Glory to God for All Things

Of Whom I Am First

In the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners?  We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).

The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Some would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.

But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.

I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:

Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.

Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:

[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.

48 Responses to “Of Whom I Am First”

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  1. Cassiane says:

    I have never been quite sure how how to understand those words. I’m still not sure I can wrap my mind around understanding them as you explain them. I don’t know if this is an acceptable way of looking at them, but the only way I’ve been able to look at them and get something that makes any sense to me is to say:

    “If I’m looking around for a sinner, the first one I come to is myself. I can stop there – no need to look farther.”

    I don’t know if it’s legitimate to take “first of sinners” in that way as “the first one I should look at/come to”.

  2. Andrew says:

    Reblogged this on sojourner and pilgrim and commented:
    Very succinct examination of this pre-communion prayer. Recommend you have a look

  3. Theodossia says:

    Father bless,

    You are greatly missed these days. Thank you for making the effort of writing, even under the present circumstances. I pray for you that the Lord may grant you many years.

  4. Robert says:

    Yes thank you, a wonderful reflection!

  5. paula hughes says:

    Thankyou Father, for these posts. I am an Orthodox Canandian wandering the world right now and sometimes far away form an Orthodox church, so I keep connected to my faith on the computer. I do so miss having a priest to talk to face to face, though. Do you ever have time to answer personal questions? Not too long, I promise.

    As for this piece, I well remember the day it hit me, and hit me it did, that I had been saying ‘well, I am not as bad as so and so ‘ And I realized that ,yes, that was in the liturgy for a good reason and the reason was it was ( groan) true. After that I began to lose the ability to judge anyone, thank God. As Fr Sophrony says that IS the beginning of wisdom.

  6. Eugene says:

    Wonderful and inspiring reflection, as always. I also like what Cassiane says above — while reading this I came to the same interpretation.

  7. Drewster2000 says:

    Radical stuff, Father.

    You make me older, as the Green Lady in Perelandra would say. This one of the chief reasons why I’ve become attached to this blog. You seem to be in a place where you can not only see the truth in these mystical and archaic sayings from the Church Fathers, but also turn around and explain them to lesser minds like myself.

    I begin to see what you mean. It is about forgiveness and understanding – and being part of God’s indivisible body. It is no good for the eye to say, “Well, at least I don’t get dirty like the hand.” If the eye is smart, it will be understanding of the hand — which includes noticing the different situations they are both in — and then be as support of as possible.

    Part of the confusion comes from the view of forgiveness in the modern world as being about beating our backs and moaning piteously, claiming how bad and sinful we are. What you describe above brings light to things I’ve learned over the years that would point to it being more about changing, unifying, loving, and understanding:

    Eye: “I forgive you, hand. Let me help you clean yourself up. Allow me to do a better job of keeping you away from danger next time. We are in this together. I don’t condone what you did, but I understand you.”

    “Understand” there is a verb. It’s not “I sympathize” as in I have been there and can see where you’re coming from. It’s “I will myself to understand you just as I strive to love you.”

    ~~~~~~~

    A problem with those words from the liturgy is what people read into them. The ears hear “first of all sinners” but by the time the message reaches the brain, it has been translated into “worst of all sinners”. That’s incorrect. We are not worst, just first at hand.

    Related to what Cassiane said above, when we reach out deal with sin, we need go no further than our own selves. “Coincidentally” ourself is really the only one we have any sway over anyway.

    This doesn’t mean we never have to judge, but if we understand that this person we are about to judge is a part of the same body we belong to – as with the hand and the eye – our judgment will be with an eye to salvation instead of damnation.

    Thanks again for your work, Father.

  8. easton says:

    welcome back, father stephen. your words are always comforting…wishing you peace and joy in the new year! i have no problem seeing myself as a sinner, and jesus taught us to pray, “our father,” not “my father”… i have a problem with that thin line between accepting and enabling. your thoughts?

