Begging my readers’ patience, I will take a small anthropology tour through our culture. What I want to draw our attention to is the place of the image. We are not only fascinated with looking at images, we place them on our bodies as well: t-shirts, tattoos, hats, shoes, pants – in short, everywhere. There is nothing unusual in this. Were we to examine primitive tribes, we would notice a vast assemblage of image-markings. People cover themselves with colorful muds, distort certain parts of their bodies, do amazing things with hair, dress themselves in utterly impractical costumes. Something is at work in the human soul that is demonstrated in all of these behaviors. My suggestion is that it is an effort to live “according to the image.”
Clothing is mentioned with an essential role in the Genesis account of human beginnings. Our sin plunges us into shame. We are “naked” and seek to “hide.” The theological unpacking of this reality is deeply important in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament. But it also reflects a simple human experience. The naked truth of ourselves is generally experienced in a shameful manner. That is to say that we feel exposed, vulnerable and in danger when various aspects of that truth are seen by others. And so, we cover up.
God provided Adam and Eve “garments of skin” in Genesis 3. Those garments have been deeply elaborated on ever since. Perhaps the deepest commentary on this is found in St. Paul:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)
This would probably be more accurately rendered, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ as a garment.” The word “put on” (ἐνεδύσασθε) specifically refers to “putting on” a garment. This “putting on” is the true and spiritual fulfillment of which all efforts to clothe ourselves are a mere reflection, and often one of deep distortion.
I take us back to my first observation: we universally seek to cover or mark ourselves with something. Our appearance is a canvas which we cannot help but disguise. And, following Genesis, we can observe that we desperately want to cover or mark ourselves in order to disguise our shame – in one form or another.
It can be argued that we wear clothes because it is too sunny or cold. But our clothing long ago transcended the practical need of hairless animals. Our clothing, like most of our lives, reflects psychological and spiritual issues more than anything. The state of our soul is often on display for anyone who understands the nature of the great human cover-up.
A frequent element of our covering is the projection of power. We use various symbols and clues as signals. Identifying ourselves with a team proclaims the power of a tribe: we are not alone. Much of our political signals are aggressive in nature, not surprising in a culture in which almost all citizens feel largely powerless. Our coverings can signal beauty, strength, anger, sexual desire, any number of things in the cultural dance surrounding inner shame.
The modern fashion of tattooing (more prominent in America than Europe) is a deeper form of covering, at least in its permanence. It strikes me as interesting that such a permanent form of covering should become popular in a culture permeated by impermanence. In my part of the world, it seems less and less common to encounter people who have no tattoos.
Please understand that I am not saying that our clothing and markings are themselves shameful. They are quite the opposite. They represent protective coverings that protect us from the shame we feel and the shaming we encounter in social settings. Our inner shame surrounds our sense of identity. Shame is about “who I am.” Our coverings represent an effort to publicly proclaim, “This is who I am,” regardless of what might be the case inwardly. As such, our coverings are an attempt to say, “This is who I want you to think I am.” Many times these same created coverings are used to hide our inner shame from ourselves. The modern selfie is a fascination with the image, an effort to proclaim an existence and identity in a world where social media has become a substitute ontology: “I’m online, therefore I exist…. And they like me!”
All of this feels intensely personal as I think about it. As an Orthodox priest, I am costumed in almost every setting. In public, I wear a cassock. In Church, I am covered in vestments. But there, the covering is extremely intentional. As he vests, the priest prays:
My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me; and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so has He adorned me…. Your Priests, O Lord, shall clothe themselves with righteousness, and Your saints shall shout with joy always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
According to Eusebius, St. James, the Brother of the Lord, wore a linen garment like the High Priest when he served in the Church’s assembly. That ancient reality, still enacted in the Liturgy, is a visible “putting on of Christ.” It is Christ who is present and leads us in our offering to the Father. The robing of the priest covers the person of the priest himself (and his shame), in order to present the Lord of glory.
To wear a uniform or costume (I don’t know what else to call it) in public is always to disappear to a certain extent. My own parishioners, when they occasionally see me without the cassock (when I’m out for a walk, etc.), do not always recognize me – at least not at first glance. It reminds me that I am not “me” to them, but “their priest.” My late Archbishop used to forbid priests to wear things like bathing suits in front of their parishioners. If we wanted to swim, we needed to go somewhere else.
It is possible to lose yourself in such a covering. A priest can begin to mistake himself for the robe he wears. Indeed, I think some are drawn to the priesthood precisely because they want to lose themselves – and for the wrong reasons. We can clothe ourselves outwardly, but if the clothing only hides our shame and does not transform it, then it becomes part of the sickness in our lives that binds us to our shame.
Just as our first experience of shame was our “nakedness” (the emptiness of our existence in the presence of God), so our salvation is expressed in terms of being clothed:
Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph. 4:22-25)
The “new nature,” created “after the likeness of God,” is nothing other than the very righteousness of Christ, described as a garment. But this is more than a garment – it is a “nature,” meaning that it no longer represents a garment that hides us, but something that changes us, so that the inside (“nature”) matches the outside (“righteousness of Christ”). We can be seen exactly as we are – without shame.
