Drag My Soul to Paradise

A Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

From the Morning Prayers

This is among my favorite prayers and one of the most hopeful. The greater our self-knowledge and understanding, the greater our realization of just how impossible it is to live the spiritual life. There are many who seem to champion the will, certain that with the right motivation (usually threats of punishment) we will do the right thing. After years of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this notion of the well-behaved will is born from a personality defect and is simply neurotic.

I see this expressed in any number of ways. It comes out in social media with sentiments that people simply need to work harder, or that they should not be coddled or cajoled. Some extol the virtues of dire consequences for failure. It is directed towards children (“what they need is a real good whacking!”), towards the poor, towards the depressed (“make better use of your bootstraps!), towards the wicked (“without the threat of hell they will not do good!”), and towards ourselves (self-loathing and shame). While it is true that punishment and suffering can bring about a behavioral response, I have never seen it bring about an inner change. Punishing me will never make me a better man.

What is neurotic, however, is the insistent belief that punitive measures are both necessary and salutary.

I had a coach in high school when I was on the track team. He knew nothing about running. Our entire workout consisted of running while he yelled profanities at us. I did not become a better runner. I quit before the season ended.

Sadly, my coach is a caricature of a priestly model for some. The laity are harangued and belittled. Canons become weapons of imagined discipline. Those who survive rarely become better Christians. If the model is internalized, they can become angry and depressed apostles of this dark method. Our closeness to paradise cannot be measured by outward performance. Paradise resides in the heart.

I hear the heart’s cry in the prayer quoted above. The depth of its honesty provokes the hearts of those who read it. It recognizes the truth of our will and echoes St. Paul’s observations:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-21; 24)

There is, I think, an abiding temptation towards Pelagianism (the belief that we can will our own salvation). In Orthodoxy, the teaching of “synergy” often runs in that direction. We indeed “cooperate” with God in our salvation (“cooperate” is the Latinized equivalent of “synergy”). But our cooperation is best illustrated in the prayer above. It is the cry for help from the lips of the helpless. This is not nothing – it is synergistic. But it is not the imagined synergy that some profess. We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.

This prayer, I believe, is an example of true spiritual growth and moral maturity. The Elder Sophrony said, “The way up is the way down.” It is the presence of true humility.

The prayer says, “Save me whether I want it or not!” In my own Southern way, I have translated this in a different idiom: “Drag my sorry soul into Paradise.”

Be merciful and kind. You will not save anyone by being harsh and demanding. When the temptation arises to fix the world (and your closest neighbor), recognize it as sin. Repent. Call out to God to drag you to a better place – whether you want it or not.


  1. Amen, Amen and Amen.
    Laws of any kind cannot change motivation or behavior. They can only reward or punish. Dylan Root, the shooter at the church in Charleston, SC just received the death penalty for his crime. This was posted on Facebook and many Orthodox people were quick to praise the decision. To me, it is a sorry state of affairs. That penalty does not bring back those slain, it not does it lead to the redemption of Dylan. It is simply a revenge killing.
    I am incapable of changing me. I don;t even really know what changes need be made other than to stop unholy behavior which is utterly beyond my grasp. All I can do is pray prayes similar to this one and beg the Lord’s forgiveness and healing. The funny thing is, the more I pray, the more I confess and the more I seek the Face of the Lord the more I realize what a wretch I am and am totally unworthy. Only by His Grace.

  2. Thank you Fr. Stephen!!! God bless you and all your family in all ways!!!

    Words fail me in expressing how thankful to God I am that you have written and shared these words here.

  3. Oh Fr. Stephen,
    Drag my sorry soul into paradise, (whether I want it or not)…. Just plumb
    satisfyin’, those words. My soul often is sorry. I do need yanked into paradise…as I grow older, I need this push heavenward even more. Oh yes, punishment never saved one soul. Amazing grace! Thank you for your words and the most wonderful prayer, which I have not prayed in a while.

  4. Father Stephen, this blog post is downright Lutheran. 🙂 Hopefully my Lutheran friends will read it and
    #1, be relieved of their fear that my conversion is somehow works-righteousness, and
    #2, realize how close they actually might be to Orthodoxy and maybe dip their toe in the Bosphorus and complete the Reformation. 🙂

    As always, thank you for this. There is great relief in remembering Jesus saves, and I don’t.

  5. Martin Luther used the phrase “passive redemption” to describe our salvific relationship with Christ. Offering an Orthodox response, Fr. Georges Florovsky called Luther’s view “spiritual fiction”, the idea that God’s back was turned toward us, and by accepting Christ God now faces us and declares our acceptance. In the Philokalia, volume 1, words attributed to St. Anthony the Great portray a healthier view: “to say that God turns away from sinners is like saying the sun hides itself from the blind.” The sun does not hide itself; sick, diseased eyes do not see what is there. But the sun remains steadfastly present. The book of Acts records that something akin to scales fell off St. Paul’s eyes when God healed his blindness through the hands of Aeneas. May the scales of arrogance, pride, and self-centered ego fall from our eyes so we may behold the glory of God in the face of Christ.

  6. Prayer and picture go together so well. I have been puzzled, Father Stephen, by the traditional formal language in prayer books. Your placement of these two makes me think that while we approach God from our great distance, He sees us as we are.

    (If there is more I should know about the use of old-style language in personal prayers, please explain, maybe in a future post. Or post a link. Often I feel that I am simply repeating a script, like in a play. In addition, so many of the expressions in these prayers seem almost to be directed at me, explaining God to me, instead of directed to Him. I get the beauty and tradition in the Divine Liturgy and in other group services . I just don’t know that I should be talking to God about myself, or how I should do that, whether in formal language or like that child would when he fell off his bike . Very short simple prayers (“Lord have mercy.,” etc.) make sense, so I’ve been sticking to those. )

  7. Scott,

    As one who was raised Lutheran, I couldn’t help but think the same thing as I read this prayer and blog post! Fr. Stephen’s blog has certainly helped me with my (ongoing) struggles with the ideas of synergy, works righteousness, and the like.

  8. I get the beauty and tradition in the Divine Liturgy and in other group services . I just don’t know that I should be talking to God about myself,

    Albert, I suffer from the same confusion at times. It seems so self-centered to pray for “me” during the Liturgy! But I’ve come to realize that I pray to repent for my own heart along with everyone else in the Liturgical Communion, who pray for grace to repent in their hearts as well. It seems to me that the Liturgical Communion is far more than just the words we pray; it is a communion of humility and self-emptying before God as well as Grace received. I hope this helps. All, please offer correction if I have misspoke.

  9. Good word. I love to think about what is wrong the world, using the most spiritual and theological language at my disposal. Opinions (Christian opinions, if such a thing exists) are like weapons in my hand; therefore I think I am not permitted to have them. I mean, I have to give up opinions if I have any hope of being saved, even if they are right.

  10. Yes. “We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.” I’m thankful for this reminder; I think what you are talking about in this particular article is one of the most important things for anyone (especially me) to understand and remember.

    I just found this particular prayer a few months ago — I’m still new, chrismated at Pascha! — and it instantly became one of my favorites. I love the pre-communion prayers for the same reason: they make a bold admission of our incapability and expound a breath-taking and radical dependence upon the goodness of God in the face of our complete unworthiness.

  11. Re: Albert’s thoughts on formal language of prayerbooks

    There’s a pedagogical intent. I’ve used the same little pocket Antiochian prayerbook for over fifteen years. The words form you. Just like the words of the Divine Liturgy, after years of “swimming” in them, will help impart an Orthodox mindset that you don’t get from only reading doctrinal or dogmatic works.

  12. Albert,
    Often, we are reading prayers translated from a different culture and language. I particularly am not fond of the use of the antique “Thee and Thou” etc., because it sounds and feels so formal and distant – when, in fact, it was originally informal and intimate. Thee and Thou are the language of lovers in older English – now lost on us. But also, prayer is often quite poetic in form, exaggerated, etc. That, too, is the language of love.

  13. Oh! This prayer is so where I find myself time after time. Now I read this (and wonderful comments) just after I managed only barely by the skin of my teeth to not spurn or waste the opportunity to go to Mid Feast Liturgy this morning (oh, how I was tempted to just go back to bed or tackle yet one more of the dozens of things needing attention around the house!), and being received with grace by the Lord even when the only precommunion prayer I could manage was “Lord, have mercy…” and those of the Liturgy itself.

    How unspeakably kind the Lord is! If we could only realize this all the time, we would never stray again.

  14. I think it would be easy for some to mistake what I have written as an invitation to passivity. It is not. But there are very subtle things when it comes to the use of the will. There is a use of the will that establishes a kind of “dominance” over things. It is this sort of will (kind of a Nietzschean sort of thing) that is both dark and dangerous. The will that belongs to cooperation (synergy) is a will that “yields.” It is the will that says, “Yes. And Amen.” We were created as social beings. The will that says yes, is the will that is operative in obedience.

    I have joked (though somewhat seriously) that I live in obedience: to my bishop, to my wife, to my Council. Life is ever so much easier in obedience than in trying to manage its outcome. Again, this is not passive. You share your thoughts but you do not force them.

    There is a kind of “moral” will that belongs more to the Nietzschean sort. It is that sort of morality that I have opposed in my writings. There is a life of obedience that is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.” It is the only one of value.

  15. Father Stephen,
    Excellent…excellent! reflection in this post.

    Biermonk, helpful comment. The pedagogical intent, whether coming from Christ Himself in the form of prayers, from a holy book, or from a servant of His, is just as much a balm as a tender touch.
    No doubt it takes “years of swimming” to fully appreciate the language of prayer books (and the Liturgy too). Yet even beginning to dive in, one finds being captured by the words in a way no other writings are capable of. Surely the work of The Spirit.

    There has never been a time for me when I had sensed that I was being corrected by God (by and through any means) that I didn’t marvel, in the face of my helpless unworthiness, on just how kind, gentle and loving He is. Even that is a very powerful “pedagogical” lesson.

    “Drag my sorry soul into Paradise.” Indeed. Like St. Peter crying out on the water, “Lord save me”! And as per your reminder Father, “Lord, help me to be obedient and say ‘yes’ “!

    George Engelhard
    C 2016





  17. I converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism.
    One of the first things I learned about Orthodoxy is that it’s a 180 degree difference in many areas.
    This is one of those areas. Protestants, at least the churches I attended, are more focused on legal punitive structures of salvation. To them, God is a bookkeeper, and keeps a record of our sins and we need Christ to be our lawyer and argue in God’s court that we should be found not guilty, or to go and erase the book so that there’s no evidence to convict, so to speak.
    Well, there are also other extremes as well.
    I admit my understanding of Orthodoxy is limited, due to having to relearn…everything. It is my understanding that God is seen as a healer not a bookkeeper. God sees the sin in us, not to write it down and punish, but to apply healing, that our soul may be made whole. Much like with the work a doctor does on a patient, it is the work of God that heals, removes, and repairs the damage done by the rot and disease of sin. God works within us to do what we cannot do, to make our soul and our being whole, so that we might be reconciled into right relationship with God, that we might become Holy, through His work and His action, because we are incapable of doing such things on our own.
    Like with disease, you do not blame the person who is sick; you encourage them to go and to be healed.

    When I was protestant, instead of growing closer to God, I grew farther from Him. I was seeking and wanted to know, what Christianity really is, what does it really mean to be a Christian, who am I really as a Christian or who should I be as a Christian and who is God and who is Christ and who is the Holy Spirit, and what or who is the church and who am I to the church. I wanted to know where my place is and what it really truly means to be a Christian. I wanted to know what defines Christianity and sets it apart from everything else. As a protestant, I didn’t find the answers. I just felt like I was so far away from God. I was empty and lonely; there was nothingness inside me.

