Do We Ever Get It Right?

In the film, Ground Hog Day, actor Bill Murray awakens each morning to the same day – February 2 – and does the same things over and over. At first it’s fun. Then it’s maddening. Indeed, a whole string of days finds him committing suicide in an attempt to stop the repetition, only to awaken again to the same day. In conversations about the film, the writer-director Harold Ramis suggests that the “day” repeats at least 10,000 times. As the story develops (repeatedly), Murray begins to adapt to the project, slowly working towards a perfect day – finally getting everything right.

The film has become a classic, both on account of how well it is done, but also because of its universal theme. Who doesn’t want to get everything right? 10,000 chances to live through “what if?”

There are no do-over’s in the real world. There are, of course, the tormenting thoughts of “what if” that drone on for far more than 10,000 days. Regret is a terrible, unforgiving master.

Of course, behind all of this is a reality: we never “get it right.”

We are hard-wired for caution and a bit of fear. In the normal course of a day, that hard-wiring is useful. It reminds us to look both ways before crossing a street and tells us not to follow too closely the car in front of us. In that the world is always a dangerous place, a lack of caution and the absence of fear would be a ticket to sudden death.

That same hard-wiring is also the source for many of the torments that dog our thoughts. Any number of life events have a cumulative effect of turning up the volume on our caution and fear. For many people, the noise and nagging of caution and fear become a steady back-drop for the whole of their daily lives. Their minds replay their failures over and over as the accompanying shame swallows up hope and threatens to control their whole world.

But…we never get it right.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that arguing with such thoughts is useless. They are not rational judgments. Instead, they are like pain signals. Imagine arguing with a sprained ankle.

One of the reasons that we “never get it right,” is that getting it right is the wrong question – the wrong approach to our life, particularly our life in Christ. Where does the language and thought of “getting it right” come from? I would suggest that it comes out of our school-days. It is the language of a math test, a spelling bee, indeed, it is often the language of shame. We imagine that “getting it right” will make us “be right” ourselves. The two, however, are only kin to one another in their bondage to shame.

I find it deeply interesting that the language of St. John, both in his gospel and in his letters, uses imagery of a different sort when speaking to sin and the spiritual life. It is particularly strong in his first epistle.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

St. John makes “walking in the light” the primary point of our lives. Additionally, he extols this as the means for having “communion” (koinonia) with one another. He notes, as well, that as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin. Casting the question of “sin” in terms of light and communion (their absence), St. John gives us a very different way of thinking about ourselves and God.

We ask, “Did I get it right?” which phrases the question with the emphasis on ourselves. We become the center of our attention – which misses the point. That point is better stated as, “Am I walking in the Light?” In this, the focus is on Christ who is the Light. If I fail, then I fail within the light. The point is not my failure (for, if I walk in the Light, then the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin) but the Light. Christ is everything.

St. John takes great pains to remind us that we will sin:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.(1 John 1:8–10)

It is of interest to me the role played by shame in this dynamic. “Did I get it right?” is a question posed by shame – but a question that does not bear the shame. Instead, it seeks to rid itself of shame, seeking performance as a faux shield. It is of note that one of the primary personality wounds that can be found with toxic shame is “perfectionism.” (There’s lots of other personality disorders – but this one is common). Christ was consistently confronted by Pharisees who seemed to have trusted in a kind of religious perfectionism (as St. Paul the Pharisee said, “Concerning the Law, I was blameless”). It is not surprising that these same personalities crucified Christ “out of envy” (Mark 15:10), a predictable outcome of a shame-bound personality.

St. John’s words confront the reality of our lives: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” Perfectionism is not the same as “getting it right.” Indeed, it itself is sin, or one of its many symptoms. We need to be healed of perfectionism, and not become its slave (which is misery).

St. John centers his thoughts in the reality of communion.

He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.(John 6:56–57)

“Walking in the Light” can be seen precisely in the eucharistic life. Following St. John, we can say, “I live because of the Eucharist,” or even, “The Eucharist is the cause of my being.” The eucharistic life of the Church presumes confession and repentance. It does not presume that we “got it right.” But, in that we struggle to walk in the Light, it calls us back to our right (Light) mind. For years, the phrase, “Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood, abides in Me and I in him,” has been my whispered prayer as I take communion. Returning to the Cup is returning to the Cause of my being. Christ’s Body broken, Christ’s blood shed, poured out for many, is His gift to the discipline of our lives. 

If we understood, we would move heaven and earth to be able to receive communion as often as it is offered. This echoes the teachings of St. John of Kronstadt who had much to do with the practice of frequent communion in Orthodoxy (which was the ancient practice in the Church).

That eucharistic life is what “getting it right” actually looks like. Walk in the Light as He is in the Light. Eat. Drink. Pray. Repent. Repeat.

86 comments:

  1. This echoes the teachings of St. John of Kronstadt who had much to do with the practice of frequent communion in Orthodoxy (which was the ancient practice in the Church).

    I recall a monk (or Priest, I honestly forget) who stated that everyone should always take the Eucharist. To not do so is to consider your sin(s) too great for God’s grace. But there are warnings against taking the Eucharist in Scripture and the Church teaches us to not take part if we have not prepared ourselves with prayer and confession. I tend to wonder if the monk’s statement is actually correct but the Church’s restriction is necessary for a wounded humanity? The latter, even if not strictly necessary, may be something to shape our hearts properly over time, perhaps?