It is noteworthy that St. Paul completes the admonition with the commandment to “speak the truth.” This is the opposite of what takes place in almost all of our various cultural versions of clothing. What you see of others is never “who they are,” but what they want you to see, an effort that is rarely successful.
However, our holy transformation (conformity to the image of Christ) begins in Baptism, and continues as we “speak the truth,” meaning as we “bear a little shame” in the truth of our confession and repentance and in our dealings with others. It is, admittedly, a most difficult thing. The greater our inward fear and the depth of our wounds, the harder it is to trust this work of salvation. By grace, it is possible.
Nearly six years ago I had a very graphic dream that involved my late Archbishop Dmitri. It was some few months after his death. The last words he spoke in the dream have stayed with me: “I believe that soon, we shall all have to stand naked before the judgment seat of Christ.” I did not know then how important those words would become for me. May God clothe us with the righteousness of Christ and conform us inwardly to His image.
I presume the image is inspired by Parker’s Back?
Father, In a story recently shared by one of our sub-deacons to my husband, he was escorting a group of advanced placement science students in touring the church and explaining about our sanctuary and faith. He was wearing a cassock, and immediately one of the boys said “Wow, Jedi robes!”. That gave him insight into reaching these kids. When one asked about the rings around the figure of God in the icon of the Creation, our sub-deacon silently asked for words in a prayer, and suddenly it came to him – “It is God ripping apart the Time – Space Continuum to create the world”. These kids wanted to sign up to come back for more field trips to our church after his inspired revelations. He is also a teacher in his regular job. Forgive me if I did not relate it perfectly, but it was such a great story, and just fit with what you were saying. What he was wearing set the tone for the whole field trip, and gained the interest of kids who had expected to be bored.
Interesting topic. For 33 years I wore the USAF uniform. I stuck out wherever I roamed. For 8.5 years, I wore a Deputy Sheriff’s uniform. I stuck out wherever I went. Now, I’m in sweet retirement and go wherever I wish, in total, blissful anonymity.
I often wonder how it is for my own priest, or others who wear their kind of uniform. Your writing took me to a deeper place about this subject. As usual, thank you so much for your thought provoking works.
I cannot help but loosely associate the article (and comments) with our ontological need for humility (and our continuous running away from its foundation – the healthy recognition of our weakness).
The notion of actually relinquishing our ‘own effort to publicly proclaim, “This is who I am,” and to rather be offered to God to be ‘clothed’ by Him, as a notion, is itself an inspired definition for healthy humility: the proper way to deal with the realisation of our shamefulness. It’s the (gladly) humble acceptance of reality as the 2 things it really is: I have (1) my self-absorbed, narcisistic nothingness and (2) we all have our humble God’s infinite immensity and boundlessness of love.
This insight into our nakedness, our weakness, our enslavement, our insignificance, our darkness, our shamefulness (despite its relative hazards), is absolutely foundational; especially since one of the most disastrous things this life does to us, mainly when things go tolerably for us, is that it provides us with a sense that we don’t need Christ that badly, that we’re not that naked, or at least that we don’t always need Christ, since life can actually go on without Him pretty well, and we can always “clothe ourselves” into an ‘identity’ of our own making that fools even our own self for a very long while. One could even claim that this insight of our own total weakness is all the more foundational nowadays, since us folks of these contemporary times are noticeably more multifariously broken, more spectacularly confused, and more prone to finely deluded thoughts than at any other time.
So the one feature of God that we cannot approach God without (or even remotely approach any concept of truthfulness of existence) is this healthy humility: to refuse to be deluded-ly self-adorned (especially when we get an insight into our multifarious “nakedness”) but to steadily keep turning to our Source, crying out to be adorned by Him as He wishes, to cover our dark nakedness with His Light.
I have thought about this a lot. Once when I was contemplating some beautiful nuns who were worshiping in our parish, the thought came unbidden “they look so beautiful because they have nothing to hide.” Which is funny, considering they were the most covered people present. This prompted me to ask—what do we (as women particularly) hide by revealing our bodies? I think we hide a lot. By baring our bodies (to any extent) we are burying our souls; obfuscating the issue, if you will. What would it be like if those who looked at me saw not my body as I present it, but my soul? Lots of food for thought. And good encouragement to have the courage to be modest.
Obadiah, that is likely true vis a vis early Japanese “tribal” tattooing seen on dogu – this style of tattooing which included facial markings dates as early as 10000 b.c. Not so true for the Ainu (interestingly a caucasoid people) who seemed to have developed exaggerated cosmetics to mark gender roles for example.
That said Edo period tattoos, which are most familiar today were essentially luxuries of the merchant class and interestingly enough always covered by clothing, which is why you see the split down the center of a munewari irezumi. This was partly because tattoos by then had a criminal association already, made worse by their retention by yakuza after westernization.
Incidentally, Tsar St Nicholas the royal passion bearer had a forearm irezumi done by tebori on his forearm, which he (in very unjapanese style) loved to show off.
Useless trivia – one of my friends is one of the leading experts on Japanese irezumi.
