Healing the Soul and Unbelief

I have long been convinced that “believing” is grounded in something other than intellectual activity. I am simply unimpressed by most of the intellectual arguments that I see regarding both belief and unbelief. In both, I hear so much that is unspoken, and even much that is likely hidden from the speakers themselves. That being the case (if I am right), then conversations about belief require great patience and not a little sympathy.

We live in a world that is packed with meaning – at least – that has been the human experience for longer than recorded history. We do not know, for example, what the cave paintings left by our prehistoric ancestors mean, but we can be assured that the paintings had a meaning at the time. Indeed, their paintings are a strong reminder that we have ever-so-much in common with them despite the vast differences in civilization that separate us. We do not know what the paintings mean, but we know something of the urge to paint.

The Church describes human beings as made in the image of the Logos. On that basis, we are sometimes hymned as “rational (logikos) sheep.” Human beings think and speak. There is a relationship between the thing that we perceive (say, an Auroch) and its depiction (a wall painting). The walls of the caves are covered in logoi, “words,” if only we knew how to read them!

When human beings speak, we inadvertently offer a world-beyond-the-world. There is the experience (my vacation), and there is the telling of the tale (“you won’t believe what happened on my vacation”). Were someone to insist that only the thing-itself mattered (“therefore, I don’t want to hear about your vacation”), the world would soon collapse into a muteness that even the animals transcend.

I believe that a common element within human experience can be suggested by the word “transcendent.” It is an experience of beauty, of goodness, of wonder, that goes beyond itself. It demands poetry and art, songs and symbols. And despite our love of technology and the giftedness of our machines, it is the transcendent that speaks most fluently to our lives. We get out of bed in the morning because of transcendence (or so I believe). The loss of transcendence is something akin to death.

With the experience of transcendence comes our effort to express it. We reach for words, for images, for symbols, for anything that suggests what we want to say. And, strangely, transcendence wants expression. We can only suppose that early humans found animals to be filled with wonder. Animals live, breathe, eat, multiply, but they also supply food. Their strength and their skills provoke admiration.

Much the same could be said of the stars. Our modern experience of the night sky is greatly limited, having become but a poor hint of its natural brilliance and wonder. The first time I saw a night sky in the high desert I was almost frightened. You could have read a book by the light of the Milky Way. When the Moon appeared, it loomed with a brightness I had never imagined. The stars we group together as the signs of the Zodiac were obvious: they begged to be named and observed.

All of these early observations suggested to our ancestors a world of meaning. Creation does not just exist: it is patterned. Seasons resonate with plants and animals and suggest their own reckoning.

In our modern period we see far less of the sky and animals, much less the plants and the movement of the seasons. Our houses are much the same temperature year-round. We are, instead, observant of a meta-world, the narrative of the endless news cycle, driven by disaster, fear, speculation, and distraction. Our advertising (always present) bathes us in oil, sugar, salt, and sex while promising an endless supply of dopamine.

I am struck by the preponderance of unbelief in our day and time. Frequently, the “problem of evil” is cited as an overwhelming obstacle to belief. I think of this in particular when I consider that antiquity was dominated by far more suffering on a daily basis than our present age. Our lives would seem magical in their easy dismissal of childhood diseases, our caloric intake, and the unending variety of all things offering themselves for consumption.

If, as I believe to be the case, we are created for wonder and transcendence, then it would seem that we are malnourished and suffer from starvation in our souls. If everything that troubles us within the “problem of evil” were to miraculously disappear, or even be diminished for the greater part, it would do nothing to nourish our souls. In a certain manner, we live in a vegetative state in which our “needs” are met while our true hunger is ignored.

The “belief” that is native to the human soul is among the casualties of the modern life-style (in all its aspects). We are not particularly nurtured with awe and wonder, but by the consumption of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Our pleasure/pain principle has created a shallow culture. In short, we do not suffer well (as in somehow becoming better, more compassionate people), nor are our pleasures remotely sublime. Two words: reality tv. We have become a people among whom the cheap-shot versions of atheism easily prosper.

I have an aside that is worthy of note. I have been particularly struck over the years of my pastoral ministry at the abiding interest in the Church within the ever-shrinking community of young couples who are starting families. My experience is anecdotal, such that I can point to no statistics. But those conversations point me in the direction of transcendence. Few things in our modern lives are as primitive as child-bearing. Indeed, there are more opportunities today for various iterations of “natural” child-birthing than there were 40 some-odd years ago when my wife and I were having our first. Equally of note is the inherent transcendence involved in the conception and birth of a child. It is risky, and involves a strong awareness of vulnerability. So much can go wrong. To raise a child attentively, is (and should be) awe-inspiring. They are examples of transcendence embodied.

The experience of belief begins, I think, with the experience of transcendence, the questions of meaning and significance. It is a conversation that struggles to find its way in a sea of commodities and mundane pleasure. We are not immune to the transcendent – but simply distracted.

In Jesus Christ, we confess, Transcendence became flesh and walked among us. He is the Gateway to seeing the fullness of all that is. To see this, of course, involves the healing of the soul. Beauty, Truth, Goodness are medicinal balms. It is a medicine that drips from every leaf, is painted across the sky, rests in the bosom of everyone we meet, and dwells secretly within our own heart.

In this day and time, we may largely be doing a ministry of “triage,” healing those souls that are given to us, and tending to our own wounds as well. Take time to breathe, to listen, to look, to look beyond, to yearn, to do something beautiful, to love, to forgive.

May God have mercy on our souls.

 

 

64 comments:

  1. Have you read “The Ethics of Beauty”? In it, Patstitas argues that Beauty (along with true empathy) is an antidote for trauma. I love what you said about Christ as Transcendence become flesh. Thank you for another wonderful post. I’ve been reading you for a decade or more. Always full of wisdom.

