An excerpt from a commencement address at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007, given by Fr. Thomas Hopko. It is deeply worthy of conversation. I first posted this back in June, 2007, when it was “new.” That which is true is always new and timeless.
…I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.
And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair.
The God who is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, who gives us his divine life and peace and joy forever, is first of all the Divine Lover who wounds His beloved, and then hides from her, hoping to be sought and found. He is the Father who chastens and disciplines His children. He is the Vinekeeper who cuts and prunes His vines so that they bear much fruit. He is the Jeweler who burns His gold in His divine fire so that it would be purged of all impurities. And He is the Potter who continually smashes and refashions and re-bakes His muddy clay so that it can be the earthen vessel that He wants it to be, capable of bearing His own transcendent grace and power and glory and peace.
…I learned that all of these terrible teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the saints are real and true. And so I became convinced that God’s Gospel in His Son Jesus is really and truly God’s final act on earth. It is the act in which God’s Word is now not simply inscribed in letters on pages of parchment, but is personally incarnate as a human being in his own human body and blood. And so I became convinced of the truth of all truths: that the ultimate revelation of God as Love and the ultimate revelation of humanity’s love for God, are to be found in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew, hanging on a cross between two criminals, outside the walls of Jerusalem, executed at the hands of Gentiles, by the instigation of his own people’s leaders, in the most painful, cursed, shameful and wretched death that a human being — and especially a Jew – can possibly die.
So to the measure that we are honest and faithful, and try to keep God’s commandments, and repent for our failures and sins, we come to know, and to know ever more clearly and deeply as time goes by, what we have learned here at St. Vladimir’s. We come to know by experience that the Word of God (ho logos tou theou) is always and necessarily the word of the Cross (ho logos tou stavrou). And — in language befitting a commencement ceremony at an Orthodox graduate school of theology — we come to see that true theologia is always stavrologia. And real orthodoxia is always paradoxia. And that there is no theosis without kenosis.
Theology is stavrology and Orthodoxy is paradoxy: the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death. We learn, in a word, the truth of the early Christian hymn recorded in Holy Scripture:
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure with him, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (2Tim 2.11-13)
According to the Gospel, therefore, those who wish to be wise are constrained to be fools. Those who would be great become small. Those who would be first put themselves last. Those who rule, serve as slaves. Those who would be rich make themselves poor. Those who want to be strong become weak. And those who long to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel. And, finally, and most important of all, those who want really to live have really to die. They voluntarily die, in truth and in love, to everyone and everything that is not God and of God.
And so, once again, if we have learned anything at all in our theological education, spiritual formation and pastoral service, we have learned to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ. We have learned that though we can know about God through formal theological education, we can only come to know God by taking up our daily crosses with patient endurance in love with Jesus. And we can only do this by faith and grace through the Holy Spirit’s abiding power.
Thank you Father; it really is a beautiful piece. And i’ve seen a few videos of Fr. Hopko — his energy even in his old age was a treat. A life well lived.
All that said, a far too wide chasm exists between my understanding of what Fr. Hopko’s said and the manner in which i’ve conducted my life. Say a small prayer for me Father.
And those who long to find and fulfill themselves as persons deny and empty themselves for the sake of the Gospel.
The very antithesis of the teachings of the world.
Wow, that is powerful stuff, just what you have been writing in your blog for the past several years. It is chock full of hope but more importantly defies us to examine our lives and refocus our relationship with the living God. You, sir, are an embodiment of that ongoing struggle that the savior presents to us. Thank you for helping us bear our crosses. Glory to God!
Thank you Father Stephen.
So “stavrou/stavrologia” means the word of the Cross. I was wondering what that meant.
Just some thoughts here….
The paradoxes Fr Hopko speaks about, that joy in the Lord can only come from carrying our own cross, that is, through suffering…in essence bringing into captivity every thought word and deed that calls to the emptying of our self…completely shatters any sense of “balance”, as a place where we think we will find peace for our souls. Christ shattered the scales of such worldly balance by showing us the way of the Cross. We do not stand on “level ground” for long, when we seek reprieve. It is with total dependency on Christ, as we stand “on the edge of the abyss”, not on a level and balanced ground, where we are given the grace to endure. He shows us, precisely through our ignorance, where we miss the mark. This is the chastisement, the pruning, the trial through fire. In His longsuffering, patient endurance with us, we are summoned to have patience with this “purification”. It is when we insist on “balance” we remain stuck, as if to say ‘no! no more pruning…please!’
In regard to Fr Hopko’s warning “to beware, and to be wary, of all contentment, consolation and comfort before our co-crucifixion in love with Christ “, I have found, paradoxically, that contentment and consolation is given not by removing the pain and suffering, but by God carrying us through, not for the sake of suffering itself, but for the sake of unity with God and man. It is “hell” to purge our self centeredness! He sees our desire (love, devotion) to be united with Him. He knows what it will take to accomplish this.
Correct me if I misunderstand, Father. It is not like making a declaration such as ‘ok Lord, I am now crucified in You, so now I can ask for consolation’. This, to me, is “linear thinking”. I recall Fr Hopko said elsewhere (and you have alluded to this as well) that when it comes down to it, we really do not want this holy Cross (paraphrasing here). We say we do, but when God speaks of complete surrender…well…we’d rather not.
It has been my experience (I can only speak for myself here) that in the pruning, fire, chastisement…through the suffering that I did not want to endure but in hindsight get a hint of its purpose…it is there where I find consolation. Punishment, as I experienced punishment…I have never had that sense with God. I was told that the punishment I received was from God. But I never did believe that.
“A bruised reed he will not break”, I think are the thoughts of the Father to the Son, in light of His Passion…and the thoughts of God to us, in our trials, as sons and daughters of God in Christ.
I think of our Mother depicted in the icon “the joy of all who sorrow”. She partook fully of the Cross.
Thanks again Father, for a very thoughtful post.
I’m in my seventh decade. I have told my wife that no one, Christian or not, can make it thus far (into 70’s) without suffering. Since all suffer, is it not better to suffer at our Lover’s hands than at those of the adversary? Satan came (comes) to steal, kill and destroy. We see this all around us with the opioid epidemic and the shooting in Gilroy. Fr. Hopko is right about Christ “abandoning” us so that in desperation we seek Him with all we have/are. St. John of the Cross, his dark night of the soul.
Yet He then woos us back to Himself. All of life is like this, is it not? A constant juxtaposition between loss, gain; death, life; sickness, health…and on and on. So if I must suffer, let it be by my Lord’s calloused, scarred, yet gentle hands.
Btw…that you lunched with Fr. Hopko, wonderful! I used to have some of his sermons on cassette tape. One of the most powerful, penetrating speakers I’ve ever heard, especially thinking of his sermon about glorying in the cross of Christ.
