For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, (1 Tim. 2:5)
There is no way to adequately explain priesthood without reference to mediation. A priest is a mediator between God and Man. From time to time over the years, I have had the verse from 1 Timothy pointed out to me with the argument that there cannot be any mediator other than Christ, and, thus, there cannot be any such thing as a “priest” within the Church. Sometimes the argument becomes even more pointed:
I do not need to go to a priest to have my sins forgiven! I can go directly to God. I don’t want anything or anyone standing between me and Jesus.
If the priesthood (ordained or otherwise) stood between a person and Christ, I would oppose it myself. However, its purpose, like all of the sacraments, is quite the opposite: it is to mediate the presence of Christ, that is to make Him present, not serve in His absence. The greater question, therefore, is whether there need be any sacraments.
That Christ gave us Holy Baptism and the Eucharist is beyond doubt. In particular, with the Eucharist, we are told, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Further, we are commanded to eat His flesh and drink His blood. The notion that the Eucharist is merely a ritual action designed to make us think of Jesus is, historically speaking, absurd. There is only evidence in the early Church that the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Everything said about it in the Scriptures, including the warning of possible sickness accompanying eating it in the wrong manner, argue against mere memorialism.
It is ironic in the extreme that the very Christians who champion a “literal” reading of Scripture, and excoriate the Orthodox (and others) for engaging in theological analysis, refuse to read the verses concerning the Eucharist in a literal manner and themselves engage in philosophical gymnastics in order to deny the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is a case of an anti-Catholic petard hoisting them into nonsense.
But just as Christ gives us His own Body and Blood, that we might “dwell in Him and He in us,” so, too, does He give us a sacramental world by which and in which He may be known. Marriage is another example. In the God-blessed faithful union of a man and a woman, Christ makes known the mystery of the union between Himself and the Church. A sacramental world is not a case of the world standing between us and God, but the world being made something in which and by which we encounter God.
The great flaw in anti-sacramental thinking is its abstracted notion of “spiritual.” It is presumed that for something to be “spiritual,” it must have nothing to do with the material world. That “talking to Jesus” only consists in words spoken in our heads. In truth, it is a preference for the imaginary over the real. The Word did not become flesh only to get our attention so that we would no longer have anything to do with the material world. It is the Word who became flesh Who gives us His Body and His Blood, the waters of Baptism, the marriage bed, the Apostolic ministry, the oil of healing, the laying on of hands, the lifting of the voice and all such things.
Non-sacramental Christianity has a long history of delusional teaching and practices. If the encounter with God is primarily the stuff going on in my head, then the strange results are fairly predictable. Nothing is more subject to manipulation and delusion than our subjectivity. This is not to say that there is nothing crazy in the history of sacramental Christianity.
However, the sacramental life, as the primary means of grace, grounds the believer in a far more concrete and stable environment. The Eucharist remains the Eucharist, and, in its liturgical presentation, offers something within our encounter with God that remains unchanging. It will be there next Sunday as well. Strangely, this offers far more freedom than the tyranny of our own subjectivity. There is no pressure to maintain a subjective state in order for God to be present. Depression need not shut down the spiritual life.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of the sacramental life is something that has almost been forgotten within contemporary Christianity: noetic experience. The fact that I will now be required to explain the very meaning of noetic experience for my readers makes my point. In the writings of the Church fathers, it is assumed that this is the true character of the saving knowledge of God.
“Noetic” refers to that knowledge that is acquired by the “nous,” an aspect of the soul that is uniquely the place where we encounter God. It is not the place of the passions and emotions, nor is it the place of discursive reasoning. Rather, it is that place in which we “know” by a participatory knowledge that is sometimes described as “perception.” We lack a good vocabulary for speaking about noetic experience precisely because our culture has abandoned this once-essential mode of perception.
The Scriptures tell us, “Be still and know that I am God.” But these words are read by a culture that knows almost nothing about true stillness (hesychia) and ceaselessly engages in activities to prevent its possibility. Stillness of this sort includes the silencing of the passions and emotions as well as discursive reasoning. It then becomes possible to be aware and to know wordlessly with a depth and stability that are the very bedrock of the spiritual life.
When I was first ordained, perhaps the most difficult part of my spiritual life was the need to “think” as I celebrated the liturgy. Remembering what came next, or fiddling with the pages of a book were distractions of the first order. Every priest would agree that the best liturgical experience comes only when the actions and words are no longer the product of reasoning, but are simply known “by heart.” It is then that noetic experience is able to flower.
The same is true among the laity. What is often experienced at first as “boredom” (the sameness of the liturgy or the interminable character of the Psalms or Canon in some services) is nothing more than a description of something that exists for the nurture of the nous rather than the emotions and reasoning. Imagine walking with someone through a Redwood forest, or along a quiet beach and being told, “I’m bored.” In truth, the forest and the beach are quite common examples of noetic experiences that have yet to be eradicated or destroyed by our culture. It is not surprising that many people report an awareness of God in such settings.
It is not incorrect to describe our relationship with the passions as an addiction. The fathers described the passion-driven life as a constant swing between pain and pleasure. We experience boredom as a pain and seek to replace it with pleasure, which will only yield more pain later on. This movement, as it dominates our experience, draws us away from the opportunity to grow in noetic experience. As such, it tears us away from God other than as an entertaining idea or a concept to be considered.