  2. I was blessed to be raised by parents who were, in many ways pre-modern. My Dad was 47 when I was born. His mother and father and his brothers were actually among the last homesteaders in the US. My grandfather, an immigrant frim Bavaria had settled in Carthage, Mo. In 1906, my grandfather took the offer of 40 free acres in the Territory of New Mexico, 6 years before it became a state. Eastern New Mexico is still a land of huge skies and vast horizons. A land that demands acknowledgement of the intra-conneted reality of life and transcendence. Yet my father was shocked when my older brother and I began looking for God.
    The desire for God came mostly from my mother who had had her own experience long before she met my dad of the connectedness of the inner and the outer and the awe that can inspire in
    Taos , New Mexico in the late 1920’s. She was a dancer with Martha Graham’s Company in New York and was in Taos for an arts conference.
    Every morning, near sunrise, she would walk to a nearby grove of trees and practice her dancing. It included a series of leaps. Soon she was joined by an ancient member of the Pueblo Tribe. She fell in to conversation with him. He was likely a Shaman. He called himself Adam and referred to her ad “My little daughter who dances in the sky.”
    Just before she left, he gave her a beautiful handmade silver cross with a small oval of turquoise in the middle. When I was 18, almost 40 years later, she passed that cross on to me. Rencently I gave it to my niece for her and her young son.

    My parents gave me the gift of awe, wonder and taught me the value of being human. Nevertheless, I have never experience awe in any depth until I walked into my first Orthodox Church 35 years ago. The sanctuary is small really. The Royal Doors were open. I saw the hugh icon of The Theotokos spread across the eastern wall and I took an involuntary step backward. Such beauty and presence and welcome too. I was and remain stunned.

    Still, the best was yet to come. When the priest made the Great Entrance carrying the Gifts up into the Altar, I felt an amazing presence, larger than anything I had ever experienced yet being carried by the priest. I recognized Jesus. Undoubtedly.

    The Church wisely councils caution in such experiences for it is easy to worship the feeling rather than give glory to God. Yet, my time in the Church has been blessed by the reality of the “unseen” making itself known. It still meshes well with the awe and wonder of creation my parents showed me, in fact deeper awe because if the Incarnational reality expressed and experienced in the Church in community celebration, the Birth, Death, Ressurection and Descent of the Holy Spirit as well as in the intimate moments of contemplation, personal prayer, devotion and confession.
    The palpable presence of the Holy despite the venality of my own heart so often.

    The cry in Isiah 8:9 “God is with us! Submit yourselves all ye nations for God is with us!” which the Church uses in our Nativity Celebrations is real despite the false world around us The key lies in the phrase “submit yourselves”.

    I find countless ways to argue and proclaim the “reality” of the modern world yet, I always remember the awe and wonder my parents bequeathed to me because of their experience of the beauty of Creation and the presence of that Beauty in all of us despite the appearances.

    May the Joy of the Lord be upon us all.

  3. Michael,
    It’s so odd, in a way, that we have to defend the experience of the transcendent in our day and time. It seemed so obvious to the ages before us. The perversion of our time is to elevate make-believe and to ignore the truly transcendent.

  4. Very beautiful, Father. Perhaps the greatest distractions are simply the ownership of things: homes, books, endless clothing, etc…. I’ve often thought about how freeing it would be if my home were to burn down! As I age, I find myself selling things off, but I cannot yet bring myself to let go of everything. Possessions are often blinding.

    Of small interest, if only to me. I see beauty in my dogs. My dogs are beautiful. Not because I own them, but because they love me. There is so much beauty in the world but I miss it unless it is regularly right in front of me! God have mercy on me, a sinner.

  5. I have been listening on utube to Iian McGilchrist, a British polymath…M.D., philosopher, author, etc. He writes of the two brain hemispheres, right/left. Your article resonates with what he says. He also notes how we have, in the technological age, mostly lost beauty, truth and goodness. When you write of our early ancestors, they mostly lived in the right hemisphere…you note their art. Of course our age lives in the left, largely ignoring the awe-inspiring, mystical, spiritual, magical side of reality. McGilchrist writes that the right hemisphere should take mastery over the
    left, the right subservient to it, yet the two serving one another. This is no doubt how humans have lived throughout most of history. We are so impoverished, purposless, clueless in our driven, frenzied world. You note, Father, the complete incongruity of reality-tv. All one has to do to see this is to watch a TV show or spend some time on the computer, then step out one’s door. The world is… There! This experience of stepping into it is sometimes jarring to me…and I may only be noticing a gentle breeze, seeing my neighbor’s trees sway, watching a spider hanging from the door post, hearing leaves scuttle on the walkway. Simple. Real. Lovely.

  6. “I am struck by the preponderance of unbelief in our day and time. Frequently, the “problem of evil” is cited as an overwhelming obstacle to belief. I think of this in particular when I consider that antiquity was dominated by far more suffering on a daily basis than our present age. Our lives would seem magical in their easy dismissal of childhood diseases, our caloric intake, and the unending variety of all things offering themselves for consumption.

    If, as I believe to be the case, we are created for wonder and transcendence, then it would seem that we are malnourished and suffer from starvation in our souls. If everything that troubles us within the “problem of evil” were to miraculously disappear, or even be diminished for the greater part, it would do nothing to nourish our souls. In a certain manner, we live in a vegetative state in which our “needs” are met while our true hunger is ignored.”

    Well said, Father – as usual, much appreciate your ability – gift – to observe culture and life, analyze things often overlooked, and then bring them into the lens of the Gospel’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
    Thank you for your diligence in sharing your gift with us.

  7. Father, yes it seems that we have to defend it. My dear brother organized a field trip with our Dad many years ago to visit the old homestead together. Decades ago now. There was a family who had their home there running cattle for eventual slaughter on land that still grows mostly sage brush and cactus. Yet they had a good life there still no towns anywhere near. It is so dry there, nothing rots. The hose my Dad last lived in was still there, unpainted used as an ad hoc bunk house during the round up when the family would hire extra hands. My Dad, brother and I slept in. This was about 40 years ago. My Dad has not been on the land for about 50 years but little had changed. He looked around a bit to get his bearings and said, “I think the sod hut we first lived in is over there.” So we walked in that direction and quickly came upon the outlines of the hut that his Dad, Mom, older brother and he lived in when they first got there. Very small. Maybe 40 square feet.