Thank you for resurrecting these stirring words. You said his words are deeply worthy of conversation and so I’m drawn to think about the following .thoughts. What I find astonishing is if we are to follow in the path of Christ, we must do so voluntarily, like him. It is not merely a choice to do the right things but a giving up, a self-offering of a life fragmented by ‘missing the mark,’ in order to receive and embrace a whole life, renewed in Christ. We undertake this task, the Cross, not alone but in communion, just as we are not saved alone. In this way, our life is a type of divine service, of breathing and moving in the living God with a renewal of our nature. Attending and participating in church services contributes to this renewal. We rediscover what it means to have had to a noetic relationship with God, that is to know him directly through all our senses purified, and to faithfully serve and believe in him. The liturgy is a celebration of one taking up their cross and following Christ. It is not merely us commemorating his resurrection. It is us participating in it. Christ continues to raise people first from spiritual death before his second coming. His Church is an entrance into the Parousia, through the revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven at hand, as he himself now is present through his Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit reign in the Church today to reveal Christ’s presence? Though our communal and corporate worship, the scriptures, the Gospel, hymnography, iconography, all of which point us to the liberation from sin and our single movement ascension to heaven. St John Chrysostom tells us we are meant to be the place of heaven. And liturgy’s self-description is, against points to us, ‘offering this, our reasonable worship.’ We are to be fully integrated into worship. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, worship is our natural calling. As we are accompanied by cherubim and seraphim in the church liturgy, heaven and earth are united together to cry the angelic hymn from the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory.’ This same angelic hymn is the morning prayer for the beginning of each day. But an important distinction is necessary to bring up between praying at home and praying in the liturgy. Such distinction we can read about in a short and old pamphlet written by Fr. George Florovsky called, The Worshipping Church: Community and Retreat.
At home we can ‘retreat’ that is pray for anyone and any intention. Fr. Tom also said many times church services are not the place for one’s private prayers. The hymns, petitions and prayers during church services already account for our individual needs and requests. We must be as fully engaged as possible in the hearing of what is prayed in ordered to respond attentively and appropriately. Sometimes just the opposite is advocated. For example, while the clergy are saying their prayers silently, the people can pray adding their own intentions. No such opportunity exists in the liturgy to accommodate this separation of clergy from laity. We are ‘unity of faith and communion in the Holy Spirit’ and are called to worship ‘with one mouth and one heart to praise your all honorable and majestic name, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ Sadly, today fewer priests pray even the anaphora aloud, advocating it is their prayer and not for the people to hear. This was an observation made many times by Fr. Tom.
Thank you for this good conversation!
Thank you Fr Stephen. Much to consider, chew on, contemplate. I miss Fr Tom, though I know he is near.
Forgive my breaking in, but an update on my daughter Lauren.
All the scans indicate no brain or spinal cord damage at all, thanks be to God – that is the biggest worry out of the way. She had facial bone surgery on Friday and did well. She will probably have to have some further surgery when the swelling goes down, and she will need dental implants in the future. She went home yesterday (Monday) evening, with jaw wired. Husband James is taking good care of her.
Since I’ve been Orthodox I’ve committed my children to the care of the Theotokos every day, at the place in my prayer book where I have a prayer card of the Theotokos of the Passion – my Catholic mother’s favorite depiction of her as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Yesterday in the very moments we were speaking with Lauren’s husband on the phone, finding out she was home from the hospital, a lovely large icon of the Theotokos of the Passion came quite literally into my hands from an unexpected source. Our Mother is very kind.
Thank you, John. Very good words. My priest prays the Anaphora out loud the vast majority of the time. It’s the affirmation of God’s acts for our salvation. We need to hear it!
“…And I can also tell you, alas, that such loving is always a violent, brutal and bloody affair…”
Too often, we don’t really want to see (let alone live) this. By “we” I mean otherwise faithful, regular, traditional (Orthodox) Christians. We reflexively fall back into a kind of Moralistic Therapeutic Theism which is little different then MTD. In my opinion if the violence, brutality, and bloodiness of “the Love of God” is not being preached then the truth is not being preached.
I read an essay a while back online (which I can’t locate at the moment) where the author was relating to how in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, Myshkin never actually says “beauty will save the world” (though everyone around him claims that he said it), rather it was Hans Holbein’s painting (icon?) “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” which Dostoevsky had seen in a trip to western Europe and struggled with mighty, that was his paradoxical inspiration – the beauty of God and our salvation is marked by this violence, brutality, and bloodiness. The Gospel never avoids this and is always emphasizing the Cross, suffering, etc…yet, we desire to put aside the paradox and cling to a sentimental beauty, life, and Christianity…
Thanks for a thought provoking re-introduction of Father Hopko’s presentation, Father Stephen. I wasn’t going to comment until I came to Christopher’s thoughts, and bless his heart, for he has given words to what I was rather worried about , by referencing the Holbein painting in Dostoievski’s “The Idiot”.
That would be, I think, taking Father Hopko’s words a bit too far. Here’s what I think Dostoievski was struggling with, and what I struggle with in facing the text above. And that is, to focus to the extreme upon Christ’s physical suffering (which our icons do not do, even though they depict it) is to go beyond what is our human legacy and promise, it is to carry the burden of his suffering to lengths only he could carry it.
Now, the way I interpret Father Hopko is that he wants us to be constantly aware that in church and in the Liturgy we stand face to face with the living God. I was a child in Protestant churches, and there it was comfort and friendship and being a good person that wafted over me in waves of good fellowship. Then, as a secondary student, I was in the Catholic mass and studying theology from that perspective. And for the first time, yes, I did come into God’s presence, but he was distant. (Apologies to Catholics – it was still the time of Latin as the language of the Mass and though I was studying it, and it was beautiful, it didn’t speak to me.
Coming later to Orthodoxy was a revelation. I was in the presence of God in the church service, as I hadn’t been in the Protestant church, or hadn’t felt I was, but God was in the midst of his people. That’s how it felt. And it was a great consolation, an enormous comfort, but also a challenge. A challenge to be as he was. My goodness!! As one would feel coming before him after death. That is how it felt. Person to person.
Look, our babies have Communion! Have they suffered? I don’t think we can say that in order to love God one must suffer; that he is ruthless, etc. etc. But that he tests us, yes. And for each one the test is according to his divine will. And I would qualify Father Hopko’s statement by saying there is no Resurrection without His Cross, and we his people can’t endure suffering without His Resurrection.
I don’t think Dostoievski held the Holbein painting as the equivalent of an icon. It’s not. (“The Idiot” is not yet “The Brothers Karamazov.” ) And if we can perceive that difference, we will be close to seeing God’s glory in all its magnificence and truth.
Please pardon me for my thoughts. I know the Cross is important, and we each are given what each of us needs to approach God. But I think Orthodoxy answers some Catholic perspectives in this (not all, I know). His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Not all are required to suffer, though many of us indeed do.
If the gospel ignored the brutality, pain and suffering it would be pretty irrelevant to the world in which we live. Truth told, we need never go looking for crosses – simply to bear the ones that come our way – and always in union with Christ. We do not suffer alone.
Dostoevsky found Holbein’s image to be repulsive – almost precisely because of its non-iconic presentation of death. It was its hopelessness. The Idiot is very far from Dostoevsky’s last word. He was always a writer who was moving towards something. The closest we see to his goal is his last book, The Brothers Karamazov. There is a profound beauty that saves there – as there is in Crime and Punishment.
The Cross, regardless of the suffering, is beautiful itself. That is because God has taken it into Himself. All is redeemed. Not with sentimentality – but true beauty.
I actually am ignorant about the context of Holbein’s painting, rather it was meant in a “iconic” or religious context of his time and place (thus the question mark), or if not if it was meant as a kind of nihilistic rebuttal (to choose a word) by the painter to his own particular context (or something else entirely). My recollection of the essay that I read (wish I could locate it – I thought I read it at anothercity.org but if I did it’s no longer there) was that the more usual reading of Dostoevsky seeing a western, non-iconic, “realistic” depiction and sort of countering it with “beauty will save the world” eastern emphasis/characterization is not quite accurate to Dostoevsky’s intent. I have never pursued the question myself much at all beyond this one essay.
