Everybody is an Expert

 

The spirit of democracy runs deep in the modern world. I describe this as a “spirit” in that it is clearly a passion, a delusional state of mind in which we imagine something to be true when it is not. One simple example of this delusion is the level of expertise imagined across the culture on pretty much every topic. The vast majority of such expertise is nothing more than opinion, often based in faulty assumptions with little to no experience behind them. The delusion rises to something of a dangerous level when we consider how certain people are of the rightness of their opinions.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite is said to have invented the word “hierarchy.” For him, the word described the “holy order” (the actual meaning of “hierarchy”) of the universe. The universe, he observed, does not only exist – it exists with an order and a structure. That order and structure serve to reveal God and His good will at work in all things. St. Dionysius famously described the structure, or hierarchy of the angels, with a detailed exposition of the nine ranks. Equally, he saw in the Divine Liturgy a structured revelation of our relationship with God, exemplified in the roles of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon, as well as the patterns within the Liturgy itself. His vision of creation could not be less democratic.

Certain aspects of St. Dionysius’ writings have deeply disturbed modern readers. He is sometimes accused of being a “Gnostic,” in that he intimates a knowledge being handed down through ranks of hierarchy until reaching the faithful. It appears to suggest that we can only approach God through these mediating levels. This is, in fact, not true. He nowhere suggests that the knowledge of God is restricted to such mediation. Indeed, true union with God, in a classical Orthodox manner, is the single goal of his writing.

What is true, however, is St. Dionysius’ recognition of the hierarchical structure of reality itself, and his peace with it. Our democratic worldview encourages suspicion of every mediating structure in our lives. We have to hear things “from the horse’s mouth,” even though most of the information that lays claim to such authority is bogus.

Orthodox Christianity is replete with hierarchical structures, the very ones described by St. Dionysius. At the same time, our hearts have been shaped in a decidedly anti-hierarchical culture. Just as the printing press gave universal access to the Scriptures (and to an explosion in new interpretative schemes) so the internet has given universal access to Patristic and theological writings providing cut-and-paste wisdom for the masses. Orthodoxy often widens the scope of authority for its converts, but, by and large, the same modernist spirit of omni-competency remains unattended.

Strangely, this gives rise to a paradox. In order to become wise, we must first become fools. The most valuable knowledge of all is the knowledge of what we don’t know. The Fathers followed a path of apophatic theology (theology that cannot be spoken). It is a path towards knowing the Unknowable. However, we cannot know the Unknowable without first acknowledging that we do not know what we do not know.

A simple place to begin is to recognize the passions that accompany our opinions. We not only imagine ourselves to know things, but we feel deeply and strongly about these imaginations. Often, such “opinionism” is a mask for shame. In a world where everyone is an expert, we experience shame at our own ignorance. We mask our ignorance with authority (such as the Scriptures or the Fathers). Just because you read it doesn’t mean you know it. Failing to understand this inevitably means that we have not yet learned how to read. The greatest benefit to be found in reading is not in finding answers; the benefit is in finding questions.

Christ describes the fundamental attitude of the righteous heart when He says:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8)

Such words fall on deaf ears. We live in a culture that demands rather than asks, that has already “found” it, and that is self-appointed as the keeper of all doors.

There is, of course, a form of “weaponized” ignorance, where “not knowing” is used as a means of denying all answers and refusing to knock at any door. It is often the case that such weaponized ignorance is quickly followed by an assertion of an alternative knowledge. Those who claim that our ignorance of God justifies every attempt to “re-imagine” Him are simply disingenuous.

There is a shame in not-knowing. The willingness to bear that shame is the root of humility. The path of true humility is a means of grace, without which it is impossible to know anything.

God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6

81 comments:

  1. Dear Fr Stephen,
    I hope you’re feeling better. My prayers are with you always.

    I’m grateful to my mother who was the first to teach me how to do science, while her math skills were no higher level than 3rd grade. Indeed what she taught me was how to ask a ‘really good question’–usually of a type belonging to ‘inductive reasoning’, or so I’ve been told.

    Chemistry students also seem to have a hard time understanding that reading (or watching a video) on chemistry doesn’t mean that you know the topic that they need to understand. Unfortunately a test reveals the lack, but shame always places the responsibility somewhere else.

    Someone once told me they have a photographic memory of the entire Bible. I asked whether they were referencing the Orthodox Bible. The conversation didn’t go much further than that.

  2. men with their hollow bricks…how hapless and confused and earnest we are in our opinions.

  3. Dear Fr Stephen,

    This post through the Holy Spirit has convicted me.
    While I often reflect long after I have forwarded my opinion to those in much greater authority, I haven’t been so prompted to discontinue the practice until today. Justification through hindsight had me missing the forest for the trees. The forest is humility. The shame is mine to confess.

  4. “In a world where everyone is an expert, we experience shame at our own ignorance. We mask our ignorance with authority…”
    Father, as an hardened native NY’er like myself may ask — you talkin to me?”
    And had I the opportunity to answer for you, I would say unequivocally “yes!”
    How’s that for avoiding the shame.
    But you speak for me, Father.

    “The path of true humility is a means of grace, without which it is impossible to know anything.”
    Then, I best get it through my mind that I know nothing. Because humble I am not.

    So how is one to handle us ‘know-it-alls’ ? We are legion!
    What does it look like to “bear the shame” of not knowing? Because I don’t know how to do that.

    Btw, that Monty Python picture is shamefully funny, Father.

  5. George,
    One of the tragedies of our culture has been the corruption of authorities. We have lost trust in them. Many times, they have brought this distrust upon themselves. The vacuum created by distrust, however, has been too readily filled by our own self-elevation. All of that makes this a difficult thing. I find it personally quite difficult to remain patient and pray in such situations – even though being impatient and complaining will not solve things any quicker. It is within ourselves that this battle has to be fought. And it’s hard.

  6. Paula,
    I think it’s very hard to do this – partly because our “expertise” is a culture-wide phenomenon. It begins in prayer, I think. If you read the prayers of the saints it’s quite interesting how often they confess their ignorance and weakness. You’d think a saint could do nothing to help themselves.

    If that’s true of a saint…

    So, it’s good to begin to pray like a saint.

  7. Thank you Father.
    I do pray about my ‘lacks’, repetitiously , it seems. I will continue! And will pay more attention to the prayers of the Saints. I am sure that would be quite encouraging.

  8. Paula,
    Everything we attempt that is “counter-cultural” means we are swimming upstream. And it’s difficult. Even a little resistance, now and again, can be beneficial. Grace, which is greater than all things, is moving in that direction.

  9. Father I carry this quote, along with quotes from St. Saphrony, the books Personal Knowledge, and Still Life With Woodpecker in the Bible you gave me. It comes from the Kenya Upanishads. “He who thinks he knows it not, knows it. He who thinks he knows it, knows it not. The true knowers think they can never know it (because of it’s infinitude), while the ignorant think they know it.”

  10. Love the picture (and Monty Python!). It reminded me that another antidote to know-it-all-ism has to be that truly great gift of Our Lord of being able to laugh (good naturedly) at oneself, and one’s pretentions. And used well it can also be one of the ways of defusing shame?

    Speaking of Monty Python (and now humor) I can’t help but think that the Anarcho-Syndicalist in Holy Grail pretty much summarises, with puncturing acidity, the democratisation problem on one side – and the potential pomposity problem that can arise when hierarchy. Both ideas have merits, and can be – and have been – hijacked. Culprit is, as you say, the passions and the damaged ego which will use anything at hand.

    Where is the holy hand grenade of Antioch when you need it? Its counting shall be three! 🙂

  11. I should mention that I’ve drunk ‘the coolaid’ too.

    It may seem rather endemic to the theme to bring up research. It’s important to be careful with making broad pronouncements on ‘internet reading’ in social science research (and blogs), and on that note, this may be taken with a grain of salt. I first learned of the “Dunning-Kruger effect” on this blog, a study about how novices have a higher opinion about their skill than the more experienced. Apparently there are indications that this effect is culture-based. The initial research was based in the U.S.A. A study in Japan revealed that Japanese novices, as an example, have a different self-awareness tending toward greater humility.

    It seems in this culture there is a lack of appreciation for the beauty and value of such deep humility we see in our saints. It’s not just out of habit that we miss the opportunity to be humble. But out of some kind of shame, to hide ‘our truth’ of our ignorance, as Father has mentioned in this article.

    On beauty of the humble: What comes to mind is a verse from Christ, about the lilies being more finely dressed than a great king: “…and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mat 6:29)

  12. Again, thanks Father.
    It is encouraging to hear that a little resistance is beneficial. I imagine that without the resistance we would quickly loose sight of the battle. It is also very encouraging to know that Grace moves with us against these tides.