    And the sky is immense even in the day time. The mountains in the distance. My Dad used to tell the story about how his Dad took their mule one winter and went to get fire wood at “The Breaks” about 30-40 miles distance. Unfortunately, the mule went lame and my Grandfather had to make back on foot with snow on the ground. He made it back, but he was snow blind and almost frozen. My Grandfather decided to move after third well went dry. They moved to Oklahoma and started a small ranch/farm their near Stillwater in the town of Nowata. It always gives me a chuckle that they leave their land in New Mexico because of lack of water and settle in Nowata.

    Growing up with my parents stories and tangible gifts of transcendence has made it much easier to be aware of the “rest if the story”.

    Still, neither of them could understand our love if an Incarnate God. My mother reposed before we came to the Church and my Dad never came, even when able.
    My Dad always wore a big black cowboy hat even a a Harvard trained public health physician. At his funeral, conducted by my parish priest, my brother were standing over his casket with his hat. We talked about how much a part of him and his life that hat was –a repository and unique expression of him. We decided that it needed to be buried with him. He was a pioneer and cowboy to his dying day. I sm sure Gid has granted our prayers for the repose of his soul. I know that ineffably, but I know it.
    Glory to God fir All things, especially the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

  8. Oh, and Father, I no longer feel the need to defend my experience. Its proclamation seems more appropriate. “God is with us!” He brings Joy and Light and Blessing in the midst of evil, darkness and death. Repentance seems to be the key so the particular path of each person will be different. Since I am a stubborn man it took me over 30 years in the Church and a lot of anguish to begin to get it. I hope God grants me the mercy to live long enough to learn repentance more deeply. I am always grateful for you and the conversation here that helped/helps me in that direction.
    The Joy of the Lord is upon us!

  9. Father,
    If our soul needs to be healed, what is the illness? And in the “ministry of triage,” how do we heal the soul?

  10. Aaron,
    I’m using the term “soul” here rather loosely. The “inner self” would do just as well. If I’m being technical, I would say that what is impaired is primarily the nous. That which is transcendent is perceived noetically. Our cultural mode of perception is largely found in the rational faculty and in the passions. I like to use the example of “berry-picking” when thinking about the rational faculty. It is very good at picking berries, seeing which ones are ripe, avoiding bad ones, etc. It’s necessary. But it doesn’t perceive beyond that.

    We’re a culture that picks berries (shopping), and a culture that is awash in the passions. Almost all advertising appeals to the irrational, disordered passions. We “react” and buy impulsively. It’s why they market so much using sexual connections. Sex sells stuff and selling stuff is all that matters. The economy has become our only measure of good.

    Healing the nous begins with drawing back from the passions (the point of asceticism), learning to attend to the nous (that’s a slow process of worship, thanksgiving, awe, etc.).

    When the Church is described as a “hospital for sinners” it is very much describing this character of our life. We educate and nurture souls (the nous) to perceive the good, the beautiful, and the true (as they are made known to us in Christ). We heal the soul by teaching it to return to worship, giving thanks always and for all things. We learn to practice asceticism in a community that re-inforces that discipline. We confess our sins and seek guidance, bearing our shame and the nakedness of our souls in the presence of God.

    I think this is slow work. But it’s the life of the Church. The Church is what Christ gave us for this task.

  11. Father, you say it is a slow work, indeed. By the standards of the passions it is absolutely glacial. Many people give up or fail to engage at all, or worse. That is a great sadness. Yet the healing progresses nonetheless. Even, I hope and pray, for those that have left the Church and/or denied Jesus Christ and His gifts to us. Patience combined with hope. God is with us even when we are not with Him. I can only cry out: Lord, have mercy!

  12. Wow, this one moved me to tears Father. Thank you for sharing your insight and vision with us!

  13. “Yet the healing progresses nonetheless.”

    Does it, though? Fr Stephen himself has said many times on this blog that people, even faithful lifelong Christians, generally show no discernable moral development whatsoever over the course of their entire lives. When does this healing manifest? Only after death?

  14. Phil,
    Just to set the record straight: I have indeed said that “moral improvement” is not always observable. One reason is that it is not really a part of the tradition to speak of moral improvement. I think that it is largely a modern idea. There is, of course, change in the Christian life. But, as the Fathers taught, “Prayer is a struggle to last dying breath.” The saints never really speak of themselves in terms of improvement – and it is ridding ourselves of this modern habit that moved me to write as I have.

    The only standard of measurement in the Scriptures is “the fullness of the stature of Christ.” Most saints speak of themselves as having a growing awareness of how far they fall short – so they would speak in language that is the opposite of progress and improvement.

    But, it is certainly the case that we can be healed, are being healing, and shall be healed. Noetic discernment will make seeing God and His works more clear – but it will also reveal to us how much further we are from His image than we might have imagined otherwise.

    In a land of berry-pickers and passion-slaves – the language of progress and improvement is simply not helpful. If, back in the day, others had bothered to actually engage in conversation with what I wrote along those lines rather than attacking it – I think it would have been a more fruitful undertaking. As it is, I hear myself villified by some for saying and thinking something I do not think or say. Internet life…sigh.

    I will note that progress and improvement are great for their ability to induce shame (of the wrong sort). So, after a fashion, I think it’s good not to ask, “How am I doing? or Am I getting better?” It’s mostly beside the point. There are other conversations to have with God (and the self) that are so much more useful.

  15. Father,
    I find this topic very intriguing because of it’s impact on our healing. In order to effectively treat an illness, it’s critical for a doctor to determine the root cause or he can easily end up merely treating symptoms.

    Would you say that the nous is a faculty of our nature or part of “what” we are? I have seen the nous described as a faculty of the soul, much like rational thinking is a faculty of the mind. If the nous is impaired, it seems that you’re saying our perception of the Transcendent God is impaired. Why is this so? From what you’ve said, “Our cultural mode of perception is largely found in the rational faculty and in the passions.” In such a state, we don’t perceive our existence from the level of the fullness of our nature. Instead, we perceive our life on the level of the body (to include our physical body, our emotions, and our mind) and get caught up their associated passions.

