Beloved, we are children of God, and it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1John 3:2)
You are dead, and your life is hid in Christ in God. (Col. 3:3)
Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it. (Lk. 17:33)
You have to live God, because God is life. – Fr. Roman Braga
There is a deep connection between God and the self within Christian understanding. Obviously, they are not the same thing, but we do not know one without the other. It is possible to say that we only know God to the extent that we know ourselves and that we only know ourselves to the extent that we know God.
To know yourself is an inner activity, made particularly difficult in an outer-directed culture. Though we live in the age of the “selfie,” we are, nonetheless, an age that is distracted from the true knowledge of the self. The “selfie” has nothing to do with self-knowledge and everything to do with an objectification of the self – how I would like myself to look if I were someone else. What the selfie never shows is how we truly perceive ourselves.
There is an experience of shame that surrounds the self (everybody’s self) that is simply unavoidable. Shame is associated with the inner sense that there is something wrong with “who I am.” It is acquired from experiences, mostly unavoidable, within life. And so, we never go very far within ourselves without encountering some level of pain and discomfort. There are parts of ourselves that we do not share and prefer to remain hidden. Often enough, the discomfort surrounding such things is great enough that we avoid confronting them ourselves. It is the primary cause for our avoidance of inner awareness.
All of this means that the journey to knowing the self will inevitably require going into and through the shame that surrounds it. The true self should not be confused with the “shame-self.” They are not the same. The shame-self is who I am, defined by how I feel about myself, or that aspect of myself. The true self is beneath that and deeper. By the same token, God is beneath even the true self.
It is of note to me that there is a great darkness associated with God in some presentations of the Christian faith, enough to drive many people away. When I read or hear such presentations, I am inclined to believe that I am encountering someone has not gone beneath the self of shame. Reading along in social media, you’ll encounter memes and such that proclaim, “He just needs a good kick in the pants!” or words to that effect. Such sentiments seem to be applied to parenting, social policy, theology, etc., as the occasion requires. They are words without compassion or understanding, marked primarily by violence and dismissal. They are the words of someone whose “inner critic” says the same miserable words to them all the time. They are words that have not been examined. There is an assumption that, if only we worked harder, tried more, didn’t quit, paid attention, etc. (such an endless list), we would be better (and, perhaps, we would like ourselves). It is the voice of the shame-self, disguised as responsibility, morality, authority or whatever.
Within the Tradition, and the Scriptures, the knowledge of God (and thus of the self), comes as revelation. It is hidden and must be made known. That which hides God is within us, not outside of us. It is the “pure in heart” who see God. This does not necessarily imply a sinlessness or perfection. Rather, it is a stillness that can see what truly is without turning away.
Fr. Roman Braga, who is quoted above, suffered in the Pitești prison camp in Romania, perhaps the worst such regime in history. He was in solitary confinement for three years. It was in that context, he says, that he “learned to pray.” His writings constantly affirm that God is “within us,” that within us is a vast, limitless universe. In such a setting, you either find the courage to enter within and discover the life that cannot be destroyed or go mad. Fr. Roman’s thoughts on the inner life are not unlike those of St. Macarius:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius (H.43.7)
Fr. Roman reminds people that St. Paul taught that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” a saying that has been tragically reduced to a moral exhortation. Rather, we should have this Psalm in mind:
One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple. (Ps 27:4)
To behold that beauty and to make such an inquiry requires that we also encounter lions and dragons, poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. Those who do not undertake this singular pilgrimage spend the whole of their lives without knowledge of God or the true self. They remain people of the surface, doomed to act out the puppetry dictated by the self of shame. Over time, it adds to the treasures of evil and gives birth to ever more dragons and lions. It is little wonder that we bite and devour one another in our public life.
But there, too, is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace – all things are there.
Wow Fr.! That is a very powerful posting. I was envisioning sitting in that solitary cell and going within to discover the world inside of my heart and mind – deep in my spirit filled soul. What a journey that must have been! To push aside all the things the world and those around us tell us – to see the true self within – wounds and all. To survive such isolation one must find a way to live with, and indeed – love, our true self.
What must it have been like to have nothing but quiet and finding a whole world within ones self. Finding God where He dwells deep within each of us. Truly communicating in the truest sense with God.
To save his mind, he explored his soul. I think that must be an amazing thing to do. To do so without the shame of the world and the negative comments of others, a freedom indeed. He found the freedom in his captivity. They could imprison his body, but not his soul and mind. I really admire that. How many of us today are imprisoned by work, stress, and so many worldly things – but we fail to escape it all and just be alone and quiet – to go within ourselves to where God dwells.
I am in the very beginning stages of working with the 12 steps for co-dependency and I have been amazed at how important it is to have a desire to know the self. The work seems to be very compatible with Orthodox teaching and indeed I am also working with a priest as a therapist. It’s hard, uncomfortable, but very full of hope at the same time.
Father Stephen, this is really wonderful.