Your comment is very insightful. Human beings are inherently sexual – and our sight is a primary organ of sexual arousal. Current standards of public morality give very conflicted signals. Women may dress in a manner that is, indeed, sexually provocative for any normally, healthily-wired male, and then excoriating him if he responds inappropriately for treating them as the objects of sexual thoughts. Men tend to find this really maddening.
Modesty has been considered a Christian virtue since the very beginning, and this includes dressing in a modest manner. What constitutes modesty is obviously something that varies with different cultures.
One thing of note, viz. nuns. Christian tradition has never endorsed the idea of covering the face. Nuns never do this. The face, in particular, is seen both as an icon of God, as well as that which most reveals the soul.
The “dance” of human relationships is very complex, to say the least.
When I see monastics, all I see is face and hands. Just like icons. Their mode of dress leads the eye immediately to what’s important, what conveys the soul. There’s no distraction with nice biceps, or a shapely waist…
“My late Archbishop used to forbid priests to wear things like bathing suits in front of their parishioners. If we wanted to swim, we needed to go somewhere else….”
Such sentiment (and I use that word intentionally) I suppose has its place (for *authority* has its place) but in the end I can’t help but see it as infantile. The goal is a humble spiritual maturity that can “bear the shame” of the *reality* that a priest is a man after all – baths and swimming pools included.
More on point of your essay, the RSV use of “nature” for the greek in that passage from Eph. is stimulating and begs questions about our “nature” of contingent and naked “selves”, the vanity of all our attempts to cover it up – our “finely deluded thoughts” as Dino so aptly puts it, and how through death (and not some end run around death) we gain our true selves/nature.
Too much focus on the malleability of our nature can lead to a questioning of the reality of nature itself which exactly where our secular world is at. I too thought of humility, in that after you see through the masks it is important not to get stuck in the nihilism – to move past and seek real permanence , true nature. To do that however is difficult because it’s a double movement, this putting off *and* putting on…
We know that Otzi the ice man had extensive tattooing. We don’t know there significance but since they were mostly lines even if they were a record of how many people he had killed that would only be intimidating inside his local group. They also could have been acupuncture like medicinal markings. I would say that lots of modern tattooing is for intimidation. Especially the culture of prison and gang tattoos. There are personal tattoos and people who just get sucked into the culture of tattooing. However, for men anyway there is still an aura of I can withstand pain, and communicating to an in-group that you are willing to bleed to belong to the tribe.
Abp. Dmitri was a man of an earlier time in which modesty had very different practices. I simply understood his admonition to be somewhat “quaint” and refreshing in certain ways. He wasn’t afraid to ask a priest to behave himself and expect as much, though he was a very gentle pastor.
Given my beard and that I live in East Tennessee…
Sometimes on my day off when I’m working around the house or yard, I wear my “bib overalls.” I look quite local and rural and blend in rather seamlessly. How I am treated is interestingly different than how I am treated when in my cassock. There are also days when I’m “bumming around” – and, depending on one thing or another, might pass for a homeless guy – yet a still different reaction. In none of the 3 do I find myself viewed “personally.” The uniform (whether of farmer, homeless, or priest) is what is most visible.
I suspect that we notice tattoos before we see faces as well. Some tattoos and face piercings make it difficult to dee what is beneath. Of course, though we cover our nakedness we fail to find it helping with our loneliness. Few things can feel as lonely as wearing a cassock in a part of the world where even a clerical collar will get you strange looks.
On Fridays before football games, the town and surrounding area breaks out in orange (the UT colors) and that great tribal activity of Southern football begins to rage. Our tribe is doing badly this season…orange is a losing color for a while.
This hits to the core, Father. Of all your posts on shame, this topic of ‘covering’ goes deep.
Briefly, my thoughts – Christ clothes us in the garment of Light that Adam and Eve lost. We are told that in Baptism we have taken off the old garments, those skins that God so graciously gave our first parents, and put on Christ. This means a life of ‘following’ and ‘repentance’. Without repentance it is like continually putting new wine into old wineskins. It don’t work!
I agree Father that with inward fear and wounds that are deep, one may be beyond hope. But God can do wonders with a person like that. He is ever so merciful. And we must not forget that much of God’s working in us is ‘hidden’. It may not be obvious, or the way we would expect.
The prayer you related that our priests say before vesting (and the following paragraph) … that’s heavy, Father. Amazing how God welcomes us to participate in His works. You know, words are meager in expressing such amazement when it comes down to it. All I can think of is the verse in the Psalms “what is man that you should be mindful of him…”. Really…!
Finally, the language of ‘garment’, and ‘clothing’ reminds me very much of the writings of St Isaac the Syrian. I find his works extremely comforting.
Well, thank you so much Father. An excellent, edifying and very thoughtful post!
And Father, it is sad to hear that wearing a cassock nowadays brings a sense of loneliness. Wish it weren’t that way….
Well – that’s only one experience among others. I probably have far more wonderful experiences of encounters with people – everybody needs a priest but not all of them know it. I’ve been asked to bless a cross in Walmart by a stranger. “Are you a priest?” “Yes.” “If I buy a Cross can you bless it?” “Yes.” And I did. 🙂
In truth, our clothing doesn’t so much hide our identity as it creates a distraction of sorts. The truth of our identity is “hid with Christ in God,” or we can say it is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.” Christ Himself is our true identity in some manner or other. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” For that to become fully authentic is the path of salvation.