    Then I found Orthodoxy and I knew God was there, because Orthodoxy called to something deep in my soul that is beyond human words. And now, things are 180 degrees different. Before where I felt nothing and didn’t care, now I have this deep and desperate yearning for God that I simply cannot properly articulate, because it runs within every single atom of my being to the point that my very existence seeks after God. It is like, I am alive and there is no longer a nothingness inside me, because God has put life within me.

  18. Jordan–
    Oh, your comment resonated with me. 🙂 I feel you! I remember how painful the process was of learning how to shed my opinions. What finally helped me was this mental picture: If, standing before the judgment seat of Christ, He should tell me that such and such an opinion of mine was wrong, how would I want to feel about that?

    Then once I had a clear picture of the kind of person it would take to bear such an encounter (God forbid I should argue with my God and my Savior! lol), I started trying to live like it. 😉 Still a work in progress, but disagreement burns much less than it used to, though I admit that I can still get pretty agitated when someone I love is defending something ugly or evil.

  19. Without Providence, I am nothing and Providence is always a gift.

  20. Father Stephen, which prayer book do you use? The translation in the Jordanville is slightly different. It says “Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works, may it answer for…” etc. Praying this version, I sometimes worry that my faith is not strong enough either. How do I pray this when I feel God to be distant?

  21. Tess, thanks…I had to go and reread Jordan’s comment. Guess it didn’t help much as I now proceed to give my “opinion”! Hope you don’t mind. Actually, it is more of a clarification…

    I think it is one thing to express an opinion and another thing to be opinionated. I don’t think there is a rule against voicing an opinion. It is in the disagreeing where there seems to be a problem. I think the dialogue can go smooth, without offense, depending on the timing and speakers countenance. Body language, choice of words, tone of voice, the hardness or softness of the face (especially the eyes), can make or break the communication. These subtleties speak much louder than words. If you were to stand before God, it seems He would not so much look at your right or wrong opinion, but rather your heart, your attitude. Plus, one can still have a sour attitude even after zipping his lip!
    The condition of our world today, with its sharp divisions in just about every sphere…political, racial, cultural, theological…combined with the ‘faceless’ social media, has contributed to the erosion of the whole range of normal human communication. We have lost the ability to use all our senses to form a complete picture. In addition, the media has given us the false idea that any time is a good time to opine. It causes division, alienation, where no division need be taken. This, on top our cultural sentimentality, where we are propelled by our emotions, which leads to intolerance of alternate view points, *you* will be the one deemed intolerant, hateful, and an outsider (think: group-think). It is no wonder we shy away from offering a different point of view. There was a time when people expressed opinions and were safe to do so. There was ‘a time and a place’, social rules that were followed. Now it is suggested, for expediency’s sake, to even keep our opinions to ourselves, even within our own ‘group’.
    Father offers us a good answer at the completion of this post…”Be merciful and kind”. With that in mind, there should be room to safely express ourselves ‘in due season’.

  22. Isidora,
    I can only give a few examples. Father Stephen can answer as the priest/pastor he is.
    In the last year of his life, my father would sometimes call at 2 in the morning. He wondered if he were saved or not (Christian, not Orthodox ). I repeatedly had to reassure him in his anxious calls to me. I would remind him of the thief on the cross, whom Jesus assured would be with him in paradise. Jesus said we needed only the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains. I’m old enough to recall the mustard seed necklaces women would wear…a very tiny seed enclosed in a glass bead. If that faith could move mountains, wouldn’t it move our heart toward salvation? Think of the woman taken in adultery. ..no condemnation by our Lord. Christ loves us! He’s the one who woos and beckons us. “Whoever comes to me I will in no way cast out.” “Come to me all you weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest….” If we have the slightest movement toward God it is because He has placed it there. Faith is a gift. It’s ours to respond to the Holy Spirit’s nudging. With these and other words I would speak to my dad. And Christ would soothe.

  23. Obedience is an easy thing when I am obedient. It is quite difficult when I am in rebellion. There is no partial obedience I find. Interestingly I can be obedient and think something is incorrect–not in accord with my opinion on things.

    Fr. Stephen says “share, do not push”. Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory said, “Do not argue.” The Bible tells us to let our yes be yes and our no, no.

    How can I hear God, if I am noisy? To listen is hard for me.

  24. Isidora,
    It will never depend on the measure of our faith. Our salvation is not a test – it is God’s rescue of us from death and despair. “Help me!” would even be enough.

    As for prayer books, I use a bunch of them, whatever is at hand, and even none at all. I do the Trisagion prayers, read Psalms, and say the Jesus Prayer. That is the bulk of my routine.

  25. Beautiful. My husband and i are new converts, and everything bad thing that could happen to test our faith, has happened. But God is faithful, and I am seeing how completely useless anything i plan to do, or make resolutions to do, or think might be pleasing to God or helpful for my own salvation is… The best thing i can do is run to my prayer corner, drag out my ragged heart, and pray. He will answer me in His own way, in His time, in a way that will mystify me, and seem to not even address what i am saying to Him – but it will be the exact perfect thing. And one day, these fires may all be put out, and i will be grateful that i saw my own grimy heart, and His steadfastness…

  26. Really appreciated this Fr Stephen, thank you.
    Also this: “As for prayer books, I use a bunch of them, whatever is at hand, and even none at all. I do the Trisagion prayers, read Psalms, and say the Jesus Prayer. That is the bulk of my routine”

    I got married over 5 years ago, moved from Ottawa Canada to NJ and I don’t even remember how I used to pray but only know that marriage, as a friend said, is a revolution and I still feel like I am rebuilding a new life and a new house for my soul, something I have sensed for 5 years. So your words above about prayer (i.e. FREEDOM in it) are encouraging. One of the prayers I found myself praying a few weeks ago was ‘hold me Jesus and don’t ever let me go’ … I was told once that a translation of ‘have mercy’ / mercy peruse me all the days of my life’ was very much about God seeking us. I sense that what you are saying here is that it is God who is love. I have struggled a lot with confusion in the area of feeling like God somehow is punitive or ‘out to get us’ and I find this very unexpected (I grew up with a strong sense of God as loving Father) … so your words in the comment:
    “Our salvation is not a test – it is God’s rescue of us from death and despair. “Help me!” would even be enough.” is very helpful. I would love to know more about how to understand our sin and need to repent with the struggle to see God for who He is (i.e. not punitive)… what does it mean to have a God who is all holy and yet loves; I re-read K. Norris’ book (part of it that is) Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith and she said in her short essay labeled ‘perfectionism’ that the ‘be you perfect as I am perfect’ actual means more the word ‘whole’ or ‘mature’ not ‘perfect’ in perfectionism or ‘perfection required or you will not be loved or maybe not even be saved’…. I don’t know what it is about my life now that has these confusions in it that I am aware of and would love to hear what you think about it (it being the nature of God and the wrong sense of God as one who is out to punish)… which of course goes well with this essay and I do hope you can write on this again!

  27. “There is no point at which the Shepherd who followed the lost sheep will ever stop following all of the damned. He will always seek the lost. He will always raise the dead. Even if the elder brother refused forever to go in and kiss his other brother, the Father would still be there pleading with him. Christ never gives up on anybody. Christ is not the enemy of the damned. He is the finder of the damned.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon

  28. Isadora,

    In keeping with Fr. Stephen’s advice, a prayer from my childhood I have always remembered is:

    “Lord, if I ever let go of You, please don’t let go of me.”

    A verse that I have found helpful is:

    “…He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;…” (Philippians 1:6)

  29. In my time on the river, I have learned from the best of guides and experience that if one falls in the river, the worst thing one can do is fight the current. Having fallen in multiple times, it is simply best to turn your head downstream and safely flow down current, as opposed to fighting upstream. This is always made me think of the orthodox approach to salvation. I am not so much a passive agent in my salvation as I am one who simply positions myself correctly to flow the direction God wants me to. And, as you have correctly pointed out father, The river is going to flow whether I want to or not, in other words, drag my sorry soul down river!

  30. Albert,

    This post just showed up yesterday and yet there are already 32 comments. So I’m not late in coming but the conversation stream on this blog often flows pretty fast. Hopefully that won’t disqualify me from addressing your comment way upstream. (grin)

    To paraphrase your comment, you felt like the formal Thee and Thou (as Fr. Stephen pointed out, it used to be informal) in prayers and such are more of a stumbling block – and many feel this way. I would say the important part is making connections to good things – and people. In this broken world we live in, so many things are meant to connect but find great difficulty in doing so. We often find ourselves in the role of translator.

    The goal is to make the connection. The tools are a) clearing away roadblocks and b) building a path. In this case it’s a wonderful prayer and what would give you access to it is replacing Thees and Thous with modern pronouns. We get hung up on not wanting to change anything in order to preserve its original wonderfulness, but in the end it’s usually more important to make something accessible rather than preserve it and cause it to simply fade away because no one can connect with it anymore.

    Hopefully this rambling makes sense. We should practice humility and meet God where we are. As biermonk said above, it’s preferable to bathe in the good thing that we meet and let it form us over time, but if for some reason we’re not able to stand the “water”, then we should do what’s needed to adjust the water so we can – and above all things to pray to God for His help with the situation.

  31. John Ryan,

    That is very apt I think. And applicable. ‘Trusting acceptance of what comes our way’, whether it’s what is generally considered as a nuisance or agony, is an acceptance (and an preliminary ‘vision’) of God’s unfathomable providence for our salvation, and is worth cultivating as much as possible.
    Our peace and joy is lost, not because of some objective nuisance of others, or of loss, or of pain or death. It is lost due to our internal opposition to these – which is ultimately opposition to God and His providence: a myopic loss of the trusting vision of God’s providence working through e.g.: a harsh word, a broken leg, a loss of a dad, or a job, or an eye…
    “Thy will be done”, for ourselves and for others, is the finest foundation for all prayer.

  32. Santosh Samuel ,

    Thank you for the links! Elder Joseph is wonderful!

    I have always wanted to share his sermon on the feast day of my patron Saint, for Paula mostly 🙂



    Thank you for that reminder, John Ryan’s analogy really is apt. I would only add that we must protect ourselves and not fall into the wrong river… 🙂

    Your comment brought together for me several thoughts resulting from reading Father’s post and comments that followed. And also from listening to Met. Nikolaos (thank you for the link), who so beautifully contrasts the attempts of humans to make themselves into gods versus what God offers to us freely in the Church through our Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    For me the timing of the discussion is Providential – it has not been mentioned here, but yesterday was the feast day of St. Matrona of Moscow. What an example of “being saved by weakness, not excellence”!

    One priest I heard said that by worldly standards she was the most unfortunate, poor person (blind, homeless, partially paralyzed). He contrasted that with the culture in which she actually lived (Soviet, Godless times, her “peak” years were in the 30-ties, and she even advised Stalin, who apparently had some semblance of repentance at the end of his life, and secretly went to her to get advice about what to do when Germans were approaching). And now after death, when the culture – freed from communist oppression – turned towards obsession with health, wealth, strength, bodily beauty, her example has a particular power, to point out how worthless and fleeting all these qualities are….

    Maybe we too can learn to be weaker, less excellent, more “merciful and kind”, less “harsh and demanding”.

