The Sacrament of the Soul

Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said that sacraments do not make things into something else so much as they reveal things to be what they are. We hear this in St. Basil’s Liturgy when we ask God to “show” the bread and wine to be the Body and Blood of Christ. The Baptismal liturgy does the same, asking God to “show this water…to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, etc.” This is a very different form of thought. Of course, the language of “making” is also present, but I suspect the “making” is something other than what we often imagine.

In an odd way, when we imagine the world to be “secular,” and fear its progressive banishment of all things religious, we unwittingly agree to be secularists ourselves. The fundamental concept of secularism is that the world, or certain aspects of it, exists apart from God and is entirely self-referential. This tree is just a tree. That sky is just a sky. This imaginary construct is reinforced by labeling certain things as “religious” and placing them in their own zone of influence, as though their removal somehow protects the neutrality of the otherwise secular world.

In point of fact – there is no such thing as “secular.” All things are created by God, and exist only because they are sustained by His good will. Everything points towards God and participates in God who is the “Only Truly Existing One.” When the Orthodox speak of the world as a “sacrament,” it is simply stating this fact.

When God became man, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, He shows the sacramentality of all things. First, and foremost, He shows what it means that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God – “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In a world that appears chaotic, it is shown that the “winds and the sea” obey Him. In His hands, the bread of this world is shown to be the bread of heaven. The seemingly almighty power of the Roman Empire is shown to be only a power “given from above” (Jn 19:11). Even the most brutal instrument of torture is shown to be the Tree of Life.

The concept of “secular” is the direct refusal to acknowledge any of this to be true. It imagines that “religion” is in the mind of the believer and nowhere else. Of course, the very concept of “religion” is something of a secular invention – a name we now use not to describe something, but to isolate something. In this sense, it is correct to say there is no such thing as “religion.” There is life lived in communion with God – whether it is acknowledged or not. When our life in communion with God is unacknowledged, we are living in a delusional manner, pretending that there can be something that is not in communion with God.

Our secularized concept of the world is also a fragmentation of our lives. Our modern economy and politics tends to divide the world into spheres of “influence” or “specialization.” We compartmentalize our lives into a patchwork of loyalties, responsibilities and affiliations. We worry about “balance,” precisely because the patchwork pulls on us in uneven ways. The Latin world for whole is “integer.” Our secularized lives lack integrity. It is brutal for the soul.

St. James warns about a “double-minded” person (literally, a “two-souled” person), saying that such a person is “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). In our culture, we often live a “multi-souled” existence, scattered across the board of competing interests. Various things vie for our attention, such that the very act of seeing something has become commodified. “How many looks did it get?”

The greatest commandment, according to Christ, is to “love God, with all your heart, mind, and soul.” This is not at all the same thing as saying, “Make God first in your life.” God is first only in the sense that there is no second: all means all. This is the only path towards true integrity. St. Paul says it in this way:

“…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

This is not a commandment for our “religious” life, for there is only one life. That one life is our soul.

The compartmentalization of modern life creates false distinctions. There is only one God and one set of commandments for all of life. There is no such thing as “political ethics,” “business ethics,” “medical ethics,” etc. Frequently these distinctions do little more than create specialized islands of interest in which people agree to act in an immoral manner under the guise of their fragmented loyalties.

When Pontius Pilate faced Christ, a moment of judgment was placed before his soul. We see him struggle, pushing the decision away to Herod, to the Sanhedrin, to the crowd. But the decision was his alone. Though he found “no fault” in Jesus, he sent him to his crucifixion. It was “allowed” from above (from God) but not commanded. His wife had warned him to “have nothing to do with that righteous man” (Matt. 27:19).

To Pilate’s credit, an agony of soul was present (he sought to release Jesus). He failed the test and sought to wash his hands (literally) of his inner conflict. Today, our compartments are often so secure that we give little thought to the conflicts between our “religion compartment” and the other realms of our life. I frequently encounter economic explanations that run quite contrary to the gospel but stand “on their own merit” (in their own economic compartment). The same can be said of politics and much else. The secular habit of the heart is to believe that, when all is said and done, we have to make things turn out in accordance with our own wishes or see them turn out according to someone else’s. We imagine the power and the responsibility to be in our own hands.

