Existential Despair and Moral Futility

A couple of years back, a comment was posted on social media that described my writing as consisting of “existential despair” and “moral futility.” It was not meant with kindness. However, after I reflected for a while, I realized that it was not only accurate but quite insightful. It also made me say, “I have become Dostoevsky!” This tenor in my work does not come from careful planning or systematic thought – it largely grows out of my experience and reflection on the Orthodox life.

Existential Despair

Our life is fragile and exists only as a precious gift. We have no existence in-and-of-ourselves and are thus utterly and completely contingent beings. This rather obvious conclusion has been frequently reinforced over the course of my life and ministry. I have buried hundreds of people. Death is a fact of life. However, our culture maintains a pretense and delusion of self-existence, even imagining that we somehow invent ourselves. It is a good marketing strategy as we sell mounds of trash for people to use in their efforts of self-definition.

I do not despair of life and existence itself, except in the sense that it is anything other than pure gift. As such, to stand at the edge of the abyss of non-existence seems to me to be among the sanest efforts ever undertaken. We cannot possibly understand who and what we are until we also consider the fact of our death.

God is the “Lord and Giver of Life,” and not just the “Lord and Giver of Life after Death.” Those who struggle to believe that there might be such a thing as life after death have failed to ponder just how absurdly improbable life before death truly is. Our existence shouts the reality of a Giver of Life – all life. Our non-existence proclaims the emptiness of any claims to the contrary. I hope in God. In Him, there is no despair. But only in Him.

Moral Futility

I caught a lot of flack some years back for an article entitled, “The Unmoral Christian.” It suggested that we make very little progress of the moral sort in our lives. The track of salvation is not, by and large, one of moral improvement. I understood at the time why there was so much push-back: it was assumed by many that I did not think moral improvement to be possible or even desirable. That is not the case.

The moral life, if rightly understood, cannot be measured by outward actions. The Pharisees in the New Testament were morally pure, in an outward sense, but, inwardly, were “full of dead men’s bones.” When morality is measured by dead bones, it is still nothing more than death. However, the path that marks the authentic Christian life should be nothing less than “new life,” a “new creation.” This is a work of grace that is the result of Christ “working within us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

This is not something that takes place within a life of passivity. However, neither is it a sort of divine exo-skeleton making our efforts more powerful. The “synergy” taught by the Church is one in which we work rightly within our proper sphere, doing what is humanly possible. Human effort cannot make what is dead to live: only God can do such a thing. Repentance is the primary effort of our life.

The Elder Sophrony once described this by saying, “The way up is the way down.” The spiritual life is a paradox. The excellence of the Pharisees was met with condemnation from Christ: they could not see their own emptiness. The emptiness of the weak and “sinful” was met with mercy and healing. Their acknowledged weakness made the working of the power of God effective in their lives.

What passes for a “moral life” in our culture, is little more than the successful internalization of middle-class behavior. “I’m doing ok,” we think. It is quite common for those who are “doing ok,” to feel generally secure and superior to those who fail to do so. In earlier modern centuries, this modest morality was sufficient to earn someone the title of “Christian.” It meant nothing more than being a gentleman.

It is necessary, I think, to see the emptiness of our efforts (moral futility). Just as we cannot make ourselves to live, neither do we make ourselves better persons. An improved corpse is still a corpse. Our repentance is born out of the revelation of our emptiness and the futility of life apart from God. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”

It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.

Of course, existential despair and moral futility are not my self-description. They are terms chosen by a detractor. I believe that mud not only can become a god, but that it has – many times. This is the work of God who hears our cries and works within us, doing what He alone can do, just as He alone gives us the life we live and breathe at every moment. It is not despair because every moment of our present gifted existence shouts and proclaims the goodness of God, the author of being. It is not futility because with God, all things are possible.

But apart from Him, we can do nothing. That “nothing” is indeed despair and futility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

160 comments:

  1. Wonderful post, Father! Nearly Calvinistic – I mean that in a nice way. I am always suspicious when I see Christians of whatever denomination preen themselves on their spiritual ‘progress’ – the abyss could open under any of us at any second…

  2. “This is the work of God who hears our cries and works within us, doing what He alone can do, just as He alone gives us the life we live and breathe at every moment. ”

    Someone is going to zero in on those “alone(s)” Father 😉

    As someone who struggled with your use of ‘unmoral’ I have come to appreciate your grammar and direction on this. That said, as with everything there are circumstances and individuals for whom it not appropriate, or rather other terms/emphasis is more suited. Still, the accusations of a crude antinomianism were always silly. The difficulty is exactly in the what/when/how of “synergy” and Grace in my opinion…

  3. Thank you. I needed this reminder today. My father confessor often reminds me to read your blog. I’m a priest’s wife, struggling. I grew up very “moral” but with a big heart to be available to those on fringe, the highways and byways. Right now, it’s my family that is going that direction: siblings losing faith, children and friends “taking a break” from God and Church. I’m torn between the moral goodness and the clinging to God as hope and the despair I feel for being judged for my love of these people. I’m torn about my “failure” to raise moral children or to help my siblings back since they were raised in evangelical faith to love God and be moral. I’m torn because at the same time, I’m befriending people on the fringe, trying to pray for them, to be the only face of Christ that seems to bring the message that they need the Church and God. I’m taking it to confession. I’m torn at my personal failings in this walk and that right now my husband is facing deep criticism for being “immoral” or weak on morals for associating with “those” people. It all feels like an existential crisis. I pray and weep. I fear losing the goodness of God.

  4. Christopher,
    Florovsky wrote, quite accurately, of the “asymmetry” of Chalcedonian Christology. By the same token, our salvation is asymmetrical as well. I think I got it just about right.

    Of course, it would be impossible to not say that God “alone” gives us life. Who else or what else does? And, who else can hear our cry and do the work of God in us? “Alone” is just fine in that sentence.

  5. Name withheld,
    I would offer you encouragement. We live in exceedingly hard times that are going to get much worse for at least the rest of our lives, and likely well beyond. But we have been born for just this time. I think very few of us realize the measure of grace that is being given to us and sustaining us in faith just now. By the same token, I think very few of us realize the great treasure and power of our prayers for others and the world just now.

    The day will come when everything will be revealed, and what seems so feeble to us now will be shown for the wonder that it truly is. Hope in God – His goodness is without measure.

  6. I felt happiness at the title of your post and sat down to read it right away. I recognize existential despair and moral futility and can get stuck in them. Thank you for expressing the rest of the picture so clearly, that without God that is truly all there is. I am so tired of a Disney-fied Christianity. I could never make it work even though I tried.

    We were baptized as a family on Lazarus Saturday (all except my college aged daughter who is wanting to come into the church but is struggling with a couple things). I have to say, we were so happy! Then, about a month later, it felt like life fell apart. The despair and futility rose up again. But more importantly, those many things—years of entrenched habits, wrong thinking, sin—have come front and center. God in His mercy is routing out all that keeps us from being fully with Him. Oh my, it is such a difficult struggle! He requires everything. Intellectual assent is not sufficient. We must live this faith.

    Your posts and podcasts about shame are proving quite helpful for me. Thank you.

  7. Kristin,
    What you’re describing sounds very normal – and quite on track. God give you grace each day. If we live each day rightly, we would have no thought about progress in that we would have forgotten what is behind and understood that what is before us is just this moment. Blessings!

  8. (Don’t miss the jewel to follow!)
    St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”

    It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.

    Welcome news to the ears of this penitent and re-penitent and re-re-re-penitent sinner.
    Indeed, others notice the “Improvement in Us” before we do. I count it all joy that anyone ever sees Christ in me.

  9. Fr. Freeman,

    This is probably longer than you expect and more than you meant to address, but oh well… I believe context gives people the ability to do a better job with advice.

    Within the context of God alone giving life, and also of despair and being at the edge of the abyss, I have a question more about the particulars of how to go through life. For me, much of my life has been steeped in suffering – parents getting divorced, being lied to by close ones, death of people close to me during normally happy events, etc. It caused a great deal of mental health crises as well as physical ones. At the time, I wasn’t on the edge of the abyss, I was drowning in it. Glory to God that He did in fact bring life and progress where there was before only death, and the pain ended up being the driving force that allowed me to encounter the Orthodox Church, though I am the only one to do so out of the many people in my life who were around me at the time. My choice to do so was met with strong disapproval, as have been many of my choices, and so I learned to disobey that push-back and do things alone to succeed and get what I felt I needed. My success with the Church is that I found a great deal of healing and new friends who are as close to me, or closer, than my actual family, but religion/spirituality isn’t the only area I’ve had to practice such behavior.

    Naturally I’m having trouble moving forward from that. Being a young adult, my life experience which I draw knowledge and experience from is of my entire world being ripped to pieces by misfortune, and the only way to succeed is to throw caution to the wind, ignore what anyone tells me, and do whatever I feel I need to. After all, it was in hopelessness that I kept meeting Christ. So now that I want to move forward, I don’t know where to start. I naturally want to keep encountering Christ, but I have no desire to pursue despair in order to repeat former “success” in meeting Him. I also want to pursue a productive and healthy life, but I only know how to destroy a good life, and how to abandon a bad one, not how to produce a good one from scratch. Life isn’t so simple that “don’t do what you know to fail” is good enough to cause success, and perhaps it’s my immaturity that says “I’m not interested in continuing to fail until I find success, I want to start going from ‘glory to glory’ “.

    What I do know is that I very naturally and instinctually enjoy my time with Orthodox Christians, on the same level of being that formerly was depressed and despairing. The Connect Conference was probably the most fun I’ve had in at least 15 years, and I’m not even 25 yet. But I don’t know how to pursue life intentionally in that manner, nor do I know how to pursue God in that manner. It was instinct when I was depressed to offer up all that I had, because I didn’t want any of it. But how does one intentionally/thoughtfully create that synergy when it isn’t so obvious to instinct what to do? Or how does a person expose the depths of his soul to God without being at rock bottom?

    Sorry to blanket you with a clearly multifaceted problem, but hopefully you have some words of wisdom about where to start, or how the process works.

  10. To my dear sister, name withheld.
    Don’t you know our Lord was accused of being a glutton and winedrinker!
    To think, that he would associate with a Tax Collector! A Samaritan! The woman at the well!?!

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for the reminder of the power of our faith and prayers in this age. I do believe that we stand at a precipice, and as much as I weep for the sin and evil of the world (and my own especially)…. I rejoice in the great measure of faith and grace given us. I do hope God is planning a fantastic revival and that it is soon!

  11. Name withheld,

    I reckon you are doing exactly the right thing in looking out for those despairing and on the margins right now. If religious people give you flack about it, remember this is exactly the sort of thing our Lord was criticized for by the Pharisees, etc. They accused Him of fraternizing with “tax gatherers and sinners”, but He said it is the sick who need a physician. God give you strength! Walking in His footsteps is not easy, but always worth it.

  12. “It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.”

    I wrestle with this routine attempting to analyze my progress and growth as a Christian. I go back and forth between thinking I need to completely forget trying to gauge my progress and only trust in God, to the other handing thinking I need to be “examine myself to see if I be in the faith” so to speak. Is there no place for this type of self analysis? I want to know I’m drawing closer to God. I would imagine that if my prayers are purely a mental activity with no faith or love, they would result in nothing. But if they are sincere, then there would be some sort of evidence, right? Should we not be looking for this ‘evidence’ to make sure we’re on ‘The Way’? Perhaps we wouldn’t know how to judge it rightly even if we did?

  13. Father – I would not say that you are Dostoevsky, although his influence upon you is unmistakable, as is the influence of Solzhenitsyn. But you are real good at making Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn comprehensible to me.
    I studied a lot of existentialism in my youth and, at the time, though of it as an anti-religious philosophy. As I returned to the faith, I thought that I was leaving existentialism behind. Now, by reading you, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, I am beginning to understand that, intellectually, it has been my existentialism that got me here.
    The world is absurd, in that there is not reason for it. Man, as a free agent, gives meaning to existence by his actions Deciding to do whatever we want to do, because life is meaningless anyway, leads to an inauthentic existence. It takes courage to act in such a way as to give life meaning, but it is the only way by which one may have an authentic existence.
    Contrary to Sartre and Camus, but in accordance with Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, I have chosen to give my life meaning by trying to act in accordance with the will of God. That does not mean that I no longer believe that the world is absurd. It is. There is no reason for it in itself. The only reason for the world – and man- is the love of God, which is, itself, absurd. There is no reason for God to love either us or the world, but he does. Thanks be to God!
    And I still believe we are free agents. We can choose to live as if the world has no meaning. But that would be an inauthentic life. An authentic life is a meaningful life. But now I understand that meaning for my life is the same as the meaning for the world, i.e., the love of God, which is absurd. There is no reason for God to love me, but He does. And I know that only because of my hard won willingness to give myself up, to let something be grater than me, to let God love me. Trying to live my life as a response to the love of God is what gives my life meaning, what makes my life authentic. That means giving up what I want for what God wants.
    Isn’t it ironic that the action that finally gave my life meaning was not a decision to “fight the good fight,” but a decision to surrender.

