The Slow Road to Heaven – Why the Spiritual Life Doesn’t “Work”

We live in a world of practicality, a fact that has produced the marvels of technology that power us along and connect the world in its web. I have a nearly two-year-old grandson who has grasped some of this connection for many months now. He loves buttons – not the ones on your shirt – but the ones on any device. If there is a button in reach, he will mash it. He’s not alone, I’ve seen the same phenomenon throughout the herd of children that crowd my parish. Push a button; make something happen. If a toddler grasps the magic of a button, so, too, do adults. It is something of an icon our culture. If there is a problem, from cancer to poverty, we want solutions. This is also true of our spiritual expectations. But it is worth asking, “Does the spiritual life work?”

Chapter 3 in AA’s Big Book is entitled, “How it works.” It describes the 12-Steps with a commentary. It also assures that its program “works.” And it does, for a portion of those who participate. One set of statistics from peer reviewed studies put the AA success rate at less than 10 percent. AA sets it higher – perhaps as much as 33 percent. I endorse their program and encourage anyone with an addiction to participate in a 12-Step program. The numbers, however, are of interest. What I understand from these studies is that addiction is a very powerful force in some lives and can meet with failure in the face of well-designed cures.

I have wondered how the “success” of the spiritual life would be measured? I could imagine that the number of persons Baptized might be compared to the number of the Baptized who fall short of salvation – but there is no way to discover such a thing. In lieu of that, we often set up our own way of measuring – some expectation of “success” that we use to judge the spiritual life. “I tried Christianity…” the now self-described agnostic relates, “and found that it did not live up to its claims.”

To my mind, the entire question is a little like complaining about your hammer because it doesn’t work well as a screw-driver. The problem is that the spiritual life doesn’t “work,” and was never supposed to. It is not something that “works,” it is something that “lives.” And this is an extremely important distinction.

In 1859, Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author and government reformer, published the book, Self-Help, the first self-proclaimed work on self-improvement. His opening line is famous, “God helps those who help themselves.” Indeed, many modern people are under the impression that this statement comes from Scripture (it does not). It is not at all accidental that Smiles’ thought should echo that of the Scottish Enlightenment itself. We can build a better world, and do so more effectively by building better humans. Christianity was to be harnessed in this great progressive drive.

We look to our faith to solve problems. Whether we suffer from psychological wounds, or simple poverty and failure, we look to God for help. The spiritual life, and the “techniques” we imagine to be associated with it, are the means by which we “help ourselves” (God will do the rest).

This narrative is simply not part of the Christian faith. The progress/improvement/better-life scenario does not jibe with the account of the Christian life as given in the New Testament and the Tradition. Verses, such as, John 10:10 (“that they might have life more abundantly”), are “cherry-picked” and drafted into the false narrative of an improved existence. Consider instead this word from St. Isaac of Syria: “…without tribulations befalling us, God’s providence cannot be perceived.”

St. Isaac’s statement is fully in line with the New Testament. There, we are not presented with the solution to our problems, nor with the promise of a better world. Rather, we are taught how to live in repentance and participate daily in the life of the Kingdom of God. That the life of the Kingdom of God is full of joy and transcendence is not at all the same thing as success or improvement. The lives of the saints are filled with information of an opposite sort.

  • Mary of Egypt is directed into the desert by the voice of the Mother of God. She lives miraculously on very little food. But she tells of seventeen years of virtual torture as she battled the temptations that had governed her previously sinful life. Our daily trials would seem as nothing in comparison.
  • Silouan the Athonite related a period of 15 years in which he had no sense of God’s presence, but was instead tortured by demons.
  • Seraphim of Sarov spent years in prayer and fasting, was beaten, robbed and left a cripple.

Many modern readers first encounter the Jesus Prayer in the classic work, The Way of a Pilgrim. It is a work of pious fiction that offers some basic instruction and incentive towards the practice of the Prayer. It can also be misleading. In a matter of months, following instruction from a holy elder, the Pilgrim finds that the prayer has entered his heart and become “self-acting.” A blind man with whom he shares the prayer masters it in even less time and gains the ability to see things at a great distance. I know of modern cases where the Prayer came in what seemed an easy manner, but those cases are not stories of technique – they are singular gifts of grace that seem directed towards a very specific purpose. Most people never have an experience of “self-acting” prayer. It is extremely rare, even among monastics.

The prayer and fasting, almsgiving and confession that are the very heart of the Orthodox way of life are not techniques or ways of self-improvement and betterment. They are the embracing of a way of life in which self-improvement and betterment are beside the point. To observe “improvement” in ourselves is to abandon the way of humility and repentance. It is the nature of the Orthodox way that we become increasingly aware of our failures rather than our progress.

Christ said, “…when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say,`We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'” (Lk. 17:10)

Accepting this represents a change of mind within the modern context. Indeed, the very word for repentance in Greek means a “change of mind” (metanoia). Christianity should not and properly cannot be a subset of the modern lifestyle. Most likely, if carefully followed, it will ruin all our modern plans. Well and good! The Kingdom of God will not be populated by the successful, the well-adjusted and the wise. It is the failures, the foolish, and the fragile who will enter ahead of us, or at least those who were willing to risk their lives in such a manner. The modern narrative is not only false, it creates expectations that are never truly met. Our media torments us with carefully crafted examples of those for whom self-improvement and personal progress seem to work. We can only wonder why it fails to work for us! These are false images that belie the normative struggle of human existence in every age.1

If you are having a difficult time, you are not alone. It is the very nature of human life. That same struggle, however, united with Christ in His Cross, becomes transformative – not in the manner that the world expects, but in the likeness of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

 

 

 

Footnotes for this article

  1. Quite frankly, if “help” were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as “adjustment to life,” “counselling,” “enrichment,” it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to “your friendly bank” and all other “friendly dealers”: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to “give up” the very category of “transcendence,” or in much simpler words, the very idea of “God.” This is the price we must pay if we want to be “understood” and “accepted” by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century. But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be. Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World (Kindle, 1439)

125 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father.

    My wife and I were having a similar discussion yesterday whilst having to witness a [relatively minor] struggle one of our children was dealing with – as all parents know, the struggles of our children are often more torturous on us than they are on them. And so we were talking about how our invocations to Christ and his Mother “weren’t working,” as if the spiritual life is an economy in which our prayers are the capital used to buy favor from God.

    How easily we fall into temptation and disappointment. Out of one side of my mouth I criticize the prosperity gospel and out of the other I treat God as a merchant who gives in accordance with what I “pay.”

  2. Very thought provoking Father. It seems to me our very culture is what is hurting us the most (one outcome being addiction) and the only “solution” is a life of prayer, fasting etc. that turns us away from the culture that hurts to the one that heals. We aren’t any better but we come to know He Who cares for us. It reminds me of when I was young and would hurt myself playing. My mother would patch up my wounds and “kiss my boo boo.” It did not physically hurt less or heal more quickly but I felt better because I knew she loved me and somehow the pain just did not matter compared to that.

  3. Father you have consistently reminded us of the nature of Orthodoxy and its incompatibility with modern “life”. Because I am rather dull, your message finally did hit me on the head with today’s thought when I read, “.. It is the nature of the Orthodox way that we become increasingly aware of our failures rather than our progress”. Since my acceptance into the Orthodox faith, I have said to myself many times, “Gosh I knew I was a sinner, but it seems that I am lot worse than I ever thought, in fact, I really am petty much of a lost cause”. While I know that the last part of my sentiment is not the right outlook, at least I know that seeing how sinful I am is the surest way [the only way?] of being humbled. In short, I have gone from thinking “I am not perfect for sure, but I do try to do better” to “I know one thing, God is merciful”.

  4. I truly appreciate this blog. It is so true that expectations of the “Should” set people up for failure in life and their relationship with God.

  5. Father –
    Bill Wilson was a co-founder of AA. In 1950, he said the following in a letter to a friend.

    “I don’t think happiness or unhappiness is the point. How do we meet the problems we face? How do we best learn from them and transmit what we have learned to others, if they would receive the knowledge?
    “In my view, we of this world are pupils in a great school of life. It is intended that we try to grow, and that we try to help our fellow travelers to grow in the kind of love that makes no demands. In short we try to move towards the image and likeness of God as we understand Him.
    “When pain comes we are expected to learn from it willingly, and help others to learn. When happiness comes we accept it as a gift, and thank God for it.”

    It is my favorite Bill Wilson quote. Perhaps it can help explain how, for me, AA has been a path to Orthodoxy.

  6. Learning,
    I wanted to be careful in using the AA example to state that I fully support it as a recovery model. I think that those for whom it “works,” discover and live it in something of an “Orthodox manner,” as a way of life rather than a way of success. Sobriety and success are not the same thing. There is no situation in our lives that sobriety doesn’t meet and deal with better than being drunk. AA can allow someone to live “better,” if for no other reason than they are actually living.

  7. “Christianity should not and properly cannot be a subset of the modern lifestyle. Most likely, if carefully followed, it will ruin all our modern plans.” As Orthodoxy slowly peels away my illusions of being effective, and I come to realize the not only am I a sinner, but a neurotic and inefficient one as well, nonetheless I have to provide for my family. I have children, recently grown, who strangely enough still occasionally look to me for insight. I can’t simply tell them that trying to make plans and be effective in the world is 100% meaningless. I believe what you are saying, yet surely there must be some kind of balancing concern for discernment and guiding practical decisions. If I could state it with a bit of hyperbole, Byzantium would have never become an empire if the population just wallowed in self doubt all the time. Yet honestly that’s what my first year of Orthodoxy feels like. Gut crunching repentance, tears and neurotic self-doubt. Lord have mercy. Help father.

  8. Wonderful post, Father!

    I find that I, too, tend to “judge” the effectiveness of my prayers by whether or not I am receiving what I am asking, seeking, knocking for in my life. How easy it is to fall into this mistaken perception! So many of our modern Elders, Saint Porphyrios comes to mind here, remind us that the ONLY true purpose of prayer is to express our love for God. It is not to prevent ourselves from experiencing poverty or sickness (hell in this life) or even eternal torment in hell after death; or so that we are rewarded with blessings like wealth and health (heaven in this life) or even Eternal Life in the Heavenly Kingdom. If we think in terms of punishment or reward, then we will necessarily be temptempted to measure the success of our prayer by worldly standards which, as you have pointed out for us in this post, is completely misguided in refernce to the teachings of Christ. I so appreciate you continually pointing out how we are co-opted into blindly applying modern worldly expectations to our Christian life and how utterly off-base this is.

