The Power in Thought – It’s Not What You Think

Among the dark little corners of the Orthodox world, particularly in its ethnic homelands, is a left-over trace of witchcraft (I don’t know what else to call it). It consists of a collection of superstitions, often mixed with semi-Orthodox notions. There are concerns about the “evil-eye,” “curses,” “spells,” and such. These things are “left-overs” in that they likely predate Christianity, having never disappeared from Europe’s earlier pagan past. These are not practices associated with dark powers, but simply folk practices rooted in bad theology.

It’s not just the Orthodox. My ancestors, Scots-Irish (certainly with a Protestant pedigree) were no stranger to such things. My mother’s mother was said to be able to “talk fire out of a burn,” and to “stop blood.” I was told that these little practices were based in the Scriptures, but they had a slightly occult feel about them. My great-grandfather could “remove warts” in the same manner. The hills here in Appalachia are home to many such things.

There are, however, more popular, modern versions of all this, cleaned up and mainstreamed. Much of it goes under the heading of “positive thought” and “successful living.” All of it is about exercising power over the world around us. It is contrary to the Christian faith. This is not a modern problem: it’s as old as it gets. But it is also wonderfully American.

The mid-19th century (that most formative of all American eras) saw writers such as Horatio Alger (author of numerous “rags to riches” tales), and Samuel Smiles (author of Self-Help), begin to popularize the American power of the mind. The opening line in Smiles’ work, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” borrowed from Ben Franklin, sounds a key sentiment in the American mythology of the time. Modernity was about progress, both as a society and as an individual. The formula was to be positive, work hard, be honest and patient. Of course, the great mass of self-help men rushed off to the gold fields of the Wild West and lived lives that were everything but honest. We self-helped ourselves to Native American lands and any exploitable wealth that could be found.

The desire to succeed, to move up the ladder, became a major theme in the American psyche. We became the “land of opportunity.” Those who failed had only themselves to blame. Of course, all of this was marketed (particularly in books). The 20th century saw the “positive thinkers”: Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1936), James Allen (As a Man Thinketh, 1902), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich, 1937), and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952). Peale’s book has been a perennial best-seller. These “pioneers” held that our thoughts make us who we are, and have the power to shape the world around us, attract money, love, success, etc. They are the foundations of today’s “prosperity gospel,” the Evangelical world’s version of popular witchcraft.

Some, like Peale, were “Christian” teachers, others holding to something like a Divine Universal Mind that could be drawn on for benefit. Most of these same ideas are gathered today under the banner of “New-Age Teaching,” and carry a cache of “spirituality.” But it’s the same spiritualization of the American Dream and mythologization of magical power.

The heart of magic (and witchcraft) is the desire to control the outcome of the world around us. In that sense, the entire modern project is magic by brute force. We bend the world to our will.

Many people are unable to distinguish between this and Christianity. For them, God exists in order be persuaded to meet our needs (and our desires). Heaven itself becomes but one more desire (the thought that my enjoyment might never end). Social media abounds with prayer requests, often under the heading of “sending out thoughts and prayers.” Good luck charms of every sort are as common here as in any place at any time. Just examine what hangs from rear-view mirrors in cars.

There are several things worth noting:

  1. Your mind does not influence or control events. You are not a Jedi Master.
  2. Thinking positively feels better than thinking negatively.
  3. Thinking negatively often leads to “self-fulfilling” prophecies (not by making something happen but by nurturing a tendency within ourselves to cooperate with our fears)
  4. Jesus did not come to remove suffering. He has entered suffering and united it to His Cross.

The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Rom. 8:16-17)

The various versions of mind power are all antithetical to the Cross. They are not only not Christian they are anti-Christian. At the heart of sin is our desire to consume, to turn the world into an object of desire and master it. It breeds death in us and in those around us. At the heart of righteousness is the Cross, the willingness, for the sake of love, to unite ourselves with Christ and give ourselves to the Providence of God.

The simple fact is that we do not know how to manage the world. We do not know what constitutes a good outcome. We do not have the knowledge to see the future, to understand and comprehend the collateral damage of our management. The only guarantee of the outcome of history (and our lives) is the goodwill of God.

The thoughts that lead to life are those of thanksgiving, always and for all things. This nurtures within us both faith and love and slowly carries us into the mystery of the Cross. In the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:

He who understands the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb knows the meaning of all things.

Among the more popular contemporary Orthodox books is Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, built on the life and teachings of the Elder Thaddeus (Serbian). Read wrongly, it would seem to be an articulation of an Orthodox New Age doctrine. It is nothing of the sort. It is, instead, a lively account of the practice of Hesychasm (“silence”) in which we renounce our passions and acquire the Spirit of Peace. There is nothing within his teaching that suggests that our thoughts control the world around us. His practice can be seen in this short story:

As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years.

If someone came to me and stated that they had found a method for controlling the world around them through disciplined thought, my first reaction would be, “Why would you want to do that?” This is the path to becoming like a demon – they seek to control us by whispering their thoughts in our minds.

This is the Christian path:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

This alone is true life.

90 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father. On my path to Orthodoxy, I traversed many of these New Age thinkers, especially Catherine Ponder (Unity Church) and Esther Hicks (Abraham Teachings). They held tremendous value for me in showing me that how I feel (emotionally) depends on the thoughts I think, and that I can effect the way I feel by choosing thoughts that feel better (i.e. are more positive). The emphasis on positive thoughts and feeling as a path to a better material life was ultimately a dead end for me (thank heavens!), but it did help me to understand that my mental and emotional approach to life is exceedingly important. I can focus on the positive aspects of the people and situations that surround me, or I can focus on the negative aspects. Christ clearly teach us to focus on the good in other people, and the good in all that God gives us, not the bad. And by focusing on the good, we are fulfilling His commandment to love Him and love our neighbors. But we must do this out of love for Christ alone, not because we want some material reward or improvement in our lives. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt 6:33) – according to His will, not mine.

  2. Some of my foreign FB friends adhere to “new age” teaching. But for them it’s a mix of eastern religious teaching along with modernity, and the modernity teaching is “That ever person must find their own path.” But if you follow eastern religious thought it is not centered on the individual. This individual modernistic teaching seems to me to run completely contrary to eastern religious thought. I’m not sure how they are mixing these two together, because to me they seem like oil and water.

  3. “If someone came to me and stated that they had found a method for controlling the world around them through disciplined thought, my first reaction would be, “Why would you want to do that?” This is the path to becoming like a demon” Especially considering that a definition of a demon in the spiritual plane could be ‘a non-accepting type of revolting being’.
    St Mark the Ascetic comes to mind:

    If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes. For all else that is good is found through these.

    Especially thankful [“eucharistic”] acceptance.

  4. I used to host an open spirituality forum in Asheville, and saw quite a bit of the “law of attraction,” as they popularly call it nowadays. Some people swear it works. It always made me a bit uncomfortable. CS Lewis once remarked that in the Middle Ages, when man was attempting to learn to control the world around him, there were two competing methods: science and magic/alchemy. In the West, science won, but “magic” still finds its place in modern folk practice as you’ve noted here.

    Lastly, this topic, along with the cross, can be difficult for people to grasp in real life application since there are two extremes that I have noted. On the one end, you have people who desire to control the world around them, whether through positive thinking or the “Holy Spirit.” On the other end, there are those who think, “God says we’re supposed to bear our crosses, so I should expect hardship and misery every day.” In other words, Orthodox Eeyores. Some people naturally understand the proper balance, but I can think of some people I know who would read this blog and begin beating themselves up mentally for having a positive thought.

    “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

  5. Jeremiah,
    You are doubtless correct. Do note, however, points 3 and 4: Thinking positively feels better than thinking negatively.
    Thinking negatively often leads to “self-fulfilling” prophecies (not by making something happen but by nurturing a tendency within ourselves to cooperate with our fears)

  6. Very important post Father. I know how deeply these pagan ideas of being able to control the world have invaded Western thought and even in Eastern lands. Turks have what looks like a prayer rope made of beads that every tenth bead is an “evil eye.” This is used to bring curses on one’s enemies. I shall have to review my own thought process, yet again, to see if any of this lurks in the dark corners of my mind.

