Today I stood at the altar and marveled at the gold of the chalice. It is, of course, supremely blessed, holding (as it does) the very Blood of God. But I was simply thinking of its journey to that altar, its transformation, indeed, its transmutation. If the science of cosmology is followed, then heavy elements such as gold have a very unique origin. The free elements of the universe such as simple hydrogen don’t simply become something else without help. The other, heavier elements, are forged in the gravitational fusion furnaces of stars. This is true for the elements up through iron. Beyond that, even greater forces are required. For gold, a supernova is required, a single moment in the death of some stars in which collapsing forces become so great that it explodes, forging heavy metals such as gold and scattering them across the galaxy. They are relatively rare.
Some scientists suggest that for gold to be part of the earth requires that the materials of its formation included portions of an exploding supernova in the galaxy. The timing would have been extremely important. This simple “science fact” is only one of the vast multitude of such things in our daily lives. However, we’re more likely to think of gold in terms of “money.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote:
Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God. He has done it so consistently that it has become something that is “in the air.” It seems natural for man to experience the world as opaque, and not shot through with the presence of God. It seems natural not to live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of a world. It seems natural not to be eucharistic. The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called “sacred” (“spiritual,” “supernatural”)—as opposed to the world as “profane.” It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God. (For the Life of the World)
This opacity of the world is born out of our habit of seeing things as though they existed in themselves, when, in fact, nothing does. Everything that exists does so only as the immediate gift of God, sustained in its existence solely by His good will. When we look at anything in all of creation, we see the good will of God.
I think we often fail in this seeing because we think the “good will of God” must be measured by some sort of benefit, something added to what is there. We do not understand that even mere existence is His good gift. The well-ordering of all things (which is a mark of all things that exist) is not a self-contained property, but a reflection of the Logos through Whom all things exist. The well-ordered-ness of each thing and all things is an icon of the Logos.
I often think that sacramental Christians strain themselves, staring at the Bread of the Eucharist in a misguided effort to see that it is the Body of Christ. In truth, we fail to even see its truth as bread. That truth is a prerequisite of the other. Schmemann suggests that in the sacraments, God reveals things to be what they are. The whole universe is eucharistic. Consider Christ, who reveals what it truly means to be human (as well as what it means to be God). “Even the winds and the sea obey Him.” This is true because of who He is and of what they are. When Christ speaks to the winds and the sea, we see the truth of creation and our place within it. Both humanity and creation are revealed.
I have not found science to be problematic in thinking about these things. For, at its best, science still only speaks of the “surface” of things. That gold was formed in the furnace of a dying star says nothing that contradicts the providence of God, and can, indeed, simply serve to deepen our wonder. I have noticed, however, that there are Christians who can adamantly insist that the earth is but 7-8,000 years old and still be completely mired in a secular experience of creation. Indeed, a certain form of historical literalism is part-and-parcel of the secular world. It holds no attraction for me.
The emptiness of a secularly-constructed creation (which would not be a “creation” at all) spills into everything in our life. There are no secular solutions to anything – for, in truth, nothing is truly secular. We are experiencing the triumph of the merely moral, the attempt to “fix” the world by behaving differently, by imposing new rules and insisting on their inviolability. In all of human history, no application of “morality” (when conceived simply as rules) has created a just society or “changed” the world. The world is spiritually constructed. True “morality” can only be had when a life is “spiritually moral.” This comes when our lives are conformed to the Logos who is the logos of our existence. That conformity is the life of grace and cannot be obtained in any other manner. The imposition of the merely moral in our time will end in a blood bath. That is its inner logic [sic].
The agony of our time is the agony of all creation. St. Paul tells us that creation “groans like a woman in childbirth” as it cries out for the true liberty of the children of God. The groaning of a tree is audible to those with ears to hear. The groaning of humanity sounds like the screams of chaos, fierce, angry, violent, smothered in shame and sadness. At present it is the groaning of a child that will not be comforted. Unable to articulate its true need (for it has become blind) it reaches and snatches for whatever is at hand. This is the age of delusional solutions: none of them will work.
And yet, gold-forged-in-the-heart-of-a-dying-star stands on the altar holding the Blood of God. What love and intimate care directed all things such that such a wonder would appear. The same love and intimate care has directed every atom of creation, including those who groan in their agony to this present moment. The Chalice waits for their drinking, ready to slake a thirst older than the star itself. It is the Chalice at the end of the world and thus the Chalice that brings an end to our agony.
I think of George Herbert’s (1633) poem:
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains,
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behoove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
Wow, I’ve never read that poem! Many thanks, Father!
Thank you, Father, as always.
Are there any books or longer writings that you’re aware of that meditate upon the creation as you’ve done in this article? Or that may help one in doing so?
I was raised to believe in a young earth (literal modern-historical reading of Genesis), and it nearly cost me my faith as I began to realize that the world we’ve come to know through science and learned through history, that we see with our eyes and touch with our hands, contradicted what I’d been taught growing up. “If Genesis 1 is not historically true, then neither can anything else the Bible says be true.” What a dangerous thing to tell children growing into adulthood.
I’m well beyond that now, but it seems too often that we (or I at least) fall into the other trap – seeing the world, including what we’ve learned about the origin of the universe and life in earth – in more secular and less wondrous terms.
Just curious if there’s any body of work (apart from your blog, which has truly been a blessing in this regard) that meditates on these things in this way? That is, specifically on the gold of stars being the chalice, the carbon of dying stars becoming life and man, etc.
I’m not sure, off hand. Anyone else have any ideas?
I think, sadly, that even those who are Young Earthers are (as I noted in the article) just as secular in their world view, in which it just becomes one of the man “modern” views of the world.
Father, “For The Life of World” touches on those things.
Gold has unique properties in the way it collects and transmits energy. It is a purifier and a super conductor. Both quite appropriate for the altar. It is not just its scarcity that has always led people to use gold in worship.
Such a wonderful reflection, Father … a Christian’s true relationship to modern science (thank you again and again Fr Schmemann of blessed memory for your sacramental vision) … and Father, such a compassionate and tragic view of today’s cultural pain and chaos. God have mercy on us all.
My father, as a young man with his family, lived as a dry land farmer on the high plains of eastern New Mexico about 50 miles northeast of Roswell. Dry, flat and intimidating. Difficult to make fecund. Yet in that land, as many before him, my father experienced the presence of God and saw the absolute interconnectedness of all creation. The sacramental reality of all of creation in the midst of infinity. He and his family drew life from that everyday.
He was never quite able to connect to Jesus as the center of that but both his sons did. His stories of the beauty and wonder and life of those plains remain at the heart of my faith in significant ways. Late in his life the three of us made a pilgramage to his old homestead. There was a family still there. Giving and receiving life from the same ground. The same space — a particularity in the midst of vastness but not alone or isolated.
Wendell Berry has a great sense of this as well but only a little.
It may seem odd but the writings of the Hesyechasts get to the heart of the matter as well. And the Desert Fathers.
Indeed all Orthodox theology is an extended meditation on the wonder of creation in revealing the closeness of God in and through all things.
The key is to realize nothing exists separately from anything else especially we humans.
Fr. Stephen, I always read your blog, although I haven’t commented in a long time. But I have to say that I’m now re-reading a great book – YOURS – Every Where Present, which I bought and read shortly after it was published. This post stressing the sacramental nature of the universe is a perfect companion to Every Where Present.
Thank you for writing this book and for this wonderful blog!
Father and Athanasios,
The reference to gold in the earth, how it came to be here, and in the Chalice is not something I have reflected on specifically. But I have perceived the Theotokos as the Chalice and the shape of the Higgs Field itself seems to shown in the form of a chalice (–to my eyes, although some refer to it as the shape of a Mexican hat). And I wear an old believer cross with an icon on the back depicting all of creation arising from the Chalice.–very reminiscent of how science depicts the Higgs field.
We are taught in secular culture to treat these as human-driven associations, a psychology of fantasy, having no basis “in reality”. However, since I first witnessed the resurrection in the Higgs field, I have attended to the reality of God and specifically of Christ underlying or inherent in all things. And that work of doing science, following and attending to what nature reveals, eventually led to my conversion to Christianity in the Orthodox Church. And now it is Orthodox theology and science that helps me to understand nature.
There are many, both scientist and non scientist who distort what science is. Awhile back (years before I became a Christian) I had a confrontation with a geologist who wanted to treat the “laws of physics” as if they were the 10 commandments. These equations, our words so to speak, help us understand nature. Would that we attended to God’s words when we write them!! Perhaps at some time we might discover that our theories or equations are not 100% correct. What we will do then, is what we normally do, go back to the drawing board and have a re-think.
I’ve never been a young earther. And the story that science tells of the formation of the earth and all that is in it, does not and has never challenged my faith in God (even before I became a Christian). I didn’t hold science as a contradicting perspective, even while there are atheists who abound inside and outside of science. I’m grateful father that you describe young earther concepts as secular. That seems to be true to me too.
For me, what Fr Stephen has done in this article is reveal what goes on in the mind of someone who assimilates the information from science into their theology, creating both a rich understanding and enriched life in Christ. Literalism only touches the surface and is often wrong.
There are several scientists who venture into theology. However few of them are Orthodox or have a firm foundation in Orthodox theology. Because they lack familiarity with Orthodox theology, too often I sense an unintentional ‘two story universe’ in their writing. (BTW I fall easily into this habit also) However, in one case a scientist recently wrote something that seemed to me to be an ‘Orthodox’ perspective (of a sort that had been written centuries before) but the scientist, himself, had the belief that he was inventing something radically new. Indeed their writing might be radical by this culture’s views, but they weren’t original.
I’ve deeply wished I had learned as much Orthodox theology as I have science. I’m working on it. But it is a slow process, an ever-going work of the heart and prayer.
I apologize I’m not certain about capitalizing the word resurrection where I should. Not doing so may give an unfortunate perspective. There is Christ’s Resurrection, and there then there is the resurrection of all things, in Christ’s second coming. I mean to say that I saw the latter, the resurrection of all things in my studies of the Higgs field. But when I had realized what I was seeing, that there is a ‘resurrection’, I realized that there indeed must have been a “Resurrection”, an initialization of this (holy) process.
As a typical chemist would think, where’s there’s smoke, there’s Fire.
A stimulating post, Fr. Stephen, thank you. I especially like the juxtaposing themes of blood and gold, both divine in their own way.
It would funny, I think, if the more simple-minded Bible readers were right about a young earth. I do wonder, isn’t old earth cosmology, in a way, just as literalist as young earth? One points to the plain, objective meaning of texts and the other to “objective” meanings of scientific theories. If I had to choose—which I never had to until I had children—I think I’d go with young earth. I mean, there’s the fossil record. But more important, the Church generally views history iconically not critically. The icon serves children quite well; but sophistication seeks literal, historical representation. The latter certainly isn’t worthless, but the former holds more value. And Scripture paints a picture (an icon) of a relatively infantile cosmos. Perhaps only a child could believe what some see as ancient “myths” in the face of modern science. I certainly do not know the scientific “truth” of it. And I do not mean to say that an old earther cannot be humble and childlike. I just think the young earth model aligns better with a sacramental sensibility in which Scripture and creation act as icons of reality. Seems more fitting. I’d be perfectly happy, however, to be corrected by the holy Fathers on this point. Thank you again.
I have just been finishing CS Lewis’ word, The Discarded Image, in which he writes about his academic topic – Medieval Literature. He explains how that period saw the world – the picture and relations it understood. In the epilogue he compares it to the modern view. The modern view, he notes, imagines itself to be giving a “literal” description, when, in fact, it is merely mathematical. The modern imagination is stunted in some ways and its literal imagination has managed to cut it off from the very thing it studies. (That is the essence of secularism) It’s a delightful book well-worth any effort.
I have no dog in the fight (young versus old) except for the fact that those engaging in that argument both imagine themselves to be on the same playing field, a field on which I do not care to play. That I see the universe and the earth as “old” is not to say that insist on modern science – only that I cannot turn-off such thoughts and re-imagine something to be other than what has come to make sense. But, having done so, doesn’t mean that a very old universe should be “dis-enchanted”.
As to the texts – I disagree that the texts teach a young earth – except to someone who has already drunk the modern kool-aid. I’ve written at length before that what we take to be “literalism” in the part of the Fathers is a serious misreading – anachronistic at the very least. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, which I just referenced, would be an interesting read in trying to enter the “thoughts” of many who went before us. My problem with modern literalists is they actually, usually, know virtually nothing about ancient culture – and, devoid of context, constantly quote things and use them to mean things which they do not and never did. When I’ve tried to engage a few folks in discussion, however, it goes nowhere. We need way more education and understanding than we have – very, very few in the modern world have anything like the education that marked Lewis and Tolkien and their appreciation of what went before.