  9. Thomas,
    I understand what you’re saying, but I recently read through St. Seraphim of Sarov’s ‘On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit’. Seraphim speaks blatantly about the economy of grace as being similar to any economy with profit as its motive. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, confession, etc. do not benefit us, Seraphim says, if we do them as goods in and of themselves. Rather, they are for our benefit only insofar as we practice them in order to obtain the grace of the Holy Spirit. Practice them with the goal of getting in return as much grace as possible.

    Certainly, Seraphim is playing with the ideas of profit and acquisition as we normally think of them (earthly goods are diminished in giving them away while spiritual goods increase as we share them). But I think it’s still helpful not to completely disregard the image of a grace economy with God as a merchant.

  10. Christopher,
    Obviously, we have to make plans of some sort to live our lives. But be reasonable about it. Don’t plan to save the world or rescue civilization. And when we make our plans, do what St. James says, “If God wills, then I will do thus and so…”

  11. Will,
    St. Seraphim was speaking from the context of 19th century Russia – which is a world away from the consumer capitalism of 21st century America. So, we think about what he said, and find a way to use it that is faithful withou endorsing a culture that is killing us.

  12. Fr. Stephen,
    That’s a good reminder. When I first came across his analogy, it shocked me (having American capitalism in my mind). I’ve been wrestling with it ever since. How would you translate it in a way that makes sense to an American context without, like you say, endorsing a culture that’s killing us?

  13. “The prayer and fasting, almsgiving and confession that are the very heart of the Orthodox way of life are not techniques or ways of self-improvement and betterment. They are the embracing of a way of life in which self-improvement and betterment are beside the point.”

    OK, but… There must be something we can point to as a reason for following the Orthodox way of life. Otherwise, what’s the appeal to those outside the faith? If being Orthodox doesn’t “improve” or “do” SOMETHING, then why on earth should my athiest friend become Orthodox?

    The general sentiment in the comments is that “results are bad” in the Christian life – or at least wanting “results”. Doesn’t Jesus promise results of a sort? “Come unto me all who are heavy laden”. Result? “I will give you rest”. Or “blessed are the pure in heart”. Result? “They shall see God”.

    I understand that thinking about the Orthodox life as a means to a better self is poison for the soul. I am not after a “better me”, and if I seek “God’s peace” rather than God himself, I am destined to be disappointed. But let’s not sell the gospel short, either: Christ does offer rest, and there is blessing in purifying one’s heart. These results may not be measurable in the way we moderns like to measure progress; but they are goods. True, desirable goods.

  14. John,
    Yes. But what you’ve said you gave with a list of caveats. When we don’t speak those caveats, Orthodoxy quickly just becomes someone else’s program for self-improvement. I think it is necessary to say this as clearly as I’ve stated it here so that anything else can be heard with the proper caveats.

    Why follow Christ in the Orthodox manner? Because it is the truth and He is the truth. Modernity is full of deceptions and false promises. Orthodoxy is to die for.

  15. FrS asks above, “Why follow Christ in the Orthodox manner?” I’ve always appreciated St. Peter’s answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

    As I recall from St. John of the Cross’ Dark Nights: “Progress in Christianity feels like backsliding.”

    From Fr Alexander Schmemann, For The Life Of The World: “Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion…but it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion….Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because the ‘satisfy’ the needs of men.” (Ch 6)

    This blog, the comments, and these kinds of writings give me hope in the battle.

  16. MikeB
    I had forgotten that passage from Fr. Schmemann. But, I often find that I am doing nothing more than creative theological writing in light of his work. I have taken the liberty of putting the Schmemann passage in (somewhat expanded) as a footnote. Thanks for the head’s up!

  17. That “Orthodoxy is to die for”, is kind of key here. An authentic disciple of Christ, in knowledge and undeniable hope that God can be seen, that His rest is given bountifully, seeks this “ticket” to the permanence of these – death (‘having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ’; [Philippians 1-23])– with a joy and fervour that makes him seem fearless. He only fears the rearing of the ugly head of his own ego. He is as if he is someone who sees God and tastes His peace even now, even when he sees and tastes nothing; he accepts and utterly trusts that any current darkness and unrest might be his lot for reasons he trusts God to hold in His unfathomable providence.

  18. Thank you very much Father Stephen. Your writings have been a great blessing to me and I have often shared them to my friends. I fully agree with your article, but somehow I cannot but recall Philippians 1:6. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  19. Jun,
    No doubt, as St. Paul says, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of the Lord.” Our culture, deeply enmeshed in the imagery of progress and evolution, cannot help but think in the same terms when it reads this. It is certainly a movement within us that has a beginning and a fulfillment. That work and movement is also something that is often hidden (even from us). It is a promise that what is unseen and hidden will be revealed and made known.

    Many saints of the Church were not “revealed” as saints until after their death. This “hiddenness” is something of a hallmark of the Orthodox spiritual life. That hiddenness is shrouded in humility and the appearance of weakness. Christ Himself appeared weak. His majesty is almost completely hidden until the resurrection. This is true of us, as well.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman says @ January 30, 2018 at 3:33 pm:
    Obviously, we have to make plans of some sort to live our lives.
    I don’t think we dare, unless we are going to toss out the Sermon on the Mount. Dare we consider ourselves ‘spiritual’? Is this our life, or is it God’s life for which we are ignorantly making plans? We find, over and over again, starting with the great Fore-fathers, through the prophets and kings, in the Apostles, and in all the Saints: the will of God is far superior to the plans of men, even though we may make Him use our foibles to accomplish it, even to the hardening of our hearts to the destroying of our kingdom to give liberty to the oppressed. The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is that the will of the Father be done on earth.
    Pray that nothing be done to interfere with God!

  21. Cyneath,
    I cited St. James regarding planning:

    Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”;
    whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” (Jas. 4:13-15)

  22. Fr. Stephen,
    I can look back on my life and see how God has indeed worked through my failures and weaknesses. Had I been a great “success” in life, whatever that means, I don’t know what would have happened to me or where I’d be today. I was not a great athlete, usually the last one chosen for a baseball team. I felt like a failure in high school. I was tall, skinny with acne. I believed I was not smart enough to go to college. After h.s. I joined the Air Force. It was there I realized I was as intelligent as the next guy. So, I did go to college and graduate after my discharge. I did this only with the tremendous help and support of my wife. However, as an adult I often felt like a failure, that even if I succeeded in a job, I would soon be discovered to be a fraud. I drifted from one thing to another, like a cork tossed upon huge ocean swells. However, these failures, or at least what seemed like failures, forced me time after time back to God, that my true value and worth came only from Him. And so here I sit as a senior citizen, looking back now with gratitude and thanksgiving at the innumerable ways God in Christ has blessed my life. His hand has never left my side. After long years He brought me into His one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I now try to live small, pray, give alms, repent, and show mercy to others as our good God who loves mankind has shown mercy to me. Thank God for my weaknesses for only when I am weak can God reveal Himself to me, in the depth of my heart, with His sweet Presence.

  23. ‘That the life of the Kingdom of God is full of joy and transcendence is not at all the same thing as success or improvement.’

    ‘ To observe “improvement” in ourselves is to abandon the way of humility and repentance. It is the nature of the Orthodox way that we become increasingly aware of our failures rather than our progress.’

    This is so helpful…to become more and more aware of my failures in the presence glory of the humility of Christ…be mindful of death and do not despair…thank you Father Stephen for continually pointing us to Life and Light rather than improvement and success goal of our modern age..

  24. You say, Father: “What I understand from these studies is that addiction is a very powerful force in some lives and can meet with failure in the face of well-designed cures.”
    Based on the “success/results” message of this post, I would like to say something about the healing of addiction. That addiction is a very powerful force can not be overstated. The force is evil in every sense of the word. It is a ball and chain. It is living in a dungeon. Your whole existence revolves around avoidance, to escape the thought of being a hopeless addict, lower than the lowest, worthy of nothing good. Its a vicious circle. You use up all your resources…money, people…to stay high. Now isn’t it interesting that the addict wants to avoid the very truth of our existence…that in ourselves we really are hopeless and unworthy? So then, still unable to see the truth, the reality of true life, totally misconstrued in modern Christianity, the addict is told Jesus will solve your problem. He is your happy pill. All will be hunky-dory. This was exactly my experience. And to further “prove” how Jesus “fixes” I was asked to give my testimony not only in our church, but to an audience of people from various churches in the community. This I did. But funny, as the years went by, the Jesus pill seemed to be a placebo. Life was by no means hunky-dory. I still sought the high. Worse, it was justified somewhat because I was reminded that nevertheless I was “saved”. But what about the “results”? Talk about confusion and frustration. And anger. But now this is the point…somehow in all this I never blamed God, but rather continued to see myself as utterly worthless. I began to look upon the churches in the same way…they were not “helping”. I eventually stopped attending. Yet there was another more powerful force that enabled me to know two things. One, I knew I had to be in church. Two, there was something about the Body of Christ that was real, and that I was missing. That’s it though, I knew nothing else. But my mind was intent on finding answers. It seemed like a long time coming but finally, thanks be to God, I was led to Orthodoxy. Now. in the presence of Truth, I am beginning to see the lies. It is in the paradoxes, the seeming contradictions of suffering, and NOT the modern definition of success, where true life is found….only in Christ’s Church, in the many, of the One Body, in the life of the Trinity, in communion. This is the abundant life. Life transcended and made new. It is not “once fixed, always fixed”…but lived moment to moment. How do you explain this to people out there? You can’t. Words fail. It’s best to just “be”, and perhaps a door may open in conversation. But, as I was told, you can only invite them to “come and see”. So, this is why I get tearful when I read of the Good Shepard. I never, ever, ever imagined the things I have encountered in Orthodoxy. I have a much different testimony now. But I think it would be utterly incomprehensible to those I spoke to in the past.
    Forgive me for my many words. I can’t seem to be short and concise. I did want to address addiction, though. It is so very true that you simply can not understand how something can control your very existence unless you’ve been there. It is one of the most humiliating experiences one can have. But that’s the point…He takes us in our humiliation…and heals, in hope that we remain humble.
    Glory to God, to His holy name.