Now your Walmart tale brought a smile to me as well 🙂
Good to recall the unexpected ‘meetings’ of strangers like that. I hope there are more of those than the questionable ones!
Authentic is the key, Father. “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” I pray that this be so for all of us.
When I was acting the process of getting in character did not occur fully until the costume was put on. The costume “fleshed out” the character. Frankly It is no different with the everyday clothes we wear.
Another fine article, Father. At my first assignment in the USAF, I was stationed with a master sergeant who had been a marine. He once said that he had 14 tatoos. I started counting them…only saw 12. I asked him about the other 2…a big mistake!🙂 Several years back I saw that some are trying to develop a tattoo ink that will disappear in about two years. Anyone know more about this? I have worn an AF uniform, CHP uniform, fireman uniform, and yes, with each one there was a difference in how I was seen by others; at least I perceived a difference. The most obvious difference being the CHP uniform. Like Father in his cassock, I was yelled at, received one finger salutes, etc. A buddy officer of mine woke up one morning to his new car being splattered with chicken blood. Our outer man can rile!
By the way, the idea that the earth was the center was not a compliment in the Platonistic cosmology of Galileo’s time. In that worldview, things like spirit and fire are light (as opposed to heavy) and therefore belong in the heavens. Heavy, material things are trapped in the prison of the earth. A professor of mine once called earth “the trash dump of the universe.”
Well stated Adam. The distinction between “ontological truth” on the one hand, and scientific (and thus nominalistic) measurement of “physical reality” on the other, is important but too rarely understood. Several diverse reasons for this of course. “ontological truth” was in the west largely subsumed under metaphysics in the middle ages even before methodological materialism became dominate and “the” cultural (in and outside the Church) force. The Church of the East had a completely different “exchange” or relationship to metaphysics – its place in the culture was not the same.
That said, the Church of the East has in the last 100 years or so been rapidly (I would say “violently”) confronted with the dominant western paradigm from without of course, but more importantly from within. I at times amused, and other times bemused with the intellectual/pastoral products of this confrontation.
‘Man as microcosm’ might be a better/fuller expression of a good “geocentric intuition”…
Sadly, people in our society seem to make a lot of judgments about others based on external assessments. What you wear; how you look; what brand of purse you carry; where you work; what you eat; what you weigh; what you drive; where you live; and so many things that are totally superficial to who you really are and what you really believe. Clothing is something that is often mentioned in the Bible as something that you should give to others less fortunate. One of our priests even spoke at church about the clothing we have in our closets that we are not using or wearing – that we are depriving someone else of clothing that they need and God wants them to have – so we should donate clothing, food, and anything we have been given generously of to those who have a real need. That we are God’s way of meeting those needs at times, and by not giving, we are not allowing Him to provide for them as well as for us. That really touched my heart. We need to give of what we believe too. So many these days have no belief in God or in any real faith. They have grown up empty inside, trying to fill it with the externals and material things that this world offers, often the drugs and dangerous behaviors they think will fill that empty place inside them . Many are now seeking what only God and His Faith can begin to fill and nurture. God has shared generously with so many of us on this blog, and I believe we need to share as we are given the opportunity – with others who are seeking truth and faith. I hope we can let our internal clothing in His faith and love shine thru the external trappings we wear each day (be they Jedi Robes or Overalls)- so that they will ask us what fills us inside. Let His light shine from within us so they can see thru the external. Be an example of His love, reach beyond the external and see the need within.
Oh Merry…a breath of fresh air you are!
Down-right simple Gospel…let your light shine. People see this first and foremost. As Father says again and again…pray, be kind…and give your stuff (something like that 🙂 )
Thank you Paula! I feel overwhelmed in here most of the time – with all the highly learned theological experts and people who have studied far more than I. Like my husband Michael. We are opposites when it comes to that. I enjoy reading about the Saints and the Elders sometimes, but mostly because of the interesting stories. I am not a theological expert or well read on the subject. I just love God, Jesus, and Mary, and know how much they love us all. I met Jesus as a five year old, and Mary at 23 as a grieving mother. God is the loving father that few of us can even imagine. When it comes to my faith, I am still that five year old who knew Jesus was real, and He loved me. I hope our lights shine as brightly as we would like them to.
Dear Merry! Listen…what you described about yourself and God…that you love Him, His Son and Mary, read the saints, attend the Liturgy…if that’s “all” you know, girl, in my book that is complete and all that is necessary! Matter of fact, sometimes the other stuff gets in the way. I am always glad to see your name here…I can totally relate to you. I think we know about a lot of things Merry…but it’s just not the scholastic stuff.
I used to feel intimidated as well. There is a lot of learned people here. Many times I do not understand what is being said. Or why certain things are being said! But I am learning to not let it bother me (Father’s teaching on shame has helped very much. School was, well…not good memories at all). So I just continue to post! Much of the time – I think, because of their commonality and enjoyment of the things they have knowledge of – they respond among themselves. This is just a commonality of socializing. Which is exactly why I am comfortable responding to you! So thanks Merry. And I would say that I am not the only one who enjoys your comments!