  7. Thank you for this article Father (and many others). As someone who is at a crossroads in his life, I’ve noticed that I’ve been treating God in a very consumerist fashion: if I put my time into God, God will (materially) put His time into me. Even when trying to avoid it, it’s still a mindset that’s easy to fall into. It’s the same thing with “positive thinking.” We cannot be so positive that we are ignorant of our faults and what’s around us, but we cannot let despair consume us. Yet, it is in our negative thoughts that we sometimes confront our own faults and sins that we have pushed down into the well of our hearts. I’ve slowly started to learn that the best way to draw to Christ is to remember that He is a personal God. Not in a buddy buddy way, but in the fact that He took on flesh, dwelt with us, and identified with us in our suffering.

  8. Thank you, Father. This is a great struggle for me.

    In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes: “Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now. Let it teach you Being. Let it teach you integrity. Let it teach you how to live and how to die, and how not to make living and dying into a problem.”

    I read that and I think (with Oprah), “Yes! That’s it!” What could be missing?

    The Cross. That is what is missing.

    I know that in my head. May God grant that I learn it in my heart and soul.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  9. “Many people are unable to distinguish between this and Christianity.”
    So true, I have been called atheist by family members as I became disillusioned with that thinking in the modern protestant evangelical world.

  10. Wonderful, Father! Received with gratitude.

    David Waite,

    You nailed it! The Cross. There is such a danger in swallowing the Tolle-Oprah “acceptance of what is” siren song when we don’t know the difference between being and non-being. In contrast to Tolle:

    “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you….”
    James 4:7-8

  11. Christ is risen! “We do not know what constitutes a good outcome.” reminds me of a years ago post of yours wherein you wrote about praying for a specific outcome for your child (son?) which did not come about; but that which did come about was the right thing. You also wrote in this post about your father-in-law and one of my oft repeated take-aways from this post has been (regardless whether the situation is one of feeling bereft or joy) — “God is good; God is at work.” Along these lines as a follow on at some point, I look forward to your thoughts/observations on care and nurturing the mind in the heart as an antidote/bulwark to the folly/perversion of reliance on life of the mind. I rejoice and give thanks for your continuing conversation and growth in Christ. Indeed He is risen!

  12. Here I am again playing the contrarian:

    First, I kind of agree with the idea of not making a problem out of living and dying. As an idea it will no doubt be regurgitated by people who don’t have the moment of insight from which it sprang and so that is dangerous. However, it is not a sentiment without value. If you spend enough time in the woods that sense of things just kind of settles into the skin. I am aware that the Scriptures teach me that the last enemy death is to be brought to nothing. But, is this speaking of physical death, or is this a spiritual death? It is painfully clear that in the biological sense death and life are two sides of the same coin. In that sense, it is what it is, just accept it. However, I think there is another way to understand the idea of “accepting what is.” I was raised in a religious cult. It was very controlling and placed a great deal of importance on submission and obedience. In that environment it is very difficult to grant yourself permission to think for yourself, to challenge “established” ideas about God, and to stand on the authority of your own conscience. Before I could reach escape velocity, though, I had to ditch two parcels of luggage 1) fear of death and punishment and 2) fear of being branded a heretic. Once I lost those two fears I was free to be…honest, to be genuine. For me, accepting the world as it is without judgment became the preparation I needed to even begin thinking about why we even need to accept the Cross. Now I accept all of it. The tragedy of it and the beauty of it. The horror of it and the delight of it. We should accept it all…and then carry it ALL to the Cross to be transformed in Christ.

    Second, I understand, Fr., your reservations and warnings regarding postmodern self-improvement and progress. However, I have often though that the greatest evidence that there is that the whole thing is made up and doesn’t make any sense is that despite my best efforts to submit myself to the God…I’m still the functional equivalent of a turd. Shouldn’t we see changes consistent with a transformation from the “old nature” to the “new nature”? At the very least shouldn’t the people closest to us see that there is a qualitative difference? And if not, isn’t that telling?

  13. This dovetails with an issue that I’ve been wrestling with lately— how healing from trauma involves grappling with magical thinking. Specifically, how difficult it is to let go of experiencing anxiety and fear, because of the thought, “If I stop worrying about it, then the Bad Thing that I’m afraid of will be more likely to happen.”

    Do you have any thoughts on this in particular, Father?

  14. David,

    Re: “acceptance of what is” could be understood in a positive sense as surrender in trust to God, trusting He is good and that Pascha has the last word, not sin and death. It’s only a lie and siren song when we don’t know how to discriminate between what truly is from God (being/true existence) and what is not (satanic misdirection toward non-being) and instead assume *anything* that happens is “good” in the full sense (not just that God will turn it around in His time and exploit it for our good, as He did with Joseph whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery in the OT story).

    I like the Serenity Prayer as an expression of this:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    I can really relate to your questions about transformation. I keep reminding myself how much can be going on
    hidden from view both in processes of life and of disease before we see anything manifest. Years can go by with nothing that seems like a substantial change. Magical and mechanical things are instant. Living things genuinely participating in the life of God, however, like seeds, can be or seem dormant for very long periods of time (at least in terms of what can be humanly perceived) until conditions are right for sprouting, growth, blossom and fruit. Think of all the agricultural images Jesus used in His parables about the Kingdom.

  15. Karen,
    Part of the Prayer of the Optina elders says: “Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that ALL things are subject to Your Holy Will… In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that ALL things are sent down from You.”

    So, “all things” seems pretty exhaustive. If all things are subject to God’s Holy Will and if all things are sent down from God, then how can we discern what is truly from God and what is not?

    At the very least the prayer seems to say, regardless of the who is behind the event (demonic or angelic) nothing happens that isn’t subject to God’s will or sent down from Him. Right?

    In fact, in the book of Job, Job ascribes God credit for everything that happens to him, ““I am blameless, yet I do not know myself; I despise my life. It is all one thing; Therefore I say, ‘He destroys the blameless and the wicked.’ If the scourge slays suddenly, He laughs at the plight of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked. He covers the faces of its judges. If it is not He, who else could it be?” Job asks, “If it isn’t God who does these things, then who is it?” and yet God says of Job, “the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”

    To me those verses are very telling.

  16. Fr Stephen,
    You wrote:
    “The simple fact is that we do not know how to manage the world. We do not know what constitutes a good outcome. We do not have the knowledge to see the future, to understand and comprehend the collateral damage of our management. The only guarantee of the outcome of history (and our lives) is the goodwill of God.”

    I’m frequently asked to offer prayers in contexts in which illness or other difficulties are encountered. And I often feel uncomfortable in these contexts and wonder whether my prayer is helpful as I’ve been asked to do. It seems you’re referring to exactly this, the offering of prayer for specific outcomes, as anti-Christian because it presumes we know what outcomes are best for our salvation . Does the prayer then become more Christian if after making the request we might say ‘not my will but Thy will be done, O Lord? And if the answer to the prayer is ‘no’ might we need to be able to say Glory to God for all things, precisely because we don’t know what constitutes a good outcome?

  17. David,

    It seems to me there is a big difference between the faithful acceptance of the Optina Elders (which I believe is the same kind of eye of faith as that of Joseph in the OT who tells his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good….”) and that of the Stoic or Buddhist. In some Eastern religions (and some forms of “Christianity”), there is a view called monism where it is supposed that all that happens emanates in a direct way from the One, and there is nothing to discern as good or evil either to be received and cooperated with or resisted and overturned.

    Obviously I’m not a Calvinist in that I believe there is an important distinction between God’s purposeful will and His permission in order to give space for the true freedom of His creatures to oppose Him (as with Satan in the book of Job). I think we have to be careful to understand the words of Job and his “friends” in that context. “All things work together for the good of those who love God…”. But not all things are good in and of themselves— in that they may be willed by the evil one or are the result of the sinful desires of human beings and are merely permitted by God, who then makes them His tool in the lives of those who trust Him like Job to reveal true faith.

    I do love that prayer of the Optina Elders and the book of Job, though.