I was wondering if you could help me think something through regarding Orthodox thought about the self and self-knowledge. In your article, it’s obvious that true self-knowledge is linked to knowing God. A bunch of (Orthodox) stuff I’ve read lately seems to suggest that you CAN’T try to know your inner self without a spiritual director. It seems to imply that if you try to find that space within yourself (or even try to listen to the inner voice) without being under obedience, you’re in serious spiritual danger.
I’m really uncomfortable with this for a few reasons, but I’m afraid that my discomfort rises from pride (in which case I get caught up in the mental whirlpool of “How do I trust myself?”). I am honest in confession, though I have to admit to feeling quite misunderstood at times. I assume the sacrament has nothing to do with my feelings of being understood, so I’m not too troubled by this. But if we’re talking self-knowledge, I feel pretty confident saying that I “know myself” better than my confessor/spiritual director knows me, and when I’m feeling conflicted about something within, I turn to my trusted, close friends.
I suppose what I’m trying to figure out is how is it possible to say, “I know myself” in an Orthodox way without being a) spiritually deluded, or b) under the guidance of a monastic? Or the other option I suppose is that I could assume my feelings of being misunderstood in confession indicate that my confessor, in fact, does actually know me better, even though I don’t believe this to be true?
There is a lot of Orthodox material that is highly monastic and sometimes rather rigid. It reflects a way of stating things that is probably attuned to a different cultural time. Being “under obedience” is for monastics – not lay parishioners. Indeed, there is far more trouble created by priests teaching that the laity should be “in obedience”. Frankly, in America, it is most often a symptom that accompanies spiritual abuse.
That said, everybody is subject to delusion. So, whatever we work on, a good confessor is helpful. Picking our way through the threads of shame, for example, pretty much always involves another human being – confessor, even a decent therapist. Close friends can be of help, too.
Lastly, commit yourself to God and trust Him to work in the people and things around you and be very patient. Most of us will not die as finished products.
Out of the park, Father Stephen, home run for the soul.
Tess, you raise good questions. Fr Stephen will make wise recommendations , so I offer my thoughts only as an older woman who confesses regularly, which I hope to be helpful in this aspect:
If I had the impression that I was misunderstood by my confessor, I would ask for a time (not in confession) to talk to him. I believe it’s important to be understood. For me, it seems to be needful to have such trust. Although I am inclined to think carefully about his thoughts or recommendations —particularly if I hadn’t anticipated them.
There was one occasion of difficulty for discussing something that bothered me and that had to do with another priest.
And if ‘that other priest’ had been my parish priest I would have likely looked for another parish. My concerns were causing me grief. But thankfully I was able to discuss the matter and finally came to a resolution.
You might consider emailing Fr Stephen personally if there is a concern.
Correct me if I am mistaken. But it seems that I read that elder Zacharias wrote that he does not try and tell people in the larger monastery community what they should be doing (lay folks). He said if he were to do that then he would bring the world into the monastery. The takeaway I got is that the larger community is not under obedience since they are not monastic.
I remember the terrible “discipleship” movement of Derrick Prince and others. As you said, even Orthodox are not immune to spiritual abuse.
Thank you Father for your continued faithfulness in writing your blog. I especially liked this one.
What would also be helpful to me, and perhaps others, is a blog examining in more detail the “monastic thread” in much of Orthodox writings, and some possible ways you personally use to “decode” what is most likely just for monastics, and what is applicable to all Christians in the “active” life.
I have wrestled with how to discern these differences for 18 years and think I’m getting a little better, but my “shame-based past” still gets all to easily “hooked” by some things I read, and that is not helpful to my ongoing journey of true self-knowledge in God, and His unfathomable healing of our souls.
Dean, we are all under obedience just not the direct obedience to a personal spiritual father.
About 10 years ago I was called to obedience by my Bishop in a personal situation in which I disagreed with his decision and still do. Nevertheless I obeyed his direction out of trust and love for him and his love for me and a deeper trust in Jesus Christ. The fruit of that obedience has been extrordinary. I prayed hard and contemplated deeply before I said yes. But it was a yes that was full and free and without reservation. As soon as I uttered my acceptance I experience a change and a sense of freedom previously unknown to me.
Probably the only time in my life I have been obedient–really.
Obedience if done well, a specific free offering not in response to a demand, has the property of drawing the grace of Christ through the other person and into one’s own life.
It is quite tricky though and as Father points out subject to much abuse.
I would run from any person who demanded obedience from me as a layman.
Any spiritual discipline: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, attendance on the Divine Services, confession, forgiveness, giving thanks, bearing one another’s burdens, etc is an offering of obedience.
It is how we learn to know ourselves and face our shame. Anything else is part of our rebellion.
I would that it were easy. Lord have mercy.
I’m afraid we might be missing the point here. This post is not about obedience. It is about going into the heart, to face the self of shame, that superficial idol our egos have created and protect at all costs. That idol is what is stopping us from knowing who we really are, who God is, and what we can become in Him.
Wonderful food as we move towards the Feast of the Incarnation, Father Stephen.
David you have a point. However, confession is one of the ways we face what ‘shames’ us. And for that confession we need a priest we trust and whose suggestions and recommendations we also trust to peel back the layers that we use to hide from ourselves.