This brings me back to the question of mediation. The sacraments present God to us in a manner in which He can be noetically perceived. We enter into Him as communion. The so-called non-mediated paths are themselves hopelessly trapped in their own subjectivity, mired in the passions and ideology. We may protest that we need no mediation, but this turns out to be a desire to dwell in the imagination. The sacraments (including the priesthood) do not present a barrier to Christ, but make our access to the One Mediator immediate and independent of our own subjectivity.
God knew what He was doing when He gave us the sacraments!
Excellent !! Thank you Father.
Thank you Father. Well said. Describing noetic as participatory knowledge and as perception really clears it up.
Thanks, Father. Good stuff!
And God obviously knew what He was doing when He gave Himself to you and you to us.
I thank Him and I thank you for guidance on our way, communing with the Holy Trinity.
What are your thoughts about private confession without the presence of a priest? I understand that it is less than optimal from a truly Orthodox perspective, but is it completely without any merit whatsoever? I might offer that from an ontological point of view, it doesn’t seem as though it would be completely useless – but also understand that it doesn’t foster communion, and could be subject to much delusion.
Lord have Mercy.
Father, the first thing that came to my mind when you mentioned the Priest’s role in Confession was Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered together in my Name…”). The idea that we go alone is simply false. Hyper-individuality is a modern notion; Communion is not.
Think of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Publican in the parable made confession without a priest and “went home justified.” It is a matter of the heart. God has given us the sacramental priesthood for our sake – because we are “wired” in such a way that the presence of another human being makes possible levels and depths of repentance and healing that would most often not be emotionally accessible to us.
Shame is something that almost always requires another human being’s presence in order to be healed. There were some shame-related things in my childhood that I could not bring myself to say out loud to another person until I was 58 years old. God knew them – I could have talked about them “in my closet” forever. But the shame could only be broken and healed through the agency of another human being. The freedom was profound.
That experience of my own, I have discovered, is pretty universal. I think I understood confession in that moment far deeper than might have ever been possible without it.
Having said that – it’s still the case that alone before God has merit and efficacy.
Father, you said something awhile back that I had not comprehended:. There is no Body and Blood without Mary. “My soul doth magnify the Lord!”
Dear God, Father! Thank you!
I would add that there are two types of private confession: one is a genuine moment of deep contrition in which one’s soul cry’s out in sorrow almost without conscious volition. There are times when Jesus healing response is instant and as deep as the contrition-the heart breaks, tears come and so does the noetic knowledge of Jesus mercy.
The second kind tends to be a bit more of the mind or at least not specific contrition–peace that comes in praying the Jesus Prayer or some unexpected interaction with someone that causes a deep acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness.
Still, to go to formal confession and enter into the sacrament with the priest is extrordinarily beneficial. Much happens but two things I particularly: your personal experience is verified as authentic not a delusion and two you are sealed. You are commanded to go forth, having no further care.
The act of offering up through and in the presence of the priest is of incalculable benefit even though Jesus has already granted mercy. There is further grace similar to the Eucharist itself in the Epiclesis that furthers a deeper transformation and transfiguration that can extend beyond you personally.
Part of the mystery is only revealed and experienced in the presence of another human being who is sharing some of the weight of your Cross.
I can only guess that such a sharing is of some benefit to the priest as well. I hope so.
Thank-You so much for the responses.
Thank you Father Stephen, not least for your elucidation of the noetic, which I found in many ways most helpful. I have been engaged in a lengthy ‘argument’ of sorts with those of my tradition who equate the nous simply with the mind – so all we need to do in repentance (meta-noia) is to get our thinking straight. Of course, as our lives are aligned with the life of God our thinking is healed, but I’ve always sensed that all such an argument did was to reduce us to minds – brains in jars. Having read in the Fathers more of the nous, I was helped in understanding that it is this Gift, this ‘organ of perception’, by which we might Know God, as opposed to merely knowing about. Faith becomes personal asit affects the depth of our personhood in the inner room where we commune with The Living One. Your continued discussion of nous and hesychia I also found most very Illuminating. Bless you!
Thank you Fr. Stephen,
My sister-in-law almost word-for-word said to me what you mentioned, “I don’t need anyone between me and Jesus. I go straight to Him.”
A lady I know has a friend with this goal: to visit every Disneyworld she can in foreign countries. Distraction to the nth degree! This when one can walk through the northern coastal redwoods of California or hear the crunch of gravel below one’s feet walking through a wash in Utah, flanked on either side by red cliffs and bluffs. Or if one cannot do these, then walk outside at sunset and gaze upon that part of God’s wondrous creation. Yes, one can be noetically aware at such times. Or, in the stillness of night a person can descend into the innermost heart and there know God…words unnecessary. Tomorrow we can know God, perceive, apprehend Him, in the liturgy, most especially as we partake of His body and blood. As you say, Father, not having to think this all through, or feel we must be moved emotionally. In sacramental worship, we are not afraid of the physical, knowing that grace can come to us by means of Spirit infused matter. “…I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” St. John of Damascus
Humanity was created precisely to be a mediator of Christ to all creation, including our fellow men.
Remove all Scripture passages involving this, and you’d have precious little (if any) left.
If any man is not mediating Christ to all creation (including his fellow man), then he is no “man” at all, much less a “christian” one.
In thinking about what you said, I realized that you were speaking specifically about confession in preparation for receiving the cup.
