Abraham, the Righteous, and the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers

Many services of the Church conclude with this prayer: “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us!” Since we ourselves are praying directly to Christ, why do we invoke the prayers of others? Are our prayers so weak, or is His mercy so hard to come by? Like so much else in the Church, the answer reveals an even greater mystery.

In Genesis 18, we are told about God’s visit with Abraham beneath the Oak of Mamre. The short passage is filled with mysteries and has drawn the attention of the Church for centuries. God has determined to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if their wickedness turns out to be as reported. Abraham, however, poses an interesting question in his intercession for the cities. Will God destroy the righteous (tzadikim) with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous persons in the city? Would God spare the cities for the sake of the 50?

God responds that He will spare the cities for the sake of 50 righteous. Abraham’s intercession continues with extended “bargaining.” It concludes with the “concession” that a mere 10 righteous would be enough for which to spare the cities. Of course, it turns out that there are only 8 righteous, and the cities are destroyed, though the 8 souls are evacuated (Lot and his extended family).

It is, however, a principle of note that is revealed: the presence of the righteous preserves the lives of the unrighteous. They are salt and light. As St. James says, “The fervent prayer of the righteous avails much.” (5:16)

The presence of but 10 righteous ones would have saved the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, symbols of the greatest wickedness throughout time. Even more than that were the prayers of Abraham. For the period of time in which he stood before the face of the Lord and argued, the wicked cities were spared. He “delayed” the hand of God.

This sense of things has largely been lost in our present world. We have nurtured a secular mentality among ourselves and have come to see the presence of Christians in secular terms. We number ourselves among the various “interest groups.” We imagine that if we stand with a united voice, a united vote, and united wealth, we will have some measure of impact on the decisions of the mighty (who are, decidedly, not gods). The very sad conclusions of secularism are that this world is self-governing, self-existing, and self-determining. It is a line of thought that actually has no need of God.

The rise of secularism as a dominant cultural belief carries with it the rise of “morality” as an engine of power. The “moral” social movements that have marked the modern history of Christianity in the West (Puritanism, abolition, feminism, prohibition, as well as modern wokism, and others) are all examples of Christianity as a secularized, “moral” power. The fact that these movements have often had as much non-Christian participation as Christian points to the secular nature of their existence. As movements, they work just as well whether Christians join them or not. Secularism prepares the world for the disappearance of Christianity.

Several years back, speaking at a conference in Seattle, I described that city as “among the most moral places in the nation.” Whole areas of that city have been shut down, from time to time, in the name of various moral causes. Boston, during the Puritan era, was less moral. Unsurprisingly, NPR, a few years back, did an article saying, “Don’t believe in God? Move to Seattle.” It does not make it less moral. Indeed, it might make it moreso.

I apologize to my friends in Seattle – I could have used other cities as examples. It’s not just Seattle.

Christ taught that the Church is “salt” and “light.” For many, this is a commandment that propels us into the moral battles of every place and time. Christ noted that if salt that has lost its “saltiness,” it is only fit to be thrown away. He could equally have said that meat that has become “all salt” is inedible.

The imagery of salt is not one that suggests the conversion of the world to all salt. Nor is the image of light generally one that suggests that all will become light. Both images suggest the nature of a righteous and holy presence in the world. Abraham beneath the Oaks of Mamre is the image of faith – not a vast army riding to crush its enemies and enthrone Abraham as the father of us all.

The single most important actions in the life of this world, on any given day, are found in the various places where the people of God have gathered and the Divine Liturgy is being offered “on behalf of all and for all.” Our modern sensibilities have oftentimes reduced the Liturgy to a “filling station,” providing us with energy and inspiration so that we can go out into the world and do “our real work.” These are two competing visions – and the first one – the ancient one – is increasingly ignored in its proper role.

If we understood the true nature of prayer – our communion with God – we would find every possible occasion to pray. When we enter into prayer in the presence of God, we take our place among the righteous. We become God’s salt and God’s light.

It was said in one of the early centuries of the Church that there were three righteous men through whose prayers God sustained the world in existence. We know for a fact, that the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah once depended for a time on the prayers of Abraham. I have a deep confidence that there are at least three who fulfill that role at this time. Every time we stand in prayer, we take our places beside them. There, we become salt and light, no matter the politics and moralities of this world.

Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us!

 

 

48 comments:

  1. This flows so well from your previous article on communion, Father. Thank you for this.

  2. What makes a man a saint in the Orthodox Church? I have had several discussions with Orthodox people regarding “Saint” Justinian, whom I have also seen described by other Orthodox as nothing more than a thug. My contention is that being a saint is a complete composite life, that is, not only do you hold to and defend Orthodox doctrine, as Justinian did, but your life is one of humility and charitable behavior. Kidnapping a pope because you want him to come to a council, does not qualify in my opinion as charitable behavior. Neither does turning loose your armies on the populace when they are turning against you. And of course, there is the disputed history of Procopius against Justinian. In short, the man’s personal life does not appear to reach the qualifications of being a saint.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  3. Edward, in our day we have a tendency to readily find fault in others. I think this is simply true of our time; it is not really a critique of your statement. But we should be careful in our judgements of those who came before us.

    My understanding of Saints is that they are not perfect but either sought to attain holiness by drawing close to Christ (often after having lived long in opposition to Him, whether knowing it or not) and/or were great benefactors of the Church during their lifetime. We also recognize that a moment of Holiness may define them more than all their sins.