The salvation of our soul is also a journey towards integrity – becoming wholly and completely what God has created us to be. Theosis cannot be compartmentalized. My experience with this has been that such integrity is best acquired by becoming “small.” The commandments of Christ tend to be quite specific and immediately at hand. He offers no theories for running an empire or managing an economy. When a beggar asks for money, for example, we tend to immediately become “double-minded.” We want to give (the commandment), but we wonder if we’re actually doing harm, or whether he’s being honest, etc. Our hearts become unstable.

To continue with this example, it is possible to give with integrity when we refuse to put ourselves in the place of managing outcomes. This is not done as an act of frustration or indifference. Rather, it is an act of obedience and faith. We do what we are commanded, and trust that God will be God (outcomes are in His hand).

Learning to live as the servant of Christ, rather than the master of humanity, is the beginning of integrity. To gain our souls we must lose the whole world. Strangely, in the mystery of the Kingdom of God, when we gain our souls, we also gain the whole world as well – in simplicity and truth. Then things will be revealed to be what they are and God will be “all in all.”

 

 

57 comments:

  1. Father, thank you. Often I come here feverishly reading through the comments, hoping a layman might ask about the vocational, career hemisphere. A modern Daniel in Babylon conundrum. I work in an industry that often propagates false messages to hook vulnerable consumers. My good works, my doing all things for God, seems to increase the effectiveness of an end product that can be corrosive to the human soul. Antithetical to the message of Christ. I often think about an Orthodox Christian working in the Tobacco industry to lessen the guilt I feel. I know there is much grey in the matter as I’ve seen God show up inside of this industry, but I can’t help think I am propagating sin. How do we discern or wrestle with this tension. It seems those thriving in my industry adopt a kind of new age panentheistic spirituality, a non dual ideology to cope with the tension. It is hard to not want to separate the sacred and profane.

  2. Beautiful!! Thank you Fr Stephen!

    It is unfortunate that we need to hear this again and again. That this is not a secular world. The inundation of the opposite message even from Orthodox quarters, makes it necessary to keep repeating this message. I too have been so affected and always appreciate when you provide me such eloquent corrections.

  3. I sure need to hear it again and again, Dee!
    I am expecting delivery of ‘Everywhere Present’ today, and am greatly looking forward to immersing myself in it…

  4. Thank you, Fr Stephen! As the others have written, I needed to be reminded again. These words that you wrote are very helpful for me:
    There is life lived in communion with God – whether it is acknowledged or not. When our life in communion with God is unacknowledged, we are living in a delusional manner, pretending that there can be something that is not in communion with God.

    Thank you!

  5. “We worry about “balance,” precisely because the patchwork pulls on us in uneven ways.”
    So that’s why I yearn for balance so much! But I don’t want this compartmentalization! Yet I do believe there is no such thing as secular but that the world is a sacrament, as you describe here. Same as I believe the Kingdom has come. So it seems to boil down to this: “The salvation of our soul is also a journey towards integrity – becoming wholly and completely what God has created us to be.” It is moving towards our “becoming”. as we speak of so often here. And the path is to follow Christ, faithfully, and as much as is within us (which I think is more than we think!).
    Thank you Father Stephen. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years is that the basics, the fundamentals, need much repeating. Because we so easily get sidetracked in the distractions. Especially inside the head.

  6. I find that we need to hear this because it is either not understood, or is forgotten. The recent conversation on forgiveness, for some, ran off into the direction of politics, etc., and, of course, that concept is a secular notion in which the “rules” are not the same. We will not have a spiritual life until and unless our life is actually spiritual – until God is all in all. The Kingdom only comes in fullness.

  7. Paula,
    “If there’s one thing I have learned over the years is that the basics, the fundamentals, need much repeating. ”
    That seems to be the consensus here today! Father, you really seem to have struck a chord today!

  8. Father I’ll say I have to keep re-reading this fruitful message and your last comment. Indeed if we think about the cross we bear, it might be that in the process of giving the whole of our life in totality over to God, we are affected immediately by a secularist culture (and within it the adversary that speaks through it) as if there is dividing line between ‘the world of God and the world ‘not of God.’ I fall into this thinking and realizing this I keep pushing against it. (Lacking the integrity you describe). I am reminded also of your prayer practice in which you know you will experience your mind wondering (your ADHD and thinking of the image you selected) and you continue to stand before God giving thanks for all things.

  9. Sgage,
    Fr Stephen’s book is wonderfully helpful. I’ve read it and donated it to the parish library. When I speak to others about the notion of a ‘secular world’, it is often hard for us in this culture to grasp.. I’ll need to re-read it myself.