Unfortunately for me, that is currently outside my scope within the Orthodox Church. What you say makes sense – the priest should have an idea of your spiritual health when you partake. In my church, it’s a bit of a party favor given for showing up and saying that you’ve been “moved”.
I do take 1 Cor. 11:29 seriously, and I do wonder sometimes if I am worthy. Having a Confessor Priest would engender accountability, if not abused.
Lord have mercy.
Nous, heart and soul, as mentioned by various Fathers, are described in Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’ book “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, parts of which are available online :
Wonderful, Father. Thank you
Thank you, Father, for sharing your experience with shame. It gave me courage. I am struggling very much with shame and it is so strong that sometimes it brings me on the door of wanting to kill myself. But reading that God waited 58 years for you to confess something from your childhood lifted me up. So delicate was He and so much love He showed! I am very afraid of Christ because I am feeling ashamed of myself and sometimes it is very hard to go and confess. For 7 years I trembled at every confession and Liturgy in fear of being rejected and abandoned. Now I began to see that He won’t do that no matter what and it gave me a sense of belonging- the Church is my home. And seeing that everyone fall and get up and have their fears and shame is giving me courage- I am not the only one and I am not alone. I thought that God asked from us perfection and love us according with our “usefulness”. But He is not like this. I am going to bed with peace in my heart this night. Thank you, Father, for being human. Vulnerable and weak. Because I could see Him and feel His love for me also. I feel like a spoiled child right now! 🙂
So very helpful! Thank you!
Thank you for that link! I’ve been referred to this book from more than one source. And just started to read the introduction on what Christianity is from an Orthodox perspective. Since I’ve just begun this reading, I’m considering suggesting it as a possible resource for catechumens. It might be a helpful introduction to Orthodoxy through the lens of how the Church sees her role.
Farther Stephen thank you for this timely article. For it shows a particular distinction in the Orthodox Church regarding the role of confession and the confessor from other churches and their ‘conceptualizations’. I remember the very first catechumens class I went to and asking “what is the nous?”. The noetic life is precious— and even such an adjective brings no further understanding to someone who has not experienced it. Theres is no way I know of to begin the fullness of the noetic life outside the Orthodox Church. I sensed it’s shadows under the waters of my mother’s culture in my heart. But it came to light and fullness within the Life and Body of Christ.
I normally don’t copy and paste whole articles into your comment streams. But given the topic and Nikolaos’ comment referring to Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’ book “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, I thought I might include the entire “Morning Offering” that Abbot Tryphon wrote sometime ago on a similar topic as this article you’ve written. Here it is in full:
I do not think it entirely right to label the whole of the RCC tradition as scholastic, neither is the Orthodox tradition wholly noetic. Plus, I think great care needs to be used in how one approaches the noetic understanding with catechumens. The threefold description of purification, illumination and Theosis as some kind of progress points. In fact all three are going on all the time within the Church. While their can certainly be a focused intentionality on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, worship and repentance, not many are prepared to comprehend what that means just coming to the Church.
There are many philosophies and “spiritualities” out there that present similar but counterfeit ideas. Not to mention the people I have seen who are smorgasbord seekers.
Having come from a spiritual approach that was serious but deluded in many ways I do not think Bp Vlachos is aware of the milleau into which he is dropping his pearls. When I first read his book several years safe in the Church, it disturbed me because I knew many of the ways what he said, accurate though it is, could and would be misunderstood and misused. He does not, IMO, provide enough context for the proper approach to the life of virtue, repentance and humility he is describing.
Even in my work in adult education I found it tricky to address those topics well. Certainly do to my own limitations but also there was often not a strong enough foundation.
Three books I found quite helpful and manageable: On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius; The Inner Step Toward God by Fr. Alexander Men and Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her by Fredrica Matthews-Green. A good companion to On the Incarnation is Fr. Henry Patrick Reardon’s book On the Atonement. It covers much of the same ground but gives extensive Scriptural references and places it in a modern context.
The threefold description is grounded also in the nature of humans. We physical, emotional/psychological and noetic all at the same time. Each part is, when balanced and whole, fully interested to each other part. That is why one does not see much extreme punishment of the flesh in Orthodoxy that can easily be found in the RCC and even some segments of Protestantism and certainly the paganism of some Asian approaches.
People can come to the Church in great confusion and pain even if it is not evident at first. I think we owe it to them to be gentle at first. God will guide them and their teachers into the proper depth for healing. Personally I would be very careful using Orthodox Psychotherapy as a starting point.
“interrelated to each other part” not interested
The life of purification, illumination and Theosis makes no sense outside of an Incarnational/sacramental approach to life. That is the context for it and the only way to be safe in practicing it.
Thank you Dee and Michael for your discussion. Michael, I think your observations are right on. When I first read “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, about 8 years in as Orthodox, it went right over my head. At that time I needed more years in the Church and her tradition to mold my thinking and mollify my heart. There are simpler books on the Jesus prayer and the nous. It’s been a while since reading them but I think Met. Kallistos Ware’s book on the Jesus prayer and Metropolitan Hierotheos’ book with a hermit on Mt. Athos on the Jesus prayer may be more digestible.
No one can read St. John of the Cross and believe that he had no noetic understanding…nor a favorite of Fr. Hopko, the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux. These Catholic mystics and others were far removed from scholasticism.