  14. Andrew,
    There is a subtle difference between drawing closer to God and knowing that we are drawing closer to God – and strangely, the knowing we are drawing closer can actually distract us from God Himself. It’s not a terribly important question. First, God is closer to us than our own soul and body – or so it is said. Our “drawing closer” is, in fact, only a growth in our awareness. My experience has been that my awareness is a very changing thing. Sometimes, out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, I am intensely aware of God. Other times, even in the altar during a liturgy, I’m am not aware at all. Over the years, I quit paying much attention to the coming and going – and instead focused on being thankful regardless of my awareness. He is with us – that is His promise. My awareness of that fact is just an artifact of my creaturely existence.

    Say your prayers. Be kind. Be generous. Go to Church. Make Confession. Take communion. Everything else pretty much takes care of itself. Or at least, nothing else is of much use if those things are missing.

  15. The part about morality really struck home for me. I have always been a hypocrite (Lord have mercy!), but in the past few years I have “cleaned up” many things in my life that did need to be cleaned up. I think improving the way I view my marriage, spend my time, etc has been beneficial for me, but it does not give life. I can seem really compassionate, put together, and selfless, but the reality of my heart is a bit different. I had a rare (for a women with 5 kids 🙂 opportunity for retreat recently, and in the silence, the thought that came to me was “if God can grant me compunction for my sins, THAT would be a miracle.”
    That is what I plead for now. I know I sin, a lot, and it’s hard to care. May Jesus and his mother soften my evil heart ❤️

  16. Fr Stephen,

    Not to exhume a worn out topic, but I STILL find the “unmoral Christian” idea more provocative or baffling than you doubtless intend it. Of course, the cozy middle class idea of morality (being nice and positive and with some connection to institutional secular charities) is truly alien to true Patristic Christianity, almost painfully fake in my present experience, but that’s neither here nor there. The real deal is Christian Morality, as discerned from all the holy fathers, especially Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite. Jesus taught we are known by our fruits; if those fruits are morally monstrous, whence the sanctification? Not that we are actually pursuing an idol of our own moral impeccability (a deadly enemy to Christ’s humility) but as we are joined more to God’s Spirit we are more creatures of His Love. Self emptied Love works righteousness, that is its “beingness”. Sounds just like progressively improving morality to me, and to the fathers.

  17. Fr. Stephen I would suggest Jacques Ellul’s book The Subversion of Christianity and specifically chapter 4. “Moralism”. Thanks for your good blog.

  18. Andrew,
    When I wrote the original article, I only intended for the title to be an eye-catcher, something that would draw people to the meat of the article. Actually, there was nothing in the article that I had not said in previous articles. And yet, for all that, this piece, perhaps because of its title, received push-back. Un-moral is distinctly different than “immoral,” and was meant as a play on words – a way of realizing that we need to re-think much of what we think we know about the moral life.

    Always difficult for us in our modern world is to hear the difference between our own thoughts and those of the generations that predate the modern period. When moderns say “progress” the notion is so filled with baggage that it cannot help but differ from earlier uses of the expression. Who among the fathers would say that morality was wrong (though, beware of the fact that “morality” is a translation). What they mean by “moral” and what I have describe as true morality are indeed the same. But our popular usage, as noted in the article is a feeble and false imitation.

    Is there a “moral” progress? No doubt the expression could have an accurate and salutary meaning. On the lips of a modern American, I would doubt its value. If my occasional assaults on the English language can be forgiven, they are invariably carried out in order to clarify and understand the mind of the fathers in its true sense. I think such actions, in teaching, writing and preaching are of long-standing usage in the Church. Christ Himself said many things that seemed scandalous until they were understood.

    But, if you insist on using the phrase “progressively improving morality,” who am I to argue with it? But how, pray, does that differ from the dry ethical teaching of the Enlightenment (such as the writings of Kant, et al)? To preach to this age, we cannot suddenly leap back to St. Nikodemos as if our audience had not been profoundly influenced by Kant and his ilk. Why not consider the fruit of my writing?

  19. Andrew,
    one interesting thing is that ‘ontological moral deterioration or improvement’ becomes evident in how we see: everything becomes jaundiced to the yellow eye, and everyone seems holy (and everything becomes understood as part of good providence), to the saint.

  20. Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for making it clearer. Hardly anything today is taken to mean what it did in antiquity, a humbling realization.

    “Progressively improving morality” is an artificial and technocratic phase, not one I’d use. But, well, I’ll leave it there. By all accounts the truth is that the holy do not see themselves as holy, but sinners.

  21. I cannot help but think, Father, that the distinctions you make here are also the same that are required to understand what true humility in Christ is. To discuss such a topic with almost anyone in this day and age is to invite confusion.

  22. Name withheld, be of good cheer as Christ Himself was on the fringe. A body has to have hands and arms to reach out and even to protect the core. Often the hands and arms get bruised and scratched and do not get much appreciation from the rest of the body. I have even upbraided my own hands for doing stupid stuff and being unseemly.
    You are not alone.

  23. On my journey to the Church I spent some time amongst so-called “New Agers”. A commonality in that neo-Gnostic, heathen conglomeration of nonesense is the belief in “spiritual attainment”. It is always accompanied by a suffocating false humility. Unfortunately it is then frequently followed by a descent into actual darkness and flirting with the demonic and/or self-worship. Some I knew committed suicide. Some, like me were brought through the morass by the grace of Jesus Christ alone.

  24. Dear Father Stephen,
    I still don’t understand how your perspective on “moral futility” does not run counter to apostolic teaching on moral purity vs immorality:
    ‘faultless children of God in the midst of a perverted generation’ Php 2:15.
    ‘be an example for the believers in your speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity’ 1Tm 4:12.
    ‘put aside all moral filthiness and remaining wickedness’ Jas 1:21.
    ‘do your best to be pure and blameless’ 2Pe 3:14.
    Are these directives false and unrealistic?

    ‘He will render to each one according to his works:
    to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
    but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
    There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,
    but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
    For God shows no partiality.’ Romans 2:6-11
    ‘In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ Romans 8:4
    ‘So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
    For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ Romans 8:12-13
    How will moral futility still lead to eternal life?

    ‘I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ Mt 21:31
    These may be humble sinners, but they are not humble sinners who continue in sin. One very basic assumption (you will agree) – only repentant sinners are entering the kingdom. So these people know they are immoral but are turning from their sin to God.
    I assume you do not disagree with the Scriptural examples above, so can you please have patience and explain a little further how/why the apostolic teaching is true and you are too?

  25. Todd,
    When I write about moral futility, I am not suggesting an immoral life – though they accused Paul of the same thing.

    Rather, I don’t write in the abstract. As a priest and pastor of nearly 40 years, I’m familiar with the actual lives of people and the “cure of souls.” To tell people to just “be good” and “do better,” is poor preaching and unhelpful teaching, despite the fact that you can find verses that could be twisted to support such a thing. How do we do better? How are we conformed to the Cross? How are tax collectors turned into saints?

    That is the work of grace in our lives. That despite our seeming failures (strange, but you seem to have skipped Romans 7), in those failures (think of St. Paul’s “I will boast in my weakness”) Christ works healing and purification. Where sin did abound, grace did more abound. Not that we try to sin, but – with real people – it just keeps happening.

    What I have described under the words “moral futility” is the path towards true humility – the willingness to “bear a little shame.” That is the path similar to the thief on the Cross. He acknowledged his failure and found paradise in a single moment. I have already said that this is a paradoxical work – and I think that paradox is in the Apostolic teaching – such as the verses I’ve used here.

    I hope that is useful. Forgive me for asking, but are you Orthodox? It would help me in understand your questions and possible things I should do in answering them.

    Moral purity is good. But, how do you get there? By trying harder? Forty years tells me that this is not a fruitful path. The way up is the way down – we need to “empty ourselves” – including of our assumptions about our moral competency. As we humble ourselves before Christ – prayer, fasting, confession, yes – and struggling to keep the commandments – then God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure.

  26. Thank you, Fr., for continuing to faithfully expound the way of weakness. I have found it indeed to be the way of salvation.

  27. Todd,
    An additional Scriptural thought. Christ says:”For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20) The Scribes and the Pharisees would have done well by an outward, moralistic standard implied by the selective quotes in your comment. Instead, as in the very things you quote, we are to “put to death the deeds of the body.” That is not at all the same thing as moralistic striving towards improvement.

    The mechanism and manner of inner life required in “putting to death the deeds of the body” are something quite different. It is one of the reasons I asked about whether you were Orthodox or not. Good Orthodox teaching and study should make you more familiar with the nature of the inner life and why mere effort does not yield improvement. I’ve lived among moralistic Christians for over 60 years. What I see is not a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, but a righteousness that is almost the same as the Pharisees.

    What I am pointing to, in the language that you seem to find troublesome, is the true nature of the inner life and the struggle towards the Kingdom of God – as made known in Christ and the Apostolic teaching – and is consonant with the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox faith.

  28. I totally agree with your writing. I have taken the book of psalms as a personal guide. The cry of the heart and God, our Heavenly Father as our Refuge and, by reading every evening these precious psalms. I now realize how the proverbs as a guide in life, ecclesiastes as to the vanity of this life, the song of songs as a call to a close, a much closer relationship with the Groom within the Trinity and not outside looking in.
    I have seen how my life has been for the last 78 years been guided by the unseen hand of my Lord. Now I am ready to see Him face to face. ( PS..I have been reading your articles but I have not responded for many years) Blessings and glory to God in all things. david

  29. One doesn’t have to look hard to find moralistic Christians…even a few among Orthodox.
    Most of these are converts, with a moralistic hangover from past days (I’m a convert myself).
    I also see many practical atheistic Christians, those who would say that they are Christians, give a mental assent to Christianity, yet it makes no difference in their lives…except perhaps to live a good, decent middle class life. I have close relatives like this. It is as if they were inoculated against seeing truth, having gotten a little teaching here and there, just enough to ease their conscience some and not press on to find the Pearl of great price.

  30. Dean,
    Indeed. One problem, ironically, with the moralistic path, (or the “merely moral” path), is that it is insufficient. As noted, it mostly means little more than conformity to a middle-class American lifestyle – “nice people.” What I’m describing in this, and other such articles, is the futility experienced by mud as it tries to become a god. That futility is not wasteful, but is itself a key element in the path of humility that alone allows God to raise us up. It is ironic and paradoxical. But, such is the faith. You have to lose your life to save it.

    Many of the atheists that I know are highly moral people.

  31. Karl brought up Calvin, not me, but since he did…
    Did the Fathers ever pick up any of the threads of Calvin’s concerns about our pride in ”choosing” God? God’s election for some to salvation, and some to damnation is where Calvin seemed constrained to go by the total depravity of man, and that we are not capable of choosing God unless God’s grace acts first. He seemed quite concerned that someone might be proud about a way of thinking that says, ”I chose God, and that one didn’t”
    The Fathers didn’t seem to go there (about the choosing. I know they didn’t go for total depravity).
    Are we in danger about being ”proud” that we chose Christ?

  32. E.C.
    I haven’t seen anything of that sort. The “choosing” bit is, I think, something of a later development. It’s a strong theme (under various guises) in modern thought. We are a highly voluntaristic culture, and imagine the world as being largely the result of our choices…which is nonsense. I generally think that those who pride themselves on their choice, will, in God’s tender mercies, be humbled in time. The older I get, the more grateful that I am that my choices did less damage than they should have. “You did not choose me…”

  33. This is great. I agree, this road intertwines often with the denial, or perhaps insulation from death. I live in a very rough city. A huge percentage of our population underwent a great exodus, fleeing this place for more gentrified places where ‘undesireables’ couldn’t afford to follow them to. The breezy, stuff-filled vacuous reality of living in monoculture with other ‘morally superior’ types. I still live and work here as a full time firefighter. I see the worst this city has to offer and yet I can still find beauty everywhere.

    It’s an exercise..driving to work in the morning and being a part of the vacant lots, houses, the violence ready to erupt but staring in wonder at the sunrise, or the yard where people put up decorations, or the children playing. That’s beautiful. These things can’t be mutually exclusive.

    Once that is accepted, that our environments are direct mirrors of all the anguish and beauty in our own hearts at all times, then you can begin to help in a more genuine way. Your personhood grows towards a truth of being day in and day out.