  2. Thank you for this father. I’ll need to read it a few times. I’m routinely (and for many years now) hounded by similar such questions. Am I growing? I’m I being changed? Am I progressing on the path? Try as I might, I can’t seem to shake the felt need to measure and evaluate how I’m doing in my faith even though I realize on some level getting the answer would probably destroy me. The answer ‘yes’ would undoubtedly lead to pride and complacency and the answer ‘no’ would probably crush my soul and lead to despair. So all I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other; as you say, “doing the good at hand” – praying, fasting, giving, attending the services and trying to love my family and neighbor in my broken and poor way. Falling and raising ad infinitum. Lord have mercy.

  3. Thank you, Fr Stephen, for explaining about walking in the Light instead of just walking and occasionally looking inside; or looking inside to lunch. And for encouraging communion “as often as possible”— an old concept for me (from Catholic school days) but misunderstood as my being filled up with “grace.” That term probably meant something like God’s s life with In me but I saw more like a filling station visit, getting the spiritual energy to avoid in and carry on with the good life. My mistake. I missed the deeper meanings of communion. I am grateful for your very enlightening reflections.

  4. Byron,
    Local (parish) practice will vary in terms of the disciplines related to receiving Holy Communion. I am assuming that in all cases, we make preparation. Some parishes require Confession each time before communing, others do not and instead will suggest a “recent” confession. It varies. In all cases, just follow the customs of the parish as set forth by the priest.

    But – I do not mean that there should not be preparation. The text of the service obviously expects preparation of some sort.

  5. Andrew,
    I would say that “how am I doing” is simply the wrong question. It is Christ who matters in this – and the correct approach (question, if you will) is “Lord, have mercy.” The nagging need that haunts us is something that itself needs to be healed.

  6. I love the illustration of the tree
    All it does [sic] is receive light
    All we can do is receive Life

  7. Fr. Stephen,

    In the movie Groundhog Day there’s a scene where Bill’s talking to the two lumberjacks and says, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One of the guys, Ralph, simply responds, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up for me.”

    In this sense we all indeed live the same proverbial day over and over trying to get it right. If I have a discussion with someone in a particular situation and totally blow, there is usually a next time which I try to prepare myself for by learning the object lesson the first time around.

    I think by the end of the movie, the point is that Bill’s character is finally “getting it right,” but the meaning here is not that he’s doing it all perfectly, but rather that he has come a long way in the process of becoming perfected. His last day in the film appears to be full of rewards for things he did right, but in fact what’s happened is that he has become formed as a person such that his default responses and actions are much more the right ones by default.

    It is in this way that I believe we are all allowed to live the same day over and over for the sake of illumination, purification and union. Some “days” or lessons seem to repeat more than others, according to God’s wisdom, but I certainly feel them as repetition nonetheless. While we never “get it right”, God definitely seems to use this cyclical process to get us right with His hidden hand. Another case of God’s wisdom that looks like anything but to us.

  8. Drewster,
    I did not intend to do a movie review (I personally liked the movie a lot). I did, however, intend quite strongly to rebuke the notion of “getting it right.” It’s worth noting that it drove him to suicide (repeatedly) long before it showed any benefit. Most people succeed in the suicide (spiritually, at least) long before they’ve gained any insight about the insanity of “getting it right.”

    “Getting it right” is – by and large – neurotic. And in this culture it’s often deadly and shame-driven. So, I prefer to reframe the question in the language and thought of St. John. It simply works better than Harold Ramis.

    But you are a very generous reviewer. 🙂

  9. I understand, sir; only mentioning how it spoke to me. But I get that this phrase may be too triggering for most. Mid-life has certainly taught me that I’ll never “get it right” until I totally stop trying. Then He’s able to accomplish SO much through me…when I’m not paying attention. (grin)

  10. One could say instead of “getting it right,” the character in the movie finally realizes what it is to live a life of love in the end.
    Slightly tangential, but every day started with the same pop song on the radio. I’ve wondered what Cher thinks about
    “I Got You Babe” being used to mean “another day in hell” :).

  11. Father,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Reading it reminded me frequently about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, who we commemorate tomorrow as we enter the Lenten Triodion (and yes, for which I am busy preparing a sermon). For the publican ‘got it wrong’, the Pharisee thought he ‘got it right’ and had escaped shame – in fact he thought he had placed himself in a position to shame others – but was on his way to humiliation for having gotten it horribly wrong, for all the reasons you give.
    And the publican, reaching out from the mess of himself to Christ, gave us the prayer which is the way to the light. Along with the Eucharist, who unites our wrong selves with the Light which is Christ, and enlightens us.

  12. Ook,
    It has been suggested that the movie was essentially rooted in a Buddhist worldview (hence the “lifetimes” of a single day repeated). It is a satisfying story in that the main character finds a kind of salvation (got it right) and becomes a good person. I enjoy the movie. But it really is rooted in a narrative that is not Christian.

    One thing Cher might think on the song: everytime its played in the movie counts for “1” when it comes to her royalty check. To get that many royalty checks out of the movie as the song is played over and over – she might not be bothered at all…

    On the other hand, the movie is written well enough that it could be given a Christian interpretation – as a sort of purgatory and cleansing by fire sort of experience.

  13. My understanding of the movie is that the he is given allows him to try everything under the sun. Over an unlimited amount of time he learns that being self-centered or even indestructible isn’t ultimately satisfying. Bill Murray finds that even the redundancy of “everyday” can be well-lived when it is lived in kindness and compassion.