But, when I read Genesis, for example, I feel no need to stick in the cosmology of a vastly ancient universe. I just read the story and let the story do the “thinking.” To leave the story and suddenly start doing modern science (young or old version) is, simply, to have left the story.
thank you Father!! I’m going to read it!!!
This is key:
“But, when I read Genesis, for example, I feel no need to stick in the cosmology of a vastly ancient universe. I just read the story and let the story do the “thinking.” To leave the story and suddenly start doing modern science (young or old version) is, simply, to have left the story.”
This is an important observation. Thank you Father.
The statement about inserting a scientific cosmology into the Genesis creation account is well said, Father, and I agree. Thank you, Dee, for highlighting it.
I actually had in mind the biblical (and historical) chronology strongly implied by the genealogies. But I would neither die nor even arm wrestle on that hill. I share with you, Father, a dog-less entry in the fray. I merely have my druthers. Thank you for responding.
Beautiful! This one’s going to take some more rereading. Thank you!
Owen, when in my catechism, my priest offered a way to think of the scriptures as liturgical texts, rather than to get caught up in the arguments of historical criticism. To this day his guidance is helpful for me. It continues to save me from getting stuck in my own, sometimes over analytical, mind. In Orthodoxy, I’ve been taught to let the mind sink into the heart. That’s not to say to suspend analysis, but to temper it. In this day and age, and with the form of education I’ve had, this isn’t trivial work for me. Sometimes it’s like trying to turn my head inside out, which reveals to me how much I’ve been affected by the modernist perspective.
Thank you for the gift of your writting:
God, everywhere present, is the only constant that matters for by that belief we have the hope of saints. God then was present at all times from creation onward infinitely. Not some artificial date we might conceive but infinitely long ago with that command, we can but imagine. When we allow one lie, despite our eyes and time improved study of the world and universe to enter into faith others follow. How God rendered and delved life is beyond us but thanks for the day of our birth. We are all but stardust given the spark of life by divine intervention. Our grasp of time is far more limited as we would hold the world still for our life as if we can stop the passing of days.
This results in us being unable to see the image of God in others for they shared the same creation, all born of a woman. There is no nationality, no skin color, no master race, no manifest destiny, no hierarchy or kingship greater than our individual witness that God is present in all things but for our lack of compassion, humility, and love. With these gifts, we may become the Gold of the chalice so treasured for then we may share the kinship most sought.
All worldly possessions, titles, and glory are not worth a grain of sand on the balance of our ultimate judgment. None know the end of their life, all will revert to dust. None who would seek to hasten the arrival of the Rapture are servants of God for the dimension of time is not of our possession. They are not prophets but harlots preying on our envy of others and our desire for control of time. Our souls carry little forward but our deeds in life. Find God every day in the simple wonder of life and love of its gift.
I do not see that use of the genealogies to be particularly legitimate – even though it’s been done plenty of times. It is a path, I think that creates an unnecessary conflict with both science and an approach to experience in scientific thinking. As in, asking someone to look at fairly obvious things (an old earth) and declare it to be false – or created to appear as though it’s much older. I grew up both in and around a Christianity that did this – it produced some very weird science as well as bad theology. Orthodoxy, I think, should not require such thinking.
Gold is a metal which does not corrode. In ancient times it was first found as “native” gold and used to gild objects because it can be hammered into very thin sheets. That is why the metal became a precious one to societies and suitable for decorating gods’images and for kingly ornaments , those things which should never become tarnished .
Thank you Father. I am very grateful for this article, as it speaks of things I have thought for a long time. It is nice to hear such a nicer articulation.
As I don’t get to talk about it much, I hope you’ll indulge the comments here. I hope it’s not too abstruse, or suck eggs, or both. If it is too much or too tedious then, as usual, feel free to cut.
Athanasios, one recommendation for further reading is the first two chapters of philosopher David Bentley Hart’s excellent, if dense, “The Experience of God – Being, Consciousness, Bliss”. Despite the slightly new-agey title it actually does a rigorous, and vigorous, and just plain good job of explaining the philosophical category issues and errors and why they matter.
The described content of Father’s gold cup reveries are entirely shared – and of course just touch the surface. Yes, the contemplation of the cup is a deeply sacramental. In order for the such wonder to be happening now, an entire star system had to have come into being and die and seed the dust cloud that became ours (before 4 billion years ago). The nature of creation had to be such that the atoms then had to become incorporated into the crust of the planetary surface unchanged during that time (even if the molecular structures sometimes did – unchanging atoms while molecular forms change is itself a wondrous sacramental idea?), not to mention that sensate and highly intentional humans had to come into being and our senses and sensibilities have to interact with all of the aspects of the object through the reflection of light (which is mysteriously both particle and wave and many layered form of electromagnetic radiation). If that does not ALL sound completely wondrous and sacramental I don’t know what would.
I did wonder, Father, at your comment to Dee at 9/1 1:49 pm where you said the modern view was “merely mathematical”. For me, the mathematical nature of the created order is sacramental in nature. While (DBH-wise) it is NOT a “proof” of God, it is nevertheless pointing to some deep truths about the way things are, and the glory of God. All those “laws” are in fact nothing more than the uncovering of some important relationships. And isn’t it completely remarkable that by pretty much nothing other than some mathematical manipulations and by assuming that the speed of light is fixed, that Einstein could deduce (via special relativity) in a way that has since proved to be overwhelmingly consistent (including the creation of atomic weapons!) that matter and energy are essentially interchangeable – they are both aspects of the same thing. There are loads of other sacramental sounding examples. I sometimes chuckle at the irony that many physicists who would shake their heads at the (wonderful) paradoxical description of the Trinity as three hyposteses but one essence are quite happy simply to live with the idea that the quantum and classical descriptions of reality are both valid, and must be referring to the same reality, and that at some stage someone will come along and show how. Schrödinger’s equation is a thing of great beauty, but deeply bizarre, as Schrödinger himself and many of those early quantum physicists recognized.
I can’t help but feel that pretty much all of reality ‘out there’ when observed carefully and closely has a weirdly “fractal” quality, in the sense that as you stop and look, and look, the depth and complexity just keeps opening up as we go in ever deeper. The layered (in all directions) nature of things is truly astonishing and marvellous. I can see why many scientists become so enamored (or is it overwhelmed?) by this that some of them kind of decide they don’t need to go any further. That nature has this quality to it, and that humans can do this, tells us something very profound. It’s a pity we don’t just stop and enter into the mystery of it more often.
In all of this reflecting on nature and what it points to re spiritual truths, I find myself reminded of St Paul’s observation at 1 Corinthians 46 “But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.” The gold (and this history of the universe), the cup, the chalice, and the telos of what it contains and signifies ….
By “merely” mathematical, I do not mean to diminish the wonder of math. It is, as you say. However, it is also only scratching the surface. But, I cannot say more at the moment. DBH is always an interesting read – not everyone’s cup of tea, however, and occasionally just plain problematic.
Ziton, as powerful descriptor of reality as math is, it is not sufficient. Our observations, even the deepest ones are still “seeing through s glass, darkly”.
My father for all the wonder he encountered on the high plains of eastern New Mexico which later led to a wonderful career in medicine and community health, was forever stymied by the vastness. Because he could never get to the Theanthropos of Jesus Christ, he just stopped. Perhaps like your mathemeticians?
My mother too was led toward God through fractals. In her case it was what she called the dynamic spiral. She discovered it in Native American art and dance and inculcated it into the jewelry she made and in her dance and history.
She was even able to use it to discover the innate rythmns of autistic children and give them patterns of movement that helped them communicate better.
Still, like my father she was never quite able to make the connection to Jesus Christ.
My parents filled my soul with longing and possibilities. My brother and I were pointed toward the Orthodox Church from the moment of our conception. It just took awhile to get here.
God is indeed everywhere present and filling all things. I have to remind myself frequently not to settle for the various containers, as beautiful and as entrancing as they often are.
I am homeschooling my children and we’ e joined a local Christian co-op for some core classes. The co-op statement of faith is one we can sign on to as Orthodox, but they do teach from a new earth perspective. My kids are coming out of the public school, which teaches from an atheist (even anti-Christian) perspective. Neither exactly jibes with our Orthodox understanding, but if I’m really honest about it, I find the new earth POV to be much less detrimental to their faith (even though I don’t agree with it). Their science classes are talking about the history of science, how what is accepted in one era can be disproved in the next, that science is a method and not a set of beliefs, that science is one tool of many for learning about God’s creation, that science should not replace religion, that there are debates ongoing in science right now about many things the public is led to believe are “settled”– that we should have humility as God’s creatures and that humility should inform how we do science, or approach any pursuit. They also teach about the reasoning and evidence behind evolution (they just don’t say it’s true). Honestly much more humble and faithful of an approach than the secular neo-Darwinist approach of the public schools. Yes I cringe a little at some of what I see as desperate distortions of rock strata data etc., but I just discuss that with my kids at home and we look into the Orthodox approach (like I had to also discuss the atheist teaching of the public schools). This experience is teaching me to confront my own prejudices against “new earthers”–I was taught growing up by my secular educated parents that they were the stupidest most pathetic people–and to check my judgement. They’re very nice, faithful people pouring their hearts into raising Christian children. I just disagree on their theology and how that influences some of their approach to science and early history. But I’d obviously rather have my children educated among them than in our public schools. (Unfortunately, there’s no Orthodox school or homeschool co-op where we are!)
Many are indeed good Christians and well-intentioned. After a fashion, however, they create an unnecessary tension for believers. As Athansios noted below, having grown up in it, he also came to a place where it nearly cost him his faith. It sets up a “package deal” that invites just a few confirmed, scientific facts to bring down the whole house of cards. It also takes Scripture and theology into a sort of place of modernity-defined notion of knowledge that will eventually create conflicts with the Orthodox faith (I believe).
It is not our fight. I found an interesting quote from none other than Fr. Seraphim Rose today: “I should state an elementary truth: modern science, when it deals with scientific facts, does indeed usually know more than the holy Fathers, and the holy Fathers can easily make mistakes of scientific facts; it is not scientific facts which we look for in the holy Fathers, but true theology and the true philosophy which is based on theology.”
I am not a proponent of any particular scientific theory – some of them have become married to ideologies and therefore create problems. Also, science alone is insufficient in giving a full account of reality and the nature of creation. It’s useful and very suggestive, but still far too small. But, having said that, what we have in the Young Earth version is a Christianity that necessitates a particular scientific version – generally requiring an accompanying conspiracy theory.
Parenting is difficult.
I will add that I discuss the topic with a bit of fear and trembling. The fiercest and most bizarre attacks that I have ever experienced have come from that small sector of Orthodoxy that believes all of this stuff is synonymous with the Orthodox faith. I do not like being attacked – I am badly wired for dealing with controversy. But, I would be less than honest if I did not say what I think to be the truth and consistent with the fullness of Orthodoxy.
It is highly problematic when any aspect of science (or theology) becomes enmeshed in politics. This stuff is rife with it.
Well Father, the very act of attacking you proves they are wrong. They have unfortunately made their faith into an ideology. That is a big part of the modern delusion and is a constant temptation. Adherence to ideology forbids mercy and provides a strong justification for almost anything in its defense. That is in part because once an ideology is examined rationally, it always falls apart.
The Orthodox faith encompasses both the seen snd the unseen. Once the premise of the faith, a loving incarnate God who died for us and rose, is accepted either by faith or experience, everything else fits together in joy.
Ah, Science! As someone who taught science courses (mostly biological/ecological, and indeed evolutionary – hoo boy!) to non-science majors for 10 years, I feel compelled to chime in. Indeed, I can’t seem to help myself 😉
In all my courses, I spent a class or two simply explaining what science is. There’s science, the verb – that which scientists do, including all the human drama that is involved (competing teams, obtaining grants, cheating sometimes, delight when things work out, despair when they don’t, etc., etc.)
Then there is science, the noun – the body of ‘facts’ that many people think of when they think of science. Then, of course, there is technology, which a surprising number of people confuse with ‘science’. But technology is the application of scientifically derived principals to ‘solving’ ‘problems’ (and of course, creating more ‘problems’), and is a big driver of and funder of science, the verb. Because $$$.
Scientists know (or ought to know) that the ‘facts’ are provisional. Some hold up to decades of investigation and critique better than others. Others merely need elaboration and tweaking. Some end up in the dustbin of history. Scientists also know (or ought to know) that they are developing/working with models, and that in the immortal words of the good Count Korzybski, ‘the map is not the territory’.
