husband would have no Orthodox books or literature in their home nor try to convert her in any way. All agreed. Several years later, the man felt called to the deaconate. My brother met with the man and his wife again to get her permission. She said yes, on one condition that I be received in the Church too.

    God is good.

  49. some thoughts…
    I’d like to clarify something, if not only for myself but possibly for others. One may assume after reading Fathers’ and Nicholas’ comments that in order to overcome flatness and emptiness you must be something close to a learned scholar or graced with beyond average intelligence. Instead Father reminds us that it is human consciousness that has changed (a dire thought indeed) and directs us to “learn how to live, to cultivate the soul, while we are growing in Christ.” I take that to mean attending to goodness in life in all we do…according to the teachings of Scripture as taught by the Church, as well as all sound knowledge (fiction and nonfiction), including the arts. Such as are not included in our public school curriculum, now nor back in the 60’s.
    Victoria (and all you parents out there)…it is wonderful to read about the lengths you take in rearing your children the best you can. As you request, I certainly will pray for our Orthodox Christian families. I can only imagine the challenge.
    Father, it is generous of you to allow for such diversion from the original post. Thank you. As always I enjoy and am interested in what people have to say.

  50. Thank you Fr Stephen, I’m going to read the books you suggested. If you come up with a specific essay that will be great but I have found his website which shows two books of essays and I will probably read those also.

    I believe I’m one of those people who have a lack in breadth and depth in their academic training. It is good in certain areas of science, but I regret that I haven’t read more in history and philosophy that would have enabled me to have had a better grasp of the Modern Project in science as well. Better late than never I guess. Thank you so much for this ministry!

  51. Paula,
    Thanks for the note. Yes, it’s not scholarship that deepens the soul, but living life in a truly human manner. Poetry, music, art, for example, are not scholarly pursuits, they are normative for humans. It is symptomatic of our culture that these things have come to be seen as separate or special. Rap music (however much someone might dislike it) is an interesting example of poetry. There are many things about black culture (where it originated) that preserve many elements of being human. Endemic poverty and racism have done terrible things, and yet, there are these attempts at what is natural and beautiful – like flowers bursting through the pavement.

    What is human about us is quite natural – indeed, it is our nature. The most damning thing about modernity is its suppression of nature – both in humans and in the world around. That is a product of the arrogant drive to “improve.”

    There is much in the saying by Dostoevsky, “The world will be saved by Beauty.”

  52. Michael, that’s a great story about the man your brother received into the Church (and the wife’s conditions). Thanks for sharing it!

  53. Paula,
    I sincerely appreciate your pointing back to what might be called the process of ‘theosis’, which I believe is also the process of what Fr Stephen describes in his essay, where he speaks of ‘asking, seeking, knocking’. And I also appreciate the fact that when a ‘westerner’ (who ever and wherever they might be), who is inundated in this culture, might approach literature, even history and philosophy, in the manner of the western world, that the endeavor operates within the modality of reasoning or western scholarship. This is indeed a secular approach, one that is shaped by Modernity.

    I sincerely believe that we don’t even need a functioning mind to receive the grace of God and salvation.

    And I also believe it is possible and sometimes needful for those of us who have the heart, conditioned by the the grace of God, to learn and speak to the world of the Gospel. It has been my experience that this would be in the manner of Christ, to seek and knock in many places even in science, or even in history, or even in philosophy. These are certainly not requirements to seek God. Yet for me, heart and mind have not been so opposed as it has been inculcated in this society. This too has been a grace, no doubt to save me.

    Since science is where Christ first found me and called me, not in spite of, but by or through that endeavor, I cannot disparage it, even while many if not most endeavors in it our shaped by the Modern Project. My heart, that is I believe, Christ, won’t let me disparage it. That is why I continue to pursue Christ, not only in prayer, alms and fasts, but also in “Beauty” as Fr Stephen writes. My ‘eyes’ have seen Beauty at the sub-atomic levels, and my heart wants to proclaim the Gospel I found (or found me) in my explorations into the deepest levels of our existence.

    I lack the tools of language to describe this phenomenon I witnessed. But my heart groans to speak. Therefore I learn the language, that in the Liturgy and in Ikons and scripture, but also the world’s language of literature and philosophy, where it hasn’t lost the sense of the ‘unseen’.

    I pray that such work will not be in vain. But I leave the fruit of the endeavor to Christ to make of the work what He wills.

  54. Thank you Father. Such a good point that art, music, poetry are an aspect of human nature. I think of the many people that have a natural gift in the arts who have been discouraged from pursuing it because it isn’t a “money maker”. My father was a musician, born with the gift, never did “read” music, had a band, played the circuit, but his main job was in a factory (never heard him complain though, not a peep, God bless his soul). We do live in a very mechanized culture, don’t we.
    Yes Father, “the world will be saved by beauty”. I would even go as far to say in a sense has been already saved in the Incarnation. In Christ all is beauty, if we only have eyes to see.