I also admit that I am somewhat perplexed at some of the comments here which seem to want to see Hopko’s words in a heavily liturgical (i.e. church service) context and light. In the end IMO the paradox has to be maintained, and on some level I can see Holbein (interpreted rightly) doing that – preserving the real “degradation” (to use Hopko’s word) of actual real death. Did Christ truly suffer and die, and if so was his body truly dead like mine will be – glassy eyes and all? Real death, and real dead bodies are “repulsive” on several levels, and if you don’t know that it is because our current practices around death and dying (i.e. sterile hospital environs, embalming, closed casket funerals reduced to a “celebration of life”, etc. etc.) has shielded you from this truth.
God is beautiful, and yes “beauty will save the world”, yet look how He actually does this – with cross which is an instrument of torture and death, all the while affirming our own crosses. Again, my opinion, but in this sentimental age I think we need to be careful of what we mean when we speak of beauty in relation to crosses, sufferings, and death.
If the gospel ignored the brutality, pain and suffering it would be pretty irrelevant to the world in which we live. Truth told, we need never go looking for crosses – simply to bear the ones that come our way – and always in union with Christ. We do not suffer alone.
I think this comment by Fr. Stephen is especially relevant to younger people like me, who struggle to “find” identity, purpose, and significance while our peers pressure us towards worldly pursuits, beliefs, and fleeting pleasures. I put “find” in quotes because God only offers one Savior, not several to choose from – and He is a Secret God as Elder Sophrony called Him, not a publicly visible God. I read today a chapter from His Life is Mine by Elder Sophrony, and was very glad to find a description of how the process of meeting God happens through repentance and very painful spiritual contrition (I have believed this for a long time based on my long struggle to enter the Orthodox Church, so it’s great to find validation of my own path to Christ in a wise elder’s book). I suppose this means that the more frequent nature of crosses is not so obvious to the untrained – we expect tribulation via violence or natural disasters, not a stubborn “thorn in the flesh” (that can have physical symptoms) such as guilt or spiritual bewilderment that is invisible to others during otherwise ordinary times. The developing of maturity that comes from suffering the pain of repentance seems implicitly crucial to what Fr. Thomas spoke of in his commencement address – if our crosses tend to involve our sins, then bearing our crosses is necessary to heal from our individual unique passions.
The greatest struggle I have had as an Orthodox Christian has been to discover what my sins are and are not – to criticize myself gently when I did really sin, but not to blame myself for actions or events beyond my control. This might be a common struggle or not, I don’t know. I believe that there are different kinds of crosses, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh said:
How can I deal with my sinful condition?
12 August 1984
…there is one thing which we all can do: when we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can then bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross, — not Christ’s cross, not the cross of true discipleship, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him. Didn’t the thief say to his companion who was blaspheming the Lord: We are enduring because we have committed crimes; He endures sinlessly… And it is to him, because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was, that Christ said, ‘Thou shalt be with Me today in Paradise…’
The “cross of true discipleship” is the ultimate, popularly discussed one. Lesser crosses are related parts of it and have their own characteristics.
What an amazing talk!
There is of course real physical suffering, not disconnected from the spiritual suffering, required in our struggles to overcome or passions and our own stubborn will. Embracing our cross requires first to embrace the Cross of Christ, and through repentance we show or love by following His commandment to take up or cross if we wish to follow Him.
Christ endured for us that which was truly unnatural for Him to endure. The immortal God in the flesh experiencing death, and the spotless, perfect and sinless God-Man on the Cross became sin so that we may be saved. This is the true horror of the Cross, that we struggle to grasp. Sometimes we may have a fleeting glimpse of this awesome mystery, but it is difficult to hold on to it. One can only marvel how great His love for us. As we compare His love and sacrifice we recognise or own unworthiness, and here begins our own path, the beginning of our death to this world (our passions), is the beginning of our resurrection, so we also have great joy that Christ, unworthy as we are, also lifts us up.
I had a thought the other day that in bearing our personally given and voluntary crosses “well” (with the fruits of the Spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), we show Christ we love Him and it is life giving. This is a death to our flesh, in our crosses we bear, and a growing of fruits of the Spirit in us….a reversal of the events of the Garden of Eden if the crosses we bear are as the tree and the fruit, the apple.
How we all need, and our culture needs, to be convinced that any path, that avoids the Via Dolorosa is not worth walking. But we do not believe it is worth it because we live as though we never died in baptism with Christ, never rose with Him, never received the Spirit – and are fearful as a result, and will do anything to avoid suffering by “staying safe”, “laying low”, accumulating pleasure, power, purchases. And I am guilty of all of this – but – when I realize it, I want to repent. It’s the constant remembrance that “the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life”, that all other “loves” disappoint, all these flips that need to made in our thinking continually. Constantly turning upside down our thinking. So, please continue to help us see the worth, or to remember the worth, of voluntary submission to Christ in our cross bearing.
I receive comfort from the story of St. Felicity, a slave of St. Perpetua, who was martyred in Carthage in the early 200’s. She was eight months pregnant when she was arrested for being a Christian. Two days before the execution was scheduled, she went into a painful labor. The guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, “If you think you suffer now, how will you stand it when you face the wild beasts?” Felicity answered them calmly, “Now I am the one who is suffering, but in the arena another will be suffering for me because I will be suffering for him.” She gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted by one of the Christian women in Carthage.
So happy to hear about Lauren! May God continue to hold you each close!
Now we get down to the nitty-gritty! Thanks Christopher for pressing forward with this…and to all who responded.
We suffer. And we know Christ as our Lord and Savior. Yet we continue to suffer. We may try to “make it better” by reasoning…so many thoughts, reading so many stories, lives of the Saints, etc…which is not to say that this is wrong. But the suffering remains like an elephant in the room. We live with it and it ain’t going away. This is not to say that our redemption in Christ is all for naught. He has redeemed us and all creation…but, man!, it is beyond me how to lessen the pain in suffering (spiritual, physical, relationships, corruption, wars, schisms…you name it) by trying to maintain a “balance” (sorry, I go back to that word because I think that is pretty much our approach). I can not. I am not able, to lessen anything of the sort…the joy of life in Christ is here and at the very same time, the suffering (in ‘you name it’) is equally here too.
No doubt that I reflect back on my 65 years of experience. It has not been easy. The numbers of Christians like this are countless, but most remain silent. I think this is because we believe something is “wrong” with us. People do not want to hear this kind of talk. Some insist we must forget these things and only look at the beauty of all that encompasses Christ and the Church. But it doesn’t work that way. We can not forget. So actually both exist…the joy of the Lord and the pain and suffering in this present age.
You tell me when all of this changes. If I have missed something, please, let me know!
And listen…I realize that I speak with an “edge”. I believe it can be likened to the tenderness of a healing wound. That is why there are some days when I do not want to hear platitudes. Speak to me about real life…that which we struggle with here and now. And in this context, speak to me about Christ and the mystery of redemption. God’s plan of salvation from before the foundations of the world. But I can not ignore one for the sake of the other.
If I have missed the point of Fr Hopko’s words in this essay, then someone please let me know.
We do well to consider the nature of modern culture – and of modernity itself. It’s justification for itself is the maximizing of “happiness” and the relief of suffering. As such, it is pleasure-drivien with a market economy that would collapse if it weren’t for over-consumption. As such, everyone in our culture is nurtured on pleasure. We develop false virtues – the strengths and talents required for maximizing consumption and pleasure. Those false virtues allow us to “succeed” in this culture.