What I have come to believe after decades of practicing and teaching science is that what science really does is describe things, rather than truly explain things. The laws of gravity are a good example. Knowing the math of gravitational workings can navigate you to the Moon, etc. But nobody has a clue as to how gravity ‘works’. Forget about ‘why’.
So in my judgement, science provides really close descriptions of certain phenomena, some that might be ‘useful’, some of a more intellectual interest. Tolkien talked about the difference between the botanist and the agronomist. People think that science ‘explains’ this and that, but what’s really going on is a really close description. It has never felt to me like a threat to religion.
And then you have Scientism, the religion. Part and parcel of modernity and progress, myth of. This also feeds off of science, the noun, but is a perversion of science, the verb. Or something – I’ve blithered on long enough. Please forgive all of ‘this’ business, but sometimes you’ve just got to put things in quotes…
Steve, you are right. Thank you for putting it the way you did.
Also, Father I hope you know that their are a lot of people here plus a few angels and saints who have your back. Your front too if necessary.
Thank you, Kassiani, Michael and Steve,
adage comes to my mind often these days…with all that’s going on around us…”Do not react, do not resent, keep inner stillness.” Just about all the “news” we hear is passion driven. It prompts us to react, usually with anger, fear, etc. When you are attacked, Father, by others, they are reacting also with their passions. They want to “fence in” the faith. Yet what they want to fence in often has nothing to do with the Orthodox faith…once for all given to the saints…whether it be literal days of creation, mode of administering the Eucharist, etc. Thank you for your willingness to take flak. May God keep all of us during these stressful days in His stillness. “You shall hide them in the secret of your presence.” Psm 30:21
Thank you Dee, Father, and Ziton for the replies! 🙂 I’ve read “The Experience of God” – he helps to some extent with thinking about these things and our framing of them, but I suppose I was looking more for “meditation” (poetic, maybe, is a better word?) than quite how to frame them.
Dee, I thought your comments on the Higg’s field were cool. Thank you for sharing that. 🙂
Coincidentally, I haven’t read Lewis’ Space Trilogy since college, so I just started reading it again as I was interested in his framing of modernity. He has this gem from Out of the Silent Planet:
A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrion ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes – and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens – the heavens which declared the glory – the
“happy climes that ly
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.”
I think I’ll just go read more Lewis. 🙂
Also maybe worth noting in the context of the above article: the name for gold used by the pfifltriggi is sun’s blood.”
Recently, I reread Lewis’ The Discarded Image, a work on the world view of medieval literature. I started reading it as a companion read to Planet Narnia, a book that looks at Lewis’ use of planetary imagery in the Narnia Chronicles – a fascinating read in and of itself.
There’s not many examples of the sort of thing I was doing in this article, in that the use of “modern” science would not have been possible in the Fathers (they have a different way of thinking on such things). It is, however, an example of what the Fathers called “natural contemplation” (theoria physike) where nature is considered from the point of view of God’s providence, or in contemplating the “logoi” of created things.
Lewis’ book on medieval thought would be largely applicable to the patristic world-view or cosmology. They were more sophisticated than most modern people realize. They knew that the earth was round, and that it was roughly 28,000 miles around. They also knew the distance to the moon and the sun (roughly). However, that was largely seen in a universe of concentric spheres (following Aristotle and others). They did not, however, realize the number and nature of the stars – or the vastness of the universe – neither of which would have been of any consequence.
The “stuff” of nature, regardless of the science used to study it – is able to be contemplated in the manner of the Fathers and to yield a lot of insight.
‘The “stuff” of nature, regardless of the science used to study it – is able to be contemplated in the manner of the Fathers and to yield a lot of insight.’
Oh, how true this is, Father ! That’s my ‘science’ these days, as I wander my woods, and watch the sky, day and night. It always comes up… Glory to God!
Father, thank you for your reply. Yes I agree, the young earth debate is not our fight. I have an MFA in poetry and have always loved St. Porohyrios’s statement that he who wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. It’s how I naturally read scripture, and it’s what I teach my children. My oldest is taking a class at an online Orthodox school, looking at how the Fathers interpret the scriptures, and we’ve already talked about how we have differences with some of the co-op’s teachings. Make no mistake—I’m no proponent of young earth creationism. But I’ve realized I’m not particularly threatened by it, either. I mostly just feel sad for the people who can see only the top-most, flat, literal surface of scripture and miss out on all the layers and depth—and, as you said, they can end up feeling defensive or afraid that God might suddenly not be real if a certain fossil turns up. It sounds like some here have more experience with the damaging effects of the new earth mindset (including you!), which is a shame. I myself have more experience with the damaging effects of the atheist mindset that argues not about whether God created everything in love some thousands vs some billions of years ago, but argues rather that everything and everyone are random meaningless accidents. Yes, I’m apt to believe the physicists over the fathers on the age of the universe. But if I’m honest, to my very limited human brain, six thousand years “feels” the same to me as six billion or six hundred billion. It’s all just “a very long time ago” and shrouded in mystery, so I’m not particularly concerned with hammering out the details. In any case, I loved the meditation on gold. Something I will share with my chemistry obsessed youngest! Thank you!
Regardless of any particular details concerning cosmology, cosmogony, etc, I can’t help noticing the vastly different overarching worldview of the classical mindset vs the modern one. I also can’t help noticing it everywhere these days. Even within some of the the Church’s occasionally ‘modern’ stances on modern issues.
We can say it is a sacramental mindset vs a secular one, but it is worth looking at how many particular details are actually affected by this secularised mindset.
This corrosive mindset is also continuously ‘progressing’ into further “secularity” and an unspoken acceptance of such, even within circles one would expect to be mindfully opposed to such corrosion.
I think if classical thinking would instinctively sacrifice rationalistic sophistry for faith-fortified wisdom whenever required, modern thinking would seem to invariably do the opposite.
The repercussions of this are clearly wide ranging: if classical heroism would sacrifice life for freedom (and we thankfully still largely recognise this as a greatness) , modern thinking (as witnessed these days) might try and present the sacrifice of freedom for the sake of life as heroic. (I am thinking of the modern arguments placing health above sacramental union these days and other such sophistries we now come across)
I think this is confusing things a bit. There are some things that, once they are seen, cannot be unseen. In that manner, there are things that are “modern” (such as the size of the universe, the picture of how the solar system works, atoms, viruses, etc.) that are now how we see the world and there’s no going back to a “classical” worldview. We do not and cannot see the human body in terms of humors, for example, even though that language still shows up (“temperament,” “good humor,” etc.). None of that, of course, is secular, or, it need not be.
Secularism is simply an offshoot of late Protestantism of a sort. Its marriage to science and technology has given it a persuasive power that has slowly been conquering the world. It is, however, deeply empty and unable to satisfy the soul – perhaps because it is a “soul-less” account of existence.
There are heroes in every age. The challenge of faith in our time differs from that of earlier periods. And, we are told that before the end, faith will be more difficult than ever. That said, I am not personally aware (within the Church) of anyone placing health above sacramental union – other than taking some precautions that are, at most, inconvenient. I am far more troubled by the rogue priest, here and there, who appoints himself the guardian of “faith” while rebuking bishops left and right as they seek to carry out reasonable care for their flock.
Our present trial, while not unprecedented, is encompassed by a period of deep political instability and cultural collapse. Strident voices within the Church are, to my mind, more harmful than helpful. There is a heroism of quiet and faithful obedience, patiently enduring temptation while allowing difficult times to pass. It is mature. Its fruit will be long-lasting. I have already seen many cases of those, young in the faith, who have been crushed on the rocks, left the Church, or fallen into terrible confusion led by the strident voices of the guardians of a heroic faith – whose claims to authority are all “charismatic” in nature. Its fruit is proof of its lack of authenticity.
Mostly, it seems to me, that, to a great extent, a fairly practical crisis is being magnified unnecessarily by voices pushing it to imaginary extremes. That happened plenty in classical times as well. Crazy is timeless.
I needed these calming words from you this morning…”There is a heroism of quiet and faithful obedience, patiently enduring temptation while allowing difficult times to pass. It is mature. Its fruit will be long lasting.”
Thank you so much in these days of shrill voices.
Readers will, thankfully, never see the comments that do not get posted. Some are mild with minor things that I would prefer not be part of the conversation for one reason or another. Then, there are shrill things, way beyond the pale, that would stagger my mind. Occasionally, in a mood of frustration, I am tempted to allow such nonsense to be posted so that people can see what insanity looks like. Fortunately, I avoided that level of insanity within myself and just mashed the delete button. Each morning, while having my coffee, I check what has appeared overnight. It is often accompanied by a slight bit of trepidation – most days followed by a sigh of relief.
Your expression, ‘a “soul-less” account of existence’, feels closer to the point than the term “secularism”, (as religious expressions kept buried away in sequestered corners of one’s week).
More to the point still is the expression “world without a God”, as this is the key assumption we are bombarded with and which is underlying every single newscast, briefing, statement etc (because the classical Christian “Providential” way of expressing such communications would, of course, be considered unimaginably inappropriate nowadays.)
It is, however, this very worldview (of a “world without a God”) that has started dynamically creeping in, even in religious homilies, even if its influence is conveyed as some kind of world-wise, balanced judgement in some ‘homilies’.
What I have in mind, which ought to be shocking to the faithful, but sadly passes unnoticed, is when many current homilies become steeped in the spirit of reverence of secular ideals, instead of singularly focused on the Lord and His power, or piled with the use of trendy secular expressions, such as: ‘health is the highest good’ or ‘health above all’, something I heard back in Greece quite a bit this summer. (Let us remind ourselves that classical Christian thinking would sacrifice health, and even one’s head[!], for Christ – the ctual highest Good).
However, this ‘erosion’ of the worldly mind-set (infiltrating the ecclesiastical one), has been increasing for a very, very long time now. Well before the current crisis. Whether it is for the sake of trendy notions of ‘rights’, of ‘diversity’, of ‘environmentalism’, or lately of ‘health’ and ‘safety’, the explicit infiltration of such notions (in their “worldly-wisdom over Church-wisdom” versions to various extents) in homilies (and beyond) is like hearing some bi-tonal jazz synth solo over Bach’s St John’s Passion’s opening, at least to the ears of the faithful.
Upon hearing again some traditional, Spirit-filled, homilies (after those others), I understandably encountered a welcome heart-warming and spirit-nourishing contrast. Hearing of the ‘eternal’ again (rather than of the ‘temporal’ – packed with Godless fears, whether these are health-related fears or conspiratorial fears, whether well-founded or not so much) was a real breath of fresh air, but I found that this occurred notably less than usual this time round.
Of course, the current epidemic crisis (especially considering some of the actually uncalled-for, and quite unprecedented precautions taken in some parts of the world) makes some recent instances of such ‘worldly influence’ all the more conspicuous. I particularly have in mind the Divine Liturgy’s temporary ‘criminalization’ for a short while in some places five months ago (from 16.3.20 to 11.4.20 in Greece, with a less-than-hoped-for balanced “opposition” -from a few select ‘prophetically fired-up’ Bishops). A provision of law only twice before occurring in Europe, in 311 (Diocletian’s death), and in Albania (1967-1990) –something even Mohamed the Conqueror or Lenin/Stalin dared not legislate.
It was understandable then that many remembered the words of the prophet Micah (3:9-10) or words to that effect:
“Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; …her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money.”
There certainly exist the awful extremes you warn against too. Indeed, I do note those dangers you mention, but it is a difficult balance that is undeniably needed here. Veering too much either way can become disastrous for different reasons. Your own cautious balance between both extremes has been appreciated again and again for example, having a way that is intensely congruent with tradition.
Secularisation, it has been pointed out by many, is something none of us are immune to, (from the lowest ranks to the highest), but, as you warn, shrill rebuking of bishops from rogue voices ignoring canonical processes and procedures are also very alarming. But it is a kind of equilibrium that is essential now and desired more and more with the passing of time.
I suspect it is likely that the passing of time might even increasingly start favouring one of the two sides of such a balance. I believe that, which of the two sides becomes favoured, will have a lot to do with whether there is a return to ‘normality’ or whether there is greater establishing of the opposite in the days to come.
Don’t hesitate to delete Father if you so judge!
Dino these times are difficult. One of the leaders of BLM recently confessed to she and others in her group summoning spirits of the dead. Reminding me that our battle within and without is against demonic powers. The immersion in the passions which we see on every screen and in consumerism have made the real battle difficult to remember and it is easy to feel alone amd abandoned. We are not.
