A Full Life

What constitutes a full life? In a consumer culture, I would suppose a full life to be one of maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity. We like being happy. Would a full life include suffering? The answer to such questions, for Christians, are found in Christ Himself. Christ alone fulfills what it means to be truly human. So, what does that mean?

Christ does not flee from suffering. We are shown a number of occasions where He works well past the point of exhaustion in serving others. He does not turn away from the enjoyment of his friends. He was called a “drunkard and a wine-bibber” by his detractors. He fasted but understood that, for a time, His disciples could not fast. His life includes the story of His suffering and shameful death, which He bore for our sakes. It also includes the revelation of His unending love for His disciples made known in His resurrection. For Christians, the fullness of human existence can be no different.

There are no lives that meet the standards of modernity. Those lives that are marked by maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity are never free from suffering (though wealth can forestall many things). A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.

The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.

In the Genesis account, the man and woman exist in the Garden. It is an abiding image of an unfallen world prior to sin. There is neither punishment nor death in that place. But at the very heart of the Garden is a Tree that says, “No!” This Tree alone makes possible the self-denial that is synonymous with love. Everything else within the Garden brings enjoyment and satisfaction. As such, the Garden could be the breeding ground of pure self-interest – a colony of hell. Only the Tree whose fruit cannot be eaten makes the Garden into Paradise.

That Tree also represents every other person and thing in our lives. We are not placed into the world to consume one another. There are elements within every person and within every object that are forbidden to us. There are boundaries that must be regarded and respected. Without such boundaries, we would become all-consuming demons, devouring one another and everything around us. We would be transformed into narcissists of infinite proportions.

This is not to say that suffering itself is inherently good. There are terrible and tragic things within our world –  wounding, death-dealing enemies of the soul. But terrible and tragic things are many times willingly borne in what can only be described as a sanctifying manner.

Our theological grammar does not permit us to introduce the notion of the passions into the Godhead. But the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit carries this very self-emptying-existing-towards-the-other. The Father delights in the Son; the Son only does those things that He sees the Father doing; the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself; and so on. Everything about the Son is referred to the Father, and everything we would know of the Father is referred to the Son. Though such things are not normally associated with suffering, they have within them the same character as the suffering that is borne voluntarily.

It is possible to think of the Crucifixion as something required by human sin, and thus not somehow inevitable in and of itself. It could be said that had we not fallen, Christ would not have been Crucified. I think this is misleading. Nothing in God is changed in the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed.

Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.

More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.

To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.

 

252 comments:

  1. Amen. Suffering is the key to getting beyond self interest and to look to the other. A bit ago when Dylan Roof was sentenced to death for his actions in the the church in Charleston, many were gloating over it. I simply asked what good was accomplished by that sentence. No one was brought back and no one redeemed. I was amazed at the number of Orthodox who vehemently chided me for my comment. I stand by it. One cannot support modernity’s way of dealing with sin and truly understand the faith. To the worst of sinners (me included) the Lord offers redemption. Should not we?

  2. Father,
    A post which deserves several more readings. I like this quote by Léon Bloy: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence. “

  3. “The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.”

    Beautifully stated, Father.

  4. Beautiful Father. Apart from the wonderful articulation, the piece has the ability to speak right into the depths of our heart. It reminded me of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh whose writings have this very quality (e.g., http://www.pravoslavie.ru/100581.html — the last paragraph being a masterpiece). May you be granted many more years of ‘reaching out’ Father.
    And like Diana said, i intend to read it several times. More so, because, even at the age of 46, i still not have accepted my crosses or learnt to carry them with joy.

  5. More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment.

    This is something that I still struggle with, especially with fasting.

    Father, would you say, similar to your statement from your other post, that “living with suffering” is also a willingness to believe that God knows what He is doing, like living with a tradition? That is to say, we endure suffering because we trust that God knows what He is doing?

  6. Galatians 6:14 New King James Version (NKJV)

    14 But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    Hello Father, can we view or understand your article in the same context as the above scripture? (I feel we can).

  7. Those who have suffered injury can attest that more suffering is often necessary for healing (for example, physical therapy).

    As my deification is taking place, I am brought face to face with Christ. The constant untangling and reassembling of my being is painful. All that is my finite being is continually brought into the presence of our infinite God. I am undone and I am remade.

    “O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”
    Psalm 8:34 NASB

    Father, bless you for following our Father in such a way that you are compelled to love us through your words.

  8. And yet, Father, as you point out, injury is not necessary prerequisite for suffering.

  9. Yet Our Lord prayed in the Garden to be spared suffering, and both moved out of its way (in his home town) and refrained from putting himself prematurely in danger (in Jerusalem). Nor did he ever refuse to heal somebody telling them they should continue suffering for their own good.
    There is a time for suffering, and a time to avoid or relieve suffering (to paraphrase the Preacher): may the Spirit rightly direct us, and enable us to listen and discern where He is taking us in any given situation.
    Blessings on you all, and praise to He who is risen indeed!

  10. The late Archbishop Robert Morse of the Anglican Province of Christ the King often told his seminarians, “To love is to suffer.” Memory eternal.

  11. “Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others have fought to win the prize and swam through bloody seas?”
    Isaac Watts, Am I a Soldier of the Cross?

  12. There have been many entries about suffering on this blog. None as relevant for me as this one. I feel I finally understood….”A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune”
    Thank you, father, dearest

  13. Diana,

    Thank you for the wonderful quote from Leon. It reminds me of another one I can remember only vaguely. It goes something like this: “We need pain in order to know that we are still alive.”

  14. Quote: “A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.”
    End quote
    Indeed. There are many churches that preach a name-it-and-claim-it false gospel, preaching that whatever you desire, if you call upon God in the right way, He shall be obligated to give it to you. In fact, in some churches they actually teach that if you get together 7 people, and each one reads out the 7 correct verses in the correct order, and then each one prays and applies their will to their prayers, God is bound by their will to act according to their desires.
    This is the same teaching found in witchcraft and paganism. I have actually been to a “Christian” church teaching these things. These churches teach the exact opposite of what has been stated in this blog, that suffering is not Christian and Christians should not suffer and should actually have what consumerism calls “the good life.” They preach or teach nothing about taking up the cross or suffering for Christ.

    Paul and Silas were beaten because of their faith and they sang praises to God and they rejoiced because they were “counted worthy to suffer for Christ” (paraphrased) and many early members of the church were tortured for their faith.
    Yet today, too many Christians do not feel the same way. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Christians ask, “Why should I suffer” or “Why am I suffering” or “Why should someone have to suffer” and they often ask because they feel that suffering is wrong and that no one should suffer anything.

    I think and perhaps I am wrong, that the whole issue of being willing to suffer and being able to bear suffering and being able to rejoice for it, goes back to submission. If we, Christians, live in full submission to Him as teacher, master, God, king, Lord, Father, and Creator, then we begin to live as we should, because God is a Good and Holy God, and when we live in full submission to Him, He begins to do within us a great, wonderful, good and holy work, to heal us, to restore us to what we were created to be.

    Too many Christians see themselves as being “kings and queens” and yet, like the emperor, they do not realize their own foolishness; they parade around like they are dressed in regal and royal clothing, while naked, not realizing that suffering refines us and clothes us, preparing us for the royal wedding feast of Christ Himself.

  15. It seems I get most prayer requests that are for relief from suffering or for the prevention of suffering. I feel like responding, ” I pray you growing grace and holiness to deal with the sufferings/challenges of this life” because that really is what I pray for them. Instead I only say that I will pray for them inferring that I would pray for an end to their suffering although I have my doubts. It reminds me of part of a prayer that kind of makes me laugh inside. It goes “….. and if I should suffer still longer, help me endure all with love and patience.” It seems to me as long as we are still alive, we will suffer still longer.

  16. In the Brothers Karamazov Ivan tells the story of a hungry boy that was caught stealing from a wealthy man’s orchard. So the boy and his family is dragged to a field where the boy is told to run. Then the wealthy landowner turns his dogs loose and they tear the boy to pieces in front of the family. In this story, how are we to understand the experience of the child torn to pieces? As adults whose lives are mostly in the rearview mirror we reflect on the meaning of our lives and what sense if any we can make of it. But what about that boy? How can we explain suffering in a way that will make sense to that child? At the end of the day we can’t. We can’t make sense of suffering. Not to ourselves and certainly not to our children.

    We bear crosses. Thats what we’re asked to do. Pick it up and drag it. But it doesnt make any sense to me.

  17. Simon,
    Ivan’s case is, undoubtedly, one of the supreme statements of the problem of suffering. It is also something that I am not saying. We cannot say, “suffering is good.” Nor have I said that. I’m making a very important distinction.

    What we can say is that the act of voluntary self-offering for the other is good, even if it means enduring an evil thing (suffering). The suffering is evil – but the voluntary self-offering for the other is good.

    In Ivan’s case of the boy and the dogs, there is nothing voluntary other than the man’s evil desire to harm. There is nothing redeeming in that suffering.

    I could posit, however, that Christ inserts Himself (though we do not observe it), into the suffering of the boy, and endures it along with him, making that suffering His own. That act of self-offering for the other is a good thing. It would also, I would posit as well, make it possible for the boy’s suffering to be something different – even if that something different was after death.

    In our acceptance of Christ, our uniting ourselves to Him in Holy Baptism, we join ourselves to His suffering “on behalf of all and for all.” It does not eliminate the evil some seek to work through the instrument of suffering, but it, nevertheless, shares in the redemption of all.

    The distinction I’m making is between suffering itself, and the willingness to voluntarily bear it for the sake of others. And this seems to me to be important.

  18. Simon,
    Indeed, Ivan Karamazov was fully convinced that the inanity of children suffering somehow invalidated the possibility of God’s goodness. Yet how does the book end? Ivan is scheming to relieve Dimitri of his suffering, and Alyosha is attending the funeral of a child. Ivan still has no peace – his revelation of the truth of the murder at the trial was not believed (which is, I think, one of Dostoevsky’s most masterful attacks on rationalism). But Alyosha has joy. Our sense is not the limit of God’s wisdom. Job’s miserable comforters are talking past the point most of the time. We need not be able to rationalize suffering in order to internalize it and let God work through it for our good. The theosis of Christ’s humanity was after the cross.

    Not that I am good at this in practice, but Father’s article is an excellent reminder of it. For a separate reason, I was re-reading his old article on the last prayer of the elders of Optina earlier today – quite apropos as well.

    In Christ,
    Mark

  19. Simon,
    I agree fully with you viz. Ivan’s example of the suffering boy.

    However, I’m making a distinction that is important – and, in the focus on suffering, easy to overlook. The distinction is between the suffering itself, and the voluntary bearing of suffering (however evil the suffering might be) on behalf of another. That self-offering is good. It is not only good, but is necessary to the fulness of our humanity. There was no evil in the “no” within the Garden. Not to eat the fruit of a single tree is not evil. But the refusal to bear the offering of the self to that simple act of denial was, in the story, the refusal to be what we are created to be.

    This distinction, between the suffering itself, and the voluntary self-offering on behalf of the other, is important.

    I will posit another thing.

    I suggest that in the case of the boy, unseen to us, Christ enters into the boy’s suffering and makes it His own. Not that the boy does not suffering, but that his suffering is now also Christ’s suffering. It makes no change that we can speak of on this side of things, but might make all the change in the world beyond what we can see. In our Baptism, we take up Christ’s Cross, and in doing so, unite ourselves with His suffering on behalf of all and for all, and it becomes our own as well. This is an act of self-offering that is the redemption of sin – its overcoming. Christ tramples down death by death. We do the same, the “death” of our own voluntary union with Him.

    It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.

    That is what I would have said to Ivan. I don’t know if it would have made any difference…other than the fact that in Dostoevsky, it is precisely that kind of self-offering that saves.

  20. Thank you, Father, for the honor of even being thought of.

    If it’s not inappropriate to the topic, I would like to share a poem I wrote a few years back when we completed our first adoption. It came to me in the St. Sofia church in Sofia, Bulgaria, dedicated by Justinian to the holy Wisdom, but also particularly honoring St Sofia and her three daughters – a martyrdom that has much to say on this topic. For background, our daughter has CP and suffered profound institutional neglect. Yet she is nearer to God than I am.

    Hagiography

    We stood together,
    or better, I stood by her stroller,
    an incongruous American
    beneath fourteen centuries of Bulgar brick,
    slow-roasted by the candles
    and gently eroded by the ever-rising prayers.

    We listened together,
    and I know she heard well,
    for most anything wakes her,
    to the peal and the rumble and the clear high tenor
    singing to God and pleading mercy from the Lamb
    same chant, same mercy, new every morning.

    We looked together,
    (but here I truly exaggerate,
    for her hat slipped over her eyes – it was cold out),
    at the gold and silver icons of the saints,
    with round eyes and folded hands,
    meeting death for their Lord in quiet submission and plain lines.

    We left together,
    past the historical plaques and gift shop,
    where I bought a disc, “Penance, Lent, Resurrection”,
    and we stepped out into the cold city air,
    a lanky American beside her round Roma eyes and folded caramel hands,
    to face life for our Lord in quiet submission and plain lines.

    In Christ,
    Mark

  21. I think my usual dogmatic nature perhaps led to a misunderstanding. I hope I didn’t leave anyone with the impression that I felt that Fr was saying that “suffering is good.” I know that no one on the blog would ever think that. I did a poor job of presenting something that I often think about as I drive down the road: What is important for us to understand? What is vital? There’s no end to the things that can be known and understood, and we don’t have enough time in our lives to digest it all. So, what are the critical elements? Children (now specifically my son) become my heuristic. What does this child need to know? What does this child have to understand? In the dog tearing moment what could we ever say about that? I don’t think we can say much at all. I think a lot about Zossima’s silent prostration to Mitya at the beginning of the book.

  22. Mark,

    Obi Wan Kenobi said “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

    You said that Ivan Karamazov was fully convinced that the inanity of children suffering somehow invalidated the possibility of God’s goodness. And I also believe that is true…from a certain point of view.

  23. “It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.”

    That’s a good thought…

  24. It is possible to conflate “suffering” with “sacrifice.” Suffering results from unwillingly experiencing what is required, as opposed to sacrifice, which is doing so willingly. If one takes up his or her cross willingly, whether that entails giving up possessions, forgiving enemies, or any other aspect of the Christian life, it may be a sacrifice but need no longer be suffering.

  25. It is certainly not the sole reason for suffering, (there’s others) but it’s worth remembering this one too:
    that, unfortunately, if God were to yield to us before we sought Him with unbearably desperate hope,
    if He became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only),
    if His paradisial presence could be ours while we are still full of our contented self,
    if we encountered Him before crying from the depths of our beings,
    if His permanence became undeviating in us prior to us profoundly realising the futility of everything other than Him (through suffering),
    then, alas, we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value…

  26. Dino.
    What you just wrote was a jewel. It’s worth re-reading until it is mine, in mind and heart.

  27. Dino…my brother…I dont see it…

    There are implications in what your saying that maybe you haven’t thought all the way through…or maybe you have.

    But I think that the implications may be objectionable.

  28. Dino,

    Your comment put me in mind of the reality that in physical exercise (my son does CrossFit), we build muscle and strength by working against resistance.
    It seems to me suffering voluntarily borne for the sake of the Kingdom is a bit like that. It builds the inner strength of our willing and yearning toward Christ in resisting the urge to seek our own comfort and satisfaction at the expense of what serves the love of Christ. I have often heard Orthodox asceticism compared to physical training, and with the latter there can be a point where “no pain, no gain” applies.

  29. Dino,
    Your remark reminds me of the alcoholic, in the cups, who prays for her deliverance from her addiction, and in a moment is relieved from her suffering through a spiritual awakening.

  30. In the case of the boy torn apart by dogs it is probably not difficult to accept Christ inserting Himself in the boy’s suffering and his family. But harder perhaps to accept that He also does the same for the rich man.

  31. Dino’s view is poetic, but also speculative. If all those “ifs” came true it doesn’t follow that the “then” posited would as well.

  32. Dennis,

    My thought exactly.
    It isn’t clear to me why our desperation is a necessary precondition. The same desperation could just as easily drive people away from God. Either scenario results in people moving away from God and towards oneself.

  33. What is important for us to understand? What is vital?

    It isn’t clear to me why our desperation is a necessary precondition. The same desperation could just as easily drive people away from God. Either scenario results in people moving away from God and towards oneself.

    I think the word “desperation” is somewhat misleading, although not incorrect. Father often speaks of needing to recognize that we are saved “in our weakness” and it is in this weakness that we recognize our need for God. I think Dino’s focus is that if we are not calling out to God in recognition of our weakness (our “desperation”) then we will simply think that we can get along without Him and will almost certainly discard Him when He becomes uncomfortable.

    I just today finished reading a book on Le Chambon, a small village in France that was a haven for Jews during WW2. They not only admitted, to the Vichy French and the Germans, that they were a haven for Jewish refugees but also practiced non-violence throughout the war; no German or Vichy French police/gestapo/officer was ever harmed by anyone in the village. They practiced a working non-violence, doing everything they could to help those in need and also not doing any harm to anyone while they did it.

    This is the weakness of the Cross and, in this instance, it was surprisingly effective (in worldly terms). Because they were already resigned to such a possibility as the “dogs being loosed” (they lived with it daily under the Nazi occupation) and recognized the extent of their weakness before the powerful forces aligned against them, you might call them “desperate” but you would not know that seeing the manner in which they worked. They knew their weakness and simply lived within it in humility.

    So I think this is the vital thing we need: to not only be weak, but to live humbly within that weakness. The desperation of death, no matter how violent, cannot silence such a life. Just my thoughts.

  34. Byron,

    To be fair, Dino’s words were “unbearably desperate hope” and “suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only”.

