The Erotic Language of Prayer

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role. For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

72 comments:

  1. My mind is blown by this. So contradictory to my own understanding and thoughts and everything that I was ever taught about being a Christian and yet it is right and correct.

    This quote:
    “And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness.”
    summarizes how and why I became Orthodox. I was drawn to God through Orthodoxy and just had to have more.

    Is this the love illustrated by the parable of the Prodigal Son?

  2. Ananias,
    Surely! This language of “eros” is an extremely strong theme within the work of Dionysius the Areopagite as well as St. Maximus the Confessor. Very powerful – and so deeply true. “God will save the world through beauty,” as Dostoevsky observed.

  3. Thank you so much for this teaching on beauty… Even when I thought I was turning away from God (as an atheist) I always loved beauty and sought truth. Being honest in my loving and seeking, I was, of course, eventually going to find Christ and the fullness of who I am created to be!

  4. I am reading Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s commentaries on the Song of Song’s and his central thought is God’s Eros for us and how the bride responds with her own Eros/ Ecstasy. It is truly different than the legalistic picture so often taught outside Orthodoxy.

  5. Thank you, Father.

    This is encouraging, and certainly helps one to read Psalm 44/45 – “forget your father’s house… the king will desire your beauty”. A friend and I were discussing beauty in the church recently, and this is the only way to understand it. Yes, the money spent adorning the bride could have been spent elsewhere, but why? The bride is to be glorious, for the groom is glorious. The garment should fit the wedding.

    I wonder if you have thoughts on Lewis and The Four Loves. When I was a Protestant, I felt he gave too much to eros. As an Orthodox, I feel like he gives too little. But I think – though this is an instinctual response, not reasoned – that in ‘Till We Have Faces he gets it square on. Loves is two years later than Faces, and I’m not sure if there’s not just a methodological problem with trying to rationalize these categories (like in Loves). The myth retold seems a better place to explore them, and does it better, in my eyes. But I welcome your thoughts, and maybe I’m giving too little credit for Loves.

    In Christ,
    Mark Miner

  6. Beauty is never wasted! I like going out by myself to the desert or mountains. Sometimes I ask myself,
    “Are you going out to seek God or because you love the beauty of creation?” But it’s really both, the beauty of God himself (“holiness” in Psalms) and that of God which we see in and through the beauty of his creation. I can be filled with Christ’s presence in my heart but also as I am awestruck by his beauty shimmering through the created world. Oh, wondrous, extravagant beauty!

  7. Mark M.
    I think because Lewis was so steeped in classical and Medieval literature, he had an extremely fine ear for things like eros. Our psychologized era (maybe Freudianized is more accurate) really doesn’t understand desire or beauty. Consumerism destroys beauty. There is the Mona Lisa (or other such art). For us, she appears on a Coffee Cup or some other such thing. There is both too little and too much.

  8. Fr Stephen,
    Will you help us bring together the notions of ‘fear of God’ and love (Eros) of God? I believe united together they might ‘describe’ (describe might not be the right word) beauty. I am lost for words to express these meanings together, but I believe there is an important connection. My thoughts go to the word ‘awe’.

  9. With Eros understood properly is it not apt to describe our union with Jesus, the Bridegroom, as conjugal–not carnal, but a Divine interpenetration of each of us body and soul?

    Thus marriage is an icon of our union with Him. Erotic, ecstatic, and deeply fecund.

  10. The description of repentance you give Father, is of great depth. Thank you for that.

  11. Dee,
    Though it is a bit “psychological,” the classic work by Rudolf Otto, “The Idea of the Holy,” (1923) is worth perusing. He was a liberal Protestant, German Theologian (died 1937), but did a very interesting job of listening to how we express certain things in our experience of God. He wrote about the “Wholly Other” (“Ganz Anders”), and the “Mysterium Tremendens,” and some other things.

    What I would say is that much of modern, Western thought has been diminished by much of our vocabulary and thin theology.

  12. Thank you Fr Stephen, I will look for his book and appreciate a reference. Your own article above is very eloquent regarding love and beauty and the pursuit of it; and is excellent in how it connects with Being.