  13. Fr. Stephen,

    I’m an agnostic/atheist who has recently found your blog. I’ve been interested in Orthodoxy for some time, but whenever I get the sense that I’m closing in on a “breakthrough”, I end up taking several steps back and am left conflicted and confused as a result. You write that, “The greatest benefit to be found in reading is not in finding answers; the benefit is in finding questions.” I suppose this is true for believers, but as someone that is on the outside looking in, questions tend to pile up faster than answers when reading/thinking about God and Orthodoxy.

    As an example, I recently read David Bentley Hart’s most recent book on “universalism” and was greatly struck by it. In my opinion (forgive me…), and so far as I can tell, the book’s message has very much nudged me closer to resonating with the God that may in fact be ensnaring my soft-atheist’s heart at the present moment in my life. Yet, at the same time, many – online, at least – have been quick to deride/refute/defame both Hart and the ideas within his book as false, dangerous, or heretical. This has, as I say above, left me conflicted and confused. Am I grower closer to God, or further apart? Is my discernment so poor that I can’t tell the difference? There are many other examples that I could name, wherein I get excited about an idea and the prospect of it helping me to find what I most desire, only for it to be labeled heretical or wrong or whatever else, thus dumping more questions in my lap than answers. How else can I begin to answer these questions, or at least address them, if at the same time “we mask our ignorance with authority (such as the Scriptures or the Fathers)”?

    This merry-go-round has become deeply disconcerting to me as I have become increasingly unsure about whether I am being rightly tried to persevere, or rightly pushed away from Christianity completely. Whenever I have come close to finding the courage to walk with Christ on the water, someone – often far more educated and outwardly religious than I – pulls me back into the boat. I’m trying to bear a little shame. I know that I know very little, and can always know more, but I’m desperately interested in this party that Christianity has on offer, but I can’t seem to get past the seemingly endless security checkpoints needed to be welcomed into the faith without feeling like I’m potentially a heretic at heart or that I am believing something utterly detached from God.

    Anyway, if you read this, I thank you. Please pray for me.

  14. Ian,
    I understand what can feel like being hammered from two directions. My own statement that “the greatest benefit to be found in reading is not in finding answers – but in finding questions” is not meant to dismiss answers. For example, in finding God, the search can often be derailed or disrupted by “wrong answers,” such as wondering whether “God” actually exists – but the “God” we have in mind is not actually the true God.

    I often say to atheists that the God they do not believe in might be one whom I don’t believe in as well. The God depicted as our enemy is just such a God.

    For myself, I’m willing and reconciled to the fact that I do not know the answer to some things. DB Hart’s book poses one of those questions. I believe that God is as good and loving as Hart says. Thus, as the Scriptures say, there’s no doubt that He is “not willing that any should perish.” The fact that some seem opposed to being saved and would rather perish (in some sense of the word) is the question for me. Will God work in some way such that all will be saved? Or is there something so sovereign about our rebellion that not even God can save all?

    I can’t answer that last question because I simply do not think we’ve been given such information – not in a way that I find sufficient. So, I live with some uncertainty. I’m certain about the goodness of God – that much is made clear in the death and resurrection of Christ. Precisely how that plays out for the universe is simply what I do not know – and I do not profess to know.

    However, I unabashedly hope for the salvation of all (including myself). I let the matter rest in God’s hands.

    That’s as honest as I can be in the matter.

    What I counsel people to do is to walk and trust with the little that they do know. You won’t know everything or have all the answers. It’s probably not healthy that we should know everything and have all the answers – much less to think that we do.

    But, what do we know? For me, that journey began with the death and resurrection of Christ. That is the central historical moment in the Christian faith. It became THE question for me. And, I came to believe that it was something that actually happened. Slowly, other things followed. All of that was not just an exercise in logic. It was an exercise in taking a step at a time. To the measure that I believed, I tried to act.

    That eventually led me into the Orthodox faith. I believe this to be the Church that Christ Himself founded (with all of its problems and difficult history). Like a marriage – I entered “for better or for worse.” I’ve been Orthodox for 22 years – it has been for the better (with bumps).

    Find answers slowly. Pray. Ask God for help. None of us can answer these things for ourselves. Explore. Be patient. Be honest. God is with us and for us. He is not our enemy.

  15. Dear Ian

    Thank you for your raising your issues. You are far from alone. I can’t help sometimes thinking that one of the biggest obstacles to people finding Christ can be overly “enthusiastic” Christians.

    That’s been there from the beginning of course. When Jesus asked his double banger question to his inner circle “who do other people say that I am?” followed by the real one (and its a zinger) “and you, who do you say that I am?” Peter answers by saying that Christ is the Messiah. For that he is commended as being right, and is named as the rock on which the Church will be founded. The very next thing he (enthusiastically, and with great conviction) does, though, shows that really he did not know what his own answer meant. He had a long way to go, and much suffering, before he started to really catch on. I take this as being a wonderful icon of how Christians, well-meaning and otherwise, and clergy, can often say things that are true, but really don’t know what they are talking about. And of course I am frequently one of those (or at least the last part). Don’t let gatekeeper types keep you from exploring – they are only ever going to help you with the first of Jesus’ two questions (they are “other people”). What Jesus is really interested in who do YOU say that I am. And whatever answers you come up with (and they will evolve) will inevitably be provisional until we see the Truth face to face.

    This business of questions is, to my mind, the best way of coming at Christianity. It is very telling that the first thing that Jesus says to anyone in John’s Gospel is truly redemptive special of a question. As usual context (John 1:35-39) is important. Two would-be disciples are standing around on a new morning with John the Baptist. (They have realised they want or need to change, and have started hanging around with wise people. Sound familiar?). Jesus then walks by. He does not come and accost anyone, he just walks by. That is what Real Truth is like. It has often been around for a while, we just don’t notice. So it takes John the Baptist to point them in the right direction “Look there is the Lamb of God”. They would have no idea what that means at this stage of the journey, but it does not matter. They “hear him say this” (yep, you’ve got to be listening) and they start to follow. At which point Jesus turns around and asks them ”what are you looking for?”. Ah. The question. Still my favorite. And useful for anyone whatever their belief system or non-belief system. One of Christ’s gifts to humanity. “what are you looking for?” (I noticed, by the way, that you said “I get excited about an idea and the prospect of it helping me to find what I most desire”. Here is Christ asking you about that.

    Rather than read lots of other people’s stuff, maybe just sit with that scene, and that question and let it go into your heart. More by way of illustration than anything, here are some pointers (from my personal experience for what that’s worth) as to where it might lead you. At the surface level, one is tempted to a quick answer, maybe based on what it is I currently think I desire. Then, it becomes a question about what I am looking for from a spiritual search (where you are now, maybe?). Then it becomes a question about what I am looking for in Life. Oh and then it becomes a question about me. Who or what is this “I” that thinks it is searching, and how is what I am really looking for different from my restless seeking desires? And as I realise that I do not have a satisfactory answer to any of those, I start to think that maybe the one who asked the question might. As indeed I have discovered as I have started to explore with him the prospect of a Kingdom that is larger than life itself, and all the darker places within my soul. This is a question that leads us, ever so gently (including at whatever level we want to respond) towards change and growth and repentance, which is perhaps more than anything a right orientation.

    So can I totally endorse Father Stephen’s recommendation to become more interested in questions than answers, but in the heart at least as much as the head. The difference between Socrates’ style of questioning (which is actually good as far as it goes) and Jesus’ is that Jesus’ questions, if you let them, go really deep. Stick with those and you can’t go wrong.

    By the way, the two disciples who were asked the question very cleverly did not even attempt an answer. Instead, they first named Jesus as their teacher (their first word to him in John’s gospel is “Rabbi” – very pointed and helpful) and they then ask him a counter question which is “where are you staying?” . There’s kind of an implicit answer in that what a real searcher probably wants to find is the dwelling place of the ultimate truth of things. But Jesus does not answer them directly either and simply says “come and see”. Maybe what he has to offer is not something that is capable of an easy answer, but needs to be experienced and lived. And so they go and stay with him for the rest of that day. And that his how their discipleship starts. With pondering deep questions, and dwelling. Much as like DBH, I can’t help but think that that modality is not what is called for, especially at the start. Actually, the whole way. That first question stays with us the entire journey. I doubt very much that Peter had in mind his own upside-down Crucifixion in Rome when he first signed up, but hey, “follow me” and it is interesting where we end up.

    May the road rise up to meet you as you journey forth!

    May the road rise up to meet you as you journey forth!