Blessings to you!
Merry Bauman, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment. I needed to hear this loving message, and truly appreciate your recollections of your 5 year old experience. The Holy Spirit descended upon me, as did the infinite love of our Lord at the same age the very first time I entered my mother’s place of worship. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Queens N.Y. back in the late 1950’s early ’60’s. Children are very open to God’s loving presence, and tears of joy exploded from my eyes. We were not often permitted to attend mom’s church, as dad was a strict Roman Catholic. Mom was concerned, and asked my why I cried. I told her that, “God is here!” She told me to never mention this to dad, or he would never let me come with her again. He berated Orthodoxy cruelly, and forbid her from having a prayer corner or any Icons in our home. Too late, the fire was set, it burned in my heart until, as an older adult, I was Chrismated into the Greek Orthodox church near my current home. Yes, glory to God for ALL things!
Katy Barrett thank you. We are of a similar age too. My oldest son was in the Air Force in Saudi,then law enforcement, back into Military Security Police,and he just retired at 51 last spring. He is experiencing the change you spoke of from the respect for his uniform to just being a dad and grandpa. My dad was abusive sometimes and when he was,I would hide in the back of my closet and cry. A very gentle man with long dark hair,dark eyes,and a big square chair would come and comfort me. I knew he was Jesus in my heart,but I never saw a picture of Jesus that looked like him until 10 yrs ago when I was 61 and engaged to my now husband. He took me to St George Orthodox Cathedral and there was that man and in his square chair-above the alter. I knew I was home. My first Orthodox experience. I always feel like I am truly in God’s home when I am there. I know how you felt! Thanks for sharing.
Merry, it is beautiful that we both had these experiences with our Lord. The Icon of The Lord’s throne at our church is big and square, just like the throne depicted in most Orthodox churches and cathedrals. You and I have been blessed in this life for our experiences, and it’s wonderful to hear your story. My goodness how they mirror each other! Thanks be to God, and to Fr. S.F. for allowing us to share these mystical, beautiful expressions of God’s love and mercy. Let’s be grateful too, for the one’s around us who encouraged and enabled our faith to blossom and grow.
I apologize for the confusion. I did not make it clear I was responding to the Deacon’s secularized response/instincts. By “we” I meant the general cultural & the cultural in the Church as a generalization. The ascetical labor remark was in reference to my particular experience as described. The stressor/crises was the shooting (not you or I)…hope that helps clears it up.
A person who comments on another blog I read often says “ecclesia is downstream from culture”. When I first read it was jarring because years ago I internalized the seemingly contradictory maxim (which I first heard from the RC priest R.J. Neuhaus) that “politics rests on culture, and culture rests on religion – religion/cult/faith is primary”. This question – how to “be” Christian in our present time and place – is directly and organically related to how to “be” ecclesia in our present time and place.
Yes Father, lives like that are God’s gift to the world. Where do lives like that come from? How are the born, where do they grow up, and how are they nurtured through time and the vagaries of time and place in general, and our anti-Cult-ture in particular? More to the point, since true Saints, Prophets, Apostles, and worthy witnessing men and women of God are so few and far between – heck, even just minimally competent/mature catechizers and confessors – well, how is a person, a child, a community ever *formed* in anything like the Commandments of Christ as reflected in Fr. Thomas’ 55 maxims? Anyone with any experience at all understands that mere hearing is not enough. Getting to the doing takes daily Grace and daily organic formation from family, community, and ecclisia. The 55 maxims are not proclaimed and lived in a vacuum – pooof! do this! – they are acquired little by little and any heroic example to the contrary is just the exception that proves the rule (no matter how inspiring it may be).
There are many ways to falter. Well-intentioned projects, often an attempt at building/returning to a “Christendom” is popular. Not as often as recognized (though increasingly so) is that encountering the world (or just your own sins) from/within a compromised/secularized “ecclesia” is not fruitful…talk about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”.
You might call all this “management” Father, but I find an etherealness to your last post. Yes, Christ would explicate the character of the Kingdom and end with “go and do likewise”. Yet, those whom he said this too I believe were in every significant way already prepared to *hear* this message….they had been organically shaped in such a way that they at least had the possibility of doing likewise because they had an community (of God and man) already “behind” them, and thus a foundation of inner virtue capable of hearing and doing in spite of trials and sin….in any case my thoughts.
Most of my daily life over these years has been as a shepherd, tending the little flock God has given me. They, of course, wrestle with the sorts of things found in the 55 maxims, and, slowly, many seem to find some measure of stability in them. I note that you maintain a strong critique of the “compromised/secularized ecclesia,” and I’m sure you have some very specific things in mind – perhaps within your own parish community. I don’t know your experience – only my own – and that which I’ve seen in my travels. Mostly, I see communities not unlike the one I live and work in. It is what God has given us to do.
I hear a sort of despair, or unceasing complaint, in your frequent assessments of the Church’s failings in our world. Does it poison your heart? Does it sow despair in those around you?
We moderns are managers. We’re constantly looking at the larger picture and assessing its effectiveness and its failings. Mostly, it’s a bunch of nonsense – forgive me. We know Christ’s commandments and we’re given them in order to live. We’re not given to be managers or to sow despair. Regardless of the tares, sow wheat. Either God knows what He’s doing or not.