    The thing that it is being completely overlooked is that we are are taking it for granted that only some–not all, but some–creatures like us respond to suffering in the way that Dino is describing. Others become quite apathetic to the whole idea of God and still others become completely opposed to the idea of God, especially the idea that God is love. Which makes me wonder, ‘What would happen if God created a whole population of people in paradise (rather than just two people)?’ How many would eat the apples and how many wouldn’t? Probably the ratios would pan out to be about the same as they are now: Some will be apple-snatchers, others will not. Dino’s idea that suffering is a necessary precondition for our realization that there is no good apart from God,,,it seems more than a little suspect. What does this say about God? In other words, was this the only way he could have worked out our salvation? In His wisdom, omniscience, and omnipotence, God couldn’t think of any other way of uniting himself to creation? This was the only way? This may seem trivial, but consider the alternatives. I would have no problem accepting the premise that God being omnipotent and omniscient could have created human beings in a way that they would have freely chosen God’s love over all else. I think he could have done that easy-peasy. But, he didn’t. Instead he chose to create human beings that would not freely chose to love God over all else and, therefore, suffering is a necessary precondition for these people to freely choose God over all else. The problem here is that God could have avoided evil by what kind of person to create, but he didn’t. By the choices he made in how to create human beings he loaded the dice. OR…he had no choice. Perhaps it is the case that created beings would of necessity need to pass through suffering in order to be prepared for theosis. In other words, the created order by sheer virtue of the fact that is is not uncreated collapses under the weight of its own entropy and nothingness. Suffering then is unavoidable, but God uses it as a means of unfathomable grace. He makes the worst of it the very means of becoming ‘gods’. [That last part I picked up from somebody else.]

  35. Dino
    Yes, I totally see that in all the “Jesus fads” that come and go. So many people want to reduce Jesus to a cute saying or a cute bracelet or a cool t-shirt or perhaps even a tattoo or a piece of jewelry and nothing more, certainly not something that would include suffering.

    There is a book by a man who was raised Greek Orthodox, who converted to Protestantism, and then returned to Orthodoxy. He wrote a book called Imaginary Jesus, illustrating how many people remake Christ in their own image, even going so far as to have a surfer Jesus, weed smoking Jesus, Starbucks Jesus, or a cigarette smoking Jesus. They certainly do not have a Jesus that would allow them or ask them to suffer.

    I offer 2 quotes one from a sermon and one from an earlier article by Fr. Stephen:
    First quote:
    Many people today want Jesus without Paul, that is, without a relationship to the apostles and the Church. It fits our spirit of independence – I don’t need the saints, nor a bishop, a church, or a liturgy – just the Bible, which I can interpret for myself. (It means whatever I want it to mean.) Or some drop the Bible, too, thinking to find the “real Jesus” in some speculation from archaeology or some obscure ancient writings.
    The truth is, the world took little notice of Jesus during and immediately after His earthly life. Almost no non-Christian writings of His time mention Him. So virtually everything we know about Him was preserved by those who believed in Him, that is, the Church. So if someone wants to believe in Jesus, necessarily he must trust to some degree the apostles who preached Him, those to whom He said, the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (St. John 14:26). He must trust as well Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who wrote the Gospels, and those Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, who edited these books, and who came to a consensus that these alone were the definitive and trustworthy accounts, and who discerned the truth among conflicting opinions about who the scriptures say Jesus is. Otherwise he may believe in an imaginary Jesus he chooses to fit his own preconceptions. We hear this often: “My Lord doesn’t care if I do this; my Lord wants me to have this.” Is my Lord the same “Jesus whom Paul preacheth”? Or will the demons say: Who are you?
    The temptation is to conform Our Lord to a preconceived opinion, doctrine, system, or ideology. He is not a doctrine; He is a person, the divine-human Person of the Word of God become flesh. He did not leave us a system or a book, but people – people humanly very inadequate. He says to Simon: thou art Peter (rock), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). He does not say He will build His Church on a doctrine, but on a man, whom He calls a rock. A strange rock — this is a man who a few moments later reveals his misunderstanding of the Lord’s whole mission – Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But [Jesus] turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
    End Quote
    There is much more but I won’t post it here.

    And here is the quote by Fr. Stephen:
    I have written recently about the culture of sentiment. I want to turn our attention in this article to how our sentimental psychology distorts our concept of God and what it means to be in relationship with Him. When many Christians speak about “having a relationship with Jesus,” they have in mind something psychological. It means that they think about Jesus and talk to Jesus and trust that He thinks about them and will do what He has promised. But such relationships are simply a caricature of what God intends for us and distorts the nature of the Christian life.

    I think it is clearly illustrated by the “Prosperity (false) Gospel” that suffering, especially that suffering which is willingly endured, has become anathema and offensive to the modern mindset.

    I offer this illustration, which I think fits:
    The refinement of silver is much like our own salvation.
    Silver ore is taken from the ground, heated to high temperatures, and as the slag rises, it is skimmed off and discarded. When the silver reflects light, it is pure; some illustrations say when the person refining the silver sees their own reflection, then it is pure.
    We are the ore, heated by the “fire” of our suffering, as we suffer, the slag of our sin, our fallen nature, our weakness, and all that separates us from God rises to the top and is removed. When we reflect the image of God, when others can see God’s image or God’s light within us, then we are fully refined.
    It is God that makes us Holy as He is Holy, using the suffering, bearing it with us, so that we might be healed and reconciled, into a right relationship with our Creator God, that we might become what we were created to be.

    At least, that is my understanding.

  36. Simon, while I expect Father to address your questions in far greater depth, I can only say that God is united to His Creation; He sustains it (us included) in His love. I think His redemption of us took the form of our need as we presented it; it was not simply a questionable plan of one sort or another. I also cannot see how one can be created to “freely choose to love God over all else” without the possibility of moving away from God, which is my understanding of evil. A true and abiding love has depths that it takes a lifetime to learn. There is always the possibility of turning away during that life. Love is hard, after all. May God bless our questioning and discussion!

  37. Byron,
    Two people walk into a room one freely selects action-item-X and the second freely declines action-item-X. Both of these hypothetical persons are free to do or do otherwise. Right? Now we might imagine that God could ‘see’ which selection each one one of these persons might make prior to the act of selecting, right? So, let’s assume God created an original human pair. Surely those two weren’t the only two humans God could have created. Can we not imagine a different pair instead of Adam and Eve? Maybe God could have created Keith and Karen. Now, hypothetically, God could ‘see’ that Adam and Eve would end up apple thieving of their own free will (action-item-X). So, the moment he chooses to create those two persons…he created a situation that would lead inevitably to Auschwitz. However, in his infinite creativity and imagination perhaps he could have created Keith and Karen. A human pair he could ‘see’ would not choose to eat from his apple tree (declining action-item-X) even though they would have the ability to freely do otherwise. In this case, the moment God chooses to create these two persons…he would have created a situation that would have led to theosis apart from any experience of Auschwitz.

    The implication here is that God is free to do or do otherwise. Therefore, God was not forced to create Adam and Eve, two very particular human beings. Surely God was free to create two other human beings (Keith and Karen) that would be very different from Adam and Eve, but morally, spiritually, and intellectually equal. I am essentially arguing that out of all the potential individuals God could have created, out of all the individuals that would have chosen or chosen otherwise, when he chose to create the original human pair he created our destiny. We can wag our fingers at them for not having chosen wisely, but I have to ask: Why didn’t god choose to make a pair that he could ‘see’ would freely choose to do otherwise?

  38. My experience of life is that it is filled, overfilled, with suffering. I do not speak of the horrors on the evening news but of those that foment from within one’s own self and heart. From here can come unbidden unrelenting suffering, with high peaks and deep valleys of intensity, of which the sensations may mercifully deaden from time to time – but only temporarily. This kind of internal suffering cannot be eliminated or mitigated by any social program or worldly benefit, honors or riches.

    Perhaps “Christ does not flee from suffering” because being human, it isn’t possible. Suffering is part of the cost of being incarnate. The Creed wants us to know that the Divine understands how bad it can feel to be alive: “He suffered and was buried.” As such there is no need for any of us to court extra suffering as part of the Christian path – everyone suffers!

    It is clear that suffering was something the Son of God did, but was it the most important thing he did, deserving an excess of emphasis? One might postulate that the suffering of Christ was in submission and obedience to God, whereas one’s own is likely the result of self-induced folly (if very crass) or (if more thoughtful) the existential and helpless awareness that one is faced with a looming death and uncertain eternity afterwards.

    Whether one can take any instruction and guidance from the deified suffering of Christ (which we call, strangely, His “Passion”) depends, I think, on whether one can take any instruction and guidance from the very personal and usually acutely humbling suffering one must contend with in one’s daily walk through life. This bit of navigation into the darker currents is where one’s mettle is tested and where hard lessons are learned that can then be applied to the bigger picture. If one can’t find Jesus in those lonely moments of profound individual fear and agitation, then one will never be able to appreciate all that He has undoubtedly done for the universe beyond.

  39. Simon,
    Do you believe in a literal Adam and Eve?
    Could ‘Adam’ be another word for humanity?
    Is it possible that mankind was created and darn near immediately fell? I’m thinking here, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
    Do you think a created being can freely choose not to sin, ever? Of coarse you don’t, because you know the only sinless person was the God-Man Jesus Christ.
    Potentially, if a created being freely chose not to sin, do you think that person would be capable by himself to reach theosis?
    God’s plan is a plan of salvation. He didn’t tell us everything, but He did tell us ‘the plan’. He created, and the crown of creation (mankind) was to be “one” with all creation, and through us all creation to participate in His nature. So what are you saying? That God should have created sinless people, that would never sin, so that we and all creation could be “one” with Him from the beginning? No need for His Son? Well, that didn’t happen did it?
    God gave us an account of creation and the fall. For the Lamb to be slain before the foundation of the world, it could not have happened any other way. Your questions are good, but to get solid answers you’re going to have to ask God. Keep on asking, Simon. I bet He’ll give you the answer. And it may just be…”and what is that to you?”

    I’m going to bed……

  40. The mentions of The Brothers Karamazov have brought to the surface of my mind a question that has been bothering me…

    Dostoevsky masterfully shows how redemption at least begins to touch the lives of almost every character in his novel – except Smerdyakov!

    What of him? Since his birth the deck has been stacked against him. Considered a bastard, and deprived of a proper upbringing compared to his other brothers, his soul has been twisted by powerful forces much beyond any of his own “wrong choices.”

    In the entire book, he seems to be the one most in need of redemption, and does not even elicit sympathy from the average reader, even compared to Ivan, but there are no indications that redemption has begun to touch him, unless it is his blunt honesty with Ivan at the end. But is that little enough for his redemption?

    Why couldn’t Aloysha reach out to him?

    -NSP

  41. Questions about whether God could have done something different are, for me, not helpful. They are, at best, exercises in logic or exercises in imagination. But they reduce matters to a syllogism or something equally small. This conversation (like most that deal with suffering) echoes passages of Job. That tells us that while our wondering is nothing new, it is also not going to get us very far. But it is also a reminder that the answer seems to be far more apophatic and experiential. It is, for me, within the mystery of the Cross.

    In the article, my purpose has not been to explain suffering. It is this: modernity only wants to eliminate it and in doing so distorts what it means to be truly human. I have also sought to “tease out” the character of the one suffering from the suffering itself. I have also suggested that suffering, rightly understood (and I must emphasize “rightly”), seems to have a place within the Garden, and even within the Godhead. I wrote an earlier article on “Unfallen Suffering” that spoke a little about this.

    What we have in the “fall” is not Unfallen Suffering, or the suffering of the Garden or Godhead, but a distortion of suffering that is the heinous thing we often encounter. While that sort of suffering is terrible and an enemy, etc., it still is but a distortion, a misuse of freedom, etc. Freedom isn’t bad – it’s good. But it’s also a great cause of suffering.

    In the Cross, there is revealed to us a path back towards what is original and true and a path forward towards reconciliation and union. I do not think I have ever seen a soul become whole without somehow being reconciled as well as united.

    As for Dino’s comment – I would refer anyone back to the article on the Erotic Language of Prayer. Would a lover ever speak in such a way of the beloved? Absolutely. Can that be misunderstood? Yes. But everything reduced to prose and precision would be a terrible loss. In my Jesus Freak days, we always had a saying: “If it’s a problem, leave it on the shelf.”

  42. Two things that were said in the article that struck me: (1) The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed and (2) if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human. ‘The truth of God’ and a ‘sufficient account of being human.’ I think it probably goes without saying that if we are going to talk about suffering we are certainly free to talk about it apart from the question ‘How did it get this way?’ But I would also imagine that ‘the truth of God’ and ‘a sufficient account of being human’ might include an understanding of how a God love that chooses to create freely chose to create a world that by His omniscience and omnipotence he had to have known would end up going sideways. And in my mind there are implications from this that inform my understanding of the ‘truth of God’ and my ‘account of being human.’

    I guess that’s all I need to say about that.

  43. Michael B, I think if you read more closely you’ll see that isnt what I said or implied. Which is beside the point because I get the impression that this line of discussion isnt very productive.

  44. Simon, my apologies as I had gone to bed already when you posted again. I will only say that Adam’s sin does not “lead inevitably to Auschwitz”, it leads to the revealing of God; Jesus on the Cross. Regardless of who or how many He created in the garden, this would be true. I think the answer to all questions is found not in the “why” of creation, but the “Who” of the Cross. His revealing puts to rest any philosophical questions (for me, at least) and leaves us with God, Who is good and loves His creation. Just my thoughts.

  45. Simon,
    I understand the question of could there have been a free creature who would always choose the good? Logically (and there’s a limit), it would sound like freedom that isn’t freedom.

    But I also wonder from time to time if freedom is the right “operator” in the question of theodicy (God’s goodness). It has limits, it seems.

    I am pushing the suffering (unfallen) back into the Godhead – (reveals who God is) – to suggest that a world in which no suffering (unfallen) exists would not be reflective of who God is.

    But, I’m not sure we ever state this satisfactorily.

    It is interesting to me that so little attention is given to the question in the NT or even the early fathers. And yet, it is such a large question in our modern world. Curious.

  46. I have wondered about that difference between the questions asked by the people in the “ancient” world as opposed to the questions posed by people in the modern world. For example, the Apostle Paul asks the question “Can the thing made say to the one that made it, ‘Why did you make me this way?'” My thought is, ‘Hell yeah it can. Why not?’ I hear Paul asking ‘Does the thing made have a right to demand an accoun from its maker for the way it is made?’ But, Paul seems to assert that as if he understands that everyone in his audience KNOWS that to be true. But that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

    Another point in which my understanding fails is the idea that a creature that continuously chooses good isnt free, which implies that the only way to know whether or not a person is free is when theyre thieving apples. That doesnt make sense to me.

  47. I remember taking a philosophy course in college and the depressing state of being around those who thought they could put God in one of those Either/Or boxes. “Can God make a square circle? Can He make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” Though I had no words for it at the time time, I realized the true answers were probably way beyond the comprehension of anyone in the room. The scriptures say our wisdom is God’s foolishness and vice versa and that our ways are not His ways. From life experience I have come to belief that He could make a square circle but that I would have no way of seeing it, let alone recognizing it.

    I equally believe He created man while having an understanding of what was to come – but that the reason He went forward with it was not because of a decision derived from human logic. He made us in His image and out of His pure love. We barely recognize true human love, so why would we be able to understand what He did for us in the act of creation…or redemption?

    I think this is where faith comes in: I know He is good, that He loves us, that He is all-powerful – AND that there is all kinds of suffering in this life. I don’t understand how those two things co-exist but I’m willing to learn through patience, obedience, and putting my trust in Him – especially when I come to the limits of my understanding, my abilities, my love. Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

  48. I do appreciate the value of your question regarding God’s experience of unfallen suffering. In my understanding kenosis implies a kind of death. If this were true, then kenosis among the persons of God with respect to one another may entail a kind of unfallen suffering, as you alluded to earlier. That might mean that there is a something of an ongoing kenosis between God and creation which implies that God “continuously” empties himself in order to give His fullness to all things.

  49. But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness (Corinthians 1:23)

    The parable of the Prodigal Son from the outset reveals to us a Father who accepts to “be-behaved-towards by His children as if He is already dead”. He can already be inherited and forgotten, as if dead, while still alive. This means for the son that he has been granted a perfect and absolute freedom of self-determination towards his Father: freedom to act as if there were no longer a Father for him; freedom to behave towards the One Who begot him as if He is nothing.
    Ironically, only this freedom can allow someone to one day become a true son (not a slave) of God: the freedom to also not be one…
    This is the freedom given by God to man in his creation. He left us free to behave as if He did not exist, as if He, the Creator, were dead. Man can kill his God, even if this means that Man manages to make what he then perceives as his ‘paradise’ into his very own hell, thinking to himself that hell (i.e.: being without God) is a paradise. God made children that will eventually self-determine towards Him like gods that do not need Him. His foreknowledge changes nothing when we consider the creation of ‘sons’ in this understanding – or else we would not be talking of genuine freedom in practice.
    In this respect the creation of man contains within it the Cross from the start. The creation of man by God, as an act of kenotic emptying and self-offering, includes the death of God on the Cross. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) went ahead and created entities whose salvation can eternally be both affirmed or denied by themselves alone – as “gods”…

    It is a great pity that we have lost the ‘martyr’s spirit’ which is true Christianity…
    We want to belong to Christ the Crucified one who calls us to pick up a cross, but without suffering, without discomfort, without, illness, without hardship… But that greatest of joys only springs out from the Cross. The Gospel is the gospel of the Cross..!
    We find Christ the immortal One through martyrdom and there’s pain in securing Him. We lose Him, through our pleasure-seeking (rather than pleasure-shunning that brings Him closer). Even when it’s of a spiritual kind, it’s a spiritual pleasure-seeking (making us claim that we ….love Christ but not the cross…) which manifests spiritual anaemia and self-preoccupation since we lack the martyr’s fervor for martyrdom. Truth is that Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom. The death of the cross is also the pattern of true living. Love is self-emptying, laying down our lives for the other. As frightening as that can be, Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection shows us that such love is the way of life and of life-giving.
    There could never have been another path of “kenotic” love that would make a creature become like it’s kenotically loving Creator.

  50. …Martyr’s fervor for martyrdom. Truth is Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom…

    Okay…whatever you say, brother.