  33. Dean, I too am old enough to remember the mustard seed in a clear ball necklace. My neighbor gave me one when I was young, which gifting has a long and sad background that I won’t go into now. Maybe I even still have it somewhere…

    The fears of your elderly Protestant father are heartbreaking, yet, I was reading a popular Orthodox book, Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, which contained a story about Father Melchisedek, who listened to the narrator’s problems and “suddenly burst into tears, and wept most bitterly: ‘My brother!’ he cried out inexpressible pain, ‘Why are you asking me for advice? I myself am perishing!’ This elder, this great, holy ascetic spiritual warrior who was standing in front of me and weeping with unstained grief, now was feeling himself to be in truth the worst and most sinful man on earth” (page 79). I have to say I was taken aback with that, and am unsure how to define the difference between this and the Calvinist uncertainty as to whether one is among the elect.

    Father, thank you for telling me about how you pray: that is very helpful! Your practice sounds similar to what Father Patrick Reardon was recommending in his talks on the psalms, which I have been listening to (I guess you were in attendance!) and which I have been trying to put into practice. I do love praying the psalms (mostly). And this verse from Psalm 70 fits in too with the theme of this blog: “out of the depths of the earth Thou broughtest me up.”

  34. Agata,
    Thank you so very much for the link to Elder Joseph’s sermon, in honor of your patron Saint! Obviously he was greatly moved by her. I read the sermon three times already. It is wonderful the way he speaks and gives examples…very helpful for me, Agata. Thank you.

  35. Agata,
    Indeed, and the first way to be authentically less “harsh and demanding” is to accept –as if from the hand of God– those who are “harsh and demanding” towards us.

  36. Agata, happy you liked the links. And thank you for the Elder Joseph article.
    He really was remarkable — exuding holiness beyond belief. We are lucky to have videos of the likes of him and quite a few others. There is a moment in the obedience video (at 46/47 seconds) where he addresses Christ: such depth, such belief, yet so childlike. My words really cannot express the feeling of awe.
    And just in case you’ve not seen this: https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2017/06/12/a-smile-from-eternity/.

  37. The Jordanville prayer book also offers this from St. John of Damascus: “I know, O Lord, that I am unworthy of Thy Love, but deserve condemnation and every torment.”

    As a father, I would be ashamed and horrified to have fostered in my children such negative impressions of themselves; namely that they were unworthy of my love and deserved condemnation and every torment. Though certainly, being kids, they exhibited adolescent rebellion and disobedience toward their parents from time to time.

    I understand the point that saints are seemingly so aware of their flaws that they feel motivated to magnify them. I also understand that by time one has lived long enough he or she has had ample opportunity to commit many sins and experience their dire consequences.

    Still, to characterize God and the human relationship to the divine as St John of Damascus describes seems very counter-productive and hopefully inaccurate as well.

  38. Dino and Dennis,
    I feel it is important to interject a caveat to Dino’s observation about accepting “harsh and demanding” as from the hand of God. This, I think, belongs to the realm of a monastic piety, that in a certain context is acceptable. However, in an American context, as riddled with neurotic abuse and dark imagery of God, is a ticket to disaster. A healthy soul can think such things, but there are very, very few such among us.

    As to Dennis’ observation – yes. The language of many of the prayers of the fathers belong strictly to the realm of piety – and a piety of a certain sort. First, the language of Byzantium is famously flowery, exaggerated and extreme. All you have to do is find a letter written by even the present Patriarch of Constantinople to be completely put-off by its expressions – completely foreign to the rather reserved language of modernity. I think that someone born into the Western world in the 20th or 21st century, trying to actually pray and mean(!) the language of many of the prayers given to us would suffer rather than benefit. I’ve seen it more than once.

    I’m taking the liberty of reprinting an article on the topic of the language of prayer for my readers – it makes a good companion to this latest piece. In a literalist culture, the language of poetry is taken very much in a wrong way. I cannot overstate this and its importance in approaching the wealth of our tradition.

  39. Father,
    It’s a pity that such caveats have become necessary.
    Not that Christ’s commandment to ‘turn the other cheek’ or ‘be kind unto the unthankful and the evil’ [essentially the acceptance of others’ offensiveness] hasn’t always been scandalous, but the specifically modern American context’s disastrous misinterpretation, ‘riddled with neurotic abuse and dark imagery of God’ makes it even more of a challenge.
    I, too, am often confronted by the requirement for such clarifications, albeit on the personal level, something traditionally more customary, but for such explanations to be needed even in a more generalized setting is quite different. I have even seen them creeping into translations (!) that try to cater for modernity, on any number of (lately considered) thorny issues…
    Trusting acceptance of others’ offensiveness, is actually a deep-seated belief of the Church’s tradition, i.e.: that our very salvation is questionable if we fail to see the merciful hand of God, even in our neighbours’ challenging traits. It both requires and produces spiritual health. I wouldn’t really like it relegated to monastic piety. Especially since the irony is, that the ‘dark imagery of God’, some people cling to, is often given justification (in anti-believers’ words and believers’ sinister ‘logismoi’) by a puerile argumentation based on the mere existence of such things as calamities, distresses, (and even the harshness-of-others) and the like. It is the failure to see His providence working through (the entire gamut of all) these for our good that enables such “arguments”.
    There is also a number of other difficult topics of Christianity I can think of that seem to require similar caution -but they are all, ultimately related to the pragmatic application of the Victory that is the Cross. They can become potential tickets to disaster for some, and to salvation for others; we see Christ’s own remaining-on-the-Cross, becoming a ticket to salvation when witnessed by the one grateful thief (with him witnessing no miracles) , and similarly a ticket to disaster as perceived by the other thief.

  40. Dino,
    But such are the times we live in. It shouldn’t be necessary that someone such as myself should write the blog that I do – and yet, here I am. We are (particularly in America) engaged in a great work of healing. I am cognizant, in particular, of how many new-to-Orthodoxy readers I have, how many are only asking questions and are curious. I keep it gentle – mostly milk. The other is there – the prayers of the Church, the writings of the Elders, etc. – nothing is changing any of that. But I (we) are speaking to a people who have been badly damaged by so many things.

    I still run across fairly harsh pieces written by well-meaning priests. I do not think, in most cases, that they are written from a place of spiritual maturity – but rather of spiritual neurosis. America is much like internet-Orthodoxy. It’s filled with opinions, good and bad, very poor discipline on the part of bishops, and much else that makes me shudder. I saw this before I was received into the Church and it has become much worse with the growth of social media.

    We have a much greater problem here with spiritual abuse than I like to write about – from priests and monastics. The abuse always runs in the direction about which I offer my caveat. We have young priests (and monastics) who read the writings of the Elders, etc., and think that they provide the perfect model of how they themselves should do their ministry – when they have nothing of the maturity, patience, or charismatic insight required of such a thing. Even the leadership we have that can point to such gifts is controversial and of a concern.

    I think we are in a very slow work – one that should be marked by patience and measured by love. Forgive me.

  41. Father and Dino,
    I am sorry to somehow always facilitate these difficult turns in conversation (do I, or is it just my inflated ego that thinks that?), but I have to let you both know how useful and helpful they are for me. And I see and appreciate both sides, except for me personally, the learning of the stricter looking at myself, and re-framing my thinking to see God’s hand in everything, and learning to be more forgiving towards others (even those who hurt me) has been very much applicable and therapeutic in my life’s situation.

    Thank you both. Father, this blog is the best place on the internet, but it would not be the same without Dino… 🙂

  42. Unquestionably Father, you know that context most fittingly.
    Like many others, I, on the one hand, had always marvelled at the almost scandalously permitting, gentle pliability of the authentic, experienced Elders in their personal relating to individuals. (I have recent elders and saints of the late 20th century in mind)
    On the other hand, I see that these same Elders, as a principle, hardly ever watered down the high standards of our calling to sanctity, in their “generalised addresses”. (Those that did general ‘homilies’ that is). However, I must admit that –now that you mention it again– I have actually, very recently, seen even these generalised addresses (of the recent Elders’ spiritual descendants that is) become mixed with many more of these [now necessary] explanations. Even in Greece. It is “the times we live in” as you say.
    And with certain elders of a different type, whom we could not consider of the same inspiring stature, less exactness becomes a good thing. (Although it’s clearly impossible to cater for all listeners perfectly and simultaneously).
    It’s as if the traditional professor who, in general lectures or demonstrations invariably delivers (to the whole class) one-hundred per cent of the subject -its highest level-, while individually gives private tuition according to each one’s level (70%, 30%, 5% etc accordingly), has recently started (due to a general drop of the majority standard), mixing the general lecture’s uncompromising standard with the necessary indulgence of individualised tutoring. Makes for some stopping & starting, and less terse sessions. But clearly is warranted.

  43. Dino,
    I am not surprised. Much that I think about in all of this reflects my experience as a confessor. I hear and see the damage that so many have endured in a variety of ways (much of it unintentional). There is a place for strong medicine – but they first have to be firmly and unalterably convinced of their Father’s love (and so few are). To trust the providential nature even of someone’s enmity pointed at us is very difficult – perhaps even the greatest of all things – just as love of enemies is the greatest of loves.

  44. Dear Dino (and Fr Stephen),
    I offer these thoughts to be helpful because I appreciate your concern regarding the ‘creeping’ of modernity into translations (of prayers?). And I’m very sympathetic to your focus on the ‘turn the other cheek’ teaching.

    At the same time I also deeply appreciate Fr Stephen’s caveats. He is indeed teaching novices into the Life. And for the novice brought up in this culture I believe there are serious and big pot holes in the road to the Cross, and these ‘holes’ have a lot to do with the disjoint of this culture with anything remotely related to the classical culture that gives meaning to these words. That doesn’t mean that we can’t learn the original meanings, rather it will simply take a lot of work and time. And in this culture there really isn’t a lot of patience with work and time. In other words, the second not so good thing about this culture is the ever present demand for immediacy. It is more than just an attitude but a way of life. And if the understanding doesn’t come fast, then there is little appreciation for it–it is a general approach in this culture, so to speak and has far less to do with an individual’s approach to Christ (although I’m not denying that it is possible in this culture for personal experience make one aware and tenacious to learn the meanings and language).

    In direct contrast to what you wrote, Dino, I’ve heard a former Protestant pastor now Orthodox priest emphasize his ‘right’ to call someone he has judged, an “idiot”. His justification was a reference to Christ calling Pharisees “vipers”. His public justification was this, “If Christ called someone names, so can I”.

    This doesn’t really jive with what you have emphasized, with regard to essentially the acceptance of another’s offensiveness, as a teaching of Christ. Obviously he hasn’t learned the lessons you bring to the table of discussion (and I wish he had learned them). But the point I’m trying to make is, I believe what has happened to him has a lot to do with the sheer superficiality of the learning that takes place in this culture. This isn’t a problem of an individual particularity, but a heavy culture-driven phenomenon and needs to be taken seriously and addressed firmly.

    Please forgive me as I speak on this subject, in regard to trying to help others learn chemistry. There is an amazing corollary. Language is everything regarding attempting to understand chemical phenomena and needs to be coupled with a lived experience in the lab. I have seen students drive themselves nuts trying to understand the language of chemistry on a superficial level, and would rather latch on to some easy/fast and superficial algorithm than to have a firm (actually lived) understanding.

    But the only way to help students arrive at that deeper meaning was to let them begin by looking at chemistry models themselves (I actually did this in class and didn’t invent this pedagogy), and using their own language in a structured setting, asked them to talk about what they saw. Although their language wasn’t always ‘spot on’, their awkward and sometimes faulty language choices were *my window* to talk about what they were experiencing and perceiving when they looked at and manipulated (physically and mentally) a chemistry model. This approach was simple, but the content of chemistry was not so simple, yet far more students ended up understanding the ‘deep’ concepts of chemistry with far greater means to appropriately and accurately transfer this knowledge to other areas and disciplines (this was rigidly confirmed) relative to a more ‘didactic’ teaching approach. Indeed, I didn’t attempt to pitch chemistry in a lecture format to drown students in my profundity. That honestly got them nowhere.