    I’m not trying to romanticize depravity or poverty. I’m simply saying that good sailors aren’t made on calm seas. And maybe, this violet, broken down city scape is the majority of the world population’s interface with reality. Suburbs with $500,000 houses for families of 3 sure ain’t. That’s an ersatz reality we all somehow accepted as the thing to chase. The ‘good life’ is nothing other than ‘certain death’.

  34. Todd,
    It’s worth remembering that we are called to “cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:26)
    So any ‘works’ of righteousness for those who have turned away from sin are but a ‘symptom’ of an inner transformation; this necessitates struggling towards a radically ontological rebirth (starting from one’s innermost being) rather than a moralistic one (of one’s outward behaviour).
    It is worth noting that it’s also often manifest variedly outwards, depending on context.

  35. Thanks for your reply, Father. And for all the fascinating and encouraging articles you have written.
    On my (on going) journey to Orthodoxy over the past five years, coming upon your blog has been sort of a cross road. I’ve been consumed with reading Orthodox material for some time. A lot of it has been from the Orthodox Information website (I know that’s on your “Do not recommend” list).
    Your teaching has helped me move deeper into the faith and , I believe, into Christ. It also has helped me to cope with the mental illness which has overtaken my son.
    I love reading your stuff, and have found it very encouraging, as well as sustaining.
    Also, I like your graphic for this article: you look very Dostoevsky-esq

  36. “you look very Dostoevsky-esq”
    Oh that’s good E.C.!
    I love the picture too!
    God bless you Father Stephen!
    E.C., God’s peace to you and your son.

  37. This article is a little confusing to me in the way it discusses morality.
    “The moral life, if rightly understood, cannot be measured by outward actions. The Pharisees in the New Testament were morally pure, in an outward sense, but, inwardly, were “full of dead men’s bones.”

    Doesn’t this contradict St. James?
    The Pharisees were not moral. They appeared moral only because they interpreted the Law in order to set themselves above others. They corrupted it and used it for prestige, judgment , and political gain rather than for Love. They did not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort widows, visit prisoners, or tend the sick. They viewed themselves as masters–superior to all–and not as servants. They were not outwardly or inwardly moral in a Christian sense.

    But, surely, as St. James tells us in his epistle, works (moral action) are the perfection of faith–not merely the evidence of faith either but an intrinsic attribute of it. Faith is both inner AND outer or it is nothing (like water is hydrogen and 2 oxygen molecules or it isn’t water). Our Lord and His holy apostles instruct us to turn away from immorality and to persevere in doing good works as a pleasing sacrifice to the LORD. St James makes a strong case in chapter two that works (Christian morality) complete faith And St Paul says we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, “that we should walk in them”. Of course, we can do nothing at all without God’s grace; we are His workmanship.

    My questions are:
    Does the Orthodox Church teach something different about the necessity of good works (morals) in Christian faith?
    Does the Orthodox Church believe that inward works are more important than outward works,?

  38. I am reminded of a wonderful chapter in C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” entitled “Nice People or New Men”. If any have not read it or do not recall it, I must say that it is always worth a re-read.

    Lewis engages the reader in a wonderful discussion about differences in temperament and upbringing that impact how “nice” a person’s behavior may be. And notes that it is a fatal mistake to speak “as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded”.

    Too much to summarize here but this post and all of the wonderful discussion here led me back to again soak up Lewis’ keen wit and wisdom in addressing similar questions. Thank you.

  39. Fr. Stephen isn’t it time to pick up where you left off in your book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.

    This week I read Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life Of The World. I personally am new to Orthodoxy and so I have no expertise in this book but I seem to think that with all of Schmemann’s discussion of the heritage of the liturgy it is not to reside in the confines of Orthodoxy. It is, as the title says, for the life of the world.

    I entered the doors of the Orthodox church this summer thanks to the seeds of Iain McGilchrist and his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World . Written in 2009 I read it when it was first printed. I have re-read it and parts of it ever since. We are so naive that we walk through life not even knowing how our brain works. We quote theologians, philosophers and do endless “studies” is the soft sciences of theology, sociology and psychology without asking ourselves about the tool, the instrument, that we are using. How does the brain work? And if we are Christian and Orthodox Christian why two hemispheres to a brain – how is this created in the image of God?

    When I stepped into an Orthodox Church for the first time this summer the kind Fr., after a long talk, suggested I read your book. It is a keeper and re-reader. But, (it is important to never start a sentence with the word but I did, so here goes.) the entrance into this one story world is hindered, as we all know, by the thoughts and ramblings of our western brain.

    Somewhere around the beginning of this year, while still wondering if I truly was an atheist, I heard Iain McGilchrist being interviewed and he was asked how to become more whole in how to use our brain. I think he said something like make room. Just make room for the Master to become the Master and for the emissary to refind its true place. Now he, by his admission, is not religious so he was referring to the Master of the Brain and the dethroning of the emissary of the brain.

    Where can someone find such a place? I was tired of reading theology and philosophy, trying zen and endless biblical studies. Long ago I had my Masters in NT studies. I read Jung, studied Zen, read all of Thomas Merton and had just re-read Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    This year I read Nassim Taleb’s book The Skin In The Game. In a discussion about atheism he said, and I know this is a paraphrase, that atheists don’t understand that you go to church not to find out who God is but that you the worshipper are not god.

    What Taleb is saying is what his friend Iain McGilchrist points out in his book regarding the corpus callosum. That small part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres is there mainly, but not exclusively, to say STOP or NO to the other half.

    McGilchrist has written a Dostoevskian tome not only looking at the function of the brain but how we in the western world are using only half our brain. Here is where I think the world needs your input and effort Fr. Stephen.

    Is Schmemann correct than the liturgy is for the world? Isn’t the liturgy of the Orthodox Church the place where the overactive left hemisphere of the brain and all of its moralism, philosophies, thoughts, and certainty are shut down in the presence of the greater unknowable overpowering “awesome judgment seat of God”. Having entered with an overactive emissary of the brain we, Sunday after Sunday, collectively as a people go through an obedient act that the emissary of our brain tells us is useless and we should be thinking about more important things. We do it, again and again, going back to find that wholeness that was lost when our western mind let the emissary of the brain become the Master. In Biblical terms, what happened when we ate the apple.

    “Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilisation they helped to create.”
    ― Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

    I would venture to say, and I speak boldly and naively, but it is not only civilization that will be forfeited if we don’t take seriously how God created our brains it will be the relevance of the Orthodox Church in this western world. If not you, Fr. Stephen, who will take seriously Everywhere Present – Everywhere Present and The Return Of The Master and The Dethroning of The Emissary so that we can live in a one-story universe. Am I wrong or is this not the plea of Alexander Schmemann in his book For The Life Of The World? Isn’t Schmemann calling the Orthodox Church to take seriously the liturgy that heals and makes us human so that we can be what God created us to be?

    Is the liturgy of the Orthodox the place that makes room, as Iain McGilchrist said we must do, to dethrone, not kill or belittle, but just dethrone the emissary and let the master be The Master.

    If the liturgical tradition protected by the Orthodox Church is not the place where we experience the whole brain I don’t think we can find out how to live in a one-dimensional world.

  40. Ted Braun,

    You may be interested to know in the Orthodox Liturgy virtually everything is sung, which as you may know engages both halves of the brain.

    It seems to me the focus of Orthodox Liturgy is not healing our divided brain, so much as healing our divided hearts, where attachments to and dependence on what is transient must be traded for our worship of and dependence on Christ Himself as our crucified and resurrected Savior and Lord. I believe if we pursue Him with our whole being, the rest will follow. Attending the Liturgy and developing a relationship with a local Orthodox Priest are a good place to start.

  41. Karen,

    McGilchrist starts the book out with stating emphatically that everything we have been taught about the left and right brain is wrong. I just state that because one of the myths of the divide has to do with arts vs. language etc. etc.

    Unfortunately, his book is a tome of densely packed and paced words that is one of the hardest books I have read because it first has to take away the many misconceptions of what is going on.

    I agree it is more than head knowledge or the brain. But why we live in a divided world must also address why we think in divided thoughts and before we can say it is just a matter of the nous or heart we must take seriously what has happened in the western world and our way of thinking.

  42. Sue,
    Like St. James, Orthodoxy certainly holds that our inner faith must be united with our outer actions (works). But, in the article, I think I’m emphasizing that these two properly belong together – are should ultimately be lived as a single thing. But works clearly spring from within – as Christ said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luk 6:45)

    We need to learn to tend to the heart or all of our outer efforts will do very little good.

  43. Ted,
    I’m not familiar with McGilchrist – but I know my way around the One-Storey Universe (at least a little bit). The brain stuff is interesting – at least inasmuch as it speaks a sort of modern way of thinking about thinking. Of course, centuries of peasants have lived a very One-Storey life in Christ without ever giving their brains a single thought.

    The Orthodox Liturgy and sacramental life do not merely introduce us into a way of seeing the world – but they are themselves the fullness of that world made present. So, there is not a “take home” or “take-away” for the world from the liturgy. The Liturgy is the world’s true home. The slow work of the Kingdom of God is to be the Church, lived in its fullness (which is not at all the same thing as “talked” in its fullness, or “read” in its fullness). Western man, Eastern man, any man, woman, child can begin to enter into this fullness by stepping through the door and uniting themselves with Christ, and patiently begin to live the life as it is given to them.

    Whether this will change the modern world is not something given to us to know. A concern of the Modern world is to fix the world, to save the world, to do this or that to the world. It’s a distraction. What it does not do is actually live in the world. But Modernity is not in charge of history – God is. We accept that and go about the slow, patient task of life in this world in union with Christ and His Kingdom. It is a seed, a treasure, a light – and it is God who makes the seed to grow and the treasure available to those who seek and the light to shine.

    It’s why we are told things like, “Taste and See.” and “Come to the Light” etc. I’m very glad my little book is of use – it’s been far more useful to far more people than I would have imagined. Schmemann struggled for years to write and complete his work on the book, The Eucharist. It’s an ok book and interesting – but nothing he said or did have had the impact of his small work, For the Life of the World. It is a classic and I don’t think he lived long enough to know that. None of us really do.

    I can only write what I know and as it is given to me. I’ve been working ever-so-long on my present book – with starts and fits – changes of titles and topics – revisions, etc. It’s become a terrible labor. At some point, by God’s grace, it will likely be as easy to write as the first book, and be useful to people. These things come as gifts to us – like every day and every moment. They are to be lived. As for me, I cannot seem to stop writing. Sometimes, it’s worth sharing with others. May God preserve us!

  44. Big difference between the brain and the heart/soul. I would say as well that the issue with our brains is a “global”rather than a western problem.
    ” before we can say it is just a matter of the nous or heart we must take seriously what has happened in the western world and our way of thinking.”
    I believe most of us well are well aware of the problem with our thinking. And as I see it, we have been given The answer.
    Based on my understanding of Orthodoxy:
    There was a time (a mere moment perhaps?) when the brain, the material/ physical, and the soul, the immaterial/ the intellect, were integrated (hence, the analogy of man as microcosm). God created us whole, and holy, unto Him. Sin, a turning away from God/Goodness led to the disintegration of soul/intellect from body/brain…we became “all body”, in a sense, and our entire ‘being’ subject to corruption, death. This brain you speak about must be integrated back to the soul, the “heart”, and reunite to The Master.
    God spoke to His prophets and said He would put His word (Word), His Spirit, in the heart of mankind in the latter days. And so He sent His Son to reclaim us, and through us, the entire universe…indeed, for the life of the world.
    What Christ did was inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth…and this is what I understand to be the Liturgy – with all her rites, rituals, sacraments, cycles “time after time” – indeed, it is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with us. It is the “new man” in Christ…much more than a revitalized left hemisphere of the brain! It is a stony heart softened by the grace of God…His actual Self in His energies. It is God Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ that changes us, by the Spirit, through the Church, through the sacraments, through the mysteries…and through our repentance.
    That’s how I understand what St. Paul means by “the renewal of the mind”. It is the nous, the eye of the soul, the heart that is changed by the will of God. Along with acknowledgement of our dysfunctional brains, to me, we should take most seriously God’s work within us.

  45. Sorry Father…I didn’t see your response to Ted before I posted. It’s not like I can add anything to your words.
    Forgive me, but I do not understand, and I’m sure it is well meant, when people suggest to our Priests what they should do! Lord have Mercy…you have gone above and beyond Father! Anyway….thank you. All we can say is thank you and God bless. You are greatly appreciated. I know I have learned from you and your work here…many times I learn the hard way, but as you say, I am even learning to thank God for the hard knocks!!!

  46. I sincerely apologize. Never meant to tell anyone what to do. My question was not meant as a directive, please forgive me.