  10. Dee,
    The book arrived this afternoon, and I will begin reading it tonight! My eyes are messed up from a medical condition, so I read rather slowly these days, but I’m thinking that for a book like this, that might be a good thing. Read a bit, and contemplate for a while. Anyway, I’m looking forward to my reading time tonight…

  11. This on the mark article is in a direct line of the pastoral tradition that derives from “the Truth shall make you free.”

  12. sgage,
    I have an eye problem as well which keeps me from reading much. I read voluminously when younger. Wish I could recall 5% of that! But I thank God for it all. Like you, I slow down and it allows me to pray, do my hobby, etc. Slow can be good, like small is good. And we are blessed with the Scriptures on audio and lots more on-line. Great videos and podcasts are available. Father’s podcasts were of very real help to me when my wife was dealing with cancer a couple of years back. We are blessed in so many ways, including this community..

  13. “… ran off into the direction of politics, etc., and, of course, that concept is a secular notion in which the “rules” are not the same.”
    Oh had I read this sooner…
    Just this morning I went to ‘the dump’, aka Solid Waste Department, Transfer/Weigh Station, to unload my recycled cardboard. Recycling was always free of charge because, after all, it was supposedly to encourage an effort to ‘save the ‘environment’. Today I was informed that we are now being charged the cost of a minimal ‘dump run’ for recycling. Now, after my initial shock at the utter insanity of this, I lost it. Me and the woman in ‘the booth’ (who weighs the refuse) proceeded on a rant. You can bet that our wrath was totally toward the greed of the government and politicians. And she was going to let her superiors know! And I was going to contact the officials!
    Right.
    “Learning to live as the servant of Christ, rather than the master of humanity, is the beginning of integrity.” Had I remembered Who I ‘pledged my allegiance’ to, I would have understood that God’s rules, the gov’t does not follow, and simply, quietly, paid the fee, thanked God, and gone my way ‘in the Kingdom’. Hmmm…
    I want very much for this ‘remembrance’ to become ‘second hand’ so to speak, so it is constant. Takes a lot of vigilance for this to be so.

  14. Dean,
    Amen!
    Small is good, except for font sizes! 🙂

    I too used to just devour books, and you know, maybe too fast…

    One could easily form the notion that God knows what He’s doing. Ya think? 😉

    Just a few minutes ago I was going out to care for my livestock and close up the barn for the night. In addition to eye weirdness, I have a good deal of dizziness/disequilibrium – if someone saw me going out to my barn just now, they could be forgiven if they thought I was drunk. It makes me feel sad to be this way… But I have set up a ‘trigger’ in my mind – whenever I start to feel sorry for myself or mourn ‘the old Steve’, that’s my trigger to praise God and look around and see the beautiful place I live in and my relatively peaceful situation and I think of the people I love and who love me, and all the wonderful experiences I’ve had in my life, and it just goes on and on and on.

    We are blessed, indeed. Sometimes it’s so glaringly obvious, other times not so much, but there it is… Glory to God for All Things!

  15. As I deal with the further advances of our secularized world of thinking, I am troubled by the universal thoughts of power and the responsibility being in our own hands.
    Something read from Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” quiets my thinking.
    “O Lord our God, let the shelter of your wings give us hope. Protect us and uphold us. You will be the Support that upholds us from childhood till the hair on our heads is grey. When you are our strength we are strong, but when our strength is our own we are weak. In you our good abides for ever, and when we turn away from it we turn to evil. Let us come home at last to you, O Lord, for fear that we be lost. For in you our good abides, and has no blemish, since it is yourself. Nor do we fear that there is no home to which we can return. We fell from it; but our home is your eternity and it does not fall because we are away.”

  16. R.Reagan,
    It’s interesting when reading pre-modern things, such as Augustine. Nobody (not even the emperor) actually thought about building a better world or managing the world (or empire). They were not filled with economic/political theories. The closest thing was dealing with military questions – and those were always quite chancey. They tend not to think in modern ways because it was beyond their vision.

    In our present time, we see pictures of the planet from outer space and imagine ourselves able to shape and control the climate (maybe, probably not). We imagine everything to be within our power. Truth be told, the things that really matter and are closest to us are simply beyond our control. Send a child out the door in the morning to a public school – and tell me that you feel certain that everything will be allright. It is simply not the case – and never has been. Things happen and always have. Only the love of God is certain. Nothing else. And because His love is certain, we can bear the thought of existing for another day. Most people imagine the next day as possible because they think we’re somehow in control.