  55. I remember hearing stories growing up about people (especially younger people), who were zealous in faith doing things that would eventually end up getting them hurt or killed. I remember a couple of girls drowned while trying to walk on water by faith, and a young man jumped off a house because he knew God would save him. There are the snake handlers in the Appalachian area etc attempting to exemplify Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark. Where do you think the line is between doing something dangerous (like St Cuthbert here) and doing something reckless? I had to struggle a lot with the concept of “not having enough faith” in an evangelical community that said the reason you were sick, or poor, or didn’t experience the presence of God, was because you simply lacked faith. Maybe they were right, and I still lack it. But I wonder how to discern between the two kinds of risks we might make in faith: that of recklessness, and that of courage. Since both may be prompted by eros, how might we judge the exemplary acts of faith from the foolish/tragic/ignoble?

  56. Dee,
    Yes indeed…God found you “as you are”….a scientist! No doubt He has given and will continue to give you strength to carry His name. I am glad you do not disparage your profession, as the problem is not in scientific study, but in the people who study it.
    When I first read about your experience of Christ revealing Himself through your work I was fascinated…those “testimonies” make us happy! I was left wondering what exactly you saw, thinking I wish I could have seen through your eyes! But even the bit of what you did share with us was wonderful. We love hearing how Christ draws all to Himself!
    I also agree with your statement that one does not need a functioning mind to receive God’s grace and salvation. God knows the heart, doesn’t He! not how well one can decipher this or that thing.
    Thanks Dee, for your words.

  57. Aric,
    Happy you’re out of a “name it and claim it,” type of church…where if you don’t get it or are not healed, then it’s your lack of faith. Sounds like you may need a spiritual father. He could help you discern between recklessness and faith. If you are newly Orthodox you need to just settle down in the faith for a while and observe, listen, pray. I doubt God will ask you to do more for at least a while. For the majority of us the faith is a matter of doing the next right thing, of praying, fasting, giving alms, showing mercy, etc. A daily steady walk. Nothing flashy. In fact calling attention to yourself is the opposite of humility. As for faith, you only need mustard seed faith…not much right? But it can save you. Before my elderly father died, he would call me saying he wasn’t sure if he was saved or not. I’d try to comfort him with what I just said. We would pray and his heart would be eased. Don’t force anything. Trust in the Lord as the babe pressed to his mother’s heart. Psm.131;2

  58. Aric – I look forward to Fr. Stephen’s answer to your question. But i wanted to say that as someone who has suffered with both long term chronic illness and poverty (which frequently go hand in hand), i too have asked myself if the reason I experience these problems is due to my lack of faith. However, the more I read of the Holy Fathers (and our modern day scholars who bring their writings to us in so many wonderful books), the more I have come to understand that the afflictions we experience in our lives are, in fact, a gift from God and are given to us for the purpose of our salvation. Our job, as Orthodox Chistians, is to accept them as God’s will for us (not always easy), knowing that if God so chooses, He can heal our body or increase our financial resources in the blink of an eye. If He has not done so, it is not due to our lack of faith, but because He knows it is what is best for us. An book on the subject of illness from an Orthodox perspective that has helped me a lot is “The Theology of Illness” by Jean-Claude Larchet. May God bless you!

  59. Aric,
    Generally, we need not do extreme things (dangerous things)…God brings the things to us that create the opportunities of the type I was discussing. St. Cuthbert’s action was actually not uncommon among the Celtic ascetics. They were certainly quite “edgy.” It helps if the community of faith you are in isn’t teaching false things…bad theology makes more problems than people imagine. The entire American Project is a product of bad theology.

  60. Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for your answer to Aric. It is my hope that we all attend to the last sentence. It is for that reason, the theology of the American Project, that I had rejected Christianity, thinking all Christianity was so composed of such bad theology.

    For a time I had thought and feared that Orthodoxy might be vulnerable to such theology due to many recent conversions in the US. But the theology has become so ubiquitous that an Orthodox person need not be a convert to be a carrier of such theology. I ask that we all repent and remember the prayer before communion where we say, “ ‘I am the chiefest’ of sinners”. Of any gift the Lord has given me, to say that prayer with sincerity has been the greatest gift of all.

  61. Aric,
    Forgive me as I respond to Fr Stephen’s words. They may be misunderstood in the context of your question. Please allow me to say that what you have said about your questions about your faith and the quality of your faith in the context of those who were around you at one time, resonate with me and my own history. I was called a devil worshiper once when I was quite young and had no idea what was being referenced by those who believed themselves to be the exemplars of Christianity and faith. Having humility is a good thing. But being subject to those who would attempt to affirm to you that you are “lesser than” them in the eyes of God for any reason, is definitely bad theology.

    May God bless you with peace.

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