  47. This article made me think of this prayer from Saint Gregory of Narek († 1003)..

    I, breathing dust, have grown haughty.
    I, talking clay, have become presumptuous.
    I, filthy dirt, have grown proud.
    I, disgusting ashes, have risen up,
    raising my hands with my broken cup, strutting
    like a swaggering peacock, but then
    curling back into myself, as if rejected,
    my speaking slime glowing with anger
    I grew arrogant, as if I were immortal,
    I, who face the same death as the four-legged creatures.
    I embraced the love of pleasure
    and instead of facing you, turned my back.
    In flights of fancy I darted into lurid thought.
    Indulging my body I wore out my soul.
    In strengthening the sinister side
    I weakened the force of my right side.
    I saw your concern for me, too deep for words,
    and paid no heed…

    And again, O compassionate Lord who loves mankind,
    almighty God, as you consider these words of pleading,
    treat them as a confession from a contrite soul
    fallen at your feet in repentance.
    And as you judge note, and weigh
    the tearful soul, the heaving sighs,
    the quivering lips, the dry tongue,
    the clenched face, the good will in the depth of the heart,
    you who are the salvation of humanity,
    the seer of the undone, the creator of all,
    the healer of invisible wounds,
    the defender of the hopeful and the guardian of all,
    to you glory forever and ever.
    Amen.

  48. Andrew,
    Along the lines of what has been said earlier, regarding any conceivable ‘gauging’ of where we stand, and whether we are spiritually advancing as God would have us do, a timeless ‘check up’ is our (frustrating, annoying, irritating), neighbour.
    He/she is sent for us from God so that we can appreciate if we have made any “progress” in true love and forbearance. In other words, if I still get upset, scandalized, or lose my peace and joy when antagonized, I cannot affirm that God has made the sort of progress in me that testifies of His presence in me to the world.

  49. I may be wrong but the Liturgy as it progresses through the Church year addresses different aspects of our humanity. Different Scripture readings, different colored vestments, different musical Tones.

    I love the minor tones, they bring out different aspects of who I am than the other tones. Protestantism seems like a C Major religion to me.

    However, it is the actions in the Liturgy of offering and receiving that are immense while at the same time recognizing that all that we offer is a gift of God. The offering is not, as in many religions to a good far away an of uncertain character but one who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

    That same God through the same Holy Spirit continues to transform into Life what we offer up meager though it is.

    The Church is the locus of the activity, but the fruit then flows out to all and everyone through the Church. For the Life of the World is a quite literal statement. It is not metaphor.

    The icon of the Inexhaustible Cup shows this I think.

    His Mercy is whole and full and, if we allow it, transforms us into wholeness.

  50. Of course there is this too:. Nowhere else is as joy filled even when both halves of my brain would rather be elsewhere and often try to go there.

  51. Ted,

    McGilquist’s book sounds interesting. I was a psychology major in college and Sense and Perception (where we studied the brain) was my favorite class. I have no doubt brain science has come a long way since then. Not sure if the book you mention approaches it from that angle or is looking more at mindsets or worldview. Fr. Stephen’s blog also does a good job of parsing the latter and expounding the one-Storey mindset. I think you will enjoy reading here if that interests you.

  52. Ted Braun, I can’t tell you how delighted I am that another person is reading, enjoying, and finding consonant with Orthodoxy “The Master and His Emissary”. My husband and I read it a year before we were baptized. It was definitely instrumental in bringing us to the Orthodox Church.

  53. The title followed by “Glory to God for All Things” makes one sit up and take notice. What a good article. Now to do more than read it.

    Of late I have become more aware of death. Perhaps because of so many anniversaries of those who have reposed during the last few months. More so because I am aware I am closer to the end than I am to the beginning. I am ever more conscious of the need for ever-growing repentance, yet there is no despair.

    Perhaps even more so because yesterday my 4-1/2 year old granddaughter asked, “What happens when we die?” Oh my! Wisdom let us attend! I asked, “What do you mean?” “What happens to our bodies? Does it go away?” A very brief conversation ensued about dirt, being made from it by God and going back to it when we die. That seemed to suffice for the moment. Next time I’m going to say, “Ask your mother!”

  54. Athanasia,
    Death (for a Christian) is true birth (into life eternal). I find the pithiness of that expression to be quite splendid.

    Don’t we sing: “Christ God has brought us from death unto life, and from earth unto heaven”?
    Don’t we chant: “Blessed is the way wherein you walk today” during Orthodox funerals?
    Doesn’t the apostle exclaim: “a desire to depart, and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23)?

  55. I just wanted to say to you, Father, that I am so very thankful for all of your thoughts and writings. They keep me close to the Faith when I start to believe again that Christianity is merely a simple-minded, unsatisfying optimism with no depth or realism. You are truly a thinker after my own heart, which validates my own Christianity to me again when I start to feel like I must not belong. I appreciate knowing, through your writings and podcasts, that I’m not alone in how I perceive things. Where we differ is that I perceive these things and then get disillusioned and despair. You perceive them, but then take them captive to Christ and put them back in their rightful context. So for me, reading or listening to your thoughts is like editing my own. I feel validated in my perception, comforted in the fact that I’m not the only one who thinks in this way or notices these things, but then sanctified – when you take those observations and infuse them with worship and praise and humility. Thank you for setting your lamp where I can see it, and be guided by it. Glory to God.

  56. C Major religion!!! Hahahaha!! Exactly.

    When a Protestant I enjoyed being a member of a worship band. It was fun! However I always lamented the loss of the rich Protestant hymnody. And the worship band music can get tedious and boring really fast. And self indulgent.

    The first Orthodox service I attended was a Vespers. Although most everything seemed quite strange, the music drew me in. And it’s nit super complicated just serene, expressive of truth, and for me, wonder. Now I’m in the choir and on occasion even lead when our director is away (tomorrow). And I’ve started teaching the children.

    God has smiled on me in another way…we have monks who attend our liturgy from a nearby monastery. Most of them come from the Coptic tradition and have no ear for western harmony. They asked if I could help them! We have so much fun! The more we work together the more I dig deeper into music myself. And what joy to see them begin to understand and marvel at how our music works. It brings us all into worship.

    Ours is not a C Major religion, but all the keys and nuances are ours, literally and musically.

  57. Once again I am going to swim upstream 😉 In my 20 + years in Orthodox parish life (7 different parishes actually – we moved around alot at first because of my wifes medical training), I have noted all the different minor keys of the Church, her people and piety. Sometimes, often actually, I yearn for a little more “C-major”. I sense many traumatized *but* very secularized people in Orthodoxy, most of whom who have a bit (or a lot) piety but who at the same time are very “middle class”, secular, and otherwise indistinguishable from the worldly “moral” people around them. I am hardly any different. Where are all these “moralistic” converts, these pharisees and scribes I keep hearing about?

    As a father with two young daughters, I have come to realize how little *support* normal Orthodox parish life is. In discussions with the older members it is readily apparent how few of their children are Christian at all, to say nothing of actually attending an Orthodox parish regularly. The only parishes I have been part of that are actually somewhat successful in passing on the faith (2) were the most ethnic oriented ones. Have we become too therapeutic, too often majoring in the minors, whistling our own tune and being somewhat comfortable and even satisfied doing so?

    I do what I think is prudent – I send my daughters to RC school, regulate TV, peer group, screen time, etc. as these are the most secularizing influences. Meanwhile many if not most of the other children in my parish go to public schools, watch a lot of TV, and have many many non-Christian (let alone Orthodox) ‘friends’. One does not need to be a “prophet” to know about how many of them will be Orthodox at age 30.

    All of this is complex of course and I am not even beginning to capture what I think is “missing”. If I knew what it was, I would not be looking for it. Still,I am wondering out loud if it is not a bit of major key, a steady beat, and a conscious and realistic assessment of just who and what we are and our relationship to everything else around us…

  58. Christopher,
    Thank you for your reflections. They are very real concerns for those who follow Christ and have children and grandchildren. Do the Orthodox, in the retention of children in the faith, do better or worse than Catholics or Evangelicals, as a whole? I don’t know.
    The secular influences, as you say, are terribly hard to counter in our media inundated culture. I would think that a family in a parish setting would be hard pressed to have half their children remain true to the faith. Our 2 daughters, both evangelical Christians, have children. One daughter has 2 sons in their early 20’s. One is a Christian, the other not. With our other daughter’s 2 children it is still to early to know.
    A key, I am sure, is the faithfulness of the parents. You cannot fool your own children. They know what Christ and His Church mean to mom and dad. Parents don’t have to be perfect, but loving, forgiving, and consistent.
    The monastery we attend has a good number of young families with lots of children. Most are more isolated from secularizing influences…TV, internet, etc. and home-schooled. It will be interesting to see in what direction these children go as young adults.
    It is still possible to raise godly children…but what work, prayer and vigilance are required. Lord have mercy on our young!

  59. The culture in which we live is the most antithetical to trational Christianity of any ever. I have come to believe that the best we can do is be here when any of them come back home.

  60. The ethnic divides, while maintaining their people, also limit themselves to new people coming in. I began attending a Serbian Orthodox. In my area, the choices were that, Ukrainian and Russian. Well. I’m majority Croatian/Serbian with no knowledge of the cultures I come from. I went seeking this connection and context to experience the liturgy. The mass bounces between Old Slavonic, Serbian and English. I love it. The sounds and meaning transcend language.

    This was something I’ve been obsessively seeking. What about the ‘average’ person? One not particularly interested in ethinicity? Or a shrinking demographic of any one ethinicity doesn’t bode well for these kind of churches. I can see that in one generation the language divide of those that know the language and those that don’t. What happens when that generation starts to pass on? It’s unlikely a whole stream of immigrants will show up to replace them.

    But part of this journey is surpassing the cardinal sin of Fear. Of course it seems scary to see something so unique dissolve. Or course it seems like Modernity has this strangle hold on the world. Maybe. But so what? I think those things are dissolving too. ‘Science’ is breaking its own models with consciousness studies in mainstream. People everywhere are seeing the empty lie that government corporate media yields. Do they always then turn to the church? No. Too many people have been failed by Christianity growing up, myself included. Something watered down to a pasty gruel. Not palatable.

    It took…extreme measures, on my part, to land where I am. Orthodox is almost scary to a modern western person. I’m a fire fighter full time and used to fight MMA professionally, and I was kinda scared to go. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the liturgy, I had no idea what I was gonna do or say. But my soul hurt and I needed big medicine. I was seeking where I was led. Trusted and followed. I guess… I dunno, how many people know the modern package is poison and will turn off their phones long enough to listen, or walk in the woods, or stare at the sky? Not many. But, God has a way of finding people that are taking the time to ask Him.

    In the meantime, we cannot control those things. Harbor no fear. Be kind. It will shake out. One way or another.

  61. Christopher,
    We’re not better than other Christians – we’re just Orthodox. We’re terrible at some things – depending on parish, priest, jurisdiction, etc. Last time I checked, I described Orthodoxy as the original incompetence. Live the life. Strangely, we’ll survive. God is with us.

  62. Christopher,

    I really appreciate what you wrote. I have five children aged 25, 23, 20, 18, and 12. As a Christian parent I worry less about secular influences than I do about poorly formed Christian ones. Over ten years ago, when my oldest were young teens, I came across an article called: Ah, Youth: When the Church Was Young, by Mike Aquilina. It helped me begin to see what was missing: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/ah-youth-when-the-church-was-young.html

    God bless

  63. Sue – I think that article nails it. Furthermore, talking a good game is not enough. Orthodoxy is profoundly countercultural. Are we living profoundly countercultural lives? If we are not, then why should we expect that our children will? If we want our kids to be Orhodox Christians then we ourselves will actually have to be Orthodox Christians.

  64. In your response of Oct 26th, in the article of the13th, you say Father, that you are unrelenting in your preaching of the goodness of God. And that God wants our healing far more than we, that He gains nothing by our illness or suffering of any kind. These words brought buoyancy to my wings today. Thank you dear Father Stephen.

  65. Kevin Z: Thank you for your comments. You reminded me to seek beauty in this broken world and to not be fearful.

    Dean: The goodness of God—yes! I recently spent 22 hours on the road, traveling alone, and listened to Father’s podcast the entire way and for the first time. In one podcast, he talks about being being young and somewhat of a know-it-all in theological discussions with his father-in-law. His father-in-law was patient and would say, “I don’t know about that, but I know God is good.” That has been my constant refrain, or anchor, ever since, as a new Orthodox who has been thoroughly entrenched in the Modern project and something of a know-it-all myself.

  66. Ann K,
    Father Stephen’s expression “I don’t know about that” has been my favorite phrase for some time now, since learning it here.
    I think at one point he said it’s also a good way to tell somebody “don’t be such a know-it-all, you don’t know what you are talking about…” 🙂

  67. There’s superb depth to the expression of “I don’t know about that, but I know God is good!” I always thought this depth was easily missed, and then we jump into the conclusion of the expression’s (seeming) ‘gullibility’.
    
