Among the most uncomfortable feelings is that of “not belonging.” It is one of the forms of shame, for, when we do not belong or are “out of place,” we feel exposed and inherently vulnerable. It is not a feeling that we sustain for any length of time without engaging in behaviors designed to make it go away.
Strangely, this is an aspect of ugliness (in its many forms). Just as we would likely argue about the meaning of beauty (as a word or concept), so “ugly” would come up for similar treatment. The etymology of the word is found in the Old Norse, ugga, “to dread.” The “ugly” is something that doesn’t belong and presents a dreaded challenge to the world around it. It is little wonder that we spend time being sure that we at least look like we belong.
I get the occasional phone call from someone who wants to visit the Orthodox Church for a first time. Among their questions will be concerns about proper clothing or proper behaviors. We want to visit, but we would prefer not to look like tourists or give offense. We do not want to be ugly.
All of this goes much deeper than mere social anxiety. Beneath it is a drive towards Beauty Itself that is rarely acknowledged. From St. Dionysius the Areopagite:
[God is Beauty.] This Beauty is the source of all friendship and all mutual understanding. It is this Beauty … which moves all living things and preserves them whilst filling them with love and desire for their own particular sort of beauty. For each one, therefore, Beauty is both its limit and the object of its love, since it is its goal … and its model (for it is by its likeness to this Beauty that everything is defined). Thus true Beauty and Goodness are mixed together because, whatever the force may be that moves living things, it tends always towards Beauty-and- Goodness, and there is nothing that does not have a share in Beauty-and- Goodness … By virtue of this reality all creatures subsist, united and separate, identical and opposite, alike and unlike; contraries are united and the united elements are not confused … By virtue of Beauty-and- Goodness everything is in communion with everything else, each in its own way; creatures love one another without losing themselves in one another; everything is in harmony, parts fit snugly into the whole … one generation succeeds another; spirits, souls and bodies remain at the same time steady and mobile; because for all of them Beauty-and-Goodness is at once repose and movement, being itself beyond both. Divine Names, IV, 7 (PG 3,701)
It is a commonplace in the Eastern Fathers (and some in the West) to recognize a triad of Truth-Beauty-Goodness. They are treated as virtually interchangeable, even if they can be distinguished. That which is true is beautiful and good. That which is good is true and beautiful. That which is beautiful is true and good. All of this is contained in God’s earliest pronouncement regarding creation, “It is good.” What God created is good and true and beautiful. Everything has its place and relation to everything around it and all have their beginning and their end in God, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
A very essential part of this teaching is deeply affirming of that which exists. A few decades back, there was a popular lapel button that declared, “God doesn’t make junk.” As a bit of self-affirmation, it was quickly reduced to something trite. Nevertheless, it is true and a very intricate part of classical Christian understanding.
At our deepest core, we are formed and shaped according to the image of God. Not only are human beings created in such a manner, but all of creation has an existence that is good as well (and true and beautiful). In creation, things “fit.” They have a “right relationship” with one another.
By virtue of Beauty-and-Goodness everything is in communion with everything else, each in its own way; creatures love one another without losing themselves in one another; everything is in harmony, parts fit snugly into the whole…
This inherent understanding is properly applied to how we interact with creation itself. There is no living within an ecosystem without having an impact. We were created to have an impact (as does the Sun, the Moon, the trees, and everything else). However that impact can become “ugly” when it so distorts the order of relationships that terrible disturbances occur. When fish die off from poisoned waters, or a species is harvested to the point of extinction, we have ceased to live as beautiful human beings and have become a source of ugliness. Sin is ugly.
We are able to “house-train” a dog, because its instinct is not to soil its own den. The training consists of making a dog think of the entire house as its den. In the Old Testament, there were commandments for ancient Israel regarding human waste and its separation from the camp in which they dwelt. This commandment was explained in terms of holiness (which is beautiful) rather than sanitation. When such a regard for beauty is ignored, people die, often in epidemic proportions.
Such practical applications of beauty are easy to understand. They can, however, be extended to much larger concerns. There are many faces of ugliness in our present world – all of them symptomatic of the sin that mars our lives. We should understand that the desire for beauty, in all its forms (including order, cleanliness, justice, health, etc.), is an innate part of our existence. This is not just our own existence, but that of the whole creation. Without intervention, nature constantly strives towards a state of beauty in which all of its parts relate seamlessly with one another. The Greek term for creation in this perspective is “kosmos.” This is the world that is orderly and beautiful. (It is ironic that the artificiality of modern “cosmetics” has stolen this word for its own use).