    I didn’t see it as “getting it right” so much as it is about learning what is genuinely satisfying to the human spirit

  14. Simon,
    I don’t disagree with that – as a movie, it’s subject to a number of interpretations. I suspect that someone who was enthralled to perfectionism, it would feel like a “getting it right” movie. He is especially frustrated (even ashamed) when his female team member rejects him. But, if I were just discussing the movie, we could be all over the place. My point is simply to use the movie as a possible illustration of our mistaken notions of “getting it right.”

    You’re probably closer to it – in that it’s a “feel good” movie – a “rom-com.” It works, and we leave the theater feeling better than when we went in. Then, of course, the philosophy sets in…

  15. The Kingdom of God is like a man who rises and sets on the same day for many days and after coming to himself sees the world for the first time.

  16. Dear Father,
    I work and spend a great deal of time in my life in the academic world of “getting it right”. Thank you so much for this lesson for us. It lifts the burden of the yoke on my shoulders. A weight I cannot lift. Blessed be the day of the Lord.

  17. Thank you Fr Stephen. This reminds me of a quote I read recently by Edith Wharton: “ There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” – Edith Wharton

  18. Fr Stephen,
    More from +John:
    That which was made in him was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
    This is on my heart as I exit the narthex and enter the nave, knowing full well the end of the day, the telos, is Eucharist. That Light is what is piercing my darkness, constantly.
    “Am I walking in the Light?”
    Lord have mercy. You know.
    In Him,
    Justin

  19. This blog was a pure gift to me this morning. Grappling recently with some difficult life issues, I have been worn down by the question: Did I do it right? / Am I doing it right? / How can I do it exactly right? and, rather than be helpful, these questions have brought me darkness and heaviness. This blog contained the truth that I had forgotten and that I needed to hear. Thank you Fr Stephen.

  20. Fr. Freeman,

    I think a lot about contingency. I think I’m becoming a sort of Christian Existentialist. I almost think that is the natural disposition of an Orthodox Christian – what do you think of that? I was thinking last night, why is the Tree in the New Jerusalem. Assuming we have no need of food, of a circadian rhythm (because the Light is always present), procreation, etc. – all the death remedies are done, but there’s still food/Feast. And it seems to suggest that food is what we know best as to contingency, and that contingency is not forgotten in Heaven, as food may exist now to make this point (along with a myriad of other “pointers”). What do you think of the idea, that some of us basically hate or are very afraid of contingency, and others, fall into it, in the Kierkegaardian sense, with the assurance that it is not a free-fall, but into the hands of God, Providence, etc. And that, shame, is often nothing more than the fear of contingency, and that humility is the rejection of fear in contingency. Protestants talk often of assurance of salvation in terms of, never taking our eyes off Christ as the source of assurance. To turn inwardly for test scores is a negotiation with contingency. High scores = less fear of contingency/beating death. Low scores reinforce failure at evading contingency. Both are cyclical and hellish. I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.

  21. Fr. Freeman,

    No one mentioned Sisyphus, but I’ve been watching the Good Place and finished it last night. A worse ending than Lost. But I’d thought about Sisyphus several times during the show and had thought, what if he just threw the rock/boulder into outer space? But he can’t. Only Christ can.

  22. As my wife and I are off to Liturgy, a half hour late– a 25 mile drive–we do not appear to be “right”. Oh, 6 days out from a mild stroke, I keep remembering: This is the day
    the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it

    Repentance brings the Joy of the Lord.

  23. I had a stray thought. For us is not Lent a bit like what happens in the movie? A much more strict and controlled pattern of living based on prayer, fasting and almsgiving leading to repentance and Joy even though we know we have not reached perfection.
    I don’t know if that is true or not.

  24. Michael,
    A case could be made that all of us only ever live for one day – and it’s the same day. It is the Day of the Lord. That would be consonant with the commandment to keep death before our eyes – or Christ’s “take no thought for tomorrow.”

    What I’ve observed in my repetition of that day – is that I never get it right. Nevertheless, I can walk in the Light, and discover that the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin. What more could I ask?

  25. Ah. His mercy is …… I do not have the words to describe it other than Joy in all things, with all people (if I allow it) ….and if I reach out more.

  26. Something that made me smile in reading this is thinking about how making a movie works: the many “takes” before the scene gets printed in an effort to get the scene right. In other words, when Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, et al were filming “Groundhog Day,” each of the unique scenes we see repeated as vastly different by the characters were themselves individually repeated as mostly similar efforts by the actors to tweak them. And we see only the one judged to be the best (perfect or no).

    Live theatre (in which I work) is more as Father Stephen describes, however, in that–although we do have rehearsals–each performance (while unique) is still an iteration. The subsequent performance may be better or worse than the previous. Because of the many moving components, it’s difficult to say in a given run which was the best.

    I think our creative urge (as much as our fear of failure instinct) is responsible for this desire to get it right. Even a simple act like meal preparation the cook will tweak the recipe to see if it can be improved. If we were completely satisfied with things as they are, we would likely have no urge to create at all.

    Part of “walking in the light,” then, it seems to me is reconciling that dichotomy in our perceived purpose. Icons might be a good example to explore what I am trying to say: When an iconographer works on an icon, what is the proper attitude to have toward one’s work? How does this analogous attitude carry over to other “callings” a person might have, regarding “getting it right” as well as toward the thing in itself?