    Why do we translate the Bible, and prayers so badly? My take is this: One reason I believe, is that this culture knows a lot of in-family trauma. I don’t know if there are stats on this, but I can only fathom that the very reason that so much violence is considered acceptable, is because we have lived through such violence and destruction of our innocence at an early age, specifically by our would be protectors, our parents for example. I can’t help but see the abject need for Fr Stephen, to take the reality of this culture for what it is, along with the devastating influences of modernity on this culture, very seriously, even to the point of attenuating the *perceived* embedded acceptance of violence in the traditional language of the Church, so that it might rightly be understood in the correct context. In all honesty I do not perceive what Fr Stephen (forgive me Fr Stephen, I’m now referencing the milk analogy), as a ‘watered’ down version of Orthodoxy. Rather, it is a translation of Orthodoxy into a violent culture that needs to have the Life correctly and needfully explained, for what it actually is. (Please forgive me Agata, I don’t think this is about “strictness” either.—this is about proper translation)

    Last, (forgive me this is another long one) regarding the discussion of “Thee and Thou” above, I was given the gift of being placed into a Quaker environment after the death of my parents, at age 17. As a teenager, there was a certain level of rebelliousness on my part that was treated “gently”. The elders spoke the “old language” using “Thee and “Thou”. I was really put off by this language. But slowly I realized that these terms were used with me when I was singly alone with the elder. For example, “would Thee like to have some of this tea?”. There was a tone of love and endearment that wasn’t feigned. I never used the language myself, though. Years later an elder was distraught with me and wrote me a letter asking me why I hadn’t written her. At the end of the letter, rather than using the words “will you write to me” she wrote, “would Thee write to me?”. If she had written the former, I’m fairly sure I would have given myself a number of excuses, still putting off writing (i.e. thinking I was too busy right now) but with the words of loving power, as I now see them in retrospect, I couldn’t help myself, I responded in love and wrote her a letter. This has everything to do with the experiences I had had with hearing these words in the context of love and grace. Without such prior experience I’m sure I would have been like everyone else here who think of the language as “distant”.

    Please, forgive this long comment. I appreciate so much this conversation.

  45. Thank you, Father, for the reposted article on the language of prayer. When Isadora earlier in this thread made the comment about Fr. Melchizedek’s repentance (recounted in Everyday Saints) reminding her of Calvinist insecurity, I knew just what she meant. I was trying to find a way to describe and express the 180 degree difference in the two spiritual states, though, because in its full context, I understood the Elder’s tears and recognition of his great “unworthiness” to be coming from the great ecstatic “joyful mourning” of his deep communion with God, not from a neurotic preoccupation with his own sins! I compare this to Isaiah’s response to his vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6. “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!” It’s the same ecstasy in the OT prophet and modern day Elder, but we, hearing it with Calvinist- and Jonathan Edwards-influenced modern ears, hear it as neurotic servile groveling and self condemnation! No—it is the polar opposite of that! It is nothing less than an encounter with the Lord in His unspeakable kindness, purity, goodness and Holy love, ecstatically reaching out to us in a great revelation of Himself and the realistic knowledge and conviction of our own nothingness apart from Him that is ours in such a moment.

  46. Dee, et al
    When I was an Episcopal priest, ministering in a very liberal context, I found myself always having to come at things from a “conservative” position, and often being accused of being “mean” or worse. When I became Orthodox, I rejoiced saying, “Now I no longer have to be a conservative. I can be myself.” The fact that we can trust the Tradition, and that it is not going to change, allows for the gentle language of love. Many, I fear, bring old habits of former ways with them, and continue to berate and harangue as if that actually did any good (it does not). I was miserable in the Anglican context. Many times I am equally dismayed by things I hear from Orthodox lips – for different reasons. The heart is everything.

  47. Dee,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I will only address your comment to me, about “strictness”…
    Maybe a better word is “authenticity and honesty”…. I want to know what God expects from me in my thinking and behaviors, and attempt that, not ways to justify my wishes and ego driven actions.
    I find so many grown, even old, people to be dishonest and lacking that authenticity, I am just trying to learn it for myself before it’s too late…

  48. Dee,
    Many, many thanks to you for your comment. You hit the nail, sister….

  49. Truly, speaking from a traditional Orthodoxy, which is miles away from Westernised modernity, – and even with experiential knowledge of both – one can speak all they like… the actual transition from the second to the first is primarily the work of good confessors who have been divinely appointed towards this, like Fr Stephen.
    It’s worth noting that, though the more general discussion on the carefulness with which the crucificial message of the Church ought to be delivered to modern ears is a recurring and necessary one; the specific belief of “trusting in the providential nature even of someone’s enmity pointed towards us” is truly a sublime one. (Understandably it’s no less than a real testimony of our having become a wholesome Eucharistic human person – and it obviously has nothing to do with anything that could be reigniting traumatic, neurotic, abusive memories.)
    But I’d like to point out that it’s grounded in the verified conviction of the eventual victory of God’s love and the deep understanding that, whatever is bad in any person is but a small symptom of the same weakness we all share, and it shouldn’t make us despise anyone (we certainly ought to at least remember that we can fight this battle to trust and love in this way). We must try not to lose the vision of the image of God that exists in them somewhere, or have the foundations of our trust in God shaken. Just as we venerate even old blackened icons of saints where one can hardly perceive who is depicted. Viewing others in such a benign light “of innocent doves” does not mean we shouldn’t be “wise as serpents”. (Matthew 10:16) Besides, it’s normal for the enemy to want to stain this Image continuously, and difficult for us to see it in those who reproach us or perhaps even behave like beasts. But you have to feel sorry for them even more because their soul is distorted and incapable of repair – how difficult it is at times to love one’s enemies! yet it is ourselves we hurt when we fail to see them in this light! The first steps to peace and love are cultivating trust in this type of providence being an undoubted truth. It is we, ourselves, who are in vital need of this for our sake.

  50. Dino,
    I really appreciate your expansion on the meaning of seeing God’s providence even when others may mistreat us and responding with faith. That further context you have provided is so important for modern ears. My experience is that Fr. Stephen’s pastoral instinct to temper the faith’s traditional language (in places) and do the hard work of unpacking its message intact—yet in language his readers in this culture can more readily understand aright and assimilate—is right on target. At the same time, it is so important to understand the traditional message is as important and critical for believers in the present context to hear and understand as it ever was (as I hear is your concern). We just may need to use different language and images to get the same essential truth across to a new audience because of the way the use of language changes such that it can evoke a very different context depending on differing cultural circumstances and history.

    We have a particularly thorny and ensnared path to tread in this Western context and especially in the USA it seems to me because of how various heterodox and heretical theologies have taken up much of the traditional language of the Church (and the Scriptures) and subtly or even not so subtly twisted it all out of shape and out of context. This is easily a far more treacherous communication challenge to navigate in attempting to relay the fullness of the truth of the gospel than with someone coming to the faith with a blank slate or out of a pagan system with an altogether different religious vocabulary. In this culture we often don’t just have to learn a new Orthodox religious vocabulary: we have to first unlearn the old one!

  51. Indeed Father it is as you say the heart is everything.

    Karen I believe what you say, as does Father too in a similar vein, is very important.

    Dino, would that we could see our own sins so well that we could repent of them heartfeltfully as you say. Even that sort of very necessary soul searching and willingness from humility, and bearing a little shame, is a rarity in this culture . Indeed we need to pray for God’s mercy.

  52. Ananias, you wrote “Then I found Orthodoxy and I knew God was there, because Orthodoxy called to something deep in my soul that is beyond human words.” I strongly agree with that. It keeps me grounded.

    It seems to me that the torments of hell were very real to the Saints and Fathers. I would not be surprised to learn that the vividness with which they perceived these torments inspired the ‘language of their piety.’ Some Saints and Fathers speak very clearly about not deluding oneself into thinking that the mercy of God would spare anyone from hell. So, if a person really believes that, then it makes sense that their self-effacing language might not just be a piety, it might actually be concern for the future of their soul.

    I know those observations may not be well received, but they are honest and offered in good conscience.

  53. David,

    You are quite correct in your observation many Fathers and Saints caution their spiritual children not to presume the mercy of God means He will keep everyone from suffering the torments of hell. How else can we interpret the agonizing fervency of the prayer of someone like St. Silouan of Mt. Athos that all mankind be saved from hell? Surely, even Jesus warned His disciples and detractors alike about the dangers of hell to their own souls. Not only this, but there is indication in the teaching of Jesus and in the literature of Orthodox asceticism that very, very few in this world are “saved” (i.e., achieve salvation in its consummation in this life and become Saints), which means virtually everyone must experience *something* of hell in the next, even if by the mercy of God and the prayers of the Saints they may ultimately be delivered from this experience. For at the same time, how can we explain how these same Saints could pray such unceasing and agonized prayers for the salvation of all with real purity and integrity of heart unless they believed such salvation was also, by the mercy of God (who renders what is impossible for unaided humanity possible) a real possibility?

    Here is a great paradox which I believe explains the seeming contradiction: it is the very apprehension of something of the real depth and magnitude of the mercy/kindness/generosity/Self-giving love of God which provokes the genuine experience of hell for those who then also become conscious that they do not perfectly share in that Divine nature. Most of us will not be able to achieve a sustained vision of the Lord in His grace in this life—certainly not in anything like its fullness—though we may have glimpses along the way that spur us along the road of repentance. In fact, equally from the Fathers we understand that if it is only the fear of future punishment for sin that motivates our service of “God,” we have not yet truly begun to be saved.

    The Saints warn of the dangers of the torments of hell because hell is also a *present reality* they experienced *in this life* and by which through the grace of God they were greatly transformed. St. Silouan’s experience early in his monastic career is a case in point. After a great revelation of Christ in a vision, he underwent long years of ascetic struggle with pride and vainglory (after praise from his Elder), during which, nearing a point of complete despair, he received counsel from above to “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”, which became his lifeline and the key to his perseverence unto Sainthood. I will still venture my profound conviction St. Silouan’s “fear of hell” and the modern Calvinist/Edwards- or Hollywood-inspired variety (arising largely from an unsanctified imagination steeped in false images of “God”) are polar opposites, both in what provokes them and in their effects upon the soul. I hope that makes some sense.

  54. Thank you for your comments, Karen. They reinforce to me that the words in the prayers of the Saints aren’t just a kind of piety–hell is real and God will send his people there if they arent faithful. Certainly if we believe that hell is real then whatever else may be true we must believe that it is true that we deserve it. And if we believe we deserve it, then we must be very unworthy and very sinful and very lost and fallen. Which would explain why the Saints and Fathers pray the way they do.

  55. David, Karen
    We must also bear in mind that in the common treatment of the Fathers, hell is not punishment – it is love – the love of God. I would not use the language of “deserving” hell. It is how we experience the love of God unless something within us changes. In God, there is only love.

  56. But, hell as punishment is language that the Church has used, right? Otherwise it seems somewhat odd: We dont deserve God’s love, which implies we deserve either the experience of heaven or the experience of hell. Torments sounds like punishment to me.

    Regardless, apart from Christ, there is only one way to experience God’s love: As a consuming fire. That is true for all without exception. So, it seems to me that there is a corollary to this. If we accept that as sinners there is only one way to experience God, then as you become more aware of your sinfulness there is a concomitant awareness of that hell is all that you expect. It seems to me that whatever else distinguishes the saint from the sinner it is how the saint understands to experience God’s love: Apart from Christ we can only expect to experience God’s love as hell.