Fr Stephen I greatly appreciate your words that what ‘hides’ God is within us. This understanding is very important for us who struggle to ‘see’ God’s presence in the world. Thank you.
Thanks, Father Stephen (and Dee, too!). Patience is hard.
My confessor is actually a good match for me most of the time, which is why I’m not troubled by the situation, and he’s certainly not one to demand obedience in any sort of spiritually damaging way. But I am by nature very cerebral, with a background of psychological knowledge that often outpaces his own interest and (self-admitted) capability. I think it sometimes creates a language barrier. Also, sometimes I suspect that I might be able to communicate better with a woman in this kind of relationship, but I figure if God wants that for me, it will happen.
Do you think it would be safe to say that the key to avoiding delusion is to have *someone* who can call you out on your nonsense? Ideally a confessor, but not necessarily so?
Thank you Father. A timely post.
The Christmas season can be very trying…for many reasons. Some of them touch on the subject you speak of. I tend to avoid the madness out there. I just want ‘remember’ Christ is Born.
I treasure these words:
“… commit yourself to God and trust Him to work in the people and things around you and be very patient. Most of us will not die as finished products.”
I will do that.
Indeed. I think that is the case. I find it easier to confide in a woman than to a man – though I obviously have a priest confessor. I often work things through in a conversation with a woman who is not my confessor. I know a wonderful abbess who hears confessions, and then the person goes to their priest for absolution. That is not an unknown practice in the Church.
To deal with issues of shame requires extreme trust and a sense of safety. So, that is a good guide in where we should go. I find that after I’ve worked through certain issues elsewhere, they are much easier in confession.
I could, perhaps, do a post on that topic. In general, most traditional Orthodox material was written in a monastic setting, and directed towards a monastic audience. It’s pretty much only recent years that we’ve seen much written outside of that. Today, of course, there are many things written towards a lay audience, and very little directed specifically towards monastics.
It really varies from person to person how something is read and understood. For example, I have no problem when I’m reading monastic material to translate it to my life without developing some sort of nagging condemnation or neurotic sense of not being able to live up to it, etc. Though that has not always been the case.
I generally think people should work at being grounded in simple things. Poverty (share your stuff and be generous), chastity (do not use other people for your own satisfaction – drink water from your own cistern), obedience (by kind to all and try to trust God’s providence – providence is the hardest thing to obey!) – stability (don’t change too much too often and be patient – the spiritual life is as slow as a tree). In those ways, our lives are similar to a monastic – only they live these things in very specific, athletic ways.
“either find the courage to enter within and discover the life that cannot be destroyed or go mad”
Most people in Fr. Roman’s position would indeed go mad. So I wonder if it is really a choice, as the quote implies, to “find the courage”, or if Fr. Roman’s experience was only possible because he was well on the way to “enter within and discover the life that cannot be destroyed,” well before he went into solitary confinement.
Who could say? He was not a novice and had been part of the Burning Bush Movement. However, neither are we ourselves considering a situation in which we are in Pitesti. The Pitesti prison was an experimental place in which intellectuals and priests/monks were tortured in order to see if their minds could be changed. The descriptions, some of which can be found online, are worse than anything we might imagine. The solitary confinement was probably one of the easiest things.
But a number of saints seem to have been forged there. There is, however, a similarity of a sort between this and non-incarceration settings, in which, though not forced, someone is willing to do the very difficult inner work. It is the path to God that cannot be avoided in the long run.
Thank you for this, Fr Stephen. This post like so many I have read over the years spoke to my real self, hidden as she may be.
The other commentators also resonated with me. I have been blessed with a priest who goes right to the meat of my confessions and gives healing advice. He advises small steps, and I am so grateful. I am weak, and small is what I can manage,
But what really struck me in this post was that we live in an “outer-directed culture.” I am a single mom who teaches high school in a rural school district. Being a teacher nearly overwhelms me. Just today my students (ages 15 & 16) were discussing their lives online, and I tried to keep myself together. So many of them are consumed by the projections they emit online. I was speechless upon hearing their revelations.
The section you wrote about “selfies” is so true in my experience. I am grateful to my students though it is sometimes in a negative, I suppose. Through them, I see how often I live in the “outer-directed culture.” They are obsessed with their phones and the world they inhabit there. Sometimes it is video games and pornography, especially for young men. The young women are glued to social media. It is beyond my ability to even convey how deeply these online “selves” have penetrated the lives of my students. Through their addictions, I am continually aware of my own.
I do not know what to say to them about it most of the time. I observe, I listen. I try to show a world outside the unreal self-knowledge of snapchat, et al, but I miss the mark. We teachers talk amongst ourselves about what we should be doing, and we are usually at a loss. Frankly, things are worse than what we are able to convey to their parents or the public.
In a public school setting that is only Christian in some allegiance to the distant past, what is the right (?) action to take? Any words of wisdom? Each student is so precious and yet so far from me. Does that even make sense? I do not know.
Again, thank you, everyone, for your comments and wisdom.