We are formed and shaped as “anti-monastics.” We are sexual addicts (not chaste). We are driven to consume (not poor). We are self-willed consumers (not obedient). I could (and probably will) easily do an article on this “anti-monastic” existence.
All of this is to say that, of almost all cultures that have ever existed, we are the least suited to traditional Christianity. That Orthodoxy has even a toe-hold here is nothing less than miraculous. That said, we should be merciful and kind and understand how it is that we are what we are. We live in the midst of an addicted culture where we try to preach abstinence.
Such amazing courage!
Father…looking forward to your article on anti-monastics. Monk, or monastic, means ‘one who fights alone’, yes? But we are not alone. I hope you explain all this.
And thank you for your comment to us all.
Well, what a consolation to read everyone’s posts this morning. Ivan’s lesser crosses, Anon’s cross/fruit relationship, Matthew’s continual flips, Paula’s elephant and conspicuous-by-its-absence “balance”, and Father Stephen’s “anti-monasticism”. In my present circumstances I am in contact with a cluster of older (mostly baby boomer) Christians who, and I don’t know how else to put it, have been ‘swallowed up’ by modernity’s culture/life style (sexual revolution, father’s “false virtues”, etc.). I admit a deep ignorance as to what God is even doing with them.
On the other hand, a small number of young people (Ivan’s age) have been the source of hope for me. They are wise beyond their years when it comes to the dead end of this compromised “therapeutic” Christianity. They have good instincts, and seem to ‘get’ Mario’s “beginning”, which is such an apt word. A person can spend 1, 10, 40 years in the midst of the real beauty of the Holy Liturgy and all the trappings of this Church of the East and never actually begin. By God’s grace let us, actually, begin our beatific resurrectional path – the one that leads us through real suffering and death and is a “bloody affair”. Perhaps even one such as myself can actually begin!
I think to be able to ‘see our sins’ and to truly accept our crosses (or even to know what they are) requires humility. Humility is the fire that burns the husk of pride.
But we, in our preferred blindness—our ‘ways of being’, are endorsed in myriad ways in this culture, through our families’ inherited values and privileges and so called ‘strengths and virtues’. Pride isn’t so easy to see in ourselves. Some of us might be embarrassed by our ‘good fortunes’ (as they are seen and valued in this culture). Being embarrassed is not yet humility, however. Rather, how one expunges such ‘values’ is to recognize the source of them and begin to live our life ‘without them’ rather than ‘carry’ them. Such values, in however many the ways that we live them, are not our ‘cross’ but our sin.
We all bear the burden of each other’s sin. As far as I know, there is no sin that is not ‘my own’.
Fr Stephen if I have misspoke please forgive and correct.
Dear Dana, Glory to God for your daughter’s recovery, thus far. And may He grant peace and joy in her continued healing.
Paula, thank you for your wonderful candidness. It is a blessing.
I, too, am looking forward to your exposition on monasticism vs. modernism. It seems that Christ’s Way is , and always has been, an ascetic way to God. If others choose not to believe that He has given us this way to God–that is, of course, their choice. We don’t need to justify our following His Way. It seems modern versions of Christianity want to deny its necessity–there is no dying to self and infilling with God. Without asceticism they are left justifying their moral stands as just that. There is no understanding that all aspects of our lives are filled with passions that need to be tamed. It looks to me like that is an outgrowth of the “once saved, always saved” theology where all that really matters is getting one’s ticket to heaven. A kind of new gnosticism.
I’m wondering if you could also reflect at some point on what seems to be an historic “Canannite vs. Israel” theme in humankind. What I mean by that is that so many ancient pagan religions embraced a sexual “god” –devolving into temple prostitution, etc. Israel stood out in sharp contrast to those surrounding cultures. It seems that we may be heading towards a modern version of such worship.
Ivan – The recently reposed Elder Aimilianos also teaches the importance of suffering as a path to our salvation.
The soul has to make a choice, and the outcome will either break it into pieces or enable it to sail to its destination in God. And the choice comes down to this: Will the soul accept or reject suffering? Will it make this suffering its own, or struggle against it, seeing it as something alien to itself?
…If he chooses to accept his suffering, he must embrace it with the wholeness of his life; he must discover and accept the proper relation to his suffering. If he can do this, he will have transformed his suffering so that in the end his only reality will be God. But if he continues to resist his suffering, refusing to find his salvation in it, his anguish will continue unabated.
The question is ultimately this: Will he offer himself as a voluntary sacrifice to the will of God? …He must accept as his own will, as his own desire, the will of God for his life. If this happens, he will cease being anxious about his sufferings, for he will see that they too are the signs and tokens of God’s presence.
It follows from this that the [soul’s] salvation hinges on a single decision, namely, the acceptance or rejection of his suffering. To the extent that he struggles against his suffering, seeking to disown and reject it, his agony will only intensify. The avoidance of suffering serves only to increase suffering in a vicious cycle that never ends.
If, on the other hand, he chooses to entrust himself to God, and so recognize in his suffering God’s mercy and love; if he is able to see his suffering as proof of God’s love for him, then he will undergo another, greater experience that will shake him to the core of his being.
Just when he thinks his life is about to end, that he is about to breathe his last, he will feel, not simply an upward surge into new life, but deep within himself the presence of the “long-lived seed” mentioned in the Prophet Isaiah:
“It was the will of the Lord to bruise him; He has put him to grief; yet when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of his suffering of his soul and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10).
Spiritual health is not found in the avoidance of suffering, but in its joyful acceptance. The [soul’s] dilemma lies precisely in whether or not he will accept his sufferings or reject them, which is another way of saying that the choice he needs to make is whether to accept or deny God.
~Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 100-102.
Is God absent or present? Is He near at hand, or remote and withdrawn? It’s a matter of how you look at it. When the soul looks at reality solely through its pain and suffering, it does not see things clearly, and thus it thinks that Christ and His voluntary sufferings are something abstract, distant, and without real meaning. But when the soul alters its perspective, its inner sense and experience of things will begin to change, and so too the way it confronts and responds to its own sufferings, and then it will see that Christ is very close indeed. When we enter into the place of hope and trust, we see that God is near, and acknowledge Him as our Lord…
Will [the soul] accept growth, change, and consequently redemption? Redemption follows upon the experience and acceptance of death. The moment we accept death, true life can begin. Only by means of death can one “trample down death,” and so attain to resurrection. Thus, depending on how the [soul] confronts the problem of suffering, God will either be his savior or his executioner. Again, the secret to his freedom does not lie in the rejection of his sufferings, but in his joyful acceptance of them. He will be truly free only when he lets go of wanting to be free from his sufferings, for all freedom and all life depend on our being in right relation to God.
When he accepts his death; when he allows himself to hear the sound of his footsteps descending into the grave, he will find that death no longer has a hold on him, for now he is with God. The darkness will vanish and he will see only light… By struggling to find the right relation to suffering, to our own death, we shall simultaneously find God… [The soul] must make the difficult decision to sacrifice himself voluntarily to God. If he accepts to become an instrument of God’s will, he will emerge triumphant; but otherwise he will fail. His suffering is beyond his control, it is not something he willed for himself, but all things begin and end with God, and nothing takes place apart from the divine will, and so he must see himself as an instrument wielded by God.