I find there’s a way to point out what’s wrong, without budging from the stability of trusting in God’s providence in all, and with great care not to allow any thoughts of latent despair or worry to colour our (inner and outer) countenance.
This wouldn’t easily flesh out in a comment of course, but is worth keeping in mind for life.
The second we lose joy because of any complaint, the grace that tacitly evangelizes through us (through this anchored-in-God positivity) is kicked out…
In other words, we could flag up the absurdity of the spirit of the antichrist, only once we are first ‘flagging it up’ with our wordless example, most especially, our underlying joy springing from our genuine intimacy with the Spirit of Christ.
Father or Dino,
There is a difference between genuine mourning and despair, yes? I have in mind “blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. By what you have said above, Dino, there can still be joy in the heart in the midst of mourning.
I ask this because, for example, I do mourn over the divisions in the Church (which, in truth, stems from our own heart)…and at the time when I take this to Christ, I do not feel joyful…but I do find comfort that I can commune with Him in this way, and at all times, for that matter.
“Regardless of the tares, sow wheat.” A wonderful thought, Father. Could be Fr. Hopko’s 56th maxim!
And Metro. Jonah’s, “Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness” is right up there as well.
I’ve mentioned before that I watch very little news, almost all local. And after enduring so many stabbings, car wrecks, etc., that doesn’t last long. I do watch the weather, something God gives us…His rain falling on the just and unjust. I do not read other Orthodox blogs. When attempted in the past, I found that many drip out poisonous despair from their pens. If I complain and am negative, them my person affects the poor people around me. Joy must be maintained, as Dino advocates. I certainly do not want to be one of the tares the angels tear out by the root at the end of the age. Lord have mercy!
I’d say that spiritual joy is always accompanied by spiritual mourning. Mourning ought to be kept utterly private, and joy constant. In Greek the word is ‘joyful-sadness’. There is imeasurable hope in it.
“Joyful sadness”…yes! Forgot about that phrase, Dino. I can almost understand such boundless hope given in a heart completely turned to God.
Thank you. I will consider what you say here.
this unassailable Christian positivity has a lot to do with us being firmly anchored in the eschatological knowledge of the victorious outcome of all history in Christ. It becomes a lens through which the absurdity around us is interpreted without despair, we have hope –actually burning– and it is evident as a sparkle in our eye that evangelises more powerfully than words.
It can eventually become ingrained (through cultivation) so much that, just as a secular girl who divorces might either cry out pessimistically, “I’ve lost everything, I want to just die!” or optimistically, “great! I’ll find a gorgeous, kind man now!”, so too, in everything, one makes a very conscious effort to be the optimist rather than the pessimist lens, “always look-on the bright side of-life”, not with secular naiveté, but with spiritual sobriety… May God bestow this richly to us all.
Elder Aimilianos and his disciples often had many such jarring combinations of two words that were advised pithily:
e.g.: “always be serious and joyous!” (one without the other is in danger of delusion)
or: “be relaxed but vigilant”, or “be dignified but humble”, or to others:”remain stern but utterly optimistic” etc.
Most of us cannot see far into the future, Christian or not. I recall books such as “Future Shock” written in the mid seventies, about the time Tim Lahaye and others were writing their “spiritual” predictions. Both groups of writers were way off the mark these years later. The U.S. and world were to be out of oil, natural gas by year 2,000. Now the US is a major producer of both (hopefully not a major polluter!). The “rapture”, an invention of Darby, has never occurred, though Christ’s coming in judgment is a certainty. Our culture, Father, as you note, is at war with us. Yet I find comfort in your emphasis on parishes, schools, families, monasteries… spiritual training grounds. These are all a part of doing “that which is at hand.” And with Christ and the Panagia’s help, we can be constant and faithful in our cross-bearing journey, one step at a time.
I should have mentioned Hal Lindsey, his “Late, Great Planet Earth.” I think Lahaye was much more balanced in his approach.
These are troubling comments and to my mind humble responses. It grieves me to hear an unwarranted attack on your person, that implies your efforts would be in vain because they are thought to be “unreal”, with a “heroic/outer purity” … as if to say, without an inner purity of integrity that is reflected by an outer purity (sounding similar to Christ’s conviction to the Pharisees). Purity does not mean perfection, but truthfulness.
I know when I take offense, I attack. But I think we should take the offense with conviction…like a judgement that points to our shortcoming. I have found a difficult truth…that criticism, when given kindly (or even when not), can be a blessing, if we accept it as such, and that flattery with its underlying motive is a curse. Our ego is immense and fights against this, but God sends these incidences for instruction and reproof. It is His loving chastisement.
There is a significant difference between edification and flattery. It takes spiritual discernment to distinguish this. Flattery just feeds the ego. And if we would admit this, we would be very careful not to take to heart the luring of such words. We tend to flatter those in whom we detect the similar passions. It creates an unhealthy bond to justify, and perpetrate these unhealthy passions. If it “sows despair” this tells you what kind of fruit is borne (we are known by our fruit). I can only know this because I fall into the same trap myself.