The Divine Liturgy is not magic, i. e, it is not dependent on the individual or collective faith of the human beings present. It is indeed a small piece of the Kingdom.
It seems to me, at times, that I almost have to shoulder my way into the temple because it is so FULL even when, visibly, it is sparse. Scripture is read even if the homily is deficient. Outlawed or not, the Divine Liturgy is still being celebrated.
No doubt we are becoming much like the prisoners in Communist jails but even so, Jesus Christ is with us. .
“Let not your heart be troubled.” ..and the rest of John 14 speaks as much to our time as to the Apostles.
A couple of thoughts: first – preaching is frequently abysmal and misguided. I’m not terribly surprised. Second – neither am I surprised by incompetence in managing a crisis.
As I’ve noted many times – everybody in the world today thinks they are in management. We therefore know everything and are experts on everything and judge everyone and all things. It’s a spiritual sickness – about which almost no one complains.
Again, we are still so much mired in the middle of the mess that drawing any conclusions that apply to more than the short term is premature. Thus, we do well to bite our lips (as we say), not devour our brothers, and let this thing run its course.
The end of the Troparia to the Holy Trinity is an apt prayer in these times: “Suddenly the Judge shall come and the deeds of each will be revealed: but with fear we cry out in the middle of the night: Holy, Holy, Holy art thou O God. Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.”
Father, “we all think we are managers.” Priceless. It is the spiritual sickness born of the so-called “Enlightenment”. As codified in the US Declaration of Independence we each have “inalienable rights”. Given us by a creator God, but not an Incarnate one.
The two story universe in writing. Now, in a world without God we are at each other’s throats demanding our rights. It is like starving dogs tearing at each other over a scrap of imaginary food.
No doubt we are becoming much like the prisoners in Communist jails but even so, Jesus Christ is with us.
An interesting bit from Pastor Wurmbrand, on his time in Communist prisons.
It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners, as it is in captive nations today…. A number of us decided to pay the price fro the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their terms. It was a deal: we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching; they were happy beating us–so everyone was happy.
Perhaps all we need to do is be “happy”, regardless of the terms….
I like St. John Chrysostome’s quote on greed, and that some people could have fountains gushing gold and still want more.
When I purchased my husband’s wedding ring I was disappointed at the price, it cost less than $500 and possibly around $400, and I was ready to spend much more on something he would wear for (hopefully) many years. I was ready to spend about $800.
There is that theme that there are only a few Olympic sized swimming pools of gold in the world. It is interesting that humans are so drawn to it. It is interesting that the gold alone without a sense of the Creator of the gold can lead only to insatiable hunger.
It is similar to the physicality of bread that doesn’t satisfy. I struggle to understand how Cheetos can be considered food. So many calories and so little nutrition. We are in a land of abundant bread, home of the ‘cheap wheat’ from the Downton Abby TB show. There is a Fr. George Calciu quote I have wanted to post for months about his recognition of the lie of the American Dream, and he cites bread in it.
Hunger is so primary, and the hunger for beauty.
I like this article. I fully agree it is not apparent that life is a gift. I feel like I am just seeing that it is now, over this summer and lots of work and lots of honesty with my husband and also some work with a mental health professional.
What do you do when the solution to a problem creates a bigger problem? So much of American culture is that.
I remember learning of St. Callista. I think that name means chalice. One of my home run events as a Sunday School teacher was making quick bookmarks with the kids: draw a Chalice. Write ‘Our heart is a Chalice’ add a ribbon at the top.
So in the American culture the bread is viewed as empty of God, the gold is beautiful but economic only and empty (let’s stoke fear and have elderly folks buy up gold coins as the bubble bursts) and the flesh of our neighbor is often, very often, dismissable and empty. On Psychology Today there is a set of interesting articles about dehumanization. This is news to me, the author cites at its core is the belief that the other person is a ‘counterfeit human.’ They accept the physical similarity, it is not the skin that is the issue, it has to do with the withinness.
Small extra note, the Hubble Heritage site is good
I have liked the theme that within Orthodoxy the elements of CBT are present. My yard was full of so many sparrows this morning, more than I have ever seen. I will consider them. ‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ Goulston’s theme of Triune Agility could not be better accomplished than simply what we are invited to in Christ with the Holy Spirit’s generous help
Sending a hello and best wishes. Michael B I have been reflecting on your comments this summer and appreciate them
Nicole thank you so much for your edifying comment–pointing our attention to what lies in our own hearts. Again, thank you!
I think a problem with the ‘viral’ increase of secular infiltration – whether in preaching or any other aspect of Church action – is that, as mentioned before, it sounds like a modernist off-note over a traditional chant. The reason I say this again is because the overtly critical voices, on the other hand, can sound (when not too extreme) as harmonious notes. They actually are. The first problem is easily noticed by all who know the music, and by many others perhaps. The second problem, not so much.
In fact if done according to canonical procedure (the criticism) it can be valuable.
However, it can certainly rob a believer, (this critical parsing of everything – even when done rightly and not disobediently) of the one thing needful:
We cannot allow worries about the future or about distant locations to rob us of the present ‘here and now’. It is the only place where we encounter God (who takes care of the present, the future, the close and the far.)
I find it difficult to see how mathematics is not in some sense a “proof” of God in that it seems irreducibly platonic. As strong a “proof” is the existence of anything, since it logically requires a ground of being. But then logic as such seems isomorphic to math…
In reply to these thoughts:
“Our present trial, while not unprecedented, is encompassed by a period of deep political instability and cultural collapse. Strident voices within the Church are, to my mind, more harmful than helpful. There is a heroism of quiet and faithful obedience, patiently enduring temptation while allowing difficult times to pass. It is mature. Its fruit will be long-lasting. I have already seen many cases of those, young in the faith, who have been crushed on the rocks, left the Church, or fallen into terrible confusion led by the strident voices of the guardians of a heroic faith – whose claims to authority are all “charismatic” in nature. Its fruit is proof of its lack of authenticity.
Mostly, it seems to me, that, to a great extent, a fairly practical crisis is being magnified unnecessarily by voices pushing it to imaginary extremes. That happened plenty in classical times as well. Crazy is timeless.”
I was born a damp red clay from birth and thru life fired by sinfulness have become a brittle, cracked vessel. Chipped and worn by the journey, often repaired by love but still obdurate in my humanness. One day I will die and give up the shallow thoughts of this life. I pray, by the grace of Jesus Christ to be born again by repentance and made perfect by obedience.
My hope then is seen in “quiet and faithful obedience, patiently enduring temptation while allowing difficult times to pass.” But I still struggle with our fallen-away brothers and sisters for I feel it is we (“the religious ones”) who drive them away by our acceptance of twisted faith made to fit young earth bedrock, or by, as you note “guardians of a heroic faith – whose claims to authority are all “charismatic” in nature. Its fruit is proof of its lack of authenticity.” The Prosperity gospel preachers and the Manifest destiny proponents who would say none but they are destined for Christ redemption all at work in the upheaval now pushing for even more tumult – for power to control – (what an infantile thought?). It seems “Rome” is born again, or only left the world for short periods so we forget that the devil is real and indeed devious. I agree this is not Orthodoxy’s fight for it is beyond us to sway such a “force” before men. It is in our small but focused church to shelter the light and tend the flame of true faith.
I am 75 this year, married for 54 years, by the grace of God; still a sinner in thoughts and actions, quick to take offense but seeking to find God’s presence in all things and all peoples. I have traveled the world in my work and had the opportunity to meet many cultures. I was a construction brat growing up. My father was a foreman for a heavy concrete construction company out of St Louis, MO. We lived all over the US, Canada and Mexico; one job after the other, one school year split many times thus no real old friends until we finally settled in Buffalo, NY in my last year of junior high. There we became Presbyterian for a time before my parents separated, about my Senior year of high school. I joined the Catholic church at 19 and married my bride in a small Catholic church; Akron, NY August 20, 1966. We converted to Orthodoxy 18 years ago and attend a small OCA parish in Akron, OH.
My journey is not unique, just my struggle; we all have them and we seldom succeed without the kind assistance of events and people we have the good fortune to meet along the way. Yes, the parable is true, the Good Samaritan really exists! And in my humble opinion, it is often a surprise who those people are and how they affect our lives. Often in my life, it was more by the help of good atheist rather than the example of religious that helped me find peace. It is thru forgiveness we see the light and in humility find that knelling in prayer is like standing on a mountain high. In that journey, I have found the deep reference held by many for the presence of God (though they may say differently what is seen) in this world.
If we are honest, a recognizable symbol of our lives can be seen most like the Japanese art form of Kintsugi, a process of repairing old, chipped, broken pottery with gold joinery. The vessel is made new, by faith, by suffering, by obedience. The old becomes what God intended, useful, and more beautiful. This then is a simple hope and a more perfect symbol, we are all works of hand and heart by the grace of God. Not made whole by ourselves but thru the fire of life refined for the last journey.
Thank you, Father and fellow travelers for your shared thoughts and writing. Glory be to God.
The demons magnify our craziness and are always working to rile us up. One thing they hate is honest laughter. Honest laughter comes from and induces joy. I almost think laughter makes them explode. It is sort of like cosmic bubble wrap, part of the tinkling of laughter. Demons going pop all around me as I laugh. Pop, pop, pop.
Glory to God for All things.
Greg, like all logic the outcome depends on the truth of the premise. However unless one’s logic also allows for transcendent experience that both confirms it while at the same time is more and in some way confounding it is not sufficient or complete.
Kintsugi is an apt metaphor.
I can remember on more than one occasion as my pastor was waxing eloquently on Gods forgetfulness towards our sins, how I felt, dealing with the struggles in my heart.
I didn’t want my struggle to be forgotten. In many ways it was those struggles that have, and are continuing to make me, ‘me’.
When the end comes, all I’ll want to hear is, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful…”.
Thank you Father for George Herbert’s poem.
Here is a link that may be a helps and further illustration for others to share:
Best wishes for Labor Day, may we all find some respite in it to share.
As a Veteran I also have thoughts for our lost brothers and sisters and their extended families:
Thoughts for our longest war:
Father, if permitted, another link for George Herbert’s poetry to expand on the thought offered. Thank you for your writting and shared journey.
If not appropriate, please delete:
“Kintsugi is an apt metaphor.”
I don’t know if the God of “be ye perfect” and “white as snow” is keen on a patina of past sins like an Antiques Roadshow judge.
ScottTX, but the fact that we are made whole despite our sins and more beautiful because of His golden mercy is apt. In time with patience and diligence the gold will become more, not because of sin but because grace abounds. Every sin repented does however add more gold. Here is where the fractal nature of our life in Christ is on display. The inward dynamic spiral of repentance which often seems repetitive is not. As we go deeper find what appears to be old sins again, but merely a deeper fracture that the gold had not yet reached. It can be discouraging but we should rejoice because it means we are to God and more golden than we know as the George Herbert poem linked above clearly shows.
Perhaps the greatest of saints has become all gold but many of their writings would suggest not.
We are clay after all. Quite fragile when fired.
For those who brought fractals into our conversation–thank you. I have neither a scientific nor mathematic understanding of them but I do see the historical/spiritual applications at least a little. The discussion here has renewed and deepened my appreciation for the fractal nature of our life in Christ and has buoyed my heart.
God 8s good!
For those who brought fractals into our conversation–thank you. I have neither a scientific nor mathematic understanding of them but I do see the historical/spiritual applications at least a little. The discussion here has renewed and deepened my appreciation for the fractal nature of our life in Christ and has buoyed my heart.
God is good!
Forgive me, but you seem determined to cherry-pick the verses to make God as adamantine as possible. I think it’s off-balance and doesn’t serve you very well. I suspect the pressure comes from within yourself, and not from God. You’re in my prayers.
Matthew, it is not that our sins are forgotten in a human sense. They do cease to be a detriment so that we “have no further care” of them. A bit like the bag of sand that St. Moses used to demonstrate the futility of judging our brothers. The sand that leaked from his bag, a symbol of his own struggle with sin, did not cease to exist or be unremembered, it ceased to be a burden and was allowed to become a natural part of existence. All of which will be glorified.
“You’re in my prayers.”
Thank you. Maybe you’ll hear back where I haven’t.
God bless you and keep you.
Maybe I’ve been trying to approach God as a coping scheme. That having failed, I see God as unapproachable.
But it’s no good to have a one-way conversation, just to wait for a coincidence I can crown as providence. Prayer to me has been a failed attempt to invest meaning in lifeless brute facts, like laying a doll in a cradle and treating it as a baby.
But there is only silence back, dead as a doll.
“it is not that our sins are forgotten in a human sense. They do cease to be a detriment so that we “have no further care” of them.”