  27. Mark, I knew there was a reason I liked you. I worked in the craft of theater for many years–not in a professional way but steadily. Plus my mom and her twin sister danced in Martha Graham’s company. So much to learn in the disciplins

  28. Michael: I’m not a “theatre person” per se, as I do computer stuff, but doing that in the setting I do is much more enjoyable than being on a server farm somewhere 🙂 My wife also acted in her high school and college days, and then was a public-speaking instructor at several colleges, always maintaining an interest in both amateur and professional productions.

  29. If one confesses a certain sin during confession you do really have to desire as much as possible not to do the same thing again, right? Even while one can know a certain sin can run deep, because of a habit.

  30. Jan-Peter,
    Of course we should always bring a lively sense of wanting to turn from the sins we bring to confession. But there’s a lot of complexity in that fact. With a sin that has been an abiding problem – it can very much be the case that we don’t understand it ourselves. We may even be tired of mentioning and come to believe that it’s hopeless.

    There is the very insightful story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, in hearing the confession of a person who admitted that they did not “want” to repent. He asked them, “Do you want to want to?” They thought and said, “I don’t think so.” So he asked again, “Well, do you want to want to want?” They thought longer and said, “Yes. I think I want to want to want to.” He said, “Good! Let’s start with that.”

    That’s a sort of, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

    If possible, a priest should never judge a person’s heart. If anything, he should help them in finding and understanding their heart.

    I assume, for example, as a matter of faith that everyone desires God. We were and are created for Him. The nature of sin is that it distorts that truth of our being. But I feel, at the deepest level, that everyone coming to confession is there because it is where they belong (not because of sin, but because they desire God). That can be distorted (just as it is in my own heart). Together, we are trying to find the path to repentance – the path to the knowledge of God.

    None of this should ever be taken with a legal understanding, such as: Unless you do this or feel that you cannot be forgiven. God is not a lawyer, nor is the Church a courtroom, according to St. John Chrysostom. It’s a hospital. Sin is the disease of death at work in us. Sin itself is not who we are nor what we are. It is alien to us – a parasite.

    For habitual sins – great discernment and compassion is required. Including towards ourselves. It is why, above all, the Church teaches us to pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.”

    Vladika Dmitri, of blessed memory, once told me, that if someone comes to confession and, for whatever reason, says, “I can’t think of anything, or I’m not aware of anything.” To say to them, “Can you say, “I am a sinner?” He said, even if they can only say that much, give them absolution and commune them. I was astounded at his generosity – and heard the voice of God in his voice.

  31. Father,
    Thank you for your answer to Jan-Peter. I can be crushed sometimes when I read Christ’s words, “…sin no more…”. I am more like St Paul, in the sense that I do that which I will not to do. I am indeed grateful for the love and mercy of our God.

  32. Then there is the tendency to look at many in the world and even other Christian folk and say “I thank thee Lord that I am not like them:” full of fornication, denial and other gross sins in public temptation to lead all others into sin even in laws

    I am more righteous than them. Why should I repent? Especially when the public sinners are rarely rebuked directly by the Church.

    Even as my heart cry’s out in agony for those I know or have known who have embraced the life of transgression.

  33. Yet even as I say the above, my soul cry’s out “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.” Because I somehow share in those sins and maybe, just maybe those I know can share in the mercy of the Lord as I confess.

  34. Michael,
    The only possible cure for such thinking is the acquistion of love – through the Holy Spirit. Christ on the Cross gave us the example of a pure heart when faced with sin – true sin of the worst sort. I recall the first time I met Archimandrite Zecharias of Essex. I made confession with him and asked for guidance on the Jesus Prayer.

    First, I will note that as he removed the stole (epitrahelion) from my head, having absolved me of my sin, he said, “Here place the stole on my head and say the prayer over me – it’s a practice from Mt. Athos.” With a deep sense of unworthiness I did what he asked. Then he followed with some instructions on the prayer. What struck me most, and has stayed with me, was his admonition that, in saying the prayer, give especial emphasis on the name, Jesus.

    I think that it is easy (almost automatic) in saying the prayer to put the emphasis on “have MERCY on me.” It’s not a question of which word sounds loudest when it is prayed – but that the attention of the heart is on Christ Himself rather than on me. Jesus is the mercy of God on me. It is crying out to Him, for Him, by Him, and with Him, that constitutes the inner content of that prayer.

    When we see the sins of others – whatever they may be – and we are prone to judge, or fall into judgement, much of what is happening is that we are being separated from Christ (within our heart). The delight we might find in hearing public sinners denounced in the Church is the sin of envy – wishing destruction on others. It’s just the sound of darkness.

    The most eloquent sermon in the Church for sinners comes at the elevation of the Body and Blood of Christ, “On behalf of all and for all.” I encourage us all, that when we see and hear that action, to give assent to it in our heart. If you’re so moved – then weep as its offered.

    These are such hard struggles for us – but this is also true spiritual warfare.

  35. Father, forgive me. I understand the words you are saying and on a certain level I assent but I don’t really get. Not yet.