I can imagine a criticism that would emphasize the evil and darkness that infect our world and argue that beauty, truth and goodness are mere fantasies and wishful thinking. The refutation of such an assertion is quite simple. There is no doubt about the character and ubiquity of evil in our world – but it is unnatural. The world in which we live is utterly driven and drawn towards wholeness, wellness and right order. Even in disastrous areas such as Chernobyl, animals and plants have not disappeared. Life refuses to disappear and tends towards adaptation and survival. Given time, all will be well.
Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” seems to have suited the mentality of his own century. With European colonialism at its height, it was easy to assume that the strongest (the “fittest”) were meant to rule the world, and there were plenty of leaders who cited his work as a justification for their projects of evil. It is a very weak theory and has nothing to say about truth, goodness and beauty, matters that seem to consistently triumph over the merely brutal.
Regardless of how we understand God’s work in His creation, the goodness, truth and beauty of the Logos, and its manifestation in all created things, is inexorable. God is gathering all things into Himself (Ephesians 1:10). For us, this is also a matter of deep belonging. We were created for beauty, for truth and goodness. That which distorts our lives and drives us into the shame of an ugly outcast is being destroyed. It has no true existence and has no proper claim over our lives. You belong in the beauty of the world.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away…”
Song of Songs, 2:10
“Arise my love…”
Dear Fr Stephen,
I’m so grateful for these words. Let us all give thanks to God for His Beauty in His cosmos. I marvel how the most weak and delicate green shoot lifts up through the soul, reaching up to the Light.
Thank you for a post full of beauty, truth, and goodness! I am one of those who do not know deeply what it feels like to belong anywhere. Glimmers of belonging have shown up on rare occasions, and I’ve learned to stop and ponder in those moments before they dissipate.
Since coming into the Orthodox Church Lazarus Saturday a year ago, I am still beleaguered by non-belonging and what I believe to be it’s sister sentiment, the concern that I do not actually believe in God, that none of this is real. My ever-patient priest reminds me that I come to services where the angels are present, that Christ is truly IN the elements of the Eucharist, that I belong in this parish, in the Church, hat it is all very real, more than anything else.
I rely on a promise I think God gave me a couple years ago, that when all things come to a close and True Being begins, when all things are forgiven and all wounds healed, I will feel this belonging and it won’t ever end. That all this is true even now when it doesn’t seem real. This is simply part of my journey.
Not all experience life quite like this. I can point to circumstances in my
upbringing that formed this in me, but in the end the why doesn’t really matter. This is simply part of how I struggle in life and how, consequently, God will reveal Himself to me. At least that’s what I think in my better moments.
Yes, non belonging is very ugly and painful. I have such a deep longing for truth, beauty, and goodness, and desire for sense of place, perhaps because of non belonging.
I understand your being “…one of those who do not know deeply what it feels like to belong anywhere.” In the times Christ reveals Himself to me, I become ecstatically thankful; at other times, I become almost despondent. Even worse, I can become very self-centered in my grief. It is difficult. May God save us both.
Just today I referred to myself as an anachronism. I spoke with someone last week who told me she rarely feels alone. It is a gift of God. She was speaking of a deep and abiding presence. There was no boasting or pretense. Just a simple expression of how she feels. I marvel.
I always feel out of place. I don’t when I’m in a church service. I feel like I belong there and there’s a certain sense of having that Divine contact. I very rarely take it with me outside the boundaries of the service. As I start to get a little older this is beginning to bother me more.
Lord have mercy.
Kristin & Byron:
I struggle with the same things and pray that God would heal the “not belonging anywhere” for all of us that have to deal with this.
I want very much to grasp & experience what Fr. Stephen has said, “That which distorts our lives and drives us into the shame of an ugly outcast is being destroyed. It has no true existence and has no proper claim over our lives. You belong in the beauty of the world.”
💖 A gem. Thank you.
Dear Father Stephen:
Like always, I deeply enjoy and appreciate the clarity and preciseness of your writings.
You Belong Here – And It’s Beautiful is an excellent way of saying we are all God’s creatures. If we could only live most of our life under the normalcy of beauty, truth, and goodness in place of the brokenness of ugliness, deception, and bad intentions!