As we’ve said, in accepting or rejecting my suffering, I am accepting or rejecting God Himself… In the beginning, God and I are separate, in such a way that my self, my narrow self-concern, leaves no room for God. If “I” exist, God cannot exist, for there cannot be two Gods, and so it is either God or the self. When someone sees only his own suffering, God cannot answer him, for it is precisely the mistaken, negative attitude toward suffering that constitutes the separation between him and God. But if “I” cease to exist, if my relation to my suffering changes, then I can be united to God. This union depends on the denial of myself, so that God can come into my life…
I must learn to accept suffering with joy, to find joy within my suffering, to realize that even in my moments of glory, I am nothing but “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27); a “pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 101:7 LXX), lost in a desert land, seeking shelter in a landscape of ruins. I must realize my sinfulness, my nakedness, my alienation from God; I must realize that I am “like a sparrow alone on a housetop” (Psalm 101:8 LXX), not because I have some psychological problem, but because I have been separated from God. I need to experience both my exile and my union with God. I need to experience my inner darkness in order to know that God is my life and my light, that He is my salvation. I need to realize that I am in hell, in prison, in solitary confinement, alone on an island dying of leprosy, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven… both in this life and in the one to come.
My soul must cry out, just as the souls of all the saints have cried out, and then my soul will be saved, suffering together with Christ… If I exert myself, and commit myself to the struggles of the spiritual life, then I shall have the right to ask for the understanding of the Spirit. Either way, I’m going to suffer. But it’s up to me to decide whether I’m going to be a wounded deer panting for water and never finding any (Psalm 41:1, Proverbs 7:22), or a lamb sacrificed together with Christ, and calling out to Him. In this cry, this calling out, there exists the hope that I will hear the sound of His footsteps, and that these will overtake my own and lead me to salvation. But even before I cry out, God will answer me and say, “I am here” (Isaiah 58:9).
~Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 103-106, 108-109.
We get sick and we suffer for different reasons, but often it’s because we have sinned, voluntary or involuntary, or because we have wandered away from God. But, if you are sick, don’t be afraid and don’t worry because sickness is a great gift from God. The sick are God’s special children. The sick are under God’s special protection. They have God’s special blessing. They have God’s love. They are in His embrace, whereas someone who has health might not be. The sick person, the suffering person, the person with illness is in a privileged place, or a potentially privileged place, with respect to God. Those who have never known sickness, and those who have never known suffering, often have a lack of empathy; and often their heart is narrow and small and restricted, and not able to open up and embrace the suffering of others because they just don’t know it. The sick, on the other hand, are often the most loving and understanding and compassionate people that you will ever meet, and they are the ones who will have boldness before God in their prayers for others.
So don’t be afraid of your illness. Leave it to God. Do what the doctors tell you. When you take your medication, you receive Christ. It’s not bad, or a sign of a lack of faith, to take your medication. When you take your medication, you are receiving a blessing, you are receiving Christ Himself. Do what the doctors say, take your medications, go for your tests, but have no anxiety. Sometimes what’s worse than being sick is being afraid of getting sick. Leave it to God. Whatever God gives you is best for you. God never gives you a Cross without first weighing and measuring it very carefully to make sure that the Cross will result in your spiritual growth. So don’t think it’s random, don’t think it’s chance, don’t think it’s too much. It’s been very carefully weighed and very carefully measured, so that it will result in spiritual growth and spiritual benefit.
As much as the body wastes away, that much is our life in God renewed. God cannot be born within us without birth pangs. And the suffering that we experience, whether it’s emotional suffering or physical suffering, these are the birth pangs, the travail, the suffering in our life that will enable God to be born and to grow within us. So we should feel pity for the person who has not tasted involuntary pain because that person is not likely to impose upon himself a sufficient amount of voluntary pain. So feel pity for the person who does not know involuntary pain because they’re not going to inflict it on themselves. They’re going to want to stay in their comfortable place, their comfort-zone, and they’re going to resist all kinds of change. Sickness is a visitation from God, a divine visitation. Sickness humbles us, it teaches us, it reshapes us, it awakens us to reality, it enables us to see what is truly important and of value. It is not a punishment, but a divine visitation for our correction and education.
—Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery
From: A lecture entitled, “Blessed are the Pure in Heart: Reflections on the Spiritual Nature of Suffering,” by Father Maximos Constas, Patristic Nectar Publications (2017).
It seems that we may be heading towards a modern version of such worship.
Priscilla, I think we are already there. Everything in our culture (I speak of the U.S.) is sexualized. The very clear goal of many in our society is to extend this excess to children, implanting it through State sponsored education. In this they are succeeding.
Byron, I live in the Uk and it is the same. As Christians we have a tsunami of temptations to contend with. With God’s help I sometimes try to explain to people that if we used the same effort on spiritual matters rather than vanity, it does make a difference to our relationship with God.
Even EFFORT, or we could call it Ascesis, is a gift. Unfortunately, like many of our gifts, we abuse it. It is a difficult life, my main weakness is food! Modernity has pushed this through the roof with food choices beyond what is normal, from fast foods to a plethora of sugar addictive treats guaranteed to make us ill well before our time. Being thirsty and hungry for Christ does subdue these terrible cravings though.
Thank you for the quotes from Elder Aimilianos and Father Maximos Constas with Patristic Nectar Publications. I think it would be very comforting for many Christians to hear these teachings about “the importance of suffering as a path to our salvation,” because they might think that their suffering is their fault or meaningless. It is generous of you to share so much helpful material.
“Sickness is a visitation from God, a divine visitation. Sickness humbles us, it teaches us, it reshapes us, it awakens us to reality, it enables us to see what is truly important and of value. It is not a punishment, but a divine visitation for our correction and education.”
I find this part of what you quoted reassuring. I do have several chronic illnesses, and I try to be grateful for them. The promise that involuntary suffering will ultimately teach me to impose upon myself voluntary pain and make me more “loving and understanding and compassionate” with “boldness before God in [my] their prayers for others” provides good motivation to accept the pain of my illnesses. I hope to learn more from these elders through their books, especially this week as I continue to read Elder Sophrony’s His Life is Mine. God does not make it easy to trust Him, but He does not overwhelm us either.
It is worth noting that Elder Aimilianos was bed-ridden and unable to serve for many years. So he was no stranger to suffering. It helps me when I hear encouraging words from those whose life is so much harder than mine.
Thank you so much, Father Stephen for your response: “…If the gospel ignored the brutality, pain and suffering it would be pretty irrelevant to the world in which we live…” That is so true.
And Christopher also – I will tell you that even with how I see Dostoievski’s use of the Holbein painting in “The Idiot” that novel is indeed reflective of his path towards what Father Stephen describes. It might help to know that both that and his final novel were written in moments of sheer agony for the author. The first was after the death of his first child, his infant daughter, Sophia, and the second after the death of his last, his three year old son, Alexei. I cannot imagine his suffering, and yet both novels are great and they follow one upon the other. He also has another painting which as you say about the Holbein, he is very moved by, and that is one of the Assumption of the Virgin (I’m sorry – not sure if it is Rubens or Raphael – the former I think) which he encountered in Dresden. After his young son’s death he was at Optina and out of that spiritual assistance came the final novel.
So yes, suffering went into all of his writings – but also tremendous uplifting love and compassion infuses what he last wrote.
The woman giving birth has physical suffering (she perhaps screams and loses control), but after the child is born she forgets that suffering for joy that a child has come into the world. It’s a beautiful process!! I have so much respect for my body, having done this – it knew what I mindfully did not. It knew how to do its job without me! And I, I totally lost control.
That’s a wonderful mystery. And Father Hopko is saying, life lived in Christ needs both.