  36. Father Stephen,

    I might have stumbled onto what I was asking about in my previous questions regarding “the creative urge.” I wrote:

    [quote]
    Part of “walking in the light,” then, it seems to me is reconciling that dichotomy in our perceived purpose. Icons might be a good example to explore what I am trying to say: When an iconographer works on an icon, what is the proper attitude to have toward one’s work? How does this analogous attitude carry over to other “callings” a person might have, regarding “getting it right” as well as toward the thing in itself?
    [end quote]

    I was listening to a podcast by Fr. John Bethancourt about the “incensive power” on my way into work this morning. It helped me (partly by giving me an Orthodox term for what I was trying to describe), but I’m still interested in any personal insight you might offer about the relationship between our desire to get it right and the incensive power. That is, how can laypeople tell when our incensive power is finding healthy expression in our profession?

    Also, since reading your suggestion to Michael about the Jesus Prayer, I have been using that emphasis in all my prayers (“May YOUR mercy, O Lord, be upon us, for in YOU have we put our trust”). It has indeed helped my feeling of talking to God, rather than just reciting words.

  37. Mark,
    I would think that it depends on what I’m “trying to get right” and why. The “insensive power” that Fr. John describes is, if you will, the “fire” that burns within us – our desire – “eros.” If it is well-directed, it burns towards God, towards beauty, towards goodness, towards truth. If it is otherwise directed, it can become a destroying fire, feeding on the shame we carry that wants to hide to be seen as something other than we are, etc.

    The painting of icons are an interesting case. Traditionally, for example, iconographers do not sign their work (though I’ve seen it done). I’ve seen a number quite modern “icons,” that, if anything, point towards the creative genius of the artist rather than the tradition. I have argued in a few places that these are examples of “religious art” but not icons.

    God does not mean to destroy us – or crush us. He is not asking that our personality disappear. But, what it means to be “person” is ultimately found outside of the self – in the fullness of love – rather than in the solipsism of our self-absorption.

    Interestingly, the names given to us by God for speaking of the persons of the Holy Trinity are all relational. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have their meaning relationally. “Father” has no meaning if there is not something begotten. “Son” asks, “Whose Son?” “Sprit” (breath) must be breathed (by Whom?).

    Ultimately, we exist in the same manner. Our fear and shame, etc., can create a false fire – a burning that longs to “make a name for myself.” Thus, if we are to walk in the Light – then it needs to be not our own light, but the Light of Christ Himself.

  38. Thank you, Father Stephen. That very much aligns with what I was understanding from the podcast, but reassurance of correct understanding helps.

  39. Father, it is beginning to dawn on me, duh, that Jesus on the Cross is the Mercy I pray for or, at least, real mercy is of the Cross.
    Hamlet’s dilemma “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them” is a false dichotomy in light of the Cross.

    By, in faith, submitting myself to the slings and arrows, I, in Christ, simultaneously take arms and, by His Grace, achieve victory.

    Is that the right direction?

  40. Fr. Stephen,
    Please pardon the slight change of topic, but I have a couple of questions about prayer:
    The common practice among Protestant evangelicals is to pray “in Jesus’ name.” Orthodox Christians typically pray “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, but is praying “in Jesus’ name” also sometimes acceptable or do the Orthodox recommend avoiding this?
    Also, it’s common for Protestants to pray with their eyes closed. In the Orthodox liturgy, it seems that all the prayers happen with eyes open. Are there reasons (possibly related to the icons or other visual aspects of the liturgy) that make it spiritually preferable to pray with eyes open (i.e., does this matter)?

  41. Kenneth,
    First off, these things do not particularly matter. To pray, “In Jesus name,” is certainly acceptable. It is not, as you’ve noticed, very common in Orthodox liturgical prayers. The primary reason for this is that Orthodox liturgical language was particularly affected by the various controversies surrounding the Great Councils, in which Trinitarian issues were at the forefront. Thus, using Trinitarian language in the Church’s liturgies became a way of safe-guarding the Church’s teaching. But, we have prayers, such as the “O Heavenly King,” which is directed to the Holy Spirit without mentioning either the Father or the Son. It’s a rare example – but there it is.

    As to closing our eyes. I have no idea when Protestants began to do this. Early Protestant examples, such as the prayerbooks authored by Thomas Cranmer (1500’s) make no mention of that practice – and also – worth noting – are very Trinitarian in their structures, similar to Orthodox and Catholic prayers. I would suspect the “closing the eyes” thing evolved in the more frontier congregations such as Baptists, etc.

    It makes no difference. You are correct to note, though, that with the Orthodox, there’s actually something to see when your eyes are open: icons, etc.

    It is not something to be concerned about.

  42. Thanks, Fr. Stephen, that’s very helpful. I’m reading Timothy Patitsas’s Ethics of Beauty and it is extremely good. The deep beauty of Orthodox beliefs and practices was a big influence in drawing me to Orthodoxy. I had not known, however, that the Orthodox teach that the world was even “created through Beauty.” Some of St. Dionysios’s writings about this are absolutely stunning (“Beauty is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have Beauty”). If I’ve understood this correctly, this process of creation is still happening, and the Orthodox life is a participation in it. I’m astonished by this and still trying to absorb it. I’m extremely grateful for the Orthodox Church and also for you and your blog.

  43. Kenneth,
    I’ve not read anywhere the opinion that creation is “still happening.” But, we do hold that God continues to sustain creation in existence. So, it’s not a wind-it-up-and-let-it-go sort of thing. Rather, all things continue in their existence being sustained by the Divine Energies – the goodness of His will, etc. It is all quite wonderful, as you say.

  44. Thanks for that clarification. I may have taken that thought from a passing comment in Patitsas’s book, but I very likely misunderstood him.

  45. Patitsas does use the term “ongoing creation” and even says “the world is still being created out of the watery deep of non-being and chaos” (p. 51), though I’m not sure the sense in which he means this. It could be more figurative (?) and perhaps not intended as a major point.

  46. My instinct would be that this is one of those things we can’t know and is somewhat dependent on what we mean by “creating.” For example, the knitting of a new soul to its body seems to me to be something newly created.

    The language Patitsas uses in that quotation, however, appears to me to conflict with the first few verses of Hebrews 4.

  47. Kenneth, Mark,
    In the sense that God sustains all things in their existence – it might be possible to speak of an “on-going creation” – but not in the sense of ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing). At the very least, I would have to lay this aside and let it be. I ran across a very amazing quote from St. Maximus in an article by Patitsas that was not foot-noted, and I wanted to follow up. I called him and he did not know where the quote came from (didn’t remember). I like his work, but I’m going to let this point rest. Just not sure of what he means or what he would cite. So. I don’t know.

    I do note that the quote speaks of “out of the watery deep of non-being and chaos” – which pushes things into something of a metaphor rather than simply saying “out of nothing.” So, it’s just unclear.

  48. Thank you for the article, Father.

    I’ve had a particular thought that has dogged me for a long while that no amount of ignoring or surrendering seems to throw off my trail.

    I became Orthodox about a few years ago after being convinced that this was the place where Christ would heal me (of a particular addiction). I found no such healing in the Church. I found that healing in 12 Step groups.

    I remain committed to Orthodoxy, and I see how Orthodoxy and the 12 Step fellowships are not in competition with each other. But (and here is the thought that keeps dogging me) why does it seem that modern Orthodoxy is so powerless to heal addictions? I see that I can have both Orthodoxy and a 12 Step fellowship, but if it were a question of one or the other, only one seems to have the power to heal addictions. And, honestly, I would much prefer that Orthodoxy were the one that healed me. It would fit much better with my theology. But unfortunately this has not been my experience. And this has caused me much confusion and stress, as I want to be faithful to Christ and His Church.

    Father, do you have a word that might help me?

  49. Guillaume,
    Fr. Meletios Webber has a book, Steps of Transformation, that are an Orthodox treatment of the 12-step program, or, something of an Orthodox commentary on that program. I agree with you – that the 12 steps can be a very effective path for recovery and does not conflict with Orthodox teaching.

    It is, on the other hand, very carefully focused on that single struggle (addiction). In the life of the Church there are many struggles, many problems, and often not a laser-focus on any single one. But the power of healing that you have found in the 12-steps is not a commentary on a lack of power in the Church. Instead, it is a testimoney to the abundance of God’s grace and His generosity to all.

    When I am healed through taking a medicine (such as an antibiotic) I do not think of that as somehow competing with the Church. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” the Scripture tells us. All things are His – including A.A. (if understood correctly). I would urge you to read Fr. Meletios’ book, and give thanks for the grace of God that works so abundantly in the world – May He keep you and protect you!

  50. I do note that the quote speaks of “out of the watery deep of non-being and chaos” – which pushes things into something of a metaphor rather than simply saying “out of nothing.” So, it’s just unclear.

    What I like about this quote is that “out of the watery deep of non-being and chaos” could be interpreted as a “space” of dynamic, ever-churning potential of creative forces that remains after the kenosis of God makes the space for creation to have an “existence of its own.” Then God speaks to the churning, creative potential of the kenotic space and says “Let there be light!” and the in time light appears.

  51. I am posting the larger context of the quotation, if Father Stephen would like to explicate its meaning. Having read the broader passage, my own reaction is that–since he is really talking about moral luck there and inserts that language in an explanatory aside–making too much of it would miss focusing on his main point.

    Although the wording is a call back to Genesis, the chaos Patitsas addresses is as much in our personal circumstance as a reference to the void and the waters upon which the Spirit of God moved.

    [quote]
    As Orthodox Christians we acknowledge something like “luck” in a fallen, chaotic world, so that we can
    assimilate that chance into liturgy and render it meaningful, providential,
    and in some cases ultimately life-giving. We recover our human agency not
    through greater exertions of willpower, but through participation in Christ’s
    liturgy; although willpower figures as one element within liturgy, it alone is
    not sufficient.

    “Luck,” in the sense of brute randomness, is just a sign that the world is
    still being created out of the watery deep of non-being and chaos—and bad
    moral luck reminds us viscerally that we are necessarily co-agents with God
    in that ongoing creation. That is, we’ve got to do something about it, or bad
    moral luck will drown us.

    Ultimately, any kind of luck just says to us: Pray without ceasing, for chaos
    and malice are still around us, and only the liturgy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can master them and turn them into life. Liturgy is stronger than
    luck; it is stronger than trauma. Christ’s liturgy on the Cross was the stake in
    the heart of our subjection to bad moral circumstance.
    [End quote]

  52. One of the things I think is interesting in Genesis is that everything that God orders into existence (“Let there be….”) exists within the wider cosmos of the tehom. The cosmos of Genesis was never without a primordial tehom. I think it is fair to say that in Genesis all things that are created, called into existence, are of the tehom. This may also connect to God’s statement to Adam when God says of the tree “eating from it dying you will die .” In other words, Adam’s existence was still an existence of potential being. Much like our existence now. Having said that, I’m more than happy to be wrong .