    Too often I hear ‘fear of God’ connected with God’s ‘wrath’ rather than beauty. I’m grateful for this article to helps us on a deeper path in the language of prayer and hymnody.

  13. Dee,
    Imagine, a man has met the most wonderful woman. She is more than anything he might have dreamt. She seems a soul-mate, friend, someone to spend a life with – inherently making it a wonderful life. With a trembling heart and soul he breathes the words “I love you,” and waits to hear what might be said in return.

    That moment has all the meaning of fear, wonder and awe, within it. When the words are spoken in return, he is fulfilled.

  14. Father….I can only add one more time, Thank You! to my many thanks in the past. Your response here, in the re-posting of this piece, surely reflects that you are deeply in tune to our plight. For me, this piece (connected to your last comment in the previous post), just took the cake. 70 times 7 thanks, Father.

  15. This quote by J.D. Salinger, always one of my favorites, comes to mind amid this discussion:

    “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”

    The recognition of beauty is “…the forgetting of ourselves…, the confessing of our emptiness.” The realization that we cannot hold the universe together even though it seems effortlessly done….

  16. Just thought I might share a link to a free copy of “The idea of the Holy”:

    https://ia800300.us.archive.org/10/items/theideaoftheholy00ottouoft/theideaoftheholy00ottouoft.pdf

    I appreciate your warning about the modern way of ‘psychologizing’ the life in Christ. Lewis wrote the Abolition of Man in response to the positioning of beauty as ‘just a thought’ about a waterfall in a grammar text.

    In contrast to the notion of ‘ideas’, in your writing above, Father, you point to the ontological reality of Beauty and how Love calls and draws us into existence and into the Beauty of God. It is indeed as Michael says, we are not only infused with this love, as he describes, but lovingly participate in a Divine interpenetration of Being.

    Against the notion of an angry wrathful god is frequently positioned a contrasting idea of a loving god in theological conversations. But in this culture, such theology (as you eloquently described) is ‘thinned out’. The more I reflect on this article, I believe the gist of what I think I was trying to say before regarding the use of the word ‘awe’ is to avoid the ease we often have to associate the word ‘love’ with fuzzy feelings that might let us fall into and stay in a shallow level of sentimentality.

    I deeply appreciate this article’s emphasis on Eros. I wish my own ears could better hear the word in the tones of the Fathers. But your pairing Eros with Beauty and ontological Being was/is very helpful.

  17. “I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). ”

    If I understand you correctly, Father, you are saying that by giving money to create beauty in our Churches, which then speaks to our hearts and calls us closer to Christ, we are essentially engaging in another form of almsgiving which helps to enrich our impoverished souls.

  18. “Repentance out of chaos into the light of existence”

    That’s my new favorite all-time quote ever.

  19. Fr. Stephen
    Would you tell us the Artist and title of the painting. It brings tears because of its beauty.
    Thank you for the post and many others which have guided me into Orthodoxy and been a continued light on the path. I am filled with gratitude once again.

  20. This article reminds me of my first confession, my life confession prior to my Chrismation.
    I felt fear, the fear that I would be rejected for my sins and that the priest would turn me away, saying that I could not be Orthodox because my sins were too great and too much for the church to allow me to join. Yes, I know it was an unfounded and irrational fear, but it was still very real.
    Then I went to confession and poured out my heart before Christ, with the priest as witness, a concept I didn’t quite understand and when the priest said the prayers afterwards, especially during the part “and now having no further care for that which thou hast confessed, depart in peace” I started weeping. I could not help it because I had never known such a thing before, to have my heart be released from the burden of my sins gave me such joy that I wept. Many times since then, I have wept after confession for the same reasons. And it is because God’s love that releases me from my sins and during that moment, God’s love touches something deep within my soul.

  21. Very touching and thought provoking…I know I will have to read it again and again being such a Westerner. I also have to revisit the YouTube Envisioning the Kingdom: the Why and How of Beauty in the Church … So many ways Our Savior reaches out to us…through all the senses ! Thank you Father for giving us a glimpse around the curtain….takes my breath away

  22. “Repentance does not require the perquisite of sin.”