I understand that. There is still much of a “before-and-after” that takes place in my thinking, and consequently within some of my posts. You will note the recoil I said I had with what I perceived was an earnest attempt to express God’s love in some form, that when thought through, seemed to not make a whole lot of sense to me. I believe cognitive dissonance on my part is a good term for it. It’s one of the many things that helped lead me to the discovery of Orthodoxy.
I’ve spent much of my life doing the opposite: crowning providence as coincidence. It’s strangely comforting, though in a very sad and boring grey sort of way.
Your comment also made me think of this prayer by Macarius of Optina: “Thou, Who by Thy unspeakable goodness hast created us, tell us, why didst Thou fill our lives with grief? Dost not Thy mercy make Thee pity our sufferings? Why dost Thou grant me being and later take it away through a painful death?”
The rest of the prayer is worth looking up and praying, too, if you can bring yourself to it.
I think I could not survive very well at all if I was looking for a sign or waiting to be convinced or for “lifeless brute facts” to somehow seem otherwise. In short, my own subjectivity cannot bear such weight. First, my subjectivity is burdened by the cultural habits that revel in brute facts, and second, it is formed and shaped by the experience of my own brokenness such that every piece of evidence could easily be reverted into brute fact.
As a believer, I return again and again to Jesus Himself – as made known in the gospels and epistles. The one brute fact of His resurrection. I was trained in higher critical studies and techniques – (which lives in me like a festering wound). Thus, I’m able to doubt, to dismiss, to question with the best of them. That said, without tracing the entire process, I remain convinced of the brute fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and of the apostolic witness. It is a rock. I add to it the lives and witnesses of the saints – particularly a fairly select few whose examples echo that same brute fact.
The “logic” of the resurrection, for me, proceeds from there. Living, day-to-day, within that logic, love triumphs over evil, kindness over meanness, generosity over selfishness, sacrifice over preservation, providence over mere chance.
Some days, such as the one described at the beginning of this article’s post, everything around me seems charged with the resurrection. I could fight back and insist on reducing it to the dead stare of a doll’s eyes. But then, I notice that my own eyes begin to take on a death-like glaze and even the most obvious living things around me start to be reduced to dullness. There are days that the dullness threatens to crush me. I know what it is to be depressed – I was once hospitalized with clinical depression – some near 50 years ago. I take it seriously.
On such days, I often return to the brute fact of the resurrection itself. I will sit in front of the mute icons and sigh (I don’t weep very easily or I would). On such days, I sigh and simply ask for help – to be comforted – for the dullness to be lifted. Sometimes I sing. And, there are times that the dullness lasts for days.
What I do not do is spend much time inferring from my dullness to the world beyond. Those many years ago, in the darkness of the hospital, I prayed. There was an answer – terribly faint – a point of light. I can only say that in the point of light I left the hospital and resumed my life, often doubting and sometimes crushed with the pain. But I put one foot in front of the other and kept walking. In time, the dullness lifted and the light disappeared but the world seemed brighter.
To be fair, there are moments and days that everything seems suffused with light and the providence of the most minute things seems obvious. Occasionally, my joy is an ecstasy. But – all those things are simply the ups and downs of a human life. What remains, good days and bad, is the brute fact of the resurrection. That is the point of my faith – that on its basis I will “risk” my life, risk the joy that comes with it.
When I say I will pray for you – I mean that. I will sit before the icons and sigh for you as I sigh for myself and ask God to lift the weight of dullness and give you joy but – more importantly – set you on the rock of the brute fact of His resurrection.
God give us grace. These are hard times.
Indeed Father these are hard times. My own son suffers much the same as you describe as did my late wife. It is the fruit of progress I think. I am reading a book by Anthony Esolen “Up From the Ashes” that does a great job of disecting the myth of progress. What our management culture has brought us.
For me the incredible bright spot in The Incarnation. Of course the Resurection is of a piece and the fulfillment. I am blessed Jesus showed me the joy and power of the Resurection in 2004 Pascha. My wife of 24 years had reposed about 40 days prior to that Pascha. I went to that Pascha service mostly out of duty. A lot of me dead.
Then, just as we began to sing the Paschal Troparian, I “saw” Him rising and somehow my wife was with Him. My deadness also.
Why was I given this gift? I have no idea. I was there? All I know is, a bit like Lasurus, I was dead but now I live. Still sinful and careless but I live. Still in pain physical and emotional, but I live in the sure and certain promise of the Resurection
Part of my renewed life was finding my way here.
Scott, the mere fact you are here is a proof of Providence. Despite the mass of sin and death all around and within us here is a point of light. God’s voice is within you, still and small and hidden. Indeed His continuing word is the connective tissue of all we are and do.
You have touched my heart and I too sigh for you and share your tears. As many here undoubtedly do. I am too selfish a person for that to be anything other than God telling you He loves you.
You are not alone brother.
Fr. has mentioned the book, The Ethics of Beauty (Timothy Patitsas). It came to mind after reading your post. It’s a very long tome, but I think its essence might offer a “way” forward. Others can correct me if I’m misstating his thesis. He speaks throughout the book of the “Beauty-first” path to a relationship with God. He says that in the West, in particular, the path has emphasized “Truth-first”. In other words, trying to figure out intellectually what is True as a prelude to belief. Only then can people be willing to follow the prescribed path to virtue and Goodness. Of course, one could spend a lifetime trying to figure out what’s True in an intellectual sense–or in lieu of figuring it all out–settling for a dead kind of morality as a substitute. The Beauty-first approach is pretty much the opposite. He says that when we fall in love with what is Beautiful, we pursue it like that lost pearl and are willing to give up everything (even our passions) to attain some measure of that Beauty. I hear what Father is saying about Jesus, the Resurrection and all the Beauty He calls us to as that first Love that draws us “further in and further up.” The Prayer of the Hours speaks to this at the end when it says, “that we may attain unto the unity of the faith and the apprehension of Your Glory.” When I first learned that prayer, I found my eyes lifted above the ordinary and given glimpses, as I allowed, of the Beauty that is always there. Maybe a spider web, maybe a sunset, a smile…those are elements of the universe that can draw us closer to all that God wants to give us. They are a foundation for Hope–and hope is a door to Joy. As I told one of my sons this past week, such hope and joy are “real” in this moment . But, having experienced them, we begin to know that they can be there in the next moment as well, despite the challenges that each moment has for us. It’s a treasure that is really only present in this present moment. But, string those together moment by moment and gratitude and love will flood our hearts.
PS: where is Paula?
Thank you everyone. I understand the error of projecting my depression on the world as if I’m wearing stone-colored glasses, but it’s hard to imagine the full spectrum beyond the lenses.
I’ll read The Ethics of Beauty since the only thing for me that penetrates from a better world is Bach.
May you bathe in the sublime beauty of Bach.
Patitsas’ motivation in writing the book was to provide a different approach to Life for those suffering from PTSD. I hope that his insights and Bach’s language offer a glimpse of that mysterious world of the Kingdom that we can enter now.
May you bathe in the sublime beauty of Bach.
Patitsas’ motivation in writing the book was to provide a different approach to Life for those suffering from PTSD. I hope that his insights and Bach’s language offer a glimpse of that mysterious world of the Kingdom that we can enter now. Thanks for the reminder about Bach–I’m off to practice his messages to us, so to speak.
Bach is indeed beautiful. But it is too complex for me. I rely on three things a discipline:
1. The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”
2. The Bridegroom Troparian. See the transcription for the musically inclined the sheet music for this hymn and the one below can be accessed on http://ww1.antiochian.org/bridegroom-troparion
3. The Hymn: Lord God of Hosts be with us for we have none other hope in times of trouble but thee. Lord of Hosts have mercy on us. Based on Psalm 46
The minor tone in which each of the hymns is set heals by itself. The words and depth and meaning, a particularity to my life and struggle. But then. my favorite icon is of St. Peter sinking as he tries to walk on the water and Jesus reaching out to save him. We sink, He reaches out when we call.
Yes, Paula. Well, I had my comments on mute for 6 months. Maybe she does too. Praying she’s not sick.
Several have mentioned beauty. Yes, that has to be a large part of what keeps calling me to the liturgy. I love the liturgy. I long for the liturgy. Covid or not, it is better than life. And it is true.
I look at Hebrews or the Revelation, parts of Isaiah. They sure look like the liturgy to me. Yet it took God years to break through my obdurate heart to see its beauty and truth. But once the scales were off I knew I was home…bathed in the beauty of Christ and His glorious Church.
Me too. I will pray for you. Sending you a smile. I hope it will get to you as it is a fairly long distance.
A friend of the blog, Simon, sent these thoughts along for me to share with you. He has wrestled much himself.
I really and truly feel the concern for authenticity in your voice. What I hear in what you’ve written is an awareness of the mind’s staggering ability to delude itself. There is nothing more banal than the experience of one’s own ideas as truth. In many ways, the questions that you are raising are dangerous ones. They are dangerous because they demand an answer and if that demand is unresolved it can create ‘a hell in one’s heart.’ I think of Dostoevsky’s Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and his exchange with Zosima:
What is the balm to our despair? Here is the “answer” Alyosha gives Ivan:
Later Zosima says in conversations:
God is revealed in love. You cannot love the world and every grain of sand in it in the way Zosima describes without becoming the revealing that you are seeking. You will be transformed by love and you will know God for you will be like God.
All answers to hard questions are probably wrong answers. In fact, any answer that can be tap-tap-tappity-tapped out on a computer keyboard probably isn’t worth much in itself. But I think the kernel of “truth” is there in TBK and that you will discover yourself in it if you can relax to it.
Paula is taking a break from commenting for a while. I think she’s doing fine.
Paula is fine.
Despair of changing things of nothing being real especially God is a common affliction. Bach is real. Beauty is real.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for this beautiful essay. I thought of it as a reflection, a modern one, on the story of Genesis, which has been interesting me as I made a project for myself to read very slowly through the Gospels using the ‘under-word’ translations of the Greek text – just to see how might the meanings and positioning of words (plus a little bit the sounds) enliven the texts. I’m only still early in Matthew, inching along, but I think my project would be very similar to the C.S.Lewis one you describe. A lovely simple thing I found is that John isn’t the only one referring so charismatically and boldly to Genesis in his opening verses. Matthew does it as well, since the Greek in the list of ‘begats’ is directly related to the word ‘Genesis’. So, the entire set of verses on that subject is really Genesis unfolding. He is saying the entirety of Scripture to the point of Christ’s birth is like revisiting those early days before man is created. Telling the story again in light of what has taken place. Just as John later does in a different way.
(I’m minded that you have said the Old Testament cradles Christ – not those words, that’s true, but how I understand what you have told us. ) So, that makes your opening thoughts on the Chalice so meaningful, and bless you for letting us know how a priest would see it!)
I hope you won’t mind, Scott, if I add a bit to what others have said, and what Father Stephen has related about Dostoievski’s novel TBK. For me, the important moment in the novel was when Alyosha’s faith in Providence was tested – he and Ivan are the closest of the brothers, having the same mother. And undergoing his crisis, he really for a critical moment becomes his brother, experiencing that emptiness you describe, the lifeless doll his own prayer has become. And I think he has needed this experience, this hell. How does he survive it? In the most unlikely place – he’s not even praying; he’s in such emptiness, himself dead in spirit. But someone who is very aware of her own unworthiness takes pity, and that is the spark.
I’m sorry; it is so hard – I saw horses at the Kentucky Derby panic at the sight of their friends in masks. The announcer didn’t know why; that was why. But their friends were there. He’s there.
Please thank Simon for his reply.
Please forgive my curiosity, but which Bach were you referring to? I think I might benefit from imbibing that wine you might be drinking, if you don’t mind sharing.
Also, I thank Simon for his wise words. I haven’t read TBK, but I do intend to do so. I also found the Ethics of Beauty to be very helpful.
And yes, our beloved sister Paula is taking a break from the comments.
Thank you all for your edifying participation here!
I prayed for you for a while last night, to figure out what I could say that might be helpful. I wrote a lot, responding to your comments, because I have depression and study how to cope with and recover from it.
God is not keen on sin itself, but He is so forgiving that He accepts and loves sinners just as they are, and He knows we are not going to be perfectly neat and nice in this life. As Fr. Stephen recently wrote (if I recall correctly), salvation is messy, and so I would add that the character of a Christian person is messy too, as Jesus and St. Paul describe so well in the New Testament. But any human soul is primarily beautiful and virtuous, so let’s focus on the positive. To know God’s love, one must ask for it. A big next step in understanding God’s perspective on sin is to forgive oneself and others. Forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, is not technically possible by ourselves, rather it is a work God does through us. The parts we contribute are patience and self-compassion, which can be very difficult for Americans, especially when we are under perfectionistic pressure. Self-compassion is critical to recover from depression, as the tendency to beat oneself up is dangerous, while respecting oneself leads to happiness and good spiritual health.