  16. Ian, Ziton,
    I had a few more brief thoughts within our conversation. It seems to me that it is often the case that those who arrive within a religious setting (such as being Baptized, etc.), often stop the search as though they had arrived at an end point – when, in fact, they have arrived at a beginning.

    There are, no doubt, different questions to be asked, but often, we quit asking. I have written at least once about what I called the “border collies of Orthodoxy.” They’re not just in Orthodoxy, but elsewhere as well. There are, to my mind, issues of shame that produce a fascination with boundaries, gates, and such. You don’t have to go very far into the land in order to stand guard at the gate.

    I once warned a young man against reading “The Rudder” – a book which contains the collection of canon laws for the Church. I told him that he would generally only find the devil in such a book. He argued with me and ignored me, within months he was writing me, accusing me of any number of heresies, and within the year was utterly alienated from Orthodoxy itself. I pray he finds his way back home.

    Generally, nothing good can be found at the borders – all the truly sweet treasures are deep within. The only fear we might have at such a place is that others might not get to share in it as well. And all are welcome.

    There are, indeed, gates and boundaries within Orthodoxy – all good things have boundaries – without them, we wouldn’t know where we were. Even God gives us boundaries. They are healthy.

    But the boundaries are not a test, nor are they really meant as a wall of protection (except for those who would want to live with no boundaries at all). The boundaries exist for our guidance. As Ziton noted, do forgive those who may guard them overzealously.

    If you make mistakes in your questions – the mistakes will become clear enough with time. God give you grace (and to us all as well).

  17. Ian, pretty much any place you start to approach God is a good place but it will not be the place you finish. There is always more. Always. I have been Orthodox for 34 years. I have not stopped asking questions. I learned to question early from my parents. It makes a difference in how you question. If you really want to know, any question is OK.
    8
    When I first started reading Fr. Stephen’s blog here, I did not much like it. In fact I vowed several times not to come back. I stayed because questions I had were answered AND I saw a commonality of understanding as I listened to the answers.

    DB Hart is not a bad place to start in one’s appreciation of God. I doubt very much that you will stay there. Heresy only matters in one’s own heart.

    God approaches you and speaks so you can hear Him. If it is the voice of God He will always lead you into greater truth

  18. Fr Stephen, again a very thought provoking article, thank you.

    When reading the comments, I was reminded of a quote I read the other day it is about entering doors, or, in this case, “entering” but like with some doors, going round and coming out at the same place again.

    “Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself out on the street again.” (David Mitchell, in Clouds Atlas)

    I think it is very easy to overthink everything, I do it often enough, thinking about the question but not actually asking Our Lord Himself.
    In my teens I lost my faith in God, over forty years later I started to feel drawn back, and I was sad that I did not believe anymore. So, I said out loud, ‘Jesus, I used to love You, but I am sorry to say I don’t anymore.’
    I was being very honest, and He must have liked that, because, gradually a little by little, He was guiding me to the way I should walk, He still is, it will take a lifetime to walk it.
    As of now, I have not entered the Orthodox Church, but I am very attracted to it. Gradually, learning about Tradition and loving it, I like order, it feels safe to know that someone Higher is in control, because if it was down to me…God help us!
    It is quite exciting, not knowing, but trusting that what ever happens God is in charge. Thank you Fr Stephen for “The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina”, it has been a blessing for me.

    So we have to ask from the heart, and then, knock at the door.

  19. Thank you all for the replies.

    I was raised Protestant, but fell out of faith in my early teens. I think I just woke up one day and there was nothing. I studied Christianity and mysticism in college, however, which reignited my longing for something greater than myself. I suppose that I’m trying to “return home” as it were, though I see no place in Protestantism. The dynamic is that I became an unbeliever without much hubbub, yet finding belief again often feels like an endeavor in mountain moving and canyon carving. I am content in this, for the hardest, most difficult moments in my life have ended up being what I most needed. I’m just not sure which is more challenging: doubting when one believes, or doubting when one does not believe, but wants too.

    Perhaps I’m waiting for Christ to bang loudly on my door, but instead, I must seek him outside and deep in the woods at night?

    On reading and questions, I was amused to have found this in St. Jerome’s letter this morning on “the country life”, where he writes, “if we spend more than an hour in reading, you will find us yawning and trying to restrain our boredom by rubbing our eyes.” At least I am never bored in seeking God!

  20. Ian…thank you for your comments!
    It is a delight to hear you do not get bored seeking God! There’s something to that desire that keeps you going.

    I’d like to say something about wanting to hear Jesus’ loud bang at the door. I also wish that it would be that way. I’d like to be assured by such obvious evidence that He is leading me every step of the way. But then that wouldn’t help much with my faith and trust that whether I know it or not, He most assuredly is with me in every step.
    I think of Elijah’s words about His ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:9-18). It was after that when Elijah heard what he need to hear. It is a beautiful story.

    Isaiah prophesied about our Lord in a similar way, in the beginning verses of Isaiah 42. Here – the first 4:
    ““Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,
    My Elect One in whom My soul delights!
    I have put My Spirit upon Him;
    He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.
    He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,
    Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.
    A bruised reed He will not break,
    And smoking flax He will not quench;

    He will bring forth justice for truth.
    He will not fail nor be discouraged,
    Till He has established justice in the earth;
    And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”

    Chapter 42 of Isaiah begins what is called ‘The Servant Songs’…ending with chapter 53…one of the most profoundly beautiful prophesies of Our Lord Jesus.

    Those lines about a bruised reed and smoking flax…is that not us?! But it seems that Christ God does His work in us secretly, doesn’t it. I have found many times that it is only in hindsight where I clearly see His hand upon me. It is not clear at all ‘in the moment’…and the questions, prayers, pleadings…all are heard by Him. He gives us what we need to know, always bringing us through, and leading us further. It is very hard for me to describe this…it is hard to describe the workings of God…but that’s what He does.

    All I can say, Ian, is God is so with you as you are seeking! Your heart seems to be toward Him, Ian, because even with the tension of all the unanswered ‘questions’, you find joy in seeking Him.
    Gives me joy, too!

  21. Fr. Stephen,
    Good piece. As to the hierarchy issue I have often contended that the real purpose for hierarchy, especially in God’s economy, is order. The ongoing debate in evangelicalism over the egalitarian/complementarian issue in my opinion fails to take into account order and how important it is to God. He is indeed not a God of confusion. If we can begin to see hierarchy, at least in the church and home, as serving the goal of “holy order” rather than establishing an oppressive pecking order of sorts then maybe some light can shine in and the debate calm down. Peace.

  22. Charlie,
    I was an invited speaker last year at an Evangelical conference on marriage. I heard some of the conversation invoking egalitarian/complementarian language and it took a while to get what they were talking about. The fact of the matter is, I think, that there is a discussion about finding the right language for accomodating the culture at large versus some other vision. What was clear was that there wasn’t a clue about true hierarchy or divine order. It had been so many years since I had been in such a context it was like being in a completely foreign land. Much that I had to say fell on deaf ears (not surprisingly). For one, I do not think it is possible to discussion male and female without a proper veneration of the Mother of God. Without her, Eve cannot be understood, just as, without Christ, Adam cannot be understood. They are simply working with a near empty tool box.

    What seemed clear to me is that the insanity of our culture has been brought about by the failure of modern Christianity. For, whether we want to recognize it or not, modernity is an entirely Christian creation, heretical though it be. Western civilization lost its way.

  23. Father, that would make for an excellent blog-post. Not on the failure of modern Christianity (as a focus) but on hierarchy and its place in the Church and life. (I now you have addressed this somewhat in your posts on Democracy; they are among my favorites here).

  24. Dear Ian

    Thank you again for those honest thoughts. I can relate to all of them, Been there, but you have expressed things well. I particularly liked this line “I’m just not sure which is more challenging: doubting when one believes, or doubting when one does not believe, but wants too.” I shall file that one away for future use.

    The key word there is perhaps “belief”. One of the issues with Western Christianity is that it is very strong on ideas that one is expected to give one’s intellectual assent to, which more often than not turn into ideologies. More grounded traditions – as they are lived anyway – instead think in terms of faith, which is much more of an art. This is more about developing and nurturing a sense of trust which, while far from empty headed (Orthodox thinking can be painfully erudite at times), is grounded in the idea of developing a grounded relationship. Inevitably one’s level of confidence will wax and wane along the way – and indeed your falling away from “belief” was perhaps a necessary part of your journey because those beliefs were not nurturing. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness for a good reason.