As Dino and others have pointed out through the years, one really needs the guidance of a spiritual father when wanting to enter further into noetic prayer. And the willingness to spend time alone with Christ in (for me) the wee morning hours, no noise, distractions. The sweetness of Jesus at such times as He envelopes one in His loving presence cannot be described. The Psalmist cries, “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of your waterfalls. All your waves and billows have gone over me.”
Until and unless one has experienced the lovingkindness of Jesus in the heart, it is like trying to describe a rainbow to the blind. “Taste and see….”
I appreciate your thoughts on the materials by Bp Vlachos. I’ve just started reading it. So perhaps it might not be suitable for Catechumens. Generally I don’t propose reading anything to our catechumens without discussion with my priest anyway.
We do disagree on a couple of points however. While I will easily recommend any of Fr Alexander Shmemanns books, I’m not going to endorse the additional authors’ materials in as general sense as I do Fr Alexander’s works. You mentioned a disagreement of your own in the categorization of East vs West. But the categorization that Abbot Tryphon mentions in the way that he does, is seen across many Orthodox writers. An example is Archimandrite Sergius Bowyer writings in his book , “Mind of Christ”, which we do recommend for catechumens.
Dee…the Abbot explains the nous quite well. Thank you for posting that article.
When I was a catachumen our priest (now retired), who was our teacher, frequently referred to Met Vlachos. He recommended any and all of his books. Naturally, I read several. I don’t know how to describe this, but the Metropolitan seems to be scientifically minded. So those who possess that quality will benefit from his work more than those who learn better from, say, a ‘poetic’ approach…in types and symbols.
That said… as in all ‘classrooms’ there is a diversity among the students, and the teachers. For the teacher, as to the choice of information offered; the students, how it is received and processed. There are challenges to learning for all. And in the end, the info will be processed according to the person’s own ‘bend’.
I found a challenge with Met Vlachos’ work. I think what people do with such challenges is to gravitate toward those authors who present less of a strain. In the end, all is not lost. As best as we can, we assimilate all that we are taught. Eventually, with practice and by experience, and the bounty of God’s grace, things fall…and keep on falling…into place. Indeed, there begins the awakening of the nous!
Thanks for being one of our teachers, Dee. You use your gift with much diligence. I am aware that this is a great responsibility. So please know that what I say here is not a criticism, but just a bit of an ‘aside’.
Dee, the books I mentioned are ones I have used and gotten positive results in the process. I think we tend to do to much Catholic bashing and Protestant bashing rather than stating in a proactive way what the Church has to offer–the fullness of the Truth. Dr. Clark Carleton makes that point in his books which are also quite good.
The healing of the tragedy of the west means taking on our own Tradition more fully and addressing the scholasticism and even legalistic iconoclasm in our own hearts and minds. Indeed that is an integral part of purification and illumination as these are universal human temptations. It is quite easy to settle for not-quite-God which gives us the illusion of control rather than facing our own contingent being, weakness and shame.
Every participation in a sacramental activity contains within it, to some degree, the purification, illumination and Theosis (the revelation of God in our heart). Even if it is only a smidgen. Some, like those described in John 6 turn away at the suggestion, indeed the command that only a Sacramental life leads to the Kingdom.
Their is no “salvation” somewhere in the future. Jesus Christ is revealing Himself to 7s right now. He is knocking on the door of our heart right now. Opening that door tends to be sporadic in most of us.
Paula is right. If you can really assimilate what Met Valachos is teaching, then teach it or if you feel it is a journey that you are ready to take.
When I was leading the class On The Incarnation many years ago I was shown more of the reality than many in the class I am sure. That is why I like to “teach” I learn so much. I was ask by my dear friend who was the class leader to assist him. However, it became evident that, for what ever reason, I was to lead. In the process my own foundation in the faith was deepened considerably.
What you and your priest decide is best, that will work. One of the fruits of obedience.
I am confused as to why you mention Fr. Alexander Schemman’s works.
It is perhaps the case that Met. Hierotheos’ ear is less attuned to the cadence of hearing and speaking that dominates the West (he is a Greek). Here’s a recent personal example: My book, Everywhere Present, was recently translated into Russian and published in Moscow. The translator contacted me, however, when the last chapter was being done. That last chapter has a sort of “bullet-point” list. She explained that recent history in the Russian church has given lists a sort of bad taste. I did not ask for an explanation. However, I rewrote the chapter and organized it in a manner in which the list disappeared – and it was in that form that it was translated into Russian.
My own reading of Met. Hierotheos was marked by the “scientific” sort of jargon approach that he used. I could see what he was doing – in a sense, it is a sort of apologetic that seeks to place the ascetical life of the Church on an equal footing with the claims of modern science. In many settings, that would be quite effective. In some settings, it would appear too mechanical and less than organic – reducing the ascetical discipline of the Church to mere “technique.” This is not at all what he really has in mind – it’s simply how he presented the material. He is a disciple of St. Sophrony and I have a very high regard for him.
Having said that of a contemporary elder of the Church – it underlines what must be part of our awareness in reading the Fathers. They, too, have a context, and cannot rightly be read without understanding that context. Occasionally, I read treatments of the fathers that contain no “critical” insight – no analysis of context, pro’s and con’s, etc. The result tends to be a very mechanical reading of material that almost always distorts.
Reading and understanding – even contemporary sources – is hard work, and we ought to admit it. The root meaning of the word “study” has the meaning of “work.” God grant us all to do good work!