    I have often had a similar thought about Anatoly and Tikhon from The Island. From the first time I watched the movie it struck me that Anatoly didn’t really murder Tikhon. Arguably he was scared out of his mind and acting under the compulsion of the Germans who Anatoly knew had no regard for life. Yet his entire life afterwards was defined by a repentance for “a sin” that strictly speaking he did not commit. I don’t know that the Director had this thought in mind, but looking back and thinking about the movie it seems that “repentance does not require the prerequisite of sin” was perhaps one of the take home points.It isn’t the sin itself, the act, that one repents of but the drift towards non-being.

  23. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Attempting to understand eros, beauty and worship has been a significant part of my spiritual journey to Orthodoxy. This post clarifies some of the confusion that I had through the years.

  24. Fr. Stephen,
    Your words from St. Maximus on repentance have helped me greatly. When I would read that some holy saint, on his/her deathbed would cry out that they have not yet begun to repent, it always bothered me. My mind would immediately race to I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from All unrighteousness.” We pray in the liturgy repeatedly that Christ forgive us. But when I read the words of St. Maximus all this fell into place. No one on earth can ever love God fully, can ever have enough of Christ, that our yearning and desire for him can grow ever more consuming, that we can “stand outside ourselves” in love for him. And realizing that our love does so often fall short we cry out in “repentance” for from our perspective we still feel, like St. Paul, ” not that I am perfect, or have already attained…, but this one thing I do…forgetting what lies behind I press forward to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil.3:12-14) Again, thank you Fr. Stephen for this wonderful essay. My prayers are for you as you write your new book.

  25. When “a man meets a wonderful woman” his affection goes out to her and his mind and heart are filled with impressions of, and appreciation for, everything that her beauty represents and signifies to him. Any man in that state of adoration who then dared to tell this woman how unworthy he was of her attention and love in return would justly be spurned by her as being undignified and unmanly.

    This is what comes to mind when contemplating saints who, struck by the immensity of God’s love for mankind, draw attention away from that wondrous perception of divinity to focus on their own sense of unworthiness and sinfulness instead.

    Jesus said that except we become as little children we cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. Children are not concerned about, or self-absorbed with, their seeming errors. If they perceive something wondrous they surrender to it completely without considerations for whether they are worthy to have the experience. Unfortunately children are not the ones who write books on how to relate to God.

  26. Dennis,
    Pity that “this is what comes to mind.” In such prayers we see something of a complete picture – both what they desire and something of the fullness of that experience within. I understand the point you’re making – but think it’s overdrawn. I think, for example, of Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips.” The saints are standing on the same ground. I am reluctant to criticize saints – I’d rather understand them.

  27. Dennis, I have often had that exact same thought. I sometimes find myself thinking, ‘Are we really supposed to think so little of ourselves? Intuitively, these dont seem like prayers of children to their Father. I certainly don’t want my son thinking about how unworthy he is of our love. Seems inhealthy to say the least.’

    Over the course of my life I have experienced moments of profound awe. During those moments I have always found myself so overcome by gratitude, thankfulness and a sense of wonder that I felt elevated beyond my sense of self. Those are moments where I feel like I am very much aware of God’s presence in all things. In those moments praise and thankfulness emerge naturally. (Since I was not overwhelmed by a sense of my own unworthiness some may argue I have never truly felt profound awe or I have not experienced awe as a saint would have.) Still, I do feel the distance between myself and God that is created by my drift towards nothingness. Usually I feel it most deeply by the pain and disappointment I see reflected in the eyes of those I love. During those times nothing comes more easily than “O God be gracious to me a sinner and have mercy on me.” At other times I am gripped by the sense of our ontological unity as human species. In those moments I feel overwhelmed by how lost we are. We are a brutal species. Our history is marred by war and genocide. I would imagine that the prayers of the Saints reflect not only their concern for themselves but for the human condition which they share with a lost world.