    Christ warned about the man who tore down his barns to build larger ones. “Fool! Tonight your soul will be required of you and then whose will they be?”

  17. Father thank you for that info about your audible book! I have long commutes and appreciate listening to something edifying! I’ll purchase it!

  18. ‘…. it is possible to give with integrity when we refuse to put ourselves in the place of managing outcomes. This is not done as an act of frustration or indifference. Rather, it is an act of obedience and faith. We do what we are commanded, and trust that God will be God (outcomes are in His hand).’

    I mistakenly read the above as ‘it is possible to LIVE with integrity…’ and found your thought helpful in an even broader scope. Refusing to put myself in the place of managing outcomes helps me begin to imagine what learning to live small might look like.

    ‘Only the love of God is certain. Nothing else. And because His love is certain, we can bear the thought of existing for another day. Most people imagine the next day as possible because they think we’re somehow in control.’

    My heart is learning that my desire to control is my answer to the shame I grew up with…God’s answer to my shame is His veryself in Christ.

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  19. Father Stephen,
    Is it appropriate to apply this verse (Luke 18:16-17) to the life of our soul even while we are alive in this earth?

    Specifically: “…for such is the kingdom of God.” And “ …whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter into it”.

    Will you explain the meaning of the word ‘receive’ in relation to the ‘coming’ of the kingdom?

    Also I just read Ezekiel 39:17 and it seems to me to be a ‘type’ regarding the saying that all of the world is sanctified through Christ’s Pascha (and in the communion of Liturgy). Is reading this into this verse too much of a stretch? I ask this because it seems to fit with this article theme, that there is no secular world.

  20. Father,
    And I take great comfort in caring for my livestock 🙂 It is quite rewarding in its own right if you love animals. And it is a wonderful discipline. Well, perhaps ‘discipline’ is not quite the right word, because there is no question, no thought whatsoever, of not doing whatever needs to be done. No temptation to just blow it off, no matter how you might ‘feel’ in the moment. Because it’s simply not an option… you never really get to the point where you need to apply ‘willpower’.

    Which isn’t to say there aren’t beastly nights in the middle of Winter when the fire in the woodstove seems especially warm and cozy… 😉

  21. Sgage,
    My only livestock are bees. That’s how the federal government defines them because we sell our honey. But it is the same thing. They are alive and require care on their timeline not when it’s ‘convenient’.

    Your life quality I’m sure is good, but certainly not easy!

  22. sgage…I love animals…and I know what you mean. I have my farm animals too, and a my Dixie, my dog/companion! and they are nothing short of a blessing! I call them my ‘kids’. They are indeed ‘family’
    I share in your joy, brother!

  23. Fr Stephen,
    I re-read my previous comment to you and am embarrassed that the tone of the question which sounds like a demand. If you would be willing, would you describe the relation of the meanings between the receiving of the Kingdom which I interpret to be here and now to the coming Kingdom? It is my own understanding that there is only one Kingdom and as you mentioned earlier, it only comes fully. The second is when all of creation has been resurrected. Is this is appropriate to ask? Again if this is rehash rather than fruitful, then I ask for your patience and ignore this question.

    I read just the bottom part of a connected article of yours The Sacrament of the World. Here I just copied what I need to do in my own life (and indeed, is our life our own when we have given all to God?).

    Here it is;
    It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the ‘newness of life’ – which means a new possession of the world – is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal. (For the Life of the World)

  24. Dee,
    What might be “partial” in our experience of the Kingdom now, in the present, is not because of the nature of the Kingdom, but the limitations within ourselves. Scripture says that we have already been translated into the heavens (which, I think, refers to the fullness of the Kingdom). St. John Chrysostom also invokes this in the past tense, “didst not cease to do all things until that hadst brought us up to heaven…” When all things are resurrected, the veil will be completely removed and the mystery of the Kingdom will be revealed. But this is not a change or a difference in the Kingdom.

    The Christ who dwells in me now is no different than the Christ who is coming again. The difference is only in us. “Then I will know, even as I am known.”

    I think Schmemann’s statement should be understood to be saying that “we truly perceive the world as truly the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” It’s not the world changing – it’s us.