Just a comment related to the Chernobyl accident that I know relatively well.
It was never a major disaster except for the firefighters and other people that were involved during the initial phase of the accident. In a real scale based on actual and rational evaluation of the consequences it would not even show up (e.g. compared to a major flood, tornado, earthquake, fire or hurricane).
On the other hand some people say “perception” is reality. Fair enough, except that “perception” is mostly driven by the Devil and reality by God.
Well, you hit the nail here, Father. It is good to hear these comforting words.
I appreciate the comments too and strangely find comfort in them as well. Thank you all.
One of the verses from The Song I grab onto, as I look for the day all of us and all creation truly “fit snugly together”, is the verse that follows 2:10:
“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone”
“Given time, all will be well.”
I would that it be soon.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus…
I appreciate your expertise. My wife works with someone who did work on Chernobyl as well. Sometimes the most celebrated events make us fail to notice the more common things that add up to greater problems.
Anna, Kristin, Byron,
It is important, I think, to recognize the “not belonging” as a form of shame. Some have suggested that this has played a long role in human history to guarantee a sort of conformity within the human tribe. The tribal nature of our lives has changed significantly. Oddly, individualism has a strong drive against belonging and is thus something that can make us miserable. A key, however, is that we are not created for “conformity” in the modern sense, but for “fit” – in an ancient sense. Complementarity has been a term used to speak of our existence as male and female. I think much of our modern gender nonsense is driven my individualistic notions. People can be so incredibly creative in their identities that they will never find their complements. They will never belong.
Of course, there are many other forms of belonging. Sometimes, finding just a few that are healthy can help us see a place in the larger creation. Considering the fact that we live on a planet that is not only uniquely suited for our lives – but possibly never repeated again in the entire universe – we should have a profound sense of the rightness of our belonging and the utter value of the least of us.
God says, “How do you like your planet? I made it just for you!”
And this is still only an icon of what is to come.
I think that in John’s Gospel, Christ speaks about being drawn out of the world, different, even hated by the world. But this is a call to the beauty you write about today so wonderfully, Father. In the kingdom of heaven is the communion that passes, dwells within, and penetrates all things. There are just those who can’t see it for whatever reason. We are drawn to a deeper unity. “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.” But thank you so much for the reminder of beauty. I have been of late besieged by ugliness, and through prayer, have paid a high price to make it “go away.” (My dreams included someone killing the Resurrection, and putting me and fellow faithful into a camp, yikes.) But I rejoice in the beauty you write about!!
I share what Fr. refers to as the shame of feeling I don’t belong. Like Robert, the physical place of church is a relief but I don’t carry that sense once I leave it and the fellowship I find there, at least not beyond small glimpses. It is a wonder and a blessing, church and those glimpses. I pray for us all.
Vasilia, et al
I think there is a place to start as we battle the shame of not belonging. First, we recognize that it is not true…it is a lie. When we give consent to the lie we empower it. But, somehow it is difficult to battle this by focusing on the self, as in, “I do belong, I do belong!” It only isolates us yet more. Instead, focus on the whole, and on others, and recognize that they all belong – and belong to the whole – to the greater and the larger. It is a form of blessing them and forgiving them. In that action of release, we discover our own welcome as well. Essentially, we can’t belong unless everything belongs.
Shame destroys any awareness of communion – not just our own, but the communion of everything around us. I sometimes turn to Ephesians 1 (cited in the article) as verses to refute the lie and affirm the truth. There are many others, of course.
In declaring that everything belongs, we are confessing God’s good will and His intention to heal everything. We refuse to give evil power over anything or anyone. It is God’s providence at work, drawing all things to Himself.
Kristin, I had to re-read the last part of one of your concluding sentences a second and third time before I understood its importance (for me; I know it is for you ). This is what stood out:
“. . . and how, consequently, God will reveal Himself to me.”
That is an amazing thought. God might reveal himself through inner emptiness, absence, even unwilling doubt. I have been troubled by very similar experiences. I am glad that you commented, and that Father Stephen works faithfully at this site. Reading here is such a helpful time in my day. Thank you both.
I, like all the others need to hear this. I am reminded of how C. S. Lewis described hell as a place where people grow farther and farther apart. The fact the I and others lose the sense of not belong when we stand in the services simply confirms to me that this not belonging is a ploy of the evil one to distract us from growing closer to God and each other. The Kingdom of God is entered by violence, i.e. much effort. Creating relationships is the same.