Ivan, thank you for the quote from St. Anthony of Sourozh. It is indeed the good thief we are called upon to imitate in the invocation that begins the Third Antiphon – the beautiful hymn that repeats the Beatitudes in the liturgy. Like the thief, we ask :
In Thy Kingdom remember us, O Lord,
when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.
I love your post!
Christopher, if I’m not mistaken (and I very well could be this late at night…) the essay you were thinking of was Vigen Guroian’s “Can Beauty Save the World?” in the Nov/Dec ’17 issue of Touchstone Magazine. At the very least, it expresses something very similar to what you remember reading.
Here is a quote of St Innocent of Alaska on ‘Take up your cross and follow Christ’’.
Thank you for those quotes in English!
Elder Aimilianos was the longest surviving person on a feeding tube in the world as far as I have researched.. Most of his bed ridden years.
Ivan & Dino – You are most welcome. Elder Aimilianos’s words have given me great strength in the face of my own suffering.
Ivan – I can also highly recommend a book called The Sunflower by Saint John of Tobolsk which is all about aligning our will with God’s will by accepting everything that comes to us.
Living “saints” touch our lives daily also. We go to church with a lovely Egyptian family. Both adults have their PHD. Yet I have rarely met more humble and remarkable people. This mother of two young boys has a severe auto-immune disorder that often keeps her house bound. She has been hospitalized twice this year. Yet never once in her suffering and trials have I heard her complain. No matter what befalls her her constant refrain is “glory to God for all things.” Her humility and beauty in suffering touch me deeply. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but suffer for His sake.” I think Julianna above said that Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden light (Jesus’ own words). I see this beautiful dance between suffering and light burden in this wonderful woman’s life. Yes, truly Christ you deserve all glory for all things!
This is the most challenging part about our Orthodox faith. How to carry this cross….
On the Sunday of the Holy Cross during Lent, my daughter, who on top of her autism suffered a mental breakdown this past year, began getting agitated and upset as soon as we had arrived in the Nave and started to settle ourselves for the Liturgy. I deeply wanted to be there on this Sunday of all others. I knew I couldn’t stay as my daughter would become disruptive (she wasn’t feeling well at all I realized later). I didn’t handle it well and drove recklessly in anger on the way home (this being the last straw of the unbearable stress of living for months with grief and my daughter’s symptoms, my husband’s pain, my son’s, my dad’s, my sister’s, and my brother’s…). I found myself saying things to my daughter I knew when they were pressing on my lips she didn’t need to hear and that they couldn’t help. But I was bereft and beside myself in pain. I fell down under the weight of my Cross and took it to Confession the next weekend. I still haven’t gotten up. I’m dragging myself along under that weight right now.
Pray for me and for my family.
Christopher’s words about death reminded me vividly of watching the light go out of my mother’s eyes as she lost consciousness, mouth agape gasping for breath (she died because her lungs filled up with fluid after intestinal surgery because of the weakness of her heart. It was the end of a two-month grueling battle). We had open casket, but the sagging skin from having been horribly bloated with fluid couldn’t be completely disguised. No, death is a terrible and ugly thing. Only the love that surrounds us–from the Lord, our loved ones (including the deceased)–keeps us from altogether buckling under the weight and renders a deep and sorrowful joy underneath the experience. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the death of the first of my mother’s sisters to leave us (followed only weeks later by her twin). We are going to a family reunion with my cousins in two weeks. And so the journey through these anniversaries has begun.
And through all this, there is one thing that keeps me going, that keeps me trying to rise when I have fallen down….Christ is risen!
Karen: I pray that you will remain strong in the Lord’s Mighty Hands and that He will refresh you and give you peace and calm though the storms of life seem to rage.
Though this does nothing to relieve your pain, I want to say that I too have difficulty carrying my cross and though I have prayed for a long time that the Lord would heal my dear husband’s multiple diseases, He has not done so.
God bless you richly with abundant grace .
And also, you Anna. 🙏🏻❤️ (St. Anna, ancestor of God, is my patron Saint.🙂)
Yes, that was it – thanks! I did not recall that Vigen wrote it, and as he is always worth reading I (re)subscribed to Touchstone. He confirms fathers/Juliania’s description of the “path” or trajectory of Dostoevsky’s wrestling with the relationship between beauty (worldly), Iconic beauty, and beauty even when theologically grounded still being a mystery and “riddle”.
When I “lose control” (which assumes we really have it in the first place) with my children and say things that I should not, well I don’t need to tell you the level of shame felt afterward. The memories of these sins light up the “lizard brain” like little else can. Years ago a man I worked for said that when things seem to be going well, they are not as well as they seem, and when things are going badly, they are not as bad as they seem. Mother of God pray for us!
Karen…you have my heart and prayers. It is so hard sometimes.
You offered this prayer by Met Philaret a while back. I copied it and put it in my prayer book. I like this version…and offer it back to you…
“O Lord, I know not what to ask of thee. Thou alone knowest my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on thee. My heart is open to thee. Visit and help me, for thy great mercy’s sake. Strike me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence thy holy will and thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to thee. I put all my trust in thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.
Christopher, T of the N, Juliania,
I am grateful for your conversation here, given the opportunity to look further into Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Holbein picture, Guroian’s article “can beauty change the world”, etc. I am not familiar with any of this, but knew that this is an angle from which I could gain some additional insight. I don’t have a subscription to Touchstone, but did find a website where Guroian and others discussed his article, the Holbien picture, etc, and the mystery/riddle of beauty and its inclusion of “ugliness”. Very interesting. Not an easy read. But it helped organize my thoughts on the very real tensions encountered in Christian life. such as the beauty of our Lord in all that He is, in the very life of the world, and yet the stark reality of pain and suffering. These are deep mysteries. So thanks again for the conversation.
I like to share links in case anyone may be interested:
In my life, I am finding the podvig of Thanksgiving to God to have inexpressible benefits, especially when there are difficult crosses (and so many carry much more difficult crosses than I have ever known). Sometimes I think, it is the one true consolation and comfort, beyond words even. If I can press in, in simplicity of heart, thanksgiving to God can bring a consoling peace….beyond even understanding. Continuous thanksgiving to God is a warming grace in the midst of our cold, snow drifted crosses. This might not be helpful to some, but this has been helpful to me, in the midst of my own crosses:
Fr. Stephen and Dino,
I had no idea what the extent of Elder Aimilianos’ illness was, or how he lived since his retirement. One of my grandmothers lived on a feeding tube for several years, and merely witnessing that was very difficult. I find this poignant aspect of his life an additional reason to read his books.
You are welcome for the quote. My parish priest told me to read it in response to my confession. I found it posted on an online Orthodox forum. I like icons of the Good Thief, though they are not popular. This Third Antiphon is one of my favorites, perhaps because of how it is sung, but also the simplicity of heart it represents. The Good Thief, Dismas, inspired me to talk to God when I first wondered how to repent in a monotheistic way.
Both Elder Sophrony and Metr. Anthony were Russian monks who lived in France and became Orthodox there before later moving to England (and Mount Athos in between for Archimandrite Sophrony). I wonder if they were friends! They both seem to have a focus on prayer, lay mysticism, and the centrality of repentance and listening to God.
Thank you for the link. I have read that essay by St. Innocent before, and I like how reassuring it is about God’s care throughout our lives. St. Innocent had a hard life too, especially by travelling long distances in Alaska alone.