  25. There is a striking remark in St Symeon the New Theologian about this which I have mentioned here in the past.
    He asserts that the second coming of Christ in Glory will really “only” occur for those who do not believe because, to the extent of a believer’s faith, that believer already experiences this second coming in the present.
    I also recall how – based on this – Elder Aimilianos would profoundly be moved by the chanting in Matins: ‘God Lord has appeared unto us, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord’.
    In Greek, that ‘cometh’ is not a verb but an adjective (of God) meaning, one who is continuously coming.

  26. In thinking about this message it came to me this morning that there are two great commandments, (which fuse into a third at the last supper).
    My apologies for my intrusion here, but thinking of the second one, this came to me:
    Christ tells the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven. ‘Who then can be saved?’ they ask. And the answer is that with God nothing is impossible. So then, it seemed to me that if we turn to the Samaritan, who is an outsider to the Jews, who does what he does for a stranger to him, we see that he is a rich man – how could he be otherwise? It’s as though, for the Jewish disciples, the eye of the needle has expanded.
    That third, new, commandment that Christ repeats during the last supper – “Love one another as I have loved you” – surely it reminds us of the saying about Saint John, that when in his final days he could no longer walk but was carried into the gatherings, he would just repeat, “Little children, love one another.” The Psalms of David are eloquent in turning us to love of God; but Christ does also call himself Son of Man. It’s part of what his Mother has given him.
    This is just a reflection, and again apologies.

  27. Julianna,
    Your reflections also pick up a theme I read this morning.

    St Silouan related a memory of seeing St John of Kronstadt. The fire of the Holy Spirit was so strong in him that people would flock to him for his blessing and rejoiced when they received it. For these such blessing came from the Holy Spirit Himself. Then others noticed his fine clothing and would disparage him. St Silouan then says, “But they do not know that riches do no harm to a man in whom dwells the Holy Spirit, because his soul is entirely wrapped up in God, and transformed by God, and has forgotten riches and fine array. (Pg 476, st Silouan the Athonite; pub 1991)

    And regarding the ascetic life of celibacy, Christ says, “He who is able to accept it let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12)

  28. Have you read about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? I feel that this quote below encapsulates thinking about the world as a one story universe.

    “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”
    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  29. Wonderful, Fr. Stephen. Thank you. But I have a question… You wrote:

    “There is life lived in communion with God – whether it is acknowledged or not. When our life in communion with God is unacknowledged, we are living in a delusional manner, pretending that there can be something that is not in communion with God.”

    Doesn’t sin cause us to be out of communion with God? I feel I must be missing something by asking such a simple- minded question.

    Also, as an FYI, I didn’t get an email notification about this post. Nothing has changed in my end. Just wanted to let you know in case there is a system problem.

  30. Mary,
    Perhaps my choice of the word “communion” was not quite precise. However, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” In that sense, I meant there everything is in communion with God. Sin, in this sense, would be the delusion of refusing to acknowledge the truth of our existence. We do not die because of something real – we die because we refuse to be real.

    Language fails in some way here.

    I think that part of what I’m pressing here is a resistance to the notion that our will is what makes things be what they are. There’s a decided voluntarism in modern versions of Christianity that, I think, miss the boat. So, it was this that I had in mind.

  31. Well said, Fr. Stephen. Thank you.
    A couple of our “western” saints have expressed well how all dualisms are “in the eyes of the dualist” (quoting from Martin Laird, “An Ocean of Light”).

    Teresa of Avila: “In total Union, no separation is possible. The soul remains perpetually in that center…It is like rain falling into a river or pool; there is nothing but water. It is impossible to divide the sky-water from the land water.” And she is not just saying this about those who have experienced advanced states in the spiritual life; she says of the first “dwelling”, “This dwelling is actually bright, but the soul cannot appreciate it because these wild beasts make her close her eyes to everything but them.” (from The Interior Castle).

    John of the Cross: (speaking of one with unitive awareness) “It seems to such a person…that the entire universe is an ocean of love in which one is engulfed; for, conscious of the living center of love within, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love.” (from the Living Flame of Love”).

    It is not that these whom we call mystics are able to see something inaccessible to the rest of us (i.e. something on the “second storey”) but that they have become able to see what is the truth, the sacrament of all in which all of us dwell.

    Our task, it seems, it is learn how to see – a task made more difficult by living in a world whose view of life is fractured into so many pieces that there is little if any awareness of the Oneness.