I too taught high school students, mostly ESL and mostly students from Mexico. Some of them were gang members. I never felt threatened by them yet it was very hard for this white, aging, middle-class man to really relate to them. However, I was sometimes surprised by their reactions. One thing they valued was respect. I always attempted to respect them. If needed I would take them outside of class and get on their case…but not in front of their “cuates” so as not to have them lose face. And as Father often writes, I tried to be kind and fair with them. I had great affection for some of these young men. I recall the last time I saw Jesús, a known gang member. He was moving away and I ran into him in the corridor between classes. He bade me adios and gave me a gigantic abrazo (hug). I’m glad I turned from him as my eyes got misty. A gap in age of 40+ years. Yet love forms some strange bonds.
So, Anastacia. Your students have their cellphones, selfies, and social media. But they still respond to kindness and love…you’ll see if you haven’t already.
Dee, I agree with you, but keeping in mind that I must see it, I have to see the lie and disavow it. The Confessor, and obedience are only means to and end, which is repentance.
Yes, respect, love, and kindness are all we can do. I know that but often forget, and I thank you for the reminder.
For some reason your comment made me think about something I regularly practice as a teacher. I read to my high schoolers. A lot. I have found no better way to break down barriers of age and culture than when we are sharing a story together. For most of my teaching career (14+ years), I have been an English teacher, and I am a firm advocate in reading aloud to students, no matter their age. The joy and contentment we experience while reading a good book cannot be exchanged for any other teaching method. A good book opens the heart and mind. In those moments, I am living Christ. It seems so small, but the connections I’ve had with students during these times cannot be explained with words alone. They will even put away their phones if only I’ll read to them.
And yes, those hugs take me by surprise and keep me going!
Purity of heart (that opens one’s eyes to their inner being and ultimately to the vision of God, both in the unfathomable depth inside as well as behind the surfaces of the outside), interpreted (as Father Stephen wrote) from the angle of stillness, is a point worth taking away…
The earnestess of the vivid Christian remembrance of death (especially as an coming closer to Christ), an earnestness that might be a key element in the Pitesti horrors, is another valuable point.
When I contemplate stillness I often come back to St. Peter and him stepping out of the boat at Jesus’ command. Jesus bids us all come to Him in the midst of the storm.
Good thoughts for the journey father, thank you. We are all on the road to Emmaus, filled with the noise of daily life, in a hurry to our supposed destination; unaware we have lost direction. Life has become a to do list and failure to complete all, an black mark on the soul.
I need the new beginning of Christmas, especially this year, and reminders, like your act of love as seen in the thoughts shared in your blog, that each day is a gift to begin anew.
stillness ‘as a mode’ (rather than only ‘as a place’ – which also has huge value) is always worth a mention.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a particularly close bond between these two: the classic Christian, [earnest, sombre and yet joyful] remembrance of death, and ‘stillness’.
Both help place us on a trajectory away from the inane, the futile, the transient and yet compulsively attractive surface appearances, towards the eternal, eschatological divine fullness of God, ‘the only truly existent One’. Since both zealously and solemnly spurn distraction, they enable that reality to irrupt into our life even now.
I think that Dean says it well – kindness, love, prayer. The world is in a storm of madness and children are being blown all over as a result. May God give you blessed strength when you stand in the storm of their lives. I like your practice of reading.
Last weekend, Terry Mattingly, the journalist who is a member of my parish, did a retreat on the topic of media and technology and the family at our parish. Very thought-provoking. A book he used was Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family. It might be something to read that would suggest possible approaches. He also used a number of NY Times articles. It is not just Christians noticing the problems created by misuse of technology. Perhaps this is something that will change – though it will do much damage before it does.
What good food do we get, what stimulation ! thank you father Stephen, in this time before the Nativity … and also what good comments, thoughts, thoughts and experiences shared so simply, so fraternally …
It gives me the “taste” of living and going ever deeper in this quest, this infinite thirst for “real life” with the Lord …. There is a singular joy, like a fine point of diamond, which invisibly crosses the lairs of dragons and frightening monsters, preventing me from sinking in front of the the implacable desolation of this “me of shame.”
Since it is indefinable to be “at worst” and at the same time to sense the dawn of life that comes and is ….
Many years ago I was part of a group greatly influenced by Derrick Prince and others in the “discipleship movement” that Dean mentioned. In reading this blogpost today and thinking about gazing at the beauty of the Lord, reading the gospels comes to mind as a way to see that beauty in Christ. There is a great hurdle to get over, though. The influence of that group geared my mind to see Christ in a moralistic way and as constantly being aware of falling short in a legalistic atmosphere of condemnation. There was even more condemnation when reading about the apostle Paul, who we were all supposed to be like in boldness and evangelistic zeal. God’s love was taught as fact but even that brought limited joy, as it usually carried with it the reminder that we didn’t appreciate or understand it enough and it became one more thing to feel bad about. Even though it was a long time ago, it’s been hard to shake those earlier years in that group.