  53. Fr. John Behr, in his book The Mystery of Christ, says “Viewed in the light of Christ, beginning with the Savior, creation and salvation are not two distinct actions, but the continual process of God’s activity in his handiwork, bringing the creature, when he allows himself to be skillfully fashioned, to the stature of the Savior, by whom and for whom all creation has come into being” (p. 86).
    Elsewhere (I can’t find the reference just now), he talks about the Gospel of John as a retelling of the creation story, starting with “In the beginning” (John 1:1/Gen 1:1) and leading towards “It is finished” (Jesus on the cross).
    If we think of creation as a historical event in linear terms, it seems that we could miss this broader meaning of creation as the ongoing act of God that begins and ends with Christ. However, I’m not a theologian and am not certain about the boundaries about correctly thinking or talking about creation.

  54. Mark and Kenneth (and Simon as well),
    Context is everything! It is certainly correct to say that the Cross is the beginning (and completion) of creation, and it is in that “eschatological” sense that Patitsas can say that God continues to create.

    There is much here (and it belongs to the Cross). It calls for attention and contemplation. Thanks for the thoughts (and the context).

  55. I am absolutely loving the thoughts that are being shared in the comments!

    Another thought from John 12 I think has a strong primordial meaning: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” This to my mind speaks of a primordial creative kenosis. In other words, the kenosis of the incarnation and of the cross is the same kenosis of creation. Without a creative kenosis it seems to me that creation itself is reduced to God merely molding play-doh figurines. With the inclusion of kenosis the multiplicity (“much grain”) has a deeper ontological meaning: What we are and what we are capable of becoming is defined by what God has sacrificed in kenosis. I think this is where deification comes into play with creation. The kenosis of God leaves space not just for other things to exist potentially, but for All things to come to a “fullness of the divine nature.” It’s the corollary of “God became man so that man might become God”: God emptied himself of All that we might be filled with All.

  56. Is it possible that the birth of Christ as a continuing flow of God’s love is part of our evolutionary process and co- creation of the life- generating love and goodness of God… in creation, the Word grounded in Love, created anew in Christ? Thank you all for your thoughts.

  57. Thank you for the reply Fr. Stephen. This is a wonderful article. Very interesting sharing of thoughts also in all the comments.

  58. Elizabeth,
    You’re kind. Perhaps I should say more. My hesitancy in using the metaphor of evolution is that it tends to be a one-way street in which history becomes the dominant player (at least as we imagine it biologically). Providence, the working out of the goodwill of God seems to flow in many directions. For example, the Cross, in the writings of a number of Fathers is equated with the creation of all things – that strange bit of theology that simply blows timelines out of the water. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the Ending. So, things are not quite as timebound as we commonly think.

    Theologically, we speak sometimes of history being “teleological,” meaning, it is being shaped by its end rather than its beginning. All of this is fruitful ground for meditation and understanding. Just some thoughts…

  59. Elizabeth, Fr.,
    I appreciate the intention of Elizabeth’s question: What would we expect the relationship between Providence and evolution to look like historically? Or, more generally, how would a paradigm like evolution fit in with God’s will? I would like to share a few of thoughts of my own. I am more than happy to be wrong about any one or all of them. First, if we include the ideas of divine kenosis as a creative, life-giving act AND the subjunctive nature of God’s Word in Genesis “Let there be…”, then perhaps an evolving system might be expected. Sometimes I see the Spirit as the Hen the universe as the cosmic egg, and the children of God as the brood emerging from the universe. But, that imagery could be laying too much emphasis on the subjunctive voice. Also, the scriptures say that God speaks of those things that are not as though they are. I have wondered whether the corollary of that might be true: God speaks of those things that were not as thought they were. In other words, the whole of history–going all the way back to the very beginning–is transfigurable through theosis. Lastly, there are times where the world appears to me as a place of revelation: The stage where the truth of all things is revealed–Cosmic Liturgy. In this sense, things do not evolve they are revealed. But, speaking from our perspective, we then speak of things having changed over time. What I like about this thought is that the end of all things is already at hand. From God’s vantage point everything is already transfigured. It is the fullness of that revelation that we await.

  60. The real problem of using an evolutionary paradigm to explain Creation and God’s Providence of Creation is that evolutionary thought has always been a way to exclude the Providence of God, The Incarnation of God as Person Who loves His Creation so much He inhabits it without being bound by it, but as a way to transform and transfigure we who are made in His image and likeness, but seldom act like it.

    At best evolution is a way of reducing God to our rules and theories. At worst, denies the the Person of God altogether as a twisted fable.
    Evolution also follows the old joke: God created us in His image and likeness. Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.

    Evolutionary theory is a way of subjecting God to man. Rather than recognizing the Incarnation allows for the Transfiguration of God’s whole Creation through the Cross .
    Evolution and the Cross are wholly at odds with each other.

  61. I have been Orthodox for almost 2 years now and I struggle daily with if “I’m doing it right.” Constant thoughts about whether I’m praying correctly, reading enough, sitting too much, prostrating enough etc. pollute my mind.. I’m 61 and was a Protestant for the majority of my life. Christ has been my Light and helped me through so many heartaches in my life. Orthodoxy has revealed more of Christ’s love for me. However, things are done differently and when these thoughts hit me I feel like I’m not doing it right; then of course guilt and shame come into the picture and impacts how I think Christ views me. Every day these thoughts go through my mind and I try to ignore them and pray through them, but it makes me weary.