    The root cause seems to be the answer to the question, “Why do we get caught up in our passions?” What is it about the passions which so captivates us and stunts our growth? Could it be said that we become entrapped in the various passions because of our obsession with pleasure and avoidance of pain? Why is this so? Could it be that that root cause is selfishness?

  16. Father,
    Forgive me for misquoting you, it certainly wasn’t my intention to put words into your mouth– much less to vilify anyone.
    I am however still having difficulty conceiving of a definition of “healing” that does not involve some kind of “improvement” in the patient’s health. If the disease is being healed, surely symptoms should abate at least somewhat?
    Perhaps I am too blinkered by my modernist mindset to understand this teaching. It has been a major stumbling block for me ever since I read your first blog post on the topic several years ago.

  17. Fr. I agree about the distractions. Kids raised to “live” a virtual reality life in role playing video games have trouble relating to real life and working on building their own life. In the video world, they can easily be or do anything they want, and pretend to be whatever they like. Real life takes work, and involves pain and failures, as well as triumphs and joys. Growing up on a ranch, raising virtually everything we ate, we learned to work hard, and to trust God with our lives and the lives of the animals and plants that sustained us. We learned the interdependence of all within this world, and the value of working hard to get what you needed.
    I agree with Byron about the material things and with Fr. about the indulging of the passions with buying more than we need. I am guilty of both. Annie, that is an amazing book. One to be read and digested a chapter at a time. Paula- who used to post here- introduced me to it. It is a book to enjoy and re-read too.
    (Forgive my ADHD here.) I read an article this morning about how belief and religions are all wrong and how it is impossible for one man and one woman – who only had two sons – to have populated the world. All kinds of science that makes the Bible impossible. The number of people who do not believe in God is gaining and those who do are dropping in numbers – according to all the latest polls and etc. I don’t, personally, believe in polls. But the “distractions” are ever increasing and the indulgence of the passions is everywhere and becoming more “acceptable” to more people daily. Sex is not just used to sell everything, but also being pushed on young children as part of their “education”, and every possible perversion is explained, taught, and considered mandatory for “inclusion” of everyone. One woman who was a part of our church, got so caught up in the “letters people “-(there are so many now ) movement and marches that her own children felt lessened by being Christian and straight. Within a year, the mother proudly announced that her beautiful daughter was now her “son”. I had a feeling that would happen, but what a tragedy for all. Her child got the attention they wanted – but at what cost? Of course they left the church when she got so involved, because it did not support her new belief system. Evil is all around us, and becoming more a part of our lives as morals, values, and belief in God are being trampled underfoot by the masses. We need to be stronger than ever, and stand up for what we know is true, and be the beacon that sheds light on the evil and wrong around us. To do that, you are so right Fr. – we need to get back to the basics and find healing and strength in our faith. We need to feel and experience the presence of Jesus around and inside us. To let His healing flood our souls and help us be strong and such an example of His joy and love that others will be unable to reject our Savior. He died for us – the least we can do is stand up for Him. In my humble opinion.

  18. Ohio, If I may: As a student of history I would like to highlight the work of the great American historian who’s work has always fascinated me. Principally hus book “The Idea of Progress”. First the title umplies that “progress” is an idea only. Even though he was fascinated by the Philosophs of the so-called Enlightenment he could find insufficient historical evidence for their core idea.
    Reading him in college was my first step away from the progress motif.

    In the Church I have begun to learn more deeply the difference between progress/change and healing. There is no actual correlation at all. As the saints testify, my sinfulness (both the execution and temptation) are inextricably bound together. When I am healed, as I have been in the Church (ask my wife), I am still a sinner with the same dark proclivities as before but I have been shown mercy! To live in that mercy requires repentance. There is a time fast approaching when living in that mercy or not will be my final choice. Mercy endures forever. My partaking of it through repentance and worship foes not fundamentally change me. It exposes who I am, not by my will, but strictly by Grace. By accepting both the reality of who I am (a sin full man), healing commences. Sin is a chronic illness so the treatment must be applied daily for any healing to continue.
    At least that is my experience. Even in saying such (though my testimony is true) many temptations seem to arise for which I can only cry out: Lord have mercy! Forgive me.

  19. Aaron,
    What you’ve described is, by and large, a common treatment by the Fathers. But to say “selfishness” (philautia), can be so nebulous as to be less than helpful. The practicalities of the Church’s medicine (the minor ascetical practices recommended to us) are a place to begin (along with confession). I like the practicality of Fr. Tom Hopko’s 55 Maxims for this very reason.

    Also, I like the slowness of the Church’s medicine – I distrust sudden things out of years of watching them burn out. It is of note that the “Philokalia,” means “love of beautiful things.” It is a name that has been applied in a variety of times to collections of practical spiritual teachings of the Fathers.

  20. Sorry, my typing is horrible. I meant Phil, not Ohio. Nothing against you Phil.

  21. My first introduction to mercy, an enchanting one comes from Shakespeare. Portia’s plea that begins “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Another gift from my past

  22. Phil,
    I apologize that my post became a stumbling block for you. It triggered a number of folks at the time. We have a therapeutic culture – one driven by the notion of becoming “better,” etc. A lot of that is a symptom of our unattended shame. For example, we go to confession. Often, before confessing a particular sin, some will say, “But I’m getting better.” It’s a statement that “softens” the sting of the shame involved in what they are confessing. It’s better, if possible, to just say what we did without analyzing it or diagnosing our progress. It certainly makes sense to say, “I keep doing this, no matter how hard I try.” We should not be concerned how our confessor might see us. It is, for what it’s worth, a sin for a confessor to judge someone who is confessing. Truth told, the confessor is almost always struggling with the very same sins as he is hearing described.