Such hard lessons to learn for all of us.
Thank you, and Dino, you too, for your responses.
Christopher, I am so sorry that your words had to be the subject of my grief. If I have misspoke, forgive me. That is how I see it. I pray the best for you.
Yet, those whom he said this too I believe were in every significant way already prepared to *hear* this message
Christopher, I share your concern here (and, occasionally, your despair). The modern world is no longer prepared to hear this message–although they are prepared to refute it (usually in the most shallow manner possible). I have tried, at times, to explain the foundational differences in the Christian view and the modern one and, to my surprise, this can be beneficial. Most modern people think the two are rooted in the same ideas. Pointing out that they are not tends to make (some of) them think on things a little differently.
That said, there is no doubt in my mind that what Father and Dino have espoused is far better than discussion/debate, and far more difficult to actually live. And it is worth considering that the despair and emptiness that modernity produces will eventually raise a generation that is prepared to hear the message again. It may not happen within our lifetime, but God is good and draws all things to Himself. In this our faith and our lives can be safely rooted.
Of course we are “downstream” from the culture of Constantine…the late Roman Empire, etc. Though, more to the point of the present, we are downstream from the Turkokratia and its aftermath as well as downstream from the Russian Empire and its aftermath. And, we are downstream from the Great Schism and the Reformation, etc.
We work with what we are and deal with hand we have been dealt. In none of those upstream cases can we now pretend that we are somehow not affected by them. Nor, I think, would a proper understanding of providence want to be unaffected by them.
The difficulty (and here I turn my attention to modern projects) is that our modern mind sees and reads history as a project to be managed. We read the so-called “histories” of the past – a tiny sliver of everything that took place (court intrigues, a handful of bishops, etc.) and string those into a narrative to provide a story to suggest that we understand and know what happened – with the hidden assumption that knowing this thinly constructed narrative gives us insight into how to manage the doings of our own time.
That is, I contend, simply not true. The modern, historical approach is an arrogance and an essentially secular reading of the world and history – cause and effect, etc. Was all of that providential? Were court intrigues and such the real events of that “history.”
Frankly, present-day attempts at analyzing the state of the Church is a lot like climate-change science. The real life of the Church isn’t measured in the Phanar (God forbid!) or such halls of power. If we piously speak about the prayers of but a handful sustaining the world (and that’s the Tradition), then those intrigues in halls of power have almost as much sway in matters as the decisions of Pontius Pilate. None of it would matter a whit if it had not been given them from above.
We cannot, I think, step outside our downstream position and come up with ways to manage the flow of the stream. It’s not our stream. We not the managers of history – even contemporary history. I narrow the focus on what each can do – which is, pretty much, keep the commandments of Christ – and that means keeping them in their proper, most radical sense. What do the efforts of all those who live in such a manner amount to? Only God could know – just as God alone knows what the Climate is actually doing or will do.
I think there are good things to be doing – in our parishes, seminaries, schools, every little thing given to us. But none of the larger things can be greater than the goodness inherent in each single person. A group of bad people do not create good things.
I would switch the attention for a moment. Russia is a very different story at present. There, the situation might seem more like Constantine’s time than our American setting. There, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, art, film, books, etc., are beginning to flourish again with a quiet renaisance that might (who knows) be a very significant thing in the history of the Church.
Though as Americans, we live in the belly of the modern beast, we out “outliers” in the larger life of the Orthodox Church. The US State department probably has more influence on world Orthodoxy than any American jurisdiction does (and I mean that truly and sadly).
I read our situation as that of a tiny minority, with meager resources, in a culture that is increasingly hostile. One of my Russian members seriously asked me the other day whether there would be any help from Russia in building our new building. As if! We’ll have to do it ourselves and it is a huge undertaking. I think that we are living at an interesting time when the number of converts are growing and making significant contributions to the life of the Church. But I simply do not know what anything adds up to, nor how we should think when it comes to forming or shaping the things around us.
I have a responsibility for about 200 households – and a responsibility to readers out there. I talk with other priests and we share our experiences – what seems to work, what doesn’t. And we learn from each other. I’m just not sure what more there is than that.
Our hard work, and the hardest work, is both within ourselves (inner purity and devotion), and outside ourselves (where our lives actually come in contact with the world). I personally think that our abstractions from that – where we stand with an imaginary world-view – sort of an angel’s eye-view, is most make believe and just a modern habit. It’s also a democracy habit – everybody knows everything, everybody’s an expert on everything, and we talk endlessly about everything. But, to quote Yuri Zhivago, “Someone has to live.”
Living is hard. Living as a Christian is harder. Living as an Orthodox Christian is harder still. God give us grace.
If that’s of use fine. But I’m actually still not sure that I know what you’re driving at – as in – what is the conversation you want to have.
I know that I comment more than I should. I often get taken up in tangential issues. And I certainly do not have the acumen to enter into many of these discussions. I can get lost in some of the lengthier, more pedantic.