The Divine Liturgy, the icons in our beautiful nave, some readings of certain saints and others (Fr Stephen for example) have been gradually reorienting my mind and heart towards a loving God, especially the Liturgy and other services. Some of the precommunion prayers have also been helpful, as confession of sinfulness is in the context of a loving, receiving God and originally written by a saint bearing his soul to God. I think I will pray and be still as I ask God to help me see His beauty more as I read the gospels and to be able to gaze at Him as the focus and center of life,
Father, a question. It seems to me that, as we go deeper into the self we encounter the passions that plague us. For example, if one regularly struggles with gluttony (in the sense of accumulating goods), will they not be in even greater temptation as they go deeper into themselves, encountering their shame in this passion (which can seem never ending).
My priest recently counselled me that we do not turn or move away from our sin(s) through force of will. How then do we move past such shame and passion to find beauty? It is overwhelming at times. How can one empty oneself of such a thing?
I have been chewing on this writing and cannot help but think I have missed something important.
I second Dean’s comments. One thing that helped my perspective was to realize that on the surface things continually change, but down below they don’t. People are still people. The methods they use to find love, acceptance, respect continually change, but the need for things do not. And people still have pretty good BS meters; they know when they’re being loved and when they’re simply being bought.
This, I think, is where we must learn to “bear a little shame.” We encounter it. We acknowledge it. We sit with it a bit in the presence of God. We pray, O God, comfort me, (that’s the word of Fr. Zacharias of Essex). At some point, with patience, we are able to move past the shame to something deeper. Maybe not the first time. But if we are waiting to not have that temptation (whatever it might be) or a passion, we’ll never get anywhere. We move towards God, despite our passions. The wicked king threatened the 3 young men. They recognized that God might indeed let them burn – but they said, “Nevertheless, we will not bow down to your image.” Sometimes we move deeper despite our shame, saying, “Nevertheless.”
Many thanks, Father.
I was sitting with a young man last night who had made a very serious attempt at suicide and almost succeeded. I had intended to have a “teaching moment” with him about the dangers of “street drugs”. (I am a nurse). God had other plans for both of us. He started talking about how he was “supposed to die” but “I didn’t”, and then went on to say that he was probably “agnostic”, and listed many reasons why he felt this to be true. Suddenly my teaching moment evaporated and he and I began to talk about God. He shared with me the events in his for which he felt shame and said with huge emotion “I just don’t matter in this world, I’m homeless, I don’t have a job, I can’t see my children right now” and many other reasons for his feeling this way . I shared with him what I have learned about “bearing a little shame” (thank you Father and those who write such thoughtful responses and questions) and coming out on the other side of it to the peace of God. I also shared with him that, in my experience, this is not a “one and done” event but something we do frequently as we journey towards God. We talked for over an hour. At the end, he looked me in the eye and said “I do matter, I’m going to get myself straight and get to know God. Thank you for letting me unburden myself, I can sleep now.” God bless him. And I pray his journey continues. And I thank God for allowing me to be a small part of it, and for him to be a larger part of mine. Glory to God for all things.
May God preserve him and make the way smooth before him. Thank God for a nurse taking such time and care…I love nurses for this and so many reasons!
‘Within the Tradition, and the Scriptures, the knowledge of God (and thus of the self), comes as revelation. It is hidden and must be made known. That which hides God is within us, not outside of us. It is the “pure in heart” who see God. This does not necessarily imply a sinlessness or perfection. Rather, it is a stillness that can see what truly is without turning away’
The voice of my shame-self has overwhelmed much of my life…it has taken long years to begin to uncover its many disguises including the quest for perfection…and to understand how it has kept me isolated from knowing my true-self, others and God. The voice of my shame-self tries to keep me from turning my face towards Christ while I am sinning or have just sinned. My experience of the shame-self includes a deep fear/terror of abandonment that ironically keeps me from revealing myself to anyone, especially as holy God thus abandoning my very self. But thanks be to God and His steadfast love and unending mercy – I have begun to experience, a little here and a little there, the stillness of seeing what truly is, without turning my face away from Christ. I thank God for the Jesus Prayer, Hymns to the Trinity (Rising from sleep I worship You O Good One…) and Psalm 50(51) that God has used to turn me to Him again and again and again…Lord have mercy on all our shame-selves.
A couple of thoughts that I hope are not too far off the mark…
First, when I read about the meme on needing a “good kick in the pants,” I started wondering: what if we do not take it literally? In my limited experience, thoughts can be a difficult thing to deal with, especially when negative/bad/sinful thoughts reinforce one another to such a degree that they become an avalanche or rapids that takes you along for the ride. The superficial thoughts of the selfie mindset can also be self-reinforcing and all-encompassing. In the middle of the rapids, there may be a way to go ashore gently, but more often than not, something that prevents us from continuing down that stream will feel like quite a jolt – perhaps a metaphorical “kick in the pants”? I have had many occasions to be thankful for things that have jolted me out of sinful thoughts – even physical jolts on occasion, as when I got so absorbed in a train of thought that I bumped into something or touched something hot.