It is a sure sign of a spiritually advanced man however, one who has deeply understood that nothing ever occurs that is not God’s Will or God’s Concession. Yes, when another, or yourself, is in the midst of misfortune, in order not to say “why oh why am I [or why is he/she] going through this?” (as we often do), you must have asked God to bestow on you the vision of the ‘The great Beyond’.
    Without it I cannot see things here as they really are: all as part and parcel of God’s plan. He works eternally, in patience and with vision, and I usually protest, precisely because I momentarily lapse from this eschatological vision that invigorates and kindles the spirit of ardent Christians that do not.

  68. David,
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the article I shared. It really made an impact on me when I was actively contemplating how to nurture my children in the Faith. It helped me come to the conclusion that following Christ demands everything, so why should I present a sugar-coated version of it to my kids?

    May I ask what you mean by Orthodox Christians “living profoundly countercultural lives”? I only ask, because to my mind, Christianity is not a culture, but rather transcends (and transforms) human cultures. In other words, it is possible to be an Eskimo, Greek, Columbian, etc. and be a Christian. However, wearing certain clothes/hairstyles, eating certain foods, shunning Hollywood (but not PBS, and definitely not the internet), and associating exclusively with other church members won’t make you a Christian (but it might make you a Pharisee). Christians put on Christ, not a particular culture. Is this what you mean by countercultural?

    “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (from Letter to Diognetus, 2nd Century AD)

  69. Agata,
    I remember reading a quote from one of the contemporary Elders that had a very similar sense to Fr. Stephen’s f-i-l’s statement. He said if someone is unwilling to hear what we have to say and keeps insisting on their own point, we are not to continue to argue with them, but rather just to say, “You know what you are talking about.”

    I confess that kind of statement comes out of me in that circumstance about as easily as the words, “I was wr…wr…wrong!” from the mouth of the character of “The Fonz” from the old “Happy Days” sitcom!

  70. Karen, Agata,
    My recollection of both my Father-in-law, and the contemporary Elder’s quote is that they were the same: “I don’t know about that.” I would avoid saying, “You know what you are talking about,” for the simple reason that it is pointed towards someone else and its ambiguity taken as offense. The virtue of “I don’t know about that,” is that we confess our own ignorance and let it go.

  71. Sue – Thank you for responding. And thank you so much for that quote!

    To answer your question, there are basically two things I try to do to be an “Orthodox Christian living a profoundly countercultural life.” (I originally wrote this in the abstract, but decided it would be more honest to just describe what I do. Please forgive me for drawing attention to myself.)

    I try to take Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims seriously and follow them as faithfully as I can. I study them at least once a week. I make an effort to follow a simple rule of prayer and do all the other things he says.

    I try to do the same with Matthew 25:34 -46. We help feed, house and clothe the poor with charitable contributions, but we have actually taken some folks in, fed them, housed them and clothed them. I visit the sick. I mean actually go to a healthcare facility and visit sick people. The same with prisoners. I actually go to a jail and visit prisoners.

    (I just violated maxim 10.)

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that taking someone in, feeding them, housing them and clothing them, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners are all countercultural things to do. They are also relatively easy to do. Striving daily to follow Fr. Hopko’s maxims is much more difficult for me, especially the stuff about being polite to everyone, being totally honest, and not complaining.

    Please do not commend me for anything I do. I am miserable servant who only does what he has been commanded to do, and I do a poor and inadequate job. That is why I also say the Jesus prayer as often as I can. God knows I am sinner and need all the mercy He can give to me.

    I only post this to try and answer your question.

  72. The Letter to Diogenes is an oft-quoted passage. It particularly gets applied in our modern cultures – and I think can be misleading. There is a very strong strain within modern theology – associated most strongly with Reinhold Niebuhr. Many people would espouse his point of view without ever knowing its source. He did an engagement of theology and civic life that is dubbed “political realism.” It was not at all utopian, but often could be quite practical – perhaps even compromising the gospel for utilitarian reasons. His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr is famous for his work on Christ and Culture – and had a strong notion of “Christ transforming culture” as the proper stand of the Church.

    My own objections to their work and thought is that it lacks the disjunction between the Church and the world seen in the Letter to Diogenes. That letter clearly sees Christians as being put to death for their beliefs. They are not about re-making Roman society – but living faithful to the gospel. The “display their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” At that time, they did not participate in many of the civic activities that would have seemed normal to Romans.

    We do not belong to this world. And though we might live peaceably within a culture – not dressing strange (except our priests) – except that we ought to dress modestly and avoid many of the fashions of the moment. Our life may very well be “salt” to the world, if we live faithfully. But simply living faithfully is the only thought we should have. American Christians are deeply afflicted with modern thought – meaning that we want to fix everything. I can imagine a conference entitled, “How to change the world by living faithfully.” It would be typical and sad.

    We are “counter-cultural” clearly because we live in a culture of death. There are many other aspects of the philosophy of modernity that should be put away. Were we more faithful to the gospel – our lives would be far more distinct than they are at present.

  73. Father,
    Thank you for that reminder. I actually use that at work a lot, when the conversations turn political or (less often) religious. I usually add (to the sentence “I don’t know about that”) a phrase “I can barely keep my own life and affairs on an honest and straight path, my opinion makes no difference and I don’t have the energy to develop one”. To which I always get a pushback “it’s people like you who let the system deteriorate”…
    But “I don’t know about that” is also a good reply to such accusation 🙂

    I try to stand up for my Orthodox Faith rather strong at work. With the strong Protestants, it is usually met with a kind smile (although I think they quietly consider me as ‘on the wrong path/bowing to idols [icons, Saints], etc, etc’). With non-believers it is usually met with a condescending smirk. It’s the atheist who challenges me most with questions such as “What if you believe in the ‘wrong God’?”

    Any advice how to answer that best?

  74. David and Fr. Freeman,

    I was worried after reading David’s initial response to the article I linked , that perhaps the Orthodox (like several Protestant denominations) aspire to some idea of “Christian culture” (ala Rod Dreher’s _The Benedict Option_). I am very glad that this is not the case.

    Everything you wrote, Fr. Freeman, is what I believe as a Christian; indeed, our only thought should be to abide faithfully in Christ. It is as you say: “we are ‘counter-cultural’ clearly because we live in a culture of death.” In truth, there is only Christ/Life/the Kingdom or Satan/death/the world; there is no other ground upon which to stand; there is only and ever Rock or sand. It is our hearts that are transformed by Christ so that we become His hands and feet in the world.

    But I wonder, are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked really counter-cultural in America? The most dangerous aspect of modernity is that it does value these things. The contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists aren’t as sharp as in the past when acts of mercy were almost exclusive to the Christian Church.

    Thank you so much for all that you have shared. You have both cleared some things up for me.

  75. Dino,
    I also have a question regarding your comment:
    You said
    “Yes, when another, or yourself, is in the midst of misfortune, in order not to say “why oh why am I [or why is he/she] going through this?” (as we often do), you must have asked God to bestow on you the vision of the ‘The great Beyond’.”
    What would this “change of thought” look like? Would it be worded to ask God for trust, consolation, reassurance? Or would it be worded as thanksgiving and request for help to endure? Or is there an even better way?

  76. Agata
    I think that it is very simple: The greater our faith for the heavenly, the smaller our worry for the earthly…

    I believe that the contrast between genuine Christianity and all else (alluded to by Sue) is to be found not in the apparent utilitarianism of any ‘activism’ towards this earth, but the seeming counter-utilitarianism of crucificial ‘hesychasm’: a focus upon the eternal Present where we are encountering the Lord. It is our foundational ascesis.
    Life is found in this poised stillness and death is the fruit of dispersion from it.

    Also, a certain ‘change of thoughts’ does come, but first and foremost from their elimination due to the fact that when you work on this ascesis, the exact moment ANY come to you, you do not debate with them to fend them off but ‘smash them on the Rock’ (Christ – His name, the prayer of His invocation, in the “here and now”). It is not up to you to ward them off. Thoughts are only expelled by the name of Jesus.
    Of course creating this ‘void’ means that the law of nature that will not allow any vacuum to remain a void applies: The Holy Spirit will come and fill the place and transform it little by little.

  77. Agata,
    Also, what it ‘looks like’ is indeed a stunning spectacle to behold, but, alas, many people can become almost frightened by the grandeur of even the mere ‘word-portrayals’ of such, and of the understandable scarcity (and need for extreme dedication to even just stand the chance of witnessing such, after many disenchanting other witnessings…)
    Before such accounts of such holiness, others are inspired and others become susceptible to mistrustfulness upon hearing it – sometimes due to it been customarily found in foreign-to-us-settings: in those people “wandering in deserts, and mountains, and caves, and holes of the earth” (Hebrews 11:38)

    We have a tendency to worry (and then become saddened) as Christians about the world, ourselves, sufferings, the times etc etc. (We lose the living vision of the ‘other side’… ) In fact, the greatest accusation ever hurled at us was that we are ‘unhappy’ -by Nietzsche. This couldn’t be more wrong: the true Christian is the courageous martyr who’s smile and joy cannot be destroyed even when he and his whole family are in the fiery furnace.
    The humble fearlessness and indomitable joy of such rare holly persons, 100% focused upon the Lord, is not out of the reach of any Christian though!
    The Lord incarnate Himself gave us the ultimate equilibrium as a yardstick: living alone and amongst many, immersed in the Father and offered to all men, endearing and vigilant, encompassing all sinners & failures and yet optimistic in the knowledge of the victorious final outcome of history.
    I’m pretty sure actually, that even people who for many years associate with respected monastics, ascetics and Church leaders, would still be able to count the persons in which they’d “seen what this looks like” in real strength, on half of one hand… But what matters is not that, especially since there’s always a possibility that one could see and ‘not see’ it (for various reasons that make us ‘miss it’); what matters is to be inspired by the One: to become THAT oneself out of the holy and humble desire to fulfil His good will upon that one chuck of creation that we are solely responsible for (ourselves).

  78. Agata,
    The ‘wording’ (if we could offer one, despite this being rather beside the point) would then unassumingly be: ‘Thy will be done’.
    To the degree that we earnestly start to discontinue that soul-destroying stress of ‘demanding’, and surrender to the acceptance of God’s will in all and for all ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’, to that same degree we ourselves truly become restored into a reflection of Heaven on Earth.

  79. Dino,
    Thank you so much! Wonderful words for me to process and try to practice. I really appreciate you taking the time. I hope others are blessed by reading them too.

  80. Father, I agree that the sense of saying “I don’t know about that” and the Elder’s, though perhaps worded differently, were the same response in meaning and implication for the hearers. Each in context was an expression of patient humility and conciliation in the face of opposition. I think of what I recall as the Elder’s phraseology as a way of validating that others may have good reasons for saying what they are saying, even if they have come to some wrong conclusions in the midst of that. I can see in some contexts and depending on how it is said, “I don’t know about that” could come across as dismissive and an invalidation and a challenge that provokes more argument. Clearly this is not the way in which your father-in-law uttered it. Probably there are other phrases each of us might find unique to our personalities and contexts that could communicate much the same thing in situations where we are in conflict with another. I love that account of your father-in-law. I still relate far too easily to “the Fonz”!

  81. Agata,

    What comes to mind in answer to your atheist interlocutor’s question about being sure you are believing in the right God is,

    “You mean to tell me, you think there’s more than one? (I thought you said you were an atheist!)” 🙂 The only answer istm we can give is that there is only one God.

  82. Karen,
    I will try that… but he just says it’s my problem, he is not bothered by this issue. We agree that we are happy in our own beliefs, but is that enough witness on my part?

  83. Agata
    Even if you proved to him with words that it’s him who has the wrong god as a non believer, I think it wouldn’t make the difference that your joy, assureness, positivity and integrity as a believer can.
    Once someone you deal with regularly knows the strength of your faith then your being becomes the faith’s advertisement (or accusation) more than your words of evangelism .

  84. Agata,

    Karen is correct. You need only answer, “there is only one God”; leave the rest to him. There is no need to elaborate. If you wish to go further to the point, you can add, “…and He has revealed Himself in Jesus”. Probably the best thing to do is to leave that ball in his court. You are not required to close the discussion, so to speak.

    But I wonder, are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked really counter-cultural in America? The most dangerous aspect of modernity is that it does value these things. The contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists aren’t as sharp as in the past when acts of mercy were almost exclusive to the Christian Church.

    Sue, Modernity devalues personal, face-to-face encounter and in its place prioritizes materialistic, or economic, support. For Modernity, everything is about education and economics. Only the most limited, shallow contact is actually condoned. It is utterly inhuman.