    But, at the time I wrote about the problem, I was concerned that people had a false sense of the therapeutic value of their Orthodox faith – and with that – were quite vulnerable to disillusionment and despair. We read of great saints who were plunged into years (long years) of struggle and frustration, etc. St. Mary of Egypt saw little “improvement” for many years. Just terrible temptations and struggles.

    I find it more helpful to simply see ourselves as safely in God’s hands. I fall down repeatedly, the only point of which is to get back up. But whether I fall or get up, I’m doing it in God’s hands. It’s certainly the case that I’ve changed in the years since I converted (about 24 years now). But, recognizing that it’s different is like saying that my battleground is different – not like saying that I battle any less.

    It’s good, I think, simply not to think about “how we’re doing.” Just “do.” Give thanks. Get back up again and again. Give thanks. And then, give thanks.

  23. Phil,

    If I may, I think the difference between “I’m being healed” and “I’m making progress” is that we acknowledge little control over the first while imagining almost full control over the second. Human beings don’t seem to be able to handle control/power.

    Thus the need for us to take that stance that “though I can’t see it, I know God continues to work with me and I am being healed”, instead of thinking our efforts are what wins the day and is making things happen.

    The first attitude leads to greater dependence on God while the second one tends to lead away from Him.

  24. Father,
    If not selfishness, then what would you say is the root cause? Fr Thomas’ 55 Maxims are incredibly useful, but I think it’s critical to identify the root cause before jumping to treatments. A doctor can provide many such helpful treatments (maxims) like eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get at least 8 hours of rest a night, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, avoid stress, etc., but if you have a cancerous tumor and the doctor fails to properly identify the root cause of your ailment, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be healed. I think herein lies the frustration Phil is hinting at, which I’ve heard others say too, that people feel like they’re doing all the right things, but they don’t feel like they’re healing. Perhaps it’s because the root cause hasn’t been identified.

    Selfishness is most importantly an obsession with oneself. Merriam-Webster defines selfishness as the quality or state of being “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” This is precisely what I mean when identifying selfishness as the root cause of our failure to heal.

    Selfishness is focused squarely on what benefits us. Its goal is to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain. The body, out of necessity, is selfish. Try undertaking a regular exercise regime without convincing yourself that there’s some benefit that outweighs the required effort. We’re constantly making these pleasure/pain calculations, often unconsciously. Emotions are largely self-focused. Absent an understanding of selfishness and its potential consequences on ourself and others, our thoughts easily become focused on self-gratifying pursuits. And so, the pleasure/pain cycle repeats and the passions slowly begin to rule our life. Things that used to please us may no longer satisfy our desires and other pleasure-seeking pursuits ensue. This is a vicious cycle. We live in a consumeristic society, as you noted, that quite literally capitalizes on the understanding of this susceptibility. One can even live a “moral” life as a “good” person, yet fill our days with pleasures plagued by selfishness and never transform into the fullness of our potential (likeness with God). This is why I think it’s critical that we identify the root cause.

    Healing our selfishness is certainly not a quick fix. If it was, it wouldn’t be such a problem in the world. It’s a long and almost constant struggle at times. We are steeped is selfishness from the day we’re born. Yet there’s hope and healing. Through our understanding of the root cause of what plagues us, we can begin the process out of selfishness and into selflessness. In fact, I think selfishness has as its purpose this ultimate good. It’s a synergistic process of participation in and with God. Ultimately, He is the one who heals us. In healing, comes the actualization of the fullness of our nature through the indwelling immanence of the transcendent God.

  25. Father,

    Thank you for the reply, and for bearing with me. “Disillusionment and despair” is exactly what I am struggling against (unsuccessfully). I find myself filled with shame and self-loathing because of all the evil that I do and think and will, yet my one hope for redemption and transformation– the Church– turns out to offer no hope at all?

    If improvement is impossible or irrelevant– if my future state will be no better than my current one (that is, mired in intractable passions and sins)– then what is the point of it all? I don’t just mean the Sacraments, but life in general– why struggle daily if there is no hope of success? What is the purpose of life if not sanctification?

    If I’m doomed to continue hurting those around me because of my passions (which cannot or will not be improved), why go on living at all? As the Lord said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” I perceive that I am a “bad tree”– this much is obvious from my actions, which are frequently evil. I had hoped that, by God’s grace, I might eventually be transformed into a good tree, capable of bearing good fruit. Is that really impossible? If so, what is the point of going on? I should be cut down and tossed into the fire immediately, before I harm anyone else with my poisoned fruit.

    Again, thank you for bearing with me. I hope my questions don’t come off as aggressive or demanding. I feel like I am drowning in my sins, and what I thought was a life preserver has turned out to be something else entirely, and it’s terrifying.

  26. “I find it more helpful to simply see ourselves as safely in God’s hands. I fall down repeatedly, the only point of which is to get back up. But whether I fall or get up, I’m doing it in God’s hands. It’s certainly the case that I’ve changed in the years since I converted (about 24 years now). But, recognizing that it’s different is like saying that my battleground is different – not like saying that I battle any less.

    It’s good, I think, simply not to think about “how we’re doing.” Just “do.” Give thanks. Get back up again and again. Give thanks. And then, give thanks.”

    Thank you for this Father. I needed it.

  27. Phil, I have been in the exact same place as you express. Not that long ago. Lost in despair with seemingly nowhere to turn. It is not real. Or rather, the mercy of Jesus Christ is more real. I was right in a sense, I will not change or get better. I am full of sin in so many ways, I hurt people all the time. Yet, Jesus does not take note of that or the hypocrisy in the Church I use to justify myself. Less than a year ago I was literally on my last rope. Late one night last July, I was unable to sleep again because of the physical pain I was feeling. I picked up the last prayer rope I have that my late wife made before she died many years ago. I started saying the Jesus Prayer, not really out of hope but out of rote.

    I did not change, but I was shown mercy just as the prayer asks for. I also began to see my deep sin (at least it seemed deep at the time) that the mercy applied to. That is, after 35 years, when I began to heal. It is not a moral or spiritual transformation of me. I will always, in this life, sin. I just will. So will everybody else. Even those we view as saints–they said so themselves. I will never escape that sinfulness but I can know mercy. Deep mercy that is beyond anything I can express or really comprehend.