  18. Also please forgive me for one more question. How might we understand what is going on among the ‘wonder-working’ saints and icons? I presume of course they are working with God, and not according to ‘positive thinking’. But the way the stories are often told, there is a hint of bringing about desirable ‘ends’. I believe, but also struggle in my belief in hearing these stories. No doubt I’m struggling with a secular mindset as well.

    I appreciate any light you might offer about these questions. Thank you Fr Stephen for bringing up this topic.

  19. Sorry, one more thought. There is indeed an attitude of ‘mastering nature’ that surfaces in science as well. I don’t think this attitude (hubris actually) is helpful in science, either. It is reminiscent of the ‘conquering nature’ theme in some of the old ‘Wild West’ stories as well. This thinking is antagonistic to working *with* nature and has a tendency to ‘objectify’—to make an object of nature— that allows for subjecting it to the whims of our desires.

  20. David, et al
    I think that it is correct that we should expect “some transformation.” However, I think we are often the worst judges of whether that has occurred. It is also the case that those around us, even closest to us, do not see clearly, or as clearly as we might want them to. They have their own issues.

    This is why I underline the understanding that we do not know what the outcomes should be – we really do not see all that clearly. What there is for us is to give thanks (as we can), bear the Cross (as we can), and give all things into the hands of God. Is God working for our salvation – undoubtedly so – and for everyone and everything around us.

    It is the anxiety that seeks to control and manage that most often prevent us from being kind, gentle and generous. Our management often has an element of “violence” about it. In the world, the nature of relationships is often that of negotiated violence.

    Forgive the political example, but the President has recently said that his actions with tariffs are not a “trade war” but “trade negotiations.” That’s a good example of how we are with each other most of the time. Will there be a good outcome? God only knows – and that’s the point. We don’t.

    When events become very difficult, or difficult events begin to pile up, all of this becomes extremely murky within us. We pray, “Lord, have mercy!” and remind Him that we are weak and can only do this with His help.

    I think you’re right about discerning between one thing and another. My father-in-law, whom I often cite for his faithfulness in all of this, never(!) spoke of the devil. He would remind me that whatever he does can only be by permission. He (my father-in-law) simply gave himself to God and lot God worry about the source of anything happening. I think he was wise.

    God be with us!

  21. Dee,
    There is a temptation within the “wonder-working” saints and things. They are of God, and for God’s purpose. The proper attitude is to give thanks. As a dear Russian monk once said to me, “You Americans! You talk about miracles like you don’t believe in God!”

    I included in the article a reference to all of this within Orthodoxy – because the problem is universal. I am sometimes surprised at how desperately people want to be healed. I had a recent conversation with someone along those lines – a good man, a righteous man whom he knew, had become ill with cancer. He was dumbfounded. I said to him, “But everyone dies.” My father-in-law died with Lymphoma – and gave thanks for it.

    This does not mean we don’t pray to be healed. It is natural and right to want to be well and not be sick, and to want the same for others. Orthodox prayers frequently include the phrase, “all things that are necessary for our salvation.” St. Paul prayed three times for the removal of his “thorn in the flesh.” God told him “My grace is sufficient for you.” In his great “letter of rejoicing” (Philippians), Paul writes:

    “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Phil. 4:12)

    He “knew how” to do these things! Hard lessons.

  22. Thank you for the clarification on “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives”. The title has given me a bit of anxiety. I would feel a little more venturesome to look into it now.

  23. I have had occasion to ponder the word meekness. I believe a correct understanding of meekness address the difference between the self-help positive thoughts stuff and the teaching of Elder Thaddeus.

    Clearly, meekness isn’t simply weakness and smallness (meek as a mouse) in the normal way we use those ideas.
    Jesus Christ is meek. God is meek. One who is meek gives thanks for all things, always. Accounts all things as sent from God for their salvation.
    Or, put another way:
    A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I might be saved.’ So the old man said to him, Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’

    The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’

    He replied, ‘No.’

    The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’ So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles, saints, and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’

    And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you.’ The brother shook his head no. Then Abba Macarius said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.’

  24. Father, I was looking forward to your responses. Thank you.
    Similar to Dee’s comment, there is a point when praying for others where I become tongue-tied. I don’t know what to ask for in regard to their healing and/or their circumstances. I have even wondered if it is proper to pray for a healing, but then to do the opposite and not ask for a healing seems even more absurd. I realize I get caught up in the “specifics”. So I frequently remind myself that God knows exactly the yearnings in my heart for the other…that my hope is for the best. In some instances, the longer I pray the more my words trip me up. Then I simply just pray for His mercy.

    David Foust! Forgive me, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. But I was stunned and delighted to see your name here! From time to time I had wondered if you disappeared into the “great sea” out there. Glad to see you surface again! I have no great words of wisdom, that’s for sure, but just encouragement to keep pressing forward. I have a feeling you are farther ahead of the game than you think. We go forward, then backward…back and forth, up and down, like a rollercoaster. Sometimes the ground is not so stable as we think. But as Father says, it’s best we don’t focus on ourselves too much but rather on the goodness of God. That is just one of my daily struggles. And p.s. , you are not a turd! You were made in His image!

  25. Paula,

    I think we always pray. It would be perverse not to pray for healing. The “last rites” of the Church (not their real name), is actually the service of healing. We leave the outcome in God’s hands. But, I’ll add, that I have on occasion argued with God, begged for mercy for someone. I assume that such matters of the heart are not to be ignored.

    Abraham argued and bargained with God for the sake of Sodom and Gomorrah. It also seems clear that God wanted him to do that very thing. So, I beg, entreat, argue, etc., and trust that His will is good. But it is right that we should make our heart known to God (and to ourselves).

    David was Baptized in early Lent (at St. Anne) – to my great joy.

  26. Paula,
    I think you are a farm girl…not afraid of using cow patties! No, God makes no junk, for sure, though lots of folks trash themselves. Not on the subject of thoughts, but the Bible can be very refreshingly candid (like farm folks) in some of its expressions. I think of St. Paul calling himself and other apostles, “the filth of the world.” Or the prophet Elijah taunting saying that perhaps Ba’al was on a journey or relieving himself in a cave. There are even more crude examples, but I’ll let them lie. The Bible shows the disciples warts and all, even their unbelief and doubts. It is rather refreshing in our age of duplicity and cover-ups. Candid can be good. 🙂
    Fr. Stephen, forgive this aside. Your articles provoke my mind and heart in many ways. Thank you.

  27. Thank you Father. Yes, when there is a situation that is just so very hard to bear, I do have a lot of words for God…pleading. And when the pain is unbearable, I just cry. But you make a good point about “arguing with God”. We place before God the matters of our heart. Best to be real and true. Part of the gift of communion, isn’t it.
    Last year I had to bury my beloved horse on Good Friday, of all the days (the next day I was to be Chrismated). She really had a rough life before I adopted her. All I could do was moan and sit with the icon of our Mother, “Softener of Evil Hearts”. Nothing could describe the pain better than those swords piercing Her heart. She knew…and bought me through.

    But now I save the best for last. Father…I flew out of my chair when I read of David’s baptism!! Glory Glory Glory to God!!! Praise the Lord! Pardon me, the excitable one…but that is just good news! David, I don’t know why…but you were one of the ones I’ve encountered here that left a lasting impression. I couldn’t ignore it. The times you had crossed my mind I lifted to God. I have to believe many were praying for you. Father. obviously, for one! Now, it’s only the beginning!!! Every day a beginning! I wasn’t going to say a a word about seeing your name here, but I am sure glad I did! Many many many years David! Blessed journey!

  28. Dean…I just read your comment! Lol ! Well, yes, the Bible does call us filth and all that. And I can understand someone calling themselves “filth” or the worst of sinners. I am not, though, ready to agree with someone who calls themselves a turd, as if it their essence. Father said that the Saints “really actually believed” that they are the worst of sinners. I would venture to say we do not “really actually believe” that when we speak as such, and perhaps in God’s mercy that is so. I am just not ready and would fall into despair and despondency. The shame and guilt thing doesn’t die easy! That’s why I alter the Jesus prayer to ‘Lord Jesus Christ….have mercy on me’ and leave out ‘a/the sinner’. Anyway, I’m sure you know what I mean!