The common tendency to assume our spiritual experiences determine our outcomes of faith, which determine our salvation, level of virtue, and relationship with God and His Church, tends to compress a lot of complex, good things into a seeming lack of grace. It actually takes years, even many years, to develop the advanced grace required for the mystical experiences we typically want, so Orthodoxy requires patience. Everyone wants to see the Uncreated Light, as Fr. Stephen also wrote about recently – but it’s a powerful, dangerous blessing, so we aren’t ready for it for a long time, perhaps even decades. And that’s ok – we can be good, holy Christians without having visions. The grace of faith is not about supernatural gifts, rather about seeing Christ in everyday life and enjoying His presence.
For someone seeking a full spectrum from a better world (to paraphrase your words), it can be frustrating to hear that the liturgical services are the main performance and mystical, sacramental event of the Church. But this is really a terrific opportunity, and we don’t need “more cowbell” as the saying goes. Instead, we need to appreciate this wonderful world as it is, and learn to enjoy all of our lives, not wait for another, better world. When Fr. Stephen says we must give “glory to God for all things,” which is the name of this blog, I think that means sincerely wanting to thank God for all things – not a hymnographic idea. We can live in Paradise in this life, as one retired priest in my area often says during his homilies, by repenting and serving Christ.
The best book I know of that teaches the Orthodox version of ‘positive thinking’ is Our Thoughts Determine Our lives, by Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. It is very popular and easy to read. The main point is to resist negative thoughts, and gradually reform our minds and hearts to perceive our lives with gratitude, joy, and hope. Part of depression is pessimism, so optimism can be part of the cure for it. Elder Thaddeus makes these lessons fun and charming with his charismatic personality and love. It’s not entirely like Western ‘positive thinking,’ but there are some important similarities.
God guides us even when He is distant. I think it’s normal to not sense God’s presence in a living, vibrant way for a while, but that does not mean He is missing. Abbot Tryphon is a great preacher and blogger on this topic – as he quotes Fr. Thomas Hopko, we need to take steps towards God when He steps away, like a child learning how to walk.
The dogmatic facts of Orthodoxy can seem lifeless until we see that they are all about God and His Body the Church. Then it becomes a living reservoir of wisdom and truth that we are eager to learn and implement.
Depression is not all bad – I think it is meant to be healed and untwisted, not eliminated like an enemy. Fr. Michael Gillis has written about how his monk friends, elders in his life I guess, teach him to transform his potentially sinful passions into love of God and healthy feelings. Here is his blog post about it:
The specific passion Fr. Michael wrote about is sexual desire, but I would add that depression is formally a passion (as one of the eight vices St. John Cassian wrote about, leading to acedia or weariness of heart), so it can be transformed too. We can grieve what saddens us, and learn to channel depression into positive emotions. It’s not all bad – all sins merely twist creation and energy into patterns that go against God’s Will. But the roots of a person or community are still good.
Depression is a painful sickness, and healing from it involves entering grief to deal with loss. Often specific painful experiences come up repeatedly as traumatic memories, causing depression in a PTSD way, similar to what Dee wrote on this blog very recently. And many people feel complicit in what happened to them, but the important thing is to heal the toxic shame that restricts our hearts. I think the The Ethics of Beauty (I watched an interview about it) is great for teaching people about recovery from shame. It’s a therapeutic book.
Scott, I appreciate your thoughtful contribution to this good conversation. I would encourage anyone who wants to take a next step toward overcoming depression to read my late husband, Donald Sheehan’s, new book (from Ancient Faith) entitled *The Shield of Psalmic Prayer.* This title is half of one of the book’s chapter titles, “7. The Sword of Depression and the Shield of Psalmic Prayer,” which explores Psalm 101 (LXX; 102 MT). The chapter précis opens with this: “The sword of depression is the despondency that cuts off prayer, which in turn cuts off our living connection with the Creator. To combat it we must engage in spiritual (not psychological) warfare, meeting the sword of depression with the shield of psalmic prayer with such strength and personal presence that the enemy’s sword breaks against our shield. As penitents, we live on earth as guerrilla fighters in enemy territory.” Don ends the chapter with this: “As the lights flicker and threaten to go out completely, the psalmist suddenly seizes hold of (or, better, is seized by) the unceasing aliveness of God, an aliveness that brings with it the divine compassion that is the antidote to the poison of depression. And in so seizing hold, the psalmist instantly pushes back against the overwhelming condition ( the *how* he is) and calls forth the deeper reality of *who* he is in relation to *who* God is” (p. 120).
Sorry, a correction. It was Scott’s comment that Ivan was replying to, so this is actually directed to Ivan.
“..on the rock of the brute fact of His resurrection…”
I have to admit, if the Higgs field didn’t reveal the resurrection, I would have had a very difficult time holding on to faith. But similar to what Simon describes, if it wasn’t that, it might have been love of all things. That too, in itself, might be difficult depending on our life experiences. Ironically, it was when I almost lost my life, that a true appreciation of life began to form. Under those circumstances and with about 50 years of hindsight, that experience has shown itself to be providential.
I spent more time in my life as a believer, but non Christian. I had defined Christianity through my experiences with it, albeit at the hands of those who were self-righteous Protestants. And my experiences with it ended while I was quite young because those experiences were quite revolting and psychologically damaging. As a result, I have few positive words to describe Protestantism. Although I have met a few loving and God-inspired Protestants. I can’t help commiserating with Scott. Although our life experiences are likely quite different.
I’m not sure whether you have an interest to explore Orthodoxy, Scott. But if you are, this blog would be an appropriate place for questions about it.
I’m not sure whether it is best to emphasize this at this point. But I believe I am reiterating what you have said in the past, and hopefully, will be of benefit.
Given the present circumstances in this culture, politics and pandemic, there is an ever increasing pressure toward separation and disengagement with others. And the effects of this can be seen with the rise in suicide and suicide attempts.
I sincerely honor the ‘spiritual way’ of healing. But this must be paired with cognitive therapy of the sort that has been proven to support psychological disfunction, just as we have seen in the Wisdom of Sirac (a biblical reference escapes me at the moment). We are human. Physical body and spiritual soul. Both need appropriate and healthy means of healing.
This is to Xenia and to Fr Stephen:
If I hear (or interpret) someone saying “not psychological help”, positioning a spiritual path only in cases in which someone is severely suffering from psychological damage/trauma, my radar goes up and, well, all I can say is ‘I’m not so sure about that’.
“Please forgive my curiosity, but which Bach were you referring to?“
Dee, J.S. Bach. His music sounds to me like it couldn’t have been born of this world, like Jesus’ call to love your enemies.
I very much share your thoughts/experience on Back. Indeed, transcendent beauty (when we encounter it on those rare occasions) is probably one of the clearest gateways to God – it simply defies explanation.
“Self-compassion is critical to recover from depression, as the tendency to beat oneself up is dangerous, while respecting oneself leads to happiness and good spiritual health.”
I’ve always found self-forgiveness to be troubling since you can never be sure if God’s forgiven you. Without that, self-forgiveness is unmoored. Maybe this is perfectionism, but a final Japanese sword-across-the-belly repentance has always appealed to me rather than petty cycles of sin and repentance, which seem to lack gravity and certainty.
Or is it that self-annihilation appeals because it feels like the ultimate trade to expiate all sin, and it also guarantees that feelings of blame and guilt go away? As in, “God, if I cease to be, will you stop blaming me?”
That is, it’s better to feel nothing than to feel bad. Some people find temporary self-annihilation in a pill bottle or flask, though I’ve avoided that so far.
You can ALWAYS be sure that God has forgiven you. That is the point. That seems to me to be almost the entire point.
ScottTX, indeed the forgiveness jas already bern given. We just need to enter into it. I make it difficult on myself. What I could have had 50 odd years ago took me a long time to accept. Jesus does not force us or really demand much from us. That is perhaps why it is so difficult because, fundamentally simple. Not easy.
ScottTX, Thank you for this entire latest discussion on the thread. I relate to it all.
Personally, I find that I have little trouble these days with the idea that God has ‘forgiven’ all my manifest and multilayered sins and inadequacies. The inverted commas are partly because I do wonder whether God actually ever had a problem as such, and because the word can sometimes seem to carry judicial overtones that are unhelpful. The idea of God’s forgiveness is deeply connection to mercy, and rescue. I keep on coming back to the parable of the two sons and wondering at the very non-judicial image of “forgiveness” in it.
Rather, I currently feel that my real problem is that at a fairly deep level I just don’t (can’t?) forgive myself for them, or let them go, or think they should be let go of. Which means that while I may word “God forgive me”, another part of me does not want God to forgive me, because he “shouldn’t” and if he did that is a cop out. That may sound a bit bizarre, but alas I think it’s the psychological truth of much of my own existential and religious angst. Not really God’s problem, it’s about me and my projections. I am not entirely sure what to do about it, because seeing it in this way does not make the feel of it go away. I did say “currently” though, above. No doubt the problems will later reveal themselves to be something different – if I survive this round!
I think (hope?) part of dealing with all of this is just sticking with it, and trying to stay kind, hard though that often is.
One thing I have found helpful is to just to sit with the story of the dark stranger in Genesis 32 who appears from nowhere and starts trying to wrestle Jacob, and indeed spends all of what must have been a very long night trying to throw him. (That image by itself is a total icon.) At daybreak, having not prevailed, the stranger even successfully wounds Jacob that leaves a lasting mark. But the key turning point in the story comes as the stranger tries to leave at this point. Surely most people in such a situation might say “good riddance”. But Jacob’s insight was at that point to hold on to the stranger until it gave him a blessing. By doing that the stranger reveals that Jacob had been struggling with God and prevailed and gives him a new name (i.e. tranformation).
I can’t help but feel that one way of relating to long dark suffering (inner) times is knowing when to wrestle (most of the time!), then when to hold on until the suffering offers up a blessing. Suffering that is just interminably suffered then run away from is just useless suffering. If it can be made to offer a blessing, then it may reveal God’s presence in a very unexpected way and lead to transformation.
At least that’s the way it feels to me.
I still often feel I am wrestling in the dark though, if that’s any consolation.
“ I just don’t (can’t?) forgive myself for them, or let them go, or think they should be let go of. Which means that while I may word “God forgive me”, another part of me does not want God to forgive me, because he “shouldn’t” and if he did that is a cop out. That may sound a bit bizarre, but alas I think it’s the psychological truth of much of my own existential and religious angst.”
It is not bizarre because that’s what I think too. It doesn’t sound right for God to forgive my sins. I want some stripes on my back I can point to and tell the accusers inside and outside my head, “Buzz off, I paid!”
My own personal accuser wants me to pay. Blame heaped on blame heaped on blame until my forehead gets tight and I take a daytime nap to check out of consciousness.
The god you’re describing is certainly the one we have been inundated with in this culture. That god doesn’t like people of color either, or so my mother was told. That psychological damage you describe (wanting to be punished) was/is intentional by the adversary. That same voice once told me that I don’t deserve good things in my life such as a loving husband or healthy and happy children.
I emphasize this point. This is the voice of the adversary and not the voice of God.
God does love you and wants good things for you, body and soul.
Another thought. I mentioned the parable of the two sons. Most people seem to identify it with the younger (prodigal) one who behaved appallingly including in his treatment of his father, and is (seemingly self-interestedly mainly) looking to return to his true home because of the mess he is in. The description of the father rejoicing and sacrificing his own dignity to make that happen out of love is a remarkable and powerful story of overwhelming mercy. In the end, the problem with healing and reconciliation taking place is neither the prodigal nor the father, it’s the !%$#* elder son, who ends up scorning his father (“Listen!” is his first word to his father (!) and pointing out how he feels wronged by the father’s mercy towards his brother) out of contempt for his wayward brother. It is he who will not come to the party of mercy being shown.
I definitely have a prodigal that needs to come home, and keeps on needing to come home. I have little doubt that I have a very merciful father. My great stumbling block is this huge inner elder brother who is as stubborn as all heck. One thing I really like about the parable is that we don’t hear how it ends. Although the father’s mercy was being extended to him despite his outrageous impertinence did he ever become capable of being softened by it? Did the elder son ever come into the house? Was there ever any reconciliation between the three of them, and if not what happened to the house, the house not healed because of the elder son.