  25. Dean, Debbie A, ,
    I just now read your comments…same thoughts, different words. The Spirit working through us…all of us.
    Let me not forget to thank you once again, Father Stephen. Thank you!

  26. Dean,

    Thank you for your comment. Such a beautiful testimonial to living the true Faith.

    Even if my life followed somewhat different path (it started out very promising for the best professional success and accomplishments which I gave up to marry somebody who later left me), I now see how God knew what was best (and generously even gave me many things I would not have had without sacrificing my career, most importantly my children), and most especially did not allow me to fall away from Him (I grew up and stayed in the Orthodox Church, but many of my childhood friends did not).

    And in time, He brought those trials and tribulations (the comments on Father’s recent posts spoke about that so beautifully) to draw me even closer. I would not change anything about my life (all those trials, heartbreaks, illnesses and losses), and am grateful that towards the end of it, I know Him more than many people…

    Hopefully He will allow us enough time to “offer Him true repentance” before He brings our life to an end… That end is no longer something to fear or avoid, but something to look forward to…What a blessing to have this perspective on life!

    And until then, to
    “live small, pray, give alms, repent, and show mercy to others as our good God who loves mankind has shown mercy to me. Thank God for my weaknesses for only when I am weak can God reveal Himself to me, in the depth of my heart, with His sweet Presence.”….

  27. Paula;
    You cannot be short and concise because you are trying to describe the infinite love and mercy of our Lord. You are correct i saying that the people that you once gave a testimony to would not understand because you are describing knowing God in an experiential way and only those that have been there can grasp your meaning. The experience is beyond words.

  28. Father, how does one make sense of this new modern reality of sharing any number of thoughts and opinions with strangers via online forums with people you have never met but who will share anything about their lives with thousands if not millons of strangers? Recently, I was chided by a loved one for engaging a stranger who is aspiring to a career somewhat in the public eye because I asked her last name after learning a myriad of interesting career details. Now I find this perplexing because both of these people, the stranger and the loved one maintain public social media profiles. How do I make sense of sharing everything with everyone yet it being wrong to share a few details with just one or two people? My heart is confused.

  29. Anonymous,
    Most of what we see is the tension for the need to be known and the need for privacy. To a certain extent, it’s a function of shame (which can also be understood in a positive way). Shame is another word for our deepest vulnerability. We need to share that with someone or we remain very much alone and isolated. But it needs to be shared safely, because it is so easily abused. You’d think the internet would not be a safe place at all, but we, indeed, often style ourselves “anonymous,” or various forms of it so that we can be in charge of our own safety to a certain extent.

    It’s also the case that we often get this stuff wrong. ‘Cause it’s hard.

  30. Anonymous, there is also a privacy tactic which I call bombardment with intimacy. I used to do that before social media. I would bombard a new acquaintance with a deluge of intimate personal facts. That accomplished two things:. It kept me in control and it kept the other person at arm’s length. It is unlikely they would quickly share similar intimacies but they were uncomfortable at the same time.

    However, if they asked something about me that penetrated the outer layer then I would have the power to say no. Even in this day to share one’s name with someone can be too much.

    I do not have that problem in part because I have found that being vulnerable in Christ is the only safe place. Since I am either guilty of a sin or fully capable of it I rarely care what someone else says.

    What will rouse my ire is someone attacking someone else I care about. Even there I am working to hold on to my peace.

  31. I look at this from the perspective of names and in thinking about the recent passing of Ursula K. Le Guin who is quoted in NYTimes obituary as having said “I cannot write the story if the name is wrong.” Perhaps a beautiful quality about the internet for those of us who’ve spent our lives feeling wrongly named (and what effect is that, I wonder) is opportunity to explore “right name” possibilities. Personally, I also find the renaming of Orthodox baptism intriguing along the same lines. As an unbaptized inquirer, I have wondered how a priest would know how to get it right.

  32. Anonymous, I share your confusion also. This is the only blog I have participated in regarding comments and discussion. Interestingly, several people in my parish and in neighboring parishes recognize me here in this blog. My confessor priest has been curious about my decision to keep my so called anonymity when I’m recognized locally. My answer (to him and to myself when I’ve asked myself this question ) is that having been known as a scientist in national science societies, in a role of leadership, I’m not yet ready to bring myself out further into those groups before I have had more time to live a life in Christ and in Orthodoxy. Someday my ‘feet’ might well be put ‘into the flames’ of contention with other scientists. Given the slow path of spirituality, I wait on God for the time I that I might be ready. Of course I might never be ready, and in that case in a hidden life I will remain grateful and small.

  33. Michael and Dee,
    Thank you for your replies. I used social media for about two years then realized that I was being drawn into arguments and wasting time. The people who really matter will remain in my life whether I use Facebook or not. I can see its benefits on many levels. As to a small and hidden life in Christ, I couldn’t agree more. I thank God for a monastery that I visit regularly and a nun with whom I can converse about anything. I suppose I will always find it perplexing how people share so much of themselves online yet face-to-face they seem shocked that you would dare ask them or someone else anything. Perhaps it is a persona they think they are sharing. But to me it’s the same as standing up in front of all of your “friends” and saying and sharing things that in person you would never do. To me it disconnects the mind from the heart, but perhaps I am speaking about things I know nothing about.

  34. Anonymous, people in my parish have asked or commented on a few things I’ve mentioned online. I don’t mind at all mainly because I’ve usually already had such personal conversations with them. And my associations in our parish are not confrontational. (I’m in a small parish.) I guess this just might mean that I haven’t learned the online social customs perhaps. I don’t know. But because I’m in a public forum that people in my parish might read, I have an obedience not to get into fights or argumentsonline, lest I set a poor example that I would need to confess. And I fully agree with such obedience even if I do fail (and confess these failures). But if it is a faux pas to ask someone about their online comments, I might have fallen into such a faux pas myself because I wasn’t aware there might be a general protocol. However I would preface such questions, with a preliminary question to ask whether it is ok to talk about their online comments.

  35. Father, Anonymous, Dee and Michael,

    What an interesting turn of conversation… 🙂

    I am a member of a very large parish, but I think hardly anybody from it ever reads this blog. Some here know that in the past I have shared many details of my life, but mostly to get Father’s helpful insight and advice from the wonderful commenters.

    In time, I came to realize that this blog is not read by any people that are in my closest circle, and if it is read by “thousands and millions of strangers” none of them care about me. …
    In the end, just like Father said, a little vulnerability can be often very therapeutic. And this blog is a wonderfully safe place for that.

    Thank you all here, Father most of all, for this special gift.

  36. (different) Anonymous – At my Church, the Priest allows us to choose our own Saint for our Baptism when we are adult converts. He suggests that we choose one with a name that starts with the same letter as our secular name. When I was a catechumen, I was in an Orthodox bookstore and an icon of Saint Elizabeth Romanov the New Martyr of Russia captivated my attention before I even knew I was supposed to choose a saint with a name beginning in “E,” so I have always felt like she chose me!

  37. Agata,
    Our parish priest recommends FrStephen’s blog for edifying essays and catechism discussion. Sometimes Fr Stephen’s essays are distributed in hard copy as well in our parish.

  38. Dee,
    Yes, I see Father’s articles in many parish messengers and linked to on different web sites. Very many people know of this blog, even if only by name… Many don’t take the time though to explore its riches. Thank God some priests do it for their parishioners…

  39. Agata says @January 31, 2018 at 11:17 pm:
    Dee,
    … Many don’t take the time though to explore its riches.

    I couldn’t imagine such censorship of this blogs readership! True may be that there are many ‘signed up’ that never partake, yet this is perhaps the most provocative blog of the *anonymous* Orthodox reader. Here we see, esp. among the comments, Orthodoxy lived, as a state of livingness, within our topical environment. Certainly, it is among the wheat we find the tares. Let yet not the lepers be culpable.

  40. Father will explain, but to me this use of the internet seems like a sort of non-sacramental confession + communion. I mean that in a good way. And maybe there is a sacramental quality here, in the more general sense of the word. I myself feel a bit transformed reading. Well, at least uplifted, encouraged.

  41. Agata, et al
    I suspect that many people in my parish don’t read my blog. Some of them have little idea about this part of my ministry. My choir director, whom I’ve known for 20 years, when I told him I would be out of town for another speaking engagement, said (in all sincerity), “Why do they want to hear you?” My treasurer, attended the parish as an inquirer for months (he was a reader of the blog) – but one Sunday, he said, “I didn’t realize that you were “that” Fr. Stephen.

    They have to put up with so much from me!

  42. Christopher from Tennessee,
    John 16:33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. You wrote “Yet honestly that’s what my first year of Orthodoxy felt like. Gut crunching repentance, tears and neurotic self-doubt.”
    “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.” Elder Saphrony of Essex
    Kyrie Iisou Christe Eleison

  43. Albert, I am grateful for your comment. I visited your blog this morning…it was a balm much needed. I love the depth in your poetry and your writings. I hope you don’t mind that I copy and paste this particular poem, as it speaks to the oddity of communication via technology.

    What is Love, Technically

    We never even met
    but we were close enough

    in writing on a screen. Three hundred miles
    Could have been thousands, or three,
    As our words nearly touched
    With little taps on separate keyboards.

    It was all talk, though freely flowing as a spring. Conversations I’ve never had before or since.

    In the end our understandings misaligned
    So now I only meet you at other sites
    Through someone’s words that echo yours,

    And then,

    here they are again before my eyes.
    Bright new ideas fly around as before, in flocks, buoyed by enthusiasm. Old theories swarm, and on occasion stories sail
    Like hawks in the warm drafts of feelings.

  44. Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your reply.
    I often discover that people “know about your blog, oh yes!”, but when asked if they read it, or what they like most about it, the answer is usually “well, no, not really”… (followed by a list of excuses, LOL!)
    It’s like that with much of the Orthodox daily parish life, once you start talking to people about God and spiritual things, people’s eyes glaze over, and they disconnect. I am not saying this in a critical way, just an observation… I was guilty of that for many years myself, and worse than that I am sure, I thank God He brought me all the necessary “trials and tribulations” to change my ways a little…

    Coming to see you in person at that Lenten Retreat in San Francisco was for sure a pivotal event, followed by many more blessings (as you know) 🙂

    Now I still need to come see you in your home environment, it’s on my list!