  28. Dennis,
    My first thought after reading your comment is the difference must have something to do with the fact that God is our Creator, and we are only creatures… it’s a bit different than humans falling in love… maybe we lost that realization, that without God we wouldn’t even exist?
    But I love what Father said in his answer, it’s safest to imitate the Saints, not invent our own ways…

  29. The traditional image for thr soul’s yearning for God is not that of a bride who loves a woman at all. It’s quite the reverse. Makarius the great describes the soul as a destitute homeless woman and God as the greatest Prince who picks her up, desires her alone, and makes her his princess.  Being loved [beyond what even the greatest saint would deserve (while being rather closer to a great sinner)] so much, can effortlessly explain the language of unworthiness of the saints that many struggle with. That is far closer to the experience of God’s love – even outside the official Church.

  30. Dino,
    Thanks for including God’s love for those outside the Official Church. That has to be the case for converts, right?
    As a man in his 40’s I knew nothing of Orthodoxy, except that they used cassocks, wore beards and lit candles (quite seriously ). Yet, ignorant as I was his love never stopped beckoning me.

  31. Dean,
    That’s more than I knew when I came to Orthodoxy. I had only heard of them once and that was on an episode of a British comedy called “Are you being served?” and outside of that, I had no clue what the Orthodox church was.

  32. Ananias,
    We all have a sense of humor. Looks like we inherited that from God, as part of his image in us. He used something as banal as a British comedy to point you towards him! Reminds me of a small book I read years ago by the Quaker theologian, Elton Trueblood, “The Humor of Christ.”

  33. Dino…. 🙂

    Dean…a little slow on the uptake…it took me two or three reads to figure out you were referring to yourself !! Aren’t you glad you “heard” Him?!

    Ananias,
    I’ve been enjoying your posts. I can relate exactly to the awe of first being led to the Faith. It’s a little over a year for me. I still haven’t calmed down yet!! (don’t think I will, either!). The only thing I knew about Orthodoxy was two words…’Byzantine’, and ‘Greek’. Dean is right…He without a doubt beckoned us. No way on God’s green earth would I have found it on my own! Here in the whole of southern Arizona there are only two Orthodox Churches…both in Tucson. So in the outlying areas (where I’m at) Orthodoxy is virtually unknown. So, by far, it is the highlight of my life…nothing can compare. Nothing even comes remotely close! Hope it is the same for you. It sounds like it is !!

  34. Paula,
    Yes, Christ woos us in countless ways. I shudder to think of where I would have gone without the Orthodox Church, as I was spiritually at my wits end. God is so gracious and good. You and Ananias are both fairly new to the faith. I can only tell you that it gets better! It’s the hardest thing to live in the world but also the easiest. As Peter answered Christ, “To whom else shall we go?” Yes, where else but into the bosom of his glorious Church!
    By the way, Paula, a very wonderful Serbian women’s monastery, St. Paisius, is not awfully far from you. I am sure you know Fr. Demitrius Earl in Tucson. He was our priest at one time.

  35. Dean,
    “I can only tell you that it gets better” Oh my heart!
    My brother said to me, when I entered into Orthodoxy, ‘I hope this it’ (I was at my wits end too, searching)…my response was ‘Skip, there is no where else’!
    Oh, Father Earl was your priest! Yes, I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Greek Festival. Nice man. I go to Holy Resurrection, Antiochian. Our dear Priest is Fr. Philip Nixon. He was in that large group of converts from the EOC with Fr. Peter Gillquist, back in the ’80’s. Very interesting story! Too, quite frequently Fr. John Erickson co-celebrates (right word?). Very nice man. I can tell both are seriously dedicated. It is a pleasure to be there.
    Yes, St. Paisius is about an hour away. I have been telling myself for the past year to go! I do plan on it. St. Anthony’s is at least two hours away. People at my parish go to both. They say I must go!

  36. I’m smiling about these last posts. Earlier today I was looking for a prayer bracelet and thought of ones made of the seeds called the Tears of the Mother of God. Google brought up the St. Paisios Monastery. So, never having heard of it before, I’ve now heard if it twice today. But wait! There’s more! Their first chapel was dedicated to St. Anastasia of Serbia. Well, just this week I was reading a dystopian young adult book, Scythe, that my granddaughter had read…and wants to talk about. It’s a difficult book to read for the dark future it portrays. But, at the last chapter one of the characters chooses, as her “patron” name, Anastasia Romanov! So, I sent a biography of her to my granddaughter ( we’ll see each other later this month to talk). But now I know of another St. Anastasia…and, it just so happens that our granddaughter’s other grandparents are from Serbia and Croatia. Why should I be surprised!? Our entire journey into Orthodoxy has been infused with such “coincidences.” In 1993 I, too, had not really known anything about it except from a Religion class in high school. But, that fall I had a dream where several “Men in Black” were gathered around a table. On awakening, I wrote in my journal, to the effect, “maybe we’re supposed to become Orthodox, learn Russian, go there, etc.” We became Orthodox in 2006 (these things take time) about a year after our current priest moved into the house behind ours and came around to see if we could repair our common fence. Still working on the Russian… Didn’t make it to Russia…just Kazakhstan. Then there were those monks in the ’70’s who sat next to my husband on his train ride to Athens…to go to Cyprus where he stayed in Archbishop Makarios’ residence while doing underwater archeology. Etc. Etc. And still I have trouble trusting as I want. Lord have mercy! So many blessings. Still smiling.

  37. Geri Priscilla…. you sure got me smiling too! Good stuff, Geri. Now that is persistent wooing…from The Lover of mankind!

  38. Paula!
    You are an hour away from St. Paisuis monastery and you haven’t visited yet?! You must go tomorrow!! If only to relate my greetings to Fr. Dorotheos and the Abbess and the sisters, lol!
    I visited them for the first time this January (from MN) and cannot wait to go back.
    St. Anthony’s monastery is amazing too, I *personally* call it “Orthodox Disneyland”, you walk around from church to church, and each one is more beautiful than the last one. If you stay overnight, you will get a little taste of Mt. Athos, since they start their morning prayers at 2 am.. And the grapefruit they serve with meals is the most flavorful I have ever tasted!
    I highly recommend a visit to both these monasteries 🙂

  39. Ananias – Thank you for posting. You express so much of what I think and feel.

  40. I have always appreciated Isaiah’s unique cry, “Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” (Is 6:5).

    Remarkably, this phrase “unclean lips” appears nowhere else in the entire Bible, so one is left to wonder what exactly Isaiah meant by it. Possibly it refers to his culture and society, with its normative patterns of thought and speech, which the prophet perceived to be out of touch with the holiness of God.

    I can well relate to this point of view and also say without hesitation, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

    However, statements such as St. Basil’s quoted above, in which he claims to be “unworthy of heaven, of earth, and of this passing life” – in other words, not deserving to even exist in this precious life that God has graciously given – leave me cold. These do not seem to be expressions of erotic love for the divine, but rather something else altogether that do not in the least inspire admiration or the desire to emulate.

  41. Dennis,

    I neither admire nor wish to emulate St. Basil’s thought that he is ““unworthy of heaven, of earth, and of this passing life,” but I do understand and relate to it, having felt the same way myself. It’s like the Psalms. I neither admire nor wish to emulate the sentiment, “I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people,” (Psalm 22:6), but I sure can relate to it, and I take comfort from the fact that someone felt the same way a few thousand years ago.

  42. Is any of us worry of a gift? Do we deserve it? Even from a friend let alone God”. Modernity has so enculturated us to “rights” we tend to be entitled. I have come to understand that I have no rights, least of all to life.
    Life is providential or it is now nonsensical.

  43. Thank you Michael,
    I was thinking the same thing. I have had food to eat everyday for the past 72 years. Did I deserve it? Nope. The only antidote for feeling sorry for ourselves is gratitude. As Father says, always and for everything, giving thanks. Upon awakening each morning I thank God for a new day, for each beat of my heart, for every breath I take.
    About 30 years back I visited a man in the VA hospital. He may have had Lou Gherig’s disease. Anyway, he lay there paralyzed. His throat had to be suctioned out several times an hour. But I could tell from my short time with him that he was thankful for life, even in his completely paralyzed state. Christ marveled at the faith of the centurion. I at this wonderful man’s courage. And to top it off, this fellow was Jehovah’s Witness! I pray God’s mercy upon his grateful heart.

  44. I believe what can be least questioned is whether any of us is “worthy” of being alive. No, we didn’t and can’t make ourselves worthy, but God evidently considers us so, for He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).