  4. Edward,
    Justinian belongs to that period that predates any process of “canonization.” Their veneration started somewhere (likely Constantinople in his case) and spread from there. He certainly had many accomplishments as an Emperor – some of which included a certain piety. Generally, I agree with you that a person’s whole life should be included in what we think of as sanctification. Nonetheless, as in the case of the martyrs, certain specific acts seem to carry great weight in some lives.

    What is true is that we should not feel the need to defend everything in someone’s life (like the manner in which Justinian suppressed and punished the Nika riots) simply because that person is honored on the Church’s calendar. We never should feel compelled to call that which is bad “good” or that which is “good” bad.

  5. Edward, we must also realize that a person ‘s life is mostly unseen. Repentance is possible up to one’s last breath, at least. I have witnessed people I knew well who struggled with living a Christian life by all that can be seen. I have been present, in some cases, as they lay dying. In some there seemed to be a moment of peace that occurred just as they died.
    Repentance in the Church is not a legalistic act.
    In Matthew both the Forerunner and Jesus Himself call us to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    I suspect Justinian and other “questionable” saints fit in there somewhere.
    Or to paraphrase Shakespeare: There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our explicit theology or morality.

    I find it way too easy to create dichotomy where there is none..

    What makes a saint–God. The Church recognizes many as appropriate to venerate. In the act of veneration, I find some speak to my heart more easily than others.

    If we are “wrong” that does not mean our prayers are not heard. In any case, I am still called to repentance. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on ME, a sinner.” And yet, I am not alone or isolated.

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

  6. Father,
    I’ve often felt that studying the life of a saint was akin to studying scripture. The truth that is Christ is present in both
    sources.
    My question : When St Paul declares that he no longer lives but that Christ lives in him, can we say that he has experienced theosis? Can I assume that any saint’s halo has always implied the same uncreated light that St Seraphim
    revealed to Motovilov.? If only Christ is present in St Paul at that point in his spiritual journey it seems logical to approach God through that same uncreated light that all Orthodox pray for…. even if it is manifested in a “mere” saint’s life. Am I missing a connection ?
    John

  7. John,
    I will offer how I think about this topic. Theosis, to my mind, is not complete until it is complete in every aspect – which includes being resurrected. There can be aspects of resurrectional life even in this lifetime (such as St. Seraphim or others being in more than one place at a time, or walking in the air, etc.). But those unusual miracles remain not yet their “way of being.” The proof is that they die. Resurrection doesn’t die.

    So, though “theosis” is taking place in the life of grace – none of the saints can be said to have experienced theosis in the completed sense in this life.

    Also, there is a tendency in at least one corner of Orthodoxy to treat saints as though they were a perfect channel to God – sort of living oracles, etc. I am not comfortable with saying that and I do not see it in the actual dogmatic tradition. It is pious, no doubt, but also gets misued a lot.

  8. I hope this is a simple question. What is “wok-ism” and why is it so bad? I have attempted to discover more of the meaning of this word, and it seems to refer to a state of being aware of things considered as social ills. The contexts in which I have heard it used here in Australia, are usually in things like political slagging matches. Further attempts to define it seem to go nowhere, and I am left with the impression that it is a word of nebulous meaning, that is used to intimidate people into silence.
    The secular world is mired in all manner of causes and debates, where “isms” are used to distract people from thinking about what really matters in our lives, and our inability as humans to do anything constructive to heal our brokenness. All of the frenetic activity and angst goes nowhere without the solid foundation, nourishment and love of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
    The world of foaming-at-the-mouth political division and blindness driven by insatiable pride has never been able to provide any lasting solutions to the problems caused by our fallen humanity.
    I may be barking up the wrong tree here. Nevertheless, I would like to know if BEING AWARE of injustices such as the plight of the poor, criminality and political corruption etc., etc, is something to be condemned.
    The secular world is never going to be able to address all that inflicts suffering on the world. I do not believe that humans, left to their own efforts, are able to correct the state of this world. How can it be otherwise? For myself, I have more than enough trouble as I struggle with my own sinful weakness.
    So this is where it leads: Redemption and salvation are of the Lord. We are to manifest our faith in the Lord our God in many ways, amongst which are good works for our fellow brothers and sisters. The poor widow, with her mite, KNEW OF NEED and contributed greatly of her meager substance. Was she being “woke”?

    I apologize for my ignorance.

  9. Is theosis ongoing, even after the resurrection (‘going from glory unto glory’), or is it completed with the resurrection?

  10. Tikhon,
    I apologize for using jargon (“Wokism”). It’s simply a term to describe a present-tense (and very intense) form of a drive for a perceived social justice. It is primarily (in my mind) associated with notions of gender fluidity, certain justice theories, and a drive to fix things through very controlling efforts. In that latter case, it is similar to the many movements that went before. It has, more than anything, a religious nature more than a set of arguments. It brooks no dissent.

    “Being aware” is a loaded term. Being aware of the evils of this world would be virtuous in most cases, if it is followed by compassion and efforts to serve those who are victimized. As to changing the world – that is always problematic. I would refer you an earlier article of mine: We Will Not Make the World a Better Place.

    I would suggest that this present article is a new idea for you. It’s not a political argument – it’s a statement of how Christians are in the world as salt and light. Just chew on it and sit with it. It might not be useful for you right now. That’s not uncommon.

    Be blessed!

  11. Andrew,
    Way above my pay grade! But, I’ll suggest a couple of things. I have never thought of theosis as “finished” in the sense that there’s not a “further up, further in.” But that we move beyond the reach of sin and death is certainly an aspect of resurrection from it’s get-go. St. Gregory of Nyssa is very strong on the notion of eternal movement towards God (further up, further in). I would think that he was the primary source for CS Lewis’ use of that imagery in the last book of the Narnia series.

  12. Following up on the what defines a saint… while reading through I had a thought and I wonder if it’s worthwhile. Sainthood, as the Church seems to engage with it now, is more about the “current” state of the person in question, and less so an evaluation of their past. (I intentionally say “less,” not “regardless of”) That is, they are defined as saints because the Church acknowledges that they are now with God—however they got there—and back to the original post’s theme: therefore we can appeal to their prayers.

    Is this a fruitful way of looking at it, or does that oversimplify too much?

  13. Tikon, if you look at the context of Fr. Stephan’s use of the term “wokism” you will see it is part of a trend, i.e. turning ideas into ideology. In ideologies people begin to worship the idea. Often God and even genuine humanity are cast aside. No matter how good the original idea is, once ideology takes over, destruction always ensues. True believers take over and the path to “burning at the stake” anyone who disagrees begins. Modern politics is rife with such things on all “sides” of most issues.
    Personally, I have decided to no longer play the game in which truth and humanity are the first casualties.
    So, I focus on repentance, worship and addressing the needs of those close to hand which will expand as my heart expands.
    Genuine compassion is never bad. Unfortunately the ideologies of the day often use and twist that compassion into something not true. Guarding one’s heart is necessary.

    Lord, Jesus Christ have mercy on us.

  14. Tikhon,

    The widow knew of a need in front of her and responded to it. Of equal importance, she did so humbly and in love of God.

    “Wokism” is the “world of foaming-at-the-mouth political division and blindness” that you described. It is ideology-run-rampantly-extreme and, as Father mentioned, it brooks no dissent. Perhaps its biggest identifier is that it possesses no humility; it is immeasurably self-righteous in its proclamations.

  15. Elijah,
    My wife reminded me this morning that King David would be disqualified if we looked at many of the actions in his life. Your take seems very on point and useful.

  16. Tikhon,

    It seemed to me the point Father Stephen was making is that movements that echo Christian morality in purely secular terms go awry. His list was not inherently pejorative (after all, nearly everyone would agree abolition was a good thing). Many times, in fact, I have heard Marxism as having a very Christian basis in its principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The widow, indeed, gave according to her ability.

    The problem (in my opinion) is that human nature does not long incline to such a morality if left to its own devices; if you remove loving God with all your heart and soul, people will not long continue to love their neighbor as themselves.

    “Being aware of injustice” posits justice. How, then, do we know what justice is? In a secular world, that answer is going to be fluid (e.g. “justice is what the party decrees”).

    As for the widow, it’s difficult to say what her motivation was, but my feeling is that she did so out of faith–this is what God commands–not any secular belief.

  17. Piggy backing on the conversation here, I recently listened to a episode from the podcast “The Lord of Spirits” with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen DeYoung. Fr. Stephen made the below comment that really caught my attention and seemed to echo things I’ve read in this blog:

    “…when we think about St. Gregory the Theologian… If you read a lot of St. Gregory the Theologian, you’ll find that he spends a lot of time talking about his irritable bowel syndrome—at least that’s what we call it today. That may shock some people, but it’s absolutely true; read his letters. He wrote prayers to God that he said when he was experiencing this pain and distress and suffering; it’s very human. That’s not usually how we think about St. Gregory the Theologian. The hymnography, as far as I know—someone can correct me, but I’m pretty sure the hymnography of his feast and the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs does not mention his health problems at all. The St. Gregory who appears to us in the services, whom we come to know in the services and by reading his writings preserved in the Church, is sort of a different St. Gregory than that. And it’s not that that’s not the real St. Gregory. We’ve been taught by our 19th-century German friends to think: Well, the person who, if I got in a Tardis (time machine) and went back to the fourth century and met Gregory, if I met that person, that person with the suffering and the bathroom problems and all that stuff, that’s the “real” Gregory, and the other thing is this artifice of the Church, this “invented” thing, this legendary thing that doesn’t have reality to it. And that’s getting it exactly backwards. The real St. Gregory is the St. Gregory in the Church. The real St. Gregory is that St. Gregory whom we come to know, because that’s who St. Gregory is in eternity. That’s who St. Gregory is at the end of his journey. That’s who St. Gregory became, the holy one who he became. And the same is true, at least in potency, for each of us. The experiences we have, the struggles we go through, the victories, the failures—everything we go through in this life is the reality of who we are in Christ entering into our experience, gradually, because we’re human and we’re finite and we’re flawed, and that’s how we have to process it, a second and a bit and a piece at a time, to try to grow and change into the likeness of Christ.”

  18. Andrew,
    Boy, I’d sure like to think that the “real” me is not measured by my bowels… St. Gregory wouldn’t have thought so. St. John Chrysostom also suffered terribly from what appears to have been IBS. (Wonder if he got the two confused…don’t know).

  19. This and the previous article have made me start to wonder if in fact Theosis is not an individual but a collective process. In reality I don’t see how it can be otherwise, and surely this must be obvious from an Orthodox perspective. If the Saints continue to ascend toward God, perhaps it is so that we who are in communion with them can rise along with them, and if we rise then others may rise as well.

  20. Matthew,
    No doubt it is a collective, corporate, process. It is not without our cooperation (on some minimal level). What we are frequently (and mostly) unaware of, is how much our journey in Christ is “not of our own making.”

    Who brought me my Orthodox faith? At what price?

    The voices that spoke deeply to my heart back in the 1970’s when I first became aware that there was such a thing as Orthodoxy, were Russian. Some were voices among the exile community (such as V. Lossky), others were witnesses from within Russia herself (A. Solzhenitsyn). There would be many others in time. Their voices were authentic, and testified to their authenticity as much by their suffering as by their faithfulness and continuity with Apostolic tradition.

    Even the Scriptures that we hold in our hands. How many times were they copied by hand, straining eyesight and more?

    I could go on and on. The treasure we have been given is the gift of God through the saints (most of whose names we do not know). Just as they materially bless us with the inheritance we have, so they spiritually “drag us along behind them” as we journey into Christ.

  21. I sometimes find the ‘collective’ aspect of salvation to be rather misunderstood, (just as the ‘personal’ might be); a golden-mean seems necessary.
    It would be handy to have some fitting parable, offering direction and safeguarding against deviations.
    I sometimes think of the age-old image of battle, where, an army collectively fights; yet some members personally become either heroes or deserters [and anything in between], they thus affect all and are affected by all.

  22. Something of a sideways comment (Father, please delete if it is a distraction from the conversation).

    I have found it helpful, when discussing what it means to be human to make the following distinction. The primary philosophy of the modern world is humanist. By this I mean that Man sees himself, as an individual or in groups, as the definition of what it means to be human. He defines himself and he does this based on his own desires. If he desires something, within certain (constantly changing) societal bounds, then it is good and right and natural. In this way, he defines himself. The humanist emphasizes the individual, defined by their desires, above all else.

    This is in complete opposition to the Christian viewpoint, which states that our humanity is defined only in union with Christ, who is fully human (and fully divine). Our salvation is in union with Him, and it is that which makes us what we were created to be. This is St. Paul “emptying himself to be filled with the Holy Spirit” and Christ describing Himself as the Son of God, “do[ing] nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me.” These statements (and others) illustrate the depth of the communion of the sons of God with Him (that communion extends to all of humanity as well, but it is rooted in our union with God first and foremost).

    This is a very strong distinction but it is helpful (and, I think, helpful in any conversation) as it clarifies that, at its root, Christianity does not share the same foundation and presuppositions as the ideologies of the world. To my mind, this distinction lies at the core of the divide between the sons and daughters of God and the world. It also easily leads into a discussion of our incompleteness (not our lack of humanity) due to the wounding corruption of sin.

  23. Dino,

    I like the image of battle–and heroes and deserters–that you posted. Very helpful!

  24. Father – thanks. This gives me hope when I try to comprehend the “ecclesiological crisis” or “canonical crisis” within Orthodoxy. The saints give me hope. Especially someone like St. Sophrony whose glorification was proclaimed by the EP, the very subject of some of the controversy I mentioned. No camp can deny his sainthood within the faith. (Some few try I’m sure just because of the link to the EP, but that’s where silliness gets exposed)

    How else should one go about this chaos? One who is not abreast on all the details of such controversies – under the EP or not. Are there any articles or books you or anyone can point me to that help with these things?

  25. Brandon,
    It is, perhaps, difficult to avoid accounts of controversies and such (many news outlets seem to salivate over the least significant events). First, we should remember that there is nothing new in many of the tensions that exist within the Orthodox world – Church history is replete with them. Second, the major media (and many smaller outlets) do not report as dis-interested parties and rarely (almost never) give evidence of any real knowledge of Orthodox issues. Third, governments regular try to use Orthodox issues as a wedge to drive their own concerns…the history of the Middle East and Eastern Europe are filled with such examples.

    I do my best to pray and ignore such reports. There is a reason that we pray for unity of the (Orthodox) Church. It’s a miracle whenever it happens.

    Understand, above all, that God’s good providence governs all things – meditate on it – chew on it – make it a steady part of your spiritual diet. Avoid gossip.

  26. Amen. The third chapter of Titus speaks to this.

    Good works are more worthy than quarrelsome words.

    I have lived as though I needed to know about and have an opinion about everything. Drinking from the fire hose of media encourages that. But as Father Stephen’s post instructs, most interest groups will get along just fine without my participation, whereas the meals that might benefit from my small measure of salt are closer to home.

  27. Thank you, Father.

    I also recently came across this, which looking back shows how we can trust in His Providence — Blessed Augustine’s exposition on Psalm 129:

    “Many a time have they fought against me from my youth up Psalm 128:1. The Church speaks of those whom She endures: and as if it were asked, Is it now? The Church is of ancient birth: since saints have been so called, the Church has been on earth. At one time the Church was in Abel only, and he was fought against by his wicked and lost brother Cain. Genesis 4:8 At one time the Church was in Enoch alone: and he was translated from the unrighteous. Genesis 5:24 At one time the Church was in the house of Noah alone, and endured all who perished by the flood, and the ark alone swam upon the waves, and escaped to shore. Genesis vi.-viii At one time the Church was in Abraham alone, and we know what he endured from the wicked. The Church was in his brother’s son, Lot, alone, and in his house, in Sodom, and he endured the iniquities and perversities of Sodom, until God freed him from amidst them. Genesis xiii.-xx The Church also began to exist in the people of Israel: She endured Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The number of the saints began to be also in the Church, that is, in the people of Israel; Moses and the rest of the saints endured the wicked Jews, the people of Israel. We come unto our Lord Jesus Christ: the Gospel was preached in the Psalms.. ..For this reason, lest the Church wonder now, or lest any one wonder in the Church, who wishes to be a good member of the Church, let him hear the Church herself his Mother saying to him, Marvel not at these things, my son: Many a time have they fought against me from my youth up.”

  28. Brandon, the question I have for myself is of which group am I a part? If I am being honest, most of the time I am with the evil ones. It is only by the Mercy of the Holy Trinity that I am not. Fortunately they are nearer than hands and feet. So, Mt 4:17 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” ; gives me great hope. Even in the darkness of my heart, the Light is there. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    The Ressurection is real as is the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost but those realities can only be entered by the repentant heart by the Grace of the Holy Trinity.
    That is what the history and practice and living presence in the Holy Temple reveal to us.

  29. Michael – thank you. That question is helpful and should surely lead to a truthful introspection.

    I guess where I get stuck at times is from a teaching perspective, or describing the nature of the Orthodox Church to friends and family… in the face of the internal division…the messiness that Fr. Stephen often writes about. The decentralization. At times I get it and at times I don’t. Does it come down to merely core dogma? But then it seems to be less of a “fullness” and more of a mere Christianity or Least Common Denominator type of thing. What constitutes a marginal issue? (E.g calendar, stances on x or y liturgical practice). How much room is there for theological speculation? There are the questions that keep me up. What’s the best way to think about these things?

    Also, is Against False Union by Dr. Kalomiros a trustworthy read?

    Thanks all.

  30. Brandon, that question is above my pay grade. I will only say that a similar messiness has existed to one degree or another in every part of my life in one way or another.
    I knew Jesus Christ and His Mother before I even heard or set foot in an Orthodox Church. When I finally did, they let me know, without question, that my wife and I were in the right place and welcomed me; although the messiness to which you refer made itself known quickly.

    Sometimes, it has been quite difficult but I kept being directed to the reality of the presence of the Holy Trinity. I found that no where else. I contribute to the messiness from time to time, God forgive me.

    One piece of direction I received along the way was to remember that we are all sinners. The messiness reflects that reality.

    It took me a long time to begin to understand at all. I was graced with two shining examples; my Bishop, His Grace Bishop Basil (Antiochian) of Wichita and Mid-America and my brother’s Bishop, His Grace Metropolitan Joseph (Bulgarian) of the US, Canada and Australia.

    After about 34 years it began to dawn on me just a little and even that is an unearned Grace.

    The Orthodox Church is a beautiful melody that is obscured and interfered with the static and disharmony of the world that is also in my own heart. I looked every other place I could think of both before and after being received into the Church. While each place had some positive people, etc. They were not home nor do they have the fullness and foundation that the Orthodox Church has.

    Historically, as I am reminded during the year, it was in Antioch that people were first called Christians. That is significant. Yet, as the Bible testifies, even then there was messiness.

    The particulars for each person vary some what but the essence is the same. Doctrine and Theology are, at their best, descriptors of a deeper more comprehensive reality and guard rails to keep us from straying from The Way.

    You can say I am biased, but it is a bias for the fullness of the Truth which, despite the messiness, keeps unfolding before and within me by the Grace and Mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    All praises be to Him.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  31. Brandon,
    Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church) is the precise point where the Reformation failed. It shattered the unity of the Western Catholic Church in Europe but failed to have anything to replace it with, other than the “shards” of its many opinions masked as denominations. Ultimately, it evolved the notion of the “invisible Church” which provides excellent camoflage for its essential failure.

    Rome created a sort of unity through adherence to the single headship of the papacy (I’ll not comment further on that).

    Orthodoxy retains what I would call the “original messiness” of its ecclesiology. Orthodoxy is like a marriage – it can only manifest its unity through self-emptying love. Here is a link to an early article of mine on the topic.

    In Orthodoxy, there is but one faith. In the one faith, we agree. There is a common liturgical text for the most part, but a variety of ways in which that text is displayed: music, ritual, etc. Just as in a marriage, there is only one union (no outside partners), but there is “space” for various cultures and histories (think “personalities” in a marriage).

    That we have evolved the problem of over-lapping jurisdictions is a historical anomaly – it was accidental – the result of the breakdown of the political/cultural world in which the Church lived. For example, in the US, there was, effectively, but a single jurisdiction until the Bolshevik Revolution. The resulting chaos in Russia, as well as the cosmic shifting of political realities in post WWI Europe, gave us our present over-lapping realities.

    That messiness could, on the one hand, be seen as some kind of failure (I don’t see it that way). On the other hand, that the Church came through it with its communion intact (until the most recent problems between Moscow and Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem) is a testament to the Church’s ability to adapt creatively to new circumstances.

    On the ground, there is actually far more unity than people may imagine. I travel all across the US and speak in all the various jurisdictions (and serve together in liturgies, etc.). There’s actually way more commonality in that experience than there ever was in my experience of traveling and speaking in Episcopal Churches in my former life.

    I suggest reading that earlier article of mine and be patient with thinking all of this through.On the fullness – it is not dogma, per se, or liturgy, per se. The fullness is the whole thing – everything. There is no lack in Orthodoxy. The deeper you dive the more it yields its treasures. There is no need to go elsewhere to find the whole.

  32. Father,
    I appreciate and corroborate your perspective in your comment to Brandon.

    I live in a unique place (for an Orthodox Christian) where not only are there Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR, and OCA jurisdictions within driving distance of each other, but also immigrants who have come from Ukraine, Russia, Greece, and various places in the middle east who are parishioners across all of these local Orthodox Churches (i.e., a cradle Greek Orthodox might prefer making an Antiochian OC their home because it happens to be closer). Indeed, things could get very messy if there was a will for a mess, pride, and ecclesiastical politics in the Orthodox Church in my location.

    As far as I know, that isn’t the reality. I have worshipped in the Antiochian Orthodox Church and in the Greek Orthodox Church. The Liturgy was the same but with perhaps more words in Greek and sometimes slightly different melodies. However, both used Greek to some extent and have multiple languages used in several places in the Liturgy. For example, the “Our Father” prayer is said in numerous languages.

    My brother (who is not Orthodox and accustomed to western Christianity) presumed the two jurisdictions I was a parishioner in were different Churches. The best words I could use to describe the relationship between the parish/jurisdictions to him were, “same food-different spices emphasized”. Such a description might have helped him, but it might not be helpful to others. The prevalent ” one invisible church” perspective still may be what people think regardless of reality. As a result, generally, I’ve stopped trying to explain. But I still adamantly refuse to accept an RC person’s perspective that they can receive the OC cup whenever they want because they believe they are entitled to it (due to what their RC priests tell them). Furthermore, an “Eastern-rite” RC parish differs from the Orthodox Church. (And I’ll reserve my thoughts about the western-rite Orthodox for now.)

    Speaking from my own experience limited to US Christianity, we are not accustomed to living in a real physical wholeness in Christianity. I see in the comments in this blog and elsewhere a tendency to frame the Orthodox Church as one among many denominations. So we say it is ‘the’ Ancient Church. But here again, Anglicans say the same thing about themselves as others.

    I don’t want to rag on Protestants (or Roman Catholics, for that matter). Still, their rhetoric makes describing the truth of the history of the Orthodox Church challenging to understand and/or believe in its fullness, particularly for those who have come from other confessions.

    Your words are particularly salient and true to my experience in the Orthodox Church:

    On the fullness – it is not dogma, per se, or liturgy, per se. The fullness is the whole thing – everything. There is no lack in Orthodoxy. The deeper you d,ive the more it yields its treasures. There is no need to go elsewhere to find the whole.

    It seems I may only be reiterating what you’re saying, Father. But if I’m remiss or too terse or harsh, please forgive and correct me.

  33. Father

    Following on from Dee’s comment.

    Those of us who have not studied ecclesiology, have been brought up with the following understanding of the Church. Please correct it if wrong:

    The Church the Lord founded is one and identified with the unique Body of the one Christ.
    Whilst the Orthodox Church is one, it is organised in many local churches. In each of these, where the faithful come together to form the eucharistic assembly, the entire Body of Christ is realised, the mystery of the Divide Economy takes place and the Kingdom of God is fully envisaged. This is why every such local Church is and can be called the whole Church, the Catholic Church.

  34. Dear Nikolaos,
    Your description of the Orthodox Church was said beautifully and so true. Thank you!

  35. Dee,
    The question of the Church (ecclesiology) is profoundly important – even essential. It’s also, in my experience, one of the most difficult to articulate satisfactorily. The Creed says it quite succinctly: “I believe…in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The Church only exists as “One,” in the same way that we confess “I believe in One God.” All of the great struggles in the Church’s history have actually only ever been about this very thing.

    Heresies are never just wrong opinions – they are a departure from the One Church – an attempt to live a private, individualized Christianity, or worse, to pervert the whole course of the One Church’s life into something that is not the fullness.

    If a marriage between two people is difficult, how much more is the holy, spiritual marriage of a multitude with Christ, with the Church constituting but a single Bride? It’s a primary reason why the Church acts so slowly and carefully (most of the time).

    In our present distress (which has lasted for so many centuries), we have the anomalous situation of the denominations (among which Orthodoxy should never be numbered). There is nothing in the Creed that describes these separated groups. Some are heresies, some are more schismatic and heretical, others are just collections of individuals with very little ecclesiastical identity at all.

    For myself, I have wanted to speak and live generously towards those outside of Orthodoxy – first, because “they know not what they do,” and, second, because we are all inheritors of a historical reality that is not of our own making. I am certain of God’s boundless generosity towards us all – “not willing that any should perish…but that all may be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

    More than anything – it has become ever more clear to me that most people have never “seen” the Church. It is obscured by our sin. We are living in a very precarious time, I think. The trials for the Church (Orthodox) have only just begun and will likely increase for the foreseeable future. It is important, above all, that we “dive deeper” into Christ Himself, hiding ourselves beneath the shelter of His wings.

    Your words are an encouragement and a sweet fellowship. God keep us by His grace!

  36. Hi, Father Stephen. I was wondering if you could comment a little more about the role of providence. If you think modernity is a mistaken ideology, why has it flourished (or at least persisted)? One could well ask about wars, genocide, etc. How do you see the hand of God in these things?

  37. Regarding “great” human beings and their everyday, physiological problems — it seems that Beethoven suffered terribly from similar problems that we might call IBS now. But we don’t think of that in order to appreciate his “real” music.

  38. Hi Laurie,

    The most satisfactory answer I have read to the problem of evil (and I understand to be the Orthodox answer as well) is that God’s providence works to maximize good, rather than minimize evil. A major example is free will: the good that results from having free-willed creatures exceeds the evil that some of them cause. Just as significantly, why would an all-powerful God choose for the Son to suffer and die on the cross as a means of salvation? Because this providential solution ultimately blesses divine creation in a maximal way that we can only partly understand (for we see through a glass darkly), a way superior to any “solution” human beings might devise.

    St John of Damascus: “God turns all earthly misfortunes to our benefit and for our good; He allows actual sins in order to attain the most supreme, unfathomable, and mysterious goals of His Divine rule….Truly God would never have allowed evil, if He were not powerful enough and good enough to produce good consequences from every evil deed.”

    As for modernity, from the long perspective it has flourished/persisted but a wink of an eye. (Scientists believe dinosaurs reigned for more than 150 million years before their extinction.) For that matter, modernity has not ended such problems as wars and genocides but only amplified their horrors.

  39. Laurie,
    The phenomeon that is encompassed by the word “modernity” is only about 250 years old (depending on what is emphasized). As history goes, it’s a very short time. It’s also a very misleading thing in that, unlike any other period of history, “modernity” is also an “ad campaign,” engaging in self-promotion (or propaganda) as a major part of its identity. For example, it is modern writers of history who invented terms like “Dark Ages,” “Middle Ages,” creating a scheme for describing history in which “progress” is written into the very terms themselves – presuming that everything has always been trending towards “modernity” and that this is the very meaning of “progress.”

    As I noted in an earlier comment, the main thing that modernity has done (above all else) has been to flood the world with wealth. We have maximized techniques (like mass production, etc.) that generate wealth. Of course, we have distributed it very well, but even the scraps that trickle down have certainly increased the monetary welfare of most of the planet.

    I have written again and again that technology and modernity are not the same thing. We have always had technology and technology has always improved (grown in efficiency, productivity, etc.). Modernity is a narrative and worldview that governs largely how we make decisions and prioritize the actions in our lives. Many elements of that worldview, as it has unfolded and evolved, are, I believe antithetical to classical Christianity, and ultimately anti-human.

    I write as I do about modernity (though I’d love to not have to talk about it) because most Christians do not know that there is any other way of thinking – that there is a long-standing critique of modernity that is a major part of Christian thought across the entire period that we describe as “modern.” In that sense, what I’m doing is helping people find a greater freedom in their lives without being unduly governed by a massively well-funded propaganda machine that would reduce them to nothing more than efficient consumers in a world gone mad.

    Part of the propaganda strategy of modernity is to wrap itself in the mantle of a few successes and proclaim that modernity alone has brought these great measures of success. A good example is the narrative of the abolition of slavery. The narrative overlooks the fact that it was largely pseudo-scientific theories that created the notion of racial inferiority (this has never been part of Christian tradition). It indeed co-opted a number of thinkers in the Christian world – particularly in the US. It was, however, classical Christian thought that provided the foundation and impetus for abolition. Modernity’s desire for wealth created modern slavery (and even used early versions of evolutionary theory to justify it), while Christian teaching on the imago dei refuted it. Such propaganda is very successful when the audience is historically illiterate – which is an understatement of today’s world.

    When contemplating Divine Providence, there a things such as those cited by Mark above, that describe well some of the Orthodox thought on the matter. I prefer, however, to focus on several things in particular: first and foremost, on the death and resurrection of Christ. That, for me (and for the faith), is the defining moment for all things. The crucifixion of Christ is the worst moment in all of time – and all of the tragedies of all times – participate in it (God has gathered all suffering into His suffering and vice-versa). And it is out of that worst moment that comes the greatest and best moment – Christ’s victory over death. And all goodness participates in that Goodness. God has gathered all goodness into His own goodness and vice versa.

    Another picture is that of the Three Young Men in the furnace. What happens is terrible. But it is in the furnace that they sing their praises. The same is true of Jonah in the belly of the whale. It is there that he sings and prays. Both of these Biblical events are remembered in the hymnody of the Church at every Matins service in the singing of the Canon. This is to say that these two particular events (as well as a handful of others) are remembered every single day of the Orthodox life of worship. Because we’re not monastics, we don’t notice this singular emphasis – but there it is. It is meant to shape our conscience – it is God’s propaganda for what He is doing.

    That narrative of providence is, I believe, a far better and more accurate way to read history than the false progressivism of modernity. Indeed, much of modernity’s narrative is a story told by those who are making the most money out of it. Their narrative of “providence” goes like this: Let us become unbelieveably rich and enough will trickle down to the poor to make it worthwhile. Let us (the money-makers) manage the world and you’ll eventually be happier. It is relentlessly marketed to us – and today as never before.

    I would be writing a very, very dark description if I went into the details of what is now being sold to us as “progress.” But it includes the destruction of the most fundamental aspects of human existence in the name of a way of being that can only be sustained by massive interventions of drugs and surgeries and the like. It is anti-nature.

    Modernity makes us sick, and then tells us that only more modernity can make us well. Look at our food system. Look at the poisoning of our waters with hormones and antibiotics and such. I’m not a “Greenie” but I can still name these things as modernity’s poisons. The rivers are a good example. There are those making decisions in the world and selling us narratives who are “upstream” from their consequences.

    Genocide is a terrible thing. It is of note that modernity has been the instigator of the great genocidal events of our time. It has not brought peace.

    I do not suggest that the Christian narrative of Divine Providence is the “path to a better world.” That’s the wrong question. Rather, Providence is a better description of what is actually taking place (including God’s allowance of modernity itself – just as He allowed the Cross). We are being crucified on modernity’s wealth – and God will redeem even this. And so I am hopeful (because of God’s goodness) and say, “Glory to God for all things.”

    Forgive me for being so “wordy” this morning.

  40. Thanks to all above for the direction.

    Father, I have one more question that relates to Providence since it’s been brought up. Yesterday I saw a conversation on Twitter between Fr. Kimel (who I believe is your friend) and a tweeter. What the person was saying seemed to align with much of what you often prescribe i.e. meditating on God’s Good Providence. But they were making the point that ‘Providence circumscribes a definitive answer on apokatastasis.’ in that ‘if apokatastasis were sure doctrine, it would eliminate possibility of total union with the crucified Christ, in Hell. And thus such trust in such sure doctrine would be lest trustful than in his Providence.’ Fr. K then made the good pastoral point that that type of thing is good for most people to focus on. You will see the same caution even in St. Silouan, St. Sophrony, and Fr. Zacharias as well with the word given to Silouan about keeping they mind in hell but despairing not. But this person agreed with that, and replied ‘But so as not to negate that actual possibility – of what is the path for complete theosis, it’s my understanding as to why we haven’t been given a sure doctrine of apokatastasis’.

    Fr. K responded “Once the issue of universal salvation is raised, we are compelled to ask whether we really and truly believe that God is absolute and unconditional love. The doctrine of hell, which is the default position of the Church, calls this love into radical question.
    For this reason your invocation of God’s providence is irrelevant. Infernalists have no problem affirming both a gracious providence and a loving God (conditionally construed). Theologically there is no middle ground. Sorry.”

    The Tweeter then said “Trust in His Providence is trusting that God is abs uncond. love. Negating doctrine of hell negates potential to unite w/ the crucified Christ.&therefore might eliminate any ‘potential’ apokatastasis. A potential apokatastasis only remains if we do not attempt to circumscribe it …………. “Not affirming apokatastasis is not Necessarily Affirming tht “He might not save everyone”. It’s just not even focusing on that, bc it’s trusting in His Prov by Uniting w/ crucified Christ. I can’t claim tht U suspended jdgmnt on the shirt Im wearing rt now, & therefore judged it …………….. Again tht word isn’t for most people. But it is a necessary word, and a proper boundary. It sounds like a “proper boundary of hope” bc it is. But others for whom that’s not a word can’t invent a new one. They too must remain in the bounds given and discerned by those who can see ………….. & if we feel w/ Silouan tht love could not bear the thought of others in hell, we stay there w/them. Christ will be there too. As mentioned prayer for departed is of benefit. & the gates of hell will not prevail. Only in hell United to Christ can we establish tht God is abs love
    We haven’t been given this path of Nirvana where if we could just get our minds around it, our suffering is obliterated. We’ve been given the path of joining the crucified Christ in our sufferings.
    And is why it’s been given to the Church as the default position and should be maintained.
    The min. God’s abs love/goodness gets introduced, immediately jumping to a logical corollary is trying to contain or Comprehend God’s love/goodness. What we’ve been shown is that his love/goodness looks like the cross and even to The depths of hell. That’s what we comment on.”

    Fr. K basically called that position “theologically incoherent, pastorally impossible, and spiritually destructive. …… What are you going to teach your children? Are you going to lie to them and tell them that the God of absolute love will condemn/abandon them to eternal torment if they die as unrepentant sinners? Back in the days as a hopeful universalist I never told my children that. To have done so would have put the lie to everything else I tried to teach them about the gospel. And once they discovered the truth, they would never have trusted me again. So it is with the pastor. He must speak the truth as he understands it. Sooner or later, the Orthodox Church must come to grips with the incoherency that lies deep in the heart of Orthodox teaching”

    The Tweeter responded with “I said this is for a mere few, not including me. But it’s there as a safebound against prideful proclamations thr r comforting but even more Destructive. Trust in His Prov is what I said,Replete in gospel and trad
    To trust in His Providence. And not set up false questions. I would never touch on what I stated unless someone is floating around sure universalism
    I wouldn’t say that. I would tell Them to trust in His Providence and hope they come to know Him. And I would teach them all the substance we have of things hoped for. Focus on that.”

    I know that is a lot, but I found it to be kind of crucial to your oft advice to meditate on God’s providence. So I was wondering if you had any comments that could help clarify the matter. If this violates any rules of your blog please feel free to remove.

    Thank you

  41. Father, would you agree that the wealth of modernity has a side effect of monetizing everything and every one? The destruction of community is one consequence as even “virtue” is monetized.
    Just a thought.

  42. Brandon,
    I’m cautious about entering a response to a question meant for Father Stephen. But I will say this much. I find it impossible to consider the workings of Providence, God’s grace, without simultaneously including that which is the heart of the Gospel (as Father Stephen describes in his comment above):

    I prefer, however, to focus on several things in particular: first and foremost, on the death and resurrection of Christ. That, for me (and for the faith), is the defining moment for all things.

    Indeed, if I read the Bible correctly, Christ warns us about such speculations as apokatastasis (I’m not trying to make an argument for or against, but I have hope in Christ’s love.)

    Furthermore, I don’t think sinking a lot of time into exegesis is the best way to learn and live a life in Christ (in the Orthodox way). But I’m just speaking from my own experience as an Orthodox Christian, limited as it is. Of course, there are Orthodox ways to delve into theology. But all I’ve ever heard or learned, what I received, is that the best way is to live a life in prayer, which can indeed be a struggle for any of us who are not monastics.

    I may have gone too far and unhelpfully. If so, I ask for your forgiveness.

  43. Brandon,
    You are right in noting that Fr. Kimel is a dear friend of mine, going back to our Anglican days. It’s not just that he’s a friend, but that he’s dear to my heart. I love him. So, generally, I don’t argue with him.

    I believe that the pastoral position of the Orthodox faith, which encompasses what Fr. Kimel describes as “hopeful universalism” (“we may hope that all may be saved”) is not just sound – but pastorally sound. I do not want to press the matter to some sort of absolute. That God’s love is boundless is unquestionable – He wills that all be saved. That’s the Scripture. But how all of that plays out, I cannot say with a certainty, other than to say that if any are in hell, Christ will be there with them.

    And that’s pretty much all I have to say on it.

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