  32. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this truly excellent and fundamental post. It is such a necessary reminder, especially in the modern world that holds the secular to be the neutral starting point. Because we are a part of this world, most of us unknowingly get infected with this view despite our best intentions. Even when we don’t acknowledge it intellectually, it seeps in, in practice–or maybe I should speak only for myself, here, and not for others. As Mary Benton says above, our task is to learn how to see.

  33. I heard you, Elias. Your priest would too. There are guilt feelings and there is guilt. Me, I can’t always distinguish. But I’m pretty sure that both are individual experiences which are not likely to be resolved in a group discussion. Still, your bringing it up helped me think again, and think about talking with my priest. I’m a consumer, and I don’t often feel good about it.

  34. Elias & Albert
    I think the only answer is that, for those who find themselves placed within this consumerist conundrum, who do what they can to retain an orientation towards “keeping themselves unpolluted from the world” (James 1 :27), the effort towards humility, fervour, retaining God’s “memory” unceasingly (as far as possible) is the key that “covers a multitude” of shortcomings.

  35. Father, thank you again. This sacramental nature of all existence is an absolute key to our lives and we can’t hear enough of it, and from different angles.
    I have been reflecting on your words here, but also in your book which I have been working through.

    As so often seems to be the way, as I have been, variants on the theme have started popping up unbidden from other sources and contexts (hmmm). One such other source (which may not be ‘kosher’ from an Orthodox perspective) said this (my further comments at the end):

    “We all know that life is mysterious and mundane at the same time. Much of life is just mundane – routines that we repeat over and over. We hear that life is mysterious but mundane at the same time. Most people prefer to ignore the mystery and concentrate on the mundane, that’s the easiest thing to do. But you can never totally avoid the mysterious because people are going to die, you’re going to get sick, you’re going to fall in love or you’re going to fall out of love, you’re going to have a child and the child is going to cause you distress and all sorts of things. So you can never avoid the mystery, that point, that portal, the centre of the paradox. If we were to say the self is dwelling anywhere, that’s where the self is. That’s where we are our true self. So we can’t avoid it ultimately. The question is do we live it. St Benedict says ‘keep death always before your eyes’. And I think the reason he says that is not to be miserable or negative or pessimistic but, quite the reverse, to be able to live life fully.

    Contemplative prayer makes it possible for us to live both aspects, the mysterious and the mundane and to keep moving into the mystery. Jesus called himself the gate, and the way of course, but the gate to the sheepfold. An interesting image of a gate, a door – you can come into a door and you can come out of a door. And that’s exactly what he says: They will come and go out of the sheepfold and find pasture. And ‘whoever enters through me will be saved’ (Jn 10:9). You can either understand that in a sort of fundamentalist way – unless you join my church you are damned – or what does it mean then? I think it means that we have to find, accept and recognise this mysterious point at the centre of the paradox of human life.

    So this image that Jesus gives us of himself as the way, as the gate of the sheepfold, allows us to think of him as the centre, as the one we find who helps us to keep our balance. He is there to help us to stay on the way. He helps us to stay on the way, to stay balanced, and then we can live in the world of mundane things and they actually become less mundane, less boring, because they begin to show their meaning and their relationship to the mysterious aspect of life, which we can also respect, we can also make time for.” (Laurence Freeman)

    I had not thought of this quite as clearly before – that the gate to the sheepfold image was a great image for the ‘mystery’ into and out of which we come and go back out into ‘the mundane’. And that Jesus is indeed a door between the two perspectives which are always present – albeit many (most?) people choose to live outside in the world of the mundane only. In fact Jesus is not only a door, but also a bridge, and a king of the whole show. indeed He is the whole basis for both sides of the door existing and the reason everything came to be,. But if we want to find our true selves, then we need to be content with a level of constructive paradox and the freely move into and out of the sheepfold, seeing that the world of the mundane is always pointing towards ‘there’. We are free to enter and leave by the door, our beloved Lord, which is the only proper way in. The door is inviting us, protecting us, feeding us – and maybe asking as questions for our own benefit as doorkeeper. And as we get more comfortable with the going in and the coming out again we can also start to dwell as He does, on both sides of the door at the same time which is where the true riches of an enchanted life start to happen and the world of the ‘mundane’ is indeed less mundane. In using that word ‘enchanted’ I have in mind that this is in fact the state in which many small children seem to live in. They do see everything about them charged with an inner meaning. I have been thinking that many of the most enduringly successful children’s books, and one’s that resonate with many adults (e.g. Narnia, Harry Potter) often have that quality of their being another dimension to our mundane world. In the case of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe there is literally a door that is passed through between the worlds, where time works quite differently and symbolic realities spring to life.
    I hope none of that is off topic, or indeed heretical! But I can’t help but feel that this whole sacrament of the self business needs to be felt into somehow. No doubt you will find a way of gently correcting any misapprehensions here.