    Thank you again for everything you do!

    P.S. Cyneath Ian,
    I don’t really understand what you mean by your comment, but if what I said was offensive to anybody, I ask forgiveness, please…

  45. I have an obedience not to get into fights or arguments online, lest I set a poor example that I would need to confess.

    I gave myself such an obedience some time ago and withdrew from some social media groups (“orthodox”, oddly enough) that seemed to feed those arguments. I now ask for God to reduce me so I do not become a stumbling block for others.

  46. Byron – I also pray for God to reduce me, but after a half century of pumping up my ego, as per the modern project, I find there is a lot to reduce. I need to be patient and not try to tackle the job myself. Trying to reduce my ego myself would just be more reliance on myself instead of God. A Catch-22, if there ever was one.

  47. I’m grateful for Fr Stephen’s humility, mainly because such self-emptying is the spiritual path of Christ. The priest who is my confessor and parish priest gently asked me to stop calling him ‘my spiritual father’ in this blog because it incites vanity and gives the impression that he’s my ‘spiritual guru’ which he is not. He is my parish priest whom I respect as my teacher, parish priest and confessor.

    I have other teachers in Orthodoxy also. Here in this blog I count Fr Stephen, but also the regular commenters, giving a list of only a few with whom I have conversation here, Michael B., Merry B., Nicholas G., Dean, Karen, Paula, and Theodorus, and others, as my teachers.

    I am young in the faith though getting older in age. I’ve had an unusual trajectory in my life, the details that I generally keep hidden, but can describe in terms as ‘low’ to ‘high’ to ‘low’ again regarding this culture’s value of people (from a view point of money, and other influences such as power or other forms of ‘leadership’). The quotient of my personal ‘happiness’ was/is highest most often, when I’ve been in the ‘lowest’ rung of value in this society. This is an interesting observation to me and asserts part of the reason why I often felt myself to be some sort of imposter, posing as a leader when by rights, someone of my background typically is not found in such circumstances.

    One advantage I see from being small and of no-count is not to be bothered so much with the egos and the hubris to the extent that I’ve had to deal with in the past (or so I have thought). Perhaps this view will change over time. However, such a viewpoint is quite a bit different from the self-emptying path of love Fr Stephen describes. Some people may undertake such a path and live this path self-emptying love with the grace of God and still be catapulted to a larger and more public appearance. For example, St Paul among other saints.

    I have no desire to inflate Fr Stephen’s ego (God gives him such grace to prevent this, thanks be to God), but at the same time I don’t want to diminish the impact of this blog’s ministry either. I believe that it goes further than Agata’s perception of it. For that reason, I too, interpreted the perspective she shared as having a tone of diminishment. There is a ‘good side’ of such tone if it helps Fr Stephen keep his humility, but if it expresses something that is not true, for example, that there may be a wider population who reads and needs this blog as a source of ‘learning the faith’ and having an evangelical experience of Orthodoxy, then to encourage a thought that it has no such reach might encourage a pre-mature closure. (God forbid!!!)

    Agata, I admire the fact that you have had the opportunity to meet Fr Stephen, and wish that I could also. I don’t have the means for travel as you have. But I have introduced myself and my priest to Fr Stephen via email correspondence, and have had a few short and edifying conversations in private, in that medium. My priest tells me that he knows of other priests who are regular readers and ‘fans’ (sorry Fr Stephen!) who may well encourage their own parishes to read Fr Stephen’s essays. This could explain why he’s a popular speaker, ask well. I’m not given to think there is a small audience of regular readers, even though the regular commenters are a small group.

  48. Hello, dear Father Steve. I wondered if I should respond in case you had been particularly prompted by something I wrote, because I say in my book “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” that Orthodoxy “works:”

    <

    It’s probably just a coincidence, but such a funny coincidence I thought maybe I should respond. But hopefully it’s clear that I’m talking about something else, and not earthly success. In this passage I’m trying to answer the question a Western Christian would have: “You mean it’s the same liturgy every Sunday? You do the same fast every week? Doesn’t it get boring? Why don’t you update it and change it for new generations and different cultures?”

    The response is that Orthodoxy is not a collection of abstract ideas and assertions; it is something alive, personal, and intimately transformative. It acts upon us in a real-world sense, not just emotionalism or piety. It actually changes people. We can see saints who were so transformed they could bear terrible trials, like St. Mary of Egypt and St. Seraphim. It’s an inner transformation in Christ that enables saints to bear with utter worldly failure, pain, and rejection.

    Most of us will not reach anything like that degree of surrender-ed-ness, and don’t expect to; but seeing the saints who did urges us on. It shows us that it really is worth it to keep on following the Way. Orthodox have continued to go to liturgy and fast over alll these centuries not just because they think the propositions of the faith are true, but because of the living presence of Christ, which transforms some of us in small ways, but occasionally others in magnificent ways that inspire and encourage us. Because light shines out of the saints, perhaps most of all in their suffering, we see that our faith is true, that God really does come to us and give us his life.

    I also am probably by nature more of an optimist than most people, I tend to see the bright side, so I do see places in my life where God has helped me to let go of sin. It’s such a long, slow process, but I do see reasons to trust God and his process and be encouraged. There is so much in the New Testament that challenges us to live holy (even “perfect”) lives and to strive like an athlete. Probably just by personality I lean more toward that direction, toward cheering people on and being grateful for the gift of being helped to let go of sin.

    Anyway that’s what I meant by saying that Orthodox people can see that the life the Church offers us “works”. The context was just to nudge readers to think of faith as something that has real, organic effects in our lives, and is not just a list of propositions. Being able to see it in the saints, and the suffering saints, is a great help in resolving to continue to follow on the Way.

  49. Dee,

    “For that reason, I too, interpreted the perspective she shared as having a tone of diminishment. ”

    I did not mean any diminishment, I was only expressing sadness that more people don’t read and “drink the spiritual nourishment” that Father Stephen offers us here… Father, please forgive me if I came across that way towards you… You know I would never mean that…

    Somehow every time I “open my mouth” here, I get myself in trouble, so I ask forgiveness again… I was just trying to encourage Anonymous not to worry too much about all those people who read the blog. I still look froward to a time when somebody recognizes me when we meet in person… It has not happened in over 3 years, at my parish or any other…
    Forgive me…

  50. In my home parish (Saint Seaphim in Santa Rosa, California) of 200+, there are quite a few readers of Fr. Stephen’s blog. However, most are simply readers and never comment. Fr. Stephen has spoken at our church and our priest has also made hard copies of several of his articles in order to make them available to the less tech savvy members among us. I am currently residing at a Monastery in the area and while there are only about 10 nuns who live in this community, and they have all been together for at least a decade, some know of Fr. Stephen and some do not, which I must say surprised me. But I suspect that is a testament to the fact that each nun is carrying out their obediences and not engage in too much conversation with one another.

  51. Khouria Frederica,
    I had not seen you statement that Orthodoxy “works.” It is certainly true in the sense you use it. It is even true in the sense that it will, when lived with a measure of faithfulness, do what it promises to do. But that will not likely look like what many of us in the culture think of with the phrase. My unpacking and critiquing of modernity messes up lots of words! But please keep giving us your words. They are such a valuable part of our Orthodox life!

  52. Agata, please don’t fret. Your intention became more apparent. It’s just in this medium misunderstandings do happen and it helps to clarify if misunderstood.

  53. Dee,
    People don’t know it (unless they blog), but there is a “dashboard” that allows for managing the blog. It also tells you how many views an article gets, etc. My daily readership here is about 3,500 to 4,000. And “explosive” article (such as the one I did on anxiety and depression) will have over 20,000 in a day. Those numbers do not register the places where the blog is reprinted, or where it appears in translation. What I can’t see is how many views represent the article, and how many represent reading and following the comments. The community of commenters has held steady with a shifting population over the years. It is, I think, a fairly unique place that I wouldn’t have thought of or known how to invent. It’s just happened and I’m as grateful as others – particularly since the comments are often better than the original article!

    I am always grateful for the thanks people offer – it is an encouragement. I also would not want anyone to mistake what I write and say as making me anything more than a parish priest with a theological education. Much of what I write comes out of my own struggles (not my successes!). That only gives me the authority of a fellow struggler. That God uses this stuff is beyond generous on His part. People who do meet me and spend time with me, have to deal with the fact that my ADHD is very present (especially when I’m not writing). It makes me overly-talkative, prone to rabbit trails, emotionally sensitive (sometimes to a painful extent), as well as a lot of other things.

    I am certain that this affliction is both gift and thorn in the flesh. Sorry for all the “about me” thoughts. 🙂

  54. Agata,
    People in your own parish? Well, I hope you do make it to CA. and on to Dunlap. I will recognize you. 🙂
    Father Stephen and Pres. Frederica.
    Writing styles and backgrounds are so varied. Just as I want to hear my wife’s take on things, I believe men and women authors bring to us subtle differences, nuances of understanding. Thus, you both approach writing with different vantage points. But they enable us to glimpse varying facets of truth that we would have otherwise missed. You both have helped me so much over the past years in my sojourn. Thank you!

  55. ” It makes me overly-talkative, prone to rabbit trails, emotionally sensitive (sometimes to a painful extent), as well as a lot of other things.”
    Father! That’s it! I think I have ADHD too! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  56. Agata,
    If you and I should meet, I would be grateful, also. Who knows in your travels you might come accidentally to my parish. And, I would give you a big hug and some of my bees’ honey!

  57. Dee,
    I too look forward to meeting you some day, and to the hug and the honey 🙂
    I have a few such hugs promised as a result of similar previous conversations here…
    Isn’t it true Byron, Michael and Merry? 🙂

    Dean,
    I am now a little curious and hopeful about my parish (blog readers), I will let you know if anybody mentions anything. There must be one among these thousands… 🙂
    Yes, it looks like the visit to the Lenten Retreat in San Francisco and to Dunlap monastery is a very real possibility, so I look forward to seeing you there.