  57. David – Hell is, for me, the absence of God. In my mind, God will not send me there, I will choose to go there, by deciding to sin. Sin separates me from God. Sinning is my choice, not God’s. Being in hell – in this life as well as the next – is the result of me choosing to separate myself from God through sin. Hell is not punishment. It is the natural and logical consequence of my actions. When I read about the saints’ fears about going to hell, I understand those things to be descriptions of their fears of being separated from the love of God. They want God to remove any trace of sin so that nothing – absolutely nothing- separates them from the love of God. That is how their fear grows out of their all-consuming love of God. My primitive understanding, anyway, offered for the little it may be worth.

  58. David Waite,

    No one chooses to go to hell. No one. It is not at all obvious that hell is a natural consequence of being without God. Your reasoning leadsto the conclusion that God’s love saves people to be tormented by a consequence no one in their right mind would have expected.

  59. When people say things like “hell is the natural and logical consequence of me choosing to separate myself from God through sin.” I think that is putting an immense amount of control in our hands–control Im not sure we are capable of managing. Who in the world has the sense that in their day to day life that hell is just around the corner and is the logical consequence of their existence???

  60. David – “Who in the world has the sense that in their day to day life that hell is just around the corner and is the logical consequence of their existence???”

    I’m trying.

    “A true sign of those who are mindful of death in the depth of their being is a voluntary detachment from every creature and complete renunciation of their own will. He who with undoubting trust daily expects death is virtuous; but he who hourly yields himself to it is a saint.” – St. John Climacus

    I only speak of my own understanding of my own experience. Please appreciate that my experience is minimal and my understanding is less than that.

  61. By the way, David, I did not mean to say that hell is the logical consequence of our existence. I meant to say that hell is the logical consequence of sin. Sorry I was not clear.

  62. Being mindful of death is important. But, that is not the same thing as being mindful of hell. One of the prayers I say is “O Lord, grant me tears of repentance, remembrance of death, and a sense of peace.”

    The conflict Im having is that deep down inside I dont that anything we do in the 70-80 years of life that have to live could “merit” an eternity in hell. How could that ever be true? Humans are amazing rationalizers. We can talk ourselves into believing anything is true. So that someone has convinced themselves that it is logical and natural isnt surprising. We all have reasons for what we believe and do.

  63. David,
    First, the theme of punishment is not particularly present in either Orthodox prayers or thought. It is not our understanding of hell. I strongly suggest reading The River of Fire

    I have it on the blog at the link above.

    There is no sense that I know of in Orthodox thought that anyone spends eternity in hell as a matter of merit. That’s simply a foreign idea. If hell is eternal – it would only be because I have chosen it. Additionally, the language of fire, etc., is, in the teaching of the Church, metaphorical. This was clear in the Orthodox response to the Council of Florence. Read the article then come back to the question. I apologize for its bad formatting.

  64. David,
    Man’s free and eternal self-determination towards God( the key to his godlike image) is the reason we humans can create a Hell [ =an unyieldingly self-confined misinterpretation of ‘all being’ including of Heaven] for ourselves – even though we are destined for the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven. I can either have God as my God –the Truth as the truth– or myself (or anything else) as god…
    The mechanisms of how one can arrive there and even remain there are a different [and very long] discussion –and how far God intervenes in His unceasing efforts to “wake me up” without cancelling my freedom.

  65. And the seal of eternity is not usually accepted as just some never ending extension of what we now understand as “time”. It’s far more close to a “trajectorial state (of movement)”, one that does not fluctuate anymore – after the end of the aeons.

  66. Im reading a description in Tertullian about the everlasting punishment. He doesnt seem metaphorical at all.

  67. And I have read The River of Fire before. I understand that there many things that the Orthodox Church understands as metaphorical or can only be correctly understood noetically. Regardless, the language of punishment was used in the early church. It seems to me that ‘by our sins we turn God’s patience to wrath’ was a very real concern. And whether or not we call it a punishment or a ‘natural and logical consequence’ is a matter of semantics.

    But, I feel another unproductive digression emerging so I will try and restrain myself from commenting any further. I will let everyone know when Ive finished reading through the first three volumes of the antenicene fathers.

  68. Dino, what does that even mean??? So those who experience God’s love as hell will maintain a vector with constant magnitude and direction? Or the magnitude may scale but the direction is constant? How does language from vector calculus clarify the discussion??

  69. We couldn’t provide such “scholastic” answers and we cannot speak of scaling magnitude outside od tome when we only have expweience from within it. But it’s easier to understand both heaven and Hell in the river-of-fire kind of way with a simplistic metaphorical image: all sit at an amphitheater (all seats theoretically have the same view and acoustics) to watch a play (the cision of Gods love). One has an interest in it (a well predisposed soul), another is obsessed with it and has doctorates on it (st Paul type…), another has no interest in it at all (badly predisposed soul), yet another still, has cultivated a deep hate of that exact play (a demon). All interpret differently. Only this strange play, plays out not in time as we know it.

  70. *i meant “eyes open”, better to keep them both open in this important matter 😉

  71. I am not splitting hairs.

    If as a matter of fact people spend an eternity in torments over an ignorance they had no control over and a will weakened by passions and generational sin…THAT IS NOT LOVE. There is no world I want to live in in which that is love. I dont care what metaphors you use or how you like to condescendingly talk about it in terms of spiritual maturity, depth or immaturity or whatever. If the masses of ignorant human beings who have suffered the outrageous fates this life dishes out are on top of all that experiencing Gods love as torments…THAT IS NOT LOVE. THAT IS NOT SALVATION. ITS CRUEL.

  72. David,
    Tertullian is not a source for much. He has some value – but it is limited. When I think of the “language” of the Church, I particularly think of her liturgies and prayers. Tertullian is a Latin (and a lawyer), and there is already creeping into his thought some of the things that will eventually become the errors of the West in its forensic thoughts. In his own life, Tertullian becomes a heretic. That is not just a sudden turn, so he’s to be read lightly.

    What is clear is that the language of punishment, in a retributive sense, fails. It ultimately leads to the errors of Calvin (which have been formally condemned). God *is* love. There is no competition or balance, as in “He is also just, etc.” His love is His justice. His love does not become wrath.

    The Fathers have to be critically. They are not texts of Scripture, nor do they always speak correctly or completely. A number of Fathers make a distinction between speaking as if to children, and speaking among those who understand. The language with children tends to be more concrete, literal and less metaphorical. Among the mature, such language fails.

    In reading the Fathers, it is important to pay attention that they are not all equal – and that the Ante-Nicene set that you’re using is far from complete. The River of Fire describes Hell as the love of God – nothing less. So, the first thing to do is to stop with that statement and consider it. Love is not retributive – it does not cause hurt. We hurt ourselves. The question then moves to “bookends.” Can we continue to hurt ourselves through some endless time? I think it’s a wrong way to phrase the question – introducing and insisting on meanings concerning “unto ages of ages,” etc.

    It is wrong to think of God punishing anyone in a retributive sense. The case you suggest of being condemned to hell for ignorance, or having a defective will, etc., would be heinous and is simply not the mind of the Church. And no one is suggesting that (at least not intentionally).

    That we can harm ourselves because we are free – certainly describes an aspect of freedom. Dino has done nothing more than to speak respectfully of the power of that freedom. But to push any of this with theoretical cases to a point that concludes with anything other than God’s love, is a mistake. There are some things we have not been given to know – but we have been given to know His love. It is there that our thoughts should rest. Does His love triumph and heal every misuse of freedom? We can’t say. It makes sense that it will, but it hasn’t been given to us to say it.

    We could speculate why that is – some fathers indeed have said as much – and are noted saints of the Church. But we are not Protestants such that we have to press everything out to some logical conclusion.

    Finally, be careful in this. It is not appropriate to denigrate another person in the comments – and it’s against the rules of the blog. There’s a lot of energy in your comments that might be better attended to in another manner.

  73. David,
    I hear your struggle with this language. It seems to me from some of your wording in your comments here, the Bible’s and the Fathers’ teaching and language about hell and God’s “punishment” of sin is very quickly distorted into a weapon of our enemy in your heart and mind, and you likely need to tread very carefully and with the wise guidance of your loving spiritual father as regards this language (yes, genuine piety though it expresses in its own proper context) of our tradition. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the language that “hell is real and God will send …people there”. *I* don’t hear our *Saints* saying any such thing (in the full context of Orthodox faith). (As an aside: Tertullian is not a Saint/Father of the Orthodox Church, though he is considered an important early Christian thinker.) In particular, the “God will send” part. This makes it sound like “hell” is an external punishment arbitrarily applied insofar as God would shield us from this if He wanted to. No, as you correctly stated “our God is a consuming fire” (of mercy/life/ecstasy of Self-giving love) and “in Him we live and move and have our being”. As I see this, the Orthodox gospel (the Reality of the Incarnation) with all its details is simply the revealed-yet-hidden Mystery of this Truth of the nature of our existence revealed in this life insofar as each of us can bear it. The life of the Church is to nurse us back to true spiritual health and vision, such that on that Day when God’s glory is more fully revealed to us upon our death, we may bear the full Light of what that Truth means for us. Indeed, the purpose of the Church is simply to prepare us so that in the full Light of God’s tender mercies and humble full acceptance of us in Christ (wounds and all) in this life and the next, we may fully receive and welcome those mercies with an answering humble gladness and great joy, no longer fearful of or unable to bear our shame, but like the Prodigal at least hopeful enough of our Father’s goodness to return to Him if only to be treated as a hired servant. Or perhaps just helpless enough like the robbed and wounded traveler in Christ’s Parable to accept the aid of Christ in the guise of some “Samaritan” (your local parish and parish Priest). Or perhaps as silly and helpless as that one lost lamb to be found by the Good Shepherd and carried back to the 99 still in the fold….I trust you can see where I’m going with all this. You have been entrusted by the hand of the Holy Spirit into the pastoral care of Fr. Stephen. Don’t be too afraid or too stubborn (for me these go hand in hand) to listen to him (far more even than all those ante-Nicene “Fathers” you have been reading, at least a couple of whom are not Saints and Fathers of the Orthodox Church). Trust me when I tell you, they were not directing any of the words they wrote to you personally or your particular situation, whereas the promise of our tradition is that despite their imperfections the Holy Spirit will guide our own Confessors to be able to do this for us. You have found the right doctor for your condition—listen to him. 🙂

  74. David,
    “If the masses of ignorant human beings who have suffered the outrageous fates this life dishes out are on top of all that experiencing Gods love as torments…THAT IS NOT LOVE. THAT IS NOT SALVATION. ITS CRUEL.”

    You are absolutely right in this and no one is saying otherwise. If the Church thought this, then the Orthodox Church would be other than it is – its liturgies would sound very different – its saints would be a speak differently. You’re pressing a point and demanding that others must be saying this heinous thing (and they are not). You’re creating an argument that need not exist. Let it go.

  75. David,
    My last comment was made before I read Fr. Stephen’s last comment to you, so I apologize for any redundancy.

  76. Slightly off topic, though at the same time very germane, is that Father said: “we are not Protestants such that we have to press everything out to some logical conclusion”. This is that ‘protestant’ mindset [pressing everything into logical conclusions] that often creates more problems than it solves for itself. It can even end up in a condition that denies the help it is given, generally making for itself friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends…

    Also, the conversation in another thread about God’s judgement not being affected by the ignorance we have no control over, the outrageous individual fates, the generational sin (with the example of the two twin sisters if readers remember – a nun and a prostitute from childhood [through no choice of their own] – and how the first might be lost with one-miracle-less and the second saved with one-sin-less, against what we humans might otherwise think), seems to have been lost.
    The idea of “how a person has dealt with the ‘cards’ of life he had been dealt” being a good explanation of how God’s “judgement”: i.e.: how His loving gaze upon us might be eternally interpreted, desired or not etc. by us, is not just some cool pithy saying, it contains a depth that we can only continue to ignore, not out of an ignorance we have no control over, but one we can.