But what you write is always understandable. It gets to the pith of things. What you just wrote about history and our modern illusory understanding of it is so true. A billion things around the world happening each second, yet we know history…. Our view is so myopic, distorted. Impeachment, scandals of all sorts, political debates, ah, these are the weightier matters of highest importance. Oh my! So, thank you again Father for your insight as priest, writer, counselor. And thank you for steering me to Jonathan Pageau. He has helped me see symbolic patterns I had never imagined. Thank God for what He is doing in Russia and other parts of the world as well.
I’ve been writing on the topic of modernity for a long time. There are many ways to critique our present ecclesial life. I’m under the OCA. We use English, even have American-written hymns many times. We are the least “ethnic” of the Orthodox in America – the only Orthodox that are autocephalous and not answerable to a “mother Church” or mother culture elsewhere. This has, of course, only been true since 1970, but we’re growing in it.
As for ethnic jurisdictions, I wish them well, but I have no interest in their inner problems. I think there are mistakes being made – and if they were the only Orthodox in America, I would be concerned. When we started our mission in East TN, I caught some grief. We started any way – and have had a hand in starting 5 others. I could have had the argument and stayed stuck. But, I think that to a large extent, the OCA is just plowing ahead – cooperatively where possible – and ahead as possible. But, others have their own history and cultural matters that seem to be important to them. I speak honestly when asked, but it’s just outside my purview to fix them. It’s their responsibility.
The history of Orthodoxy is filled with tragedy. There’s a good article I read recently on “9 years that almost destroyed Orthodoxy,” tracking the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution. In many ways, the Revolution was the least of our troubles.
The first book on Orthodoxy in English was not published until 1962. All of this is actually quite new to America.
I’ve never taken a group to a trash dump. It is against the canons to celebrate Liturgies outside the Church. It’s not what we do. Whether your ideas are worth being heard – I don’t know. I’m not sure this is the forum for giving them their complete airing. It’s a blog with its own mission, not a public forum for hearing everybody’s ideas. People may read and interact with what’s hear – there’s lots of give and take. But the meat of what’s here is in the articles themselves – which I hope people will consider and chew on.
Btw, my grandfather was a share cropper and my parents grew up in the cotton fields. I’m first generation college. We probably have a lot in common. I’m sorry if you feel that I’ve treated you as if you’re delusional – I don’t think I said that. I have a very specific thing in mind when I write about modern “projects.” Sorry for that bit of jargon – it comes out of postmodern critiques of modernity.
I’m not certain about the Orthodox exhibiting anti-social mentalities and behaviors. It might depend on which Orthodox you’re encountering. I can’t do anything about the Orthodox outside my own parish. Some are wonderful. Some are terrible. That seems to be true about everything in the world I’ve ever encountered. Orthodoxy is a terrible mess. I tell inquirers at my parish that they should be prepared to encounter a real mess. It has 2000 years of history and all that baggage that comes from it. But, it is what it claims to be – not because of its excellence – but because it is what it claims to be.
I trust that God, in His providence, will continue to work in and through the Orthodox in the mystery of salvation. We did not cease to exist in those terrible 9 years. We’ll probably get through the next few centuries as well. Perhaps only a very few Orthodox will make it. Who can know these things? My disinterest in various ways to fix the Church is not because I don’t care. It’s my entire life. But, I simply have no way of knowing beyond a few small things what God wants of us. The Church is indeed a “social project.” That’s exactly what I meant when I said that the main task of the Church is to be the Church. When the Church lives truly as the Church – many, many things happen. Most of them unpredictable.
Thank you Father for these last comments of yours, the clarity of their thought is outstanding; it’s also very useful for us all.
I’ll second Dino’s comment. (for a change : ) ) thanks Dino!
I haven’t read all comments in detail, here, but corroborate what I have been reading in Fr Stephen’s articles for the past three+ years, here and elsewhere under the guidance of my parish priest concerning ‘the social project’ of the Church and Fr. Stephen’s ministry.
I too have a kind of ‘checkered’ past and a ‘humble’ familial history (my mom was Seminole, dad growing up farming & graduated from HS but mom didn’t go too far past 3-5th grade). Perhaps this gives me a different outlook on society here in the US. But I’m not inclined to critique the ‘mess’ that is the Church, here in this blog, or in private conversations, or to air my beefs about the whole Church. Honestly, I don’t have such beefs. It’s enough to observe, and with the grace of God, work on the stains of my own soul, God willing.
Such an interesting piece Father Stephen. As an artist I notice & enjoy so much of the visual world around & find it fascinating how humankind dresses, decorates itself, & represents itself in art. As a worker with young people I particularly love to watch how they develop their individual personalities via their appearances & clothing, I love to see them all looking so ‘themselves’.
A very long time ago I was on a bus in London with my best friend who is a huge rock & metal fan & has curly hair like Slash (guitarist from Guns’n’Roses), & mainly dresses in black. A very elegant & well dressed Nun got on in an immaculate & well cut black habit. We called her ‘Armani Nun’, & I loved the contrast between these 2 christian women.
I read a story recently focused on the young woman who was the victim at age 12 of a brutal stabbing by two friends that nearly killed her. Now 17, she was asked what she would say to her attackers were she to meet them again. “I would thank them, I think. What the did and everything that has happened since has made me who I am with a plan and a reason to do things I did not have before, so yes, I would thank them.”