    Jesus then emphasized this point by saying, “I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10).

    Gratitude seems the only appropriate response to so great a gift.

    There are many people who feel unworthy and inadequate on a deep psychological level due to wounds suffered in this world. To tell them again, on the authority of the Church, that they are unworthy of everything, even life itself, seems not only the antithesis of compassion but in full opposition to the teachings of Christ

  45. Dennis,

    I have appreciated your comments. I think they echo sentiments a lot of people feel. In response I would say that this is a both/and situation. Yes we are to be like little children, and yes we are to find a place in our lives for declaring to God our unworthiness. But of course there is much to complicate the matter.

    There are many people who feel unworthy and inadequate on a deep psychological level due to wounds suffered in this world. To tell them again, on the authority of the Church, that they are unworthy of everything, even life itself, seems not only the antithesis of compassion but in full opposition to the teachings of Christ.

    Agreed. The church should not be telling anyone this. It is something they should come to over time, when they’re ready, as appropriate. It’s dangerous and unhealthy to apply prayers and practices of the spiritually advanced to those who are just surviving or are very wounded. Much discernment is required.

    But back to the main question: Why should we talk to God of our unworthiness when children never would? I suspect probably the biggest reason is that we have ceased to hold our role as children; we “grew up” and got all adult, taking on responsibilities and the role of “knowing all things”. You can even see that in young children who’ve gotten too big for their britches. It isn’t pretty and they need some humbling in order to resume their proper role as a child.

    And so we imitate the Psalmist who seems to alternate between praising God and decrying his deplorable state. The act of contemplating our unworthiness seems to be a mechanism by which our ego goes through a kind of detox. It falls down or is reduced to its proper, child-proportioned size. That’s talking about it as seen from the outside. When you’re inside the process it just feels like death and hell. But it is in truth a time of healing and salvation.

    Much more could be said, but probably not in a blog comment.

  46. Dennis…I agree completely. I think that as Father Stephen has said before we have to distinguish between piety, cultural mind sets, and differences in what each of us bring to prayer. There are times in my life in which these prayers capture my experience perfectly. On the other hand, I think its funny how people talk about being advanced or spiritually mature. Its unnecessary and unhelpful. No one needs to hear someone else talk about child-proportioned sizes.

    Our life will give us plenty of occasions to experience humility and shame in a way that emerges out of the stuff of our lives. And when it does–own it. Be humbled…feel it in your guts. The words of the prayers will reveal yourself to you. Until then rejoice over the blessings, the promises, the hope, the mercy, the life, and the unwarranted love of God that he would grant his likeness to his creation.

    Always be grateful.

  47. Dennis,
    I empathize with your tension, and I can say that the Eucharist is the only resolution I have found – for “holy things are for the holy”, and “one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father”. We don’t deserve the meal, but we are invited to come. We stand outside the doors of the sanctuary and do not put away our terrible thoughts. But we ask Christ for mercy, as he justified the tax collectors and the harlots who came to eat with him. We confess him, and we let him work in us that which is well-pleasing to his glory.

    I am a recovering Reformed, and the possibility of simultaneously experiencing our supposedly-forensically-removed guilt and the joy of Christ would not be easily accepted there, since God’s attitude towards us was taught to be binary…

    But here we see eros, self-forgetting, and the acceptance that we simply ARE unworthy (so was Adam before the fall!), yet we can embrace and attempt to return a love beyond all possible measure. I understand this only feebly, but the desire to feed on/with Christ was a major factor in my conversion and life in the church. And I accept that simply living in the prayers of the church, public and private, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable, is the way to conform myself to the mind of Christ. It’s not my place to judge the prayers, but to let them judge me, form me, and correct me. And this is not just morning or evening, or pre-communion, but the vast diversity of prayers (including the entire liturgical cycle). This fullness in the prayers of the church is one of the most wonderful gifts from the Fathers and the church through time (and a reason I love Lent so much).