    Thank you Father for sharing the stats of your blog with us. That is amazing and wonderful that you have so many readers!! May God bless and guide them all to the Church through your work!
    And how wonderful that Khouria Frederica joined us here today, my other beloved Orthodox author! To have my comment placed next to her words is an honor and a blessing.

    This part of the conversation reminded me how Dino once said that “Orthodoxy does not convince, it charms”…. And how Fr. Zacharias says that we will not experience any of the blessings until we “make an experiment” and live in the way the Gospel tells us to live…. May God help us make a good effort this Lent. That is my wish and a prayer for all of you.

    In Christ,
    Agata

  58. As someone who can be counted among the thousands per day who read your blog thank you Fr Stephen for your teachings on the modern delusions that engulf us all. I found this blog site a few years back and had never read a blog site before but around that time I had decided that i couldn’t take the news feed “propaganda” cycle anymore and the social media scene seemed to me to suddenly become a place for passions (mine and others) to be set free unhindered. I decided to get rid of it all and go into the “cone of silence” in this regard.
    It seems your blog came just in time to fill the space that was once filled with endless news cycles and facebook.
    What a blessing it has been . Your teachings on the modern project, shame and the ego has been such a revelation and a challenge.
    Also thank you to all those who contribute to the discussions that follow.
    As a convert and having only met two or three converts to Orthodoxy in my 15 yrs in the faith, the fact that so many who share here are converts and have personal stories to share is a great comfort, even if its only snippets here and there. Sometimes I am even moved to tears.
    The modern mindset is so engrained in us and often when speaking to those within the church about the need to let go of trying to fix society , not concentrating on the social justice issues of our time and accepting that this notion of “progress” is deeply flawed I often get people roll their eyes at me and suggest that I get my head out of the sand, especially in regards to not following the latest political drama or social justice scandal.
    Now its my lack of repentance,my consumer addictions,that scandalise me.
    I guess you have to be ready for the scales to fall from your eyes so you can see clearly. I was like that to for most of my current Orthodox life also , kinda like an infection from my secular/protestant days had to be healed first so I could move on.
    The challenge from here on seems to be to take all this wisdom and move it away from being just another system of thought, information collected and into a movement of the heart towards God. I pray that I have enough days in my life for God to do His work as I am a slow mover. My ego stands as a formidable fortress around my heart. Also, my ego is always looking for a release, like a musician, my ego plays my mouth as an instrument.
    A line in a prayer from Elder Sophrony reads ” Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be Thy will that I make no answer, inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace that causeth neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow human beings”.
    Its the part about silence that stays with me, I pray God can inspire more silence from me and within me than my need to spout my own religious agendas at people.
    For all the garbage on the internet please know that your work there in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Yes I listen to your podcasts also and I have no idea where that is apart from being somewhere in the U.S) reaches right across the world.
    I am only a wretched man but you are in my prayers.
    Thank you Fr Stephen .

  59. Aust_Orthodox,
    Your posts lift me up. Thank you.
    I certainly need more silence in my life, waiting on the Lord, no agenda, simply waiting. Incessant voices bombard us at every hour, our own being the loudest, both within and without. For many the clamor and cacaphony of voices reaches such a crescendo that we cry, “Enough!” There is a better way, one that leads us to life. “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength….” says the prophet Isaiah. We must wait in silence if we are to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit. We live small to hear, to obey, to worship, to receive, to give, to serve. Smaller, quieter, is better.

  60. I don’t know what I can possible add to the “turn of conversation” (so astutely stated, Agata) over the past week, but here it goes…
    Father, for the thousandth time, thank you for this ministry. When we comment, one may get the impression, due to this mode of communication, that if the comment is not addressed to you, we are talking past you. In my mind though, I see us as a group and you right in the middle, listening, laughing with us, crying with us, attuned to our thoughts and tweaking them to turn us back to right (ortho) thinking (doxy). Your work is priceless…it is God sent. People do not know what they’re missing!
    Friends who step out to comment…another blessing. Who ever thought one can love through a screen! But the love of God knows no boundaries. I have seen (and personally experienced) His presence, His love, overcome the wounds of misunderstanding and disagreement as we try to express ourselves. He ever so gently and lovingly works His good pleasure among us. I am grateful for all who partake here. If I begin naming names many would be left out. But those who have been here for some time, I have come to know through your comments. As Dee so beautifully said, we learn from each other…all the while as Father gently but forthrightly leads and corrects. I can’t help but say, Father, that this is an image of our Good Shepard.
    Khouria Frederica (what a beautiful address. Until now, I was not familiar with the word Khouria)… I was thrilled to see your name! And greatly edified by your words. Dean says it best… where you and Father come from”different vantage points…they enable us to glimpse varying facets of truth.” Thank you!
    Lastly, as Aust said, this group, numbering in the thousands, is unique in that we meet through a blog which offers us to share the most meaningful part of our lives, and in such a way as is not found among even friends, family and church. Very unique. And much good fruit.
    Thank you and blessings in Christ to all!

  61. Paula, et al
    I should say that I am good friends with Khouria Frederica, and have known her family for quite a long while. Back in the 90’s, when I was still an Anglican priest, I first met Fr. Gregory Matthewes-Green at a conference organized by my dear friend, Fr. Aidan (Al) Kimel (who also, incidentally is responsible for me being a blog writer). Fr. Aidan took me aside (he was also an Anglican at the time) and said, “There’s someone you’ll want to meet,” and introduced me to Fr. Gregory. He explained that Fr. Gregory was 2 weeks away from being received and ordained in the Antiochian Archdiocese. He was one of the first men I had met who had converted (Fr. Gregory was an Anglican as well). I was full of questions, wanting to hear how it was done, what did he think, etc. Our paths have been entangled ever since, to my lasting benefit.

    Khouria Frederica was also quite helpful to me when I was looking at doing a book. She and her husband, and many others, form what I think of as the broad center of American Orthodoxy – solidly grounded in the tradition, without personal axes to grind or strange ideas that mark their work. The only real difference might be with how one of us plays with a word or phrase (such as “does it work?”) – which is really no difference at all.

    I can say without hesitation, that if I found myself out-of-sync with such people, I would swiftly engage in some serious self-examination, assuming that the problem was surely with me. CS Lewis once said, “In Theology, novelty is not a virtue.”

    The only novelty that I welcome is that which allows the Tradition to be seen anew (“novel” meaning “new”). Modernity, of course, is not “new.” It’s just one more iteration of many heresies that have gone before. Fr. Alexander Schmemann generally put it under the heading of Gnosticism.

    God give us grace to have friends who are eager for the truth and love the gospel!

  62. Thank you for your comment, Dee, but, as you yourself have said, we are all, under Father’s guidance, teaching each other. I have certainly learned a lot from you.

  63. Slow indeed. A year ago I was able to repent of a sinful syndrome that began when I was four (65 years). Still more to work on but a Gordian Knot has been cut after 30 years of hacking away at it

  64. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Your beautiful words
    “God give us grace to have friends who are eager for the truth and love the gospel!”

    give me a perfect excuse to share this wonderful quote from St. Maximos the Confessor that I came across recently. I love it so much, and continue to see its truth in friends I meet through you and your blog:

    Many people have said much about Love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it. For only they have the true Love, the Teacher of Love. Therefore the one who posesses Love, posesses God Himself. Since God is Love.

  65. Dear Father,

    I am editor of an Orthodox website, I was wondering if you allow reposting your articles on other website with a link to the source? I really think your articles are helpful and thus should be shared as much as possible. Looking forward to your reply!

  66. Father,
    How very interesting to here about the background of the the people we know in the foreground in today’s American Orthodoxy. Of coarse I shouldn’t be surprised that it is such a close community. It’s just very nice to be aware of these things. It deepens my appreciation. Khouria seems like a very caring, kind person. And as like draws to like, so with groups of people. Your quote from C.S. Lewis … he has a way of getting to the point short and sweet! No, you don’t want to be out of sync!
    So the pieces of the puzzle were falling together as Fr. Aiden introduced you to Fr. Gregory, a recent convert, and you and Fr. Aiden on the path. I can imagine your barrage of questions to Fr. Gregory! Having a better understanding of Providence (thank you!) I can sure see this by the way you all met, came together and continue the good work. Good stuff, Father! God is good!

  67. Father,

    I, too, have been blessed by Kh. Frederica, Fr. Aidan, and all the commenters here over the years. I don’t often get to talking with others in my parish about Orthodox blogdom–coffee hour conversation tends to revolve around things closer to home (family parish, and work life, etc.). I am sure there are members of my parish who read this blog. I met one a couple years ago. This year I recommended it to another parish friend who was looking for some Orthodox sources of edification to use at home. I recommended this blog, which she likes, as well as AFR podcasts, and she is finding some daily sustenance there as well. We really are so very blessed to have these resources at our fingertips thanks to the Internet!

  68. It’s interesting, if it wasn’t for my priest who suggested reading this blog, I’m not sure I would have gone looking for Orthodox reading-edification online. I just wasn’t a blog reader and still probably would’t be considered one if it wasn’t for this blog. This might be more about my age- perhaps, but I know of others in my age group who are avid ‘Facebookers’.

    Karen, like you I have also suggested this blog to others, especially for adult catechumens. And I highly recommend mining the archived articles as well to see more articles on a given topic. Along with the comments/discussion, I find such wealth and balm for my soul.

    Fr Stephen, I figured your numbers were high but that 20,000 was a whopper. There is definitely a need in those topics. It’s my impression that your pastoral work experience adds depth to those topics as well as the others you tackle. And while your theological knowledge is so enriching, it isn’t just your theological knowledge but your personal struggles, and the reflections and insights you brought from them that gives us a form of communion in this medium, where it seems so needful. It may be as you say, this offers a safe environment for divulging our wounds and sharing our experiences that supports us all. Thank you and God bless you!

  69. I need to say to anyone who hasn’t read it, and especially to any catechumen ‘out there’ reading this blog, that I highly recommend Fr Stephen’s book, “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One Storey Universe”. This book provides more material on what Fr Stephen refers as the “modern project”. I found reading this book and this blog has helped put together a lot of ‘pieces’ of thought and experiences I have had, but had no vocabulary to describe it well.