    But from what you have said, I rather think that Christ is indeed knocking at your door, and you are fumbling for a key to let him in. As you were describing your indoor/outdoor door situation I immediately thought of this famous 19th century Anglican image of Christ the Light of the World by William Holden-Hunt which you may wish to print out and keep with you for a while :
    https://betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/William-Holman-Hunt-The-Light-of-the-World.jpg

    In addition to sitting with the questions, might I also suggest just gently developing a practice that let’s you quieten down and let God do his thing. Maybe a short 5 minute a day (to start with) meditation practice (if you can’t bring yourself to calling it prayer 🙂 )in which you sit quietly and internally just simply say (internally) a prayer or word that means something to you about where you are. It’s through a prayer practice rather than more thoughts through which God so often seems to work, at least for me. I’m thinking a good word given your situation might be Ma-ra-na-tha which is easy to repeat and is an Aramaic word meaning “Come Lord”, It is Scripturally sound and less likely than other prayers to get you thinking about other things. You are likely first to be amazed at your own mind’s inability to easily settle (which is a very useful thing to know from experience), and then later you may find with God’s grace other things starting to change and deepen. If you can gently build up to longer periods then do so, but take it easy. If you try to run a marathon at a sprint you’ll probably just burn out. Faith is all in the attitude, as I once remember someone usefully saying.

    One last suggestion. I remember hearing the story of a highly intelligent atheist who eventually became Catholic saying that her journey started just with a practice of giving thanks all the time for stuff. When anything good happened, like a car spot suddenly becoming available, all she did was say “thanks” even though she did not really think that anyone was there at the time. It was from there that she slowly grew.

    Those are suggestions, but Michael Bauman is right, I think. You can probably start anywhere, but just remember that it is a (potential?) relationship you are working with and it is an art. Ideas are important (reading Fr Stephen’s articles are nurturing), but so is praxis. It seems you have, you have the bug, so I rather suspect God is unlikely to leave you alone. His sheep really do hear His voice. It’s hard to wander off for long without feeling as though something’s just missing.

    May our good Lord walk beside with you.

  25. I would also like to see more written on the spirit of democracy, but in balance with a healthy understanding of hierarchy. Democratized theology is toxic, but so is a despotized theology. Even worse is when the two work in concert, with the one using its power to promote the other. A month ago the icon of Holy Spirit descending on the Theotokos was sawed off our Royal Doors. This month, we had our first woman-led homily with Liturgy. (I have escalated this and *much* worse “up the chain” and the response has been very…Byzantine, in many senses of that word, and mostly silent.) I left evangelicalism in my teens and never looked back so I don’t know what is in the “air” there with the egalitarianism/complementarianism stuff that has been mentioned; maybe I will have to look that up—perhaps it is relevant to the current situation.

    In any case, I haven’t heard very much that is useful and comprehensive when it comes to authority in the Church, except some from my own studies (canons, fathers, sociological analysis, etc) and lots of prayer. I hear “the St Ignatius quote” brought out like a Protestant prooftext—that isn’t a healthy response as-is, out of context, and in our very confused culture. I also wonder how education fits into it. I think part of why “everyone is an expert” is that there is so much broad education required of people in college that is more about formation than career-specific training (I’m there right now). On one hand, I think that is not well-appreciated in a gut-sense way and much could be done to harness all that knowledge and provide more in-depth theological instruction at the local level—it feels like that is being hindered both in the name of democratization (it would leave some behind) and hierarchy (it might reduce the power or mysticism of some people). On the other, maybe we have already gone too far in that direction; recently there was a comment about no theological PhDs in Russia and large part of me wants it to stay that way: I don’t want to see theology democratized into an academic discipline and divorced from the life of the Church nor do I think the trend towards all but requiring an advanced degree for access to the ranks of clergy is healthy or sustainable. I feel these things are *very* intertwined and I’d appreciate an article, if not a short series, on them—how do we live and get along as many yet one in The Body, particularly when the “charismatic” and “official” gifts/ministries are out of alignment and especially when things are not well?

  26. As I read your excellent post, Father, and Ian’s comments, my heart was drawn to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. There is so much in that encounter about:

    -seeking and finding
    -hierarchy (contrasted with societal/cultural norms and taboos)
    -the distinction between knowledge and Truth

    It dawned on me that while in the previous chapter Nicodemus (a religious leader) went out secretly to meet Jesus in the middle of the night and went away still doubting, the Samaritan woman (a religious outsider in every sense) met Jesus in the middle of the day (at a time when it was unseemly for a woman to draw water) and went away believing.

    Indeed, her good news spread throughout the town, and others came to believe because of her word, so that the people asked Jesus to stay, and many more came to believe.

    The last sentence is: “We no longer believe because of your [the woman’s] word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

    In this Age of Information, people constantly seek and ask questions on their digital devices, searching, searching. Every question leads to a multiplicity of answers, many of them conflicting. How can we know what is right? Or if anything even matters?

    I think the truth lies in the fact that we are always seeking, every single one of us. If what we lack doesn’t matter, then why bother searching for it? We search, because we believe we will find, and we believe what we find will fulfill our longing. Just like the living water Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at the well.

    How can I be sure that the answer I seek is the one I will find? Because if I am seeking God with a pure heart, He will not give me a snake. (Matthew 7:10).

    I grew up Protestant, experienced a thirst for the real presence of Christ, and was led by the saints to the Catholic Church. Although I am not Orthodox myself, I would be if I hadn’t been specifically led to Catholicism.

    Ian, if you are drawn to God through the Orthodox Church you can trust it is the right direction. You may meet people in the Church with whom you disagree; after all people are not perfect! But you are not following them, you are following Christ. Do not worry too much about heresy and do not spend too much time on the computer. Spend time in prayer and thanksgiving. That is the Way to God—always and everywhere giving thanks through Christ with Christ and in Christ (the word Eucharist–means thanksgiving). Lift up your heart to Him! Think well of everyone, and always be ready to help others. Do this, and go to Divine Liturgy as often as you can, to see and hear and prostrate your heart in the sacred space where heaven and earth are united. The Lord will light your way.

  27. Fr Stephen – is there a recording or transcript of the speech you gave at the marriage conference?

  28. Type in to Youtube
    MedCram Coronavirus Epidemic. 34 updates so far.
    Dr Seheult is an expert. He works with patients with lung problems. Here are his lectures. Usually latest news and also explanations on a ‘blackboard’

    In New Zealand we now have to stay at home if we apparently have a slight cold, sniffles and so on.

  29. My father was an innovative local public health office 50 years ago. He reposed 20 years ago but the functional part of effectively managing health situations has not changed a great deal. They are first and foremost community situations not disease problems.

    Education of local communities is crucial
    That edication has to be delivered from within the community as much as possible. Proper behavior management has to be implemented. Example:y dad’s professional hero was William G Ctumbine. The way he attacked the communicable disease problem of his day, tuberculosis, was innovative. TB was spread in ways similar to respiratory viruses–sputum was a main factor. He created a campaign to attack that: “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk” It included many ways of bring attention to common behaviors of the time that led to the spread of TB.

    It included washing of hands, quarantine if needed etc
    This was before their were effective treatments for TB. Prevention was key. Similar steps are being recommended now. They are getting covered up by the publicity and hype generated by people who know everything.

  30. Joseph,
    I’ll see what I can do in writing more about this. Of course, it’s ever so much easier to describe a problem than to describe its solution. Indeed, I do not know how to “solve” the problem. I do, however, have some sense of what it looks like when it is well and healthy. A difficult thing about all of this is that the hierarchy that is of God is quite “natural” – we “receive” it and acknowledge it. It does not have to be imposed (that quickly becomes demonic and oppressive). And so, the “solution” begins in the soul of each of us when we slowly begin to embrace the hierarchies of our lives and world (the natural/supernatural ones).

    We are, in fact, living in very disordered times and things are likely to get much, much worse, if they ever get better at all. That is nothing new. But there is a shining world of beauty within the soul to be nurtured in spite of everything around us. St. Seraphim’s words about acquiring the Spirit of peace apply here. We will not be given a road map, much less much of a hint about how things get better (if they do), though many will make promises and many will believe the false promises.

    Love God, be gentle and kind, and be prepared to forgive everyone for everything (as much as possible).

    On speculating about what might be good or bad (viz. Russian PhD’s and such like): ignorance is just as dangerous as knowledge – which does not make me feel safe about knowledge either. But it is goodness that is in truly short supply. If there is goodness, the rest will have a way of being ok.

  31. Michael…good points.
    Another thing…the community of our dad’s day has been replaced by a global community. There is a low level of cohesion nowadays. The information givers are the faces we see on our devices. All saying the same thing.
    Why I’m amazed, I don’t know…we’ve seen this kind of presentation before. That is what the media does. And the gov’t in lock step.
    I do not attend to news media coverage, have no TV, or even ‘streaming’ in the house. My coverage is word of mouth. There are more who feel constrained and constricted than those who wash their hands at every turn. In other words more are ‘fed up’.
    I’m with Father…it’ll pass. And after a short time, gone and forgotten.