  29. In terms of how to pray in unclear situations (all things!), it has been a great joy since becoming Orthodox to learn of the intercession of the saints. They know how to pray for someone in ways I cannot discern and they can continue to pray when I have no more words or strength. What a blessing!

  30. David,

    I also noticed your return as commenter with some hopefulness as regards to your healing from difficulties you had shared previously here about your background. Glory to God indeed for your baptism!!! May God grant you many, many years!

    Undoubtedly, the hurdles you have mentioned struggling through will continue to trip you up and seem to hold you back in many different ways from time to time (yes, only as God allows, and because He will in time turn these into an advantage for your salvation), You have already, through Christ, received an astounding victory here! That we must continue from time to time to struggle is true in a myriad of different ways for all of us, but I have a special burden for those abused and manipulated in God’s name—and all the more so if this occurred from earliest childhood! Two encouragements I will leave with you I have often used to encourage myself:

    “…being confident of this very thing, that *He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;*…”
    Philippians 1:6

    And from the Abbas:

    …we fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up….

    The only thing we must do is to get up again (which simply means being willing to let God pull us up again) when we fall, no matter how many times it takes, and we shall surely be saved. God *is able* to make us stand (Romans 14:4).

  31. Thank you for your responses, Fr Stephen. Indeed everyone in the Church prays and is saved together. We need each other’s and the prayers of the saints. But I’m glad you’re trying to help us differentiate from the ‘other stuff’.

    I’m also grateful for your response to Paula’s question in which you describe imploring God in your prayers. I know this goes on too in my heart, most often in the context of yearning to do His will, and realizing how frequently I fail to keep my focus on Him in ‘the daily grind’.

    Dean I loved your cow patty reference. It made my day!!

  32. David (with no last name) – I do not know much, but I know you are not a turd. Not even the functional equivalent of a turd. You are, from what I have read, a good man blessed with a wonderfully intelligent and inquiring mind. Take it easy on yourself. I think you know that God, who created and continuously sustains the universe, has a deep and personal love for you. Believe it, please. God bless.

  33. If anyone would like a deeper understanding of illness and how to pray for the sick from an Orthodox perspective, I highly recommend “The Theology of Illness” by Jean-Claude Larchet.

  34. Paula and Karen,
    Thank you very much for the warm welcome. That is very appreciated.
    From what I can gather the journey to Orthodoxy for most people is somewhat discursive. That is my story as well. Fr. has been patient and VERY forgiving.

    However, I think I need to clarify. I don’t really see myself as a turd. But, I think I have a natural flair for hyperbolic images and that is all I really intended.

    Thanks again.

    My baptismal name is Simon.

  35. David,
    Simon! Love it! If it has anything to do with Simon Peter, how many of us can identify with him, especially prior to Pentecost…with the beautiful scenes of Christ’s love for him. Or Simon of Cyrene…carrying The Cross. Very heavy image there.
    Now David…I am jealous. You are blessed with knowing Fr. Stephen face to face! How extremely beneficial! I have seen, and experienced personally, on this blog how patient and forgiving he is.
    And I am glad you clarified the ‘hyperbole’. I will remember that with you future comments.
    Blessings David! Blessings…..

  36. Paula,
    He is “Simon” for Simon of Cyrene.

    Also, knowing me “face-to-face” is a mixed blessing. One faithful reader who moved down here and became a parishioner at St. Anne was asked by a friend to describe me. “He’s a redneck!” was the answer. I howled in laughter when he told me. I am Appalachian-born (in its edges in the Northwest of SC). I like to laugh (a lot). I tell jokes. I have ADHD and forget things. I talk too much. I like people and enjoy their company.

    It is very hard to do most of those things on the blog. It makes me seem a more attractive man than I am in person…unless you like my sort of guy. Not too oddly, I am always a little embarrassed about myself (that’s a shame thing). But I’ve come to accept it more and more.

  37. Ok I think this might be a ‘senior moment’ for me —but how many different Davids do we now have in the current comment streams?

    David Waite, David Foust, and I believe there’s also ‘David B’, correct? It looks like ‘David’ is David Foust.

    I’m sorry for my confusion. And it looks like all the Davids might be involved in the sciences— which is wonderful!

  38. It was after 7 years of reading Fr Stephen’s writing – which was the most important reading of everything I read on my way into the Church (yeah, I’m one of “those” people…) – and 5 years after Chrismation that I was able to finally meet Fr Stephen in person. I was completely favorably disposed toward liking him, however he was. Even more so after he interrupted his kitchen tiling project and drove a couple of hours to meet me and my husband for lunch, halfway between Boone NC, where our son had just gotten married, and Oak Ridge – and Father drove the longer “half”. We had a nice lunch and a nice talk, and Father can surely talk! My husband – not Orthodox and not very favorably disposed to my entering the Church – kindly paid for lunch, and afterward asked me, “Does he know that I’m not Orthodox?” I said, “Yes – that’s how Father Stephen is; what you see is what you get!” That has been the case every time I’ve been able to be with him, the last time with a big ol’ bandage on my forehead after skin cancer surgery, when he came to give a talk at our parish. I can hardly express how grateful to God I am for him.

    Dear Father, may the Lord help you in this podvig and everything else. I pray for you every day. Sending much love.

    Christ is risen!
    Dana

  39. Father,
    Why am I not surprised that it is Simon of Cyrene?! 🙂

    In one of your You Tube videos you made a similar comment about your jokes…that your parishioners “have to put up with” ! Father, I’d enjoy very much your company! Good to have a sense of humor. The talking a lot…that becomes a problem only if you are a poor listener along with it. And I can bet my bottom dollar, especially as a Priest, you not only listen well, but peer through the words!
    Oh yes, David is blessed…and so are we, even through the blog! 🙂

  40. Love your story Dana!

    Dee….”It looks like ‘David’ is David Foust”. Yes, I would say so…. 🙂

  41. Father, you said, “I think everyone is born Orthodox, only they don’t yet know it.”

    This reminded me of a recent quite I read…

    “Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don’t act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do.”

    +Elder Amphilochios, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 51.

  42. Dana, I’m a delicate shade of green with envy. I’m told by my godmother’s husband earlier today that Fr. Stephen is to be in my neck of the woods this weekend giving a retreat in the Chicago suburbs, and I am going to be out of town visiting relatives downstate for a nephew’s school theatrical performance! 😕

    Father, you may get to meet my godmother’s husband. He just discovered your blog, and told me he found it “insightful” and is thinking about attending.

    David Foust, I like your understated descriptive phrase “somewhat discursive”. (Is that a bit of a dry wit I detect?) My “somewhat discursive” journey to Orthodoxy was launched with not one, but two (mercifully short-lived) nervous breakdowns within a twelve-month period that included a shooting at my husband’s work which started in his department (by God’s providence he was offsite at a training session at the time—the only time in my recollection he attended such an offsite workshop while he worked there, and he was there 13 years), killed four of his colleagues and seriously injured three … and included the event of 9/11. Well, I should say that journey was launched with some soul-seeking and prayerful searching that led to the gift of a flash of insight, that led to a manic state of anxiety-induced insomnia leading twice to those breakdowns…but, I reckon you probably know a little about those kind of discursions one way or another! 🙂

  43. Karen,
    I’m so sorry I won’t get to meet you this weekend! I’m looking forward to Chicago, and St. Luke’s, and Fr. Paul Jannakos. It will be my second time to Chicago in the last 12 months. My trips are always quite short – fly in on a Friday, fly out on a Saturday (I have to be home for Sunday morning). So far, these little jaunts have worked out – I haven’t missed a Sunday yet. But it does make for a fast schedule and not the sort of lazy visit I would really enjoy. I studied in Evanston for 3 years (seminary), in a school that no longer exists (Episcopal seminaries have sort of been dropping like flies). The financial world of academia is a rolling tragedy.

    But, I’ve never been back to Evanston, lo these almost 40 years. Please tell your godmother’s husband to introduce himself and drop your name!