That’s a maybe roundabout way of suggesting that when your “personal accuser” pops up (and will, like Jacob’s dark stranger keep on popping up, alas), maybe think of him as your inner elder brother per the parable. Remember the father’s words and invitation to him to., and that he is loved, and if the household is ever to be made whole again he will need to come to the party and become reconciled, recognizing that there is a kind of eternal pattern in all of this.
That’s one of the things I try to do, anyway, when engaging in the ongoing wrestle until daybreak when hopefully I can get this elder brother to give me a blessing.
Godspeed with you in your struggle my fellow traveller.
Thanks, Ziton. I had never looked at the parable that way.
Thank you for recommending your late husband Donald’s book! I read the book’s description and the online sample pages’ foreword and introduction right away, and it sounds very interesting and beautiful. I plan to keep reading the sample pages, and I appreciate the reminder to pray the Psalms more often. I am not sure when I might buy Donald’s book, but I have been looking for an Orthodox commentary on the Psalms for a while. I will keep the Psalms and the need to study them in mind.
In my response to Scott, I focused on the Orthodox relational principles and theological truths that can help someone who has depression but is not yet ready for a traditional prayer rule. Of course praying the Psalms and studying them is very helpful for recovery from any vice and disease – but not everyone reads them, and many people seeking God are not comfortable with rigorous prayer and lack a spiritual father to guide them in learning how to do it. It can take a long time to get ready for daily, disciplined prayer – and I’m sure that’s fine with Christ, Who is patient and wants people to grow in a calm, unhurried way. I think the book of Donald’s journals that you edited is an advanced text, not so accessible for seekers who are at an earlier phase of Orthodox life or not yet catechumens. To approach the Psalms from an Orthodox perspective is difficult for those coming from another religious background.
Spiritual warfare often overlaps with one’s psychological issues and skills. My parish priest encourages me to participate in psychological therapy, and both Orthodoxy and the scientific consensus validate the benefits of counseling for treating depression and other mental or emotional diseases. All diseases are also spiritual, but that does not make therapy worldly or ineffective, as Dee eloquently wrote. I know the psychological community is struggling with an ethics crisis, as they lack training or a consensus foundation of faith in counseling on moral issues, and made a big mistake in turning to Westernized Buddhism for their postmodern methods of treatment. But many psychologists are Christians, and we had better not reject their professional work, considering that it mostly serves God and works well.
While Dee wrote about the very popular, scientifically rigorous and broadly effective kind of therapy called CBT, it is not a catch-all. Rather, many professionals say, and I I agree, that each disease is better treated by different methods, from ACT to psychoanalysis, depending on each patient or client’s unique needs and personality. There is a wide range of approaches, which can involve poetry or literature. Sometimes I read passages from the Psalms with my psychologist for insight into my experiences and inspiration for how to cope and live well – therapy can absolutely be Christian and spiritual.
Few Christians realize that depression is technically a sin, studied by St. John Cassian and other Church Fathers. St. John wrote that depression proceeds from anger and causes acedia, in a chain of moral and emotional events. That idea is difficult to understand for people living in a modern, Western society, but shows that psychology is an integral part of Orthodox patristic science. The process of therapy is meant to aid in self-understanding and repentance, just like prayer. I don’t think we need to disagree about how depression is overcome – the different approaches are mostly compatible and each person finds a unique path ordained by Christ.
I really like this part of the end of chapter 7 that you quoted – “divine compassion … is the antidote to the poison of depression.” That thought is well put and very Orthodox. I think psychological warfare is part of God’s compassion for humanity – He provides many tools and treatments, not just the Psalms or prayer. I do not like to separate spirituality from psychology too much – the human psyche is made in Christ’s image, and our battle with sin is multifaceted.
A blog cannot provide pastoral care the way only an ordained priest can. I hesitate to fully reply to your newest comments, because it sounds like I can’t and shouldn’t try to persuade you of God’s right and desire to forgive everyone “by the Light of His Resurrection.” I can only offer a few thoughts.
According to St. John Cassian, the eight deadly or cardinal sins happen in a chain of events – gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, restlessness, and separately, self-esteem and pride. Dejection means depression, and so the battle with depression always involves preceding anger. That is why I wrote on self-forgiveness – it is ideal for dealing with the self-anger that usually causes depression. It is usually painful at first and can seem fake, it is actually a deeply Christian thing to do. It typically leads to a discovery that we are angry with other people too, perhaps with God Himself, and need to work on forgiveness a lot more than we thought.
Forgiveness is one of Fr. Stephen’s most controversial blog post topics. Forgiveness is almost socially forbidden – it goes against the culture where we are “addicted to outrage” and demand punishment of enemies, especially in politics. But this is one of the biggest ascetic trials in human life, so of course it’s difficult. I have spent thousands of hours working on forgiveness and studying it for more than a decade – but I am relatively new to Orthodoxy and very young, so I don’t have much experience to share. Loving my former enemies and respecting myself is good and feels authentic. I can’t prove the transformation of heart that happens through forgiveness is real, but I can continue to practice it.
Here is the relevant essay from St. John Cassian:
These quotes might be helpful:
“The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control.”
“The only form of dejection we should cultivate is the sorrow which goes with repentance for sin and is accompanied by hope in God. It was of this form of dejection that the Apostle said: ‘Godly sorrow produces a saving repentance which is not to be repented of (2 Corinthians 7:10). This ‘godly sorrow’ nourishes the soul through the hope engendered by repentance, and it is mingled with joy.”
Thank you Ivan, your few thoughts were very thorough.
Ivan, et al
Just a quick note on depression (acedia) as a sin. Our Western mindset has a very moralistic understanding of sin and so to say that depression is a sin can be easily misheard. The modern mind thinks “sin” means a “wrong action that I choose.” Very voluntaristic. Therefore, saying to someone that “depression is a sin” is heard as “and it’s your fault.” Which is just the sort of thing that can crush a soul. It would me.
In Orthodox thought, sin and death are pretty synonymous. “Death” is the disease at work in us, separating us from God, alienating us even from our own selves, slowly working to destroy soul and body. “Sin” is, more or less, the various ways that work of death is manifest. In that sense, “sin” is a symptom rather than the disease. As such, just like physical symptoms, a particular sin can even be helpful as a signal of something deeper going on.
Depression has many causes. Very few of them are affected by choices, other than a choice to seek help. Medication can assist in a process of healing. Some people, for a variety of reasons, are simply “prone” to depression. Those, for example, who are prone to anxiety are frequently prone to depression – they go together. Shame, I think, particularly toxic forms of shame, are a frequent source of recurring depression. Healing its death-dealing wounds can be a long, slow process that needs therapeutic assistance. This is particularly true when the shame wound begins in early life.
What fascinates me, is the general soundness of patristic thought on much of this stuff – when it is properly understood and translated. The reason is that they were working largely from experience. The framework was largely drawn from earlier, philosophical sources, and honed in Christian experience. In the same manner, we should not be hesitant to draw from frameworks that have a clinical/medical basis.
The other caveat is this: we read the texts of the fathers, but often have only our imagination to help us understand what they mean. For example, the use of “godly sorrow” (penthos) in the quote from St. John Cassian. We think we know what it means, but can actually only know what it means because we seen or encountered in an authentic form in someone, or stumbled upon it ourselves. The same is true of much else. Thus, it’s good to read with a healthy ignorance – realizing how much we don’t know.
Pray, and when you do “know” something, use it. Be patient. None of us are being judged on how well we do any of this – except in the sense of God’s judgment finally healing us.
While much can be gained focusing on our sins specifically as we each need to, we should always be gentle with ourselves and each other. I have been in the Church awhile, but am still young in the work in many ways. What has helped me recently is to recognize, as Father says, that sin, whatever its specific form, is the death of separation from God. As I strengthen my longing for God and turn to Him in repentance (sorrow for being separated from Him) forgiveness of myself and others is much easier. How can I forgive someone who has hurt me deeply? It can turn into an effort of will. More death.
Scott is right, none of us deserve grace but that is just it, earning and deserving it are not part of what God does. So, I rarely ask for forgiveness, just mercy. Mercy is always a gift.
If I can come to the point where I want to punish myself a little bit less, that is a aspect of mercy. As Shakespeare says: “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven upon the earth beneath.” Dew forms out of the very air around us. So does mercy. Indeed, mercy is everywhere.
Asking for mercy, I am acknowledging that I am unworthy and deserve to be punished and all of that. None of the facts of the case, so to speak, change. And yet, everything changes.
“I have no wedding garment to worthily enter”. Yeah true, really true but so what? “Make radiant the garment of me soul oh giver of Light” and save me anyway.
Is it presumption to ask God to save me even when I am totally unworthy? It would be except for one thing, Jesus words on the Cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
All of our sins are done in ignorance. Only the evil one and his minions sin in full knowledge of what they are doing. But when they approach us they always use subterfuge. They like to trick us into thinking that their temptations, no matter what they are, come from our own knowledge and motivation. Mostly they do not, The evil one is quite good at mimicking our our inner voice. Most of us do not want to sin, our own inner voice is just too weak for us to hear. It is masked by the tempters. One big one they use is worthy/not worthy dichotomy. That is a false dichotomy. Only the lamb that was slain is worthy. Rev. 5:12 If I focus on my unworthiness, I have closed and locked the door of my own prison from the inside. But the key I still have.
My late wife once worked in a liquor store late at night alone.. One night, a young man came in in a mask and and tried to rob the place, threatening her with harm. She looked him in the eye and simply said, “You don’t want to do that”. He came to himself and turned around and left. She was able to recognize who he really was and speak to him. She had seen him earlier in the week casing the place.
God does the same thing but much more easily. He can do that fully because He created us and then became incarnate. He literally knows us from the inside out.
Scott, if you have not, you might want to read St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation” the version with the forward by C.S. Lewis.
I really wish there was a way to mark comments so they could be categorized and returned to with ease. I have tried copying discussions/comments to save but it is too much to track. Ah well.
A wonderful, richly rewarding post, thank you!
An interesting detail it reminded me of is in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, he refers to gold as “sun’s blood.”
I appreciate your constructive criticism very much, and try to agree with you. Thank you for explaining my mistake so patiently. As I wrote earlier, a priest or clinician is needed when someone is depressed – because trained professionals are more polite and helpful, especially with the sacraments and spiritual questions. My approach to my own healing, which I share rarely because I recognize my ignorance, is less educated. Frankly I have concluded that discussing depression or many other normally pastoral topics is unlikely to help someone outside of formal counseling or close friendship. It is tempting to discuss how I approach repentance because I enjoy the process of theosis so much.
My understanding of sin is not very Western like it was when I was younger and misled by American popular culture. I don’t believe God gets angry about sin, and am sure everyone will eventually be saved, perhaps after some undetermined length of time in further repentance after death. And I see sin as a sad thing to be healed, not a reason to feel guilty. Once while visiting a local prison as part of a college class, I learned a lot about guilt. I already felt that it was not useful in repentance, and rather believed in contrition or compunction. We were warmly welcomed in the prison, but the guilt common among the inmates seemed like America’s popular version of repentance that does not really work well. So I see a conflict between the guilt-focused culture and Orthodoxy’s heart-centered approach to how one should feel about one’s sins.
The scientific approach to depression can be disempowering or even unethical, which is why some Christians express anti-psychological sentiments. That is a big part of the comments I was responding to, but not what I normally think. Some people feel a need to understand their condition in a moral way, which can be moralistic. I think morality can heal us, if we understand and apply it well. I don’t want to give up on things that trigger shame, because that goes against St. John Chrysostom’s teaching that we need healthy shame, as it provides awareness of boundaries and reality. I think I missed how it can be hurtful to cite that ‘dejection’ (not acedia, that’s the next one in the text) or depression is a sin because I find this knowledge so precious and healing (as I explain further below). If sins are diseases of death, then I conclude that all diseases are caused by someone’s sin (not necessarily that of the sufferer himself). This is another view of Providence, where nothing happens without a cause.
I love St. John of Kronstadt’s teaching about “being forced into sin,” as it goes well with the modern idea of a cycle of violence where “hurt people hurt people.” Nobody would sin if they knew what they were doing and had a clear vision of God’s Will with the ability to obey Him. I agree that much sin is involuntary – but if we only counted ‘culpable’ sins, we would have nothing to confess. “God does not punish,” as Abbot Tryphon writes, so I do not mean that sin is a reason for guilt, rather I find it useful to keep the passions in mind for identification and proactive response. I feel deeply motivated by knowing what to call my sins and how to interpret them, which helps in planning a course of treatment and recovery. The virtues are used to resist the vices, and this moral knowledge provides guidance.