Thank you for your careful responses to our struggles. It give us something to work with when we come to these impasses.
Shame, and this sense of not fitting in, ever, anywhere, is paralyzing. I think we learn to adapt to these situations in a effort to lessen the pain. For example, purposefully taking a job where there is minimal contact with others, where you can for the most part work on your own. I imagine there are countless ways we can arrange our life to avoid the ‘not fitting in’. The loss of communion/belonging, is offset by the comfort in avoiding the pain. I have found, though, with the ensuing isolation, the comfort is very short lived.
” By virtue of Beauty-and- Goodness everything is in communion with everything else, each in its own way; creatures love one another without losing themselves in one another” :
You say we need to focus on the truth of this, and not the unnatural condition (sin and separation) we find ourselves in; to stand on and declare the words of scripture and the Saints in affirmation of the truth. In this I have no doubt.
I will tell you what sneaks into my mind, though. I know this is not your intent, but I recognize remnants of the Word of Faith, Name It and Claim It, line of thought. It sneaks into mind because that’s one of the distortions I was once taught. One of their standard ‘proof texts’ was Romans 4:17 :
” (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did ”
Simply put, I thought of this verse in light of your comment. I think what you are saying is not just to merely “think” our not-belonging into belonging, but to know that it is already a reality, a truth, in God our Creator…and thus, for all of His creation. So it would be as you said, an affirmation of an already existing truth that we do not see in its fullness yet. Just as God declared to Abraham, “I have made you a father of many nations” and in faith Abraham believed, so we declare, in faith, our oneness with all created things, in Christ, Who is gathering all things unto Himself.
If I am not mistaken, the Word of Faith movement fails to address the eternal Word of God in their proof texts. It is their belief that we ourselves have the ability to create our own situations by speaking it, in faith, into being.
Father, your counsel is a great help. I must say though, even in realizing these truths there is a lot of toil and tears in the turning and returning to our great God! It is not easy…and I often do not see things as clearly as I’d like to.
Yes, I understand how the name and claim it thought can creep in. But you are quite correct. We do not “think” something into existence but work to accept something that is already true. Our thoughts often create a false existence (“I do not belong”) and we create a prison in our mind that feels like reality. Instead, we meditate on the truth. We consider it. We examine it. We weigh it in our hearts. We confess it to be true in ways that help (by grace) to drive away the lie.
If I were being clinical, I’d reference it under Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If I were speaking of the Tradition, I would call it Theoria. Within the Scriptures, I would consider Romans 12 and the “renewing of our minds.”
Thank you Father for your insightful posts.They are invariably sources of much pondering.
Your thoughts concerning not belonging are most relevant. Non belonging when worn as a “badge of honor” can be a most insidious form of delusion and suffering.
This phenomenon, as you have well pointed out, can lead to extensive ugliness both on a personal level and ecological level. Our sense of separateness, of being “a skin encapsulated ego” is the prodigal pig pen at which we are feeding until we come to our senses.
Thank you again.
Thank you Father.
Ah, theoria = contemplation. Didn’t know that.
Yes, we can, and do, create a prison in our mind that seems like reality. I can’t help but see these lies as spiritual warfare.
Consider, examine weigh. I think God sees our intent, our willingness, to work this out together with Him. I say this kind of clumsily, but we do our part. But yeah, the whole process is the work of grace. We may not be sure where to begin, but I believe if we begin somewhere (you have given us some things to work with) God always “speaks” to us, many times in unexpected ways.
You mention, CBT. I thought of Fr. Alexis Trader. I hear he is highly regarded in his work. Perhaps another good source.
Thanks again, Father.
I’m a follower of the Lord Jesus and now, at 66, it’s very confusing to me to pick the right “version” of this faith. I was raised as a Catholic, left the faith at 15, became a super Protestant at 20, was a missionary, then lost my faith for 22 years. I came back as an Orthodox in 1989, and then reverted to the Catholic faith. Recently the Catholic scandals made that choice rather sour. The recent Scism between Russia and Constantinople are very disconcerting, and Protestant typical division is a terrible testimony of disunity and misunderstanding. The Lord Jesus stands and I follow Him but in WHICH church? Your comments would be welcome. Thank you
The sins of those in the Church, particularly those who have authority and leadership, are grevious. They are also not new. The New Testament clearly gives evidence that such problems existed from the beginning. We have no evidence whatsoever that the Church has ever been without such problems. That they trouble you is proper. That they should dissuade you from the true course of your life in Christ, however, is a mistake.