    In Christ,
    Mark

  48. I think we must appreciate that the visceral prayerful expressions of St. Basil, claiming to be “unworthy of heaven, of earth, and of this passing life” are founded upon a basis of absolute trust in God’s love for us. In fact, it’s far more the unwarranted immensity of God’s love, rather than the greatness of our sin, that makes one express themselves like that.
    At the same time, there is a point in a believer’s life when, grounded upon such a secure foundation of trust, the vision of the greatness of their own sin –in its cosmic dimensions–, is revealed to them in great clarity (and with a certain conscious awareness that, in ‘my facing towards my Creator’s gaze’, I am simultaneously “hypostasizing”/summarizing all of Adam/creation). So I come to understand that, somehow, nobody else has really sinned like I have –such repentant awareness understandably comes as somewhat of a corollary of us naturally only being able to experience things ‘personally’: our sinful self [the “me”] rather than anyone else, perceives itself in an exclusive encounter with the infinitely loving God [“Thee”] – and it then seems that it’s not Adam’s sin, or Judas’ or the Pharisees’ or anybody else’s sin that introduced the fall into the cosmos, but it was all because of my own and all other people are perceived by me as comparatively blameless. This ought to remain a healthy state, grounded upon unshakeable knowledge of God’s love, not self-condemning in negative desperation, but in positive, desperate hopefulness.

  49. Thank you all for these beautiful words on prayer…
    It’s a great blessing for me to be reminded about all these aspects.

    I wanted to find a video by Met. Anthony Bloom on prayer (I shared it here before, maybe Santosh Samuel can find it , he is really good at research 🙂 ), but instead I found something Father Stephen posted, which is wonderful. It also ties nicely into the conversation on the other thread, about praying for our fathers (good and not so good…)

    I hope it helps Dennis….

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2010/02/03/private-prayer-thoughts-of-met-anthony-of-sourozh/

  50. 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.

  51. Agata,

    Thanks for this. Coincidentally (or not), the priest at my church recently said something similar to me, in a very serious tone:: “I bless you not to read the prayers from the Orthodox prayer book!”

  52. Dennis,
    Maybe more serendipitous than coincidental… 🙂
    See, you are in great company (of those who want to be real before God)!
    Met. Anthony often repeated that we should be “honest and authentic” in our stand before God. Otherwise we may even be offensive to God….
    I love how in one story Met. Anthony recounted that he read the prayer of “Admonition of animals” (I am still searching for this prayer!) to a mouse (his house in London was infested with mice, and he lived there with his mother and elderly grandmother).
    Before he read the prayer, he said to the Saint who wrote it: “I don’t believe a word of it! It seems impossible. But you were not a fool, you wrote it. So you carry it to God. I will just read it. The act of faith will belong to the mouse, the prayer to you. My faith is irrelevant” (I am paraphrasing from memory here).
    The first miracle (he said he put his stole on and sat on the bed with the book and waited) was that when the mouse came into his room out of the fireplace, he told her to sit and listen. Which she did!! He read the prayer and said: “Now go tell the rest”.
    The mice disappeared and never returned…. 🙂

  53. Agata,
    Great…wouldn’t want to pray that one around Disneyland! On a serious note, our monastery and others I know do pray that the rattlesnakes harm no one.

  54. Byron,
    Ha ha…. here it is again… I gave it to you before, LOL!!

    Agata says:
    January 10, 2017 at 2:23 pm
    Byron,
    Here is the YouTube piece. The mouse story is around min 28, but if you have time, listen to the whole lecture. This video is especially wonderful, and it is on prayer….

  55. Oh Agata….I love your version of the story! “sit and listen…now go tell the rest”…lol !
    Dean…I sure get what you said about protection from snakes. They love to invade my hen house and eat the eggs, and worse, their chicks. Let’s just say, some of the invaders didn’t survive. I do, as well, pray to a few patron Saints for animals…asking as well to spare them from me too, as I protect my animals.