  70. Maria,
    Yes. There are a number of sites that link or repost my articles. I should add that, very kindly, they are often translated as well. Articles have appeared in over 12 languages to date. Please feel free to repost.

  71. All,
    I should note that something quite noteworthy has to be said about American Orthodoxy and its generosity towards converts. I occasionally see unkind remarks viz. converts – mostly on social media, and even then, often from other converts! But people like Fr. Gregory and Fr. Aidan, and Kh. Frederica, were already possessed of some serious theological abilities and training (and I could add many other names to that list). I had written articles and done a book before my conversion. I did not write again for 8 years, for, what seemed to me, obvious reasons.

    But when I did begin to write, what I offered was judged on its merits, by and large, and not on some sort of pedigree. Ancient Faith was started and founded by John Maddex. John was once the head of Moody Bible Broadcasting – which is to say that he was a very serious and capable professional. The first book in English on the Orthodox faith was not published until 1962 (if I’m not mistaken). That was Met. Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware) and his The Orthodox Church which was solicited by Oxford University Press. He protested that he had only been Orthodox for a short time. It is now a standard classic. When I was inquiring in the 1970’s, I read pretty much everything St. Vladimir’s published, which did not fill even a single shelf.

    The explosion in publication directly coincides with the explosion in American converts. Some very talented people brought their talent with them. And to the everlasting credit of Orthodoxy, they were welcomed on the basis of what they could actually do. I often had to struggle in my Anglican years to do anything. Almost the completely opposite experience.

    My book is soon to be translated into Russian and published from a University in Moscow (God willing and everything goes along as planned). I would never have dreamed that such kindness and welcome would be extended – not just to me – but to so many. Orthodoxy has plenty of problems – but I have been better treated than I ever would have imagined, and given a ministry that could have happened nowhere else.

    Thank you all for the many kind words. I will say that I am deeply appreciative of Ancient Faith and its many ministries. John Maddex has given the Church an amazing gift.

  72. In truth Father, we are well advised to remember that we are all converts. Some made the conscious decision later in life and often with consequences, sometimes severe, and some were converted just after birth, but had the arduous task of growing in the faith without the same pressure as us who had a different path to the truth. It is never easy, as the Lord promised as that is where the wheat is winnowed from the chaff.

  73. Nicholas,
    And the winnowing isn’t the hardest thing. It’s that dying part the wheat has to go through that is tough! Jn.12:24

  74. Oh, I can feel that pain. Dean. I think the toughest part is to realize what a wretch I am and have the courage to trust in Him to save me from myself.

  75. Dee, every so often I share one of Fr, Stephen’s articles on my FB page. I was very pleasantly surprised when my father-in-law, who is Christian, but not Orthodox, “liked” one of the articles in the series on shame (he turns 90 in May!). Soon after that he mentioned he likes my FB posts and that of one of his nephews who also posts a lot of overtly Christian material best of the FB material he follows. 😊

  76. Agata,
    I see you picked up on Father’s words “God give us grace to have friends who are eager for the truth and love the gospel!”
    That God would grant us even one friend like that would be a gift of massive proportion. One would be enough (as His love is all encompassing), and a thousand not too many (as His love can not be contained).
    Maybe I set my standards too high, but my definition of a friend, of true friendship, is a complete giving of onesself to another. It goes way beyond the bond of family ties which are made by necessity. We have no choice in whom we are birthed… as Wisdom says “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” And the Supreme standard, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
    As the saying goes, ‘I’d give my right arm’ for a friend that is eager for the truth and loves the gospel (I mean, here in person, one whom we can see and touch), and I’d give my other arm to be able to be a friend like that.
    In the meantime, I really think we do the best we can with what God gives us. I am thankful (beyond words) for our Savior loving us so much as to take on our dying flesh and offer us true Life, true living…only found in communion in Him, and in the other(s). No, there is no friend greater. And I am also, as you say, thankful for the friends I have met here at this blog, as well as my friends I have known over the years.
    Thanks Agata….you really got me thinking this morning!….

  77. Paula,

    Thank you for your beautiful words.

    Yes, a friend who loves God and can teach us how to love Him is one-in-a-million. Father Stephen is one of them for my life. I have been Orthodox all my life, but it was only after starting to read this blog and the comments (and everything they pointed me too) that I discover the richness and depth of our Faith. I hope and pray all those thousands of readers benefit in similar ways.

    Your words that “true friendship is complete giving of oneself to another” reminded me of something very unexpected I have learnt in the recent years (mostly in the comments on this blog): the difference between love and attachment… How they are the opposites of each other. I realized how many of my “loves” (and friendships) were the desperate effort to keep that attachment at any cost… True love offers the beloved their freedom, and that is best done with keeping the healthy distance and avoiding familiarity.. I am still working hard on that, now especially with my children.

    As you said so nicely, the most important relationship in our life is the one with God, all other relationships will be supported by that – I really like the image of the Cross, how our love for God is the vertical beam, supporting our relationships on the horizontal plane, with other people…

    But I mostly just wanted to share that quote, as I have found it most beautiful and profound…. Father’s words were the perfect excuse… 🙂

    Thank you again Paula, I hope our paths cross some day….

    (maybe Father will finally organize that blog retreat… 🙂 I have been after him about that for years… But it is also nice to travel to find him where he speaks. I don’t travel as much as Dee thinks, I just prioritize that kind of travel over any other)

    And speaking of that (I just cannot resist sharing this here, it’s somewhat relevant to the critique of modernity that is Father’s main topic in many articles): my son told me tonight that the cheapest ticket to attend the Super Bowl is $3000!!! And that is just the ticket, I can imagine how much the hotels and car rentals increased their prices.

    Well, all those visitors are getting a taste of MN winter today – it has been snowing most of the day 🙂

    It’s very pretty, but for those who don’t know how to drive in these conditions, it must be hard.
    And a friend who works at Nordstrom’s at the Mall of America told me some celebrity was there with 30 personal assistants, they carried his $1,000,000 shopping spree in their backpacks!!! Ultimate feast of consumerism!

  78. Agata,
    What a lovely response! Thank you!
    You really got my attention with the “keeping a healthy distance and avoiding familiarity”…wow, I had to pause on that one! I would say I do just the opposite. I am definitely going to pay more attention to that.
    So now you got me thinking about love vs attachment…yes, I’ve been in situations where that was happening…the much gift giving and favors in an attempt to buy my love. A control issue, and very oppressive, really. But that was the ‘other’…I need to check myself as well.

    Yes, this blog is a blessing! Being new to the Faith and even to blogging, I am amazed and overwhelmed with the beauty, yes, the depth of Orthodoxy and have met such wonderful people. How I would love a blog retreat, to meet face to face our friends here and of coarse Father Stephen! Yes, Agata, I hope our paths meet someday too!

    Oh, $3000 for a Super Bowl ticket…what a racket! And a million dollar shopping spree, with 30 attendants! This is newsworthy?! Yea Agata, modernity abounds!

    Stay warm up there in MN my friend.I’ll be thinking of you down here in the 70 degree desert of AZ! One winter there was a freak snow fall…we got 4 inches (!)…everyone was in total amazement, all outside taking pictures! Even my horse, when I went down to feed her that morning, was winnying loud! LOL!

  79. Fr. Stephen, does the pace on the road have anything to do with our ability to bear the revelation of who we actually are rather than who we think we are?

  80. I really benefitted from reading this article, and I will need to re-read this multiple times to let it fully soak in as it should; it’s message is just so powerfully thought-provoking for me. In my excessive and worldly cultural existence, one in which I was born, raised and driven to competition, capitalism, winning, gain, strength, perfection (all perceived, mind you)…I am happy to report the illusion of success and control is, well, just that. Message received. Thanks be to God!

  81. Agata, it’s the same for me about Fr Stephen’s blog helping me to understand the richness and depth of our faith, though I’m a convert. Also, other than searching this blog, especially the comments section, do you have any other recommendations for reading about attachment and love being polar opposites? Thank you.

  82. How I would love a blog retreat, to meet face to face our friends here and of coarse Father Stephen!

    For those wanting a “blog retreat”, I ‘m pretty sure we know where Father Stephen is every Sunday morning. All you have to do it show up! He may even provide a homily or something at one point…. It’d sort of be a retreat; have a pot luck and everything after the service!

  83. “Agata, it’s the same for me about Fr Stephen’s blog helping me to understand the richness and depth of our faith, though I’m a convert. Also, other than searching this blog, especially the comments section, do you have any other recommendations for reading about attachment and love being polar opposites? Thank you.”

    I am not Agata, but Simone Weil discusses this topic in her essay, “On Friendship”, which can be found in the collection “Waiting For God.”

  84. Byron,
    I’ll go, but I’d need to hitch a ride with someone and warn my poor husband that my ‘Sunday outing’ might take a little longer than usual.

  85. Jane,

    I think that the most insightful and convincing words on that matter are to be found in Elder Aimilianos’ books. Only about a fifth of them have been translated in English currently, but his commentaries on Philokalic texts (these are the next few books to be translated soon) are true gems that cover this topic amongst many others from unsuspected angles.

  86. Jane,
    Thank you for sharing about this essay, I look forward to finding and reading it…

    SW,
    I don’t have any specific resource to recommend, except indeed this blog and its previous posts and comments. Here is a very specific one:

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/06/09/truth-lies-and-icons/

    If you search that specific page with its comments for the word “attachment” [(Ctrl-f) , then type “attachment”], you will be taken to Dino’s wonderful comment…. (Dino is one of our friends here who has an amazing knowledge of Orthodoxy through the most authentic sources). He mentions Elder Aimilianos, but I am not sure which of his books available in English would have that topic specifically… I wish Dino was here participating in our conversation 🙂

    Byron,
    I guess we will just have to decide on some weekend (maybe after Pascha) to organize this retreat … You might have to do all the cooking for the potluck, since it would be hard for the rest of us, out-of-towners…. But I like your thinking… 🙂

  87. Agata…thanks for the link to Dino’s comment. The control f 7 function is new to me…thanks for that too.
    Dino…is there a particular book of Elder Aimilianos that you would recommend?