  62. Michael, that may be a very limiting way to think about evolving systems. That something has been used as a weapon against one belief or another doesn’t say anything at all about whether or not that something is true. It only says that it has been used this way or that way. Evolutionary theory doesn’t do anything that we don’t make it do. It is entirely neutral to the agendas it is recruited to serve. Many of our traditions surrounding Easter and Christmas have pagan origins. But, the Church effectively baptized and assimilated those customs along with their many peoples. I don’t see why evolution should be any different. More importantly, I don’t see anything in evolution that is contradictory to the grammar of the faith that you describe so well.

    Again, I could easily be wrong about any of it or all of it.

  63. Michael,
    I’m with Simon on this one. No doubt, there are misuses of evolutionary theory. There are some who speak of “directed evolution,” for example in a manner that certainly conforms to Orthodox thought. Mostly, I do not want a rehashing of a bad set of arguments surrounding that topic. I almost didn’t post the first comment for the simple reason that I know it sets some people’s arguments in motion. Let’s not do this. What you described as evolution is a caricature – not science.

    Nothing should exclude the Providence of God – including science. The 19th century created many false dilemmas. It made for bad science and bad theology. We’re Orthodox. We can do better.

  64. I am a novice at understanding what is within the penumbra of faith based on the grammar of faith, which to me is the more interesting discussion. We have axes that are worth guarding because those axes protect the grammar of the faith. The trinity and the sacraments as the real body and blood are two such axes. Rightly these are anchor points. In many ways, the discussions I engage in–at least for my part–is for practicing the grammar I am learning. The question for me is ‘How do I think through this or that with the grammar of the faith?’ I think it is part of obtaining an Orthodox phronema.

    I apologize if my comment set anything off in an unproductive direction.

  65. Simon,
    Not a problem. There was a classic back-and-forth between the Orthodox thinkers, Fr. Seraphim Rose and the Greek, Alexander Kalomiros (author of The River of Fire, known by many). Rose made it a touchpoint against modernity itself and wrote some very popular books on it. Kalomiros’ work was pretty much forgotten. It was a waste of time, in my opinion, but has left something of smouldering set of issues for some. It’s interesting that Kalomiros’ work was largely rooted in St. Basil.

    When I breathe – there is a process by which oxygen is taken into my body and converted into energy. Nature is filled with processes. To talk about the process of biological change in nature but refuse to discuss any process that might be involved in reality seems like bad science to me. As I noted in my comment – everything (including my breathing) is providential. That evolutionary process is used by some to describe nature as a closed system (no providence whatsoever) is a flawed account of nature and represents a religious statement rather than a scientific statement, I think. For some, the very word “evolution” is taken to only mean that sort of reductionist approach (and that need not be the case). It was a useless set of arguments in the 19th century (where evolution was used by some to justify racism and eugenics, for example). But that lifeforms have changed over the eons seems undoubted to me. The process is providential. Everything is providential.

  66. Father, thank you for recounting what Vladika Dmitri told you about Confession.
    I absolutely love the stories I’ve heard about him (most of them from you, on this blog). I so wish I could have met him.

  67. Alan,
    I have a short list of saints I theoretically could have met (had I known, etc.). I’m blessed to have known Vladyka Dmitri. I wonder about the saints I’ve met that only time will reveal to us!

  68. Thank you Fr. Stephen, Simon. Fruitful discussion and “ ground for meditation and understanding. “ Thank you Father.

  69. I have a short list of 3, maybe 4 myself all here in the US. I know them well enough that I know each of them would emphatically deny it. All of them are converts but from a long time ago. Two of them will likely out live me. The other two it’s a toss up.
    When I think that I know so many having never traveled outside the US, that is amazing to me. I think the Orthodox Church is reaching a maturity here in the US–or I am deluded.

  70. One thing I have deeply appreciated about Orthodox saints is that they revealed that they thought they never got it right. This isn’t only about their humility, but about what it is to be a person who strives to be near and to abide in Jesus Christ, who is our telos. And who loves us to ‘the end’.

  71. Reread this tonight, and I realize that my fear this past week about a situation at work is fear of not being able to be what I would perceive to be “christlike” in my behaviour. We are in the end stage of a coporate takeover of the medical department of our medium sized jail. I am angry at the false accusations , tactics of gaslighting, money behind the scenes, closed door intrigues and dividing staff against one another.,, It is not losing jobs I am concerned about. I am retired and work as needed. It is a mission , there are other opportunities. How to be a Christ follower? I keep making a cross over my mouth and heart. God is my Shield, I taught my children to say. Thank you Father and commentators for encouragement. Please say a prayer for us nurses , “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom then shall I be afraid? “

  72. Thanks be to God, to the prayers of the heavenly hosts and our family here on earth.. We have been strengthened and my probable last day of work was peaceful. I did not speak up, but looked where I could offer help. and lo, an opportunity opened up. To each day what is needed. It’s so hard to stop myself from planning ahead what is the right thing to do, it so easy to bend things “out of shape”

  73. Well, when I put the Poetry of God with this post: YES, we get it right because we are, by Grace of the Cross, God is one with us, if we accept Him and repent. Oddly enough given the picture, repent means “turn back”.

    “IfI turn back won’t the rock of my sins crush me?

    Jesus takes the rock out of the way and the path is open (I keep putting it back) but it is always a little smaller.
    Only the linear man does not see and understand.
    The linear man in each of us.

    But God is Good.

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