Here’s a link to an article that might be of use for you: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/03/31/16163/
When inquirers to the Orthodox faith come to my classes, I emphasize from the beginning that becoming Orthodox means entering into union with 2000 years of very messy history. The idea of the well-ordered Church free of major scandal is a product of a false reading of history – much of which I place at the doorstep of Protestantism. Protestantism has proven that “reformation” is a fool’s errand – largely resulting in excess and heresy.
The question of the Church is very bothersome. Ecclesiology is the greatest failure in Protestantism – it denied the true doctrine of the Church from the beginning – creating new “Churches” from the start that weren’t even in communion with each other.
I am Orthodox because I believe it is the Church founded by Christ – that has remained in the deep channel of the Church’s course through history (to use a metaphor). I do not have or need a theory to describe deviations from that deep channel. We have been given a theology of the Church, not a theology of deviations. As such, I think the aggregation of papal power was a mistake and a deviation within history that has yet to be corrected.
Orthodoxy continues to struggle with inappropriate aggregations of power, about which I will say no more. I think the article I’ve given says best what I think. There is no salvation through a perfect Church. There is salvation in the very heart of the messiness we endure. The Church is a macrocosm of our sinful lives. It’s embarrassing. But, we bear a little shame and get on with the business of repentance.
God give you grace!
The Lamb of God was sacrificed in the ” very heart of messiness we endure”, the “deep channel”. I like the way you write, Father. Pray for me.
“When inquirers to the Orthodox faith come to my classes, I emphasize from the beginning that becoming Orthodox means entering into union with 2000 years of very messy history.” Only propaganda tells a long story that is not messy. As human beings we are messy, but Jesus Christ became a man, died and was resurrected too which is messy. It is not clean and spotless. John 11:39 KJV: “…by this time Lord, he stinketh” when He raised Lazarus. “He came down from Heaven….”
Many of those who turn away from Him then and now, do not like a God that gets down in the mess. They want a LORD who will wave his finger and wipe “bad” things away. Even in Acts 1:6 there is the expectation that He will restore the Kingdom of Israel.
I know for a fact that if He did not get messy, I would have no hope for salvation. The Christian faith is not a “clean” faith. It is one of shared suffering, joyous renewal gained in fasting and forgiveness and repentance and almsgiving and communion.
The Pharisees were “clean” and “righteous”. The Romans loved order. The order of the Church is God’s order revealed in unrighteousness and sin but still capped with the glory of incredible saints. It is an order that depends on the resurrection and not our puny will.
Christ is Risen from the Dead. So must we by His grace and mercy
When we came to a place of choosing “which Church?”, I remember God began showing us several things about the Church (outside of messiness, because we very honestly found that everywhere). He faithfully continued to show us things so our hearts, minds, and souls could settle peacefully where we belonged in His one catholic, Apostolic Church, we steadfastly found in the Orthodox Church. First, we took a hard look at the Nicene Creed. We examined it’s history and took a look at the history of the Ecumenical Councils. We read some of the early Church Fathers and the Didache. We took a very hard look at the writings of St. Ignatius, a first century Bishop. We learned about the Septuagint. We learned about a few intimate differences in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that made all the difference for us. The iconostasis, the way the Priest faces in the Liturgy, the tradition of iconography in the Orthodox Church (one aspect being inverse perspective and traditional colors for example), the hymnography, the very close and natural relationship the Orthodox have to the Theotokos….I realize now my list is pretty extensive….so much we realized after our blinders were taken down was just so natural. God was accessible, but He was properly glorified. We finally realized after a long hard search that we belonged here, and it was beautiful.
Thank you Anonymous for your beautiful comment!
And thank you Michael and Father Stephen for your reminders of our Church history and Christ’s willingness to befriend the ‘unclean’ and messy.
Acceptance. It seems like everything comes down to acceptance. Accept who I am. Accept the world as it is. Accept others as they are. Accept God as He is and give thanks, give thanks, give thanks.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21
Thank you, Father, for these careful words. It is so helpful to be reminded of the source of these feelings of shame and isolation…lies. Thank you for dropping seeds of the truth, and may God water these words with his Spirit. We need his healing, big time!