  36. Sorry Father for the tone of that last sentence, and which sounds inappropriate. That was not intended. I meant to say something like I hope that you will find a way to point me in the right direction.

  37. ” He is there to help us to stay on the way. He helps us to stay on the way, to stay balanced, and then we can live in the world of mundane things and they actually become less mundane, less boring, because they begin to show their meaning and their relationship to the mysterious aspect of life, which we can also respect, we can also make time for.”
    “… that the gate to the sheepfold image was a great image for the ‘mystery’ into and out of which we come and go back out into ‘the mundane’. And that Jesus is indeed a door between the two perspectives which are always present”
    “And as we get more comfortable with the going in and the coming out again we can also start to dwell as He does, on both sides of the door at the same time”

    Chris…I appreciate your thoughts, pressing into the truth of existence, that is, its actual reality, despite our definition of mundane vs mysterious. It seems to me that these quotes begin from a two-story perspective, and proceed from there. The point I think Father is driving home is there is no “both sides of the door”. There is no mundane on one side and mysterious on the other. When Jesus said ” I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture”, I take that as saying ‘once you have entered the sheepfold, you have entered into, and remain in, the true one-storey reality of the Kingdom…which exists no matter where your feet trod (“and you shall go in and out and find pasture”)’. St Paul said these mysteries are no longer hidden, but revealed to us in Christ. And Christ gave us His Body, the Church, as the way to live our lives in His one-storey reality. There is only one true Reality. By immersing ourselves in Christ, through the Body (the Church), we, at the same time, reject the false reality of another ‘storey’….be it secular or anything else. It takes time and patience, and faith, and practice, and most of all, grace, to change our hearts and to “see”.
    You mention Christ as the center of the universe. Indeed He is. And His center reaches out to all points within the “circle”. From the center, He encompasses its entirety. Or to put it another way, the Uncircumscribed encompasses the circumscribed. And in turn the circumscribed, by grace, partake in the Uncircumscribed. This bespeaks a one-storey reality.

    I keyed into the word “balance” because that’s the same mistake I have been making. Here’s what Father reminded us of in this post:
    “We compartmentalize our lives into a patchwork of loyalties, responsibilities and affiliations. We worry about “balance,” precisely because the patchwork pulls on us in uneven ways. The Latin world for whole is “integer.” Our secularized lives lack integrity. It is brutal for the soul.”
    The balance we strive for is the pull between the false secular and our desire for an entire existence in the Kingdom. Balance speaks of one foot still remaining in the second storey.
    My thoughts, Chris. Thanks again for your contribution. They cause me to think, and that is a good thing!

  38. Thanks Paula AZ
    I entirely get that. I read Laurence Freeman’s post as more being about how to find ourselves we have to live with paradox, or perhaps put better from within a paradox. At first that might seem a little unsettling or alien, but then it becomes more natural until eventually it becomes the only sensible and solid place to be. That image of Jesus as the gate or door that looks both ways has, it seems to me, an almost iconic quality to it. I spent a large part of yesterday almost seeing double, weirdly. Everything almost seemed to have an extra dimension to it, deeper and maybe even pointing to something else. Doing that all the time is I suspect what comes from living the Risen life fully. And the idea that at any time I can turn a corner and go into the sheepfold seems somehow right to me – and not two storey at all. The sheepfold is on the same level as the mundane and it is straddled and bound together and made altogether by marvellous gate who is both and at the same time totally human and totally divine. I don’t know though. I do know that for me I do seem to come and go in and out of awareness of the divine, and that I am only ever really at peace when I have been able to enter, for however long, into the paradox. (Mind you, time is itself a paradoxical thing – I rather think that rather than talk about the mundane and the mystery, we might be better off just talking about kronos and kairos perspectives?)