  88. ‘Bout that after church picnic with all the fixins….I’m thinkin it would be a hoot, but it’s a right fer piece from my place near Cricket Holler to yonder there in Oak Ridge, 2,276 miles. If I could make it, though, I’d be grinnin like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater. 🙂

  89. Agata,
    Well, my parents were from the Missouri Ozarks and I grew up with others from the South, mainly Oklahoma and Arkansas. And no, the great thing about Orthodoxy is that we can worship together with any earthly tongue….though afterwards,
    at the meal. passin the taters down might cause some confusion!

  90. Dean,
    I have a few members with authentic Appalachian speech. I grew up speaking what is called “Southern Appalachian” (verses the version here in the Tennessee Mountains). But it’s easy for me to understand – with the occasional odd phrase. For example, here, locally, the phrase, “I don’t care to,” means, “I don’t mind.” So you would say, “Carry me over to my brother Jack’s house, if you don’t care to.” Appalachian dialects are essentially Scots-Irish (the brogue from Northern Ireland of the early 1700’s). The myth that it’s the King’s English is utterly untrue. But we do have a quaint use of the “double modal” (“might could”) that is perfectly fine German, but not currently approved English. I didn’t know this when I was in Grad School at Duke, and actually turned in my Thesis with a glaring double modal. Embarrassing. On the other hand, I cannot think of an expression in standard English that has the subtlety of that phrase.

  91. SW,
    In that link Agata gave, a few comment down Matt provides a link to St. Maria Skobtsova’s article on two types of love. She offers examples of what an unhealthy attachment look like. I found it a great help.
    http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0113/__P9.HTM

    I’m glad you asked Agata for some additional info to lead us to a better understanding of attachment vs love. I meant to ask her as well. And although I am sure Elder Aimilianos’ work would be a great help, I do not know which of the few books available to choose from.

  92. Question: Mother, should we expect our feelings toward the other person to be reciprocated?

    Answer: Love, as taught by Christ for the first time, is offered without expecting anything in return. This is the great, the vast difference. In this Love, the Ego no longer exists. Our own self ceases to be. We give our love to the other person, as we receive it from God, without any thought as to what [the other] does with it.

    Question: You mean the way Christ loved?

    Answer: Exactly… All persons of God love this way. They do not love because they expect something in return from the one they love; they love because if you cease loving, you cease living. Those who have not felt that, have not felt the Joy of God at all. Not at all… because they are concerned only with themselves, all the time… [They say], “I love this person so much and he does not reciprocate my feelings. I did so many sacrifices for him…” You hear such nonsense so often! It has nothing to do with Love according to God, which comes from the Source of Love, goes to the other [through you], and returns to the Source. Who am I to expect and wonder whether the other person loves me or not? Do we feel in union with God? What else do we want? This is our sole purpose in life!

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 302-303.

  93. The Cross is the symbol of self-sacrifice for others… Yet, he who loves and gives his own self to help others, does not feel this as a self-sacrifice. When Love is given, it is not given by man. It is the Love of God that flows through the heart of the giver. He doesn’t feel it as a “sacrifice” because he is not aware of it. He feels it as his natural condition – without any change in his own life or health. On the contrary, he is in a state of permanent joy, for he is at the same time both giver and receiver of Divine Love and Power.

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 187.

  94. Paula,
    Since Dino is not answering, I hope he does not mind if I say that ANY book in English that you can get will be a great blessing. “The Way of the Spirit” is the first one I read, then there is “Church at Prayer” (if I remember right). There is also a great one on the Psalms… And just Google his name and look for articles, there are a few out there….
    Also, I highly recommend watching a documentary (on YouTube) on the Simonopetra Monastery called “A Thousand Years as one day”… You will find in it a short part with Elder’s own words…

    That should get you started on the amazing path of meeting Elder Aimilianos… And keep you busy for a while, LOL!!

  95. Q: This utter love, this boundless love… how do you practice it every day for so many people?

    A: This is not done consciously, nor is it a programme with which I put love into practice. It is not something tangible… this is the Spirit of God, Who has created us to love. Is it a young boy? You will love him. Is he a Jew? You will love him. Is he a Turk? You will love him. He is not responsible for what he is or where he was born. Am I to be the judge? No! So, at that moment, when you do not think of yourself, but rather of the Limitless Love God has for this person, you love him, little by little, as much as you can, while He loves him immensely. That’s the difference. I never think that I shall love him. Who am I? He! All the time, He!

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 245.

  96. What is man’s destination? “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.” The destination is, again, Love. Nothing else. Do nothing else… When you see a person, make yourself non-existent, really, as an entity, and enter into that person’s soul, even if he is a wrong-doer or someone you do not understand… You must do this! For he, too, has in him the Breath of God, the Spark of Christ, and a heart that beats like yours… Unless you do that, you cannot help the other person. And what is the purpose of loving only God, of raising our hands vertically to the Lord, and not extending our arms also horizontally to take in the whole of humanity… and so turn our body into the Sign of the Cross… Saint Augustine said, “Love, and do anything you want,” because, if you love, you cannot do harm! …When man ceases to love, it is as if he ceases to breathe. Love is like our breath. We are made, we are kneaded so-to-speak, with love… love, love, love.

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 260-261.

  97. I love all and I am not interested in criticizing anyone… I love all and everything and do not care about anything else. And if this is not enough for others, it is for me; for we all have to answer accordingly to God… God loves me. He is pouring to me His Love. If I keep it… I shall burst under Its Power. When I love someone else with all that fire, knowing that I have it from Him, extraordinary things do happen to that person… He must not be grateful to me, that would spoil all the sharing of that Love. He should… praise God for God’s sake… for the Love God gives him… [I do] not expect anything in return from persons anymore, but [rejoice] that another human being is united to God… Love as He loves, everyone and everything. Then every moment will be filled with joy, peace, love, blessings. Because you will be truly free and a servant only of Him.

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 386, 390, 409

  98. Please forgive for posting so many quotes on love from Mother Gavrilia, but she is such an inspiration on this topic for me. Thank you again everyone for another very elucidating conversation!

  99. Esmee and Agata….thank you so very much!

    ” This is not done consciously, nor is it a programme with which I put love into practice. It is not something tangible… this is the Spirit of God, Who has created us to love.”
    How very true, Esmee… which brings me back to Father’s words “God give us grace” to have friends eager for truth and love the gospel. It is only the dullness of my heart that I need a kickstart in reading about these things, lest I keep groping forever. Through it all, indeed, any change of heart would only be by His Grace.
    In my bookmarks I have Mother Gavrilia’s book you quote from. It has been some time since I read it though. I’m so glad you referenced her. One of her quotes I pray to my guardian angel before bedtime..”Take my soul even tonight and put it at the feet of Christ and in the morning may I find it better”. I then add ‘protect me in my dreams and guide my unconscious’, on the occasion of those disturbing dreams. I’m sure I don’t need to add that…but I do anyway! Thanks again, Esmee.
    Agata…thank you so much for directing me to the books and the You Tube video. I’m sure Dino won’t mind! You pretty much said the same as he did, that any book the Elder wrote would be a blessing! Still, I wasn’t sure which one to choose!

  100. I do enjoy your posts Fr. Stephen, and I think I know where you are trying to go with your thoughts and assertions, but again, as in previous posts such definitive statements such as this:
    “The Kingdom of God will not be populated by the successful, the well-adjusted and the wise.”
    are misleading.
    That statement is then juxtaposed with this statement, which does make sense:
    “If you are having a difficult time, you are not alone. It is the very nature of human life. That same struggle, however, united with Christ in His Cross, becomes transformative – not in the manner that the world expects, but in the likeness of the Crucified and Risen Christ.”

    The one thing I have been taught in the Orthodox Church is that only God judges the heart. So if “successful”, “well-adjusted” and “wise” people will not be in the Kingdom of Heaven that could very well exclude people such as King David, Abraham, Joseph and Solomon, much less any of us. There are many people who are considered well-adjusted and perhaps wise, especially through their life in Christ, being remade in His image, although not perfect, as all sin in some way. One can consider themselves successful in their lives in many ways. I say this in all love, I have even brought up concerns to my Priest because of your blogs, for clarification, because according to some of the statements you make, I would not be considered a legitimate child of God.

    The Christian life and the Orthodox Way can and does “work” for any who will repent, believe and walk with Christ everyday. Who are teachable, who self-examine the heart and with the power of the Holy Spirit grow into His likeness daily, overcoming the passions and distractions of the mind and empowering the Nous to become ascendant.

  101. Suzie – I don’t think Fr. Stephen is saying that “the successful, the well-adjusted and the wise” won’t be in the Kingdom of heaven, but that those criteria will not be the criteria upon which they are there. Please correct me Father if I am mistaken.

  102. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus,
    Please forgive me for mangling your name. I referred to you as one of my teachers, but called you Theodorus. You have brought so much insight in our discussions and regret very much such a mistake.

    On Love vs attachment: it seems that some of our comments reflect the idea of ‘kinds’ of love. I’m inclined to say there is only one Love, and our own darkened reflections of that Love. I associate ‘attachment’ with acquisitiveness, a hallmark of our insatiable consummatory laden culture.

  103. Dee…unless I misunderstand, I think you are saying pretty much the same thing, only wording it differently. If ‘kinds’ of love are implied, it may be a result of trying to describe the brokenness of sensual love… which we may think of as true Love but is really self centered…so, in a way is “another kind” love. I agree it is one of the consequences of a consumer culture, as we try to “buy” another’s love to fill a void only Christ can fill, thus creating an attachment called “love”. So you are right, it is not the same as true Love, the selfless love of God.
    I hope I am making some kind of sense here!

  104. Susie,
    I appreciate your comment. I also have brought some things I read about here with my confessor, and his words were: “Not everything Fr. Stephen writes about applies to you…” 🙂

    So it is always best to bring it up in confession, as it safeguards our life in Christ..

    Hope Dino forgives me, but such quotes from him have helped me tremendously in the past. Especially to make an effort in confession…..

    dino says:
    May 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm
    In Orthodoxy, when practiced rightly – as is usually the case on Mount Athos to use a prime example -, the ‘guidance part’ of Confession appears to be the most ‘personalised’, (as in ‘individually fine-tuned’) sacrament for both our heart and our mind.
    What is no less than astounding is that a Spiritual Father’s word (‘Logos’ if you like to make the deeper connection here), uttered and listened to in a state of prayerful and trustful attention, has the power to enlighten through the Holy Spirit, more regularly than any other Sacrament, under the usual circumstances.