    Peace

  51. Simon,
    I’ve got a more analytical brain about these stories too. My priest has helped me to read these Old Testament stories as revelations of the human heart, and as possibilities for each of us at various moments in our lives. We each are Adam, Eve, David, Job, Job’s comforters etc. Each story sheds light into our human condition and each story is a facet of our story, if we are honest with ourselves. Some stories manifest themselves clearly outside ourselves; some are hidden and brought out as thoughts/struggles in privacy with a trusted advisor. For example, we may not murder another, but our secret anger towards another carries that force.
    I think that if we are honest, we each would have taken the ‘apple.’ In a literal translation, that apple would have been much easier for some of us to resist, but we all have “apples” in our lives that entice us and draw us away from God. Had all the generations from the beginning resisted the apple, I still would have been she who brought sin into the world with my temptation and weakness…

  52. Father,
    Regarding the modern curiosity about how to make sense of our freedom (when it seems like there’s no freedom and we are bound to sin): I sometimes think that we moderns are like those to whom Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” I mean this in the sense that we do not ‘see our sin as ours’, (inside of me), yet see sinfulness all around us (outside of me) and are far quicker to self-justify and therefore ultimately blame God (even if we blame sin as being ‘generational’ in our ancestry etc. etc. … truth be told: God, ultimately, becomes implicitly accountable for it all through these syllogisms). In contrast, classical Christian thought would always turn inwards and see that there are a myriad hidden tiny choices at every moment that can direct us either “to the right or to the left” and all persons have a fairly good conscience to start with.

  53. We lose Him, through our pleasure-seeking (rather than pleasure-shunning that brings Him closer). Even when it’s of a spiritual kind, it’s a spiritual pleasure-seeking (making us claim that we ….love Christ but not the cross…) which manifests spiritual anaemia and self-preoccupation since we lack the martyr’s fervor for martyrdom.

    Dino – I agree completely with the spiritual pleasure seeking. Ironically, at one point in my life, I shared my testimony of my faith with an atheist. She responded by pointing out that my faith was so shallow, empty and full of emotions but there was no real substance. This was truly ironic because she was attempting to persuade me to reject Christianity completely. My immediate response was to reject her statement. Then I began to examine myself, to really take a good look at myself and my faith and found that she was right. My faith was shallow, full of emotions and empty of anything truly real. I was a whitewashed tomb.
    Then I found Orthodoxy and God called to me, and put within me a true substance of faith and of life.

    But my faith was empty because I was on a “spiritual journey of spiritual self-pleasure, self-focus and self-worship” and I deluded myself, as many do, into thinking that I was worshiping God. I was on the wide and easy path, in a golf cart, with A/C, cruising down the road straight off the cliff, fully convinced that I was headed toward Heaven.
    Orthodoxy has changed all that and now I yearn to reject my self and embrace God. I am on the narrow path, full of holes, rocks, thistles, and thorns, walking in my bare feet and Christ, the Church, my Guardian angel, all walk with me where before I was alone.

  54. Another Anna,

    that is truly so… St Makarius the Great often touches upon a OT figure (like Job) and then says ” do not let your mind wonder to the mountains of those lands and to other times because you are Job and you are the one tested…”

    Simon,
    Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom, or as St. Paul would say, “I resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    We certainly would admit that, God does not want the believers’ life to be tough, His desire is that it’s full of joy.
    But our hearts are tough – hardened from our sinfulness.
    They are harsh because of our selfish desires and they do not break easily, they do not crack open in order to be filled with the presence of Christ’s love.
    Christ needs something hard to crack open the heart. Pain therefore comes and cracks it open. How many times would people prefer to die rather than to hurt?
    But God leaves this pain as his true benefit, saying:
    Here I am.
    While you think you encountered pain, look, it’s the Cross-and the One who is outstretched upon it–, it’s Me.

    Martyrs – the most authentic Christians in other words – in their love for Christ, desire to suffer for their loved One, just as He desired to suffer for His loved ones. Keep in mind that the traditional understanding in the Holy Fathers of “Luke 12:50” is that Christ cannot wait to undergo his ‘baptism’ (His martyrdom)…

  55. Talking about martyrdom… I am a real wuss when it comes to pain. My wife handles it much better than I. I do know that other cultures deal with pain much better than we do, especially those in the third world/”primitive” cultures. Death used to be quite visible in the average neighborhood in the U.S. some 100 years ago. It happened frequently (life-span shorter and many children) and bodies were cared for at home.
    And pain had to be either accepted in some way or endured. When I was a child, in the 50’s, I suffered migraines. All we had was chalky aspirin. I couldn’t swallow it…suffered much. We do have measures now to deal with most physical pain. Perhaps this is one reason why we shun it so, or cannot accept its presence…take a pill! And of course the pain of existence or ennui here in the West is dealt with by avoidance also…24/7 entertainment. So perhaps one’s taking up of the cross here may even be more intentional.

  56. I, too, have been thinking a lot about questions lately. My neighbor committed suicide last week. Questions abound for her husband, family, and friends.

    Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest) said that when we question God, He does not answer; rather, He shows us Himself.

    At least a couple of authors have read through the New Testament counting questions and answers. They have concluded that people asked Jesus 187 questions and He answered only 3. However, Jesus asked 307 questions.

    In his book, Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth makes a nice distinction between a problem and a mystery. A problem, he says, is something before us that bars our passage and to which we seek a solution, whereas a mystery is something in which we are caught up and is not entirely present before us; it is something that engages us.

    At the end of his book, he says, “…the mystery of God was disclosed in a human life [the incarnate Jesus] that was lived in history…Here, more than anywhere else, we realize the true character of a mystery: mystery not just as the focus of our questioning and investigation, but mystery as that which questions us, which calls us into account.”

    Most who knew the woman who died are turning her years of suffering and subsequent death into a problem to be solved. “Why ____?” is the preeminent question. I find myself trying not to question God, but to let Mystery question me: “Who do you say that I am?” and “Do you believe?” are two that have been on my mind.

  57. Ananias – thank you for sharing your path of finding authenticity in your faith. Beautiful!
    You may enjoy this article about “authenticity” (the word used by Elder Aimilianos is “genuine”)

    https://www.academia.edu/23174209/Commentary_on_Maximos_the_Confessor_Chapters_on_Love_by_Arch._Aimilianos

    Simon – thank you for engaging Father and Dino. Their responses are priceless… I sense that you are very young and this talk about suffering is not “clicking” with you. Give yourself 30 years and then revisit these posts (save Father’s and Dino’s words in a doc, print them out and put them in a bottle, to open in 2048). Your outlook on life will be much more sympathetic, and your “Okay…whatever you say, brother.” much less sarcastic… And I say that with all my love, understanding and respect towards your feelings right now.

    By then, you will many more difficult life experiences. And especially as a parent. I think what Dino said about God giving us freedom is much better understood by parents when their children are grown. Being in this situation is making me realize that even God suffers (I heard one priest say that it is God’s hell!), how else can He possibly feel about so many rejecting Him, even when He loves us so much and has given us everything He could to assure us of this Love? It’s a bit like what we feel in high school when that “first love” is un-reciprocated – or at any time in our life when our love for someone is not reciprocated – it’s one of the most heart-breaking feeling…
    It’s not hard to imagine that God suffers because we don’t love Him…

  58. Agata,
    Although the parenting parallel has its uses, the truth is that we humans do not have the respect of another’s freedom that God has… The “heart-breaking feeling of un-reciprocated love” of parents, usually has very little to do with the unconditional, and inconceivably noble love of God for man.

  59. Agata,

    Forgive me, but I suspect Simon’s struggle has more to do with the unusual way he has already suffered than with his youth—something few of us may be able to comprehend (never having experienced it). Those who suffer extreme forms of abuse and manipulation in the name of “God” from childhood have a deeply twisted knot to untie to begin to disentangle an image of the true God from the demonic distortion with which they have been presented all their lives. I see Simon’s questions as his (Herculean) struggle to do that.

    I also don’t see his “whatever you say, brother” as sarcastic, but simply the admission he cannot now understand, but is learning not to argue.

    Simon’s question is the one any of us who has suffered greatly and/or seen great suffering has to struggle with, as Dostoyevsky’s novel so powerfully portrays. I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love. This peace can never be complacency in the face of suffering or injustice, but only faith and love in spite of it, knowing through connection with this Presence that, despite all, Mercy triumphs.

    “…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who *for the joy that was set before Him* endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
    (Hebrews 12:2)

  60. Karen,
    Thank you for this reminder – I only now realize that connection.

    Simon,
    Please forgive me, I did not think my comment through from this angle (did not remember your comments earlier), just reading into your words my own fears, insecurities and failures to suffer properly (what I have been through cannot possibly compare to your difficult childhood experiences – again, you are in my prayers, please forgive me).

    Dino,
    Thank you, for all your words. They are so beautiful and inspiring [me, to suffer properly, when I am given an opportunity ]. Christ needs something hard to crack open the heart. – may we be given Grace to recognize the pain as His Presence there…

  61. Agata,

    You may be surprised to learn that I am 46 years old. I am not a young man, but I am not an old one either. AND I am actually a very sympathetic and compassionate person. As far as suffering goes I bear the scars of my suffering in my body. I know what it means to experience chronic fear and anguish. I know what it it’s like as a child to lay awake at night—night after night—afraid to go to sleep wondering when that man was going to kill us all in our sleep. Just laying in bed listening and waiting for chaos to erupt at the other end of the house. I know what it is like to wonder whether I should kill my father in his sleep: To plan it out, creep into his bedroom, stand over that sleeping man’s body with a weapon and out of sheer fear of what he would do to me if I failed retreat back to my bedroom. I know a woman whose father had molested her for nine years. I saw this woman twice regress to a childhood age—It’s a horrifying to see.

    When I hear people talking about the idea of embracing suffering they are usually people who haven’t experienced a lot of it…OR at least I can’t imagine that they have because if they did they’re attitude about it would be less…casual, poetic, comfortable. Talk to anyone who has survived “the Camps” about injustice and suffering and see how quickly the conversation becomes uncomfortable. Life is hard, but beyond the usual inconveniences real suffering means someone else has complete control over your physical and mental experience.

    I just realized why I have been fighting to push the bookend questions away…because there’s no way I can avoid the conclusion that an omnipotent, omniscient being is responsible for how the world has turned out…

  62. Karen,
    You wrote “I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love. This peace can never be complacency in the face of suffering or injustice, but only faith and love in spite of it, knowing through connection with this Presence that, despite all, Mercy triumphs.”

    For what it is worth I agree with this completely. All genuine understanding must of necessity emerge from our personal experience. In many ways this genuine understanding is ontological. It emerges out of who and what you are.

  63. Karen, “I also don’t see his “whatever you say, brother” as sarcastic, but simply the admission he cannot now understand, but is learning not to argue.” YES, YES, YES. Thank you!! Ugggh. I can’t even not argue without looking like I’m arguing….

  64. Agata, There is no reason to apologize. I appreciate your comments very much. Please, just say whatever it is you have to say and we’ll work the rest out as we move along!!

    Peace!

  65. Karen wrote, “There is peace only in the Presence of this love.”
    So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart. I have never known the suffering of Simon…made worse I’m sure because he suffered as a child from the one who should have given him love. Thank you Simon for the times you have shared.
    I think of Ellie Weisel and his short book, Night. I haven’t read it in a long time, but I recall his suffering as a youth in the concentration camps…indescribable, the pit of hell made visible. Through it he lost his innocence, his faith in a good and loving God. I don’t know if he ever found faith again. I cannot judge anyone who has suffered as he or you Simon. It is so marvelous that you have allowed the mercy of Christ to be a healing balm for your mind and spirit. God bless you and your own dear family.

  66. Dean wrote, “So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart.” I appreciate this comment and for what it’s worth I believe that this is exactly right. I feel like there is something wrong with me and I feel it in my heart. It’s tangible…and maybe everyone on this blog feels it too.

  67. Simon
    There’s a fabulous new martyr (ILLIAS Diamandithis the myrhbearer) but I cannot yet find his life in English, only Greek. What he endured as a child goes way beyond what most stories of abused children usually do. Yet his entire life – from his childhood mercy towards his astoundingly torturous abuser parents to his later life as a tortured priest in Russia – (he died in 1946) was testament to this understanding of the Cross and the love of the Cross that renders one – in a certain sense – invincible through his healthy self-denial founded upon unwavering “Godwardness”. I am still searching to see if I can find an English translation.

  68. I have really enjoyed reading your article Father, and you have made many profound statements, which I find to be very true in today’s global environment. Certainly food for thought on a personal level.
    It can be very easy for us to think and behave the same way the world thinks and behaves.

    There are many complex explanations and theories of what exactly it is to suffer. On the one hand it is unfortunately unavoidable since our human nature and the creation has been corrupted from the fall. Therefore, one day the inevitable will happen to all of us since we are subject to corruption or decay (fthora φθορά). However, it is not just the corruption of the body, but also of the soul.

    It is comforting for me to know that Christ offers us Himself to reverse and to restore and to eventually destroy this type of suffering that leads to the physical and spiritual death. (He shall wipe away every tear).

    I find great comfort that Christ has by His death trampled down death, so that even though physically we die, we do not die but live eternally with Him.
    Isn’t this the good news? That in Christ there is no death only life! Sometimes amidst our theologizing we forget the good news.

    Christ’s commandment to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Him brings together an acceptance of our lot in this life with whatever may come our way, as well as the type of suffering which entails giving yourself wholly to Christ. Both are viewed as sacrificial and martyric.

    Of course martyrdom for Christ means to die for Christ, but there are different ways to die. Christ tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. In other words to crucify ourselves by repenting, putting away the old you and following Christ.

    Through our baptism we have already been crucified and put on Christ. The challenge is staying on the cross, keep carrying our cross. We participate in His death and resurrection. This is a martyrdom, and whoever truly follows Christ experiences an ongoing martyrdom, since you are continuously giving your life to Christ. In this way we are a witness for Christ. Of course many saints ultimately were killed for Christ.
    A priest once did a talk on marriage. There was a roar of laughter when he said that it is a martyrdom to be married! However, this is true since he was making the point that in marriage you have given yourself to your wife/husband fully. You no longer belong to yourself. The same can be said with our relationship with God (even more so).

    It is not the case that God wants us to suffer miserably, and He is with us in our suffering. In Christ we can be joyful and free even in prison and during the worst times in our lives.

  69. Dino, I genuinely appreciate what you’re saying about the value “unwavering Godwardness.”
    But, please, don’t misunderstand me, brother. I’m never arguing with “you”. I’m only ever wranging around with the ideas you express. And many times I find that the implication that people in Christianity dodge at all costs is that God is not to blame. But, how is he not to blame? Who made the rules so that human hearts would become so hard and unyielding under certain circumstances? An omnipotent and omniscient God had to know that this world was going to result given the initial conditions he created. He could have created other initial conditions, but he didn’t. I know analytical reasoning isn’t esteemed very highly. It is often spoken about in a derogatory tone, or at least that is how it seems to me. But, I think we should just bite the bullet and say from a strictly analytical perspective it follows that God is the reason the world is as it is.

  70. Simon
    Indeed we must never say that. The fall was never complete – you could say that it was not a problem and was easily repented of straigtaway- until man blamed God for things ( whether by saying it’s the woman you gave me or the serpent, both answers stop Gowardness/repentance immediately.

  71. Simon, Dino, et al
    To say, “God is the reason the world is as it is,” i.e. that He is the cause of all the suffering, etc., is problematic. The assertion that He could have created other initial conditions is speculation based only in the imagination and not in what we know. It’s not analytical, it’s imaginary. There is a difference. I do not do bookends because I think it is the wrong place to start.

    We start with Christ. He reveals to us that God is good. It is that goodness that I confess in the face of any and everything. And, I think this is essential in the Christian faith. Admittedly, we run up against the wall of human suffering – but instead of going from the wall to an imaginary bookend, we go to Christ Crucified and find the goodness of God ratified in our world.

    We do not “just bite the bullet and say from a strictly analytical perspective” anything at all. For many reasons, rooted in our own clouded analysis and otherwise.

    But, we cannot speak today without reference to the extreme measures of human suffering that have been made known in our generations. For myself, during a college crisis of faith, it was the witness of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and other Christians who had endured the Camps of Stalin (and others who endured Hitler’s camps) and yet confessed the goodness of God that rescued me from a despairing atheism.

    We know of many, many other stories. I let them speak to me when I am troubled or angered or tempted with despair. I do not hear any of them speak disparagingly of those who lost their faith in the Camps. They speak only with mercy and kindness. We should do the same – everywhere – even in the Camp of daily life.

    But, I cannot ignore the voice of those who have come through those great trials and confess the goodness of God. I leave it to them.

  72. Simon, so sorry to hear about your suffering, it sounds truly horrific. Our family has also suffered, especially my daughter who was trapped in a gang where unmentionable things happened., even demonic manifestations. Sometimes there are just no answers, and it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’.

    We have experienced the love of Christ though and want to let you know there is light at the end of the tunnel. You are in my prayers, please pray for my daughter.

  73. It isn’t clear to me why we can’t bite the bullet. Is God not omnipotent? Could he not have done otherwise? Is God not omniscient? Could he not have known otherwise? To grab these questions up and throw them in the laundry basket of our imagination doesn’t seem fair. What I frequently hear is that the problem is in humanity. Humanity is fallen (whatever it is we mean by that) and the whole universe with us. The more I think about what that means, the more I meditate on the implications, the more I find the conclusion that however the world has come to be in this condition, we didn’t do it. The universe was here a long time before we got here.

    Here are some things that I canl take away to think on:
    1) Repentance out of chaos into the light of existence…Repentance does not require the perquisite of sin.
    2) It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.
    3) I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love.
    4) So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart.
    5) Unwavering “Godwardness”.

  74. Simon,
    I am so sorry… for some reason my longer message (with all I wanted to say) is not coming through…

  75. Simon,
    I am so sorry to touch such painful and deep wound, so very sorry…
    I offer you my most tender and loving hug and embrace..
    One that would take some of that pain from your heart, I would take it away from you if I possibly could. Maybe God will allow us to meet some day for that very moment and purpose… [You are so close in age to my brother, who died of cancer when he was 20]… Please know you are in my prayers.

    Similarly to Dino (I hope he finds the information in English for us on the Greek Saint), I want to offer you another child martyr, St. Gabriel (Zabludowski) to pray to, for yourself and for your son (as he is considered a patron Saint of children in Poland).
    (I had some links here but maybe they are blocking the post)
    I will ask the nuns of his monastery to pray for you!
    (and can send you [by mail if you share it] his icon, blessed on his relics, if you would like it, my gmail is agatamcc).

  76. Simon,
    The omnipotent and omniscient God that humans blame, is, nevertheless, on the Cross. He is crucified by ‘archetypal’ humans, humans refusing to accept any culpability.
    What it means that we are fallen is precisely this (!): we do not accept culpability and cannot see that it is not God’s fault (for being omnipotent and omniscient) but “my” fault for using my ‘godliness’ to self-determine as blameless.
    The way to overcome the fall –“this condition the world has come to be in” – is exactly the opposite (!), (as the saints did) to sincerely come to that humility that cries out with the Psalmist David to the Crucified Saviour “Against you -you alone- I have sinned and done evil in your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence; you are blameless”

  77. Agata,

    St. Gabriel, the child martyr, is Patron Saint of the congregation which also meets (at a second Altar Table) in my parish Temple. Truly he is a Saint for our dark times!

  78. Dino, I think that you have created a gross mischaracterization of what I am saying. When I confess to father I always assume responsibility for what I do without making any excuses: I know that I am guilty for the things I have done and that there is blame for me to assume. But, what you are saying is that it isn’t enough for us to confess without making excuse for our sins. We must confess that the whole world situation is our fault. I can’t say that’s true. And I would never blame God or the Devil for what I do, but I also think that it’s odd that although none of us are omnipotent nor omniscient somehow the whole ordeal is our fault. Doesn’t add up, brother.

  79. Simon,
    The “omnipotent” and “omniscient” God is the philosopher’s God. It is not at all certain to me that these terms, as traditionally understood, are properly applied to God. “Omnipotent,” for example, has to deal with the fact that Christ Crucified is specifically described as the “Power of God.”

    Omniscience is equally problematic. We are effectively saying, “If God knew what I know, then He would have done thus and so…” But it would be better to say, “I don’t know what God knows, so that I cannot describe or invoke omniscience as a thing.”

    So, I come back to Christ Himself, in His Pascha, as the starting point (and ending point). He is also called the “Wisdom of God,” and that is said to be “foolishness” to human beings. In sum, the New Testament does not offer the Philosopher’s God as the subject of our knowing or our worship. It offers the God made known to us in Christ, and tells us that this is a very different thing. “Christ, the Wisdom, Word and Power of God.”

  80. Dino,

    What you say about praying with the Psalmist is quite true, but it takes a real work of grace to get there—especially if where you are starting from is looking, as the character of Ivan in Brothers Karamazov does, into the maw of darkest evil and at the completely disproportionate and extreme suffering of innocents and trying to reconcile that with the “philosopher’s God” as Father put it. That’s just not possible (because for one thing, the philosopher’s God isn’t Christ). Speaking in this way into where the incomprehension comes from in a case like Simon’s (ideas of the philosopher’s God entangled with the God of Jesus Christ) feels for all its truth a bit like a word out of season.

    Your image of Christ crucified to Whom we pray that prayer is a powerful one, though. What immediately came to my mind was Fr. Stephen’s exposition of the Cross also being the Seat of Christ’s Judgment. He sees us fully and truly
    and pronounces not judgment, but forgiveness: “Father, forgive them—they don’t know what they are doing.”

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/08/23/judgment-seat-christ/

  81. What I was really hoping someone would say to me is ‘Yes, under the conditions of this abstract omnipotent and omniscient being, it would be fair to say that God of the philosophers (God of the West) would be responsible. BUT, that isnt who we worship.’ I would have been SOOO happy.

    So let me ask, Is it fair to say the Orthodox do not worship the God of abstract omni attributes, the so-callled god of the philosophers?

  82. Simon,
    I would agree. Under the conditions of this abstract, omnipotent, omniscient, God of the Philosophers, He would be responsible for the world’s evil. And, that is not the God worshipped by the Orthodox.

    The difficult, of course, is that the former, often goes by the name of the latter, creating a case of mistaken identity.

  83. Father Stephen,
    I like the rejoinder you have used with atheists. You ask them to describe the God they don’t believe in. You answer them, “I don’t believe in that God either!”

  84. David Foutch, Simon,
    perhaps I haven’t followed all the comments very well but it seems you must be one and the same person? I wouldn’t dream of characterising anyone else’s personal histories, or the cosmic history of all as something that is worthy to be blamed upon any person, but what our Tradition teaches however, is that we do not (not even by one inch) side with any God-slandering thought… and the way to guard from this is only through carefully cultivating humility in those areas. Humility in thought (practice is far harder) is certainly not God-blaming of any sort, not even philosophical (which often equals self-justification).
    We needn’t confess cosmic repentance for all (if God ever granted us such a thing of which we know nothing of as yet), that, is just an experience, of being in Christ and with His Mother and the saints who “fill up in their flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) It is sharing Christ’s love for all, that desires to be crucified (as if the crucified one is to blame), in order to save all crucifiers, irrespective of their undeniable blame.
    Humility like this takes upon itself the blame for everything in a way that is healthy. Such a thing actually exists and it is as healthy as Christ is. It is not directed by me (or anyone else who mentions it) to another person (like yourself my dear brother) as injunction, it is a truth of the experience of the saints from which anyone can take a small portion and breath the air of true freedom… We Orthodox have the saints showing us this stuff and we take so little of it to heart! We are then like people dying of hypoglycaemia inside the best sweetshop!
    Many years ago I heard a most remarkable and profoundly edifying story that I knew not what to make of, yet I was just reminded of it as result of this conversation, here it is:
    Once, a truly holy man in Mount Athos had become possessed by a demon through no fault of his own. He suffered that unendurable ordeal as if it was his due portion, never accusing another soul, or blaming God. After a lengthy period of fasting, vigil and prayer, he sensed that he was finally becoming liberated from this torment, though this was occurring in a kind of a ‘gradual way’. During that short period of gradual deliverance from his possession, he would even converse with the unclean spirit as if with a friend – besides, he had become quite accustomed to it. He even started to feel sincerely sorry for it and advised it to “ask for God’s mercy too”, and that it “could also be saved” (similarly to how he had been saved from it himself) “through unceasing prayers for God’s mercy”. The answer however came from the demon: “Me? Ask for mercy? But it is all His fault that I am as I am, I will never do that! I’d rather have hell!”

    Sorry, but I guess the debate on freedom and universalism is creeping in along with the problem of suffering and freedom here once more.
    Let us turn to Christ a little more however, at least a little more than we turn to our endless thoughts.

  85. What I was really hoping someone would say to me is ‘Yes, under the conditions of this abstract omnipotent and omniscient being, it would be fair to say that God of the philosophers (God of the West) would be responsible. BUT, that isn’t who we worship.’ I would have been SOOO happy.

    That is far healthier thinking!!

  86. Fr,
    Thank you so much for that.
    I don’t know why…for some reason this frees me to assume the burden of sin in the universal sense. It gives me peace of mind.
    Now that I have a some peace about this I just wasnt to relax on it, savor it and let it soak in.

    Thank you all for your understanding and patience. But I don’t think it has been for nothing.

  87. Please forgive my ignorance. What do we mean when we speak of ‘bookends’? I may well be out of my depth, but want to understand this conversation a little better.

  88. Dino : if the life of the martyr is not in English yet could you maybe translate some of it and share it with us?

  89. Victoria,

    here’s a little from his earlier life – it is a very long and very detailed account to translate in whole here:

    Father Elias Diamantidis was born in 1880 near Trebizond.
    His parents were poor but God fearing. His mother taught him the faith and died in 1888. His father remarried and took a barbarian and evil woman. This step-mother delighted in secretly torturing Little Elijah. She often hung him upside down in a tree for hours and watched his martyrdom coldly, while he was imploring her to the free him. She’d strip him and with a bunch of nettles beat his genitals. She would tie his genitals with a thread, causing unbearable pains, not only by tightening but also by the inability to urinate. She would also set his clothes on fire to see the child running terrified to put it out. All day she left him with no food, giving him only a tiny amount of dry bread. (This was the beginning of his great fasts that he endured throughout his life. When his father asked him in the evening, if he ate anything, his wicked mother answered: “I fed him, I fed him.”

    In all his tortures he never once complained. He never spoke a reproachful word about his evil step-mother. Because of all the suffering he endured with total forgiveness of his perpetrators, Elias received from a small child abundant aunt Grace.
    Later, when his father died, and his step-mother, aged now, had the fear that Elijah would take revenge for what she had done to him. He was reassuring her however: “Do not be afraid my dear mother, I will look after you well”. She stayed in the bed and Elijah let no one else care for her. He loved her with authentic love, washed her, offered her everything. In place of the “gall” she had given him he “offered manna”, “instead of the vinegar water”;
    she would say, “Elijah, I was such a tyrant! How I traumatized you! Can you forgive me, my child,” and he always said to her: “Do not worry, mother, you are already forgiven.”

    He later had six children and became a priest (secretly due to the Bolshevik persecutions) saving (miraculously) numerous of his enemies who would often become believers afterwards, however, his tortures continued later and were even more severe – though mixed with great visions of Grace.

  90. Dino,
    While I have no doubt of the holiness of this martyr, I have great problems with a certain kind of hagiography – at least when it becomes seen as biography. This seems an extremely pious account, full of reverence. It also states things in the extreme, not one word of complaint, etc. There is no note of inner struggle – frankly of anything the rest of us can relate to, much less someone who has themselves endured torture in their childhood.

    Autobiography reads quite different most of the time, but is quite rare in the lives of saints. I don’t mean to tread too harshly, but this is a style of hagiography that I frequently encounter in Greek sources, and reflects a cultural approach to these pious matters, I think. Russian hagiography often tends to be more muted or reflective, in my experience. English hagiography, what little of it remains from ancient, Orthodox England, is quite taciturn with an unusual care for historical evidence.

    A troubling aspect of this, for modern Western readers, is that it is so lofty as to be unbelievable, or beyond the ability to relate to. Christ became what we are, and suffered as we suffer. The outward pain of suffering is a light thing compared to the inner torment (which can last a life-time). In Gethsemane, we are allowed a small look at something within Christ that we would otherwise not know, and which might otherwise lead us into a form of Docetism.

    While hagiography might be encouraging to some, it can also be condemnation to others who hear that their legitimate feelings are just failure and sin. It is also not appropriate, I think, as a solid grounding within theological reasoning. Hagiography is not Scripture and should not be used as such – i.e. to establish an unassailable point.

    I often think about this as an aspect of our Orthodox life that is more than problematic in the modern West. I have family members who simply cannot read such stuff. And this is an example from a pious, faithful Orthodox Christian. While I “can” read such accounts, I find myself inwardly discounting them – which is not particularly helpful to me.

    I tend to look for sober accounts of the saints with a depth of analysis and understanding that makes their experience accessible. There are not a lot of them, but I treasure them. The modern work, Fr. Arseny, from Russia, is an example of such a thing. Not lacking in miracle and wonder, it is also realistic.

    Again, I don’t mean to tread too heavily in this, but I think it is important for some readers who might find their own reaction to be similar to my own. They are not unusual or wrong.

  91. “Christ became what we are, and suffered as we suffer.”

    This is often forgotten or misunderstood in our culture, even by Orthodoxy. I did not understand the human nature of Christ, until I became Orthodox. The protestant culture I grew up in tended to downplay the humanity of Christ and a Christ without humanity is not truly Christ.
    I still do not fully comprehend the whole 100% God and 100% Man or fully human while fully divine, of 2 natures, not divided yet distinct. I accept it, because God has given me the ability to accept it. My faith, everything that is my faith right now, is fully given to me by God. After all, He is the vineyard master; I am simply the grapevine, submitting, though I don’t submit very well.

    “While hagiography might be encouraging to some, it can also be condemnation to others who hear that their legitimate feelings are just failure and sin.”
    The sacrament of confession has helped me so much in this regard. My priest has very much been patient and kind to me, slowly teaching me that which I do not know, even sometimes teaching the same lesson multiple times. And now, I cannot fathom my life without the sacrament of confession.
    I say this because I had trouble with the saints and my priest gave me pretty much the same advice you’ve given here Fr. Stephen.
    Thank you

  92. Ananias,
    I have a strong sense that there are cultural aspects of how people read (and write) saints lives. I am actually quite nervous about certain treatments, particularly in the hands of Americans. I have seen it as an approach that nurtures a kind of naive “guru-ism” towards certain individuals and things. I suspect that many of us are pretty skeptical creatures – and that might be a function of having been nurtured in modernity. Nevertheless, the amount of fraud and deceit and misconduct that has been rampant in the Church – of every stripe and kind, including the Orthodox, would seem to suggest that some skepticism and discernment is helpful. Scandals are far more destructive than many acknowledge – but there are too many of them and too much that gets an easy pass.

    My own faith and experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is solid and real and withstands scrutiny quite well. That scrutiny is present in Orthodoxy in many ways. Having been subjected to spiritual fraud at a certain point in my early Christian life, I’ve remained wary. It exists in Orthodoxy as well as everywhere else. I prefer to stay grounded whenever possible.

  93. Fr. Stephen,

    It is good that you would say that, as many protestants regard skepticism, especially toward God or the church, as if it were a great sin. While I cannot say that Orthodoxy does not do this, I have not encountered such here at my parish. They tend to be kind and patient and if they don’t know the answer, they say to go and ask the priest. If the priest does not know, he tends to either say he’ll look into it, or he recommends a book.
    I have learned much being Orthodox and God has been able to do much good work within me. It has all been God who has done everything for and within me.

  94. Father,
    Your mediation here is deeply appreciated, This has been a most challenging conversation. Thank you.

  95. Victoria and Dino,
    Maybe sometimes it may be better to not know all the details… 😉
    But rather trust that this is the Saint to pray to in our specific difficulties, that they would carry our prayers to God.
    This is what I take from statements such as:
    “it is a truth of the experience of the saints from which anyone can take a small portion and breathe the air of true freedom…”

  96. I’m grateful also for your words Father Stephen.

    When I reflect on suffering, I don’t ignore Christ’s words, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”. These words have shown me that Christ did indeed entered into the intense darkness that I have encountered in my life.

    I’m indebted to the words spoken about ‘fraud’. Until I had encountered and indeed began to live Orthodoxy first hand, I had sufficient experience to ascribe “all” of Christendom a fraud. I don’t like fraud, whether it is in science or in faith.

    Simon, FYI, you’re the ‘real deal’, I thank you and God for your participation.

  97. Father,
    Pray for me that God might teach me this wisdom; I certainly cannot attain it (or anything) on my own effort.
    Pray for me in all things, because I certainly need prayer, as much as I need oxygen.

  98. ok I’m sorry, I know we don’t ‘live Orthodoxy” but life in Christ. But Orthodoxy is the path and way of Christ.–A statement which will seem terribly biased to some. And I have encountered people who I am willing to describe as holy who were not Orthodox Christians. And among them were ‘atheists’, Buddhists, and some ‘Christians’.

  99. Father,
    It seems there is indeed a definite issue with how modern man reads such pious accounts. The Greek Orthodox culture is totally like that though! It is also inescapable: the entire Synaxaristis (lives of the saints), or Gerondikon (sayings of the desert fathers) is written exactly like that! As a matter of fact, it is considerably more ‘extreme’ in its piousness and loftiness! ( and is traditionally considered the main staple of studying for a believer after scripture and before the Fathers)
    In fact, I have heard Greeks –I mean those steeped in this kind of piety- hurl the exact opposite criticism at modern accounts of contemporary saints’ lives i.e.: they do not like efforts to make the story-telling more ‘relatable’ by expounding at length on the saints’ inner struggles.
    I understand both sides, but also do find it is a real shame that what has traditionally been read without such (modern) reservations hindering the readers, has now become problematic for many… There’s now far more unhealthy self-gauging against the saints in a nerve-racking manner, (rather than just being inspired!), there’s fretting over our own shortcomings (rather than healthily accepting them), there’s scepticism over details (in place of the embracing of the inner message), all this diminishes what are true treasures (because they’re too bright for our modern eye).

    One explanation I have heard and sufficed for me before, regarding how to read such accounts today, which I have mentioned in comments multiple times is this:
    A lecturer ought to give as perfect a demo as possible in public (100% of the topic in an inspiringly idealised presentation). From that 100%, individual students shouldn’t of course say: “OK, I just quit! It’s just too much! I can’t comprehend/perform/learn that stuff he just did!”, due to its loftiness/ perfection/depth ! They are naturally simply expected to take away whatever they can (70%, 20%, 2% etc) from it, without ‘logismoi’ about it…
    And in private, the ‘lecturer’ could obviously tutor them according to their ability in a completely different, personalised manner.

  100. Thanks Dino,
    I have limited reading capability so I read Scripture more than Saints’ lives.
    I do find the Scripture refreshingly honest, though. Some of Christ’s disciples still doubted after seeing Christ, post resurrection. Paul confronts Barnabas publicly for hypocrisy. The disciples are shown, sins, foibles and all. And absolutely no punches are pulled when it comes to the Old Testament. Probably because of my own sins, I can relate to David
    and Jacob easier than to some Saints. So, God takes us where we are and molds and shapes us…some spoken to more by the Bible, others through lives of saints. Thanks be to God for the whole vast array of graces we receive in Orthodoxy, ancient and present.

  101. Dean,
    Thank you for your Dove-like words.

    I’m sorry Dino, on this occasion (12:06pm) I’m not so sure about that.

  102. Dino,
    I understand the thoughts. There are always cultural contexts to be considered. We are born where we are and when we are according to God’s good purpose. And so I take it that the struggle to relate the gospel to this culture (not make the gospel relative to this culture) is our God-given task. May He give us grace!

  103. Dean,
    I too (personally) also gravitate to the sinful parts of the stories of St Peter’s, David’s, Mary of Egypt, or Silouan.
    But that does not mean I do not lament the modernist tendency to misconstrue the loftiness of the Gerondikon or the Synaxar. It is a pity and robs us of true treasures.

  104. Fr. Stephen – I have read “we should be as wise as serpents and as meek as doves” thousands of times. Yet, I never understood it until today. Thank you, Father. I kiss your right hand, for you are an icon of the Christ.

  105. Dino,
    They are, indeed, true treasures. So is the book of Revelation, but I wouldn’t read it without a commentary and guidance. The Synaxar and the Gerondikon require instruction as well – instruction that is of often lacking in a modern reader. It simply is what it is.

  106. Dino said:

    If God were to yield to us before we sought Him with unbearably desperate hope,
    If He became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only),
    If His paradisial presence could be ours while we are still full of our contented self,
    If we encountered Him before crying from the depths of our beings,
    If His permanence became undeviating in us prior to us profoundly realizing the futility of everything other than Him (through suffering),
    then, alas, we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value…

    This has been my experience. I did not begin to know God until I realized I was in hell and completely unable to get myself out. I thank Him every day for that hell.

  107. I, too, was skeptical when reading about Fr Elias’s childhood and thank you for your helpful comments, Fr Stephen. Still, whatever inner struggles he did or didn’t experience with his step-mother, I was deeply moved by his treatment and forgiveness of her at the end of her life. Thank you for sharing about him, Dino. This post and the various comment threads have blessed me tremendously. Thank you all.

  108. Dino,
    The problem isn’t necessarily the just the content of the Saint’s stories, but more often than not, they way (or how) that these stories are used (applied) for instruction. In Fr Stephen’s hands, who apparently has lots of experience with this (–which is apparent in his instructional tone and forbearance and the ‘fruits’ that from that, observable by how effectively his approach promotes healing in others), such stories can imbue the Life into others. When told differently, in less deft hands, it sounds more like (in the ears of the West) almost like promotional boasting, with the implicit punchline, “will you ‘buy’ that?” Some of us will not “buy” it. Is that the fault of the hardness of our own hearts? Perhaps. But it also can be due to the true lack of a ‘teacher’s’ consideration of ‘where’ the listener is, culturally, yes, but also spiritually.

    The teaching approach, (if I may call it that) in your last paragraph, leans toward what is called in the West, ‘scaffolding’. Educational research has actually demonstrated (at least here in the West) which approaches appear to be most affective in ‘reaching’ students. What you described in the last paragraph isn’t necessarily wrong, (based on pedagogical research) but the successful (defined by students who have actually learned the content and are able to incorporate that knowledge into their lives) scaffolding structure is actually different from what you have described.

    I don’t doubt you if you say this is the way the ‘Greeks’ do it. I take you word for it. And I take your word for it that it has been successful in that culture. It’s just that pedagogically the approach might not have the same results in this culture. Isn’t this why we need the Church, as well as the Divine Liturgy in the first place? We go into the services like children (speaking as an adult convert). What we see and hear can be entirely closed to us if there is absolutely no frame of reference to appreciate what is happening. Someone once asked me what kept me coming to services, initially and now. Initially it was science (not Liturgy, not Bible, not really nice Orthodox people). I began with what I knew already. Apparently, that experience isn’t just personal to myself, but has been corroborated by research into finding which pedagogical approaches are most successful. Granted, the research I referring to has been conducted predominantly in Western cultures.

    I wish to finish by adding, that I’m also always grateful for your contributions too. I sincerely believe that your comments help to bring about a deeper understanding, and I appreciate that.

  109. Forgive me, I think it is important to add one more thought regarding how ‘science’ led me in. I was pursuing Christ through science. I just didn’t know that until I accidentally saw His icon in some data. I believe all of us (humans) are pursuing Christ in our hearts. Its just that some of us know that and some do not.

  110. I have tried to keep up with the comments but they are deep and require a great deal of thinking. More than my brain can seem to ponder. The only thing that truly comes to mind with the subject of suffering is that just as it’s important for us to bear a little shame, I also wonder if it’s not equally important to bear a little suffering. But just as too much shame can cause a person to despair, it seems too much suffering can also cause harm. I like to think that God will relieve us of some suffering if it gets to be too bad for us to bear. I like to think that his stories of healing were sometimes to just give someone relief because maybe it was getting too much for them. Furthermore, maybe sometimes His relief does not come to us in the way we want. When our son went through two years of cancer treatment and than died of that cancer there was suffering all around but somehow we made it through that time feeling closer and stronger to God and with also laughter. Somehow we were able to bear it, even pleasantly at times. I look back on that time and think “How could their possibly NOT be God? How could anyone endure this and still laugh and love and just have the strength to go through it!?” His presence and strength was so obvious despite me wishing for a different outcome. His Mercy and Love was so present and strong. Others I suppose would say a truly merciful and loving God would have healed our son, but than we are back to Job again. But even still I have no problem praying to God for Get Out of Jail Free cards!! I have no problem praying for healing and for burdens to be lighter. I have hope that God does do that for us in His wisdom and His time.

  111. Thoughts for everyone:
    Ancient Faith has agreed for my book, Everywhere Present, to be translated into Russian. It is, God willing, scheduled for publication this autumn (late, probably). The St. Tikhon’s Theological University in Moscow is undertaking this work, for which I’m grateful. I mention this, because of my own wonderment that Russians would want to read my book. It seems so “American” to me (our Two-Storey world). My first encounter with a One-Storey Universe was primarily in Russian novels and spiritual writings.

    What seems to be the case, I think, is the masterful success of modernity – everywhere, including in traditional Orthodox lands. We likely see, at best, a “mix” of thought, the confusion of two world-views. It is also the case that Orthodoxy itself, over the past few centuries, underwent what G. Florovsky called the “Western Captivity,” in which alien ideas and approaches, unconsciously found their way into Orthodox thought and practice. The recovery of the fullness of the Tradition has been a global work across the Orthodox world.

    Knowing a little about demographics, it is simply the case that Greece has been deeply affected by modernity and has a substantial portion of its population that has to be “re-converted” to the Orthodox faith. I suspect that, for them, the words of their elders might be difficult to understand if they are listening with ears that have succumbed to the siren song of modernity. I have had a few conversations of that sort over the years.

    I will be very interested to see what conversations come about through my book’s appearance in Russia (if it gets noticed at all). We are ambassadors for Christ!

  112. What I love about this thread (and others) is that it has revealed myself to me. The things that I chew on over the course of the day, the things that I push back on, the things that I dont understand, the things that I find inspiring they teach me about who I am: My values, state of mind, and even my beliefs.

    Theres a very nonliteral mindset to Orthdoxy that is hard for me to relate to and my mind pushes back on. Take for example almost everything Dino writes (Sorry Dino!). Most of the time it seems so poetic or hyperbolic that I cant relate to it all. And–I’m just being honest and trying to open up about how I see the world when I say this–to me he makes very little sense. That has nothing to do with how much sense he is actually making. People express their appreciation for his posts all the time. I like Dino as he is. But I know when he posts something that theres a good to fair chance that he’s going to frustrate me. I realize that Dino is 100% Orthodox–and Greek Orthodox at that, which is a difference that evidently makes a difference. So, my struggle is with this very nonliteral and nonlinear way of thinking. This is why book ends are problematic for me.

    For those reasons when I read stories like the one Dino shared I don’t just think “I don’t buy it” I think “What a load of crap.” Telling me it has pedagogical value doesnt remove the already elicited load-of-crap response. I don’t know how to overcome that or even if I need to, but many times what I read about in Orthodoxy seems outrageous. We can say that I’m a Western minded person infected by modernity, but I just feel like a very literal, regrettably judgmental person trying to acclimate to a very asymmetric and nonlinera and certainly nonliteral tradition.

  113. Thank you, Dino and thank you Fr Stephen

    I think what I take away from his account is that he was able to forgive and even nurture his abuser – which is steeped in the Scripture – a true witness of the light of Christ.

    “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Romans 12:20 –

    the coals being the Grace of Divine Love – which surely he could not have offered his stepmother on his own but through his weakness Christ’s strength and Grace was sufficient. Because that is what the Bible tells us – to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect – that we love & forgive our enemies.

    But I agree – especially in such an open forum -no one should ever take away from such an account to deny your emotions or even stay in an abusive dangerous situation or not tell anyone – Or think it’s your fault.

    This is one example of a Saint – what we take away is forgiveness of enemies and reliance on God in persecution – we don’t necessarily apply every detail to our lives because we are all unique and we also live in a different time.

    The Gerontikon is lofty – yes that is true and I wouldn’t believe for one second this Saint did not struggle – since we all fall every day – he wouldn’t be human and therefore not a Saint – if he had endured that without a struggle and pain and tears – and a deep soul wound. God put it in his heart to nurture and care for his stepmother There are some unnecessary details – and yet it gives you an idea of how horrifying was his situation.

    So, in some way – as a fellow struggler I appreciate the high bar – it gives us all an example of something to reach toward rather than stumble over. – the high bar being keeping the Light of Chrust alive in ones heart through a dark time and True forgiveness of an enemy. (Which we should consider normal – however difficult)

    I know of a man still living that mended his relationship with an extraordinarily abusive mother during the years she was dying – so this kind of stuff is not lofty after all – it is gritty humible narrow way of mercy and forgiveness – Grace shining forth in the messiness of a fallen world.

    Most of us will only need to forgive much smaller things – for which we can all be thankful.

  114. Some years ago, as an Anglican priest, I became involved in working with the families who had lost members to violent crimes. My family had two such occasions. For most of these people, the Church and God had ceased to be part of their lives, such was their pain. Their willingness to meet with me (arranged by a social worker), was a bold and tentative step for all of them. It began with a careful and sympathetic listening to their pain. My own experience gave me just enough credibility for them to start this process.

    A common thread for them was an early response in the Churches about the need to forgive the perpetrator. In most cases, they simply were not allowed to express their pain and anger without this shaming caveat. They hurt indescribably but were largely told that they were less than Christian.

    I listened. I validated their pain. I reminded them that “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” is not a way of God saying that it’s wrong to have the feelings, but to be assured that God will Himself repay.

    That was a start. We prayed. There was a celebration of the Eucharist. It was only a beginning. Over the next year, a number of the people involved recovered their faith and were able to return to Church (not always the same one).

    This does not say that we should not love our enemies, or do good to those who abuse us. It says that there is a time and a season for such things. The first thing – if it is not your pain – is that it is the season to listen with care and sympathy and not jump ahead. I have been involved in the pastoral care of over 400 deaths over the years (I lost count). Most were expected and natural. All are difficult. But grief (in all its forms) has to be honored and respected – and that includes the anger that comes with it. The most unhelpful thing that can take place is trying to tell someone not to feel what they feel or to judge their reactions. It is our own impatience and lack of faith that make us bad listeners. If they are in God’s hands, He’ll get them there in time.

    I have seem some grief go quickly, while others go for years. If they remain in communion with God, it will go well eventually.

    For a variety of reasons, this blog has frequently been a place where people with pain find shelter. For my part, that’s intentional. I personally think that those who think that they themselves are not in pain and do not need shelter are the most dangerous – because they are carrying pain that they do not acknowledge and are crippled by it. Thank you, everyone, for your patience with me and with one another. This is not just my ministry, but something much larger of which every reader is a part. May God bless all of you!

  115. Simon – i read your comment which is just above mine after I posted it. Orthodoxy is not linear – it’s just not – Grace isn’t linear either. It’s radical and undeserved and it blesses. It’s easier to notice I think in stories like Dino shared or in Narrativrs if people like Fr Arseny

    A good example of radical Grace is that there were Greek priests who were set freedfrom concentration camps in WWII but chose to stay because they had shepherded so many spiritual children in the camps – perhaps even guards of the camps . ( the name Father Charalambos comes to mind – I can’t renember if he is a saint – do you know Dino?).

    The books ends are not linear either they are circular and it all radiates outward from Christ – our love of Christ and His love of us.

    Have you read the book The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? Like you I am a fellow sufferer of abuse. I read the book last year – i highly recommend it. It’s not about an orthodox woman or orthodox Saint but a Saint nonetheless. Anyone who ministers to her jailers is a Saint.

    The book about Father asrseny is good too like Fr Stephen said. .

  116. Ebola has nothing on modernity, Father!

    I’d like to get every Ethiopian Orthodox Christian to read your book and your blog. It is only our poverty that has saved us from the type of infection that exists in Greece or Russia, perhaps. We still have priests and monks who went through the traditional clergy educational system, which meant not owning anything except cape and bag and depending wholly on food handouts while attending various rural educational centres – usually monasteries. Even still, modernity is encroaching hard.

  117. I wrote this way before the last batch of comments (they’re coming through fast!). This could very well be piggybacked on Dee and Simon’s responses…especially Dee’s.
    Father, another ray of light in your comment about your book, and the “recovery of the fullness of the Tradition” from Western captivity. Yes, Glory to God, He sees us through over the course of history! Glory to God about the translation into to Russian, Father. So very glad!
    Thank you all, every one, for the contribution here.

    Dino,
    Your “ought”, “of coarse”, “naturally simply expected” and “obviously” in your last paragraph @ 12:06 sound fine in theory, but what is your point when you know this is not reality? Is it just that “it is a shame”. Well OK, then…we’re shamed.
    The problem is insisting on following an “ideal” pattern, as you say it ‘ought’. Such would leave many students in the same condition or worse than when when they willingly sat down to learn. It is no different than that piece by Elder Aimilianos where he tells his students if their mind is distracted while in prayer it is a sure sign they do not love God. Well, in my trash bin that goes. You say that is a shame? Well, so be it. That gleaning of 2% was not worth the effort.

  118. Dee of St Herman’s,

    The key to understanding that “teaching image” correctly is that there’s a difference between general and private speech. That “teaching image” is not mine of course. In fact, the reason I hesitate doubting its truth at all, is that it’s come from one considered a living saint and to whom we’d normally turn to for the most trustworthy clarifications on this sort of stuff.

    I can’t help remembering that I have witnessed many times that such people, who –because of their living faith– can seem “intolerant” in their communication of the Church’s principles (which inevitably forms the core of what we would define as their “general address”), are the ones that are by far the most “tolerant” in practice (which inevitably forms the core of their “personal, one-to-one address”) – because of their love. Of course that happens behind closed doors (rather than in the public cybershpere)…
    It’s also fairly usual to discover that those who are tolerant in their principles (and in their “general address”), are far more intolerant in practice (and in their “personal, one-to-one address”).
    I am not thinking of some modern-day liberals here, by the way. I am rather just reminded of conversations we had in Athos on how, even loving and pious ministers, would always hesitate to go beyond a certain measure of tolerance (‘going against the book’) as much as a (very shockingly for us) strict-on-himself saint, with a strict general word, who however, can, with true authority and discernment, confidently be tolerant beyond what another would even dare consider (when such a thing is called for).
    I am mainly thinking of the immense sweetness of people like Elder Aimilianos, Sophrony, Paisios (and their ‘offspring’) in their private tête-à-tête, as opposed to their highly lofty and sometimes scarily ‘unbending’ general word. True pedagogy is in the first, inspiring paraenesis, that inevitably falls on all sort of surfaces (Matthew 13:8) in the second.
    I struggled for years against the severity of their general “word”, but once I ‘saw the light’ there was no going back. Everything else seemed lukewarm and trite.
    Of course, there’s may other issues to consider. For example, many Americans have a great ease in speaking their private heart in public compared to many others.
    But that’s like a “general tête-à-tête”, there’s bound to be additional problems there!
    Of course, it goes without saying that when you know a certain ‘crowd’ you will speak accordingly. But that is not exactly what can be defined as a ‘general address’ – which is a word that lingers on publically for ever, and one cannot control it, and therefore (like Scripture), should better err on the side of perfection (communication of the Church’s eternal).

  119. Victoria,
    if you mean Met Dionysius Charalmbous in Dachaou, he was the spiritual Father of Elder Aimilianos.

  120. Father Stephen,

    As a past victim of (multiple types of) harm by multiple people, THANK YOU, for validating the pain, the anger, the hurt, and the feelings I feel. So many times I am told “You really should stop feeling that way” or “You really should just stop thinking about it” or similar statements, especially “Christians should not feel that way” without regards to the fact that it does far more harm than good to tell a person this.
    When my daddy first passed away, I was told “You’re feeling grief the wrong way” which baffles me that someone could feel grief the wrong way.
    I cannot simply stop my feelings and thoughts, any more than I can stop my own heart from beating and continue to live.
    Speaking about it, with someone I trust, is how I process what was done to me. I have to talk about it with someone; I have to process and acknowledge the harm in order to be able to heal. Ignoring a deep wound will not make it go away; it will only make it worse. You must treat a wound properly for it to begin healing. This includes mental and emotional wounds, which are often ignored or worse, someone says the wrong thing in the wrong way.
    So thank you again Father Stephen for your words and for helping us.

  121. Paula,
    Elder Aimilianos’ general word, that if our mind is distracted while in prayer it is a sure sign we do not love God (it is actually St Maximus the Confessor’s), is similar to Christ’s about [more or less] not being His disciple if you do not ‘hate’ everything and everyone other. We might understandably –on the surface – put it in the ‘trash bin’ and not even glean 2% from it, as you say. Besides, they are undeniably harsh words indeed. The disciples themselves had times when they were shocked by them and scandalised, or revolted. But, as I said earlier, you need to know that the same Elder Aimilianos would surprise you straight after saying that harsh saying in public, by privately listening to you and reassuring you and sweet-talking to you in such a unique way that he’d make you realise as you haven’t before that you actually really love Christ more than you knew (despite your distractedness in prayer). He would do this like nobody else (who publiclly daren’t speak as strictly) could, shocking you with the “schizophrenic” difference between his two types of speech, yet helping you understand that there’s truth in both, and instilling in you inspiration that has staying power.

  122. Dino,
    Indeed. These things are invaluable – but learning to reading is important. The shortness of the sayings in the Desert Fathers – their pithiness, is similar to that of Christ – and would be less valuable were it to be stretched out like a blog article.

  123. Dino,
    I appreciate the context of Mt Athos and learned and learning monks you describe. But this blog is not Mt Athos. It is indeed the ‘frontier’. I would like for us to consider for a model St Herman. He worn heavy chains as part of his asceticism. But he kept them hidden.

  124. dino
    Yes I think that is who I mean. Did he have a vision of the Theotokos at Dachau and then was led to that icon of the Theotokos when he returned to Greece after the war? (I might have two different people woven into one – i am not sure)

  125. Dee of St Hermans,
    That we have to start with ‘milk’ and keep at it for a long time does not mean we have to ban ‘meat’.
    It is very true that asceticism must be kept hidden, everything personal best be kept hidden from public in fact, it’s why I cringe with the great ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to have in speaking one’s private heart, or past experiences, in public -like a forum– as I mentioned earlier. That sort of thing is for the Holy confession. The ‘general word’ I referred to is what is in published books, in recorded homilies, (blogs too) –not an Athos affair really .
    But learning to read and stretching things out eventually comes to the aid of these challenging yet deeply valuable sayings.
    A soul will eventually yearn for nothing less than perfection even if perfection conventionally produces a terrible awe in it and is dangerous.

  126. Father,
    I don’t know what prompted your comment about being grateful and treasuring the words of the elders. It goes without saying you’d feel that way.

    Dino,
    I understand what you are saying about the way words are spoken by say, Christ or the Elder. When I read the Elder’s teaching on love, I did not make that connection, though. So how would I know, except to learn these things in time? I refrain from making excuses, so lets just say I’m pretty much on my own here. Thank you for acknowledging my frustration and taking the time to explain.

  127. Santosh Samuel –
    Thank you for the link to Pope Shenouda III.
    “Is God one of your aims? Or is God the first of your aims? Or is God your only aim?”
    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  128. Paula et all
    It is as you say, something that takes time. We mustn’t discard it to the waste basket because of our frustration, but seek , as many do, the clarifications and explanations in good faith that there must be truth in such sayings even if I now cannot relate to them .
    Victoria,
    I cannot remember that…

  129. Paula – about the thread with you and Dino
    I was taught by a Greek priest) that when I come across that extreme language – those extreme examples – I am to process it as hyperbole. We know that Christ does not call upon us to hate anyone – especially not our parents and so when He says if we do not hate mother or father we can not be His disciple that really is indicative of what it means to love Christ more than others. At least that is how I interpreted it. And that distraction in prayer comment should be taken the same way. It’s been helpful to me anyhow – not sure if it is to anyone else.

  130. Dino,

    He who said, “You must be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” is the same Lord who prayed from the Cross, “Father, forgive them—they don’t know what they’re doing” and who said, “Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” I hear what you are saying about the strictness of the greatest Saints in their general teaching vs. their private counsel, and I have been edified by that approach (having a certain cultural adaptability and developed something of an ear for how to translate this kind of “general teaching” for the most part, so I am not tempted to despair, but inspired). Still, there are some Saints I have to avoid reading or I do become quite discouraged. Generally, I set aside any Saint’s commentary that only tempts me to argue or push back or invites fear or despair—those are the ones I have learned to recognize can become ammunition for the enemy for me because of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We need good interpreters, and we do have a few. Father Stephen is one. It’s also very true we have to be mindful of the needs of our audience and speak the gospel in language that can be understood.

  131. I always get an odd feeling when I hear someone talk about how this is meat or that is milk…as if they know the difference. If someone thinks that being distracted during prayer means you dont love God, that is their problem. That isnt a deep statement. It isnt challenging. It isnt profound. There’s nothing to unpack. It is entirely unnecessary. It is an exaggeration or hyperbole at best.

  132. I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to suggest St Herman was keeping his chains hidden as a form of ‘milk’. Rather, if his wearing of chains was observed to be Herculean, and admired, the very same act taken up without ‘acculturation’ to the ethos of Christianity, as given to us in the Orthodox Tradition,would not likely support the faith fruitfully in his adopted community.

  133. Dee, my last comment was just a rant directed solely to that anecdotal statement about distracted prayer. Its a very narrowly directed comment. Your remarks are much appreciated.

  134. Whether distracted in prayer or not, I take great solace in the fact that it will be Christ who judges me…I can’t even judge myself correctly.
    Perhaps our prayer life can be likened to a compass. It usually points true north. But it can be bobbled or dropped and whirl ’round…(as in distractions in prayer). But if left alone the needle soon sets itself to true north again…our heart turned toward God.

  135. Father, I too suffered under the hand of fraudulent men so I am quite hesitant to use the term “spiritual father”. In the our culture the simple “confessor” seems both more accurate and safer for everyone. That being said I do not have a problem calling Elder Zacharias spiritual father. Only met him once but he seems to be the real deal.

  136. “I cringe with the great ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to have in speaking one’s private heart, or past experiences, in public -like a forum– as I mentioned earlier.”

    Dino…I hear you, brother.

  137. David-Simon,
    What perfect timing for your last comment… I hope I manage to have mine show up soon after yours, especially since it’s the middle of the night for Dino in Europe 🙂
    (and the rest of the wonderful commenters are probably exhausted and went to bed – what an amazing day on this blog!)

    Don’t think that Dino directed his words towards you – he is speaking to (and scolding)… me! 🙂

    I am the greatest such “offender” on this blog, but I also have received the most healing from my “speaking of my heart, and experiences” here. Between Father Stephen, Dino and just about all commenting on this thread of conversation today… I thank them all one more time at this opportunity!

    Don’t feel bad about sharing, especially if it is therapeutic, if nothing else, you now have many people (on this blog) praying for you… 🙂

    The Greek tradition and the Church there offers them many more opportunities for Spiritual Fatherhood than we have here.
    Father Stephen comes as close as it gets for us, and especially for the seekers into Orthodoxy coming from the protestant background. That he is able to do this through the blog is amazing and incredible. If I understand right, you are actually in his parish, so you are even more blessed than most of us.

    And so that you don’t think I am making things up, you could go back to one of the greatest EVER (*for me*) conversations on this blog called “Marriage as a Lifetime of Suffering”. I participated in it freshly divorced/left after 25 years of marriage -the most painful, difficult, lonely and angry time of my life. My “bearing of my soul” here was very therapeutic and healing. Since that May three years ago, I have made a great journey of recovery and towards God. And yes, I am definitely one of those people who cannot wait to read what Dino writes…. even the very difficult and strict words have a new and life always transforming content for me.
    Since then, I have also been contacted by several women who identified with my life story and experiences, and was able to help and share with them… All thanks to the love and healing effect of this sharing.

    One of the recent discussions touched on the issue of “revealing too much” personal stuff in such a public forum where “thousands may read it”. It has not been my experience whatsoever. One or two of the closest friends may comment, and only if they happen to visit the blog after me mentioning it… nobody cares as much as we think, about us….

    Glory and thanks to God you are here and more importantly in the Orthodox Church. It’s the Body of Christ in this world, the rest will fall into place for you in due time… Pray to the Lord to show you the way. I am praying for that too, for myself and for all of us!

  138. Simon,
    Don’t just relegate something to the dustbin like that because it’s so ‘monastic’, you can instead put it on a shelf for possible future use without reacting frustratedly towards it. It’s the wisest thing to do for those who
    long for spiritual insight into things that currently, aggravate or perplex them.

    Here is the original on the issue of distracted prayer:

    All the chapters concerning love written by St. Maximos are inspired by and reflect the everyday life of man and the mystical unions of God and the soul. These chapters expressions of nuptial experiences. The legitimacy of our love for God is related to the legitimacy, legality, and fidelity of marriage.
    For he who ‘genuinely’ loves God is the one who does not divorce himself from God, that is, who does not introduce a third person or party that comprises the fidelity of his soul’s union to God:
    “He who genuinely loves God prays entirely without distraction, and he who
    prays entirely without distraction loves God genuinely. But he whose intellect is fixed on any worldly thing does not pray without distraction, and consequently he does not love God” (Maximos the Confessor, Chapters on Love II.1).

    Because St. Maximos understands love to be a conjugal union with God, he cannot imagine that real love for God exists in a man who cannot pray without distractions. The absolutely necessary condition for the spiritual life is an undistracted mind, since union with God takes place principally through the mind. When someone says: ‘I’m distracted by thoughts during prayer; I can’t concentrate,’ or ‘I’m indifferent to prayer,’ or ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ you can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.
    Often we say that we love God, and we sing and celebrate our love for Him, but yet we are not able to pray to Him without distractions. If this is the case, we are not speaking the truth, because genuine love of God is the generative cause of undistracted prayer, and undistracted prayer is the of the love of God.
    […]
    Scripture has the habit of calling thoughts ‘idols,’ so that when the Israelites fall into idolatry, becoming victims of their thoughts and opinions, they are said to have committed fornication.
    Thus the one who prays without distractions does not engage in spiritual adultery or produce illegitimate offspring. Instead whatever he creates, whatever he gives birth to, comes naturally and truly from God. […] Only he who genuinely loves God is truly with God, truly walks together with God, truly sees and is seen by God, and stands together with Him. […]
    From the very beginning of the Second Century, St. Maximos makes a noble and decisive clarification. He doesn’t want us to fool ourselves, to be deceived, to live an empty, deluded, and vain life. He doesn’t want us to waste our time living a life devoid of love. And so, from the very first word of the Second Century, he presides over the marriage of love and prayer, for it is prayer that unites us to God, while love is the opposite of isolation, egotism, and individualism, being a union with another.

    Challenging indeed my brother! but why say it: “isn’t a deep statement. It isn’t challenging. It isn’t profound. There’s nothing to unpack. It is entirely unnecessary. It is an exaggeration or hyperbole at best.” rather than say, not for me right now, I’d love to be given the right spiritual insight to understand this in a helpful way though.

    A relatable explanation I would offer is this:
    Someone who has, even just once in their life, had the experience of falling in love completely, especially if it was someone who was previously used to know himself as being a totally two-timing, dissipated, promiscuous and seeking-continuous-lustful-distractions-type-of-person, marvels deeply with the ‘miracle’ of seeing himself effortlessly being disinterested in even the most alluring women! His new found inate ‘concentration’ shocks him and delights him! He witnesses this incredible concentration of all his being into just that one person and cannot -even if he tried– go with another…
    Well I think that’s a desirable monastic experience (in the spiritual erotic love towards God of course) of those who talk like St Maximus the Confessor above and Elder Aimilianos.

  139. But don’t just read that and dejectedly say, ‘I do not love God then’; no, the kind of love we actually have while we are still miles away from what St Maximus describes, is the certain (still partial and interrupted) engrossment with His attraction, the joy that we see that comes from turning towards Him, so remember that stuff instead…

  140. “Often we say that we love God, and we sing and celebrate our love for Him, but yet we are not able to pray to Him without distractions. If this is the case, we are not speaking the truth, because genuine love of God is the generative cause of undistracted prayer, and undistracted prayer is the of the love of God.”

    You’re right, Dino. Clearly, if that statement is right, then the truth is that I don’t love God. I believe it to be true. I struggle to genuinely love the things that I see so of course it would only be make sense that I wouldn’t really love God whom I cannot see. I was hoping that love for God might be like faith, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” In other words, like all other gifts, love for God is a grace that God grants more fully over time. But probably all God sees in those times where I am distracted is that I really don’t love him.

    You’re also right that I shouldn’t have shared anything of my personal history on this blog.

    Dino…you are right about all these things. It was inappropriate for me to challenge you on any of those things.

    So, thank you for this.

  141. Simon
    Please refer to my very last comment about not dejected ly saying ” I do not love God then” and that the stuff to remember is our joy at turning towards God instead.
    I cannot be right or wrong about these things myself by the way. They are just statements like yardstick of the saints and not mine…
    Better not go beyond, “I don’t love God as I should. ”

  142. Dino…you have revealed to me what I have struggled to see, somewhat suspected but did not want to accept, and now I feel it in my guts.

    I dont love God. Regardless of how often I pray….or the remorse I feel…or the times I retreat in prayer to save me from myself…I am frequently become distracted. So, you are right, Dino, I DO NOT love God.

  143. That’s like saying I cannot attain what the Theotokos is, although I am called towards that.! So we cannot stay on that in ‘negativity.’ but be must always joyous instead in our trust that, though we all fall short, God has the power to grant us according to -and even well beyond – our ‘positivity’.

  144. Similarly I could not quite say “you are right I am not human then” as a response to Father Stephen’s last paragraph: “To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.”

  145. “When someone says: ‘I’m distracted by thoughts during prayer; I can’t concentrate,’ or ‘I’m indifferent to prayer,’ or ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ you can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.”

    Thank you so much for this. I certainly have prayed for forgiveness for getting ‘distracted’ or being ‘unable to concentrate.’ On this very thread I have as much as said ‘I dont understand any of this.’ Now I know why: ‘You can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.’

    I believe it, Dino. You can be sure that the earth is round, the sky is blue, the sun sets in the west, and I do not love God ‘genuinely’ and have never loved Him.

  146. “I don’t love God.”

    In the classic book, The Way of the Pilgrim, there is an example of a confession. It begins with “I do not love God,” and then elaborates. It makes the point that none of us love God, for if we did, this thing and that thing would follow. Thus, I see that I do not love God.

    That is, however, only a way of speaking a certain thing. It can also be said, “I do not love God well,” or “I love God badly, etc.” Three times Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” with varying words for love, by the way. It must have indeed been painful for St. Peter. The responses of Jesus “Feed my sheep,” were restoring Peter to his former position – healing his denial.

    St. Maximus does not mean to create a yardstick: “If you’re distracted then you don’t love.” The point isn’t to read this as a judging statement. And, forgive me, Dino, but you compared it to a yardstick. That does not engage the nous – but the critical mind – and is a mistake.

    St. Maximus’ statement is diagnostic – if I loved God this would be healed. It is an invitation to love God even more, not a judgment for loving Him too little. The is the thrust of his Chapters on Love.

    I fear that in this conversation, something far different was taking place – in the night while I slept.

    The comment about sharing too much personal matter – whether right or wrong – in the context of this string of conversation – was exceedingly unhelpful. It is frankly shaming – Someone shares such things with great vulnerability. They are thus utterly unable to defend themselves when that vulnerability itself is attacked. Shaming is simply out of bounds – a serious injury – whether the point made is true or not.

    When very personal things are being shared – which is only from time to time – then everyone should tread lightly – you are on holy ground whether you wanted to be or not. Take your shoes off! We are speaking to souls – not idealizations.

    Everyone take a breath. Say a few prayers. God forgives us all – but take care of your souls.

  147. Year’s ago, I observed on a friend’s blog, that when comments number over 100, not much good can come of it. We’re up to 175 on this one. There has been a fair amount of “talking past” one another – things intended well that came out wrong, etc. Some of the conversation became too personal, not in the sense of too much information, but too directed at another person. We generally don’t know each other well enough to do that – except by invitation.

    As the daylight grows here, I pray all will be well.

  148. Recently it became clear to me that circumstances are such that I should leave my PhD program. One professor went out of his way to tell me that it was a mistake to have invited me in the first place. I didnt take it personally or seriously. One, I really dont care what that person thinks. Two, its okay for that to be true. Perhaps I dont have what it takes to be a professional scientist. Fine.

    I take this whole discussion in the same manner. I really do have trouble loving the people I see so it doesnt surprise me tp learn I dont really love God whom I cannot see. I accept it. It makes sense of a lot of things I have experienced over the last year.

    Peace.

  149. Father
    That’s a vital point. And the critical mind shouldn’t be engaged indeed either.

    Simon
    I am personally fascinated by the notion that those saints that more or less say something that sounds like “hardly anybody loves God” say such a thing because they are utterly certain that (simultaneously ), “eveyone loves God but doesn’t know it” (whether in our sins or distractions.) And hence invite us to make the unconscious or misdirected, conscious and Genuine.

  150. Simon….

    But regardless of where you are at right now in terms of how you feel or How you have been led to feel from this conversation of comments about God and whether you love Him

    do you know that God loves YOU?

  151. Yesterday I called a friend of mine and I prefaced the conversation with ‘This wont take five minutes l just need to hear myself say something.’ Much of my last few comments have been just that.

  152. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Please forgive me my contribution to all this. I posted the link to the commentary of “Chapters of Love”. For me, it was an answer to my *personal* prayer in which I ask God how I can love Him more (as I make certain efforts and decisions in my life). But even Paula (for whom I excitedly intended it) hated that…
    I agree that we write past each other, Simon did not even acknowledge my two apologies… I wish him peace.

    But it’s not fair to beat up Dino so I’m chiming in for the last time. I have never read anything he said as shaming, only an invitation to examine myself more deeply. And it’s very true that once we do that, we are surprised by what we find and comeback to the superficial responses and reactions…
    Thank you again for wat *you* do. You know me personally and know that what I share is true, and how much I’ve been helped here. You are Fr. Tom Hopko, Fr. Zacharias, Fr. Aimilianos for us – we don’t have anybody else..

  153. Agata,
    A good friend has a motto on his blog (a paraphrase from a Star Trek episode), “Dammit, Jim! I’m a blogger, not a theologian!” I’m not certain I would say that is true of my friend, but it’s certainly true that I’m no Elder, or at all to be compared with these giants. If I’m useful, then that is enough.

    There are layers in these conversations – our own emotions, needs, shame, ideas, etc. – and in the awkward world of typed conversations! The truth is, that in our modern world, we are such strangers, often lonely, within our own communities. These communities are built to serve the interests of the economy and not the people who live and work in them. Social media has grown because our consumer world has killed normal life.

    I am reminded, many times, that a few years back, the blog was frequented by “TLO,” a troubled reader who did not believe in God – though he struggled greatly with it. He was a regular for several years. Then things went silent, and we learned that he had taken his own life. We do not have the back story. I would like to think we were of help. I do not think we hurt him – but we were not enough in that setting and situation.

    But I have not forgotten it, nor him. There’s a quote (unknown source), “Be kind. Everyone you meet is enduring a difficult battle,” or something to that effect. And it’s the truth – more than we know.

    I wrote some years back about being cautious regarding intimate details of our lives being shared – mostly because they belong to the treasure of the heart. On the other hand, certain things must be shared lest they kill us! When it happens, then we are on that holy ground I mentioned.

    Dino’s graciousness towards my attempts to moderate are greatly appreciated. I appreciate everyone’s patience with each other and caring words. You make this a special place.

  154. Thank you Father, very beautiful words!
    Fr. Zacharias says often: “When sorrow is shared, it’s diminished. When joy is shared, it’s multiplied”.
    This is what often happens here, in plain sight or behind the scenes.
    And graciousness in conducting difficult conversations is one of the most valuable skills that are modeled here!
    Indeed thank you to all, and you especially Father.

  155. Agata,
    Forgive me for not responding to your apologies. I did not intend to ignore them at all. As I said before there is no reason to apologize. I appreciate your comments very much. Just say whatever it is you have to say and we’ll work the rest out as we move along.

    I truthfully did not mean to overlook your kindness and consideration.

  156. Simon,
    No worries, you have a beautiful and loving heart. I think it’s St. Silouan who said: “The greater the Love, the greater the suffering…”
    You had more than your share of suffering so may God bless you with His abundant Love now.
    Hope you save my “rain check” for a big hug some day! 🙂

  157. Agata,
    Just a word about your intention toward me…first, know that I deeply appreciate and am very aware of your love. That is how I see you every time your reach out to people here. That I missed the point and misinterpreted the lesson in that link is no reflection on you whatsoever (and I think you know that, but I want to say it anyway). You make a good point in that the article was an answer to your personal prayer. The ‘answer’ for me was different, but not a total loss by any means. I learned not to brush a good word off to the trash bin, for one thing! I learned even more through the comments here, even the talking past each other. That would not have been possible without the ‘wrenches’ combined with Father’s good counsel. It is a perfect example of the suffering of our sins…these difficult conversations that expose our sinfulness (where we fall short) are not going to go away, should not be buried in ‘secret’, and are dealt with properly when we remain united in Christ. So once again I thank you Agata, and forgive me for the disappointment I have caused.

    It is interesting that Father said during the night as he slept, he feared something else was taking place in this conversation. Last night I woke a bit after falling asleep, having a very disturbing dream. I can’t even make sense of it, and I am not one to rely too much on the specifics of dreams, as they are highly symbolic. But I awoke disturbed…scared, frankly. Alone, all I can do is cross myself several times and pray, ‘please take this away’. And He did. I do not know if there is any direct connection with Father’s statement…I really don’t. But I can’t help but ponder that. I can say though, since the beginning of this post, back when the ‘heavy’ comments first appeared, it affected me as any trial would. It was difficult. But I do not regret it…and am thankful to all.

    One last thing, Agata. We are not beating up on Dino! We’re not! We are just challenging his words, or if you will, “beating up” on his words because they need clarification….and even correction….no different that any of us!!

  158. again I say….Oh Father!…
    I just read your comment. I remember TLO. Oh Lord have mercy!
    You make such a good point that we are treading on holy ground here amongst each other in this awkward world of blogging…as strangers in the world, alone in our communities. I’m saying…how dire without the Church to exist in! That is us, here….wherever we gather….

  159. Good comments and clarifications. I so appreciate Father and all the friends here on this site. Often it is a healing balm for my soul. I feel a real affinity with so many here. It is a well from which I can drink…very unique and wonderful!

  160. Agata,

    I didn’t sense any personally directed beating from Father Stephen, should have I?
    Although I generally think it better to avoid going into ‘personal areas’ in public (another classic ‘Athonite advise’), my earlier comment, which was that many Americans have a great ease in speaking their private heart (or private past) in public (and that such a thing creates a “general tête-à-tête, and makes things uneasy)”, certainly wasn’t personally directed towards anyone, despite it taken as such in one comment (which I thought required other things answered in my response to it to be prioritised over and instead of rectifying that specific, truly miniscule error, of re-wording something to sound more personal) [May 19, 2018 at 5:40 am].
    Which brings me to:
    Forgive me Simon.
    I didn’t think to rectify what you said earlier -as there were other matters taking precedence in your comment [May 19, 2018 at 5:40 am]. It was: “You’re also right that I shouldn’t have shared anything of my personal history on this blog”.
    I still don’t know if acknowledging and responding to that sentence with something like: “I never said such a thing of you, please check, those words never came out of my mouth” is a better idea? Especially since I thought that comment was obviously in the general spirit of all the other objections you had, which were (understandably) worded in a similarly frustrated manner, re-wording what I had said to make the point clearer was natural.… (I’ve been similarly frustrated by the same issues myself in the past BTW, and it took me a very long time to learn otherwise, so I could very much empathise with the frustration). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that when you express such inner struggles and I think that it’s part and parcel of getting somewhere in the end while correcting the key misunderstandings as much as possible – {which is hopefully what we continue doing}

    Father,
    I suspect that that’ comment is what must have prompted you to your vital caveat. Although my own comment that the “ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to speak of private matters” could be the exceedingly unhelpful one? In fact, the ‘unease’ created by any private to public revelation, is exactly as you said, that then: “everyone has to tread lightly as we are on holy ground whether we wanted to or not. We have to quit idealisations and remember that souls are in front of us exposed now.”
    Even most sympathetically acknowledging the private matter that anyone has confessed, I have been told, can be verging on unintentional shame-induction in public, especially if the one who confessed it then does not want to reignite the matter further or regrets having exposed it.
    I think we ought to always move back to the ‘general’ plane, to recover courtesy and remain in that noble place in public conversation.

  161. Dino,
    No, you should not have sensed any such thing! It’s again my “hypersensitivity”…. I always worry that one day you will get tired of “throwing pearls” at us and stop commenting… 🙂
    A friend told me I should not have made my comment to Simon either (about sharing too much). He also said:
    “I can’t help but think Father woke up this morning, looked at the blog, and thought “Oh My God!!!!” ”

    Paula, thank you for your words. And Dean.

    “A Full Life” it certainly is… made more beautiful by beautiful friends! Thank you.

  162. Fr Stephen thank you so much for your response at 8:12am. We needed that, regarding the admonition we tread with shoes off on holy ground, when someone shares personal thoughts.

    Simon, we don’t know each other, but your words tug my heart. You have my support, and if you need support regarding your situation lab/science etc. Let Fr Stephen know in an email. If you’re in dissertation stage, it is indeed difficult no matter where or who you work under. I might be able to help as a reader outside your situation.

    I lost count how many times I was told I shouldn’t be in science.

  163. Father, thank you for your words and for the gracious spirit of all in this “community.”

    TLO lives in my heart and memory, too. As often as I think of him I pray for the Lord to have mercy on him and on his family, wife and children, he left behind. May they be granted His peace.

  164. Dee, thank you for that. Im okay. Disappointed, but okay. It has been no small adjustment for sure.

  165. I remember TLO. I did not know that he had died.

    O Lord, the only Creator, who in the depth of Your wisdom provide all things out of love for mankind, and grant unto all what is profitable; give rest to the soul of TLO, for you, O God, made him and fashioned him. AMEN.

  166. NSP,
    This is much delayed (or at least spaced by many comments), but I think Dino may have answered your question in one of his remarks. Smerdyakov accepted the trite arguments against God (Day 1 vs Day 4 of creation was all he needed). Smerdyakov was free to behave as though God was dead, and did so. Alyosha is not absent from the picture, but I think generally speaking, Alyosha did what every Christian is to do – simply to live as a light in a dark place and love those around him. That a faithful Christian witness does not necessarily save everyone should come as no surprise. To me, Lise is the most troubling character in the book, for she turns away from what she knew and loved, just to embrace spite. And all of that is in our hearts, too.

    In a related aside, Notes from the Underground is a really illuminating book – arguing for and demonstrating that the utter caprice of man’s heart reflects the freedom that is necessary for redemption. In the thick of social-perfectabilty schemes and theories, Dostoevsky stands up and denounces them as ultimately costing the soul of man. The man who stands with arms akimbo and knocks social contrivance into a cocked hat can also become the man who stands with head bowed praying in the midst of an avaricious and irreverent world. Man is not perfectable by man, but he is redeemable by God. And this theme, I think, runs through all Dostoevsky’s works. Not that all are redeemed, but that all are redeemable, and exploring that freedom makes for really wonderful novels.

    Finally, in light of so many comments, I wonder if this Road to Emmaus piece is helpful – I thought it was the best discussion of trauma & liturgy I had read yet: http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_52/THE_OPPOSITE_OF_WAR_IS_NOT_PEACE.pdf

    God keep our souls,
    Mark

  167. I want to say something to Dino. I wasnt being sarcastic about not loving God. I think the most accurate thing to say is ‘I know I need to love God. And I want to love God. The ‘poverty of spirit’ I feel is how little I love God.’ But if we’re being honest…I dont know God, Im not really aware of having experienced God or God’s love. How can you love someone you only read about. I guess just like we say a fetus is a human being, we could say I love God. But I’m convinced at this stage in my life that the only love I’m going to have to give to God is the love he gives me to give back to him.

    I really just don’t have it in me.

    I agree with the statement that I don’t want to be deluded into thinking that I have something that I really dont.

    So, Dino, its fine. I actually appreciate having heard that.

  168. Simon – We tend to think of love as a sentiment or feeling, but Christ tells us it is made manifest through our actions. Prayer is only one form of action; helping our neighbor is another. I don’t think love is an all or nothing thing and it is certainly not static. If you are doing your best in each moment to love the person standing in from of you, then you are loving God in that moment. Love is given one moment at a time.

    “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me”. (John 14:21)

    May God continue ro guide you on your journey towards Christ.

  169. I am also convinced at this stage in my life that the only love I’m going to have to give to God is the love He gives me to give back to Him. I am utterly dependent upon God. Since it has taken me over 50 years to learn that, I hope it is a step in the right direction.

  170. Simon – whenever I think about this “problem” you describe (and I have it myself big time, btw), I remember how Fr. Meletios Webber says that “Love isn’t a feeling, Love is a decision”… You can always make a decision, regardless of whether your feelings follow or not. As Esmee said above, you can keep Christ’s commandments and that will mean you love Him (whether you sense Him, feel Him, know Him – or not!).
    Another answer I once heard to a question similar to yours is that you actually have it (love, faith – you have it because you are questioning it, otherwise you wouldn’t be). One way practice your faith and love is with your body, doing prostrations for example. You may do one thousand, ten thousand of them and when you raise from 10,000th, you will raise completely transformed…
    Just a thought. I too look forward to Dino’s reply…

  171. Agata,
    My own confessor has prescribed prostrations when I needed them. I appreciate your suggestion and would welcome it if you had directed your comment to me.

    If by your suggestion, however, you have a thought it might ‘fix’ someone who is already carrying a heavy cross, I would like to suggest instead that such a person is already undergoing sufficient ‘suffering’ and bearing that cross is a holy and blessed act in its own right. In such a case it seems to me better to let his confessor make such suggestions when and if they are needed.

  172. Dee, Simon, and Agata,
    “…bearing that cross is a holy and blessed act in its own right.”
    Which is exactly what I see Simon of Cyrene doing. That you took his name, Simon, speaks volumes.
    Stay tight, Simon…I believe, as utterly real as you are (as much as I see here), you are so on the right track. God bless you again and again.

  173. Agata, Simon,

    I wasn’t going to reply but since you said you’re looking forward to it (regarding- loving God), the most practical advise I’ve had is simply ‘you start with joy’, …look after your joy, cultivate it, put as much fuel into that fire as you can (and minimise as much of that “heat’s” dispersion as you can) and then God will grant you greater love. It is in such a spirit of joyous offering that we then use all other trusted weapons of the spiritual struggle to help us become ‘Eucharistic beings’ that truly return ‘Thine own of Thine own’ to our Lord with a greater singular focus, less dissipation elsewhere, gradually engrossing more and more of our entire being and transforming us humbly; (these are such things as confessions, eucharist, prostrations, Jesus prayer, studying books, scriptures, fasts, vigils, cutting-off our will to help/accept others for the sake of the Lord etc).
    But virtue occurs through three things (and not two): not just through Grace and human effort, …but the element of time is required as well..

  174. Mark Basil,
    Thank you so very much for posting that link. It is a superb article. I think it touched on almost every thing we’ve been talking about in this post. Including the reaction of the Greeks when someone “spills their guts”. A very helpful piece. A “keeper”. Thanks again.

  175. Thank you Dino.
    And just in case Father Stephen decides that we have all said enough for now, I want to squeeze in my heartfelt thank you to all (Dino and Simon especially) for this blessed time of learning and re-learning… May God grant you all His timeless and boundless Joy… If we know anything about Him, I think, it is that He appreciates our effort and our sincerity in pursuing Him. May He make up the rest in us indeed!

    God has gone up with a shout!
    With much love,
    Agata

  176. I appreciate the kind support from everyone here. Thank you Paula for affirming my genuineness. That actually means very much to me.

  177. Man is not perfectable by man, but he is redeemable by God.

    Making the t-shirt now. 😉

  178. Dee, Paula, Agata, Karen…thank you. I really appreciate your contributions and the kind remarks. They have been a source of encouragement. Thank you.

  179. David/Simon,

    Thank you for your contributions to this blog. You react and struggle in ways that I don’t allow myself to but probably should.

    “I am also convinced at this stage in my life that the only love I’m going to have to give to God is the love He gives me to give back to Him. ”

    I believe this is all any of us can ever do. “Thine own of Thine own…”

  180. Hello Paula,
    I’m afraid you may have mistaken me – I’m just Mark (after the Evangelist) – though Basil is my godfather…

    But since I *think* you identified as belonging to Holy Resurrection in Tucson, I wanted to thank you and all your parish for your kindness to me and my family when we have visited! My mom’s down there (not Orthodox…at the present time), and we’ve been thankful to worship with you all. Perhaps next time I can find you in person!

    In Christ,
    Mark
    (St John, Tempe)

  181. Oh Mark!! This is really interesting….I noticed my mistake right away, but for no reason in particular, didn’t correct myself and offer my apologies to you. Now to find out Basil is your godfather …and….you visited our Church!! Oh my! I am so glad you had a nice visit! Please Mark, if you do visit again, ask one of the clergy to point me out. It would be a pleasure to meet you!
    And, I do apologize for calling you the “wrong” name. Worked out well, though!
    BTW, I have been reading articles from Road to Emmaus Journal ever since I read the article you linked! It is a wonderful site. Thank you a third time!

  182. Mark,
    As I am reading this “Road to Emmaus” interview you shared further and further (I think I am only 1/2 through it), my heart is sinking lower and lower… Thank God we had this discussion and Dino’s reminder at the end to cultivate Joy – for now, just remembering joy is a struggle… (for many very personal reasons). St. Silouan comes to my mind, “keep your mind in hell and despair not”… This article is certainly taking me into hell at the moment…
    (sorry Father, I promised to stop commenting, but like you said to me earlier, “There are layers in these conversations – our own emotions, needs, shame, ideas, etc. – and in the awkward world of typed conversations! The truth is, that in our modern world, we are such strangers, often lonely, within our own communities.” – where to look for help us de-tangle and make sense of some of these things [my fears are for my children, not so much for myself]…?)

  183. Agata,
    My counseling professor at (protestant) seminary drew the class’ attention to the story of Naaman the Syrian (in 2 Kings 5), who had leprosy. The retelling of the story is often focused on Gehazi’s greed & punishment, but at the very beginning of the story, Naaman is made aware of the prophet and the possibility of a cure by a little captive Israelite girl who is a slave of his wife.

    My prof asked us – why is this little girl seeking to help cure the general of the army that murdered her family? No doubt she was dreadfully traumatized at being “carried off in a raid”. And, without psychologizing, I think that the girl had glimpsed what Christ requires of us – love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, do good to those who spitefully use you. Easier said than done, but worth saying if it helps us do it.

    I think much about my five children, and how to give them good gifts. But I want to be wary – just as the early church refused to predicate Pascha on Jewish calculations (hence the really confusing and elaborate Paschalion), I don’t want to simply be reacting to the world as I see it right now. I can’t raise children in the negative. I have to think of it as fitting them out for the kingdom of God. That never changes. I think Pattitsas’ assertion that video games condition the soul in a manner that favors casual killing is quite correct (p38 of the article). But it’s easy to pick particular targets for negatives, and much harder (but more worthwhile) to seek to train up and inculcate in our children a genuine love for the good – in fact, it’s beyond us to secure it, but the effort is required. And the first place this starts is our own hearts. And that’s so damning. If you have it handy, re-read Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” – I did yesterday afternoon, and it was quite worthwhile. We are irrigating deserts. And my own heart is the first desert that needs water.

    A final note, for Simon – the father who said to God “If you can do anything…” and cried “I believe, help my unbelief!” yet went home with a cured son. He doubted and screamed at God Himself, and he was heard.

    God keep us all,
    Mark

  184. Mark,
    Thank you, you picked up on the exact fear that is gripping me at the moment. My three teenage sons play these shooting video games all the time (well, now mostly the youngest one, for the older ones I fear about what is written in the last paragraph at the top of page 44). And of course you are right, that I am only focusing on the negative in this article…
    And that I should trust that I have inoculated them *enough* with the love of the good and command them to the Lord for the rest of their independent lives… I certainly pray for that, for them and for myself… But what if it may be a little too little too late… ?
    Thank you for the suggestion to re-read The Abolition of Man. Fr. Tom Hopko had great talks on this book.

    And finally, you have no idea how much meaning there is for me in your words to Simon… Two of my sons have juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, with onset at the time our family disintegrated (us, the parents, divorced)… I have no doubt my children suffer because of my sins (again, for anybody who is tempted to read these words as some generalization and condemnation of others, please don’t, this is rather a very specific confession about my life and my sinfulness).
    And finally, “I believe, help my unbelief” is the only prayer I remember my Grandfather praying when I was little… 🙂

  185. Dino,
    Thank you for the comment you wrote on May 16, at 4:39.
    I wish I had seen it last night while I laid awake, heavy feeling, alone in doubt and sin. Your comment gave me hope. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.
    As Dean said, “read it until it is mine in mind and heart”.

  186. Agata,

    God keep you and your sons! I count leaving behind violent video games as an integral step on my journey into the Church. I have heard a similar comment from my Protestant brother-in-law. But it has to be dropped because of something better – the kingdom of God. It can’t just be taken away (a tactic I saw often attempted on my Baptist friends, always with disastrous results). And one of my fellow parishoners wryly commented that the verse says “train up a child in the way, and when they are old they will not depart from it” – no promises about the middle years!

    King David prayed “remember not the sins of my youth”. We get to keep loving as best we can.

    In Christ,
    Mark

  187. Mark M.,
    Tragically, the verse regarding training up a child is both blessing and a curse. For the “way” in which they are trained stays with them. For those who have been trained in the way of the world, their lives will be marked by it – and if they seek to enter the Kingdom of God, it will be occasioned by great struggles.

    But this is our task.

    Stanley Hauerwas whom I studied with at Duke, always said that since God has already determined the outcome of history in the Pascha of Christ, Christians have nothing better to do in this world than to have children and to teach them about Jesus.

    Sweet.

  188. Mark and Father,
    Thank you both. “Christians have nothing better to do in this world than to have children and to teach them about Jesus”… I love that. Although I am still learning to love Him myself, so I probably did not teach them that (for sure not well).
    “We get to keep loving them as best we can“… These are wonderful words of advice for a very specific family situation/problem we are in at the moment… Thank you!

  189. Panayiota
    I am surprised you dug that far back! I can’t say that any of this is mine (I would hope it isnt actually). If you’re a Greek speaker you could read everything published from elder Aimilianos from whom you can gradually discover eternal truths of the spiritual life explicated in a sublimely pedagogically-discerning way and presented “to our times” as you cannot really find elsewhere.

  190. Yes Panayiota,
    How I wish I could read Greek!!! 🙂
    For Elder Aimilianos specifically…

  191. Dino – I copied and pasted your comment from May 16, at 4:39 onto my Facebook page. Nothing but negative feedback, which further convinces me of it’s prophetic veracity. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  192. With all due respect to Dino, I’m pretty much in total disagreement with that entire comment. Any “god” who needs or purposes our suffering is god at all. Im genuinely sorry but it seems patently ridiculous.

  193. Simon,
    Continuing the due respect, I don’t think the quote says that God needs or purposes our suffering. Instead, it’s an observation about us and how easily we dismiss the easy, the free, the kind, the merciful, etc. I think God would (and has) given us everything easily and freely – but is so patient with us, that He doesn’t take it away even when we’re making it hard for ourselves.

  194. Fr.
    Dino said:

    Unfortunately, if God were to yield to us before we sought Him with unbearably desperate hope, if He became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only), if His paradisial presence could be ours while we are still full of our contented self, if we encountered Him before crying from the depths of our beings, if His permanence became undeviating in us prior to us profoundly realising the futility of everything other than Him(through suffering), then, alas, we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value.

    We have been through this before I dont see any good to be had by returning to it. But, I think that the idea of need and purpose is implicit. Somehow we have come to be in a situation where the human will and ego is so weak OR so currupt OR so (fill-in-the-blank-here) that only when we realize the absolute futility of EVERYTHING and turn to God in unbearably desperate hope can we truly receive him.

    I give myself to my son without any expectation as to what he will give me in return, I do it because I love him, and I would do anything for him. AND I am enduring hardships I would absolutely refuse to endure for anyone else.

    Why cant God just help??? Why is that so impermissible???

  195. I think He does help, far beyond what we imagine. Nothing in the quote excluded that. That we even try at all is a gift. No matter how it might feel, you’re not doing this by yourself.

  196. Simon, there is a certain hyperbole in such statements as Dino’s and yet they reflect a real and certain truth. When I was in college I reached a state of felt desperation of that magnitude although in reality it was transient and minor. Nothing that anyone would call suffering. Nonetheless I cried out for God with no hope in anyone else, least of all myself, and He came. He changed the course of my life yet very little changed outwardly. All of the existential factors that caused desperation in me were the same. He did not help one bit it seems.

    Looking back from a longer perspective it eventually became obvious to me that everything in my life had been given to me in perfect and exquisite detail to prepare me for the possibility of that moment. If I had not taken advantage of that particular moment 50 years ago, He would still have been making preparation and waiting for other possible moments such as that.

    The outcome of such ever present moments are seldom in accord with what we want and therefore seldom look like help but that is just because we tend to be selfish and obtuse–another reason for the hyperbolic language to begin with.

    One of my wife’s relatives is dying of cancer. It has been a protracted battle that she is close to loosing. Today I was praying for her somewhat prefuctorily since I do not really know her or have a personal attachment to her. As I prayed I looked at the icon of Matushka Olga on my wall and was overcome by deep anguish and a deeper cry to God that was not mine. Moving me even now. So much love.

    Will Matushka’s intercession “help” — not to be expected in terms of a recovery but my oh yes in so many other ways.

    God is with us.

  197. I think one of the hardest things to “see” is the revealing of God in all of Creation. When I became Orthodox, I was told it takes something like 10 years to “acquire an Orthodox mindset”. I believe this reflects the ability to see God in all things in life–both the things with which we struggle and the world in which we live and move.

    One of the things that I, as a protestant, looked for was God’s “hand” moving something in (my) life. The image of God “smiting” or “creating” an opportunity or “opening a door” was deeply drilled into my consciousness and colored my expectations of how God worked. There was victory to be had; where was the earthquake? the flood? the grandiose gesture of righteousness that showed God at work? Even in my small life, where was His help, the victory?

    Orthodoxy turns this thinking on its head. The victory is the victory of the Cross. It is self emptying, humble, and love well beyond my ability. I still cringe with anger when I see the hate of God rife in the world. My immediate response is to cry for the power to bring them down; to prove them wrong. Humility is beyond me. But now, at least, I pray to not be a stumbling block to them. I pray for silence in my own heart and mind so I will not hate them. May God give Grace to empty ourselves and be filled with Him! In this way, I see Him in all of Creation and I know the small victories of the evil one in this world are just that–small.

  198. Simon,
    Michael already said to you what I hoped to say, only much better. And Father pointed out that even when God helps, we don’t always notice it. I would add that even if we notice, we forget sooner than we should. There are stories of Saints who made marks on their cell wall every time God visited them, because otherwise they did not trust themselves to remember receiving Grace. That is our instability “this side of eternity” (it’s Dino’s expression, so I have to give him credit :-))

    Try to take things a little less literally, you will open yourself to great wonders…

    I want to offer us all these words from today’s Vespers of Pentecost that *to me* feel so beautifully applicable:

    The coming of the Holy Spirt,
    filled Thine Apostles, O Lord,
    and made them speak in foreign tongues.
    To the faithless this wonder was but drunkenness,
    but to the faithful it brings salvation.
    We pray to Thee, O good God Who lovest mankind:
    “Make us worthy of such enlightenment”

    May God grant you prefect Faith, Simon! 🙂
    (and all of us also…)

  199. Simon,
    I’m grateful for the love you have for your son and for your willingness to share your thoughts about God, and your cries to God. You’re walking the walk of fire and have the courage to walk into darkness for your son. These words, your words, comfort me.

    At this time, I too, am about to walk into fire. To see that you can do this and to witness that your heart remains in a place of love, gives me hope. I’m very grateful. Through witnessing your strength, God has strengthened me. May God grant you peace that your words have given me.

  200. I do not know why things are as difficult for some as they are – the measure of their suffering rivals that of the martyrs, or exceeds it. I do not think that our suffering is caused by God, nor required by God. I believe that God suffers in us and with us and continues to move us towards the goal of union with Him. This mystery is easily the deepest that we ever face – and the easiest to mis-speak, even with the best of intentions. It is also very easy for us to hear something other than is being said or intended.

    If I thought anyone were suggesting that God requires or needs us to suffer – it would get a swift correction. Because it is not so.

  201. More specifically Dino said, If He [God] became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only), …then we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value.”

    What bother or rubs me is the if-then construction. This is an antecedent followed by a consequent. This statement says suffering is necessary to know His true value. That without suffering we would cast him off just as easily as we had accepted–easy come, easy go. Given what I have read about how the monks and ascetics abandoned the world, their families, despising everything. Pray constantly? Fine. The monks pray every minute of the day including during the three hours they sleep. So in a culture where such extreme asceticism is so deeply regarded and revered, why is it so hard for people to believe that Dino, in his piety and ‘love of martyrdom’, might actually mean what he says? I don’t inderstand why that’s such a stretch.

  202. Simon,
    As Father said, we do not know why some suffer so and others not as much. Suffering always can lead to one of two things. For some, it steels their heart against God, as the sun can harden and crack clay. For others, suffering draws them closer to God, as wax is softened and melts before the sun’s heat. But, no one can live long and not suffer…again the degree for each differs. I am not a monastic, Simon, and words such as you quoted are very harsh to me at times. As a priest once told me when I was seeking Orthodoxy, “Sort of sticks in your craw, huh?” Cor. 3:12ff speaks of judgment and suffering. There are words of hope, even here. “…though he himself will be saved.” Thank you Simon and Dee and Agata. So many here stir the slumbering coals of my heart. Especially thank you Fr. Stephan.

  203. Dean,
    Forgive me for being harsh. I certainly meant no one any disrespect. Perhaps I need to relax a little bit. But to be completely honest with you and the group it is confusing to me to hear people talk so admirably about the monks and ascetics who have taken literally and (in my opinion) to an extreme verses that might have been originally understood to be hyperbolic. So Dino’s are consistent with a pattern of extreme eskesis. If I were to learn that some great monk, Father, or Saint actually taught that for reasons connected to the human condition after the fall, suffering was a necessary precondition before receiving grace. That would not surprise me in the least.

  204. Simon,
    I think you are focusing on a certain way of understanding ascesis, and the language associated with it, that makes it difficult for you to accept. In that sense, I would suggest just letting it rest a bit. The Scriptures speak of the Pearl of Great Price, not the Cheap Pearl, etc. Bonhoeffer wrote of the paradox of “cheap grace.” It’s a paradox because we cannot earn it, etc.

    When it comes to pain and suffering, much of what you describe, or seem to imply, is rooted in a toxic form of suffering such as abuse, etc. I’ve written before about shame, for example, the most common experience of which is toxic, and yet, St. John of the Ladder says “we can only heal shame by shame.” He doesn’t mean that we heal toxic shame by toxic shame. He, instead, is describing a non-toxic experience – one that is described in the text itself.

    Some of this is the reason I’ve written about “unfallen suffering,” because there are voluntary, healthy things we do that someone might term “suffering,” that are, nonetheless healthy and good. I recently posted a comment within Facebook that “love is the willingness to endure suffering on behalf of another.” That is a take on “greater love has no one than this – that a man lays down his life for his friend.” The tremendous willingness you have to endure suffering on behalf of your son is a good example. Love doesn’t mean that you have a strong emotional attachment that gives you pleasure. It means that for his sake your willing to endure difficulty things – and do on a regular basis.

    Does love require suffering? Yes and no. It does not require toxic suffering. But somehow, the voluntary self-emptying that is love is indeed necessary. Its joy can, however, make the suffering seem like no suffering at all. So, Hebrews says, “Christ went to the Cross for the joy that was set before Him.” It doesn’t mean that the Cross was pleasant – but the joy certainly overwhelmed it.

    But, if suffering is reduced to the experience of toxic suffering and given only that meaning, then it can never be spoken of positively – and, never actually spoken of accurately. Generally speaking, the asceticism of Orthodox monastics can be tough, but is rarely extreme – the extreme is too likely to be toxic or to be desired for unhealthy reasons. There are stories of extreme asceticism, St. Simon the Stylite, who push the bounds of understanding – and are extremely rare in Orthodox history – as are the presence of Holy Fools.

    Those rare examples are like words in italics – they do not suggest a norm, but suggest something that must be pondered carefully lest they be misunderstood. I’m sure Dino means what he says – he just doesn’t mean what you say he means – and that’s a different thing. He’s not making the stuff up out of his own head – but drawing from the language of the tradition.

  205. I know Dino isn’t minting his own version of Orthodoxy. Thats why I said ´If I were to learn that some great monk, Father, or Saint actually taught that suffering was a necessary precondition that would not surprise me in the least.’ But, Im also kind of getting the impression that if that is what I found I would almost certainly be told that Im taking the Father too literally.

    Fr., you say that Dino means what he says but not what Im saying he’s saying. Okay. Then, please, explain to me what Dino means when he says ‘If [God] became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only), …then we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value.’

    What does that mean?? What I hear him saying is that suffering of some kind (fallen or unfallen) is necessary to be experienced, before God can give himself to us and if he did it before we would inevitably turn away from God.

  206. Simon,
    God giving Himself to us and God becoming our possession are two very different things. First, God is always, always and everywhere giving Himself to us. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God-as-my-possession is describing something else – something that has a different quality – a sort of mutuality to it. Indeed, that mutuality (“I am His and He is mine”) implies us giving ourselves to Him as He gives Himself to us. And, that sort of self-giving can indeed be described as a “suffering,” just as I described it earlier.

    If we turn away from God, He does not turn away from us, but pursues us, even into the depths of hell. What I hear you implying is God saying, “Sorry we can’t have a relationship because you haven’t suffered enough.” And that’s not at all what I hear. Much less do I hear that God needs to make me suffer so that I will turn to Him.

    I hear something like this:

    But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
    25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
    26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”
    27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
    28 Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.”
    29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,
    30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
    31 But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
    (Mk. 10:24-31 RSV)

    And, because God is a radically generous God, we generally give up far less and still find that He has given Himself to us in abundance.

  207. Simon
    Suffering is not a necessary precondition for Grace and God does not desire our suffering. He desires our Joy. Grace can come without any suffering. We also lose grace very easily. Remember this: Experience is more useful than grace There’s joyous ascesis and suffering that isn’t felt as such thanks to the fervour Grace bestows. Ascesis is just a language we use to express our fervour towards God. There’s also suffering we bring upon ourselves through our self-absorbed misinterpretation of things – the opposite of joyous zeal and a corollary of our egotistical demanding-ness: Not accepting God’s providence when it’s veiled (a test to our faith)…
    The quote is not talking about Grace but about the state and expwrience that aids “stability in Grace”. Rare souls have the humility to receive grace (whether after ascesis or not) and then never once look at another person that sins and scandalises and lacks Grace and not judge them as lacking in effort or whatever… the inevitable merciful allowance of God for them to then “fall ” (and consequently acquire humility – as a more secure foundation for stability in grace than judging) can be understood and experienced by them as extreme suffering. St Silouan’s experience is very candid on all this. Christ’s word that in this world we will inevitably have suffering has the emphasis on “take courage for I have oveecome”. Please try to use that as the interpretative prism for this stuff. The point is that we can have joy as Christians, no matter what. We speak about suffering so that we can have a genuine undefeated joy. A joy that is context-dependant and is only there when there’s no suffering is clearly not unbeatable. Only that joy that remains even on the Cross of sufferings is unbeatable – fairly obviously. That joy has been promised us and it can only be tested by us as such, and marvelled at, when sufferings come and we see that they (finally) do not rock our stability in it.!… Does that make sense?

  208. Dino,
    In what sense are you using “grace” above, in saying that experience is more useful than grace. In the Orthodox Study Bible it notes that “grace is the gift of God’s own presence and action in His creation….
    Grace is God’s uncreated ENERGY….”
    (Their caps). I am confused by your use.

  209. Byron – When you said, “I still cringe with anger when I see the hate of God rife in the world. My immediate response is to cry for the power to bring them down; to prove them wrong,” you sounded like a Psalmist.

  210. Dean
    Experience is more useful than the fleeting experience of Grace.
    Saint Silouan’s (to take one example) Great and perfect Grace experienced as a novice when he saw Christ could not become permanent to his great angst. His experience (long, arduous) proved of greater worth because after it the experience of Grace’s visitation wasnt fleeting but could finally become permanent. I think it’s worth reading elder Sophrony on this before trying to speculate and iterpret.

  211. Dino,
    You speak as a Greek raised in Church, steeped in the Church Fathers. Here I am, an American convert, raised evangelical still knowing little of the Fathers. I read the book on St. Siluoan about 8 years back. I lent it and never saw it again. As I age certain things do not stick anymore! I received Christ when I was 22. I am now 72. I.have been Orthodox 23 years. Somehow, though, I cannot see God’s grace/presence (as in the above Orth. Study Bible quote), flitting in and out of us. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. We have been transferred into the Kingdom of His beloved Son. Our life is hid with God in Christ. We are sons/daughters of God through faith, being baptized into Christ we have put on Christ. Now I realize that all this has to be actualized, lived out. Many times in these years, I have failed Christ. I have suffered because of my own dumb doing, sometimes rightly for others. At times I have keenly felt His presence, other times not at all. Yet no matter, He abides. Dino, you taught me to value night prayer. It’s the sweetest part of my life. If I sit surrounded by icons in the dark, I do sense His presence (subtly, never the same), He infuses me with His peace…in spite of myself! So, my American/Church /cultural experience is much different than yours. And I do greatly appreciate you and your insights, my Greek friend/brother in England.

  212. Dean,
    God does not ever abandon us. But it is common to read in the Fathers about the experience of “losing grace.” It is not meant to describe losing all communion with God, but refers to a dynamic the course of our relationship with God. I found it disturbing when I first ran across it.

    Of course, with a Protestant background, we shudder when first we hear, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us?” The West would speak of a “Dark Night of the Soul,” and mean much the same thing as St. Silouan and many others speaking about grace.

  213. Thank you Father Stephen. Yes, the Theotokos saving us was a very real stumbling block at first…this is what Fr. Terry was referring to when he said to me that, “it sticks in your craw, right?”
    Well, it quickly got unstuck. How precious to know now her comfort and intercessions.

  214. Fr.
    I appreciate the distinction you made between God giving himself to us and becoming our possession, and why that distinction matters.

  215. Dean
    Although I wouldnt normally disclose private backgrounds I would correct your speculation a little. Mine is closer to: great (and idelibly marking) Grace as child (despite more than usual sin seeking). Then: long period of sin-experience and “research” (as goes well beyond what anybody else around would dare), and then: after tasting complete hell and miraculously being dragged out of it, a period of Athos-education and living with saints to be cured from such extreme perversion a little. Of course gleaning that life there so close and first hand is worth proclaiming..

  216. Dino,
    How closely our lives parallel! The major difference (and it is quite significant) is that I did not go to Athos. I got married and had children. I guess that leaves me on the First Step of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent:

    “Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate any one; be sure you go to church; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness; and be content with what your own wives can give you.
    If you behave in this way you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

    I pray that, by the grace of God, I might do at least this much.

  217. I got married too. The funny thing is that my two best friends (that went after my very extended stay ) were the ones who ended up staying.

  218. Dear Simon;

    I have read all of this correspondence late (some of it took my breath away, some broke my heart and shocked me, some comments warmed it).

    I was surprised no one, I dont think, recommended the little book, “The Doors of the Sea”, by David B. Hart. He addresses *exactly* the (abstract) philosophical side of this question of God’s culpability in the suffering of innocents. I hope it is of some help.

    in Christ’s love;
    -Mark Basil

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