Second, on the topic of overcoming passions or turning away from sin, I recall St. Paisios (and I wish I remembered where, so I could quote properly) saying something along the lines of – it is easier to become holy by focusing on Christ than by struggling against the passions. I think at least part of that is because when we struggle against the passions we are tempted to think that, if we just try a little harder, we can do it by our own means. This temptation is often not explicit, but something hinted at by the tension and feelings of despair brought about by a perceived lack of progress. And so, we bear a little shame, bring our burdens to Him, and commend ourselves and one another and our whole lives to Christ our God.
Father, I think the “kick in the pants” may not necessarily literal but it has a certain mindset behind it–“knock yourself out of it and get moving!”. This mindset has an aspect of struggle–and triumph–through the sudden shock of action and strength of will. It has no need of God.
I used to think this way a lot. It is in direct opposition to the thoughts of St. Paisios which you shared. To focus on God is not to overcome the passions but simply to draw near to Him. Kicking ourselves in the pants is about our will to overcome; to defeat the passions that drag us down into inaction. To focus on God is to not worry about the inaction; to find Him in the stillness.
As you have pointed out, simply being shocked back to reality is not a bad thing and can be helpful. But it is not strength of will or of our own action. Just my thoughts.
Your comment reminded me that this advice on turning from focusing on fighting against our sins and simply turning to God in trust and Love was some of the sweetest words of advice I have read in the past years.
These actually come from St. Porphyrios, from his book “Wounded by Love”. (I have a greeting card from the Presentation of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Monastery in Michigan which uses this quote, and references the book).
Here is the quote for those who may want to read it: (sorry it is a bit long, and this is a copy-and-paste from a post on the Internet, so I am sorry if there are some typos in it, but I don’t want to fix them without checking the source. Still, it is a very good reading in this blessed season…)
“In the spiritual life engage in your daily contest simply, easily and without force.
Our religion is perfectly and profoundly conceived. What is simple is also what is most precious. Accordingly, in your spiritual life engage in your daily contest simply, easily and without force. The soul is sanctified and purified through the study of the words of the Fathers, through the memorization of the Psalms and of portions of Scripture, through the singing of hymns and through the repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
Devote your efforts, therefore, to these spiritual things and ignore all of the other all the other things. We can attain to the worship of God easily and bloodlessly. There are two paths that lead to God: the hard and debilitating path with fierce assaults against evil and the easy path with love. There are many who choose the hard path and ‘shed blood in order to receive Spirit’ until they have gained great virtue. I find the shorter and safer route is the path of love. This is the path that you, too, should follow.
That is, you can make a different kind of effort: to study and pray and have as you aim to advance in the love of God and of the Church. Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear. The same holds for our passions and weaknesses. Do not fight them, but transform them into strengths by showing disdain for evil. Occupy yourself with hymns of praise, with the poetic cannons, with the worship of God and with divine eros. All the holy books of our Church — the Book of the Eight Tones, the Book of the Hours, the Psalter, the books with the living words addressed to Christ. Read them with joy and love and exaltation. When you devote yourself to this effort with intense desire, your soul be sanctified in a gentle and mystical way without your even being aware of it.
The lives of the saints, especially the life of Saint John the Hut Dweller, made a profound impression on me. The saints are friends of God. All day long one can meditate on and take delight in their achievements and imitate their way of life. The saints gave themselves entirely to Christ.
By reading these books you will gradually acquire meekness, humility and love, and you’re still be made good. Do not choose negative methods to correct yourselves. There’s no need to fear the devil, hell or anything else. These things provoke a negative reaction. I, myself, have some little experience in these matters. I’ll check does not to sit and afflict and constrict yourself in order to improve. The object is to live, to study, to pray and to advance in love — in love for Christ and for the Church.
What is holy and beautiful and what gladdens the heart and frees the soul from every evil is the effort to unite yourself to Christ, to love Christ, to crave for Christ and to live in Christ, St. Paul said, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me. (Gal. 2:20) This should be your aim. Let all other efforts be secret and hidden. What must dominate is love for Christ. Let this be in your head, your thought, your imagination, your heart and your will. Your most intense effort should be how you will encounter Christ, how you will be united to Him, and how you will keep Him in your heart.
Forget about all your weaknesses so that the adverse spirit does not realize what is going on and grab you and pin you down and cause you grief. Make no effort to free yourself from these weaknesses. Make your struggle with calmness and simplicity, without contortion and anxiety. Don’t say: ‘Now I’ll force myself and I’ll pray to acquire love and become good.’ It is not profitable to afflict yourself to become good. In this way your negative response will be worse. Everything should be done in a natural way, calmly and freely. Nor should you pray, ‘O God free me from my anger, my sorrow, etc.’ it is not good to pray about or think about the specific passion; something happens in our soul and we become even more enmeshed in the passion. Attack your passion head on, and you’ll see how strongly it will entwine you and grip you and you won’t be able to do anything.