    Over the last year I have been shown more and more mercy and healing–not change or growth. Certainly not progress as the way the world knows it. Just more mercy from Jesus Christ in spite of and in the face of the deepening awareness of my own depravity. So, I persisted. Jesus has continued to reveal more and more mercy to me through the Church, often from the same people I thought most hypocritical and heartless in the past. Some wounds are as old as my time in the Chruch.

    Lately, I have even begun to know joy. Not happiness, I have very little for which I can be happy except my dear wife and I mostly give her grief.

    Mercy is why I can still live in this world. Mercy is real. Even more real than the darkness in my own heart. Mercy heals the wounds I have inflicted and will inflict from my heart of darkness.

    Shakespeare was right, “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation”. I am an unjust man and deserve condemnation. Still mercy heals all, even though I do not change. So I beg you, have mercy on yourself most of all. Mercy comes ultimately from the Cross with Jesus’ prayer that we be forgiven because we do not know what we do. Nothing has changed since then, I still crucify Jesus everyday and still His prayer heals my heart and the wounds I have inflicted on Him and His Body.

    I cry out to God for you, Phil, that HIs mercy be upon you and lift you up with arms outstretched that His blood that won us mercy may heal you now and continuing. Not “fix things” but heal you. My wife and I will pray for you as well.

    His mercy endures forever.

  28. Phil,
    I understand your questions better with this explanation. Yes, I think there is hope in these things…that we will see a measure of transformation in this life. It is also our shame that gnaws at us about this…and I know full well that the burden of toxic shame (self-loathing) can be healed and transformed.

    The purpose of our life is communion with God and our neighbor…to whatever extent we find possible in our lives.

    I would suggest that getting help with issues of shame would likely be beneficial. There’s what I do and have done (that is a matter of guilt). Then, there is how I feel about myself in light of all that (that is shame). It is shame that is unbearable. God can and will lighten that load. It is a particular problem that needs its own attention. Generally speaking, when toxic shame (self-loathing) is present – we find ourselves despising ourselves regardless of whether there is any improvement. Thus, it’s the shame that needs attention. As the shame is healed (and I emphasize that it can be) then we are better able to bear the various failures that occur. I hope this is of help. I will pray for you.

    For what it’s worth, I have a book on the place of shame in the spiritual life coming out in early 2023 from Ancient Faith publishing.

  29. Aaron,
    I do not much care for looking for the “root cause.” It tends towards a too rigid and systematized approach to something that is not rigid nor systematized. The soul and all that attends it has lots of complexity surrounding it. I just find it unhelpful to speak of “root causes.”

    I appreciate that you’ve found a schema that explains things to you (you’ve shared various parts of it before). But I have my own hesitancies regarding it and do not want to make this conversation to be about your schema. There is much good insight in what you say. I’m not dismissing it. But I think it oversimplifies.

    Forgive me.

  30. Michael, all I can say is that your words have been deeply, deeply moving for me. Lord have mercy on us all!

  31. “Frequently, the “problem of evil” is cited as an overwhelming obstacle to belief. I think of this in particular when I consider that antiquity was dominated by far more suffering on a daily basis than our present age. Our lives would seem magical in their easy dismissal of childhood diseases, our caloric intake, and the unending variety of all things offering themselves for consumption.”

    …What of it? There is a good deal more suffering to be found on the modern earth than what you make out, but even if there were not, why would it matter? Callousness, being inured to the suffering of the world around and within oneself, is no virtue. That evil exists at all, and the implications that has for the existence of a purportedly benevolent God, was a problem pointed out long ago. The problem would not change in the least if evil existed only for and in a single creature.

  32. Merry,
    I read this article yesterday on Orthochristian.com – Did Hawking Save Materialism, An Interview with Valentin Velchev an Orthodox Scientist- after reading your comment this morning I thought you may find it of interest?

  33. Phil,
    I know it’s hard, I don’t know what it’s like for you personally, but I too struggle with my lack of improvement and falling and giving in to the same passions/sins time and again.
    I find Psalm 102, ‘ Bless the Lord, O my soul…;’ very helpful.
    Hang on in there.

  34. Michael, Merry,
    I second what Alina said. Your words, histories, come with insight and from the heart. Thanks!

  35. Bill,
    I agree. The problem, as an intellectual problem, would exist if there were but a single creature suffering. My thoughts that you quote are simply to note that, nevertheless, faith abounded in the face of that (even as it does today). It is like standing on a razor’s edge – how do we believe when there is this great contradiction of suffering?

    This morning I took time to listen to a talk by the late Fr. Roman Braga, a Romanian monk, who was tortured for 11 years in an experimental Communist prison in Romania (the experiment was intended to utterly destroy change the intellectuals and priests who were imprisoned there.) He knew a level of senseless suffering that was so gruesome that I dare not describe it (you can find it on line by searching for Pitesti Prison).

    Fr. Roman glowed with the love of God, with the knowledge of God, and even with joyful blessings for his tormentors. It is such an “experimental” case that seems an deeper mystery to me than the easy “people suffer therefore there is no God” mantra. How can there be such a witness as Fr. Roman? That sort of question, in many different forms, has driven my journey of faith ever since I was in college (in the mid 70’s).

    I am so sorry that my words are inadequate to express this wonder. So, I continue to write. Perhaps a word, here or there, will be of use.

    May Fr. Roman pray for us!