In thinking about what you said, I realized that you were speaking specifically about confession in preparation for receiving the cup.
…Having a Confessor Priest would engender accountability, if not abused.
Matthew W, yes that was my immediate reaction to the article. I realize now that it sounds a bit divisive and am thankful for Father’s corrective advice immediately after.
A Confessor Priest is a wonder, if they are truly careful with your heart. Any interaction with another person is potentially full of grace and/or full of wounding at the same time. A Spiritual Father plays a huge role in our formation.
I also must admit that my personal context is different than most. I have seen quite a bit of abuse of the method approach — abuse that took years in the Church to begin to heal. I have also seen many who come to the Church seeking method they can use in their own Quixotic meanderings in “the spiritual life”.
Even today, reading Met Valachos raises up too many shadows for me to be comfortable with his approach.
Thank you Fr Stephen. Context is very important indeed. Study does take work and we now live in an age of Tweets.
Michael I need to be circumspect following Fr Stephens rules. So I’ll not say more on the reading you propose. ‘On the Incarnation’ is a classic that we have definitely used in catechism classes, as it was my own assignment when I was a catechumen.
But I’m sure (based on a few years of reading your comments) you would guide your catechumens well through whatever materials you use.
All this catechism, purification, illumination and Theosis makes it sound like a simple presentation of the gospel isn’t doable. On the other hand, we have Philip the hitchhiker telling the good news about Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch while riding shotgun in his chariot.
“See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
“Well, you need to ‘come and see’ our liturgy, take some classes for about a year, then you need a sponsor…”
“But I’m on my way back to Ethiopia.”
Something I’ve never seen is a simple EO presentation of the Good News, an imagining of what Philip said. It always looks like a sample of a prelude to an initiation towards the basics of the lifelong learning of the Mysteries. Where is an ontological Chick tract?
It always depends on the circumstances. The historical tradition tells us that the Ethiopian Eunuch winds up in the Church in Antioch for a period of time and from there goes as an apostle to Ethiopia. The narrative in Acts serves the purpose of quick vinettes that point towards the spread of the gospel to the four corners of the earth. Of course, the better part of the narrative focuses on St. Paul’s journeys which consist in Church planting – the normative instrument of salvation. Baptism is the beginning.
The Ethipian Eunuch is at least a “God-fearer” but may have been a circumcised Jew (religiously). He was reading the Scriptures. We know that there was already an Ethiopian Jewish community (the Falasha Jews). Catechesis (teaching) is a part of Christian formation and has been since the beginning. There have always been some few who were martyred so quickly that little teaching took place.
As for the timing of Baptism – it could indeed take place quickly (as it seems to have been, particularly among some groups) or after a period of formation – which became standard over time. The Church has always said that a catechumen who dies before baptism is to be buried as a fully baptized Christian – having received a “baptism of intent.”
Jesus spent years with His disciples, setting a pattern for all time. He established the Church (it is not a human institution). It was His idea. The Chick-tract error is the reduction of conversion to a level of consumer-driven triviality. Of course, the chick-tract culture assumes that the Church is not a necessary thing in the life of salvation. It’s real convenient – but it’s not actually Christianity.
Dee, thank you I am sure you will as well. Discernment is always necessary. I do not mean to argue.
Nous – God said he would reveal all these things to the little ones – and this is what we need to do – prepare ourselves to be small, humble and pure in the sight of God while also living the sacramental life and not be trying to figure him out so much – because we really can’t. He wrote all these things on our hearts and by being small, humble and pure, we will find them, because He reveals them to us!
As for the priest and confession – the Bible does state we are to confess our sins to one another (and I think in another place it states that our sins are to come out of our mouth, meaning we cannot hold on to them in our mind and heart) and now being a sacrament, we are given absolution by the priest who is the mediator for Jesus.
There are many Saints in the RC and Orthodox Church who in their time were either not allowed to read or had books available and became Saints, Marytrys and Mystics. I think this had more to do with their Nous but also what they were living and experiencing at the time and how they dealt with it in their prayer.
Your question inadvertently assumes that modern individualistic living is normative for human beings – and it is not. Orthodox evangelism does tend to be slow, contextualized, and happens primarily by creating parishes. We are Baptized into Christ – but also Baptized into His Body, the Church, and the two cannot actually be separated. To become a Christian means to become a member of the Body of Christ – and that cannot be turned into an abstract concept. It is concrete.
I’m fascinated, however, when I’ve read ancient catechism classes in the writings of some like St. Cyril of Jerusalem, to see that their initial instruction is primarily moral in character, lasting for up to several years. The instruction in what we would think of as doctrine was not done until after Baptism.
Scott, from a purely informational perspective, the following links might be considered starting points for discussion with one’s Spiritual Father. They are not catechisms but are informal, and informative of Orthodoxy, generally speaking. I saved them for just that reason.
Paula, I just wanted to mention I agree with you wholeheartedly. Thank you for your helpful eloquent comment.
Father I suppose it does make sense, doesn’t it, to go into doctrine after baptism. This older paradigm suggests that it would take a fair bit of experience to understand, it.
But as you mentioned in your previous article, we usually come to Orthodoxy (if by conversion) through the lens of modernity and other theological understandings. Such a process, it seems, makes it necessary to discuss what becoming ‘Orthodox’ means, in more detailed explanations and by concrete example, as you say.
At least it seems, inquirers and catechumens have lots of questions regarding the differences they’re encountering.
I think that in an information-driven culture of private decision-making, people need lots of info up front. However, something that I think is problematic is that many “complete” a catechumenal program and then slack off after being Chrismated or Baptized. They fail (often) to realize that most of what they learned as a catechumen will disappear in time because it wasn’t truly understood – and it cannot be understood except through years of practice.
Never stop learning. Never stop studying.
Yes indeed! Keep studying and learning. Thank you Father Stephen.
Also, I’ve heard that ‘retention’ of a new member wanes after about 5 years. Perhaps this too is due to the combination of ‘entering the desert’ and the unfortunate thinking that one has learned all that one needs once has been baptized.
Last sentence ‘once one has been baptized’.
“To become a Christian means to become a member of the Body of Christ – and that cannot be turned into an abstract concept. It is concrete.”
Are you saying the only potent witness is living a life in such sharp relief to the World that others want Jesus too, versus a sales pitch telling people why they need Jesus? Is there an Orthoprax Church where I can come and see or are they unmarked?
My Godfather told me before I was Baptized that no matter how much I learned or thought I knew, there was always more in the Church. I nodded my head like I knew what he was talking about.
Too many in this day and age expect instant.
Scott, perhaps not whole parishes. But the lives of the saints. Some are relatively contemporary. And reading their words are a great help. Better still to meet and spend time with one.
I had such an opportunity, for a short time. She spoke only Russian and I knew no Russian. But her kindness was such that my concerns, the issues I might have any given day, such cares melted away in her presence. Such was the love of Christ that shined from her heart.
More than once I thought I might have had a taste of what it might have been like to be near the Theotokos, when she walked this earth.
If we follow the countries and lands where the Orthodox Church is firmly established for hundreds and hundreds of years, the churches are not only not unmarked, they are the center of the cities with glorious shining domes and church buildings, and they are open most of the day for anyone off the street to come inside, light a candle, spend time with God, and commune with His glorious saints through their beautiful icons. In this, I believe God lovingly says, “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” as this book for inquirers encouragingly voices. https://store.ancientfaith.com/welcome
Orthodox parishes are not uncommon. Quite often they’ll seem unremarkable. They’re made up of people and will have all the problems associated with that. Strangely, it seems to be exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Thank you Father Stephen. My experience is limited to my own parish and it almost seemed boastful to say more.
I believe it has been said that one person can save a thousand just by living out their quiet lives in Christ.
Also, I’ve heard that ‘retention’ of a new member wanes after about 5 years.
Dee, I’ve been in the Church for roughly that amount of time and I profess a difficulty with it. One might say “the shine is off” but, for me at least, it is more of a realization that I do not and will not “know it all” (which roughly translates into “know enough”) . The goal is not more, which holds out something theoretically attainable (if never reachable), but…stillness, prayerfulness, love for enemies, union…. All those extremely hard things…and more (so to speak).
The difficulty of the spirituality is such that one can despair and I can see people simply grow tired. But once you know the Truth, there is no turning away from Him. What would be the point? I’m sure there are other struggles but that is the one that hit me the hardest.
the churches are not only not unmarked, they are the center of the cities with glorious shining domes and church buildings, and they are open most of the day for anyone off the street to come inside
Anonymous, this is one of the most wonderful things that we saw on our pilgrimage to Russia. Open churches, with people constantly inside, all the long day! We were both excited and amazed at this. Happily so.
Byron, et al
I think that many have entered the Church with hearts and souls shaped by modernity. As such, they have absurd expectations and utopian dreams. We expect change, improvement, progress, excellence, and discover that the Cross is nothing like that. Modern hearts will have a hard time in Orthodoxy. It is among the many reasons I write so constantly on the topic.
Byron: There are many people who long for the early Church and are not affected my modernism. I have seen personally where men and women searched for vocations and were only turned off because the communities were not keeping the traditions and ancient forms of life such as following the Rule of Life left by the founders who happened to be Saints. (I am speaking of the modernism in RC Church at the moment) So, in lieu of the void they experienced and with a growing modernism, they searched out (feeling called) what God may be asking of them in terms of faith and worship. This applies to both young and old converts – they simply have a calling to the Early Church and God will provide a path for them to be on. Even though (as some believe) there is a waning after 5 yrs or so, this again does not apply to everybody – and where there is a waning, there can also be a sudden grace to draw them in farther. Relationships that develop are important in the new environment of worship as well as connecting with the right Orthodox writings, teachings, and perhaps monasteries and monks. I personally have never felt the urge to get on a plane and fly to Mt Athos, but I know some who have. So maybe that is what God wants them to experience. Modernism may be something they have been trying to shirk off for quite some time. We can only plant the seeds to help them along, and then I believe the rest is between them and God. God bless…..
I was quite blessed. Both of my parents were born early in the 20th century and my father was a genuine pioneer, his family homesteaded in the territory of New Mexico in 1905 when he was 4. Lived initially in a sod house.
I was less influenced by modernity in some ways.
The Orthodox Church only comes alive when there is a encounter with the living- risen Christ. Myriad opportunities an infinite number of ways. The best books are written from the heart of that experience and can be a way of encountering Him who is.
There are layers that have to be gone through. It took me 14 years before I felt reasonably free from the errors and heresy I engaged in prior to being received in by the Church. Times of revolt and dryness, near despair and anger. Bad priests and priests I couldn’t communicate with or did not want to. Shouting matches with a couple of them unfortunately.
Through it all, Jesus is here and will find ways to remind me of that. Gently, quietly but persistently. The Church is not a life-style, not a choice, not a set of beliefs and rituals nor a religion. She is life, abundant Life that is inexhaustible and ever flowing from the giver of life. That life overflows what we see as the “boundaries” and waters all of creation but can only be experienced in greater and greater fullness in Her, the Bride
The one essential key is repentance. When I see something or someone in the Church I do not like that is my cue to repent. If I were consistent and diligent in that practice, I would have more life, joy and fecundity. “…a contrite and humble heart, God will not despise…”
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Yes this is true, Father. There is usually a desire to be transformed from the outside and to see tangible results, like a TV show ‘transformation’, a guaranteed’ 6 week program. And thereafter we hope to live in a fairytale. (Such is how my own comment can be construed about a saint)
This business about taking up the cross is quite foreign. And even that can be misunderstood as some sort of Herculean feat, something to accomplish and to pursue for the self perception it creates and the accolades.
I think about Christ, and the varied reactions he evoked. Some people were incredulous because he seemed so ordinary from such humble circumstances.
We are grateful for your ministry on this subject. Your edifying words help to shed the constraints of modernity.
BTW Byron’s experience is real. I’m at that 5 year mark also. And I persistently ‘blow’ on the embers of a dwindling fire to keep it going in the long night. That’s another reason why I lurk around here a lot.
Thank you Byron. Your honesty and love shines through. I’m always edified by your comments.
Please forgive me as I’ve been writing a lot of comments and plan (God willing) to cool it a bit. But I wish to mention this last thing and hope it will be helpful.
I was a child of a Florida Seminole woman. My mother died when I was 17. She wanted very much that I ‘do well’ in this society and as a result, I believe she kept certain realities of my circumstances to herself. But, as Providence would have it, the realities were evident regardless. My skin got too brown relative to other children in the summer. I talked excessively with my hands. I wore little golden colored safety pins as fringe around my collar. If someone asked me the name of God, I said “Breathmaker”. Bayleaf was burned in the times of hurricanes. My mother told me just to write “Florida” for my mother’s birth place on school forms. She never told anyone her true first name and called herself “Dee”. These are just the most salient things I can say off the top of my head at the moment. But there is far more. A tacit understanding that defies words.
Once upon a time I was an angry teenager, because I knew there was more that was unsaid. And I said to myself that the reason my mother didn’t explain these things to me was because she thought I just wasn’t “Indian” enough. There was indeed a barrier. For one, I had no experience to comprehend what she would try to say. When I was a child, I remember a traditional story she was attempting to tell me about a rabbit. And I thought she was talking about “Bugs Bunny”.
When I grew older I felt sorry for myself and thought that if I had grown up on a reservation, there would be a whole people around me who would be able to convey the culture and the ‘ways’ to me. Then I read a story of a young woman who did grow up on a Florida Seminole reservation. She had decided to leave it. When she was asked why, she said “the elders don’t talk to us”. From her words, I realized for the first time that no matter where I had grown up in this culture, I would likely have been in the “same boat”.
Modernity goes a lot further than most of us realize. Some of us, due to our life experiences and Providence, become more aware of what it has done to us. And of course, some of us, just don’t get it. It can be quite invisible depending on how deeply one drinks from that cup. I’ve drunk from it. And I’m grateful for that day that my mother admonished me that I talk “just like white man”. This was one of the “shames” she laid on me, which as a teenager made me quite angry. “Whose fault was that?” I asked myself.
I learned to look past the “fault” of blame, and to recognize the fault lines within my own heart, to dig at that hard-pan soil that is my heart to root out of it all the stones I can find of modernity in it.
Again I thank you Father for your ministry.
I hope to not speak as one believing a utopian dream shall save, but I just sincerely voice my experience in an Orthodox land I visited. I realize now how impactful this experience was for me. It was very freeing in this experience to come into the Lord’s house at any time of day to simply pray, light a candle before the icons of the Saints, and to just walk around and take in all of the iconography. Many of the icons were life size, and the iconography expansed the entire inside. Christ, the Pantocrator, looked down upon me from the domed ceiling. Chandeliers reflected God’s majestic light. During services, chanters in a foreign language spoke to my heart through the music and not the words because I did not know the language at all. I still had a lot of questions in my mind at the time, but moments of heaven shined through, and so I continued in the path until I became a member of the Church.
Michael Bauman – I enjoyed your comment about shouting matches with priests. I have had similar experiences. In the context of Father’s post, it occurs to me that we may have been engaged in shouting matches with Christ. I strongly suspect that I was, at least.
David, due to their humility I actually got closer to those priests than some others. Being a Cathedral parish we have a Dean and then rotate assistant priests coming from seminary so I interact with more priests in pastoral roles than is common. The good news that in the 25 years I have been in the parish we have had some really good young priests.
“…it occurs to me that we may have been engaged in shouting matches with Christ. I strongly suspect that I was, at least.”
In my little world, there is no need to strongly suspect. I shout. It is not a shouting “match” though. I have found, in my amazement, that He listens.