Don’t struggle directly with temptation, don’t pray for it to go away, don’t say, ‘Take it away from me, O God’, Then you are acknowledging the strength of the temptation and it takes hold of you. Because, although you are saying ‘Take it from me, O God’, basically you are bringing it to mind and fomenting even more. Your desire to be free of the passion will, of course, be there, but it will exist in a hidden and discreet way, without appearing outwardly. Remember what Scripture says; Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Matt. 6:3) Let all your strength be turned to love for God, worship of God and adhesion to God. In this way your release from evil and from your weakness will happen in a mystical manner, without your being aware of it and without exertion.
This is the kind of effort I make. I found that the bloodless mode is the best mode of sanctification. It is better, that is, to devote ourselves to love through the study of the hymns and songs. This study and preoccupation directs my mind to Christ and refreshes my heart without my realizing it. At the same time I pray, opening my arms and longing, love and joy, and the Lord takes me up into His love. That is your aim — to attain to that love. What do you say? Isn’t this way bloodless?
There are many other ways, for example through remembrance of death, of hell and of the devil. Thus you avoid evil out of fear and through counting the cost. In my own life, I’ve never employed those methods which are exhausting, cause a negative reaction and often produce the opposite of the desired effect. The soul, especially when the sensitive, is filled with gladness and enthusiasm through love; it is strengthened and transforms, alters and transfigures all the negative and ugly things.
For this reason I prefer the ‘easy path’, that is, The way that leads through the meditation on the canons of the Saints. In these cannons we will discover the means employed by the saints, the ascetics and the martyrs. It is good to ‘steal’ their wisdom, that is, for us to do what they did. They cast themselves on Christ’s love. They gave their hearts. We must steal their method.
Thank you for your encouraging words to Byron’s question, I needed to hear that response today, too. I need to remember “Nevertheless” God bless all you do, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!
Agata, I love that quote from St. Porphyrios. Thanks for reminding us!
It makes me wonder, though, what confession might look like when you “Forget about all your weaknesses so that the adverse spirit does not realize what is going on and grab you and pin you down and cause you grief. Make no effort to free yourself from these weaknesses.” And, by extension, what self-knowledge looks like in this context.
Does it mean that after addressing the dragons in the self, you hit a point where you just let them be until God does with them what He will? Then what do you do in the mean-time? What’s the level deeper than the shame-self like? It seems to me like the shame-self would fight and fight and fight to never let you past it, to the point of undermining one’s perception of the self as something that doesn’t require anxiety or neuroticism.
No criticism from me here, just honest-to-God curiosity.
Thank you Agata for such good words from St Porphyrios ! Since this morning I was looking for Fr. Peter, in the book that I have of him, the passage where he evokes this because I had already read it before. And here I come to find it too ! in French version the title is “Life and lyrics” of St Porphyrios. There are just a few sentences before the passage that you quote : “God has put a force in the human soul. The way of spreading this force depends on the human being, for the sake of good or for the sake of evil. it is like a garden of pleasure, it is full of flowers, trees and plants, the harm, however, is the thorns, while this force is water. When we direct the water towards the garden of pleasure, all the plants develop then, they green, flower, are vivified, at the same time, the spines, since they are no longer watered, are faded, disappear. It is not necessary to take care of the thorns, do not devote all your efforts exclusively to driving away the evil, that is the way Christ wants us : not to worry about the passions or the Adversary. to know all the strength of your soul, to the flowers and you will rejoice in their beauty, their fragrance, the It is not by hunting evil that you will become holy. Leave the bad. Look to Christ : He will save you. ”
St Porphyrios has a deeply simple and fresh soul as a living source. For us who are psychologically cluttered, these tips may seem impossible and/or insufficient ….
May God help us !
Good questions, I hope Father Stephen offers some insights.
I must admit that that the concept of “shame-self” does not resonate with me, I just don’t know what it really means for me.
But there are plenty of things to confess in the area of “to live, to study, to pray and to advance in love — in love for Christ and for the Church.”… I know I should try to memorize a Psalm or a prayer (at least one per month), and again a month went by, and I haven’t. Or that I should have prayed for 20 min each day, and another month went by without me doing so. Or my constant failing in fasting… (yes, maybe I ate fasting food, but was that actually true fasting? No!). I think I like the application of the words of the Saints most in that way, in confession too.
Maybe others can offer other suggestions?
“Shame-self” does not particularly sound like anything in the tradition – and, as such, I don’t think it necessarily resonates with what we know. It sounds more like something in a psychology book. I use the term because almost anything else I can think of is likely to be misleading.
By “shame-self” I mean who I am as imagined and shaped by shame. It’s actually a false image because it is simply not true – it’s a distortion. Note, that I said in the article that the true self is hidden – the shame self is not hidden much at all. It is God alone who can reveal the truth of who we are.
Getting past the dragons, etc., is done in a variety of ways. It’s not accomplished by mere moral efforts, that much I know for certain. Many of the most morally well-behaved people are utterly identified with the shame-self. The false self, formed by our shame, can be banished over time through exposing it to the light (which can happen in confession), and through the slow application of grace, which happens in communion. Or, sometimes it is exposed and banished quicker through various interventions of God – as we patiently cooperate. For Fr. Roman, it seems to have been something that was happening as he went deeper into prayer – grace was there in the silence and the dark. He had the communion of the Jesus Prayer.