    As God wills, perhaps there will be a next time and I can meet you. Pray for my safe travels.

  44. Dear Karen,
    God bless your path into Orthodoxy! It seems from your interactions on this blog, that these trials are behind you now. We all have different crosses. But sometimes, people’s paths are incredibly amazing.

    Hi Dana!! We haven’t heard from you for awhile! Thank you so much for your story about Fr Stephen. I can imagine the experience, mainly from watching Fr Stephen’s talks on YouTube as well.

    Fr Stephen, I imagine your friendly personality is much needed as a priest, and so it seems fitting. But at the same time, I believe it is a rarity in this culture.–But that’s just my impression. I’m grateful to God that you are just the way you are, as a writer and redneck.

  45. My wife and I were down visiting some friends in Spring City, TN a few years ago (we are from Toledo,Oh) and had the opportunity to stop at a summer festival at St Anne’s. We were able to meet Father Stephen in passing and that was wonderful to see him among his parishioners and community members – a delightfully ordinary person with both feet on the same ground with the rest of us!!

  46. Fr. Stephen,

    If someone came to me and stated that they had found a method for controlling the world around them through disciplined thought, my first reaction would be, “Why would you want to do that?” This is the path to becoming like a demon – they seek to control us by whispering their thoughts in our minds.

    The One Ring comes to mind from this and other snippets above. Lots of people who seek to change their world have good intentions, but as you said we don’t have a clear idea of what goodness looks like and therefore would end up becoming evil, as illustrated by Lady Galadriel so beautifully in the movie.

  47. Drewster,
    And now to make matters more clear: Most people would gladly take the Ring. Most people believe that it is their job to “make a better world,” “make a better spouse,” “make a better child,” “make, make, make.” It is a fundamental spiritual outlook. Of course, they don’t have a real Ring, so they become angry and frustrated at the powerlessness of their desires. It’s a path to becoming like a demon without a ring…

    Tolkien is genius.

  48. I totally agree. It is surely God’s mercy that we are not allowed to have a real Ring. Greek and Roman mythology are probably stories about what would happen if we did.

    I am in the stage of life where I’m teaching teenagers to drive, so I feel very keenly the need to withhold power until the subject is ready. It’s not all or nothing; power is often given in increments as much as possible. I think one of the keys to being able to handle power (besides raw aptitude and technique) is the ability to perform the task without emotion and self-interest.

    But I digress…

  49. St Isaac the Syrian –perhaps more starkly than anyone else– returns to the notion that genuine humility makes a person mighty ‘like a god upon the earth’ whereas pride ensures the reverse. He occasionally even expresses this in the context of this very conversation here, i.e.: that humbly and gracefully accepting –rather than pridefully and selfishly modifying how things are (even if our egocentricity is disguised as our [self’s] idea of ‘good’) is the bedrock for this. We certainly cannot know what eternal good looks like with our spiritual shortsitedness… In fact, we would do well to remember that, neither demons nor beasts nor natural disasters nor bad men can harm anyone without God’s permission (as is made clear in the story of Job); if there is something that can harm us, it is only our own, incessant making-a-god-of-our-self rather than of the true God.

  50. Drewster,
    Enjoy the time when you still have that power over your teenagers… 🙂
    Soon the time will come when they will be criticizing your driving, they will be so confident and self-assured about their own (superior to yours) abilities… 🙂

  51. Dino’s comment on humility and Agata’s on know-it-all young drivers reminds me of something I heard recently. A man was saying that most people he knew who had achieved mastery in a certain area consistently rate themselves somewhere between amateur and somewhat competent – and as having much to learn yet – while many at the amateur level tend to rate themselves closer to being masters. In fact he went on to suggest that he feels more comfortable around and sure about those with the learning attitude – no matter what their achievement level – than around those who think they’ve got it all figured out. Makes sense to me.

  52. Thank you Dino for your reflection, it is indeed helpful.

    Your reflection (about humbly accepting rather than pridefully modifying) brings to mind someone in my familial circle and recalls my awareness and care about how I respond to them. Sometimes my (our?) circumstances can be a bit insidious and the way to proceed in humility can be difficult, if not treacherous.

    The ‘someone’ in my familial circle really wants to control circumstances and people around her. She understands that she cannot manipulate overtly without being rebuffed. And so (I believe very early in her life) she has developed an amazing set of skills for covert manipulations. In her conversations she talks (gossips actually) about scenarios of people (mostly family) and highlights features in her story that are her ‘seeds’ to plant certain thoughts in others. This ‘seeding’ is an intent to pit one person(s) against others, to motivate more attention toward herself. This has been her modus operandi for as long as I have known her (30+ years). The family has developed coping skills, among which are to attempt to ignore she’s doing this, but while also influenced one way or another by it. One time I attempted to carefully bring this behavior up with her in private, my point was to ‘help’ her understand that she was loved and didn’t need to manipulate others in this way. Her response to this direct approach was a tantrum, and the behavior continued.

    Obviously, I was wrong in my attempt to ‘help’ because as far as she was concerned, she didn’t need my help. Her approach worked reasonably well to achieve what she thought she wanted. In some respect, by my very action of trying to help her, there was an embedded message in my own behavior that she didn’t have the power she thought she had, or alternatively, that someone (myself) was trying to take that power from her. Last but not least, there was embedded in my own behavior the ‘prideful attempt to modify another’s behavior for their own good’.

    I have long been aware that it would have been more appropriate to understand that I was the one who needed help in relating to her, to accepting humbly the circumstances as they are. But my difficulties in doing this and relating to her are compounded by the insidious effects of her manipulations. In this regard I struggle, and ask for prayers. Perhaps these prayers should be asking for an enlarging and emptying of my own heart.

  53. Drewster,

    Indeed, what you describe is documented in the psychological literature as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Somehow I had never thought to consider it in a spiritual context, although it seems so obvious to me now.

  54. Drewster and Adam,
    Your comments about the Dunning-Kruger effect reminded me of an experience I once had at a brand new job.
    During my first week there, I overheard a manager talking to a small group, saying “I have no doubts about my own abilities, I however have serious doubts about everybody else’s abilities”….(!!??)

    My thought was: “I don’t think I could ever even think that, let alone say it out loud…” (and it was no great expression of my humility, just an honest realization – later on I found out that a lot of high level managers in that specific division thought similarly, and expressed themselves accordingly).

    Just 6 months later (to my great heartbreak, since it was truly my dream job), the whole division was closed and dismantled!! The self-confident manager was the first one to be blamed for it! 🙂

  55. I can understand you reason against magical thinking in so far it tries to influence in a “spiritual” way the world. But are you also against planning, strategic and tactical thinking in general. In al lines of work people in businesses, compagnies, factories have to do that to make a living. Focusing your will and discipline are also needed to accomplish things. You need to acquire some things, servives, commodities to live. Or do you suggest God provider for all that too? Without keeping some rules in my work i get fired very soon. If i stay at home no one will give me what i need…i have to take some action to make things happen and to influence the world around me (in a decent way). Could you enlighten me what you meant exactly?

  56. JM,
    No doubt we have to do the kind of work you describe. Companies also have to plan for contingencies – because things don’t always go as they plan. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s reasonable and responsible.

    Things can begin to move in a different direction when our plan requires some form of coercion – “making” things happen that will only happen if I “force” them. There are work environments that are like that, and those who work in them experience them as oppressive (because they are).

    Good practice avoids this latter kind of action.

  57. Agata & Adam,

    Humility is a topic that continues to fascinate me. Too easily those true masters could be chided for not being confident in themselves and standing forward so everyone has an example to follow. But I think those doing the chiding mistake humility for cowardice, self-doubt, even false humility. To put it another way I think those true masters realize just how much better they could get as well as how easily mistakes can be made by even the best.

    And thinking you know it all is the best recipe for disaster. I recently heard one professional who does BASE jumping with a wing suit and has a very good reputation for it, say that the day he steps to the edge and is not scared, that’s the day he will back away from the edge and give it up. We need the trepidation, to feel our place in order to be facing the proper direction to see what’s coming.