    Another thing. I was reminded thinking of all this of the little poem towards the end of the Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are walking in the evening towards the Grey Havens and Sam becomes aware that Frodo is “singing the old walking song, although the words were not the same”

    Still round the corner there may wait
    A new road or a secret gate
    And though I oft have passed them by
    A day will come at last when I
    Shall take the hidden paths that run
    West of the moon
    East of the sun.

  39. I can’t help thinking that –[regarding the true might of one’s “one-storey awareness” and its transformative-of -the-mundane power]– many would want to cry out:
    Truth must be told! one’s “true awareness” of the divine, is (somewhat inevitably) dependent upon the amount of grace they have at any moment.
    Accordingly one’s “active remembrance” of the divine, is dependent upon their previous experiences of such a grace-filled awareness.
    And, finally, one’s “conceptual abstraction” of the divine, {”For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your [Greek] own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”(Acts 17:28)}, is dependent upon one’s correct, underpinning worldview.

  40. Thank you Dino.

    Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 1-6)

  41. Of course i ought not to protest complainingly that without grace I can do nothing, but rather try to do whatever it is that demonstrates my openness towards, and desire for grace (my part of the deal as they say) trusting that God is good, both when He bestows, as well as when He ‘takes away’ (if it’s Him and not me causing this abandonment of) ‘felt grace’.
    One of the greatest examples of this is the Saint we celebrate tomorrow.

  42. Father,

    “In an odd way, when we imagine the world to be “secular,” and fear its progressive banishment of all things religious, we unwittingly agree to be secularists ourselves.”

    For me, I’m just grieved and a little nervous about the future – though I should not be, but I’m not falling into secularism. Secularism is more an awareness that though God is everywhere, here is somewhere that He is unwelcome and that makes me feel unwelcome. Nevertheless, godlessness takes nothing away from God and can do nothing to diminish HIs presence.

  43. Our “part of the deal” is simply to continue saying “yes” to God. He does the rest. This is how I understand that we can do nothing without Him. God forbid if I give myself any credit even for saying “yes”. Half the time we do not realize just how much we are unable to do. So we pray, read, study, each with our own preferences and peculiarities, with sincere intent and desire to actually participate in the reality of ‘one-storey’, only to realize (maybe) that God is continually shaping and reshaping our lives, meeting us at the very point of our peculiarities, so that we may be transformed into that which we are created to be. Of course it goes without saying this can only occur by grace…but we emphasize this anyway, lest we give ourselves the least bit of credit. Whether He bestows or takes away grace, even if it is me that causes this “abandonment”, God in His great mercy does not forsake even the least heartfelt repentance.
    Pardon, but I feel the need to emphasize these things. We need a lot of encouragement these days.

  44. As I read this, Father, it struck me that it is impossible for me to be a Christian. My only reassurance is that all things are possible with God. Matt. 19:26

  45. David,
    Elder Sophrony of Essex famously said that “we cannot live as Christians. As Christians, we can only die…”
    It is one of his most difficult sayings, even those (fathers and sisters in his monastery) who knew and lived with him say that they struggle with it. So you are in good company! 🙂

  46. Agata,
    Elder Sophrony is probably echoing St. Paul who wrote, “I die daily.” It is the daily dying to self and our disordered passions, to our gnomic will. So, in this sense we do not “live” as Christians. Monastics often speak of one “cutting off the will” to complete obedience to the abbess/abbot. This is the martyric life that they choose, dying to self. Their’s is more stark, perhaps, but it is our calling as well, a part of taking up the cross daily.

  47. “Learning to live as the servant of Christ, rather than the master of humanity, is the beginning of integrity.”

    Please write more about this. I don’t quite understand, but I dearly want to. Thank you.

  48. Agatha, I do not think the quote you mentioned echoes what david is saying. David seek God with all your heart and ask Him to fill you with His Holy Spirit, read the Bible, and immerse yourself in the church and confession and the eucharist.
    You cannot just misquote a verse and hope for the best. Remember Jesus also said he will deny some who will call him Lord and tell them to depart from Him or the 10 virgins parable.

    Perhaps you feel this way because you are too attached to the world. “we must be IN the world but not OF this world”.
    Forgive me and correct me if I misunderstood you and you are in my prayers.

    MARY, dear sister, I humbly believe he is saying that we are to live as servants of Christ in obedience to his commandments and as saint Porphyrios and Paisios say, trust and leave it all in God’s hand and providence. To acknowledge that WE are NOT in control, God is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.