    The Church proclaims that God is love, and His justice is nothing but love, and certainly not what we humans conceive when we mention the word justice.

  77. This is why I dont like bookends or anthropology. I have no business thinking about heaven, hell, or how we got here. I keep swearing these things off and I keep allowing to get drawn back in *sigh*.

    Forgive me for any and all disreapect I have shown anyone. I certainly regret it.

  78. Dino, if you say its a good explanation, then I will have to take your word for it, brother.

  79. David…Simon…our brother,
    The more I read your words, the more I think of the amazing story of Jacob wrestling with God. Ultimately, it is He who you struggle with. I think you need to continue the wrestling match, so you can come to peace with this, David. No need to repeat what Karen said…please, for the love of God, wrestle with Fr. Stephen! But watch out…he may just put your hip out of joint!
    Father even has a post on this story, Here is an excerpt:
    “For God, not even a single sparrow falls but He knows it. The hairs of our head are numbered, and He calls us each by name. God cannot be avoided by hiding in the crowd, for He seeks us out and challenges us to wrestle. He waits for us to seize Him and hold Him and demand His blessing. He longs for us to grip Him in such a manner that He can wither a thigh and change our name.”
    “It is specifics that leave us sleepless.” ……

    Here’s the link if you’d like to read it:

    I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but I believe you’re going to get your answers…just keep on contending with God…trust He speaks through His Priest He led you to.
    God bless, David.

  80. Indeed God is with you David, I’m grateful for your willingness to wrestle with the language of the Church in prayers and Liturgy and perhaps in the Bible on this blog. Just as long as you’re not hurt and avoiding attempting to hurt others. Although in the hard stuff getting wounded might happen, regardless. This is another reason I’m so grateful for Fr Stephens ministry in this blog.

    I’m a wrestler too. And whenever you write, you have in me a ‘sympathetic ear’. I believe I’m not over confident to say that we are all grateful for your participation.

  81. David, Father,
    It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, I have every confidence in what God is doing in and through you both.

    I never tire of offering another comfort or truth that has helped to heal me, and if I do get tired, I’ll rest. I perceived no malice or piquishness on your part, David, so no need for apologies!

  82. Santosh Samuel, thank you for sharing those videos. His words are instructive, but of greater impact was the light and joy in his eyes. Odediance leads to joy. I know of only one time in my life where I was consciously obedient. The manifold gifts of joy that have come into my life since are great and I am deeply grateful to God for not treating me with justice. Interestingly enough my opinion of the circumstances has not changed. The particular thing I was asked to do was “wrong”. Still I did it anyway out of submission to God’s love.

    Rebellion and a deep desire to be right is at the heart of anger, separation and depression at least in my experience. God healed me of an anger and envy I had held since I was four when I finally saw that my desire for things to be a certain way and to control things to be a certain way is both irrelevant and harmful.

    In English the word obey has a root in to hear, to listen. It is, in that sense not about acting but to both listen for and to discern the truth. Allowing the Holy Spirit to conform one’s mind, heart and body to God’s will.

    I can not even begin to fathom what it would be like to live an obedient life.

  83. Thank you for the kind words of support. Im sure Im not the only one on this blog that would gladly limp on both hips if that is the price for whats real.

    I wish all my Orthodox brothers and sisters peace.

  84. David you are quite correct to reject cruety as at all in God’s character. As the Paschal Homily of our Father Among the Saints — John Chrysostom reminds us God is not cruel nor even fair.

    Something that has helped me is to realize that real justice has no retribution in it. Justice is simply about restoring and maintaining order. God’s order is always life giving.

    I think of a dislocated shoulder. That is clearly out of order but pain is incurred in restoring the proper order.

    The River of Fire posits that even in God’s order there may be those who for what ever reason continue to resist that order-heat and fire are always the product of resistance.
    Is a human being’s will capable of eternal resistance? That is not for us to know.

    I think it is a great tradegdy that a proper discussion of a possible purgatorial judgement was short circuted by Rome’s arrogance. St Paul in 1 Cor 3:15 seems to suggest that it is purgatorial.

  85. Paula, thank you for using my name, Simon. Speaking to that identity is important and means a lot to me.

  86. I want to thank you also Paula. I greatly appreciate that you introduced the ‘wrestling’ biblical reference and the link to another of Fr Stephen’s post on the topic. Your comment was so apropos, and helpful.

    And another good analogy to this struggle (that we all have from time to time I think) is what Michael wrote. Sometimes the path to healing rerequires a kind of ‘reset’ that might hurt. —Last fall I fell and my wrist was literally ‘bent out of shape’ and my husband quickly reset it. That hurt—a lot. But now months later with the healing it has had, there is barely a reminder of that trauma. —Thanks be to God and to a loving husband. The path of the Orthodox Way is one of healing and of walking the path of the Cross. There is joy but the healing often entails a time of suffering. And I appreciate the Orthodox view of suffering— one that I’m still learning.

    Sometime ago Fr Stephen recommended viewing the movie (it was on YouTube) called “I bless my prison”. He recommended it when I expressed the recurring suffering I had from memories of traumatic experiences. I don’t know if it will be helpful but I thought I might mention it here.

  87. Also as a ‘wrestler’ I’m no ‘pro’ —more like a toddler falling over my own feet. Lord have mercy!

  88. A whole lifetime of wrestling with God, particularly on the subject of the salvation of all, is to be found in the life of Elder Sophrony.
    His disciple, Fr Zacharias, enjoys helping us understand that this, however, is an advanced period of the spiritual life, even though one can have foretaste of it from the very start. Once a purified, illumined and deified saint enters bold face-to-face conversation with God like Abraham, Moses or Silouan –i.e.: once “their new name has been given them”, the main topic of “conversation” is this. Therefore the faithful then become, like Christ, intercessors for the whole world.
    This is brought about not so much by our existential angst over the matter, a fluctuating force, but by the Holy Spirit permanently abiding is us, an incomparably different energy.

    Traditionally, however, the understanding of the wrestling match of Jacob’s night-time with God is seen as an image of something that has to come beforehand: the night-time prayer-rule (especially of a monastic programme). Staying locked into this fight to be blessed by the Lord spills over and fuels the rest of the day (with men). The Septuagint referred to by the ‘Neptic Fathers’ reads:

    “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God, and because of this you shall also be strong amongst men”.

    Here’s a useful excerpt from Fr Sophrony’s book on St Silouan that deals with the topic of determinisict universalism.:

    The Staretz [St Silouan] both said and wrote that Christ-like love cannot suffer any man to perish, and in its care for the salvation of all men walks the way of Calvary.
    …‘by virtue of this love the monk’s heart sorrows over the people because not all men are working out their salvation. The Lord Himself so grieved over the people that He gave Himself to death on the cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a like sorrow for men. And she. Like her beloved Son, desired with her whole being the salvation of all…’
    In the really Christian sense the work of salvation can only be done through love – by attracting people. There is no place for any kind of compulsion. In seeking the salvation of all men love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn – that is, the whole race of Adam. And if love rejoices and is glad at the salvation of a brother, she also weeps and prays over a brother who perishes…’
    …The power of love is vast and pregnant with success but it does not override. There is a domain in human life where a limit is set even to love – where love is not supreme. This domain is freedom [“προαίρεση”].
    Man’s freedom is positive, real. It concedes no determinism in his destiny, so that neither the sacrifice of Christ Himself nor the sacrifices of all those who have trodden in His footsteps lead necessarily to victory. There may be some – whether many or few, we do not know – who will meet even this perfect love, this perfect sacrifice, with a rejection, even on the eternal level, and declare, ‘I want no part in it’. It was this recognition of this abyss of freedom which prompted the Fathers of the Church to repudiate the determinist theories of the Origenists. Belief in Apocatastasis, understood as universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Staretz.

    What was made known to the Staretz in his vision of Christ outweighed all doubt and hesitation. He knew that it was the Almighty God that had appeared to him. He was sure that the humility of Christ, which he had come to know, and the love which filled him to the limits of his strength, were the action of God the Holy Spirit. He knew in the Holy Spirit that God is boundless love and mercy, yet knowledge of this truth did not lead him to conclude that ‘anyway, we shall all be saved’.
    The Staretz was unlettered but no one surpassed him in craving for true knowledge. The path he took was, however, quite unlike that of speculative philosophers. Knowing this, I followed with the deepest interest the way in which the most heterogeneous problems were distilled in the alembic of his mind, to emerge in his consciousness as solutions. He could not develop a question dialectically and express it in a system of rational concepts – he was afraid of ‘erring in intellectual argument’; but the propositions he pronounced bore the imprint of exceptional profundity…
    …Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life; and all the Staretz’ conversations and writings are witness to this life…

  89. Paula, thanks for that link!

    Dino, thanks for the quote!

    Both a blessing to me as well…

  90. Not too long ago I was having a conversation with my neighbor Joe. Joe is in his eighties. He’s someone you might think of as a good ol’ boy. Joe asked me ‘Have you ever listened to a group of guys comparing stories about how bad their dad was? It’s like they are trying to outdo one another just to have the worst in the group.’ So,I had to admit that I not only knew guys like that…I had been a guy like that. Well, Joe wanted to know what was wrong with us that we would talk about our dads that way. To make a long story shory Joe being a good Catholic told me that I should pray my father because ‘I might be the only one who would.’ I instantly felt aversion and more than a little indignation at the thought of it–but, I listened Joe. And I have prayed for my parents almost every day since then. Those prayers for my father and mother have taught me much about salvation and intercessory prayer. In a way, the fact that I am the one praying for them has more force than if someone else were. I am glad I listened to Joe.

  91. David, et al
    I have long had the thought that I am an extension of my father in this generation working out our salvation. We were close, after a fashion. I certainly internalized many aspects of his life – not all of it very healthy. But many of the deepest things that I have had to work through were connected to him. And, of course, my parents, who were nominal Baptists, became, in turn, Anglicans, and then Orthodox at age 79 – so I know that the connections worked in both directions.

    This reality has sometimes been the darkest part of my life – or gave me the darkest thing to work through – but also the deepest satisfaction and sense of wholeness when they were, more or less, resolved. I suspect that this is always true for people, at some level, though they are not aware of it. Who we are is shaped by who our parents are/were and our interactions with them. I think, when we managed to actually resolve something, it’s like finding the solution to a knot that allows the rope to be untangled yet further.

    In the aggregate, we are all living out the tangles of Adam. Indeed, Christ, as the Second Adam, does just that, and untangles the whole thing. But He does not do things so that we don’t have to – He does things so that we can as well.

    Or so it seems to me. Your neighbor Joe sounds like a wise man. A rare thing.

  92. What a blessed habit David! It is absolutely vital to pray for our departed progenitors – so much so, that it can be considered entirely unacceptable not to. I might be speaking from a tradition that would be comparing stories about how good their dads were and trying to outdo one another in remembering them, but that changes nothing at all.

  93. Yesterday at my husband’s church with the questions on this thread (the issue of theodicy) very much on my mind, the topic addressed in music and sermon was the spiritual discipline of rest. The final song was this, which I dedicate to Simon, trusting he will overlook the style of music if it is not his preference, and hear the message, which is for all of us, but especially on my heart for him:


    Remember, the Lord has broken down the gates of hell, and hell has been invaded by the One who is Life. Don’t be afraid of hell, because He is there, even there, ever seeking us….