    I think of Jesus telling people to sit lower down at a feast so they could be asked to come up higher – or at least not be asked to move at all. As the elder says, the way down is the way up. As Fr. Stephen has said, the greatest saints actually and truly consider themselves the greatest of sinners. This fact is still mostly a mystery to me but my instinct tells me that is the correct path.

  58. J.M.
    You asked:
    “Or do you suggest God provider for all that too?”

    Let me share the rest of the story of my “dream job” loss, to illustrate how God does indeed provide… 🙂

    As soon as I was out of my job, every time I came to church, I stopped an extra moment in front of an icon of our local Saint (St. Alexis of Minneapolis), asking him: “Dear St. Alexis, you know this city, and all the people and companies here. You see my great need. Please help me!”. Before the dust at the dismantled division even settled, I received a call from a head hunter with a perfect job offer! He found me and the position!

    The skeptics (atheists especially), hearing this story, would shake their head and say: “well, you put your resume out there, you put your work into your job search”, etc, etc. You did the work, and you got the result from it…
    So I will leave you to assess whether it was a miracle from St. Alexis or not? I like to think about it as such… 🙂

  59. I am also interested in responses to tess’s question on April 16 regarding magical thinking and anxiety.

  60. Dee,

    I also have the exact same experience with a familial person…

    Drewster,
    The Saints’ humility – especially in the sense of profound ‘awareness of their sinfulness’– is mostly connected to their purification. Ironically, greater purity is the thing that enables deeper awareness of one’s sinfulness. The reverse is also true. It’s Christ’s Light in fact, that most lucidly exposes to ourselves the darkness we knew nothing off beforehand, and, likewise, it’s our sinful anaesthesia and self-distancing from that Light, that keeps us unaware of our own sinfullness’ depths, or even wondering whether the saints are just feigning to be humble with their self-abasement when they are clearly sinless in the eyes of all…
    Only illumined by God’s Light can we start to recognize that even all our virtues are nothing but selfishly driven departures (of varying degrees) from what we have been called to be in Christ.
    The tears of a saint in confession therefore, might be far more copious than that of even a desperately repentant serial torturer (!), even though their confessed sins might seem almost ludicrously laughable to their confessor ‘eg: I thought of picking my itchy nose during Liturgy, or while a person was talking to me on the phone’, this is because they are so immersed in God, while others have no idea how not to be immersed in our own self, even if appearing virtuous to people around us…

  61. Agata, you crack me up!
    Hopefully that is not the definition of a mother-in-law, otherwise, I’m cooked, as I am a mother-in-law. But the situation has provided invaluable lessons on many levels. I hope I have begun to learn them! : )

  62. First to David (Simon): Many years! Glory to God for your entry into the Church!

    Second, a thought on prayer and how to pray: I think when we pray, we lay our heart out to God. If we pray for others, it is because we love them in our hearts, and this is good. If we do not know how to pray for them, but greatly desire to do so anyway, that is prayer enough! It is our love that carries them to the Father, not our words. Just my thoughts.

    This does not mean we don’t pray to be healed. It is natural and right to want to be well and not be sick, and to want the same for others. Orthodox prayers frequently include the phrase, “all things that are necessary for our salvation.”

    Having recently undergone surgery and looking forward to a long rehab process, I have already become frustrated with not being able to do things I normally do, as easily as I prefer to do them! I began to understand, a very little, how people with various limitations or disabilities must view life. If my limitations were for more than a short time, I think I would explode! It makes me consider how weak I am and how lacking in humility to accept even the small limitation that I “suffer” under! I thank God for showing me this and I pray He give me grace to grow humble. But I also pray that I heal, because I am weak and impatient. Lord have mercy.

  63. Lastly, on meeting Fr. Stephen: I tend to be stand-offish and not throw myself into any situation without some thought. I have gone to see Father twice now and greatly enjoyed his talks and insights. He is indeed very personable, talky, and a “redneck” in every good way!

    However, I am sure he has seen me watching at a distance and probably wonders, “is that guy over there going to charge me with a knife?”. Please forgive me for not being bolder, Father (I have no knife, so no worries there)!

    He is quite wonderful to listen to and learn from. I am very thankful to God for him and all on this blog.

  64. Father, if Timothy gets to come, I will let him know, for sure. I will look forward to meeting you another time, Lord willing! I was wondering how your travel worked together with your parish work. I would be content just to pop in and listen sometime and be able to greet you in person. It would be fun to get out to see another parish, too. I usually only get to do that through others’ videos and podcasts (obviously, not the same thing) since I’m the only Orthodox in my family, and we attend each other’s churches already.

    Btw, the senior pastor of my husband’s Evangelical church (a recording of whose sermon I sent you with a question not long ago) just started a new series on habits/spiritual disciplines. Last Sunday I attended with my husband, and Pastor R. was covering the discipline of study. At close he invited us to download a study on John 6 from the church website and answer questions in preparation for next week. Now, John 6:53 (or 54) is the verse inscribed on the pages of the Bible Christ holds in His Icon (written by our Rector Emeritus) over the doors of the Narthex on the outside of my parish Temple (right across the rr tracks from my Evangelical Alma Mater). I thought to myself, “Do I do this study then send it and some Orthodox questions for him to Pastor R.? Dare I?!” Soooo very tempting!…Or, more to the point I was wondering if this meant the Lord might be granting opportunity to talk about this with my husband….

    The next day I tuned in AFR talk radio as I was working. I listened to the tail end of one message and then popped up your podcast from June 14 (15), 2010, entitled “A Secular Communion”. …Oh, my! Lord? (So precious when He let’s us know He’s there like that!)

    Thankful others up here will get the benefit of your ministry, Father! May the Lord indeed grant you travel mercies and provide everything you need and more!

  65. Dee,
    Let’s pray for one another, please!

    I will pray for you to be the best mother-in-law now and in the future. And I ask your prayers to be the best mother-in-law for my future daughters-in-law. I have three boys, and I so worry about their future relationships (hopefully marriages), as I was not able to stay married to their father…. May God forgive me and him, and grant my sons beautiful wives: kind, faithful, loving and Godly.
    Your prayers would be especially meaningful, as all my boys seem to be interested in chemistry (I think you are a scientist in this area). One is graduating from college this May already with Chemistry and Biochemistry degree. The middle one wants to be a Chemical Engineer (first year of college)…

    In the past, Drewster gave me some good advice in the area of child-rearing, so I wanted to reciprocate by warning him ahead of time about freshly baked driving experts … 🙂

  66. Dear Agata!
    I am honored to pray for your children. It sounds like they are already on their paths to entering careers to provide the means to take care of their potential families, thanks to their caring mother! Chemistry is indeed my area and it is diverse enough to provide opportunities in many areas. Many blessings to your children and to their future wives and families. May they find kind women with whom they will share true and faithful love. And may you be blessed with many grandchildren!

    I have found being a grandparent is such a blessing too! My own son lives at a distance away with his son and wife. This is not easy for me, being at such a distance, but they are happy, and I am blessed for that. Please pray for me too!

  67. Dino,

    Ironically, greater purity is the thing that enables deeper awareness of one’s sinfulness. The reverse is also true.

    Thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense to me because it accords with what know of a state of mastery – first and second hand: the more intimate a person gets with their area, the more they begin to realize they are a small fish in a big pond and there is so much more to it than could be seen from the outside. So while those looking on from a distance see them as masters, they themselves (unless they fall to pride along the way) see that they have only begun the journey.

    To use your sentence above, greater purity would bring about greater clarity. Confusion would dissipate and a person would begin to more clearly see and understand all things: how far we’ve fallen, what greatness we were meant for, the truly great things Christ did and is doing for us, and all the rest. The natural reaction would be to throw oneself to the ground and cry for mercy.

    What floors me is the “hidden hand” at work Fr. Stephen likes to talk about. It seems that allowing oneself to be in this very state – which can feel quite wretched – is when God tends to do His greatest work in that person. It is humbling of oneself that brings about true progress, and not any moralistic exercises or social reforms. It is when we appear to be the weakest that God is actually making us the strongest. Truly a frustrating but beautiful mystery.