  105. Dear Esmee,
    I understand Fr. Stephen is pointing out the heresy in some modern Christian denominations or movements, such as the prosperity gospel, which says you will be blessed with material things, or just being a Christian will fix all things, or that your life will be perfect. As well as not falling into the trap of secular definitions of success. There were several themes he was exploring. You are probably correct it is not what he meant, but that is indeed what the statement says literally. Which is why we must be so careful with what we say, especially when someone is seen as an authority, as such, of the Orthodox Church. Had it been worded as you worded it, there would be no confusion. Statements like this pop up in many of the blogs.

    What is the definition of successful? Many of us can be considered successful. We are blessed to have a job, a home, food and a car. We aren’t movie stars, professional athletes, leaders of the tech industry, but are successful in our own ways. Many of us can be well-adjusted, though no one is perfect, and we must reflect on what is in our hearts daily that is sin and needs to be rooted out. Well-adjusted meaning, we are law abiding, do not lie, steal, cheat, bear false witness, hold grudges, commit adultery, are not addicted to anything, no self-made drama in our lives, don’t buy into the hype of the world, walk with Christ’s help to do His will and work taking care of others, etc. In this way I am “successful” and “well-adjusted”.

    I met with my Priest this week out of concern, to discuss the themes about wealth and struggle and literal statements from the blogs . Because, according to what was literally said in them, we might not be legitimate children of God. I was relieved to find clarity from my Priest across the whole of the Orthodox teaching that I am a child of God, still, and I am saved, am being saved and will be saved and with the mercy of the Lord will be part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Another area that I get what is being said, but clarification is helpful is the below:

    “The prayer and fasting, almsgiving and confession that are the very heart of the Orthodox way of life are not techniques or ways of self-improvement and betterment. They are the embracing of a way of life in which self-improvement and betterment are beside the point. To observe “improvement” in ourselves is to abandon the way of humility and repentance. It is the nature of the Orthodox way that we become increasingly aware of our failures rather than our progress.” Christ said, “…when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, `We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Lk. 17:10)

    The Orthodox Way of life does improve us as throughout the teachings we are to become more Christ-like. It’s not a program as in the secular world, as it is not based on what we alone do, but what is done with the cooperation of our will and that of Divine Grace in synergy. Observing improvement can be misapplied and lead to spiritual pride; but it is a relief to see regeneration. Orthodoxy does not advocate self-flagellation and over pious denigration of self as was seen in Roman Catholicism. Everything is a balance. Personally I have grown even more in the Orthodox Church because of the depth of the ancient and original Christian teachings. Every day I examine my Nous, the Holy Trinity is on my mind, is my strength and my rock as I walk, fall, get up again.

    Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

  106. Thank you Paula,
    I suppose that I may be splitting hairs but I sense a wider gulf of receiving Gods energy of grace that will fill us with God’s Love and placing that on a sort of linear spectrum of ‘kinds of love’ that is motivated by acquisition. You have eloquently described of the latter, as our attempts to fill a void. I’m just not willing to call the latter shades of Love. Perhaps I do sound dogmatic, but I seek clarity.

    I think sometimes we’re trying to acquire God. And that ‘doesn’t work’.

  107. Dee…Thank you for clarifying what you mean by “acquisition”. I appreciate very much that you take note of these subtleties that I do not see and kindly bring it forward. I do know what you mean, in trying to even buy God’s love, because I do revert back to that very thing myself.

  108. Suzie,
    I would suppose that any statement, if taken in its most literal sense, and pressed in the wrong direction, would fail to be true. Why would it be pressed into a wrong direction – most often out of our own personal concerns or worries (in the most benign cases) or for darker reasons, in some few instances.

    In context is the best way to read something. But removing the “scandal” of something by too much interpretation also leads in the wrong direction. Christ said some things that seemed so extreme to his disciples that they asked him “then who can be saved?”

    The criteria of “success, being well-adjusted, and wise” as the world measures these things – or as some Christians wrongly important them into the faith, are indeed stumbling blocks to our salvation. Christ said He came to seek the lost.

    But you’ve acted wisely talking to your priest – I would trust his guidance far more than anything you read here – he knows you and knows how you hear and understand. Forgive me if I’ve caused any confusion.

  109. Suzie and Fr Stephen,
    So much of what and how we interpret what we read is framed and filtered, so to speak, from our life circumstances.

    For example, in the culture of the US, there is an underclass who has a desire to come out of their circumstances of poverty, and as such, no one might blame them. On the other hand, aspiring to the criterion of success as outlined in this society, might also make attaining such goals (especially for the underclass) ever elusive, because the structures of the society might be racist, for example, and set up structure to minimize the development of financial security of particular groups ‘of color’. Furthermore, acquiring monetary success, does not shield one from continued barriers formed by racism (again as an example). Among people of color I hear a sort of drive for monetary success for the sheer purpose of developing a form of ‘protection’. In a culture that values ‘financial success’, such goals might seem reasonable, for ‘protection’.

    What ‘success is’ seems to be have a kind of floating meaning. Again, using myself this time as an example, my own financial circumstances might seem a nightmare to some people, and yet my life circumstances might appear ‘idyllic’ to others (and therefore a success of a different type). My hope is that the following is aligned with the Orthodox faith: namely, that the ‘truth’ of our circumstances lies in the heart. How do we carry or live ‘our wealth’ or ‘our success’ there? Do we and how do we “strive for success” there? What are we trying to attain? Can we actually attain what we seek, by trying to attain it?

    Suzie, more often than not I see Fr Stephen’s writings as a means for reflection and for opening up our hearts to the will of God. I can’t remember ever seeing it to be dogmatically prescriptive about what we need to do in our individual lives, but he has suggestions which flow from his pastoral work, such as ‘follow Christ’s commandments’ and ‘give away your stuff’ (and ‘stuff’ might be just about anything including ‘one’s time’). It seems to me his essays are intended to help us ask ourselves what might be considered ‘hard questions’ and to raise such questions with our confessor priest as you have done and as both Fr Stephen, and Agata recommend.

  110. Fr Stephen,
    I wan’t to emphasize the importance of these words you wrote (forgive my edit and correct my edit as needed):

    “The criteria of “success, being well-adjusted, and wise” as the world measures these things – or as some Christians wrongly [import] them into the faith, are indeed stumbling blocks to our salvation. Christ said He came to seek the lost.”

    “The lost” is so contradictory with a Protestant belief of ‘once and always saved’. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to a Protestant interpretation of the Orthodox faith and overly needful of emphasizing words that contrast with what I believe is a Protestant understanding of the faith.

    Anyway, I’m just grateful that you reminded us.

  111. Suzie,

    What is the definition of successful? Many of us can be considered successful. We are blessed to have a job, a home, food and a car. We aren’t movie stars, professional athletes, leaders of the tech industry, but are successful in our own ways.
    — Suzie @ February 5, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    I hope you won’t take this as my starting an argument with you, because that’s not my intention. I’m just honestly puzzled: “can be considered…” – by whom? Oneself? Perhaps. Others around us? From my interactions with other people, I seriously doubt it, because I don’t see anyone in today’s world labeling such metrics as you provide here as “success,” except when stated (unintentionally, perhaps) condescendingly by a person from an affluent background about someone from a troubled background.

    In contrast, I find in society an unspoken expectation that someone who already started off from a comfortable background (middle-class or above) has no business considering himself “successful” on having “a job, a home, food and a car.” (And in today’s uncertain professional world, who can really be sure of continuing to have a comfortable job and the financial & psychological stability that derives from it?) Even if most people won’t (but some will, make no mistake), out of some vestiges of politeness left over from the past, say it to the face of another, the truth is that the world would actually call this “mediocrity,” and in the eyes of the world, “mediocrity” is synonymous with “failure.”

    That, at least, has been my unvaried experience in my part of the world. Perhaps your experience has been different, but if so, you are really blessed to live among very kind & gentle people.

    If my comment has disturbed you, please forgive me, and ignore what I’ve written.
    -NSP

  112. NSP – In support of what you said… during one honily, my priest reminded us that NOTHING we have is ours. It has ALL come from God. If we have achieved ANYTHING in life, it is due to talents, intelligence, social position, financial status, and each of THOSE things were also a gift from God that gave us an advantage over others.

  113. A couple of yardsticks on wealth.

    According to Credit-Suisse Bank, two-thirds of the adults in the world have less than $10,000.

    According to the Pew Research Center, 80% of the people on the planet live on less than $20 per day ($7300/yr). Over half live on less than $10 per day ($3650/yr),

    So, since I have more than $10,000 and I live on more than $7300 a year, I am one of the world’s wealthiest people.

  114. Learning,
    Thank you for this information. I’m also grateful that you provided your sources. Often I’ve been in conversations of this sort and other potential ‘topics of concern’ where sources are not given, particularly in science topics. Then I’m asked to comment, from the ‘perspective of science’, when in fact what I’m really being asked to do is give an uninformed opinion. Thank you for your participation here.

  115. Learningtobestill
    Which also means most Americans are wealthy. In my life as a military dependent and 20 years of service I have first hand seen what real poverty is. I really understand why the world wants to come here and why many in the world hate us.

  116. Hi Fr Stephen !
    Thank you so very much again for your wonderful insights !
    You mention: “The problem is that the spiritual life doesn’t “work,” and was never supposed to. It is not something that “works,” it is something that “lives.” And this is an extremely important distinction. ” And: “The prayer and fasting, almsgiving and confession that are the very heart of the Orthodox way of life are not techniques or ways of self-improvement and betterment. They are the embracing of a way of life in which self-improvement and betterment are beside the point. ” You say also: “St. Isaac’s statement is fully in line with the New Testament. There, we are not presented with the solution to our problems, nor with the promise of a better world. Rather, we are taught how to live in repentance and participate daily in the life of the Kingdom of God. ”
    Thank you ! To remind oneself with awareness of the falsity of the world, and when in this space, to then pivot, turn and remember to more live simply in the life of the Kingdom as mentioned, and recognize the above, is such a great point ! And very grounding ! Meg

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *