Finding God Amidst the Noise

If I say one hundred prayers a day in the silence of Katounakia and you say three prayers amidst the tumult of the city and your professional and family obligations, then we are equal.   St. Ephraim of Katounakia

I ran across this small quote recently and was struck by its insight and typical Orthodox generosity. The kindness of the saints is among their most encouraging aspects. It also echoes a theme that I frequently meditate on: the hiddeness of the spiritual life.

There is a theme of hiddenness in the teaching of Christ, indeed, across the whole of Scripture. We can see it in the sayings regarding the Kingdom of God in which it is compared to a lost coin or a buried treasure or a pearl of great price. It is something that requires searching out, digging up, or even selling everything in order to have it. The Kingdom of God is something that you don’t know but is worth everything in order to know. To know it, however, we must ask, seek, and knock.

Much of our life is spent doing something else.

The theme and reality of hiddenness has two sides (or so it seems to me). The first is the side of becoming a seeker. It is the fundamental stance of a pilgrim (rather than a tourist). It has a way of organizing everything around it. For example, one insight that I gained over the years of my education was the central importance of the “question.” When I was in high school, I cannot say that I had any major questions. I thought I had major answers and lived my life accordingly (“teen wisdom”). For two years between high school and college I accumulated more answers, lost them, and began to acquire questions. Those questions, far from refined, gave me an inner burning that fueled certain aspects of my college studies as well as my seminary years that followed. Eight years after seminary, my questions, more refined by eight years of ordained ministry, propelled me into the doctoral program at Duke. The answers that began to mature during that period resulted in my conversion to Orthodoxy a decade later. The trick now is to continue to nurture the questions rather than imagining that, having entered Orthodoxy, I found all the answers. Nothing less than the Kingdom of God, embodied and lived, can be the “answer.” I should add that the “answer” is not a matter of more information. We are not saved by information.

The second side of hiddenness is found in the answers themselves. The Kingdom of God has this aspect of hiddenness not because of some pernicious desire of God. The hiddenness exists in order to nurture within us the proper disposition of the image of God. We fail to understand that God Himself seeks, asks, and knocks. We are the lost coin, the lost sheep, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price. God leaves everything in order to come among us and “find” us. His commandment to ask, seek, and knock, is similar to the commandment to be like God. It is, I think, what love does.

The great perversion of our consumer life-style is to substitute shopping for seeking. Our passions (traditionally described as: self-love, gluttony, lust, love of money and greed, sadness, acedia (sloth & dejection or apthy and boredom anger, fear, vainglory, and pride) create a counterfeit sense of seeking. The passions cry out to be fed and and satiated. However, they are disordered (for a variety of reasons) and generally only draw us deeper into a maw of darkness and addiction. We frequently imagine asceticism to be an unusual application in our life. What we imagine to be “self-denial” is, in fact, little more than a proper effort to live a life that is truly conformed to our nature. We cannot seek the true food of the soul until we find the soul’s true hunger.

Finding the soul’s true hunger is as much to say “finding the soul itself.” The soul is not the passions. Neither is it anything we immediately think of. Some would say, “We hunger for Jesus.” That is absolutely true, but the “Jesus of the passions” is often something that is quickly substituted for the truth. Back in the days of the Jesus Freaks, it was not unusual to hear someone say, “I don’t need drugs anymore – I get high on Jesus.” That was delusional and created any number of false paths.

The patriarch, Jacob, in the Old Testament, spent the better part of his life avoiding the true question of his soul. He stole his brother’s birthright and fled his wrath. Though he was the heir of the promise, he sought to find it somewhere else (working for his father-in-law, Laban). It was not until he decided to return home and face his brother, and to face whatever God would have of him, that the “question of his soul” came into focus. The last night before crossing the river and coming before his brother, he was met by an angel (or a manifestation of Christ?). He wrestled with him all night declaring, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” He was “blessed” when the angel withered his thigh. But in the wounding he received a blessing – a new name – that of Israel (“he who wrestled and prevailed”). Jacob did not know that he was Israel until he came face to face with the question: “Will you bless me?”

Jacob wrestled with God. St. Ephraim of Katounakia wrestled with his “hundred prayers.” We wrestle with whatever the day brings to us, including its “three prayers.” Whatever we do in the course of the day, it is good that we not lose ourselves amidst our distractions. Do the thing that truly matters, the “one thing needful.” We need to speak to God and ask the question. And keep asking, seeking, and knocking, until we find the right question.

God awaits us.

 

74 comments:

  1. Spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison. (C.S. Lewis)

  2. It’s an astonishing thought: God the seeker!

    In our seeking God, God is seeking us. We are co-workers in Love. And he will find us! God loves us, his neighbors, as himself.

    Really astounding post, Father, thank you.

  3. As one who is on the conversion path to Orthodoxy I have wondered…how does one who does not live as a monastic have opportunity to experience the same depth of Christ? Can that be done by one who is part of the market place, or at home with small children or perhaps laboring all day to support a family.
    And yet it is in the matter of the heart a heart seeking after Him and finding Him in the work of our hands as He is finding us.

    I would appreciate any other thoughts as to the working out of this for those of us who are lay people.

    I have found comfort in your words as I am learning to walk in a new way!

  4. Father,
    This picture depicts my heart (and perhaps my soul) well. Through Providence, there is a crack in my hard heart. With my invitation, Holy Spirit slipped in and seeded the flower. Prayers help to do the work of watering. However, as it can be seen, such a flower is vulnerable. It can be (has been) stepped on, cut down. Then, like a weed, another springs up. After enough of such occasions, God willing, the flower will go to seed. The seeds spread, and more flowers will grow. The roots underneath may gain strength through the water in the crack. Eventually, God willing, the pavement will crack. More soil will be exposed, and the cycle of seeding and flowering will continue.

    I believe this is a process that involves the knocking and seeking between both Christ and my heart. Perhaps others experience this also.

    May God continue to help us in the work and struggles of our souls and hearts! May the Lord allow us a glimpse of such beauty of His work in our souls!

  5. Thank you Father for this beautiful reminder.

    Fr. Zacharias of Essex often says that thanksgiving makes up for our failure in prayer and other ascetic efforts. I think it’s a thought from St. St Barsanuphius the Great.

    Ever since hearing this idea, I try to use it throughout my day. And today’s broken and uncertain times offer even more opportunities. I try to thank God even when my grocery bill seems to be twice what it used to be (“Thank you Lord that I can still afford to pay it, please help those who have a harder time”). We should even thank God every time we open the faucet and clean water flows from it… So many people in the world don’t have that luxury, even if there is no war in their land.

    I really love it how Fr. Zacharias says that prayer is a “creative process”…
    Thank you for this reminder about it.

  6. This story is enlightening:

    St. Anthony and the Cobbler (amateur translation)

    St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”

    He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:

    “The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”

    “To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.

    “The cobbler will explain to you.” replied the same voice.

    “The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.

    His objections however could not be straightened by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. However, as God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.

    Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”

    “The Lord sent me for you to teach me.” replied the ascetic humbly.

    The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”

    “Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently.” replied St. Anthony.

    “I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.”

    “Thank you O Lord.” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying:
    “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”

    And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.

    He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.

    He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.

    “Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise.” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man.” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.

    He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.

    “My God” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?

    “Humility, Anthony. This can singly deliver from all of these.” He again heard the sweet, beloved voice deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man.

    Essentially, humility is the source of all the virtues and this may be practiced anywhere by anybody. I like to define humility as the ability to bear a little shame – or to stand in the presence of God and see oneself as we truly are. It takes practice, but does not require a desert.

  7. God asks us to do what he himself does, for we are his children
    ‘As dearly loved children, imitate God’

  8. “We cannot seek the true food of the soul until we find the soul’s true hunger.” . . . what is the soul’s true hunger? is it the same for everyone or specific to each of us as persons?

  9. Father,

    I find myself unable to experience only “a little” shame– instead I must either distract myself fully and avoid thinking of it at all, or be overwhelmed by all of it crashing down upon me at once.

    How can I “meter out” just a little shame without my broken brain replying “Oh you want some shame? I’ve got shame for you buddy, TAKE THIS” and sending me into yet another spiral of despair?

    This has been a perennial problem for me, basically my entire life. Each cycle leaves me more bitter and exhausted than the last. Obviously I’m doing something wrong, or there would be healing instead of degradation… right?

    Or is that a false assumption? Is this what the spiritual life is *supposed* to be like? If so, I can’t bear it.

  10. Susan,
    I think that Christ Himself is the soul’s true hunger – but not as an abstraction. It is “Christ in me” (the hope of glory). And, because we are persons, that hunger is refracted in an utterly personal manner (Face-to-face) and is thus unique for us all. Not one-size-fits-all, but Christ in all.

  11. The circle whose centre is everywhere
    But whose circumference is nowhere

    The utterly defenceless God

  12. Thank you for your post, Father Stephen. Even though in someways I agree with the statement “We are not saved by information.” You state later that we are formed into the “image” of Christ the more we follow the desire to know God. We are “informed” by the various answers to our questions, hopefully good questions that change us.

    I learned a lot about God in Sunday school, but it was information that did not form me. It sat flatly on top of me. I couldn’t receive that information because I had no desire for it. It was just given. It wasn’t until I began to ask questions and desired to have answers to those questions did I receive information, that kept on changing me and continues to change me.

    I love how you mention that we don’t stop questioning when we get into the Church. Because in reality, the answers we get in the Church are all mysteries. They both fill and expand our appetite for knowing, like a relationship that gets deeper over time, even though there are thousands of moments of satisfaction along the way.

  13. Phil,
    The likelihood is that there are real problems of “toxic” shame in your life – which makes even “healthy shame” a difficult thing to bear (the healthy stuff triggers the toxic stuff, etc.). Anyone (including myself) who has ever had issues with toxic shame knows what you’re going through. My advice is to “put this on the shelf” for now. Just ask God to be of help to you in it and bring about opportunities for healing. As you can, practice gratitude and be patient. God is on your side.

  14. Phil,
    have you read, The Pilgrim Continues His Way? I was reluctant to mention it and perhaps you should ask your priest or spiritual father/ mother, if it would be of benefit for you. I found it a great help recently.

    The good Lord bless you in your difficulties and struggle.

  15. I’m hesitant to write this and hope (pray) that it might be helpful. And ask for your forgiveness if it is off base.

    Andrew wrote:
    We are “informed” by the various answers to our questions, hopefully, good questions that change us.

    As far as I know, there is a distinction in the life of Christ involving the formation of our souls versus receiving information. The formation of the likeness of Christ in us is the work of the Holy Spirit. The image of God is what we all have already received.

    One example contrasting what I call information:
    The Lord has provided certain revelations to me involving the physics of this world, but such information doesn’t ultimately sustain my soul. (even while it delights and initiated my path into my life in Christ –it was not my baptism) Nothing has been revealed to me in physics that hasn’t already been stated well (or better) in the scriptures or in the sayings of the Fathers.

    My heart seems to be filled when I regularly receive the body and blood of Christ, pray, read the lives of the saints, read the Bible, participate in the Liturgy, make confessions, and almsgiving. This seems to be the life-giving ‘food’ that my soul craves. Yet how it plays out each day of my life differs daily. I don’t do these things daily because of my passions or other obstacles. Each day I look for Christ, and each day Christ looks for me and yes sometimes I make a mess of things.

    I believe the Lord has said even more succinctly, ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ And this is perhaps what the better questions involve. In my prayers, I hear my heart adding, Our Father, please give this day our daily bread, and please help me see and recognize it and eat it! Our Father, what is my daily bread this day?–please forgive me for my blindness.

    I recognize there is both a physical and spiritual quality to this bread and ask that I might be able to eat it to fulfill what my body and soul need to abide in Christ.

  16. Dee,
    Thank you for this. I think about the “bread” in the Lord’s prayer, it is “epiousion” (“super-substantial”) which is strangely translated as “daily.” It is the bread of true-life. The Eucharist is is one form of it – but every time and everywhere Christ gives us Himself, it is His Body, our supersubstantial bread.

  17. Dear Father,
    Thank you for your translation, supersubstantial bread. Indeed it is Christ, Himself! It is odd how it was translated as daily. However, it is also true that I daily fall from Christ, and thanks to the workings of the Holy Spirit, get up again –finding Christ and being found again. I wish it wasn’t daily with me, but usually, my passions prevail at some point or another.–Glory to God for His compassion and mercy.

    And thank you so much for your response!

  18. Father, I had a suspicion on the source of “daily bread”, that the English translation comes from largely Protestant sources which tend to deemphasize what I would call sacramental reality. What I could quickly find on the internet seemed to verify my suspicions. I was shown translations from Wycliff to KJV and each one got progressively less other worldly.

  19. That God seeks us, pursues us, can be jolting when we first hear it. Yet we see Jesus knocking at the door in Revelation, don’t we?
    If we hear His voice and open the door, He comes to us… within our heart. And we can recline at table with Him, eating with Christ Himself at His banqueting table. We lived at one time in Mexico. There you knew that you were fully accepted by a family if they invited you for dinner. You were treated as a member of the family within that intimate setting. How much greater our acceptance by Christ as we know true, intimate koinonia with Him.
    You mention, Father, the noise and tumult of the world. If you’ve ever been to a high school volleyball or basketball game, you have experienced ear-splitting noise as the band, announcer, yelling, buzzers, foot pounding reverberate off the walls! Yet in that frenetic, ultra-high intense noise level, I have heard Christ speak to my heart, seeking me even there. His quiet voice breaks through even the most intense noise level. The voice of the heart overcomes the noise of the world.

  20. Dean, thank you for that. You are right. The still small voice seems to break through even when the noise in my brain and produced by my passions and others seem the loudest.

  21. Michael,
    St. Jerome had translated “epiousion” (sorry for earlier mis-remembering it as “hyperousion”) as “supersubstantialis” when he translated the Greek into Latin. The problem is that “epiousion” is something of a “hapax legomenon” (a word that only occurs in one place whose meaning is therefore obscure) and is found only in Matt. and Luke in the Lord’s Prayer.

    Latin, Catholic translations used supersubstantialis or quotidianum (daily) and both were approved (Jerome used the first in Matthew and the second in Luke, just to make things confusing, I suppose).

    So, the “daily” part is not Protestant – it had been used for many centuries before (quotidianum means “daily”).

    There is a fair amount of agreement among scholars that the meaning leans more towards the “supersubstantial” than not. My favorite in English is Wycliffe’s treatment:

    Oure fadir
    That art in hevenes
    Halwid be thi name
    Thi kingdom come to
    Be thi wille don
    On erthe as in hevenes
    Give to us this day oure bred ovir othir substaunce
    And forgiv us oure dettis
    As we forgiven oure dettours
    And lede us not in to temptacioun
    But delyevr us from yvel

    “Bread of other substance” seems a very faithful effort.

    Fr. T. Hopko offers this on “epiousios”

    …epiousios… [is] an absolutely unique word. Etymologically…, epi- means “on top of” and -ousios means “substance” or “being”. So it means suprasubstantial bread. Suprasubstantial bread: more-than-necessary bread. In the first Latin translation of the Lord’s Prayer, done by Jerome it was…, panem supersubstantialem. Somewhere along the way it became “cotidianum, daily”. Luther translated “daily” from the beginning: tägliches Brot. But in all languages that traditionally Eastern Christians use—Greek, Slavonic, and all the Arabic languages: Aramaic, Arabic—it doesn’t say that; it just says a word that’s similar to that… How do they translate it [into those languages]? …they claim that the best translation would be: “Give us today the bread of tomorrow”. Give us today the bread of the coming age, the bread that when you eat it, you can never die. What is the food of the coming age? It’s God himself, God’s word, God’s Son, God’s lamb, God’s bread, which we already have here on earth, on earth, before the second coming. So what we’re really saying is, “Feed us today with the bread of the coming age”, because we are taught by Jesus not to seek the bread that perishes, but the bread that, you eat it, you can never die.

  22. Father, thank you for this exploration into the meaning of epiousios. I really appreciate it. And it’s also interesting to me that, as a Chemist, I favor a chemist’s nuance of the word ‘substance’ in the translation. Therefore I sense a “supra-substance”, or meta- or sublime physical substance-nuance in the meaning. I’m oriented to experiencing the physical presence of Christ, along with the spiritual in our epiousios bread of Life (I wish our language didn’t separate physical from spiritual so much). –Very much the bread of the Kingdom that is breaking upon this world, Christ Himself.

    May God grant this bread to us all.

  23. I want to respond to daily bread — is this not also to convey some sense that it is sufficient for one’s need (indeed supra-abundantly) in both the kairos and chronos moment of praying this New Testament transformation of the Old Testament manna in the wilderness.?

    I want to respond to moments of prayer, more than once I have encouraged parents at services with children that I’m convinced the few moments they may have had to pray of/for themselves were of a “purer” quality than all those combined offered up by those of us in attendance who came without the need to care for another during the service.
    I want to respond to questions—I have heard it said of the Bible that it is God asking “Who do you say I am?”
    Thank you for this post

  24. Dee, you say “I wish our language didn’ separate physical from spiritual do much” The first time I encountered language that consciously made an attempt to connect the seen and the unseen (to me at least) was from my chemistry professor in college who held a doctorate in quantum mechanics and taught even intro chemistry from that perspective. It brought a whole new, largely confusing at first, perspective to the physical world. It began to expand my understanding of what ” physical” meant.

  25. “Nothing less than the Kingdom of God, embodied and lived, can be the “answer.” I should add that the “answer” is not a matter of more information. We are not saved by information.”
    When the Lord taught me this (a person inclined towards information seeking in my quest towards God), –though I saw He used it–it completely transformed my view of Faith and religion and God Himself.

  26. When Michelle wrote her comment, I was reminded of John 5:39,40. Jesus, speaking to the religious leaders, said…”You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” We can parse the scriptures, exegete them, yet never receive/ know Christ Himself, the very Logos incarnate. One thing, among many, that is so marvelous about the Orthodox Church, is Her sacramental theology. The little babushka in Russia may know little of the scriptures, yet she knows Christ through His blood and body in the chalice, through loving her neighbor, showing mercy to others, giving alms, etc. Thankfully we will not be given a theology exam when we stand before Christ. The one thing needful is the only thing necessary…did we hunger and thirst after Him, did we serve and love others ? As one new to Orthodoxy some 27 years ago, I read and read and read about the faith. Yet now, finally, I want to sit before Christ and rest and listen…especially now that I feel the end of my days approaching.
    Like the old farmer who came and sat in the church for an hour each day around noon. Upon being asked why, he simply said, “I mostly just sit and listen.” The stilled heart, hearing the still, small voice.

  27. Been a while since I’ve commented here, but once again I wish to give thanks to God and to you all for the blog and discussion! Father, it never struck me so clearly until now how God never commands us to do anything He already isn’t doing…or at least desirous of doing…the mutuality and eternality of the ask/seek/knock dynamic jumps out boldly to me just now. The old Protestant in me (well really just the old Adam in me) has always seen this as some intermediate or mercenary task; in other words we ask and seek until we get what is desired (get to Heaven)…and then what? Whereas what i’m seeing now is that the asking/seeking/knocking is mutual, implying a relationship (or better, co-inherence) and in this respect it’s not simply a means to some other end, but characterizes Life itself.

    Phil, I resonate with your experience, largely based out of what Father calls toxic shame, and his advice to you is something i have to keep coming back to as well. You most certainly are not alone in your struggles; and the good news for us is that at least we are becoming aware of the link between our inner, protracted shame and the experience of dealing with this passionately which you describe (which is really what our whole culture is doing, but with little to no awareness of this fact). Incrementally and ssslllooowwwlllyyy we can heal from this via the holy “dispassion” acquired by grace as we struggle. As we fall down over and over, and get up over and over again to resume the contest.

    And thanks too, Father, Dee et al for the explanation of epiousios/super/suprasubstantial as regards the petition in our Lord’s Prayer…something always felt inadequate to me about the “give us this day our daily bread” translation.

  28. Sms,
    I made slight alterations to your shorthand (wrt). I prefer that we not use internet shorthand where possible. I’m not of the generation that readily knows and uses it – and some of our international readers might not even know where to begin. It takes a couple of seconds more…but it’s time worth taking…

  29. Phil,
    Of practical help is the second clause of the famed short phrase spoken by Christ to St Silouan is his despair: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”.
    The key is a shift from self-preoccupation, to a state of being solely concerned with the great Other: Christ, the only good One and the lover of mankind.
    There is no shameful deed or deviance in existence that can hinder God’s belief in our eternal worth, as long as we turn to Him rather than away from Him… This is the incontestable truth. If we focus on that, (despite whatever hell we might find ourselves in), little by little, we can gradually establish a base for the sort of humility that is not so much focused on ‘what is wrong with ourselves’, but focused on ‘what God sees as being right with ourselves’. It is therefore not the sort of humility that makes a rather barren or sick tree feel ashamed for its barrenness or sickness, but the sort of humility that makes the tree concentrate on the few fruits it is given by nature, despite its tendency towards barrenness and sickness. Eventually, it “sees” that God fills it with a heavy load of unwarranted fruits and therefore stoops low in humble gratitude, forgetting itself and merely, ‘eucharistically’, marvelling at the love God places upon it despite everything.

  30. Phil and Dino,

    Phil’s comment resonated with my struggle and Dino’s words of understanding for him spoke to me in that
    ” . . . we can gradually establish a base for the sort of humility that is not so much focused on ‘what is wrong with ourselves’, but focused on ‘what God sees as being right with ourselves’. ”

    Thank you both.

  31. ‘The Christian discerns within himself the human Fall in as much as he can see his own passions. Passions are the sign of the sinful mortal disease which afflicts the entire human race…
    In order to achieve success in the spiritual life, it is necessary for our passions to reveal themselves by coming to the fore. When passions reveal themselves in an ascetic he comes to grips with them.’
    -St. Ignatius Brianchaninov.

  32. Andrew, your comment led to me contemplating the Russian word ‘podvig’. Apparently, the fullness of the word takes many words to convey in English. Briefly, as nearly as I can discern it is expressive of the entire reality of man’s struggle to regain and maintain our humanity in Christ, with Christ. That struggle also includes both the sadness of our fallen nature and the joy of its ressurection and the fact that in none of that are we ever alone. Evil wants us to feel alone, but that is just another lie. One I have fallen prey to frequently in my life
    When feeling alone, isolated I tend to bathe in my shame and other passions because repentance seems impossible. Darkness and despair seem to reign but that is the biggest lie of all.
    We are all each of us together ascetics united in and through the Cross. Mt 4:17 and John 14:3 speak to the here and now not just to what will be.

  33. Phil,
    Sometimes it is better to be silent. Therefore, I’m cautious about attempting to provide advice when it is not solicited. Please forgive me if what I say here is not helpful. When someone is suffering, the sufferer’s heart circumstances are very delicate.

    I want to encourage you to attend to what Father Stephen says to you. ( Fr. Stephen at
    July 1, 2022, at 6:07 pm). From my own experience, it seems to me you’re dealing with toxic shame. Under such circumstances, the darkness of the heart might destabilize the mind. Fr Zacharias once told someone St Silouan’s words, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” But the person continued to suffer and despair. Fr Zacharias’ spiritual father, St Sophrony, admonished him for this because the person wasn’t ready for such words.

    To discern Christ’s words from the dark words of the evil one’s, please remember that Christ said, “Peace I give to you.”

    The relevance of St Silouan’s words in our age is indeed to not despair, as Dino emphasizes, and as Christ has forewarned us. Furthermore, it does no good to cope with our problems by building distractions. However, when one attempts to face one’s problems, it is always better to do so with a skilled and trusted counselor. You might also consider speaking with your pastor. Such conversations can sometimes be helpful.

  34. It is therefore not the sort of humility that makes a rather barren or sick tree feel ashamed for its barrenness or sickness, but the sort of humility that makes the tree concentrate on the few fruits it is given by nature, despite its tendency towards barrenness and sickness.

    This reminds me of a story of Fr. Moses the Black. He once instructed a brother as to how to live in his cell…

    “…and the brother went to his cell and fell on his face upon the ground and for three whole days and nights he wept before God. And after these things, when his thoughts were saying unto him, “Thou art now an exalted person and thou hast become a great man,” he used to contradict them, and set before his eyes his former shortcomings, and say, “Thus were all thine offenses.”

    And again, when they used to say to him, “Thou hast performed many things negligently,” he would say, “Nevertheless I do small services for God and He showeth His mercy upon me.”

    A good example of balance and humility, I think.

  35. The chief Apostle, Peter, maintained that balance when he experientially knew his potential for shameful falleness while also been given the prophecy & strength to die a miraculous martyr. We see this in the last chapter of Jon’s Gospel.
    It is a recent wring of our attentional foxus from self to God.

  36. Father and Dino,
    I sincerely appreciate this development in this thread. As I search my own heart to understand its weakness, I’ve come to recognize that my first pitfall into a string of negative thought patterns is that I judge.

    I stop at the verb judge (without object) for a reason. I had a revelation while was reading in the Bible the passage in Matthew (and it’s in Luke) where Christ expressly commanded us not to judge. (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38)

    By Providence that morning, (I read the Bible in a consecutive manner but not with a purpose –I just read daily) I subsequently read a passage in 1 Corinthians 4: 3-5, where Paul writes: “But with me, it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.

    However, when I have heard the Gospel verses in conversations (or homilies) the focus of the topic is on judging others, not oneself. In light of what I’ve read in 1 Corinthians, it seems I (and perhaps we) have placed an inordinate emphasis on whom we are judging rather than on the act of judging itself.

    I’ve heard the phrase “know thyself”. But I’ve also heard that one’s heart is unfathomable. It takes humility to recognize the expansive landscape and deep-sea that is our heart. Yet I judge myself as if I know myself. And as I judge myself, I humiliate myself –calling down condemnation on myself.

    I was taught when I was very young in a Protestant church, that God is a judging God, ready to punish (hellfire–the works) those who sin. Since we’re all sinners–we got to ‘believe’ Christ died on our behalf to take the hellfire punishment that would have awaited us. We got to be grateful to Christ for His taking our punishment for us to appease an angry God.

    In light of how such a narrative has permeated this culture, it is no wonder that we have become self-righteous bullies. We bully ourselves and we bully others. We judge ourselves and we judge others.

    Father Zacharias has said that our point of reference is Christ and His love for us. His love for us exceeds any measure we can come up with. Therefore let us put down our measuring sticks. Let us stop judging ourselves and others. Let us wait patiently for Christ to enter our hearts. He waits and knocks on the doors of our hearts.

    I pray that God helps us to open the doors of our hearts. And that we might stop judging by placing our focus on Christ and His love.

  37. Father, please forgive my verboseness. I don’t think that my last comment was helpful.

  38. Hi Dee, your latest comment reminds me of a lecture I watched on Ancient Faith. Dee Jacquet (now retired) Pastoral counselor, talked about how the Orthodox theology of grace (as compared to the traditional Catholic and Protestant) is what has helped so many of her clients heal in her 30 years of practice.
    Even though I’m cradle Orthodox, the hell-fire damning god is who I grew up with. So much healing from knowing the loving God.

  39. Dee, your last comment was incredibly helpful to me at the very least! And providentially timed too as I have been reflecting on my prior experience in Protestantism and the damage it did me (while also reflecting that there was a voluntary aspect on my part in that too…no one can harm the person who doesn’t harm himself, as St John Chrysostom put it).

    Odd how easily the devil can get in there and disturb our peace with what are ultimately baseless accusations…God help us to discern and hear His voice in our hearts and silence the chatter that so stealthily sneaks into our minds…

  40. Dee,
    Your observations are quite important and bring me to say something viz. Fr. Zacharias’ and Dino’s thoughts that I think need great clarity and care.

    The practice of “self-condemnation” (an exercise of extreme humility) referenced by Dino (from time to time) and Fr. Zacharias (and St. Sophrony, et al), describe a parctice that, generally, is only to be undertaken by a personality that is a healthy state. There are many injuries within people that leave them with a morbid sense of worthlessness, or clinically depressed, or beset by toxic shame, etc. They should avoid such self-condemnation in that it will likely only do serious harm and not help. It is not something we do or employ as a means of healing.

    My caveat should be seen as something similar to the warnings that accompany the practice of the Jesus Prayer and attempts to achieve “self-acting” prayer. It should only be undertaken with an experienced spiritual father.

    This is even more the case when it comes to handing out advice to souls who are injured in various ways. Just because something is said or taught in a spiritual father does not make it the appropriate “medicine” for the soul in many cases. Only discernment, with practice, should dare to do such a thing. We can say, “I found this helpful,” but again, was it helpful to you when you were sick or well?

    There are a number of things that inherently produce self-condemnation. OCD is one of them. Toxic shame is another. Clinical depression can be another. All of these have a variety of causes – and none of them will benefit from self-condemnation (much less intentionally trying to increase it). It will simply crush the soul.

    By and large, our correspondents on the blog are not healthy monastics. They are broken brothers and sisters struggling to gain understanding and a decent foothold in the faith. It is one of the reasons that I commonly push back against the more extreme bits of monastic-style advice when it appears in the comments. It’s dangerous stuff and easily does more harm than good.

    So – the topic of judging. The vast majority of people are somewhat neurotic – that is – they tend to think worse of themselves than is actually the case. They are wounded and need healing. A much smaller number of people are somewhat narcissistic – tending to think better of themselves than is actually the case. They are much more deeply wounded and in deeper need of healing. Narcissists find shame too unbearable and will not respond well to anyone’s efforts to shame them. Neurotics will respond all-too-eagerly to others’ efforts to shame them – and it does no good.

    Bearing shame (in a healthy, salutary manner) must be voluntary – always. I would treat it like a law.

    Someone who carries toxic wounds (that manifest with self-loathing, self-judging, etc.) need to be healed. That healing requires love, support, safety, and some unpacking and time to identify the source of their wounds and to work through what has happened to them. It’s long, slow, and might actually take the better part of a lifetime.

    Whenever, for example, I hear people confess to having a problem “judging” others – I assume pretty quickly that they also have a problem judging themselves (too much). Neither case is actually about the information (judging others because of what they did, or judging the self because what the self has done). In both cases, what is going on is just the judging itself. It’s an artifact (as in the noise of the lizard brain that I mentioned several articles back). It’s out of control and is simply the sound of one of the passions.

    Self-condemnation, for most people, would be nothing more than nurturing one of the darker passions and unleashing it. It would attack them and devour those around them. It does not constitute keeping a mind in hell. It constitutes feeding the mind to a lizard. Not a good thing at all.

    Some of this is behind my constant instinct and practice towards kindness and gentleness with those who share such problems. They need balm.

    I’ve seen that instinct in your (Dee) comments from time to time, and I can see those instincts are there.

    So, for what it’s worth, it is best to judge very little. We’re not being saved by our excellence, but by our weakness. We do best to pray, “Help me! I am weak!” That is much more effective than trying to discern our faults and making promises to reform.

    It is said that the Church is a hospital. In our modern times, this hospital has largely been confined to a mental ward. We should be very kind and gentle with one another. We’re all a bit crazy and the world around us has become a machine for making people even crazier. It’s not on a track to get better any time soon.

  41. Michael,
    indeed the abyss of shame, guilt, isolation and despair is a real danger. Also the other extreme abyss of presumption.

    The old man won’t give up without a fight and the world and the prince thereof won’t take no for an answer either.

    The Cross is a terrible thing to the old man, the world and Satan, but it is the only source of victory, healing and freedom from them.

    We struggle, according our own ability, strength and most importantly the good Lord’s grace.

    And as you say, to believe that you are alone in the struggle, is a great lie.

  42. To all,
    having read Fr. Stephen’s latest post; if I have said anything or posted any quotes that are unhelpful in any way, please forgive me.

    The things I have posted regarding this article I found of help personally when I was struggling and being on the verge of giving up.

  43. Father, Dee et al,
    Dee’s comment on judging was fittingly beneficial and on the mark.
    The point I was making regarding focusing on ‘despairing not’ and focusing ‘on God rather than self,’ [when interpreting Christ’s word to Silouan] is none other than that, in a sense.
    This non-judging has an incredible real-life example in the latest saint to be canonized by the Church –the “smiling saint”- Evmenios Saridakis.
    His resistance to absolutely all judging, was so formidable that many close to him thought it way too extreme.
    His reasons for this went back to his youth when, having been blessed with extreme clairvoyance and dispassion from youth, he once, momentarily “judged” himself positively [as he said], and God, in His unfathomable providence, allowed him to instantly become possessed by demonic spirits -as pedagogy. He was healed from this eventually, but, his opposition to judging was cemented after that mishap beyond any other.
    Some examples:
    He’d be walking in London (he visited once) with its overcast sky, and would exclaim ‘what lovely whether!’ [an obvious oxymoron], his companion & disciple (a Cypriot bishop now, accustomed to incessant sunshine back home) would see polluted City’s gloominess and go quietly: “pppfffff…!” but, the saint would put his index finger on the lips to motion not to judge, not even like that. And St Evmenios would continue “lovely whether! Lovely London!” Always smiling and laughing as was usual for him.
    The situation was the same when he’d see debauchery or other situations others would instantly be appalled by.
    It seemed he was in another world in his restrained positivity.
    But even when his companion would ‘judge positively’, impressed with another saint (after meeting St Sophrony), St Evmenios would tone down the overawed adulations by simply exclaiming his usual: “lovely man! lovely man!”

  44. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your latest comments on the church as “mental ward”, the role of bearing a little shame, and the importance of kindness and gentleness towards each other. I feel like we all (certainly I) could use more instruction on these points. I hope they might be covered somewhat further by your forthcoming book(?). Please keep us posted on when it might be available. I deeply appreciate the therapeutic reality of the Orthodox life which I feel was lacking in my pre-Orthodox experience of Christianity.

  45. Kenneth,
    Thank you for the comment. The book is scheduled for release in early 2023, and is already sitting with the editors. I think it will have laid out a framework for thinking about many of these things – though – no doubt – there will remain lots of thinking to do as it is applied in our lives. Just learning to have some vocabulary and such in all of this will, I think, be a boon for us all.

    I suspect that I’ll keep adding more articles on the blog as we think out loud together.

  46. I too look forward to it, Father.

    And I just want to express my thanks to the generosity of readers who commented so graciously on my last comment. It helped to lift my heart.

  47. Dino, forgive me but the example you give of St. Evmenios of “not judging” still looks like a judgement to me-just as much based in the human will as a negative judgement. Maybe I am missing something??

  48. Michael,
    The saint’s typical response to all things with “lovely”, was a verbal expression of the affirmation that God is good and that all things are, somehow, exactly as they should be (when we remember that He is the good lord of all). However, just as he would never use negative adjectives like ‘awful’, ‘horrible’, ‘terrible’, he equally wouldn’t use extreme positive adjectives like ‘amazing’, ‘holy’, ‘fantastic’, neither for people or situations. He disliked both extremes. His conviction was that God is at the wheel [and never makes mistakes] and also that only God is allowed judgements.
    The greek word ‘ωραία’ (which means something like lovely/nice/beautiful) was his favourite for all things, you hear him overuse, even where it is not quite grammatically appropriate (almost like a “hack” to avoid commenting and judging- when he is pressed towards this by his inquirers) in all his recordings, practically in every single sentence.

  49. I see that, but what of the Joy of God’s presence and mercy which is often so outside the norm that it requires an expression that is outside the norm. Are you saying that St. Evmenios so lived in that blessed place that it is the norm?
    Bit of a reach for me.

  50. Michael,
    My assessment is that Saint Evmenios lived that Joy of God’s presence and mercy to such an astounding degree that, for him, it was the norm, and his way of interacting with people makes that very evident.
    There were people that would become scandalised by his frequent laughter -even during the liturgy- but, he was indeed, a very unique type…

  51. Fr. Stephen,

    In some Protestant traditions, the word “saint” is believed to apply to all Christian believers. This seems to trivialize the word “saint” because almost everyone is considered to be one. It also makes it more difficult to explain the important role of saints in Orthodoxy to Protestants, because the word can mean very different things. Can you recommend a good way to explain the difference? In Orthodoxy, is there at least some sense in which all believers are ever considered “saints” (e.g., teleologically)?

  52. Kenneth,
    The Orthodox can certainly use the term “saints” generically to describe all believers in the same manner as St. Paul. It’s just not done that much. It would also be the case that we could use some other term rather than “saint” to describe those of whose sanctity, salvation, and power with God (in their intercessions) we are certain about (canonized “saints”). It just depends on the context of the conversation.

    I recently, on the Sunday of All Saints, stressed the point in my homily of that day that we are all “saints.”

    It’s just context. But Protestants do not accept that the intercession of the saints are of benefit for us (or, at least, that we may ask them to intercede for us). And there’s a wide gulf on that matter.

  53. Father, I was not really being critical. I was asking, obliquely about what it takes to live that way. Dino’s final answer confirms what I thought. That is a wonderful hope and testimony to anyone who has ever been blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can be so real and present as to allow someone to see and experience God’s Joy as the norm. It gives, I think, a whole new dimension to the substance of the title of your website. A dimension of glory and joy beyond what we usually experience. If that grace is given, even briefly, it means it can be treasured and nurtured im such a way as to transform everything. Thank you for chastising me, Father.
    Thank you Dino for putting up with me.
    Both give me extra incentive to both repent and thank the Holy Trinity for being with each one of us.
    God is good.

  54. Michael,
    I recall St Sophrony somewhere detailing that, if, say, there were twelve degrees of Grace, God could only allow a continuous Grace of up to degree six in order for a human to be able to function in everyday life, or something along those lines… Perhaps one could maintain a higher degree [the sort of brief ‘vision’ of being caught up in the Heavens like Paul] for even a few days, if they were living as a hermit in a cave that is, but this would not be conducive for a family man living in the world – so it is kept in store for him for later…
    I am convinced St Eumenios Saridakis continuously maintained the highest possible degree in his mature years, a degree of Grace “around six” [excuse the tastelessness of expression here please] that allows one to also still function socially while moving around amongst people.
    Perhaps this is difficult to imagine, especially since counterfeits are more common than the real thing lately in most people’s experiences, although they can never ever hope to match it. There is no counterfeit, lovestruck or drug-induced or other delusion, even if you were to somehow, through some chemical inducement, feel surrounded by the sweetest musical drone from all sides, at all times and despite where you find yourself, and all you see, hear, taste and smell is sweetness, joy, love, strength etc., that can ever come close to what the Divine Comforter’s advent brings to His children when it is deemed appropriate.

  55. Hi Dino, thanks for that last comment especially. I am wondering how we are to discern if our experience is genuine or if it is a counterfeit…in August 2020 I experienced a state of deep sweetness and joy (even to the point of having a persistent honey-like taste in my mouth) after a deep bout of spiritual struggle, a falling back or away in which i had become convinced that i had cut myself off from God forever…and somehow He broke through the lies and delusions I had foolishly surrendered to, restoring my hope and desire to seek and find Him. Mindfulness of God and prayer felt easy and joyous virtually all the time.

    However, in this state I felt led (or more likely, it seems, out of my own inordinate desires) to reach out to my ex-courting partner to the point where she ended up calling the police on me…sigh. I never intended her any harm, however it seems I was caught up in at least some aspect of delusion thinking she was still “the one” even though she was making it very clear she was no longer interested in any form of relationship with me. The state of joy nevertheless persisted and i foolishly reached out to her again despite this warning, and I became charged with harassment. Lord have mercy.

    Perhaps my story serves as a good warning that we mustn’t put much stock in these types of feelings, however spiritual and joyous they may feel or seem at the time. I know Fr Seraphim Rose of blessed memory cautioned much against counterfeit experiences arising from the modern “charismatic” ethos, baggage of which I was probably still carrying at the time.

    God forgive me, a sinner.

  56. James Isaac,
    i firmly believe that the traditional ‘referenced’ life: referring our experiences to a discerning spiritual Father, is needed in what you describe.
    The problem isn’t just pure delusions and counterfeit experiences, the problem is that absolutely genuine ones -especially earlier on in the spiritual path, can be mixed in with our own various ‘issues’… It’s only natural in fact, to have such an admixture of opposites within.
    But as we tend toward cautiousness and humility in the process of spiritually maturing, although the gift of grace-filled experiences fans the zeal and enthusiasm that fuels our spiritual being, we start avoiding foolhardiness better, parsing and finely discerning better, and God’s protection becomes evident in this particular domain of avoiding delusion.
    If we were to advance further still, where super refined delusional temptations are encountered, God’s protection would again become evident -despite bumps along the way- and our gratitude increased further, as long as we are firstly inclined to spiritual caution, referring to a spiritual Father, and humility.

  57. Dino, (with deep appreciation to James) you mention a discerning spiritual father. That can be quite a search in itself. Even with one the ultimate task of discernment lies, in the world, with the person looking. No vows of obedience in the world, no structure really to support it. Easily abused. When I finally found one, he told me right off he did not require obedience. Good sign I think. Plus having a theological knowledge is helpful. Everyone has experiences. Some of them are just fleeting emotions, some may be real but brief.
    Knowing the theological boundaries oneself helps. I came into the Church due to one such experience 35 years ago even though the I was coming out of a experience focused Christianity, the local priest was a mess, the congregation not ethnically diverse and the Bishops having recently concluded a major spat between themselves. The more I learned about the teaching of the Church, the more I recognized the validity of the ecperience. I still do my best to honor the supra reality I was shown. It is a grace I am brought back to very occasionally. I could not stand it all the time in part because of its convicting reality. Yet the rememberance of it alone still leads me to repentance, wonder and joy 35 years later. Sometimes in tears. The experience does not exalt ME. Just the opposite. I always submit such things to my priest who has been my priest for 28 years. He routinely says: “Don’t take it or yourself too seriously, time will tell.” So I muddle along, fall, get up and keep moving. Learning a small amount how beyond imagining is the Grace, Mercy and Love of our Lord. When and if I let Him in. It is my sins that make me feel as a ball in a pin ball machine and I ain’t no ” Tommy”.
    Thank you to one and all.

  58. Thank you, brothers, for your comments and sharing. I have felt so ashamed in view of the events i mentioned…may God blot out my transgressions! It helps to remember that it’s not all-or-nothing with these things too…I believe in the case I mention the Grace was real and undeserved, yet that didn’t mean all my passions were healed instantly (much as one might wish they would be or could be).

    And yes, finding a discerning spiritual father can be quite a challenge! I feel that especially for these “exceptional” types of experiences which may come upon us unsought for at times, we do well to consult with a highly experienced monastic elder. Of course this is not always so readily available either.

  59. James,
    these things are perfectly natural and – in the knowledge of our humanity’s powerlessness – nothing to ever really be ashamed for. By far, it is the passing of time that is the ultimate revealer of all delusion.
    Caution is not our strongest trait as humans: we’ve seen the most discerning have lapses of caution and the most careless show badly exorbitant overcaution at times. As a rule, the greater the genuine humility, the greater the invisible ‘protective veil’ above one’s head in these things; as if something re-directs the humble ones’ inner attention, correcting its course.

  60. Fr. Stephen, thanks for your helpful answer above about saints and the importance of context. That makes sense and certainly helps clarify.

  61. Thank you, Dino, for your gentle and kind words…I am definitely of the type Fr Stephen mentioned earlier who finds it much “safer” to assume too much responsibility or blame/shame for things…something which has followed me from childhood all my life (barring some periods of shameless rebellion). It is a challenge for me to remember that accepting falsely attributed blame and shame can be equally destructive as refusing to accept responsibility a la the quintessential narcissist. I have tried to maintain there are two sinners in the equation with me and my former lady friend, while not judging her (or myself!)…some things really do take what seems a long time for the deeper truth of things to be revealed. Finding some modicum of humility to say and accept “I don’t know [for sure] about that “ has been helpful.

    Maybe it is just what I needed to read at this point in my journey, but I started reading Archimandrite Zacharias’ “Remember Thy First Love” based on the wisdom and experience of the God-bearing Elder Sophrony – and it beautifully contextualizes these transient experiences of Grace in respect of our normative experience of struggle, pain, failure etc. With Father Stephen’s blessing (I hope!) this book is highly recommended!!

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