    As Christians, we should do as Christ does: enter into the suffering and the lives of those around us. Sadly, we are products of our time and rarely do so. There is no easy answer to the issue and you are correct: the contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists is not as sharp as in the past. Modernity thrives on the homogenous and the nebulous. The sharp distinction(s) offered by the fullness of Christ are anathema to it.

  85. Dino,

    Thank you for that encouragement.

    So far, I have managed to hold my ground in such conversations, and at least with me, he seems less exacerbated than with the others who try to debate him (I don’t debate, I just tell him what I love about the God I believe in). I think the greatest compliment I have heard from him so far is that I am not like most Christians… 🙂

    If I may, I want to tell you what he liked the most so far: I told him that my hope in/about God (even if I cannot know Him fully) is analogous to the joke about the scientist, the philosopher and the engineer, and a beautiful woman. He is a theoretical physicist so we agreed he represented the scientist. I represent the lowly engineer.

    A scientist, a philosopher and an engineer were set across the room from a very beautiful woman and told that to reach her, they can only traverse the distance towards her by moving 1/2 way. At “ready, set, go!”, only the engineer moved to the middle of the room. When asked why, the first two said “We know the math, it’s a mathematical impossibility”. To which the engineer said: “I don’t care about mathematical theories, I can get close enough!”
    🙂

  86. Father and Sue,
    Thank you for your comments.
    By the way, I forgot to mention that we never watch commercial television. We only watch non-commercial programs and we only watch one hour a night, at the most.
    My wife reads the newspaper but I have not paid attention to the news for two years, except for strictly local news.
    We rarely go the movies or the theatre. We never listen to commercial radio.
    We use the internet for shopping and email and I confess that I enjoy participating in Facebook, so there is that. I also like Pandora and Spotify.
    I also want to mention that helping and housing the homeless has its benefits. We have had many homeless volunteers wash the cars, clean the house, take out the trash, do the dishes, cut the lawn and weed eat. My house was painted by a homeless man who was living with us. They have also performed many repairs.
    In addition, I have many friends who I have met in healthcare facilities and jail.
    There are mean people, yes, but in my experience most people are actually good and kind and grateful for any help you can give them. Almost everyone I know, be they homeless, sick, a prisoner, or a successful professional, are doing the best they can with what they have got. My belief that the overwhelming majority of people, especially the poor, are decent, good and kind may be the most counter-cultural thing about me. At least in this culture.

  87. Agata, the first part of my comment was a bit tongue in cheek because of the logical incoherence of your colleague’s question. It sounds like you are doing fine just being yourself with him.

    One thing that comes to mind is something Mother Teresa said about evangelizing the Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus she encountered. She said she just would encourage these to be the best Muslim, Hindu or whatever they could be (which I took to mean encouraging them to live up to the best moral insights of their own traditions, trusting God to work in their consciences using what they already knew of Him in that way), and that faith in Christ was not hers to impart, but could only be given as a gift by God. Thus she could pray these might receive that gift, but she recognized the limits of her power to impart faith to another.

    There seems to me to be a lot of wisdom in that approach.

  88. Karen and Byron,
    Thank you for your comments. It is so true that Faith is a gift from God. And I only pray that I am not an impediment to others. It’s so good to have you all here, sharing how to model being a true Christian.
    Thank you.

  89. Sue and all,

    “… that perhaps the Orthodox (like several Protestant denominations) aspire to some idea of “Christian culture” (ala Rod Dreher’s _The Benedict Option_). I am very glad that this is not the case…”

    Rod Dreher’s (and others in their various ways, such as Ratzinger {Pope Benedict XVI}, McIntyre, even contemporaries of Niebuhr such as T.S. Eliot who wrote a book titled “Christianity and Culture”) is not a “retreat” and separatism into a walled “Christian culture”, at least not in the way implied – in fact it is the very opposite. The Ben Op is most often mis-characterized this way, almost always by those who are Niebuhr’s (and his many forbearers) intellectual/theological progeny in believing that Christianity (and the Great Commission) is exactly “Christ transforming culture”.

    The Ben Op is the realist position that instead of “Christ transforming culture”, modern secularism and the resultant society is the product of ‘culture’ transforming the Church. This is a hard hard truth for many, if not most Christians to see and admit, as it appears to be a *moral* failure. In my opinion the Orthodox in traditional western civ (NA, Europe, Australia, etc.) are hardly any better at seeing this truth than RC’s or Protestants, and this is a spiritual truth and not a mere historical analysis,or some other pragmatic observation and fact. Thus, Orthodox are as likely to mis-characterize the Ben Op as any other Christian, though it must be understood that few have actually read the book and are relying on others to inform them what it says.

    Too few on all levels (laity, clergy, etc.) see this and work and preach in this area (secularism, Christ and culture, etc.), which is why Fr. Stephen sticks out to the degree he does…

  90. Agatha – Everyone has a god. The most important thing in your life, the thing that you live for, the reason you get up in the morning, that is your god. So you might ask your friend how he knows tha he has the right god.

  91. Karen, Agata, Byron, Dino
    As an aggregate you have probably said what I’ll say. Salvation is gifted to us…”For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God….” Another verse that speaks of not-in-your-face evangelism is: “…always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” I know Agata through correspondence. She would never be ashamed of her faith. And I believe she lives it out the best she knows. I commend her forthrightness. We do not have to fret about “sharing” as I used to before becoming Orthodox. There should be no pressure to, either from within or without. If we are living an authentic Christian life as best we know, then opportunities will come our way, very naturally. They need never be forced. For me to sow seed is enough. I will leave it to God to give the increase.

  92. Dean,
    All I can say is Thank You. For these words and your advice and guidance in the past.
    It has been a Grace filled conversation. And David, to wake up each morning for Christ… I am far from that, but what an “ideal” to strive for! It’s the way of the Saints, isn’t it?
    Thank you friends.

  93. I really appreciate this conversation about how to live the Christian life. I am responding inwardly to so many comments!

    Thank you to David (?) for reminding me of Fr Hopko’s 50 Maxims. I will print it out tomorrow.

    And Dean, yes, I fee less pressure to share my faith than when I was Protestant. But I fear my life will never really reflect Christ, will never show hope, and sometimes I slip into the idea that if I at least share the gospel then I will have done something good. This is not good thinking.

    I also know mostly Christians. My circle is small, but I do truly invest in those I know. Should I be deliberate about meeting others, specifically non Christians? Then the relationship is built on using them to be a project and not in love. I’m stymied here. And then the introvert comes out when new people come to our church…

  94. I am about to study for a class and I prayed a student’s prayer that addresses some of my own questions…great timing…thought I’d share it here:

    Most blessed Lord, send the grace of your Holy Spirit on me to strengthen me that I may learn well the subject I am about to study and by it become a better person for Your glory, the comfort of my family, and for the benefit of Yiur Church and the world. Amen.

    My intent is to pray this with my children as we begin our home schooling day but I’ve been forgetting. Tomorrow is a new day.

  95. Kristin,
    I have done before exactly what you’ve said…used others as a “project.” Yet, I’ve noticed something else. As I grew to know the person and acted lovingly toward him/her, I grew to love them. As far as meeting new people, I like Fr. Freeman’s counsel. Be kind, and gentle with all. You say you truly invest in those around you. Good. As one elder said, “First, look to your own salvation. And if you can, help five or six others.” Small is okay.

  96. Dino, Agata, et al
    “the true Christian is the courageous martyr who’s smile and joy cannot be destroyed even when he and his whole family are in the fiery furnace.”

    I’m not sure I would say “true” Christian, and the smile and joy are clearly pierced by sorrow. There is a common Orthodox phrase “joyful sorrow” that is used to describe things like the Lenten season. That captures this better for me. It would just be weird to stand by smiling while watching the suffering of your family. I do not picture either Mary or John standing at the Cross smiling while Christ is dying – nor does the Church picture them in that manner.

    Hagiography (the accounts of saints’ lives) is often quite fanciful, written to encourage and inspire the faithful. But, as inspirational as they are, they can create a burden of cognitive dissonance in the minds of some when they sorrow and grieve. I would not want to communicate a sense of condemnation, or “I’m not really a true Christian,” for someone who finds that they cannot manage a smile.

    “Jesus wept.”

  97. Father
    I know that there is always the danger of that. I was once vehemently resistant (for various reasons) to the spirit of such “joyous spiritual warfare” preferring the penitential mourning (with its inevitable divine consolation) and distrusting such “enthusiasms.” I have experienced long bouts of the compunctionate / lenten pedagogy which were deeply inspiring and I have also experienced (with an initial internal revolt as you allude to) long bouts of the more fiery / joyous (it is still a lenten form) pedagogy. This latter was also deeply inspiring but also proved more secure in its healthy foundation of “…and despair not”. (The 2nd part of the admonition “keep thy mind in hell…”) There is a quite clear tendency towards the first in certain circles. Russian tradition often likes this I think. Valaam and Essex come to mind. (Although Elder Sophrony would say it is the loss of joy that are times are in greater danger of rather than the loss of spiritual mourning.) There’s a tendency towards the second style in certain Greek circles. St Porphyrios, Elder Aimilianos (Ormylia and Simonopetra) come to mind very strongly.
    I definitely should have said the “inspirational Christian is the courageous martyr. ..” to be clearer though, as that’s the meaning i wanted to convey and, understandably, those rare persons who exhibit such zeal wouldnt be heartless, but to the contrary, would ‘mourn with those who mourn’ when in their presence.
    In fact they would usually mourn for all in private while simultaneously thanking God for his grace and ping pong between those two states. In public though, it is more fitting & part of the hard ascesis we are advised by the Apostle to take on, to “be joyous always”.
    I don’t know how this discernment can be applied in the general speech any more while retaining the message of victory as well as being careful not to allow those in despondency or who might read a sense of ‘condemnation’ other than what I have seen in the aforementioned Elders which I continuously repeat.

  98. Father,
    Dino is the only person I know who can say such things because he personally lived through the actual horror of saving his family from the fiery furnace (in those Athens fires in July). I thank God every day that we did not loose him that day, and that he still is able to share his deep knowledge of Orthodoxy with us. I am inspired by these reminders to keep going despite so many temptations and reasons to be depressed and overwhelmed by the cares of this world (in my own personal life and in the affairs of the world).

    I know you are trying to protect those who “grieve and sorrow”, I cannot begin to imagine what difficulties people come to you with. But it was only really from Dino that I learnt that it is a sin to murmur against God in our difficulties. Somehow I never heard that anywhere before, or at least it did not register with me.

    Even Fr. Zacharias tells stories about how people get cured from the worst depression when they start practicing thanksgiving. So maybe the smile on our face does more than we know…

  99. *correction: (Although Elder Sophrony would say it is the loss of joy that our times are in greater danger of rather than the loss of spiritual mourning.)

    It’s also worth noting that, as it escaped many people’s attenntion, Elder Sophrony a few times said that it is this second part of Christ’s admonition to St Silouan that is ‘new’, he knew very well how to do the first part. He normally said that when he communicated that there is a greater danger of despair than of overconfidence in most. God knows how to humble the proud. But we need to cultivate hope.
    It’s also worth noting that in Exodus the continuous ‘complaint’ of God is that his people so easily would complain and become dejected (and when you read what they went through it’s not difficult to sympathise with them…

    Agata,

    the (outward senses) tribulation of the fires is absolutely nothing compared to the spiritual (and some psychological, ‘inward senses’) tribulations that we sometimes go through (like what Silouan went through for instance), absolutely no comparison…. (the first is natural and the second demonic)

  100. Dino and Agata,
    I wish to reaffirm Fr Stephen’s words, which were provided in this conversation not just as counterpoint but as helpful and healthful approach to help others in moments of grief. He is after all a priest and pastor of long experience and with support for his work from his Bishop. All Saints offer models of the Christian life but it takes more discernment to know when one life or their words are helpful exemplars to support another’s journey.

  101. Dee,
    I think that an essential clarification is required here.
    When speaking personally to a specific individual (in grief for instance), you cannot possibly forget to apply pastoral discernment and ‘injure them’ with the wrong word. That should go without saying and could have terrible consequences.
    However, when speaking generally, the encouraging, arousing, inspirational word has a place, and it has been missing, with its own terrible consequences, making the Christian message less palatable to many (I refer you to Nietzsche’s incisive [and yet erroneous when applied to the genuine/inspirational saints] criticism of Christians!)… This last is a very important point in our public/general “word”.
    Of course, as Fr Sophrony’s warning (that our times will be more susceptible to a latent desperation) indicates, such a “word’s” greater need in our times is also shadowed by more opportunities for it to be individually misinterpreted.