Yes, Elder Aimilianos’ words have a strengthening effect. I felt motivated to go run on the local track this morning in part due to the quotes you shared. My parish’s bookstore offers The Sunflower, and it is on my “to read eventually” list. I like St. John of Tobolsk and appreciate his heroic humility.
Anonymous – Elder Zacharias (spiritual child of Elder Sophrony and spiritual grandchild of Saint Silouan), Abbot of Saint John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England, said in one of his talks that when he was in the hospital for a serious operation he said only one single-line prayer repeatedly for the entire week he was there: “Thanks be to Thee, O Lord, thanks be to Thee,” (or something very close to that). He said it was one of the most spiritually joyous times of his entire life.
Thank you all for the kind thoughts/words of encouragement and prayers. I especially also appreciate the quotes from Elder Amelianos shared and forgot to mention that.
Our culture often ascribes such scourging of illness, disability, calamity, life’s difficulties and suffering as the ‘wrath of God’ or as God ‘meting out ‘His justice’ . And implicit in the idea of justice is the concept of retribution.
I have great difficulty with such concepts as I truly do not believe there is God’s salvation in them. Often embedded in such notions, I believe, are the values of a particular group of people who would self-justify their ‘well-off’ life as God’s positive regard of them, and of those people who ‘have not’, whether it be financial advantages, or health, etc., have received God’s punishment and retribution.
Such notions (God’s wrath, retribution) are ascribed to literal interpretations of Psalms, as an example. With the experience that I have had of God’s Love (and my life hasn’t been a ‘bowl of cherries’) this literal interpretation simply doesn’t ring true. There is more there in these scriptures than that, as far as I know.
In Luke 24:44 “…all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me”
I believe these words of Christ point to how these scriptures should be interpreted. They are about Him during His life on earth and they are about Him in the sometimes turbulent life of our souls.
I have been taking much needed quiet moment to myself at our picnic table in the backyard with my breakfast this morning. (I rarely do this.) I was rereading some of Fr. Stephen’s old posts and came across a recording of the Bridegroom hymn he posted last April, which I began listening to. Of all the Icons in the Church, this one has the most powerful effect on me in softening my heart, and I always experience the extreme gentle sorrowful solemnity of that hymn as a balm to the deepest wounds in my soul, At the point where the music was working this wonderful effect for me, a cardinal burst into full-throated song in the maple tree above my head as if joining in the hymn. The cardinal was my mom’s favorite bird, and my family and I have considered the timing of its appearances in our lives since her departure as messages of grace—that of both her love and the Lord’s.
Dee, re: the language of God’s justice, wrath and retribution—indeed.
This is a habit of thought and simple-minded approach to such language in Scripture I continue to find deeply troubling. It’s bad enough to find it in Western heterodox traditions where it has such a troubling history of distortion of our image of God. It’s even worse when it is defended by Orthodox, especially Orthodox Priests. I’ve seen that done, and done recently. It saddens me.
“Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.”
(St. Isaac the Syrian on the nature of God’s “justice” revealed in Christ vs. human notions of justice, from his Homily 60)
I always enjoy reading what our ladies post here. Thank God that they see God and His world from a different perspective than that of us old curmudgeons! Yes, remembrances of past loved ones, friends, at the sight of a bird, the wafting by of a certain aroma, the hearing from afar of a train whistle and its creaking on rails. Not only loved ones, but God is there in each of these moments, memories, if we but quiet our hearts and listen, listen….
Karen and Dean thank you so much!
Sorry that was sent without further words.
Indeed we are beloved of the Lord. And the experience of Job describes that the one who remembers the Lord with love and gratitude in such tribulation is indeed most beloved of the Lord.
Dear Karen, it is very good that you took some time out to be with the Lord in nature. This is indeed want the soul yearns for in Christ. May He continue to fill your heart with great peace and joyful grace.
Just picked up Fr Pat Reardon’s book The Trial of Job. This image is on the front cover:
Job wasn’t feeling too beloved here, I would venture to say.
Trials are real. Some, like Job, endure them for a time. I think his friends tired of dealing with it. If only Job would have looked at the bright side! Only he didn’t see one…at the time.
I gotta read this book….
The story of Job is not an easy lesson to understand, it isn’t trivial. We might not ‘feel’ beloved and such feelings and perceptions are different from ‘what is’, if we are to accept what the saints have written.
What Job did not do is curse God for his circumstances. Some of us who have had such experiences become angry with God (speaking of myself as an example, once upon a time).
I am familiar with the story.
And I know very what I need to accept.
It is not that cut and dry though.
sorry…*very well*, that is
or to those who would indulge me yet again,
Late last night, searching, I came upon this post:
In it, among the 90+ comments, there was sbdn andrew’s who I found to be brutally and honestly truthful. He had the courage to express what I think many of us have in common but are unable to admit. The responses he received were well intended, but seemed to come short of a true connection. Instead he was offered opinions and correction, again, given in good, kindly, spirit.
In his multiple posts he finally expressed what he was longing to hear from his fellow brothers and sisters. I think the man saw himself as standing “on the outside” and was simply looking for some acknowledgement, some affirmation, that his “crisis” was shared among the brethren. He expressed it in this way:
” I want to hear someone say, “I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have faith. I don’t believe.” Its these kind of admissions that I believe is at the core of this blog and the authenticity expressed by Fr. Stephen and many of the participants here.
I am not looking for answers. I am looking for honesty in people like yourself willing to admit like me that we are mostly fools, mostly incomprehending, but also mostly loved through it all.”
He was very gracious in his responses. He talked about “love” a lot. It was evident that he struggled mightily. He should only know how much God has blessed him in this way.
Not long after, in another blog post, sbdn andrew submitted a resignation to participation at the blog. I think he could not find the refuge here that he was longing for. So, you know, people, they come and go. It is so easy to never think of them again, never have seen them face to face. There are so many lonely, lost and fractured souls among us. That said, Father Stephen, nor any of us, are to be held responsible, in that it is nobody’s “fault”. Yet in a way, we, at the same time, are called to share each other’s burdens. I think sbdn andrew’s was just too heavy, too coarse, and that he saw himself on the “outside” of the general agreed upon consensus. So he left.
I remember him well. And I miss him. Another one I miss is Simon, David Foust. He will always be “Simon” to me. He left too. They are just two examples of those who are “raw”, bleeding, if you will, crying out, unable to hide behind their “coats of skins”. They are out there somewhere, and yet closer to my heart than they will ever know.
I have noticed that our Holy Elder Sophrony of Essex has been mentioned a few times. I am currently reading one of his books. A small book, simple to read but big in spiritual content. It is: WORDS OF LIFE. Here are 2 small paragraphs on page 24:
“In Christ, our consciousness expands,
our life becomes unlimited. In the commandment ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, we must understand the words ‘as thyself’ in this way: every man, the ‘whole Adam’ , is my being.
And: “The kingdom of Christ, writes Saint Silouan, is to bear in our heart the whole universe and God the Creator Himself”.
Very good reminders about those who are raw. Most times the best thing we can do for those who are in the midst of suffering is be present to them…silently.
This is a comment for Dino, if he’d like to respond:
A while back in one of your previous posts on a previous article you said that St. Porphyrios mentioned to Eldress Gabriella, towards the end of his life, that God will find an unfathomable way to save all we cannot talk of. May I ask where you learned this from?
May God bless you!
True, Karen. Even in silence, especially in silence, there is that blessed fellowship of suffering.