It is like Michael says about humility – and what Father said once about Christ not being moved by the “storms”. He is humility. He is peace. He is not offended by me…and I can be pretty offensive. He continues to gently guide in a way that I can ‘hear’ through the thick walls.
I have given up on trying to ‘change’ … it is impossible in my efforts. Father says the transformation is slow. Best if I don’t even think about it.
I am sure that when we see Him face to face, no words will be necessary for the peace of the world in unity within our hearts. It will be done by Him only, the Word, the Source of all existence. Then we will stand, transformed.
I can only imagine such things, though.
Thank you, Byron, for the two links. I have been looking for this type of explanation for so long! I frequently come to the realization that I don’t really understand anything. I’m kind of a fool. But I need to be able to explain the basics to my children! Why did God make me? Why did Jesus need to come? Why did he need to die? What did it accomplish? They ask these questions all the time and my rote answers seem so empty and nonsensical. Pray for me. I should know better but I don’t.
As I understand it, with regard to mediation, “God” in that context is the Father. Christ would never say that he is the sole mediator between man and himself, so it can’t be understood that “God” in that context means Christ. A mediator is someone who is a third party to two other parties.
So where in the scriptures does it say that there can be no other mediator between man and Christ? There are instances in the Bible where others–in particular, the Theotokos–mediated to Christ on behalf of man. For instance, when the wine ran out at the wedding.
When Protestants make this mediator argument, it always seems as though they’ve forgotten that the Godhead is a Trinity–three persons.
So Christ is the only mediator between God (the Father) and man. What scriptural restrictions are placed on who may mediate between God (the Son, the Christ) and man? I’ve found none anywhere.
The Protestant misuse of the quote from Hebrews is an example of cherry-picking the Scriptures in order to attack traditional Catholic doctrines. Orthodoxy sometimes treats the question of mediation a bit differently than Catholicism, but would never make the blind mistake of the Protestants. A great weakness, historically, in Protestantism was the blindness created by its rabid hatred of Catholicism (that has abated to a degree – but its been around a long time and is deep-seated – many Protestants are unaware of the original purpose of some of their teachings).
Orthodoxy, fortunately, predates every other form of Christianity. What we believe and understand are not, by and large, reactionary ideas, requiring an enemy. That habit of oppositional thought can be acquired in our culture, but need not be.
I recall traveling with the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas (a saint in the opinion of many). He would engage strangers and share the faith – but his sharing was almost entirely free of comparison. The gospel of Jesus Christ was the sweetest and most beloved truth for him, and it was that sweet joy that he shared with others. Simply amazing.
The more one embodies the faith, the less comparison is needed.
I believe Elder Aimilianos set this higher example for us too, of which I need to continue to learn from. In the book, “The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk’s Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground”, it shares the journal entries of Basil Pennington, a Monk and Abbot in the Catholic Church who simply sought to grow deeper in the Lord, deepening his prayer. He was invited by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos for an extended stay to do this (a bit unusual for Mount Athos). Basil Pennington’s journal entries show his gratitude and edification from the entire experience. He expresses that his prayer deepened. Another time Elder Aimilianos brought four French Catholic Monks into the Orthodox Church and they founded an Orthodox Monastery in France as a dependent of Simonopetra Monastery. This article shows the depths they brought with them from Holy Tradition in France. http://myocn.net/honour-memory-archimandrite-placide-deseille-simonopetritis/
I believe Elder Aimilianos showed us the higher paths of deepening in God as well. He provides a light to my soul to learn from.
Father, in a previous article you wrote the question, “Is Jesus enough?”
Now I ask this question, “Is the Holy Spirit enough?”
We cannot isolate and just say, “Holy Spirit.” “He will freely give us all things.” To be filled with the Holy Spirit is also to be filled with “all things.” He cannot be diminished. We cannot have “a little God.” He’s all or nothing.
Father, your response reminds me of these words: “For He whom God has sent speaks of the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.” (John 3:34)
However, sometimes the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, seems hidden and silent. Certainly this is not a limitation of God, but in such a state the soul yearns in tears for the grace of God. I am urged to remember His Love for this soul, regardless of how pitiful it seems.
St John the Divine…and his words about the Divinity. Wondrous, aren’t they…
Thanks Dee…your words, sister, speak for me as well.
“Noetic” refers to that knowledge that is acquired by the “nous,” an aspect of the soul that is uniquely the place where we encounter God. It is not the place of the passions and emotions, nor is it the place of discursive reasoning. Rather, it is that place in which we “know” by a participatory knowledge that is sometimes described as “perception.”
Is there an equivalent ”knowing” of persons (other men and women) that occurs as our hearts are healed, and the passions quieted? In other words, would the Fathers refer to knowing, or “encountering” other people in a way that did not involve our passions? What would that faculty of knowing be called?
My hesitant suggestion – and I am not from the Orthodox tradition – is that the nous is perhaps the place of all True Encounter, in Christ in God we Know One another in Truth and Love, and that knowing is noetic . . .
I am just thinking out loud, but this seems Good? Forgive any presumption on my part
Enjoyed this very much, Fr Stephen.
Thank you. God bless you.
PS: Fr Stephen,
Please know my question(s) yesterday did not mean I didn’t enjoy the article I commented under. I just wanted to ask someone somewhere those questions, so I asked/commented. It was a well-written & very informative article. I am in a growing process for sure, esp. in Orthodox insights, which are edifying and fascinating in many ways.