  102. *Nietzsche erroneously characterized Christians as “misguided, unhappy, wretches” because he knew not of the ardent spearheads of authentic Christianity (which the public word of Christian Hagiography represents.)
    Even early icons such as the ‘Crucifixion of the Living Christ’ from the Rabbula Gospels AD 586 (Fr J Behr reminds us) display this last public appearance of His, as paradoxically, not just without a pained expression, as we is depicted in later centuries, but almost verging on smiling on the Cross (!). [At this time there were no icons of the resurrection/harrowing of hades and the cross was simultaneously understood (by Christians of that martyric ardour) as His victorious exaltation.

    There is of course a very heavy burden of unseen mourning on many levels in every personal spiritual soldier, ‘we will have tribulation in this world’ no matter what, but the word that ends Christ’s phrase there is ‘take courage for I have overcome the world’; so it is never a mourning without hope, and the word of hope is truly priceless.

    Since Agata mentioned the fires, I was reminded of how Elder Aimilianos faced the great fire of 1990 in Simonopetra with absolute calm and joy (accepting even this as a divine blessing!) Although it was an unimaginable threat, (the Church’s candelabras molten metal was seeping out the entrance like lava!) the monks were astounded to witness the Elder walking out of the monastery last, unscathed (that was up in 50 or more meters of flames) with that same characteristically dignified walk he always had. In that moment they truly exclaimed, “this is not just words about joy and fearlessness that the Elder keeps banging on about to the point where some sometimes resent it! It is real!” Of course, even if this isn’t a fanciful account but a very precise one, it does not detract from the truth of the need for discernment as Father rightly advises…

  103. It’s also perhaps worth (despite this being easy ro misinterpret) adding that Fr Aimilianos claimed that such unbeatable joy cannot be sustained without daily (nightly to be more precise) tears.

  104. Father
    An interesting translational issue I might mention while on this subject is that in English what Jesus does immediately after seeing Mary weeping and immediately after Himself weeping– ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35)– is translated completely wrong as: ‘he was deeply moved’ or He was ‘groaning in himself’. The original “ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι” and “ἐμβριμώμενος ἐν ἑαυτῷ” actually means that He disciplined/contolled Himself.

    Orthodox Lenten contrition with such a strong emphasis on weeping, is undeniably one of underlying joy: “Let us begin the fast with joy. Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts.” (Forgiveness Sunday Vespers) In the sense of, “Jesus was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit”(Luke 10:21)
    It is the spiritual joy of the Holy Martyrs, whose spiritual battle cries ignite the repentant souls of those who want to be more closely conformed to Christ, towards a paradoxical joy, one that has nothing to do with what this world understands as happiness. It is rather the quintessentially Christian power of the Cross, which confers strength according to our partaking in weakness, suffering and death.
    “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His,
    we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Rom. 6.5).

    The most closely conformed to Christ in His sufferings are the Martyrs. “Martyr” (men, women, and children) means to “one who bears witness”, through their sufferings the martyrs witnessed to the Christ’s presence and to the strength that could only come from Him.

  105. Forgive me, Dino,
    But Jesus does this ἐμβριμώμενος before He wept. I would have to debate translating it as “controlling” himself. Also, given that it comes first, your observation would not work.

  106. Father,
    Forgive me for pressing the point but the expression occurs twice, both times after our Lord being moved:
    once in 11:33 “When Jesus saw her weeping,…he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (should say controlled himself violently).
    And again in:
    34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. 11:35 Jesus wept.and then 11:38 Jesus, once more deeply moved,(should again be translated controlled himself violently)

  107. When the expression occurs in Matthew 9:30 it is translated correctly (30 And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straitly charged them, saying, See that no man know it.) It literally actually means ‘to reprimand’

  108. Another disconnect.
    That’s not the Jesus I know, Dino. Sounds cold and distant to me. Stoic like. I prefer Jesus wept, and will think of Him weeping with those in grief.
    Reprimand [Himself]…controlled himself violently…I’ll pass on the Greek this time.
    Besides, Jesus wasn’t Greek. He is all things to all people.

  109. Dino,
    I don’t know of any English lexicon that renders this as “controlled” himself. Rather, particularly in the Middle Voice – it is much more the sense of “inwardly groan.” The root is from the word meaning to “snort” like a horse (in the koine). In Matt. 9:30, it’s in the active voice – it’s not the sense of “controlling” the disciples – but “sternly” telling them – with the emphasis on the “sternly.”

    I feel like a fool to argue a point of Greek with you – but in this one I disagree. And, I’m sympathetic with Paula’s comment that we should not think of Christ as stifling His emotions. He is not enthralled with the passions. Theologically, I would find it problematic to translate this as “controlling Himself.”

  110. Yes it’s strange but the Greek intetpretations of the Greek (…..) go for that selfcontrol exegesis. It doesnt matter how we parse scripture at the end as whichever way we look at it, when we look at it in the knowledge of God’s love, His tears, His smile, His reprimand, His incarnate self-control or not, they all speak to us of His love for us that never ends.

  111. I’m a total ignoramous when it comes to Greek, and I hope I don’t stir a pot that needs to calm down. Just suppose Dino’s translation is correct—doesn’t this still communicate that Jesus was deeply moved within Himself? In fact, so deeply moved that if He hadn’t violently suppressed or moderated the outward expression of that feeling to some degree, He could have uttered a word or shout or cry that undid the whole universe? I don’t think of this as Jesus being stoic or soldiering on with a stiff upper lip like some Brit, but having that great meekness not to untimely unleash His great power and emotion in a way that could have been quite overpowering and overwhelming to those around Him.

  112. Karen… a very generous thought. I’d have to dig deep for that one!
    I think that by Jesus crying with us is overpowering in and of itself…that He identifies with us, because He became one of us. Our Lord and our God wept at the death of His friend. As the giver of life, He knows the grievousness of death, its senselessness…even though He knew He would very shortly conquer death by His death. He still wept. That kind of love is only sane thing I can hold onto during the insanity. He shows me not only that it is ok to grieve, but that He identifies with it and is with me…in the dark hours too, when no one else is. That is all I need to know.
    And I certainly can not imagine Him expecting some kind of self control at such a time. Rather I beg of Him for grace that I don’t loose it completely.

  113. All,
    I think that Dino’s explanation of how the Greek’s read this passage versus how it is commonly read by English scholars points to an honest difference – rather than an argument. The Greek that is being discussed is not contemporary Greek, but Koine, and is as much a matter of scholarly understanding as it is anything.

    When it comes to Christ Himself, there is much written in the doctrine and teaching of the Church. My cautions in that matter are primarily rooted in the dogmatic treatment of Christ’s humanity. Frankly, much that today we describe as “emotion” is a badly understood element within the human personality – often not at all congruent with the older understanding of the human person.

    There is nothing disordered in Christ’s emotions – such that they would need to be “controlled,” and there’s nothing in the Tradition that suggests such a thing. This does not make Him less than human – but truly human. The disordering of our emotions, just like our bondage to the passions, distorts our humanity rather than expressing it. This is a matter of the Church’s teaching.

    There is certainly an element (in the customary English scholarly reading) of deep “movement” within Christ in this story. The root of the word in Koine Greek refers to the “snort” of a horse, a word ultimately related to our word “bray.” It has the force (since this is expressed in the Middle Voice) of sort of “snorting inwardly,” carry the sense of being deeply moved – but not carrying any sense of control. Indeed, it is not “controlled.” Christ weeps. And He is deeply moved again after He weeps. Christ’s tears at the grave of His friend sanctifies the grief of every human being. Though He knows He will raise Lazarus from the dead, death is still a terrible thing, and enemy. Christ is moved and acts. This, I think, is the proper and traditional reading of the passage. And I’ll let our discussion on this rest there.

    The Russian renders it as скорбящий meaning “grieving” apparently agreeing with English scholarship.

  114. It was the reference to the snorting horse which made me think of meekness—strength under control. I think I have heard the Greek term used for meek (“Blessed are the meek..”) has an equestrian reference underlying it, too.

  115. I harmonize unreservedly with what Father Stephen says about this parsing of yet another scriptural passage being but a discussion of an honest difference – rather than an ‘argument’. The mutual respect might not be as evident to all (in having this conversation on the comments section) – with all the detailed explanations of our respective backgrounds. I hope it isn’t missed by other readers and the conversation misconstrued as, somehow, being an ‘argument’ – it is nothing of that sort.
    The different backgrounds or predefined translational understandings, even when one is correct and the other one uses some creative license, usually contain some fascinating good-will behind them anyway.
    The ‘snorting’ verb in this passage, (after having a little search in all my Greek Gospels and relevant homilies), is, for whatever reason, explained as a ‘threatening braying’ sound that one would do to reprimand – His own self in this instance.
    The first time it occurs, as it is put together with the expression “He shook Himself” (not as in “quivered”, but as in: “He Himself quivered His own self”) ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι καὶ ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν(John 11:33) Now, I couldn’t find this translated into modern Greek in anything other than this: ‘He imposed with great force upon His interior to keep the emotion’– even with distinct cross references in some footnotes to 1 Tessalonians 4:13 “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope”.

    There’s even some more drawn out homilies in Greek about how Christ’s Divine nature ‘composed’ His human nature, which I found a little strange. These kind of explanations can be found on some other difficult passages too,I guess, like Gethsemane, and I don’t know quite what to make of them.
    As I said earlier, (Karen embellished it beautifully) all readings in this instance seem to speak of Christ’s love I think.

  116. Finding some beautiful words (struggling wonderfully to comprehend the incomprehensibility of divine Incarnation in this and other passages) on how Christ is at once, not just thoroughly human, but all of Man, and not just utterly divine, but all of God.
    I might translate some passages if I find some time [much later… ] “Let all that is within me bless His holy name”(Psalm 102:1)

  117. Dino,
    That’s a fascinating treatment – the two natures. It’s an exposition that has no parallel in English. The scholarly stuff I’ve read goes in a very different direction (as I’ve indicated). How interesting. I will make a note for the future.

  118. Dino, thanks for the added word of explanation.

    My reflection about the discussion was fueled, as you have expressed also, in the assumption of a certain goodwill (and accurate insights) behind the efforts of all translators. It was also rooted in convictions formed from my background and continuing interest in the insights gained from the discipline of psychology with those of the Tradition also brought to bear on this. My psychological knowledge is both theoretical and applied in my own case, as I have loved ones with mental illness and have spent time working through some of my own maladaptive responses with Christian therapists in the past as well as majoring in psych in college.

    It was my observations that it is not only disordered emotions which need to be subject to godly control, but even perfectly healthy, rightly-ordered and appropriate human God-given emotional responses which outward expression we need sometimes to self-moderate for the well-being of others who may, through weakness or immaturity, be ill-equipped to bear the full weight of our perceptions and honest responses to them. One thinks of parents who suffer through some tragedy with their young children, who need to help their children through grief by not throwing the full weight of their own adult grief onto their children, but rather offering their children adult strength and support.

    So, yes, any way I look at this passage, it speaks to me of the Lord’s amazing depth of compassion and condescension for our sakes in His Incarnation.

  119. An image came to my mind this morning as I was reading all of this. It was of the “grief” of God. Imagine, if you will, the sound of God’s grief at the suffering of His beloved creation. That wail would shake the universe to its foundations. Indeed, on the Cross, the earth shook, the sky was darkened. And, even that, was, no doubt, deeply muted.

    This was very moving for me.

  120. I am afraid I have been misunderstood, which means that I have not done a good job articulating what I mean by “Christianity is not a culture; it transcends culture.” This morning I read the following passage by C.S. Lewis in the October 2018 issue of Magnificat. He says it far better than I could ever hope:

    “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has been opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following him is, of course, the essential point…

    It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

    It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

    All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are not *ordinary* people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

    This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat –the glorifier and the glorified, Glory himself, truly is hidden.”

  121. *Very* interesting conversation (last dozen or so posts) and I am glad that Dino pushed the translation and hermeneutical point. I wonder if we are not dealing with a “east vs. west” difference here. The greek hermeneutical sources that Dino is quoting seem unconcerned (if not unaware) with a “western” notion(s) of “original sin” or original corruption of the *nature* of humanity. This is not to say that they don’t have a notion of this, just that it is different. Therefore, these greek sources can speak of “control” in a way that is not automatically assumed to be *against (disordered) nature* as it would be to western notional ears. The assumptions (the context) of this use of “control” is ascetical and *with nature*, or more accurately a kind of binding of natural powers toward a good end (telos). Nature is to be directed, Chaos toward the Kingdom, Spirit “moving” on and over the waters, etc. A horse is not a horse unless it is bridled, and this bridling is part of its nature and end and is not over against a primal “disordering”.

    This emphasis appears to be in the opposite direction of Fr. Stephens “disordered passions” and “bondage”, and even Karens notions of weight and maturity. I don’t disagree with either of these emphasises or context at all (Fr. Stephen rightly points to these being a dogmatic treatment of Christ’s humanity). However the sources Dino is using appear to be pointed to something else that itself is not burdened with a particular history and deep habitual, even “genetic” disposition toward a certain kind of concern about φύση that leads to the necessity of protecting the Immacule nature of Mary in RC theology, or the Immaculate ontology of Christs human nature (as in Father’s post above). This is not to say these Greek sources don’t assume this, just that it is not the beginning, nor end, nor a “problem” along the way….