We worry too much about the things we do – whether it is prayers, fasting, etc. They are important as they are useful. But all of it is useless unless it is directed towards knowing God (and hence the self as well).
Thank you for the correction and the quote.
As far as getting past the dragons, there are several threads running through my mind right now, so I will try to connect them in a somewhat coherent way…
On one had, there is Christ’s image of the soul from which the demon has left and which was left empty for the demon to return with seven others. When St. Porphyrios talks about the usefulness of service books and canons to the saints, I think these are means of filling the soul with what is needed. The Church has always taught not merely the avoidance of sin, but its replacement with the opposite virtue – knowing that there should not be an empty space in the soul. So, it seems to me that focusing on Christ through everything the Church places before us is what is needed in order not to just drive out one sin and leave the space open for seven others to take its place, but to place Christ within the soul so that nothing unholy may enter.
St. Porphyrios also says “although you are saying ‘Take it from me, O God’, basically you are bringing it to mind and fomenting even more.” I think this has its roots in the teaching that sin begins with a thought, which is then assented to. If we struggle with a particular sin, it is quite difficult to encounter a thought related to that sin and not enter into dialog with it. When St. Porphyrios says:
“What must dominate is love for Christ. Let this be in your head, your thought, your imagination, your heart and your will. Your most intense effort should be how you will encounter Christ, how you will be united to Him, and how you will keep Him in your heart.”
he not only minimizes the possibility of our having to do battle directly with those thoughts, but, more importantly, drives us to the One who can do what we cannot: conquer sin and death.
You are very much on point. Our adversary doesn’t really care whether we succeed or not in any particular battle with sin – so long as the battle distracts us from Christ. My own confessor has advised me that when I fall, get up immediately (!!!), and do a rope, give thanks to God, dust myself off and give it no more thought. It is effective. Often it is our shame that binds us to the struggle. We sin, feel ashamed, cannot bear the shame, and become enthralled by the effort not to do it again. It would have been better to rejoice in the fact that God will accept praise even from the worst sinner.
It just struck me how much the “struggle against sin” is a modern even Nietzchean idea. That we are in control even “giving them up to God”. It is still our will is it not?
I would be loathe to categorize every exercise of the will as Nietzschean. We should not cede to concept to him simply because he misuses it. A key, I think, is that we never imagine ourselves in control. We act, we choose to act, we exercise the will, always confessing and knowing that only God can make anything effective and salutary.
Very helpful conversation. Thank you Fr’s Stephen and Peter. And thank you Agata for the quote from St. Porphyrios. Wounded by Love (on my shelf, to be read soon, I hope!)… I love the title! Such is the intensity of Christ’s love, mercy and compassion. It really is the only thing that can heal the deep wound of shame.
“do a rope…”…I like the way you put that, Father! 🙂
Father, I have very recently been reading about narcissism at the advice of a counsellor, who said that while there are degrees of narcissism, the person that I have been dealing with, that I described to this counsellor, has narcissistic traits. After reading your current article, I was going to comment that what you’re describing here sounds very similar to what I’ve been reading about narcissism. But I happened to notice that I had bookmarked your previous article, Beyond Narcissism… (amazing how I saved it and now it is so important) so you have already made this connection! Anyway, I reread Beyond Narcissism and you referenced articles in there. Would you direct me to them, please? I’m needing pastoral advice on dealing with this situation to balance the secular.
Father thank you, I have always struggled with the proper use of the will even before I studied Nietzche. Perhaps you ought to do an article on it.
Nevertheless, the tendancy to reduce sin to psychological adjustment problems that can be overcome by “self-help” has now passed into the denial of sin altogether. Perhaps will used properly is being able to look my own sins in the face, acknowledge them and praise God at the same time?
Below are links to two articles on narcissism I found helpful in identifying some behavior traits of someone I knew in the past. It helps that the author is Christian.
Father, forgive me if I overstep my bounds.
I have a habit of writing down bits and pieces of writings that I need to think about on index cards so I can return to them almost accidentally at times when something reminds me of them.
Father, I don’t know if this will help with your description of the ‘shame/self’ and moving into the lovely quotation of Saint Porphyrios, but as I was reading your essay and the comments, this one passage nudged me, so I went to my little box and found it:
… From the unfathomable remoteness of eternity, the Father utters His Word in order to “make all things,” an activity that culminates in the creation of human beings, bearers of the divine image. That Word, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, enters into the skotia, the darkness of this fallen world, just as it entered “in the beginning” into the darkness of non-being… [John Beck]
On a personal level, it is sometimes in feeling lost that we are ready to be found. And there will be that hand reaching down from the corner of some icons, as we become the sheep that is searched for, needing to be found. In a way, our humiliation in that state of being is perhaps the human equivalent of the divine kenosis. We experience our nothingness as we seek theosis.
And he enters our world, as the hymn tells us, as a little child.
Paula, thank you for the articles!