  68. Byron,
    May God grant you a speedy healing from your surgery.
    I sure can relate to your impatience with even a temporary setback. Interestingly, yesterday I had a similar conversation with a friend. She was telling me about a dear friend of hers who suffered greatly with cancer and finally died…and the girl’s husband died of cancer immediately after her. She described her friend as the epitome of beauty, kindness, generosity and compassion. Their only daughter, 19 years old, had to endure all this. I commented on how much of a ‘weenie’ I am when it comes to intense suffering. How very difficult! I’d just crumble with a trial like that.
    We all have our trials, though…don’t we. And however we endure it, we endure it. God brings us through and it is always for the good. We don’t see it…and hold tightly to that mustard-seed of faith…and a month, a year, years, later look back and know God’s hand is always with us.

    Back to my ‘weenie-ness’…..the conversation here about the worries of one’s own children, being a good mother-in-law, etc. Mercy…my hat’s off to you all! I don’t know what that type of yearning and fear (maybe not such an appropriate word) is like. Never had a husband or children…the bond must be pretty strong. I don’t know….maybe God knew I’d make a mess out of it and spared me. I think this because I make such a mess of my life without a husband and children…so he (potentially) spared them too.
    One thing I can say…people like myself who are without such commitments and responsibilities, a portion of themselves remains immature. On the other hand, we are freed of those particular “fears” to be able to look more objectively and offer some kind of consolation to those who are dealing with family issues.
    I must say, though, those of you with families, I look upon as hero’s. The bond that creates that kind of love is strong…the love goes deep…and so the suffering. You have my prayers too.

  69. Oh Byron…I forgot to mention…
    Your comment on going to hear Father Stephen and staying in the background…God bless you! I saw in that a humility, rather than lacking anything (ex. boldness). Bryon, I guarantee you, if I went to see Father, I would not leave that place without finally meeting him!!! There is no way!!! I am bold, alright….to a fault!! Your comment spoke volumes.

  70. Drew and Dino,

    Thank you for this great conversation on the subject of humility. It’s true that it can be “frustrating”, but it is for sure a great mystery. I think one Saint said that “Humility is the garment of Deity”… The Slavonic translation of this Greek word (maybe Dino can expand on that for us?) is even more misunderstood than the word humility (Met Anthony Bloom has some nice words on the root of the word which is actually the word “soil” in Latin, I think).

    It always makes me remember Fr. Zacharias who says that we “only have one Teacher, Christ”. We need to learn from Him.
    And the Lord Himself tells us in the Gospel of Matthew:
    “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
    (some other translations have the expression “humble of heart”).
    What a great promise, if we are humble, we will have “rest unto our souls”…

    Dee,
    Thank you for your beautiful words and prayers. I know many people who are greatly blessed by their grandchildren. I hope the Lord will bless me this way some day.
    You are in my prayers!
    And I ask all of you to forgive me my mother-in-law joke! I know there are many wonderful mothers-in-law. I once heard a priest say that the mothers-in-law need to love their children’s spouses more than their own children, since they are more like “adopted children”, and people should love adopted children more than their own…. I really liked this thought!

  71. ‘Humility is the garment of Deity’ (St Isaac states). This aphorism reveals to us true humility.
    Humility is the ‘new man in Christ’, and its opposite –the ego– is the ‘old man’.
    It is not this or that virtue we ought to achieve or this or that passion we ought to be liberated from, but the entire ego-based existence of the old man needs to die. In time, with Grace, ‘naturally’, it will be put to death for the sake of the ‘New Man/Woman’ – our true nature.
    It’s worth noting that, in this light, even the so-called ‘self-preservation instinct’ is most ‘unnatural’. It is but a fruit of the ego, an aspect of self-love; and the ego cannot somehow become more pure, more beautiful or more improved (as Father Stephen often reminds us).
    It must die.
    Our hallowed, true identity, the New Man and the New Woman in Christ, has nothing to do at all with the ego…
    So our true person, arrayed in genuine humility, emerges to the measure of our desperate hope in Christ alone, (albeit, uncorrupted from psychological complexes).
    “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)

  72. Someone once told me that humility is not comparing yourself to other people.

  73. Well, one who desperately hopes in Christ alone, (watchful against his ego and uncorrupted from psychological complexes) couldn’t possibly allow to compare himself to others…

  74. Dino,

    Your comments on the ego remind me of things I learned when I was attending the Thai Buddhist center in St. Louis. I always thought of salvation as ‘illumination that integrates’ what is fragmented. So, I have thought of the ego and the troubles the passions create in the ego as symptomatic of the fundamental fragmentation in creation and human nature in particular. As we individually undergo anakephalaiosis the internal fragmentation diminishes with increasing integration and the disturbances in the soull associated with that internal fragmentation simply fall away like scales.

  75. David Foutch,
    Only, a key difference with the Buddhist understanding of ‘ego death’ and that of the fullness of the truth of Orthodoxy is that our “hallowed, true identity, the New Man in Christ, (which has nothing to do at all with the ego), never dies, is never lost but instead is affirmed by God and is our true person, arrayed in genuine humility and love, God loves us like His equal and, in Christ, our hypostasis is not lost but becomes cosmic –in His likeness.

  76. The fact that the self-preservation instinct –rooted in self-love- is a product of falleness, ought to remind us of the centrality of [sacrificial, Christ-following, voluntary] death in our Faith: as the victor of [involuntary, godless] death. We fear not death because it is through this new death that the old death is trampled, eternal life therefore comes through it. By the way, this utterly different to Buddhist notions on the matter.
    As a famed abbot once said on Athos, ‘this world might take our monasteries, apostasy might take our children, the spirit of the antichrist might prevail all around, but there is one thing they can never take away from us: death! Yes, it is death (as the trampler of futility and not as the essence of futility) that has been given us as gift.
    No wonder it is the martyr that is the ultimate example of a Christian!

  77. A beautiful article and several wonderful comments!

    I found the 4 points listed in the article most useful to repeat to myself, especially 3 & 4.

    Re Drewster2000’s comments above,

    “how far we’ve fallen, what greatness we were meant for, the truly great things Christ did and is doing for us, and all the rest.”

    Breaking this down here:
    1. How far we’ve fallen – yes, I can see that; of course, there is surely much of my sinfulness & brokenness I’m still blind to, but I do see some of this at least;
    2. What greatness we were meant for – yes, and it gives me so much pain and frustration that I’m not there yet
    3. The truly great things Christ did – yes, I see that by learning the history of the Church
    4. … and is doing for us – this is where I get stuck. I mean, when I look at the Church as a whole, I see the Fathers and the Saints, the doctrine, Liturgy, ascetical tradition and literature, monasticism, the priesthood, the large numbers of faithful laity, and all the music, art and literature that has come out of Christianised civilisation, and all that is impressive indeed. Taken as a whole, the drama of salvation in the Church looks impressive (in spite of the various scandals in the Church) but on an individual level, when I look at myself, all I can see is a mess that doesn’t seem to get cleaned up no matter how many “ah-ha” moments I have in prayer or when reading spiritual books or articles like this one. What should I be looking at? My deeper realisation of how broken I am? The humility I’ve possibly gained? (I cringe when writing this; since obviously “growth in humility” is not something to be weighed and measured.) At the back of my mind, I think, “Humility is all very fine, but I’d just like a bit more of eudaemonia, that flourishing that Aristotle and other philosophers spoke of.” God forgive me; surely this is wrong thinking; I just don’t know how to break out of it.

    Of course, I know that I must think of “the Hidden Hand of God” at work and not give in to discouragement, but at times I think, in frustration, “I’m sick of being a sinner. I can’t bear the spritual stench of myself. Just for a change, I’d like to be a “competent non-sinner” who coasts along in the spiritual & moral life with average competence, even if not a saint, just like I learnt to drive a car, and can do so competently, though I may not be the best driver in the world.” I don’t know how to deal with this thought.