  32. Ian, As I read through your quandaries above I was reminded of two stories I have read in the past.

    1. A young seminarian (RC) was confiding to an elderly priest that he did not believe everything in the Creed. The elderly priest responded, ” Read it until you do. ”

    2. Years ago in the magazine Christianity Today, I read a testimony of conversion by Rosaria Butterfield. It is still on line. I just reread it. The turning point for her was John 7:17, loosely translated, obedience comes before understanding. There are also several articles on the internet on this theme

    Blessings on your journey

  33. But it is goodness that is in truly short supply. If there is goodness, the rest will have a way of being ok.

    This. Always good to remember and live in troubled times. Thank you, Father.

  34. Ian,
    I’m rather late to pitch in to the responses given to your question addressed to Father Stephen. I too came through the door from which you seem to be peering in at the threshold. Ironically I didn’t really wish to become a ‘religious Christian’. And as I began to attend services and began to pray at home, my husband said that I ‘got religion’ and at that time I had insisted that I had not. It was rather funny in hindsight. I guess you could say I was in some sort of denial of what was happening. To some extent I suppose I was a little afraid of what was happening.

    Anyway for what it’s worth from the perspective of a person who began this walk to Christ, in almost total denial, you are very right to ask questions. And to hope for some resolution to your questions. Orthodoxy is surprisingly non-monolithic or perhaps it’s better to say non-juridical. The result is a Way of Life rather than a belief system that defies an easy process of inquiry, if the form of that inquiry is scholastically structured. Orthodoxy has been far more ‘organic,’ more like a living organism rather than an institution, in its development and longevity. Because of what it is as the Body of Christ, entering the Orthodox Church involves as much as a bodily, ‘lived-in’ approach to help inform our understanding as much as we process our experience intellectually and through our hearts.

    It’s a slow process by comparison to other forms of ‘transitions’. It’s a good analogy to compare it to marriage. We may have books we can read that describe marriage. But living in a marriage is a whole different enchilada.

    Father’s suggestions are very sound, his ministry is supported by various priests across jurisdictions and hierarchy. This is a safe place to ask your questions. I’m glad you are here and asking questions here.

  35. Re: Orthodox hierarchy
    This is a giant stumbling block for me.
    It’s really hard to think about bowing to kiss a priest’s hand. Like if I did a giant chasm in the earth would open up and the dragon therein would open up and swallow my egalitarian self whole, burp me out and say ah.
    Which is why at the end of St Andrew’s canon/compline and the line formed up to go and get blessed, I fled the church quicker than a homeschool 7th grader hearing mom call down the stairs to see if those 42 algebra problems were done yet.
    And I’m not writing this to say I hate others for submitting to a hierarchy; I’m just using a bit of hyperbole to describe the extreme emotions I feel when encountering this particular custom. I recognize by saying it, it necessarily reflects on others who practice it; please extend me a bit of grace to ask what seems like an impertinence to y’all because in my heart I do not intend to deliberately offend.
    I bring up this custom because this seems to me like an entry point custom but it represents the bigger picture of hierarchy in Orthodoxy.

  36. I have been continuing to ponder this business of hierarchy and democracy etc.

    Isn’t this one of those major fault lines in fallen humanity? Both ideas have a political dimension. Democracy obviously so, but even divine hierarchy as it is lived out in human terms inevitably turns political doesn’t it, without a great deal of care on the side of those “higher up”. Isn’t one of the reasons modernism has taken the form it has in the west because notions of hierarchy got fused with the power structure, particularly in a feudal society. So we ended up with the divine right of kings, and Lord Bishops sitting in Parliaments, and indeed the nobility appointing abbotts to monasteries with their associated incomes and livings and so on. The reasoning at the time often depended on ideas that there was a right ordering of society which flowed from and was given sanction by a divine ordering of things. At its best aristocratic in the best sense of that word, at worst oligarchic in the worst Greek sense. But in both cases all very convenient for those born into power and status. And subject to great abuse. So when it all went up in smoke we got liberté, égalité, fraternité as the catchcry (helpfully amplified by the 18th century Enlightenment), and a kind of rabid anti-clericalism which *justifiably* in many cases in the late eighteenth century saw the way the (western) church and its notions of hierarchy as part of the problem. Modern democratic tendencies have just proliferated from those strands, but an instinctive reaction against corrupted religious notions of hierarchy are there as part of its DNA. So while it, and its spawn, may indeed be delusional (especially all the “my opinion and narrative is just as valid as your opinion and narrative” stuff) badly done Christianity was part of the problem. That said, this is an age old problem too as the conflicts between Athens and Sparta and its allies in the 5th and 4th centuries BC following the first appearance of democracy showed. (Rule by the “right people” frequently just ended up being nasty oligarchies, and democracies – which usually started well – had a tendency to degenerate into takeovers by demagogues).

    And this is a problem that risks coming up again and again as long as it is humans who are put in positions of power without proper structures around them – surely authority exercised by humans does need some accountability, otherwise the risks of corruption are just going to become too bad? I can’t help thinking that part of the particularly bad version of the problem with sexual abuse that our Catholic brethren ran into came from taking themselves and the dignity of their godly hierarchy – which was blurred with the protection of the dignity of the church – too seriously, and that some straightforward lay accountability would have helped.

    I sympathized with Joseph’s post on the issues he has faced. Byzantine did indeed acquire some of those layers of meanings from the Byzantine Empire!

    So whatever the divine order of things is (the ranks of angels is above my pay grade), and I accept all the spiritualized issues that Father is suggesting, but I agree that it would be useful to have a sense of how authority works when exercised by humans, who in turn are playing a “bigger” role drawing on, or claiming to draw on, divine authority. I like the chapter on the Abbot in the Rule of St Benedict which goes to some lengths both to spell out the authority that the Abbot has, but also to set out his responsibilities, and accountabilities to use the (useful) modern term. With a good Abbot, wonderful (including the fact that monasteries could have a degree of independence). But then there was little to stop abuses of authority by Abbots who did not take their obligations as seriously (sometimes shamelessly!), including by those who owed their appointments to local lords or kings and who were willing then to use their authority as a form of power for other ends but who would have been more than happy to talk about the divine order as their justification in dismissing complaints.

    Oh it’s all very hard. Politics! Fallen Humans! Aaargh!!!

  37. Further to my last post, one further thought (sorry). This dispute over authority and implicitly hierarchy is pretty much there in the gospels and certainly the Book of Acts. The Jewish authorities (particularly the Pharisees) throughout seem particularly interested to know what Jesus has to say about his own authority – isn’t it that they almost seem to want to know where in the hierarchy he sees himself sitting? Even more clearly that seems to be among the chief complaints they have against the apostles after Pentecost (now that the church is an up and going concern), that they are preaching all this stuff without any ‘proper’ sense of order or decorum or whatever. Indeed, in that whole first few days God seems to have just very messily moved in and turned the tables on lots of old established patterns. I have in mind particularly Acts 5 about doing what God wants, not what the religious authorities think should happen, including, and maybe in particular, the whole interesting Gamaliel intervention – and what that has to do with hierarchial reasoning..

  38. Ian, I am a fellow that has experienced similar struggles that you describe. I am not part of the church right now, but I’ve been reading and meditating on Orthodox Christianity for several years now. I hope over time I will get to experience the sacraments and liturgical life, but for now I am learning in the margins the best I can. It’s quite painful at times, sometimes maddening, and at times I’m ready to jump back in to modernity’s party.

    But there are things I believe in my bones to be true. For myself, I gained these beliefs while reading what I believe to be some of the best authors out there. Through solid authors and great ideas, you have something to stand on during your journey. I’m speaking about texts outside of the Gospels. For me it’s been C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Wendell Berry, and Dostoevsky. Lewis’ Abolition of Man and Till We Have Faces changed my life. G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy are masterpieces. Wendell Berry’s writing on community is a breath of sweet air. And finally, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky might be the greatest novel ever written. As I’ve learned more about Orthodoxy, I’ve come to believe that these authors and their works are important because they speak to the Nous. I believe this quivering of the Nous, so to speak, has helped give me the scaffolding necessary for the spiritual work at hand.

  39. I’ve been contemplating hierarchy a little bit, and my thoughts have been leading me back to the Holy Trinity…circular love, perfect, and complete…and of course beyond all my comprehension as well. It strikes me as fitting in the highest honor, that in ossuaries on Mount Athos, the skulls of Hieromonks (monks who also serve as Priests) are are found to be blessed with a frontal suture mystically forming a cross….our Christian symbol wherein true power and love are found.