  56. I had a really profound experience with two German Shepherd Dogs who were in a fight. One dog was outside amd I didn’t know it. I went to let the other one out and they immediately engaged. Both dominant males who wanted to be in charge and so could not be together. I managed to close the door 3/4 between them. The one inside had the locked his jaw onto the head/ear of the one outside. I tried to break them up by pounding on the head of the one inside. Well, that made no impression whatsoever (these are VERY strong dogs), and neither did screaming at him to let go. So I just stopped, took a breath, knelt down next to the dog inside and said, “Falco, I really love you and I really love Marco too and I don’t want to see you kill him, so I’m asking you with all my heart to please, please let go.” Falco immediately let out a huge sigh and reluctantly opened his jaws and I was able to shut the door between them. This experience has left a lasting impression on me. Animals may not understand our words per se, but they absolutely understand the intent of our heart.

  57. Thank you Esmee, for sharing that story. All creation groans in anticipation of our salvation but the rest of creation isn’t broken like we are. They have a unity and wholeness that we can only wistfully look forward to.

    For several years I kept a few steers around to fatten up for market. One of the last ones was very personable and friendly – and very intelligent. When it came time to load him onto the trailer he knew what was coming and put up quite a fight. Finally when we had him cornered, I put my face next to his and said basically, “I know this isn’t the way things are supposed to be, but it’s the way they are right now. Please…” We both stood there for a moment – and then he quietly walked into the trailer and gave no further problems. It is my belief that in some ways animals and all the rest of creation have it together much more than we do. There is much to learn from them. This is somewhat connected to Abba Moses’ saying, sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.

  58. Esmee and Drewster,
    (Father, feel free to dismiss this story if it doesn’t fit).
    About 35 years ago a young couple, Christians for only a few months, began attending our church. They were nightclub singers. They had a dog
    which had developed an eating problem. The only way it could eat was by standing it on his hind legs with front paws up on a chair. With its throat straight they could get food down. Well, they had heard a little about prayer for healing. So, they laid hands on their pooch and prayed for its healing. And what did God do? He healed the dog of these baby Christians!
    I chuckled when I first heard the story. I first believed God had healed the dog to confirm this young couple in their faith. However, God does love all His creation, dogs included. Faith can heal even them….think of what Christ said about caring for the donkey on a Sabbath or that one should not muzzle an ox treading grain…let it eat some too. (Drewster, your story reminded me of American Indians who would pray over an animal they had killed, I believe asking forgiveness…Dee, perhaps you know more.) God is good. His mercy endures forever.

  59. Thank you Drewster, I really appreciate you sharing that story.

    Dean, when I was a child, i had a cat that ran into the tire of a moving car. It’s front leg no longer worked and it walked only on three legs. We didn’t have money for a vet. My mother had read about laying hands on an injury and asking God to heal it. She would do this periodically whenever she and the cat intersected (outdoor cat). The cat did not use its leg for many months, but then one day it suddenly started walking perfectly normally like nothing had ever been wrong with it.

  60. Agata,
    That reminds me of the story of St. Seraphim of Sarov and his friend the bear. St. Seraphim was entertaining a visitor and provided a meal. During the meal, the bear walked into St. Seraphim’s home and lay down at his feet. The visitor was scared until he saw how calm St. Seraphim was and he asked St. Seraphim about how the animal could be so tame and how he, St. Serpahim, could be so calm.
    St. Seraphim responded, “When a person is close enough to God, he then has the relationship with the animals that Adam had before the fall and can enjoy dominion over them.”
    That’s a paraphrase of the story as it was told to me.
    I always thought it was so cool that one could have such a relationship with God that the animals would know and respond.

  61. Ananias,
    Thank you, that is a beutiful story.
    It reminded me how Fr. Meletios Webber (if you have not read him, I highly recommend his books, especially “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil”) said in one of his talks I heard long ago that when we get closer to God, “animals and small children are attracted to you”…. This has made me very self-conscious around small children, lol.
    And thanks to his comment (it must be now around 10 years ago), I finally gave into the constant pleas of my boys for a dog.. Their interest (and care) in/for the dog lasted literally one week, than the dog became “my dog” (somebody had to feed and walk the poor thing, not just pet him once a day for 30 secs…).
    I love that dog now with all my heart, and he loves me back even more, I think…
    There are many stories of Saints and animals: St. Gerasimos and the lion, St. Seraphim and the bear, St. Paisios and his bird Olet….
    https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/05/olet-beloved-bird-of-elder-paisios.html

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