  94. Thank you for the wonderful story about your father, David. I was once taught to pray daily for anyone who made me angry, anyone I hated or despised. To pray for whatever they wanted: peace, serenity, Super Bowl tickets, a new truck, whatever. I was told that, if I did this, my hate and anger would eventually dissipate. It has worked well for me, bringing much peace and serenity into my life. Thanks be to God.

  95. A wonderful conversation. Thanks to all, especially David. I appreciate you, my friend.

  96. Thanks David for comments about your father. I heard someone say that some of us are born to be ranchers of great spreads , others farmers on small acreage. I’ve a 1st cousin. His father was a successful businessman. His son, my cousin, eventually rose to position of superintendent of county schools. He became big on the motivational speaking circuit drawing down thousands per speech. Doubtless a rancher. My father drove forklift. I was the only one in my family to graduate college and grad school out of 4 siblings. I eventually taught high school students, some 23 years in the field. I was the farmer. I can see how our fathers had great influence over us, who we became. I love my cousin. He’s a good man. And of course there are many variables in life as to whether we ranch or farm. I have struggled in my life with poor self-esteem…my cousin brimmed with self confidence. Yet, I remember what Father said, that a goal for our children is that they become good people. Hopefully this has occurred to both my cousin and to me. Thanks for loving, kind fathers and their influence over us.

  97. Dean, Davids and Dino,
    Your comments have made me realize that my three (almost all) adult sons never have anything good to say about their father… And he is a good man (in general), although I am no longer married to him for a variety of reasons.
    I had a conversation with a Polish friend recently, who commented on how her own children are less respectful towards her and her husband (they are very good parents) compared to how she remembers relating to her parents. We thought it was the American influence, but maybe not, maybe it is a generational issue?

    The only thing I can think of when I hear my sons speak poorly of their father (unfortunately, deep in my heart I agree with them!) is to remind them to remain respectful, since God requires that from us. It’s the only Commandment that actually carries a promise of reward, “of long and good life”…

  98. A man who hurts his children doesnt deserve any respect. A man who points a gun at his kids doesnt deserve any respect. Or who rapes their mother in one room while his kids are hiding in another doesnt deserve any respect. And if God requires that of me, then thats a long wait for a train that isnt coming.

  99. Simon,
    To ask someone to respect such a man would be to participate in the abuse. Not respecting them is a gift from God – the ability to tell right from wrong. Prayer is the most that could be asked – and even that is a hard thing.

    God give you grace. These are such terrible memories to carry in a heart. My God protect your soul.

  100. Dear Simon, I understand what you’re saying. I’m unable to explain why or even to allude to my own experience. I’ll just say I’m hearing a wounded heart and I ask God for peace for your heart. Forgiving is very difficult in some situations. It has taken me almost 50 years. As my heart begins to heal, the healing has enabled an unexpected expansion. I’m still very much a toddler in this, but I just wanted to say you’re not alone.

  101. Hell is, for me, the absence of God. In my mind, God will not send me there, I will choose to go there, by deciding to sin. Sin separates me from God. Sinning is my choice, not God’s. Being in hell – in this life as well as the next – is the result of me choosing to separate myself from God through sin.

    When I was Southern Baptist, this is how I thought of hell. It is a long, hard journey to realize that God does not leave us (“as long as one soul is in hell, Christ will be there with him”); a journey I am still travelling. To see God as always loving is a very difficult thing to do in life! I expect it is even more difficult for those whose lives have been full of despair and pain. My life has been easy thus far and I still suffer from this idea. But God is good; He is leading me through this in a way that I can actually see in life! Glory and thanksgiving to Him in all things!

  102. Simon,

    In the face of that kind of abuse, it is exceedingly difficult and nigh unto impossible to discern the humanity and image of God in the person under all the filth of sin in which he has covered himself (or the enemy has covered him). It takes a work of God for that to be revealed to us, and it sometimes never occurs in this life. Your comment reminded me of the testimony I once heard of a man who also had a real abusive bum for a dad. His pain was very real, and when he himself was found by Christ in his adult years, he struggled mightily to forgive his dad with no success (though he was distraught about this). Then one day his dad passed away and the son was given some of his few remaining belongings. In a box he found an old photograph of his father as a boy of about eight years old. Within that picture of a vulnerable boy suddenly was revealed to him the true humanity of his father and he was finally able to genuinely forgive him from the heart and be at peace.

    Respect for such an abusive person will never look like admiration for the twisted adult that person became, but it may eventually with the help of God’s grace take the form of true compassion for the wounded humanity (the vulnerable child) within. It can also for now just look like the effort to restrain oneself from returning evil for evil, and perhaps like praying the prayer for enemies:


  103. Simon,

    I am very sorry if you are describing your own pain, or the pain of somebody you know.

    That is not at all an experience (of my sons or mine) I was describing. Their father was and is (by his standards) loving and caring, just in ways that are a bit different that we may have liked it. He never physically hurt any of us. He was/is just a little too self centered and miserly than he should be.

    May God help and heal such awful family situations as you are describing…

  104. I hope the people who are on this blog, who know have known each other for years, and have a sense for who each other are will forgive the pain that bleeds through my comments. I have a son now. He is 16 months old and I love this kid dearly. But, I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that on some level I am fighting not to be like my father everyday. You would think it would be easy to do. I spent all my developmental years with this guy spitting his hate into my soul something of him is bound to stick. I discuss that fear with Father regularly. I am very sorry for the emotional content I keep interjecting. This forum is neither my therapy group nor is it about me. And I think I keep making it about me. I don’t mean to. However, everything I’m doing in Orthodoxy I do for the most part for my son. Consequently, it is going to be more emotional than it should be. Just take it as a sign that my faith matters to me and that it is of upmost importance. If you have suffered the brunt of some dumb thing I’ve said or emotional jab, please, forgive me and just chalk it up to me having a lot to learn.


  105. David Foutch, it takes time. God, in His Grace, does not coerce us or require a sudden change in us, as is often pointed out here. There is no “magic change”; there is struggle, failure, grace and thanksgiving. Please continue to post your needs and concerns here; we will continue to support you in your journey, realizing it may take a lifetime (as all our journeys usually do). God grant us all Grace, my friend!

  106. Simon,

    I posted a whole ton of comments (can pixels weigh something?) on this blog in the early years when I first discovered it. At the time, I was about one year into the Orthodox Church and the only member in my Evangelical family to convert. I was hungry for someone to “converse” with who could understand what I was going through and found in Fr. Stephen’s writing a truly “kindred spirit” to the One speaking within to the deepest needs of my heart—the One that drew me to Orthodoxy in the first place. A couple years later there were some blog awards and GTGFAT received one of those awards. The award site posted stats on each award-winning blog, including the identity (online monikers, not private info) and ranked order of top commenters. It was then I discovered with no small embarrassment, I was at that time this site’s most frequent commenter! I’m not sure that changed much for the next few years, but now I’m much more settled in the faith (or “talked out”) with a lot of questions answered and in a healthy parish, and most of the difficult things we had to work through in our marriage when I converted are now long past. It’s easier to talk to my husband again about the many aspects of our faith that are quite mutual (despite the fact he has never become Orthodox). So I’m content to do more reading/listening now and only comment at length when something really tugs at my heart strings, such as the struggle of someone else that resonates with some of my own deepest convictions of faith. Since there is a history of spiritual abuse in both my husband’s family and mine (not, however, primarily from immediate family), and it was a burning need (no pun intended) to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of Hell that sparked a prayer for insight that was granted in a rather mind-blowing way and which then was the catalyst propelling me into Orthodoxy, your struggles naturally elicit more comments from me than most. Don’t feel bad. It’s always a blessing to repeat (as much for my own benefit as anyone’s) the grace-filled truths of the gospel that healed my heart, to be challenged to hone my expression of them so another can assimilate the message, and watch Grace slowly and surely begin His work of healing in another soul. There is no greater joy. Your repentance (struggles and all) encourages me no end (and I’m sure I speak for many), and you are surely as much a part of this “family” as any here!

  107. I second Byron’s comment. David, of coarse you feel free to speak here when and if you choose. I understand it can get a bit squirmy being the topic of a conversation or two. But I think I can speak for most of us here, to quote St. Silouan….”Our brother is our life.” That is all of us to you and you to all of us.
    Simon of Cyrene….man, my brother, you couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate patron Saint. That Cross he carried was a mighty heavy cross. And such an honor to have been chosen to do so. The choice of taking his name reminds me of Jesus’ words to Sts. James and John regarding their future suffering…
    ” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
    They said to Him, “We are able.”
    So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized;…” (Mk 10:38-39)
    An awesome future for them. For you too. You carry…He brings you through. And yes, too, also for your son’s sake. Our Father knows that kind of heart…

  108. Karen…you? The most frequent commenter?! I would have never guessed!
    I surely understand the hunger you felt, wanting to converse with someone about Orthodoxy. I think that is the case for many of us here. I am so indebted to Fr. Stephen for this blog. I know it has contributed profoundly to our journey.
    I’d also like to say Karen, your comments are always very helpful…ones that I have to slow down to read! Like some other people here we know 😉 !

  109. Paula,
    Lol! Thanks for the kind comment. Fr. Stephen isn’t the only one here with an effusive keyboard, sometimes, is he?

  110. My mother, who is not Orthodox and has only attended my church 2 or 3 times, asked me what the Orthodox “Plan of salvation” is. I told her the Orthodox Plan of Salvation is “We Trust God.”
    And that’s it.
    I trust God to determine the fate of my soul upon my death and I trust that God’s decision is the right decision and will always be the right decision and that God knows what He is doing. Nothing I can do will make His decision the wrong decision. My trust is in the Lord and in the Lord’s love for me.

    (Yes I posted this on the Erotic Language post but it applies to both)

  111. Ananias,
    Interesting question on her part. “Plan of salvation” is an English phrase I’ve seen as a translation for “economia” in a number of Orthodox texts, and refers to the whole work of God on our behalf. It’s not about us, but about what God does. Thus, it describes, in particular, His incarnation, death and resurrection. Sometimes this “plan” is described (in short) as “God became what we are so that we might become what He is.” or “God became man so that man could become God.”

    And, we can say, this is through “union” with Him. He united Himself to us in the Virgin’s womb. We are united to Him (for our part) in Holy Baptism. We nurture that union in repentance, confession, and communion in His Body and Blood, and daily by uniting ourselves to Him through obeying His commandments and through prayer. If such a summary were to trouble the Protestant (not yet having heard it use the word “faith”), we could add that all these things we do through faith in Him. But, scandalously, it is not “faith” alone, for faith without works is dead. But it is not by the works but by faith which produces the works.

    Just some thoughts…

  112. Having just read the link Karen posted (thank you!) about prayer for our enemies, I noticed it is similar to the one in the OSB’s intercessory prayer. That prayer struck me deeply (and still does) when I first read it.
    I have mentioned this before, about how I was drawn to the icon of our Mother “The Softner of Evil Hearts”. The image of Her with the swords piercing Her heart speaks to a pain that words can’t describe. As my eyes fix on that image, even unable to speak, or maybe just groan a few words, She offers a balm for my soul, with gentleness and compassion.
    What is very telling is that the prayer for that icon includes our own heart, as well as our enemies’, that needs softening. Here’s the prayer:
    Soften our evil hearts, O Theotokos, * and quench the attacks of those who hate us * and
    loose all straitness of our soul. * For looking on thy holy icon * we are filled with
    compunction by thy suffering and loving-kindness for us * and we kiss thy wounds; * we are
    filled with horror for the darts with which we wound thee. * Let us not, O Mother of
    Compassion, * according to the cruelty of our hearts, perish from the cruelty of heart of
    those near us, ** For thou art in truth the Softener of Evil Hearts.
    And the entire Akathist:
    for those who’d like to read it…..