  36. Phil,
    As Father brilliantly said in the opening regarding belief and unbelief, ie.: that there is ‘so much that is unspoken, and even much that is likely hidden from the speakers themselves’, so too perhaps regarding the perception of healing and the perception of not healing.
    St Nicodemus the Athonite strongly advised against our painful displeasure concerning our lack of moral improvement, he called it a concealed selfishness, an oversensitivity leading to despair, merely originating from our desire to be better than we are –for our own ego’s sake…
    Of course, it goes without saying that we clearly ought to desire to be such, that we are “liked” by, (rather than be despicable) and that we “give joy” to our Creator, more and more –all for His sake though and not for ours– that is a selfless humility emanating from a fundamental & selfless love of God (still nascent) at the depths of our soul.
    Regarding our own perception of this ‘improvement’ [for Him], we better leave it to Him alone to perceive, and (as St Nicodemus counsels) we also better not despair and despond, but humbly accept that we will have sinful enslavements to ask mercy for, since we are sinners, till our last breath (if God chooses to miraculously liberate us before that, that is entirely His own executive decision, and we will then perceive a grace-fuelled sinlessness in action, ‘on top’ of our underlying ‘default’ sinfulness in potential).
    Besides, the perception of ‘improvement’ is inevitably a bit of an oxymoron, I often come back to this example to explain why: you have a table that ought to be spotless, (the original has zero blemishes and shines reflecting the sun dazzlingly and homogenously) but, this table you have, is old and extraordinarily scratched. You had no idea that there was any problem with your table in the shadowiness (it just served its main purpose of holding things placed upon it in the back room which is windowless). However, once you heard there was an impeccable original somewhere (and once a little of the sun started shining upon your scratched one), you want to improve your table if possible, get rid of the big scratches (that you feel even in the dim light).
    Someone who makes these tables has a way to heal the scratches (a miraculous cream and a small torch) and you start repairs. However, you now begin a long process where, as you repair, you shine a little more light to see, and you discover more. You might even start sending pics to the table-maker to see what He has to say… During the repairing process, you ARE evidently repairing, no question, yet you discover more and more scratches due to shining more light upon it. You then even get to see some pictures of the original table and you almost despair at how much more destroyed your own table is in comparison –even though it is now vastly repaired to what it was a month ago–. This process never stops, even when, after years of attending to the repairs, you have but one scratch left on your table, that one scratch now dominates more than a thousand did –or so you now think. Besides, it is now placed under the biggest window in the living room…
    That does not mean the Person who gave you the method for healing is not ecstatic with you for having taken it and made some effort to apply the magical cream. He gives away originals, and was looking for someone to eventually give the original to, someone like you, and does this just for turning to Him for help with old tables, (rather than saying, “forget it! there’s no hope! not interested! I’m fine with it getting even more scratched or even burnt”).

  37. I was reminded of this quote from St. Nectarios last night and it felt relevant to the conversation here:

    “We have within us deeply rooted weaknesses, passions, and defects. This can not all be cut out with one sharp motion, but patience, persistence, care and attention. The path leading to perfection is long. Pray to God so that he will strengthen you. Patiently accept your falls and, having stood up, immediately run to God, not remaining in that place where you have fallen. Do not despair if you keep falling into your old sins. Many of them are strong because they have received the force of habit. Only with the passage of time and with fervor will they be conquered. Don’t let anything deprive you of hope.”
    ⁃ St. Nectarios of Aegina

  38. It seems to me, having read some of the comments here, that both dilemmas, thst of the problem of evil and the issue of whether we are advancing in degrees of glory, are two sides of the same issue: human freedom. God Loves, but he also gave us the freedom to choose. Some choose against God. And we also have the ability to use our freedom to grow in Christ, by placing that freedom in his hands. I believe any progress I have made, did not come from acts of will or endurance of my own, but by Christ changing the desires of my heart. This requires using our freedom to lay down our protective arms and “clothing,” and thus making space for Christ to work in us. It’s all Grace, but our cooperation with that grace is simply to employ our freedom towards uncloaking ourselves and the many defenses we have spent a lifetime collecting, until we are as the humanist writes: “just as I am, without one plea.”

  39. I underwent, and am undergoing, repentance and reconciliation. at first, I could not understand the things I was doing but had to submit in humility and patience to the treatment promising to wash my extremely boggy, gunky, soul. after a few years of this, I now see a difference between my tastes for “transcendence” and the hunger of my soul for passions. I taste the living waters when I choose to see deeply into literally anything and I feel less exhausted at the end of a day transcended from the mundane rather than a day lived in it. I have been struggling to find my “Why” why am I doing this? yes I want to actually live, but in the day-to-day, why? what is my incentive and my Imperative to become holy? I believe it has to do with bringing lost (more lost than myself) people along with me in my sojourning, but that is still too vague. This article has helped me to articulate my why just a little bit better. I am being triaged and voluntarily suffering “unnecessarily” but I see that it is visible to the people around me and they thirst for it. I am a total ass hole, and often wonder why people like me, and I think it’s because I am DOING the things I believe, even just a little. I think my inclination to stop and give to others is Christ Triaging them through my own transcendent practices. It’s still vague to me but through your prayers Father Stephen and your triage in this and other articles, the overflowing, living waters you have, spill into me, and from me, into them. please pray for me. I am a coward.

  40. Alita and Dean,
    I am deeply glad our words touched you. That is a mercy from God Himself. Thanks be to Him who gives mercy–whether we want it or not.

  41. Thank you. I think it is true that since I was very young, it seemed to me that transcendence was the real purpose of life. But it was difficult to find anyone who would acknowledge this intuition or help me find the vocabulary to express it. There were clues and signs but not a clear direction how to live. Plus of course I am not nor have I ever been indifferent to all the distractions and temptations. I chase them often! I feel fortunate that I seem to be finding that vocabulary of transcendence now. Also I’m seeing there are people in the world who not only have the same intuition but embrace it and create knowledge that can lead to a more “real” way of looking at the world. It’s pretty amazing (but also terrifying).

  42. Father, Michael, Drewster, Andrew, Dino, Annie– thank you for your words, and your prayers.

  43. For a long time my wife and I have ended our morning prayers with the declaration: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
    Over the years, by the Grace of God, we have come to really believe it even in the midst of physical pain, relationship challenges and various downturns of living.