  40. Ziton,
    There is a great deal in your comments viz. hierarchy. Are you familiar with the concept of Britian and Logres? It was used by Charles Williams (a friend of CS Lewis) and then by Lewis himself to describe a sort of “mystical Britian” that lay beneath the surface of Britain and that was only badly reflected in the things of Britain that you could see. I find it a helpful literary image for thinking about the true nature of divine hierarchy.

    Feudalism was a terrible distortion of the divine hierarchy, made worse by its own claims of divine right. Its many abuses are the stuff of legend. That the Church participated in that distortion is yet more shameful. It’s interesting in a British context to note that some of the worst abuses of feudalism came only with the Norman invasion and were imposed from the top down. The Anglo-Saxon bishops were removed and replaced, etc. I only write about Britain because it is the one place of Christian history with which I am most familiar and have studied most closely.

    Sometimes, what we see lines up with what we don’t see. The earthly hierarchy reflects the divine hierarchy. That, however, is quite rare. There is no political system that has ever achieved it. It’s history is mostly just that of abuse. Ironically, democracy has not removed hierarchy. It replaced a hiearchy of honor and such with a hierarchy of money.

    What has not disappeared is hierarchy. It is a “holy structure” that lies beneath and within all things and is the truth of what holds all things together and provides whatever order there might be. I think it could even be described as the “justice” of creation. It is why, despite tha terrible abuses of visible hierarchy that occur at all times and in every system, things simply do not pass into complete chaos. It is a mystery that holds things together.

    The mystical structure of the Divine Liturgy is a visible sacrament of that hidden hierarchy. That is one of the points made in St. Dionysius’ work.

    It is a hierarchy of love and self-sacrifice, true servanthood of the other. Regardless of how a government derives its officers and workers, if they carry out their duties in love and self-sacrifice, then there is a greater likelihood that their work will be a reflection of the divine hierarchy.

    As it is, with money and power, duplicity and the manifold manipulation and lying that constitute the path to today’s ruling hierarchy, the result is closer to a demonic caricature of what should exist. CS Lewis imagined out-loud the demonic hierarchy in his Screwtape Letters. There, the greater exists to devour the lesser.

    We do not have a bad form of government. We have bad people serving in the government, corrupted by false ideologies, and selfish desires. To a certain degree, almost any form of government could work if it were constituted by good people truly serving others. By the same token, every form of government fails when it is constituted by bad people.

    The American founders were, on the whole, a fairly decent sort and expressed any number of times that the greatest danger faced by the Republic would be a failure of virtue. I think the seeds of that failure were there from the beginning (particularly in the form of slavery) and that by the election of 1828 had come to a head. We have never recovered. Nonetheless, we’ve still had some bright moments.

    We do well to remember that the hierarchy that abides is unseen and mystical – and that we cannot destroy it. It ever seeks our good and to be manifest at every turn. It is a primary form of providence in the affairs of humanity. It’s also why the only revolution of value would be a revolution in human hearts.

    St. Paul urged us to look past what is seen because it is passing away. We should look at what is eternal and cannot be removed. It helps me maintain some meager hope. Providence will win in the end. If we could see it – Providence has been winning all alone. Even in the darkest and greediest hearts, good has occasional triumphs. The Unjust Judge sometimes helps a noisy and insistent widow.

  41. Andrea,

    I too had trouble with this at first. But as I grew in love for my priest and accepted his authority, I found I was very willing to kiss his hand and request his blessing. I also see it as a way to learn humility and obedience. But don’t rush (I tend to leap into such things)! It can take time. As Father noted, don’t do it (until your heart is ready).

  42. Concerning Hierarchy. It is important to note that any human institution will share the failings of humanity. I like to say that all Utopian schemes and plans are eventually defeated by human nature (although I usually say it in critique of modern machinations). Simply put, we are corrupted by sin, and that corruption runs deep.

    The beauty of the Church’s hierarchy is how it diffuses at the top-most points. No one Bishop is greater than another (even Rome was considered “first among equals”). As Father has noted in the past, there is no mechanism in the Orthodox Church to change dogma. The general picture I see is one where we all lack authority within this hierarchical structure. There is no “balance of power” between the Priesthood and the Laity. It is all weakness, with an inability to effect any radical change! The actual Hierarchy of the Church is rooted in mutual love, not power.

    I have told our youth that our Priest’s authority over us is rooted in love, not worldly power. We can walk away from the Church at any point; it is love that holds us here in obedience. In the end, it is the love of God that holds together the hierarchy of the Church. We remain, even in hard times, and we love in obedience to Him. Just my thoughts.

  43. Fr. Stephen,

    Your comment to Ziton (March 12, 2020 at 8:31 am) was one of the best explanations I’ve heard on hierarchy. It never actually goes away, just gets renamed or re-instituted under another form. So well put.
    Thanks for sharing.

  44. Drewster, Ziton,
    The danger in not understanding and “seeing” the unseen hierarchy, is to think that the distorted versions of our world are all there is. That either leads to despair or to politicism (a form of despair). Yes, politics is a form of despair. I have never seen it produce virtue in a human soul.

  45. Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve been thinking about your main point in the original post, basically that not only are people so ready to give their opinions but that they seem zealously ardent and fierce about them. Coming from the belief that people do things for a reason (even if it’s not a great reason), I think this phenomenon partially links back to one of the revelations from “The Coddling of the American Mind”, namely that people in this day and age don’t feel safe. I’ll lay out a few thoughts about this, and please keep in mind that I’m engaging a little bit here in the dangerous practice of thinking aloud…

    1. Human beings have both an individual and a corporate aspect to them. As the family and other social structures get swallowed up by society and replaced with corporate workplaces, politically correct social groups or nothing at all, people tend to see social media as a place they must air thoughts that seem important but get no forum elsewhere. But since these spaces are often already crammed with people sharing their ideas, an individual has to be aggressive or clever in order to be heard. Thus the ardency.

    2. Related to the above, people are created intellectual along with being physical. When those aspects are given almost no room to be exercised, then people are out of practice when they do speak of intellectual things and tend to come across clumsy and awkward. Aggressiveness can be a way to hide this shame.

    3. Since safe intellectual places are becoming a rarity, people go into a kind of survival mode. “Hey! These are my opinions! If you mess with or degrade them, you’re also degrading me! Everything else about me feels generic and not special, so I’ll hold onto these beliefs for dear life!”

    So yes this common practice of being too free and fierce with our opinions is a bad one, but I think it is a symptom of a lack in our lives, specifically the ability to talk more gently with another person or group and bounce our ideas off them without being shot. Opinion broadcasting shouldn’t be excused but it should be understood.

    My 2 cents. Feel free to pick out the useful bits.

  46. Drewster,
    I think your analysis goes a long way towards describing and explaining our social media behavior. I’m more interested, however, in my/our inner behavior. It is my inward lack of humility that is of note. The outward lack almost goes without saying. It’s funny, I read the WSJ because its news coverage is tolerable and not too over-the-top on everything. Along with that, however, are lots of stories on economic things that simply remind me that I don’t have a clue about how an economy works. They report that something is up or down and I’m not even sure which one is good. It’s a place where it comforts me to be ignorant.

  47. I have been Orthodox, or trying to be, for 32 years. It has only been in the last few years that I kiss the priests hand when I ask for a blessing. Even now it is not always comfortable. Don’t sweat it as long as you respect the fact that the priests are set apart, consecrated to the Lord to bring His blessings to us in a unique way.

  48. Such a timely and important discussion, thank you both Father Stephen and commentoriat! (that last word I made up).
    I thought of (and can’t quote accurately)the early confrontation between Christian and Pagan, where the latter demands “Show me your God!” and the former answers “Show me your man.” By which I take the following: there are perfect hierarchy and perfect democracy, which man with all his imperfections seeks to imitate and often distorts. We are currently living with distortions of both, but we do see the perfection of both dimly as through a glass, in our God, and in some leaders striving to imitate Him.
    I would recommend some observance of Putin’s speeches, and in particular the one he just gave (it’s short) to the Duma. Take each sentence and examine the subject matter therein. Discard all you have been told by the media. Examine it in the light of the Christian balance between hierarchy and democracy.
    Do pardon me for diverting the conversation but we are facing much that is chaotic, and we need to, as Saint Paul has said, hold fast to the good.

  49. Here is the link http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62964
    Please feel free to ignore or remove this subject matter as being too political. I don’t mean it to be, and I think the speech itself verifies this.
    Instead, if you like, we can look at the words “We hold these truths…” in our own US consideration of democracy. “Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights…” I know those words can be interpreted in different ways and modernity does distort them. I see them as “male and female created He them,” and those words I love and use often to point out the equality between all human beings invested in the Scriptures themselves. (Also the first words in the Gospel of Saint Luke, which get ignored very often – I love that he makes that contrast between the two angel visits, setting hierarchy in its place, I think, as far as we humans are concerned!)

  50. Fr. Stephen,

    I respect the fact that your focus is on our inner behavior. I push back a little bit though because just as Jesus is fully God and fully man, I believe we are fully individuals and fully members of community. A lot of our salvation comes through our neighbor. When there is no neighbor willing to speak about these things, to a certain degree this clogs up the inner workings of our soul.

    I understand the working out of our humility is something contained inside us and perhaps only known by and discussed with God…and yet while not diminishing the need for that work in the slightest, I also wonder if at the very same time we also need the iron sharpening iron of one man against another.

    I’m biased of course, like everyone else. I usually find myself starved by being around people who won’t willingly speak of more than the weather, sports, and the latest babblings of the media. Whenever someone ventures a true reflection on life, I feel like whisking them into a corner and getting into the meat of a good conversation. Them sharing my point of view isn’t required – perhaps not even preferable.

    We say “silence is golden” in places where no one will shut up, but idle chatter isn’t the only malady of the tongue.

  51. Drewster,
    Iron sharpens iron presupposes the presence of iron. Pooling our ignorance does not make us smarter. There is, I think, a crisis of trust in our society and culture. We do not trust institutions or hierarchies and barely trust each other. There are many reasons (not just a few) that cause and contribute to this. It’s not getting better – only louder.

    On the other hand, you should not think of focusing on the inner life as somehow less human than our social interactions. It is its own social interaction. Think of how few actual words our Lord left us with.

  52. Drew…you should speak up more often!! 🙂
    You hit a ‘sore spot’, in a good way.
    Sometimes I feel so ‘raw’ here, because I am one of those who Father describes so well. Instead of hiding in a corner in shame. I go to the other extreme.

    The subject of ‘knowledge’ and ‘intellect’ is a raw area for me. In your comment above I assume that the ‘talking of the weather, sports and babbels’ is your example of the least intellectual conversation. Glad you mentioned that. Yes, there is a significant difference.
    To be an expert may show an intellectual giftedness. But it is more profitable to use our God given rationality in ways that will enrich our well-being. Yes? In quality rather than quantity.
    I have been accused of being anti-intellectual. I’m not, really. Just very threatened with the shame of being labeled ‘not too smart’.
    So what is this?…some people hide their insecurities behind the display of their bulk of knowledge…and others hide their lack, with aggressiveness (as if our ‘self’ was in fact diminished due to the lack)? And defensiveness, I might add. I’m thinking…why refer to a person as intellectual? Does that mean others are not? Well, no. But it’s hard to think straight when defensive like that.
    Father is right about the inward self. It is the crux of who we are. As of yet to be fully known.

    More excuses … 🙂 …. regarding coming across ‘clumsy’…I am aware of that. I write like I talk. It is interesting that when in conversation, sentences do not have to be complete, or with proper grammar, to be understood. But there is a proper way to ‘write’.
    I never did fully develop the use of proper grammar, or diction. In our culture this is high on the ladder of virtue. We start early in school with classes on how to speak and write properly. I’ve seen classes for bloggers that teach how to communicate properly on blogs. This is an American virtue. Anything less can be an embarrassment.
    Writing book reports and going through speech class in high school was one of those highlights of shame that will not be forgotten. Speech class was the worst.
    It is quite a challenge when you think you don’t fit in…again!.. in yet another place. It becomes easier to isolate. And it is also a vicious circle.

    Just a tangent, Drew, that was sparked in this conversation. My focus is on the individual, though I fully understand that we are social creatures….made in the Trinitarian image! The phenomenon of the One and the Many. Thank you!

    I am grateful for this blog. Thank you Father. I wish I could express the extent of the impact. Thank you kindly.

  53. Paula,

    It’s unlikely you would be reading this blog (let alone contributing to the extent you do) if you weren’t intellectual. However, let me stop and clarify something you probably already know but needs to be stated anyway…

    Everyone has an intellect. Some people use theirs less than others. In the same fashion we can say that everyone has a physical body and some use theirs less than others. If we zoom in for more detail, there are those who use their intellect for the logistic of purchasing supplies or packing boxes into trucks and those who use it for mathematical equations or theological treatises. Speaking in broad terms this is because one person’s intellect is better suited to the former while the next person is suited to the latter. And once again that analogy holds true with our variation in physical abilities as well. And of course the differences and explanations get even more intricate than that.

    Some people have grown up with the misunderstanding that some of those people are better and more worthy of love and the good life than others. It’s easy to think this way because society reinforces it. Doctors and lawyers are obviously better people if you go by their remuneration and honor.

    But this isn’t the way God looks upon us. Most of this life seems to be spent working out our salvation, which entails learning to become like God and understand everything through His eyes. And He, the one who created us, does not rate us as being more or less valuable than the next person. We must come around to His way of seeing things.

    And by the way, Paula, we will never fit in. This world is not our home. He is kind and gives us rest stops – and this blog is one of those – but it’s never been about fitting in. This grates against us because once again we were made to be communal. But we live in a torn world. So true communion is infrequent and imperfect, not to be relied on. Foxes have holes but we have no permanent resting place here. I understand the loneliness, but I allow that pain to call me deeper into God and wherever He takes me. This is not the end game but it’s how things have to be for now. Like I told Oreo.

    I hope that helps and that you understand my previous reference to intellectuals was not meant to put one person above another. If I could rephrase it I would say I’m one of those people who like to talk sociology, phychology, living the Christian life – and I find few nearby interested in joining me. In essence I’m not blaming them; I’m simply hungry for those conversations.

  54. Paula forgive me I always appreciate what you write. The ‘raw’ and the sublime.

  55. I wish to just express my gratitude to your response to Paula, Drewster. These are good and helpful words.

    And on the note of giving thanks here, I’ve also found, Ziton’s, Allen’s and Byron’s comments very edifying as well. Thank you all.

  56. Thanks, Drew. Very well said.
    I do understand…and better, in solidarity, stand alongside you.

    We are indeed working out our salvation, in the midst of the way things are “for now”.
    It is such a blessing to be at peace with this, even if that peace is fleeting. We still get a taste here and there. It is the very felt ‘touch’ of God carrying us through these difficult times. A most necessary gift of grace. Yes, that it may cause us to draw nearer to God. A very good God…

    Again, thank you.

  57. Dee…I just saw your comments. Thank you kindly.
    And I too am grateful, as always, for our fellow commentors.
    Makes for a very special place…

  58. Thank you Father Stephen for that astonishingly helpful and detailed reply. I cannot help but think that there’s an article in it. I agree with Drewster2000, it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen on those subjects.

    I did chuckle at your restraint : “here is a great deal in your comments viz. hierarchy”. My goodness, what a kind fellow you are! 🙂 I shall try to be more considered and restrained in future, but I rather fear I suffer from the conditions PaulaAZ was describing. Drewster2000, I kept on gulping during your near perfect exposition. Yes, please keep that sort of thing coming! (For what it is worth, I feel exactly the same way about coming across people who want to talk about Real Things. And I thank you for saying that too.)

    I have a good friend who is a major Charles Williams fan and has been gently encouraging me to read him. I shall now make a more determined effort to do so. Sounds very much like my kind of thing.

    As you were describing the nature of the deep hierarchy in things, the literary metaphor/image that popped up most immediately for me was actually C.S. Lewis’ “deep magic” in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. A kind of deep structure woven deeply into the nature of Narnia from the beginning – for a reason. The witch – temporary ruler of the world and determined to keep it winter to satisfy her own desires – understood some of it – and even tried to turn it for her own purposes. But she just did not know enough, at least as it involved the stone table (was unable to know it, as it involved sacrifice and love?). That’s hierarchy for you!

    Thank you Byron for that pithy and helpful summary of the Church’s approach to dealing with the fallen humanity hierarchy problem. I had not quite thought about it that way.

    On the more mundane issue of hierarchies and the modern polity yes those currently in power are motivated by all sorts of stuff, and yes demonic caricature sounds right. But it does of the one benefit that at least it’s more obvious that’s what they are doing, and at least it’s not being supported by some notion that it is a working out of the deeper order ordained by God.

    Father’s mention of virtue also had me thinking that there is also perhaps another way of thinking about hierarchy. I have always loved this passage from Mary Renault’s marvelous novel about Athens during the time of the Peloponnesian War, The Last of the Wine :

    “Men are not born equal in themselves, so I think it beneath a man to postulate that they are. If I thought myself as good as Sokrates I should be a fool; and if, not really believing it, I asked you to make me happy by assuring me of it, you would rightly despise me. So why should I insult my fellow-citizens by treating them as fools and cowards? A man who thinks himself as good as everyone else will be at no pains to grow better. On the other hand, I might think myself as good as Sokrates, and even persuade other fools to agree with me; but under a democracy, Sokrates is there in the Agora to prove me wrong. I want a city where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are; and where no one can tell me to swallow a lie because it is expedient, or some other man’s will.”

    That’s a conception of democracy that accepts and honors a hierarchy of virtue, at least. At the end of the novel of course it has all in the process of being corrupted by demagogues. I rather think it’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Alas, look what we have now …

    Oh, and can I join in the general thanks for this blog, and all the wonderful people who contribute.

  59. Just a brief comment on COVID-19. I am not an expert but my dad was one. He was an innovative and highly respected local public health director. Unfortunately he reposed 19 years ago so I have been reading up on his way of doing things.

    The essence of his approach to public health was community based. He would assign local districts to a team of a sanitarian and a public health nurse. Together, they were responsible for the health of that area of the community. They would go door to door if necessary to check on the health of their district and deliver practical health education and help folks find care if needed. Local, community based health education and care is always the best. At least that is what my dad taught and tried to implement. It was based on the experience that he had on the high plains of eastern New Mexico, where his family homesteaded in 1905, of the Divine Person connecting everything and everyone in Creation. That was real wilderness at the time.

    My dad emulated Samuel J. Crumbine too. Dr. Crumbine developed and implemented probably the first health marketing campaign in addressing the public health crises of tuberculosis in his time (early 20th century here in Kansas). Somewhat like COVID-19, tuberculosis is spread through sputum. So, Dr. Crumbine started a campaign of public sputum control and hygiene: Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk.

    At the time brick sidewalks were common in many places so he had bricks engraved with the phrase and put into the sidewalks in key spaces. He also encouraged the elimination of the common public drinking cup at public fountains and the reduction of the use of shared towels. Also as the spittoon was common at the time, he worked to reduce and eliminate the need for them by reducing the use of chewing tobacco as well as making folks aware not to spit.

    Quarantine was also used when necessary. Keep in mind this was before antibiotics so prevention of TB was by far the best recourse. Prevention is still the best course now. Commercial anti-viral agents are not particularly effective and given the speed of virus mutations, are not likely to be frankly. But if one works for you, use it.

    So the basics still hold: wash your hands frequently, refrain from shaking hands as much as possible and cover your mouth and nose with your elbow if you sneeze or cough. If you have any sort of upper respiratory infection, stay home. If you have a history of seasonal allergies it can be difficult to know for sure at first. Be cautious.

    In any sort of wide spread infection, the management of fear is extremely important. Our culture is not good at that. Indeed it is often most effective in raising fears so that products can be sold. So: try not to be too swayed by national and international hand wringing, keep the focus local and personal. Maintain proper hygiene and barriers. Respect your neighbor’s boundaries as well, even if they seem unnecessary.
    Pray for the peace of the world founded on personal repentance. Give glory to God and fear not.

  60. Michael,
    I will doubtless be reflecting more in an article on our experience together with this pandemic. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge it as a pandemic.

    The Diocese of the South, OCA, has received a directive from the Archbishop (in addition to the directive from the Holy Synod) cancelling all services other than the Divine Liturgy (and the Pre-Sanctified) until March 29. Further, those services that are held are to be performed only by the priest, a couple of chanters, the minimum necessary. The deal-breaker that makes this necessary and wise is the growing evidence that Covid19 can be communicated as an airborne virus – meaning that merely washing hands and disinfecting, and such, will be insufficient.

    The model invoked for our Lenten devotion invoked the pattern in the life of St. Mary of Egypt, where the monks of the monastery of the Jordan, following Forgiveness Vespers at the beginning of Lent, went alone into the desert and returned for Palm Sunday. They left behind a minimum to maintain the services at the monastery. It is, I think, the prayers of these holy fathers that we should invoke as we undertake their image in our Lenten journey.

    It is not fear of getting sick – most who get this will not be very sick. Death is a danger only for some. What is clear, however, is that we are woefully unprepared for such a pandemic. We have structured our health care system for increased efficiency over the past generation. We have 12 percent fewer hospitals than in 1975 and 16% fewer hospital beds – and we have a much larger proportion of older patients. The number of ventilators, etc., is probably inadequate. So, the lives of the vulnerable are endangered if we overwhelm the system too quickly. The strong and the healthy are being asked to make sacrifice for the weak and the vulnerable. That sounds very proper to me.

    I suspect that this directive will be followed by similar actions across the nation. We already have members within our diocese who have been hospitalized with the virus.

    We have been given a serious Lenten discipline – prayer, patience, lack of judgment (particularly because authorities will inevitably make many mistakes), lack of gossip, etc.

    As I child, I remember well the polio quarantines that seemed to come every summer, shutting down swimming pools and many favorite childhood activites. Nonetheless, many were killed, many were crippled. We have been living in a season of history where such things have become rare. This is actually far more normal. The virtues of the past are increasingly relevant.

  61. I too thought of the polio epidemic, Father Stephen. I was a child in New Zealand and schools were closed, no summertime swimming – that was hard! My area had many losses – one I remember was a girl from a pair of twins in a class ahead of me. The schools having been closed, that was still a distant loss at the time.

    But on a visit to my grandmother in another town, I went to see a childhood playmate and had the door shut in my face by her frightened grandmother. I never did see Glenda again. That was a painful experience, but later I understood. It’s helpful to think back on those times in relating to our grandchildren now. They are not so much at risk, but it must be very frightening all the same.

  62. Ziton,
    If the virus spreads, who spread it will not be clear. Who dies will be the vulnerable. But Christians who refuse reasonable, visible, precautions will be blamed for helping it spread as they boast that God protected them. We would bring ourselves and the faith into ill repute for no good reason when we could have meekly borne a slight inconvenience along with everyone else. Prelest is a much more serious virus than Covid19 and mostly goes undiagnosed.

  63. I had not seen that it is air born. That is more serious and hard to manage. I remember my Dad being quite scared during the polio epidemic. He had not only his family to worry about but the 150000 others that resided in his county.

    We are never prepared for these things. We have to adapt and be creative.

  64. Thank you Father Stephen. Very important and wise words and I corroborate that I have read in the CDC site similar. It is expected that because of the lack of appropriate testing, the disease has already spread into the community. There will be eventually an exponential rise in critical cases and deaths unless we practice containment and self quarantine, particularly if we have the symptoms.

  65. Father
    Once again your words are a breath of fresh air. Tempered and calm.
    It is a indeed “a serious Lenten discipline”. (We all hope it will only be ‘Lenten’ rather than extending well beyond that period).
    May we all retain valor and acceptance, resisting gossip and criticisms, remembering God is on the wheel.

  66. Ian,
    You may not see this, as the conversation on the blog has moved to the newer posts by Father, but your comment made me think of the quote below. It took me some time to remember where I saw it, but I think it addresses your doubts very nicely. I hope it helps you and others who may read it.

    My love and prayers are with all friends from this blog. May God bless and sanctify your efforts of fasting and praying in these difficult times, when we are all as those monks from the story of St. Mary of Egypt, who are alone in the desert for the duration of Great Lent. And may He grant us to all gather in our churches for Holy Week and Pascha.

    From the book “Everyday Saints and other stories” by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov):

    “Openly appearing to those who look for Him with all their heart, while hiding from those who run from Him with all their heart, God governs human knowledge of His presence. He gives signs that are visible to those who search for Him, yet invisible to those who are indifferent to Him. To those who wish to see, God gives sufficient light; to those who do not wish to see, He gives sufficient darkness.
    – Blaise Pascal”

  67. Father,
    And thank you for your words in the comment on March 13, 2020 at 11:42 am.
    I only read it now and saw your mention of the monks in St. Mary of Egypt story.
    Thank you for guiding us towards obedience and following the rules our bishops and synod asks of us. I find it silly how now people exchange messages about which church (jurisdiction) continues to serve despite the requests not too. Human nature is so strange, as soon as something is prohibited, we want to do it even more. When we were free to go to church any time, there was hardly anybody there (I am thinking of such services as Wednesday or Saturday Vespers). And now, suddenly everybody is eager.

    I did not know that there were restrictions in America due to polio.
    I can just share that during my youth in Poland, there were several times when shelves in the grocery stores were completely empty (except for vinegar!) and somehow everybody survived, and had food to eat and toilet paper to use 🙂
    I don’t remember my parents being particularly stressed about the lack of these things. Somehow all people managed and got through it….

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