    Dee….Last night I watched that video you mentioned, “Bless my Prison”. It was intense. Amazing what these brave people endure for the Faith and a noble cause…for them, freedom from oppression. It was interesting to find out at the very end, the ending of her earthly life. Thanks for pointing us to that film.

  113. Paula, thank you for that… I had barely finished reading your post, silently “mumbling”, if even that, the prayer to the Theotokos when my email program alerted to me to a new email. It was conciliatory response from someone dear to me with whom I have been at odds in a deeply painful way. My eyes fill with tears as I write this. I am going to print out the whole Akathist. Most Holy Theotokos, pray for us!

  114. David, one reason we pray for our enemies is so we do not become like them. All the more reason to pray for our parents. I think a lot of men share your motivation. I certainly did. May God bless you with mercy and peace of soul.

  115. Paula,
    Thank you for sharing the Akathists to the Mother of God, Softener of Evil Hearts.
    I recently met a Russian friend who told me she prays some of the Akathists at the same time they are prayed in one church in Russia. This church is in Bolgar, Tatarstan, Russia (you’d have to figure out the time difference with where you live). If you look at this part of their web site, (I know the link looks terrible, Father may not allow it to stay, I guess this is how Russian characters show up – but copy and paste actually works), you will see that this Akathist is prayed on Wednesdays at 2:30 am (!!), 8:30 am, 2:30 pm and 8:30 pm. My friend told me people around the world pray with this church for their special intentions…

    I think it is a lovely idea… 🙂


  116. Paula thank you so much for the Akathist. I’ve printed it up and have started to pray this prayer.

    And thank you for the link Agata. I took a peek. I enjoy the sights and pictures. But don’t know Russian😊. The written stuff can be translated though, through the browser translator.

  117. Byron –

    About “Hell is, for me, the absence of God. In my mind, God will not send me there, I will choose to go there, by deciding to sin. Sin separates me from God. Sinning is my choice, not God’s. Being in hell – in this life as well as the next – is the result of me choosing to separate myself from God through sin. ”

    God is love. God is always loving, always forgiving. He would never send me to hell, which is separation from Him and His love. But I can choose to separate myself from God and His love. That is what sin is: the choice to separate myself from God and His love. I can do this, I can separate myself from His love, by pride, anger, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and just plain spiritual laziness. That will put me in hell. But that does not mean that God is sending me to hell as punishment of my sins. To the contrary, I am choosing to be in hell by being proud, angry, greedy, gluttonous, lustful, envious, and too lazy to pray or attempt to make any connection with Him. As Father says, it is not legal cause and effect. It is ontological.

    I do not think of myself as a Southern Baptist. But if, as you say, that is what Southern Baptists believe, then I guess I am a Southern Baptist. (Thought I was getting to be a little Orthodox.) No matter. I am still convinced that if I chose to not pray today (for example), then I am choosing to distance myself from God. And that is hell.

  118. Agata…I agree, it is a lovely idea to pray at the same time with those across the globe. Thank you! Funny though, I never saw such a link with all those symbols! You and Dee are right, it does work. Conveniently, my computer automatically offers to translate.
    So, my eyes lit up upon seeing the very first akathist to Michael the Archangel…my patron ‘Saint’! (my Orthodox name is Michaela 🙂 ) Very interesting that they describe his akathist as a guide “in comprehending the wisdom of sciences” (Dee! Simon! I think of you!) And yes, I see where our Mother’s akathist is further on down.
    It was so touching to read (above) how Tim was blessed through this prayer to Her. It was as well a ‘rebound’ blessing for me, as I have asked Her to bless me in getting to know Her better. As a child in a Catholic home, I undoubtedly knew of Her. But as I left the confines of church and home, all that was lost. Needless to say it was further dead and buried during my Protestant years. But coming to Orthodoxy, I just knew I was to honor Her…and outwardly I did. But I told Her “I don’t know you like I know your Son…I want to know you and love you like the Russians (!) who know and love you as their protector”. Seriously…how awkward! Slowly She is pulling back the veil. Here’s another thing…I thought of posting that prayer the day before I had posted it…even typed it up, but for some reason chose not to submit it (it just didn’t seem appropriate at the time). But the next day, after reading Karen’s link to prayer for our enemies, I said ‘well, it’s time’. Did this delay in posting until the next day have anything to do with the timing of Tim reading the prayer and concurrently receiving that email from his friend? I believe so…and not only that, it glorifies our Blessed Theotokos. And finally, reveals to me without a doubt that She hears and is answering my awkward prayers.
    Our prayers are answered in ways unforseen by us, involving the lives of many here in Her blessing. Tim…I’m glad for you, and thank you for sharing that very special moment.

  119. Paula,
    Wow, wow, wow!
    You have no idea how meaningful your words are for me, as I pray similarly to the Theotokos these days, although coming to this place (as David/Simon would say) from a “vector of slightly different magnitude and direction”… 🙂

    “She hears and is answering my awkward prayers” too…

  120. I came from a Protestant background so I knew very little about the Theotokos. I mean I knew she existed and gave birth to Our Lord, but that was it. I knew nothing else about her and what little I thought I knew was pretty much a result of protestant ignorance.

    When I came to Orthodoxy, it took me a long time to wrap my mind around the Theotokos, the icons, Orthodox worship, the eucharist, the prayers, and pretty much everything. Almost everything was a 180 degree difference to what I had been taught. Fortunately, I have a very patient priest and parish because I continue to grow into the faith, learning something every day.
    There may or may not be a few extra gray hairs upon Father’s head, and probably a few other parishioners, thanks to me. (LOL – j/k)

    What helped me with the Theotokos was both the emphasis on the fact that we do not worship her, the fact that she is the Mother of God, she is chosen by God, and the hymns sung during liturgy and Vespers, having many parish members willing to very lovingly and patiently answer my many questions, and a very patient priest, reading some of what St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote, and a some other writings, all helped me to get where I am now.

    And of course, I must mention Fr. Stephen’s blog helped me as well.

  121. Ananias,
    I appreciate your comments and understand the impact of ‘the 180 degree change’.
    I just want to clarify what I meant by desiring to “know” the Theotokos. It is the difference between knowing “about” Her and “knowing” Her. Becoming familiar with what has been written about Her in scripture and other sources, both which witness to Her life on earth, along with many others who have written in reference to Her and their witness of Her presence throughout time, is invaluable. What I meant, though, was I want to know Her by experience, through prayer, through the icons, through our presence in the Liturgy, through thoughts in heart toward Her. Both are invaluable, the readings and actual ‘involvement’.
    Just a bit of a clarification….

  122. Paula,
    Thanks for clarification to Ananias. Over the years I have found that as we place a new icon and begin asking for his/her intercessions, they make “movement ” towards us, each in his/her own way. As we differ in personality I’ve discovered that they do also in their speaking to our hearts.
    It is wonderful to experience their reciprocity in love towards us.

  123. Now that’s interesting Dean…an awareness of their unique personalities by the way they speak to the heart. Awesome.
    You know, your words here bring me back to your comment to both Ananias and I, that in the passage of time life in the Church “just gets better”. Very encouraging Dean. I treasure little nuggets like that!

  124. Thank you Paula. I appreciate your comments.
    It was hard for me to reconcile Orthodoxy to all that I had been taught and I had to relearn almost everything. Of course, I actually did nothing because it’s pretty much God who has done it all for me, because I’m just incapable of doing it myself.

    Remember St. Mary of Egypt, and her story. When I first heard that story, I wept. (It seems since coming to Orthodoxy, I weep a lot) It touched me in a way that is beyond words.

    I think that St. Mary of Egypt’s story helped me to actually accept the Theotokos, the Orthodox teachings of the Theotokos, and how we honor her, more than anything else. And that, alongside of St. Seraphim of Sarov, helped me to start honoring her and that helped me to start honoring the other saints as well.

    That does remind me that, at some point during my teen years, I had a crisis of faith and just was at a loss and at that point, despite being protestant and having been taught against such a thing, I actually did cry out to the Theotokos, but I didn’t know her as such. I didn’t know what else to do, I was at the end of my rope, and I simply cried out in that moment without knowing anything, much like St. Mary of Egypt did.
    I simply knew she was Jesus’s mother and that the Roman Catholics had the rosary, so I figured that maybe there was some truth somewhere in their prayers, teachings and beliefs.
    I cried out for help and here I am now, proving what Fr. Stephen said in response to my comment concerning the Orthodox “Plan of Salvation,” and how it refers to God’s work in us, doing for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.

  125. Ananias! You cried out to the Theotokos! during a crisis…while a Protestant?!! Please excuse my excitability….its just me…but where (I rhetorically ask) do you think that came from?!! Oh no brother…you are exactly where She was beckoning you to be!! I have yet to hear a Protestant cry out to the Theotokos!! Not anyone from the churches I was in! No…now that’s good stuff, Ananias!
    Lovely story about St. Mary of Egypt too. So glad for you, that you are embracing God’s energies towards you. Powerful love, grace… gentle but very powerful. Yes, Father’s response to you proven true!
    …another nugget Dean says a lot…God is good and He loves mankind! Yes indeed!

  126. David Waite, I did not say that is what Southern Baptists believe, only what I believed at one point (when I happened to be Southern Baptist). To clarify, for Southern Baptists, belief tends to be determined by the individual, not the church.

    That is what sin is: the choice to separate myself from God and His love. I can do this, I can separate myself from His love, by pride, anger, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and just plain spiritual laziness. That will put me in hell

    Sin is not separation from God; we cannot be separated from God. He never leaves us (and we would simply cease to exist if we were somehow separated from Him). However, I think the difference here is one of semantics. As you also pointed out, sin is ontological. Hell is not a place to which we “go” as much as something to which we cling.

  127. Byron,

    That actually reminds me of when Fr. Stephen Freeman came and spoke about Heaven, Hell and Salvation at our parish. He quoted, I believe it was a story by C.S. Lewis.
    In this story, they brought the residents of Hell into heaven and after a while the residents decided to leave, because Heaven hurt them. In hell they had started to fade away from reality. Some where mere shadows while others were what we would call a ghost. In heaven, everyone and everything was so real and so solid that it hurt those who had started to fade away.
    However, he used this to explain that Heaven is where we become more real, because we’re close to the source of reality itself, God.
    Hell is where people begin to fade away from reality, and the further you are away from God, the less a part of reality and the less real you are, because you are further away from the source of all Reality.
    Forgive me, Fr. Stephen came to our church about 3 or 4 years ago, so I don’t remember the exact words he used, so I’m probably not articulating it exactly right.

  128. Byron –
    Thank you for your response. Perhaps I should remain silent, since I know so little, but commenting allows me to subscribe to additional comments. I will try to say less, in the hope that will minimize my errors. I am only learning, after all.

  129. David Waite, keep posting, it is how we all learn!

    Sometimes we debate/discuss and then realize that we actually agree–we just say the same things differently! I think learning to say things correctly is very important. This is especially true in our society, where so many tend to talk past each other using the same language. I learn a great deal concerning how to “speak Orthodoxy” here thanks to all the great folks who share so much. Please continue to take part and enjoy the conversation.

    Ananias, yes that is a wonderful way to put it. Thanks for the reminder!

  130. Father,
    Which prayer book has the translation of the morning prayer that you used at the beginning of this post? I like it better than the translation of the same prayer in the Jordanville book.

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