    For me it seems to be the fruit of repentance. I8 have begun to take Mt 4:17 as a cause and effect statement: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    …. and I am, at best, an utter novice at repentance.
    Still…
    It is windy, blustery, chilly and wet here today. Just the type of weather that sets off the inflammation in both my wife and me. Yet, by God’s Grace we are going to puck up our God son, recently restored to the Cup after sux years, and go to celebrate the Divine Liturgy together with out brothers and sisters, some who can barely walk, in joy and thanksgiving.
    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  44. Father,
    In the throes of current affairs (in the USA), I suspect that conversations might arise in coffee hours after Sunday services that will engage on these topics. Given the high number of converts from Protestant denominations, there will likely be ‘hangover’ beliefs stemming from the ethos that converts have purportedly left behind. How do converted Orthodox Christians obtain the phronema of the Orthodox Church— the mind of Christ? I’m not sure that coffee hour lends itself to be such a place. And if it isn’t, how does a convert (or more importantly a catechumen) navigate what might become an emotionally volatile environment?—even at Church?

    Please forgive me for raising what might be seen as a potentially contentious question. My objective is to protect vulnerable hearts.

  45. Dee, I can only speak to my own experience. In 35 years I have never had a truly political conversation in any coffee hour. I have had friendly, enlightening and pleasantly social conversations. The only “politics” have been an occasional reference to doings in the Church. In my experience the kind of convert of which you speak burdened by ideology does not last long. Spiritual Transformation based on repentance, forgiveness and love for one another in Christ.
    We have had a few political figures as guests a time or two. However we are a large parish established for over 100 years in the Heartland of the US and a Cathedral with an active Bishop.
    My own political passions have decreased over the years as I began to learn repentance just a little.
    I think I would like the famous dictum of Karl Marx: Politics are the opiate of the people.
    Oh we also had a very sobering example of the consequences of bringing politics to church.

    The infamous abortion provider George Tiller was assassinated at Lutheran church just across the street from us back in 2009.

    The real world is “Submit yourself all ye nations, for God is with us”. In the Orthodox teaching I know that means repent under the Cross where Jesus forgives because we do not know what we do. It has not gotten any better since then.

    That is what I have been taught and learned a bit of in the Church.

  46. How do converted Orthodox Christians obtain the phronema of the Orthodox Church— the mind of Christ?

    Long-suffering, patience, forgiveness, and lots of hugs, maybe? That seems to be the path I am on. Kindness and gentleness are always good guides as well.

    Our parish, which has a large community from the Ukraine and Russia, handled this through Fr. Ambrose, our Priest. He publicly requested that we refrain from the subject in deference to any fear and/or heartache our brothers and sisters may be suffering. It seems to be a good guide.

  47. Dee,
    I have rarely encountered as much “noise” in the culture as in the last week – and I have to admit to it’s very difficult to resist it and pray. I have a great deal of control over my day (being retired). I don’t have to turn on television or the computer very much, and yet I “hear” the noise. I am finding it very difficult even to pray (though I do). My assumption for this, in some small degree, is that the “noise” that is taking place is being amplified even in the “spiritual realm.” There is a tremendous battle raging. It is all the more reason to pray. I do not think the battle is anything of this world – but is simply being “acted out” on the stage of this world.

    I think to myself of the Russian Civil War (back when it was “Red’s vs. Whites”). I can imagine what a “coffee hour” might have looked like under such circumstances. I can also see that what took place was going to take place regardless of the conversations. And the Church underwent terrible persecutions.

    Our times are our own – but the conversations that matter and hold significance are the ones we have with God and His saints – and the ones with one another in which we encourage each other to be steadfast and to trust in God above all things.

    I believe that we will, to a great extent, “get this wrong” in our conversations and in our lives. We’re just little children (including most with an Orthodox “phronema”). Thus, forgiving others is key, and avoiding anger (generally provoked by our shame), increasing our presence in Holy Confession, are important.

    God give us grace!

  48. Somehow, despite the troubles of our times, the Joy of the Lord and Pentecost is still there/here. It overpowers all the darkness in one’s heart. Outwardly it seems to be marked by two things: contrition and forgiveness. Forgive me, a sinner.

  49. Dear Michael, Byron and Father Stephen,

    I just want to express my gratitude for each one of your responses. Indeed, may God grant us His grace.

  50. Fr. Stephen,
    ‘We’re just little children…’ Would you be willing to elaborate on this? It has been a recurring theme, that at times makes reality seem surreal; the difference of being childlike and childish.

  51. Phil, just know that with respect to comments here, and all are good, what always grabs me, speaks to my heart, are the ones who have questions, as you have done. (I’m sure that’s true for a lot who come here.)
    It’s the beauty of this essay and illustration that I was puzzling over that you have made clear, so I thank you. And I went to a little paperback I have from way back when, so I’ll give an arresting thought that Georges LeFebvre quotes in his opening remarks to the small volume “Courage to Pray”. It helped me, and maybe you as well. He says: “We must have in us the almost careless spontenaity of a man dazzled by God.”
    See, sometimes we are looking at ourselves too hard. Or at what the world at large is concentrating on telling us is important. We are unable to transcend; it’s overwhelming.
    Father Stephen has coined a good phrase — starvation of the soul. Well, when I get that way, I go look at icons – not the severe ones, but those like the cave paintings here – bright, joyful, splendidly alive. Wow, how beautiful! That takes me out of myself, which is what transcendence is.
    God bless you. You are no different from any of us, even the ones who painted those creatures on a wall, even an icon painter, even a priest or a king.

  52. A bit of information about this picture:
    It was “graffiti,” created by an artist, Banksy, in May 2008 on Leake Street, London–and it was indeed painted over by August 2008. The painting and its outcome are expressions of what we inadvertently do with beauty when we cannot see it for what it is.

    What we name ‘art’ and what we name ‘graffiti’ appear to come from an outlook that can be (and often is) shaped by our culture.

    Banksy is quoted to say:
    “The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit, and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery, you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”

    Beauty, the transcendent that Father Stephen describes, might be found in a painting. But also, it can be found in a soul that believes and hopes in God when it finds itself in hell. Such are the lessons from St Sophrony, St Silouan, and Fr. Roman Braga (and Fr Stephen!).

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