When I discovered St. John Cassian’s writings on the passions, I felt relieved of shame about my diseases and inspired to repent comfortably. It felt like a theological Christmas present, as I found it online around that time of year. I don’t find St. John’s writing more moralistic than that of St. Paul or some words of Jesus Christ – in fact Jesus is harsher, so it can be painful to read the Gospel. I trust that they all intend to help people heal and grow, not feel bad about themselves.
Because modern science is Darwinistic (perhaps unnatural competitiveness is inherent to evolutionary theory, but I don’t know – my concern is with “survival of the fittest” being exclusionary and inhumane), and attaches hypocritically worse stigma to mentally ill people while claiming to reduce stigma by de-moralizing conditions such as alcoholism. It feels worse to be ‘evolutionarily unfit’ according to a dehumanizing, atheistic ideology than to be a sinner battling my sins by God’s loving grace. I see morality as a reliable part of the way Christ leads people and nations out of Darwinism and eugenics.
If sins are only diseases, then people will restore the stigma around sin in clinical or scientific ways. We can’t avoid stigma by using a disease model in a secular, harsh world – the stigma just goes somewhere else and returns again. The psychological community promises humanistic acceptance, but only God can make us accepting people – the ability to not judge others, whether they are mentally ill or not, is a gift only Christ can give. Christ’s love, patience, and forgiveness defeat stigma. I seek a balanced therapeutic approach that sees the paradox of morality and uses it to transform shame into joy. All negative emotions, including shame and guilt, can be healed into positive ones. Studying morality can be crushing or liberating, so I’ll try to err on the side of caution in mentioning it.
I was depressed for a long time but feel usually happy these days. The guidance and support of an elder abbess I visited on a brief pilgrimage last year made a huge difference in my self-image, behavior, and hope for the future. I think many people need to hear the kind of wisdom and clairvoyant insight that only elders have, but few people know where to find a monastery. By the way, the abbess said humanity was created much later (9,000 years ago) than the cosmos was (billions of years ago), so the age of the Earth is independent of human history. I think that timeline allows for peace between different factions in the cosmology debates – young humanity, old Earth and universe.
Thank you for your patience, as well. I also suspect that we have a different understanding of the word(s) moral, morality. Healthy shame is absolutely essential in life – and little understood. The abuse of the morality model that I have in mind is far more geared towards toxic shame. But, that is something that I’ve written about elsewhere.
My “corrections” were simply the concern for how someone might have misconstrued what you were saying. There is very little that can be said in these matters of the inner life without some hesitancy as to how it is being heard. I have seen very innocent remarks send someone into a psychological tailspin of devastation. I add to that the daily reality that readers here come from the full range of cultures and cultural experience across the globe. I am amazed that together we do not step all over each other all the time. That, I take it, is a work of grace.
God keep you in your journey.
If sins are only diseases, then people will restore the stigma around sin in clinical or scientific ways. We can’t avoid stigma by using a disease model in a secular, harsh world – the stigma just goes somewhere else and returns again.
I think that the world does not repent of its sin. Rather, it repackages it. As has been pointed out on this blog many times, the human heart has not changed throughout time. What was once “just a negro/chinaman/woman/fetus” is now “just a disease” (or some other identification). This is not “progress”, but rather a refocus of the same, sinful heart on a more socially acceptable victim. It is, sadly, how a heart steeped in the world, works. A never ending culture of death.
Byron, Ivan, etc.
My reason for using a “disease” model for talking about sin is not really so much about removing the stigma associated with it. It’s that the moral/voluntaristic model is inaccurate and does not adequately describe what is going on inside us. If you read Romans 7, you will see this clearly described by St. Paul. “The good that I would do, I do not do, while the thing I do not want to do is the thing that I do…” etc., and he describes this as a “body of death.” “Sin is at work in my members.” It’s not my imagery – it’s St. Paul’s.
The moralistic approach’s failures are well-illustrated by their near total ineffectiveness in treating things like addictions. You can “will” to quit and fail again and again. The “disease” model is simply more accurate.
Now, we have responsibilities in dealing with our diseases. Some, indeed, are “our fault.” But, frankly, figuring out whose fault something might be still doesn’t fix anything other than if you’re trying to figure out who to punish. Punishment is also among the most ineffective things ever devised.
Understanding the nature of sin and its ways of working in us – is foundational for its healing. Christ makes healing and forgiveness synonymous in his healing of the paralytic. If someone finds a moralistic approach to be helpful, well and good. But it has a very nasty history.
It is worth noting that moralistic thinking is extremely popular among atheists and the radical left. They are perhaps the most moralistic people of our time. It makes me suspicious.
The photograph at the beginning of your post is so beautiful, I nearly wept.
Being very quick to judge myself, it is too rare that I step back from the habit and trust God to be my only judge. Ironically, I have to remind myself that He’s perfectly capable of getting my attention.
You are welcome for my patience; I like your perspective a lot. My love of morality is probably much more unusual than I knew about. I am very grateful for the context you provide about how people often experience moral and moralistic ideas. I forget how much toxic shame happens through moralism, especially in cases of bullying. It took me a long time to find a way to enjoy morality in a way that feels authentic and comfortable. I will consider why in our society and world so many people are struggling with toxic shame. I think it means there are multiple steps to the process of repentance, first seeking God’s love and then changing behavior based on His commandments.
I read Romans 7 to see what you refer to, and I think what St. Paul says is more complex, but he is difficult to understand without a commentary. In 7:12-14, he seems to say that the moral law is holy, not wrong, but sin takes advantage of the law and human weakness. To me that means we can’t avoid the law by using another model – moral problems are not going away except through healing that “delights in the law of God” (7:22). I now think a healthy use of God’s law, with comfortable shame, is very rare, so I should thank God for giving me such grace.
St. Paul develops an advanced idea in the end of this chapter, one I have contemplated many times over the years. I think he is saying he follows God’s law in his mind, but continues to struggle with addiction in his flesh. He doesn’t seem to ever let go of moralism, or he would not be so moralistic throughout his epistles in general.
In my experience studying and praying with God’s law does help with addiction, but not in a conventional way. My method is to cultivate authentic, ‘intrinsic’ motivation to obey God and respect everyone involved in the moral situation, so I commit to the law in a bright, cheerful way. It feels liberating, not judgmental. Fr. Michael Gillis’ method, as described in his blog article that I linked to earlier, is the most similar account I’ve seen, but it’s also a successful application of morality. Compassion for oneself and others, together with loving attachment to one’s family and all humanity, are critical aspects of how I see morality integrated in the cosmos and human communities. In other words, the fact that people repeat habitual sins many times for me is not a reason to set moralism aside – rather I seek a creative way to use the law for healing, not judgment. As long as it is framed supportively, the law probably won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
A disease model can be theological or secular, and include morality to various degrees. I am concerned by how secular models are usually less merciful, even if they are not moralistic. In fact I find God’s law itself merciful, so leaving it out feels unfair to people with moral challenges. Perhaps my perspective is different because I had big moral questions for many years, and felt undereducated about what is right and wrong. So now that I am aware of Christ’s commandments, I find Him telling me how to behave comforting and beautiful. Though I struggled with toxic shame, I figured out that it was not of God, so there had to be another way.
I find the ‘chemical dependency’ model of addiction materialistic, as it focuses on the brain’s pathology, not the heart’s shame wounds or a person’s inner pain. I don’t like how the disease model is usually presented, but it can probably be used pleasantly too.
I have felt healed by Confession and when forgiving others, but I don’t think we can rely on God granting healing simultaneously with forgiveness. I am sure my sins are fully forgiven, and bear little resentment, but am still sick.
I agree that moralistic thinking is popular among radicals, but the radical right is moralistic too, not just the left. I suspect, based on experience, that radicals have heavy shame wounds that motivate their activism and outrage. Perhaps it’s not really sincere how they blame opposing politicians for their suffering and dissatisfaction with society, rather a cry for help. I feel a lot of compassion for those caught up in radicalism, as it took me years to recover from that kind of despair, fear, and idolatry. However radicals are not committed to traditional morals, rather to political ethics, which is more about scandals, power, and winning arguments. So I see them using judgment and anger as rhetorical weapons against their opponents, not in truly moral ways. Political correctness is a shallow substitute for God’s law.
Atheists tend to accuse the Church and/or God of moralistic judgment and hypocrisy, while seeking an alternative form of justice. Failure to morally thrive is a big reason people leave the Church – I think it’s one of the biggest reasons youth tend to leave. People need ways to repent that are comfortable and based in Christ’s love – and a lot of that means needing role models to imitate. The lives of saints are very helpful for inspiring repentance by example. I guess that’s what I need to read next.
You’re obviously working through all of this quite carefully. You’re also quite committed to the term “moral” and “moralistic,” etc. Along with a number of other Orthodox writers, I prefer to use that term to describe a particular way of seeing the Law and rules, etc., and therefore do not use the term in very positive manner. It is worth noting that it is not a Biblical term, and is therefore imported into the Scriptures when we choose to use it to describe what we’re reading. I do not think St. Paul is describing a “moral” approach except when he was describing his failure.
I would define “moral,” in terms of “moralistic” as the effort, by the will, to follow a set of prescriptions imposed from outside. That’s why it can be attributed to atheists and non-believers. Anybody can “try” to follow a set of rules, regardless of whether the rules are good or bad. Worse still, following the rules can make you “moral” but mean nothing more. The Pharisees (including St. Paul before his conversion) kept the rules of the Law very well (or so they thought) and Jesus described them well: “You are white-washed tombs, but inside you are filled with dead men’s bones.”
It is not our failure to keep rules – no matter how good the rules – that is our problem. The Law never could have given life.
What is required and needed by us is an inner change – an inner resurrection. I choose to use the term “healing” and associated terms to describe that process. Rules, rightly understood, can be of some assistance, but they are not the primary means of that healing. That healing comes through union with Jesus Christ – something that is rooted in the sacraments and the life associated with it. In this new life, God uses even our weakness to save us: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
The terms “moral” and associated words have a long history in English. They have been part of theological and ethical systems that were not grounded in Orthodox thought – usually in Catholic and Protestant thought and then borrowed into secular ideas. In my writing, I am trying to separate some things out for the purpose of better understanding – so people can begin to see clearly the teaching of the Orthodox faith without confusion and mixing it up with all of the various mistaken and misguided things they have heard through the years from these other sources. It requires me to be careful with words, but is a ministry that I think has borne good fruit in helping people to understand the faith.
If you find it helpful – well and good. If not – then just lay it aside. I don’t mean to argue with those who find it less than helpful, but I need to continue to be clear in how and why I use the words I do for the sake of those who do find it helpful.
It helps me to remember that everything about our will, thoughts, attitudes, actions, and so on, is ultimately about our relationships with God and others. Nothing of importance – in the end – is about our performance relative to a code of conduct. A static moral standard can push loving others right out of our heart; It can become an idol. “Love God with all your … and your neighbor as yourself.” Moralism fixes our attention us on our own performance instead of others. The very purpose and fulfillment of our life is to embody and give Christ’s love. I believe that moralism feeds an insidious form of pride because it encourages us to look at and judge ourselves. Since Christ is our standard and judge we’re better off looking into his eyes for approval.
In more practical, simplistic terms, I have begun praying daily to not be a stumbling block for anyone else. It provides a focus that keeps me grounded, I think, and helps me to not impose myself on anyone else.
Thanks Byron. That’s a great idea.
Great response. Thank you for that clear formulation.
I think we agree more than it seems, due to our different language usage and cultural backgrounds. I don’t want to argue either, so I will simply share two prayers below that I think show a non-moralistic unity of righteousness energized by God’s love.
I just finished rereading your book, and liked the last two chapters the best. Those chapters reminded me to focus on relationships and reconciliation to see God in others. I appreciate the encouragement to forgive generously.
Come, O Lord and perform Thy will in me. Thy commandments find no place in my cramped heart, and my poor mind cannot discern their content. For if Thou wilt not come and abide in me, I perish. I know that thou dost not coerce but I pray Thee, in power enter into my house and give me new life. Transform my benighted pride into Thy humble love. By Thy light transfigure my all perverted nature, that not a single passion posses me to prevent the coming of Thy Father and Thee, to make me a holy abode for the life which Thou Thyself has vouchsafed me to behold. Yeah O Lord, I beseech Thee, perform in me this token of Thy kindness.
Thank you, Ivan. St. Sophrony has been an important influence in my thinking.
I mentioned J.S. Bach above, but forgot to mention that if you too love Bach, there’s an online video project to record all his works by the Netherlands Bach Society at http://www.allofbach.com. One of the most wholesome things on the internet.