  122. Thanks for that quote Sue. I think it is a Grace for me to be continually surprised, even after years of familiarity, with Saint Clive Staples Lewis’s profundity and depth.

    On the subject of “Christ and Culture” (and particular conceptions of this, “Christ and Culture”, “Christ against Culture”, “Christ transforming Culture”, etc.) the etymology of the word ‘culture’ itself is a useful starting point I think, particular for us modern folks in western lands who are strongly formed in a certain presuppositions. As in that quote Lewis himself speaks of the “Christian neighbor”, a fellow cult member. Fr. Stephen does not want us to derail this thread with a discussion of the Ben Op, so I would just encourage you to read Dreher’s (or Vigen Guroian’s new book available in a few days on Nov. 6th) for perspective(s) that question the dominant Niebuhr(ian) “Christ transforming Culture” of the current 21st century (mostly) Protestant context…

  123. You know, there’s a part of me that wants to say that “Christ transforming culture” is a purely bourgeoise concept. The poor don’t think that way because they do not imagine themselves being able to transform anything. They just want to survive. The “transforming” bit, just like “changing the world into a better place” is revealing of our class – not of theology.

    That’s a part of me. Sorry that it sounds a little Marxist.

  124. I agree father, can it ever escape its “Immanentize the Eschaton” pretext? Even on the most generous and plausible reading, how do you square it with the NT? It’s a significant piece in the puzzle of secularism and modernity itself.

    The book is “The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World”, which should bring it up in Amazon or preferred bookseller…

  125. Now, I can’t follow all that has been parsed or written here. But as Dee and Paula have noted there is more here than just exegesis. There is the great pastoral concern of Fr. Freeman which weighs-in on everything he writes or says. So, I see first Christ deeply moved here at the death of a beloved friend and at the enemy, death itself. I know not of Christ having to have His emotions “straitened” or constrained. “For we have not a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses….” So, because I do not know Greek I will remain with Christ being “deeply moved.”
    I know that simply reading this passage in the RSV affects me realizing the profound love our Lord has for each one of us.
    Sue, thank you too for the Lewis quote. It has been some years since I read it.

  126. Some thoughts re: Christopher’s comment at 10:59 am:
    Yes there is an “east to west” difference here. I said that in the past when I first used the word “disconnect” in reference to certain comments. Additionally, I do see other significant (to me) differences. One is the ability (really, a gift) to discern that which is being said by each person, and then to clearly and sensibly express your own assessment (Father has this down pat..always with an Orthodox mind). In the end those who have this ability are the ones who others look to for clarification. If that which [the others] “hear” resonates in their heart, whether it be for edification or correction, and is received with humility, then all is well. But even in the best of times we miss the mark. There are misunderstandings. I think a difference in the style of communication, common vs “learned” (I call “the smart ones”) can be intimidating. (not talking right or wrong here…it boils down to a shame issue as usual). Because I do *not* think that out of all the thousands of readers Father has, most of them do not comment because they think they have nothing to say. Just saying…;-)
    We are a complicated race…human, that is…and we’d be hard pressed to pinpoint three or four reasons for our dissonance. There are many. We can at least agree that we are fallen.

    Another thing I noticed while reading the archives….there is a notable difference in the flow and tone in the comment section, say from the blog’s beginning to 2012 or thereabout. It was generally pleasant, even amid the disagreements. It was edifying, with one comment following another pretty much in one accord. I felt like I was sitting in my old church where we were all giving our testimony for the week, thankful and praising the goodness of God. Father…any thoughts about this? I know you have said that the tension and division in the world has never been as it is these days.
    Thank you all…for all your comments.

  127. Paula,
    I’m not sure that I have noted changes over the years – though there probably are. I know that at a certain point, for me, I became more willing to confront certain things – perhaps it was after my heart attack. However, public discourse has been steadily declining in civility for quite some time. By comparison to other places – this one is irenic. Also, I think that the comments section has varied over the years with the coming and going and coming of certain personalities.

  128. Fr. Freeman and Christopher, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I have actually read Rod Dreher’s book . I explained my thoughts about it in a comment I submitted last night that, in wisdom, Father saw fit to remove. I am not familiar with Niebuhr at all. Considering what I’ve read on this blog in recent weeks, I do believe I am in way over my head. In trying to speak plainly about my faith and ask questions about the Orthodox Church, I am met with terminology (and names) I have never before encountered. I think a commenter (on another post) once compared this to how Eskimos have 40 different words for snow, whereas in English there is just one. The idea was that our understanding of snow is scanty compared to Eskimos. I have been thinking hard about that, because I grew up in a place that receives more snow each year than any other city of its size or larger in the United States, including Alaska. Have I not really experienced snow because I do not have the language to describe its many variations? Do I need to be an Eskimo or learn the Inuit language in order to truly know snow? Is language the boundary of experience?

  129. Sue I don’t think language is the boundary of our experience. But in a blog, there are aspects of our face to face communication that are simply missing, where meanings can be lost.

    I’m grateful for Fr Stephen’s editorial decisions— even more so if I have crossed some line of helpfulness, and my comment is edited out. I have expressed frustration here on not a few occasions. Such expressions muddy the water or have that potential to do so if not appropriately moderated.

    I ask that you take Fr Stephen’s editorial decisions with a attitude of acceptance and be encouraged to continue to ask questions and comment as you are inclined.

    Fr Stephens ministry is for edification and to encourage us but also to teach us the ‘Orthodox Way’.

    And for that I’m always grateful.

  130. Well thanks Father. Comforting to know you have not noticed much of a change, if any. It is true that sometimes my “mood” colors my perception. And yes, I agree, this blog (you and your readers) certainly aims for peace.
    Interesting you “tightened-up” ship after your heart attack. You did say recently that our personal attacks against each other causes even a physical sense of grief within yourself. It hurts to hear that.
    Thank God you are still with us.

  131. Dean,
    Thank you for your words. You expressed my point better than I and I sincerely appreciate that.

    Exegesis is interesting to me but it seemed to me that it was being used to thwart Fr Stephen’s ministerial assertions. I may well be alone in that interpretation. All I will say to that is thank God for Fr Stephen’s patience.

  132. Paula,
    Actually, I’m not sure tightened up ship would be correct. I became less willing to “tiptoe” around certain things. So, I might have contributed to a coarsening of our encounters myself. I certainly wrote some things in 2012 forward that caught more flack than previously. Most of that came as a bit of a surprise. In general, I just write. I write what I know and understand – which limits me. I do not write what I think will “play well” because I have no idea what that would be. So, I just write.

    Sue, sometimes I remove a comment that I think will (even quite innocently) take the conversation in a direction that will not be of benefit. That is occasionally because someone has quite innocently placed a land mine, or a known trigger, within a comment. It is more than possible for the non-Orthodox to stumble into things that they are not aware of. For example, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church share a lot of common ground. They also share a common history, some of which has been very uneven, including an oppression of Orthodoxy – a history with which most Catholics are not familiar. So, sometimes, there can be a touchiness that would surprise.

    Frequently, it’s the case that Roman Catholic expressions of doctrine differ strongly from Orthodox expressions – there are many differences of language that actually do matter. Those conversations are worth having – but not always in the middle of something else. So, I ask patience of those who comment. There’s a madness in my method. 🙂

  133. Paula,

    Forgive me and my obscure and pedantic language! I have a philosopher’s bent and even “talent”, which is not really mine of course. Much of the time I would rather have something useful, like Superman strength or spiritual discernment 😉

    Sue,

    As if to prove the above, during my undergrad years I had a kind of obsession with George Herbert Mead and “symbolic interactionism”, which is a modern pysho-social theory about the centrality of human language and how it shapes who we are and how we relate and “know” something (anything). There is truth in this, even though it is ultimately hamstrung by the limits of a “scientific” view of man (anthropos). Remember Charles Taylor (often cited by Dreher in the early chapters)? His is a very useful expression of this kind of modern thinking about man and language and experience, perhaps best summed up in a term I think Nietsche coined, “Perspectivism”.

    There seems to be a correlation to Christianity, in that God’s Word became flesh, God “speaks” creation into existence, etc. However this correlation is only so deep, and Christianity fills in the missing pieces of a materialistic and “Cartesian” understanding of man and what and how we know something. Christianity is ultimately much more “objective” and “experiential” in how it explains (not that it is an “explanation” per se) who we are and how we know something. So no, language is not the “boundary” of experience, anymore than an Icon is a “boundary” of Heaven. Language and symbol is better described as a “bridge” than a “boundary” in my opinion.

  134. Hi Dee of St. Hermans,

    Thank you for your response. I accept with kindness Father’s editorial decisions (it is his blog, after all!). I think you misunderstood my question about language. As a Catholic looking into the Orthodox faith, I have many questions–and I often feel like I am met with very complicated answers–not that the answers themselves are complicated, but the language used to describe these answers can be very confusing to people who are not familiar with the terminology or the theologians referenced. I’m sorry if I offended anyone; this was not my intention.

  135. Sue no offense was taken, in fact I’m a little surprised that you think this was the case. Perhaps you thought I was referring to your comments in my comment to Dean—however I wasn’t. I don’t think I misunderstood you.

    Please forgive me that my comment to Dean appears as though it refers your comments. It isn’t the case and wasn’t my intention at all.

  136. Father…I see what you mean now, about the consequences of no longer “tip-toeing” around certain issues. To address them instead, increases the possibility of “spirited” discussions! And I am thankful that you continue to “just write”. It is an obvious gift that blends wonderfully with your call as a pastor.

    Christopher…oh I laugh! Yeah, you’re one of the “smart ones”!!! Seriously, as frustrated as I get at times, when I have to re-read your comments, google definitions, and more(!)…if I didn’t take you seriously I wouldn’t bother!! I do that with other “smart ones” here too…and in the end it is always beneficial. Even when I don’t get answers, inevitably discussions like the one taking place here over the last two days bring a sense of contentment. Really, I am my worst enemy when it comes to reasoning…and it’s hard to fight my own ego!

    Dee…I regret to say, but I had the same reservations about “thwarting”…my thought was usurping…Father’s role here. It has been a thought I’ve had for quite some time. I also want to believe that I am totally wrong in this assumption. It seems to lead to the pitting of one against another…favoritism, if you will. Similar to what St. Paul encountered with those who followed Apollos. I think this is done unintentionally. But it can lead to a click-ish type of atmosphere.
    Father, I hope I haven’t crossed the line here. I tend to say too much at times. I would truly welcome correction.

  137. Paula, thank you. I’m not usually one who wants to engage in contentious conversation or behavior but I believed Fr Stephen’s words were very important and helpful and I didn’t want them to become overwhelmed. (Please forgive me Fr Stephen)

  138. Fr. Freeman,
    For what it’s worth, I found your “unmoral” article one of your best writings. Many of us gauge our progress in Christianity by our progress in morality alone. It could be quite easy (or hard) to clean up the things in someone’s life where their conscience condemns them, and then feel fine, at peace – when they should not be at peace. God wants our entire person not just the parts of us where our conscience is most bothered. Often our consciences are weak when it comes to being generous, kind, forgiving, non fault-finding, etc. – so you clean up the big sins that plague you and you feel alright – when God has no intention on making you feel alright. I’m convinced that many times God allows us to struggle with a sin continually because if we didn’t we would feel fine – Him not delivering us from a sin may be the only thing keeping us aware of our need for Him since if it were healed we would just go back to a position of pride, neglecting the “inside of the cup.” I am convinced also, that if we knew our contingency, and what God does to transform us from mud, all of the time, and lived there under this awareness without letting ourselves be constantly distracted from this, we would not only make moral progress but something greater, often with the moral and spiritual in tandem.

  139. Sue – I am a former RC ✝️, now Orthodox ☦️. Here is how to understand Orthodoxy.
    Go to Vespers. Go to Divine Liturgy. Read about it later.
    God bless.

  140. Existential despair? I have to wonder if this person is familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes. The remarkable thing seems to be the vastly different effect the same information can have on two different souls. I constantly find myself wanting to explain to unbelieving friends and family that their repulsion is proof of them not really understanding the true nature of God and Christianity, as If their unbelief was do to faulty information processing.

    I remember you somewhere quoting someone who said something like “the man who just came to faith due to your sharing the gospel with him would have done so upon seeing a butterfly emerge from its cacoon.”

    The exact flavour in your writing that this person marks as consisting in existential despair is exactly what has in my life delivered me from such despair.

    Thanks be to God!

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