    I think of the lost time that won’t return, and I console myself with what C.S. Lewis says about salvation mystically spreading back and in front in time when the Kingdom of God enters a person’s life (I think it’s somewhere in Mere Christianity; I’ll try to give a citation in a future post).

    At other times, I worry that the damage caused by sin (especially mine) just seems to be compounding over time and space and no complete repair is possible. But then I think of the Catholic Saint Jean Vianney, who supposedly was a very poor performer academically at the seminary but through his struggles learnt compassion for human frailty so much so that people used to flock to him for Confession and he is now the patron saint of parish priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

    However the thought “Given the time and grace you had, you could have done infinitely better; you’ve made a real mess of things, like you’ve always done, and probably always will” never goes away and weighs down heavily on my heart. What is the solution? Do I forget myself and think only of the Church as a whole (In my limited understanding that seems to be more-or-less what Yannaras says in “Freedom of Morality” and “Against Religion”) But how is it practically possible to “forget myself?” I can do it for perhaps a few minutes or even hours, but then the anxiety about my “lack of progress” crashes through the gates of my mind once again.

    Please pray for me.

    -NSP

  78. NSP,
    What a heartfelt comment, NSP! You know, I wish I could respond coherently, but my thoughts right now are a bit scattered… surely my response would not be helpful nor would it offer you any consolation. So all I can say is I understand completely. Deep down, things are very messy. It’s an intense warfare. God in heaven! let us pray for each other, ok?

  79. Thanks, Paula.

    Looks like my memory has been playing a little trick on me. Though C.S. Lewis does deal with time and eternity in Mere Christianity, especially in Book IV, the quote I had in mind is actually from The Great Divorce:

    “Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless, he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

    “Is not that very hard, Sir?”

    “I mean, that is the real sense of what they will say. In the actual language of the Lost, the words will be different, no doubt. One will say he has always served his country right or wrong; and another that he has sacrificed everything to his Art; and some that they’ve never been taken in, and some that, thank God, they’ve always looked after Number One, and nearly all, that, at least they’ve been true to themselves.”

    “And the Saved?”

    “Ah, the Saved . . . what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”

    from Chapter 9 of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

  80. NSP,

    Of course, I know that I must think of “the Hidden Hand of God” at work and not give in to discouragement, but at times I think, in frustration, “I’m sick of being a sinner. I can’t bear the spiritual stench of myself. Just for a change, I’d like to be a “competent non-sinner” who coasts along in the spiritual & moral life with average competence, even if not a saint, just like I learnt to drive a car, and can do so competently, though I may not be the best driver in the world.” I don’t know how to deal with this thought.

    Ironically it is this very disposition you display above that we must come to and be content to stay in – even if just for a little while. It is the bearing of a little shame that Fr. Stephen mentions from time to time. Though it is not intuitive for us at all, it is the willingness to face our sinner state that causes us to not only call on God but in fact begin to base our lives around Him, to play our proper role as children instead of competent, self-reliant adults.

    This message is nonsense to the world, yes, but also to our natural instincts. We were made to live, but we find that the hidden way to life is through death. We were made to grow from one degree of glory to the next, but we actually find salvation through the pain and misery of our own wretchedness and continual failures – and not what we would call success. This bears true even in learning skills like driving a car. If you are able to think back you’ll realize what brought you to a level of competence was your mistakes and adverse road/weather conditions, not the countless hours when you felt in control and everything went fine.

    As the saint says, we must bear a little shame – and then when we can’t take it anymore, go have a cup of tea. (or maybe something a bit stronger if it won’t cause you to fall off the horse again)

  81. NSP,
    …and thank you too.
    Thank you also for the Lewis quote. Its been years since I’ve read him…but as I was reading the quote I remembered it well. Very comforting. His works are always worth a re-read.
    I know on this blog we’ve said this over and over, but the irony of purposeful suffering so it may become sanctified (regardless of fault. we’re not talking fault or blame here) is almost too much to bear. How many times we come to the “edge”, simply scared to death (!) things will never change. But we’re still here, having been carried through once again. I think of the Cross…that very Cross Simon of Cyrene bore. Mercy!…that we may decrease and He increase. It’s a hard way to go. The irony is its necessity. Its hard, even in times of reprieve when our eyes are open to Beauty and Love.
    Anyway, God bless you, NSP. God bless….

  82. Many thanks for your comments Drewster2000 and Paula! I cannot speak for NSP but I share many of his concerns and appreciate your kind guidance.

    I must say that bearing this shame is in fact living in it and that is so very, very difficult. It the measuring of things that brings me down. Oddly enough, I never measure the people who love me; love requires no measurement! Yet I measure myself before God constantly. It is a bad habit that is difficult to stop.

    I recently came back to a quote from Fr. Freeman that is tangentially related to this line of thought:

    “Debt is an important concept in the Scripture, and it’s always a bad thing. There are strict laws controlling debt in the OT and guaranteeing that it cannot be used to permanently enslave anyone. God does not want to make slaves of us.”

    Debt only is created in measurement. I think, for myself, I need to remember and live as if God loves me and does not wish for me to be made a slave. That He will yet catch me and free me, even when I run to the edge of the abyss and throw myself over in pursuit of my sin.

  83. Byron…another gem from Fr. Stephen! It is indeed enslaving to believe I am “not good enough”, ever, and try to attain God’s love. I do that too, Byron. I’m afraid this is the approach I take even with acetics…prayer, fasting, almsgiving…even though I know intellectually that it is for communion with God and for the taming of the passions. Our minds need renewal!
    The point Father made comparing debt in the OT is really good…and true. We are not slaves to debt, but willing servants, freed to serve Him. Unworthy yes, but willing! God is good and loves us. He knows us and works to do His pleasure. He knows our desires and our seemingly insurmountable weaknesses. He knows our shame.
    “Debt only is created in measurement.” I like that, Byron. How unstable that makes us! Up down up down, good, not good. I was taught that in the Book of Life that God keeps a tally of every single thought word and deed and at the Dread Judgement whips it out as we stand trembling. You know, we don’t know exactly how the Judgement is going to appear before our eyes. It is dreadful because we know, even with all our deeds, we can never “measure up” and can only plead for mercy. But scare tactics just doesn’t cut it!!
    Another thing comes to mind that Father mentions often is the harassment of logismoi….those God awful thoughts that assail. As of late, I have begun to more consistently say the Jesus Prayer, in faith that what the monastics taught about it is true…that initially it is beneficial in keeping my mind focused on Christ. Up until now I didn’t believe in the need for a prayer rope, but now have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful thing. It will keep the mind and body doing something simultaneously…you know, the mind/body/heart connection.
    Sorry…I talk too much! Blessings to you Byron. Thanks for the comment!

  84. Byron and Paula,
    Fruitful exchange. Byron you say you need to remember and live as if God loves you. And Paula recalls how she was taught that God was just ready to zap us when the book of our life is opened and we stand bare before him. Much like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Edwards.
    My mind goes to Jesus calling his disciples “friends.” Jn.15:15. And the NKJ states that ” we are accepted in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:6
    Jesus had 3 very dear friends in the sisters and brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazurus. St. John gives us a few glimpses into their friendship. Now they were not perfect…what friend of ours is? But how Christ loved them. It seems he was very comfortable in the midst of their household. As I wish I could have eavesdropped in on the conversation on the Emmaus road, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have been privy to the intimate conversations of those 4 friends? No judgment, but love and acceptance. Thank God in Christ for his mercy, that he truly is the One who loves mankind…”Mercy triumphs over judgment. “

  85. Oh Dean thank you for turning the conversation back to the love of Jesus and the precious Gospel stories. Yes, can you imagine the Lord of Glory calling us friends?! Yes , the not so perfect…”Martha, Martha”….and “Dean, Dean”, “Byron, Byron”, “NSP, NSP”, “Paula, Paula” !!
    I sure would’ve like to have heard the conversation of the four friends on Emmaus Road…they could have sounded just like us in the previous posts! And I can just hear Jesus saying “Byron, Byron”, “Paula, Paula” with a shaking of the head!
    God is good and He love mankind!
    Man, thanks Dean…we needed that boost of encouragement!

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