Matter of fact sbdn Andrew spoke of a visit with a monk where they both sat in silence and wept. There was a language barrier so verbal communication wasn’t possible. But it turned out there was no barrier at all. He said he left the monk’s presence very much blessed.
Mario thank you for your quote. My parish priest sends out to parishioners quotes from the same book. And always I find them edifying. Indeed the meaning of the words you have selected points to the reality of a sacramental life.
Dee, thank God He sends us His saints and holy elders in tune with the Life of the Holy Trinity. The more I read their writings and the scriptures, the more unworthy I feel; whilst at the same time edified.
Father Stephen…@ July 30 at 8:14 pm you say:
“Truth told, we need never go looking for crosses – simply to bear the ones that come our way – and always in union with Christ. We do not suffer alone.”
Yes, in our sufferings, in Christ we are not alone. But as always, here contains a paradox. Christ, at His crucifixion, indeed suffered alone. We are told “in His humanity” He cried out to the Father “My God My God, why have you forsaken Me?”. Except for two, His Mother and St. John, all abandoned Him. So in a very real sense, Christ did suffer alone….and I think, in a very real sense, so do we.
St Paul addresses the thoughts I am trying to relate:
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)”
“For each one will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:5)”
Without the fellowship of suffering, in Christ, as in Him we do not suffer alone, and without others bearing our burden with us, we would perish under the load. Yet we find that load can only be carried by us “alone”. It is like we own that load…it is not someone else’s burden…it is ours. And the heavier, the more intense that burden is, the more reluctant others are to bear it with us. This is especially true when the load is a result of our personal sins rather than external calamities.
These are just some thoughts I have this morning, Father. You brought up a very difficult, but needed conversation here. I don’t know if “rationally” we will ever get to the bottom of it. The subject is not rational. I think that is why we say Christ, through His Passion, transcends it all.
Much to ponder, as we enter into the Feast of the Transfiguration.
God is good. Glory to Jesus Christ….
So many humbling accounts of sufferings undergone are here, especially Karen’s:
“…I was bereft and beside myself in pain. I fell down under the weight of my Cross and took it to Confession the next weekend. I still haven’t gotten up. I’m dragging myself along under that weight right now…”
This is very beautiful, Karen, as are responses here, and it reminds me that our priest used to say how beautiful our children are when they are sick – it’s part of a parent’s love that comes to the fore and is expressed even when we can’t bear it! “We are counted with those who go down into the pit; our eye fails through poverty.” Our falling short and realizing that we do is, I think, most dear to God, as our own children’s illnesses are to us. I’m reminded of TSEliot’s lines :
“…You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid…”
In another thread, Father Stephen has said, “…We do not (i)think(/i) doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live…” [Sorry if that doesn’t italicize.]
And, not unrelated, on the subject of “ugliness” and beauty being considered by Paula, this from Leonid Ouspensky on the Theology of the Icon:
“…the icon is an image not only of a living, but also of a deified prototype. It does not represent the corruptible flesh, destined for decomposition, but transfigured flesh, illuminated by grace, the flesh of the world to come…” In other words, suffering transfigured by humility is iconic.
I think Karen is beautiful in her kneeling, even if she doesn’t yet feel it or see it.
Isn’t that the most beautiful hymn, Karen?! I am so glad you heard the cardinal sing it as well – “…Make radiant the vesture, the vesture of my soul…” That is the pure grace and mystery that Orthodoxy most of all does give us. When we feel furthest from our goal is when we are very close, or about to be so.
I hope I didn’t sound as though I was making light of your ongoing struggle. You didn’t need my words; you had the birdsong!
Karen and all,
I apologize as well if I added anything to the conversation that was not helpful, or if anything I wrote seemed too rational and seemed to trivialize true suffering. I only wrote that thanksgiving to God has helped me (because it has helped me through my crosses), but I realize it may have seemed misplaced given the depth of sorrows. Please forgive me. I appreciate your sharing your experience with the cardinal, Karen. Truly beautiful. I find a similar experience with butterflies…whispers from the Lord.
You are kind to apologize. I will let Karen and others speak for themselves. However in my own eyes you have done nothing wrong. Fr Tom warned of ‘comfort’ and ‘consolation’ of the sort that might blunt our sensitivities to others, or blind ourselves to our own sufferings through our distractions, rather than a potential healing in the embracing of Christ’s cross (and a healing that might not end one’s own suffering, that is).
I did not read such into your words, personally.
In my own opinion this isn’t a medium that works well to demonstrate how we might care for one another. Not all of us have the eloquence and practice that Fr Stephen has. If there is one thing I might ask, it is mercy temperance of and for each of us.
Last, I too like Mario’s words, that we are “beginning” on the path (July 31, 2;346am)
It is evident to me, Anonymous, that your comments reflect a kind and compassionate person.
“I realize it may have seemed misplaced given the depth of sorrows”, Thank you for acknowledging that. If it was misplaced it was surely unintentional on your part, I would say. Thank you again for your kindness.
No apologies needed. I’m always glad if others find things from my comments that resonate with them. That is a gift.
“I think Karen is beautiful in her kneeling, even if she doesn’t yet feel it or see it.”
Forgive me…I just now caught this! After re-reading your words, I remembered that picture of Job (I linked to) where he is kneeling on the ground, in grief, looking upward . He didn’t know at the time God was looking upon him…as He was throughout his whole trial. Yes, indeed…he was beautiful, as is Karen…felt or not.
And also, thank you for the quote from Ouspensky and the beautiful explanation you gave, that “suffering [ugliness] transfigured by humility [beauty] is iconic [a true image of the Image]”…which, now I see, is how Karen appears in willful submission to her cross.
Our personal sins matter, but more important is what we do with them. God waits for a contrite heart. Sometimes it takes a while to get there, but when we finally do we realize His hand has been upon us all along. It is a comfort through suffering that is hard to describe. It is a Love like non other. Pretty amazing…
Thank you Juliaina. Your comments are so lovely!
This is to be found towards the end of a relatively new book in Greek on eldress Gavrelia. It’s called the Eldress of Joy. Η γερόντισσα της Χαράς.
Dear Father Stephen
Wish you and all on this blog a good and blessed Transfiguration for the coming feast of our Lord.
Please pray for us
I would thank you, except your reply was to a different Anonymous (there are more than a couple of us). It looks like a good book, though.
My favorite part of Fr. Hopko’s commencement address is the beginning,
“…I can tell you that being loved by God, and loving Him in return, is the greatest joy given to creatures, and that without it there is no real and lasting happiness for humanity.”
Right after this he points to the Cross, though. Love is within and through a Cross.
To Dino once again 🙂
Forgive my suspicion, but how certain are you that the book/that particular quote is to be trusted? I believe for example that I have heard that there are books written about St. Paisios that contain quite a bit of information, or things that he said, that are false (according to someone who knew him personally), and I know he complained about this phenomenon even in his own lifetime, that people were ascribing to him things that he never said.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, not only for the powerful excerpt on the Precious and Holy Cross, but also for your incisive comment posted on July 31 at 9:33 am. I shared it with some people, including our priest. As he said, “Sometimes you have to hear the bad news before you can hear the Good News.”
I am only marginally more certain about this than I am about things I have had directly spoken to me (which can also be distrusted out of context) because of the various esteemed souls that have endorsed it. Our trust of such things and our discernment of them is quite a complicated matter Indeed.
Hi Fr. Stephen,
Not sure if this is the right place for this question/comment, but I was wondering if you would say that sacrifice is a scandal because in and of itself, sacrifice calls us to “bear a little shame” — a topic you so often write about.