  9. Bruce says:

    Father bless

    Powerful post. I found these 2 sentences quite compelling:

    The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

    As we set ourselves above other sinners, we are also setting ourselves above God who is one with these sinners in His Forgiveness, Death and Resurrection. And in this pride we elevate ourselves above God thus returning us to the first sin of Adam in the context of this present moment….and thus become first of sinners. As we realize we have missed the mark for truly loving our neighbor who is ourselves (I think this is how Father Hopko describes the Great Commandment), we realize that in our lack of union with our neighbor we reflect the lack of true union with Christ and His example. We have thus missed the mark in the most fundamental Truth of who He is, who we are and what it means to participate in the Life of Christ. We have missed out on the Love that lies at the heart of His most important instruction to us in the Great Commandment through our mistaken belief that we can be one with Him without being one with all…loving as He loves.

  10. Easton,
    There is always the danger of enabling – though enabling is crossing a line and becoming a force which empowers someone else to sin – it’s a dropping over a proper, God-established boundary. The heart of the Elder Zossima’s (thus Dostoevsky) is that I do not judge. I do not see another human as worse than myself or myself as in a place where I can judge another. I am the first of sinners because, in Christ, I am united to all (sinners as well as the righteous).

  11. Dee says:

    Drewster2000,

    there surely exists a state, in which one can comprehend oneself, not just as the ‘first’ but, also as the ‘worst of all sinners’… It is usually when one becomes strongly aware of the Lord’s presence and His “scandalous” forgiveness, while simultaneously feeling his own unworthiness of such a loving Lord… It is inevitable that one would then experience oneself as the only one unworthy: He witnesses the Lord’s forgiveness and love towards all men, yet cannot deny his own personal darkness, (meanwhile other people’s darkness cannot be to mind in such a state). Is it not only natural to subjectively feel the ‘worst of sinners’ and to ontologically feel that it is ‘not Adam but me’ who is responsible for the Fall, when in such close ‘proximity’ to the Lord?

  12. Molly says:

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    I sort of kind of sometimes understand how we each can call ourselves the “first among sinners;” I often find it much more difficult to understand (and therefore pray) the Psalms. They say things that I would certainly not say — and that I don’t suppose that I *could* say, regardless of whether I kept the commandments as well as I could understand them. They often make more sense in context (especially the parts about hoping that the wicked will fall, fail, and die (aren’t we supposed to want them to repent? And aren’t we more in their category than not, anyway?), but then we pray them, and don’t only try to understand them as the expressions of a certain person in specific situations. Have you ever written on that?

  13. Dee says:

    Molly,
    please do keep in mind that “the wicked” in the Psalms could always be taken to actually imply the “only ones who are actually wicked”, namely, the demons that surround my (our) heart(s) and try to keep it away from the memory of God…

  14. Pete says:

    Dee,
    I always consider the same thing, but even I go back to Molly’s thoughts when I hear from a few places that we must pray for all, including the demons (St. Isaac of Syria). Certainly, all of creation deserves our prayers, and I know I don’t fulfill such a task–but the condemnations of the Psalter seem somewhat off in light of this understanding of prayer for even the fallen bodiless powers. Nevertheless, it has helped me more clearly when I offer condemnation to evil itself, as in the world and the flesh or the passions. In this way, even the fallen third of angels could have pronounced the Psalter before their collapse (chronological confusion, I know) and had been truthful in their condemnation of evil.

    Please correct me if I’m straying, Father Stephen.

  15. Pete,
    St. Isaac (and a few other great ascetic fathers) extend their prayer even to the fallen ones. We are not taught or commanded to do this, and I would advise that none of us attempt such prayer. Our hearts are not nearly capable of such a thing, and prayer that is removed from the heart becomes a source of spiritual problems.

    I do not think about evil (for there is no such thing as evil, per se). There are persons (beings) whose rebellious lives war against goodness. I can pray for persons and have mercy on them. Evil, as such, is a philosophical concept and not very useful as an object of thought or more than useless as an object of prayer.

    The Psalter is a subject worth writing on. I highly recommend Fr. Patrick Reardon’s book on the Psalms.

  16. Pete says:

    Thank you, Father; I needed a bit of a spiritual reality check there. =)

    I actually have that book and am going through it slowly and somewhat sporadically, and I agree with any recomendation of it so far.

  17. Drewster2000 says:

    Dee,

    Perhaps it’s just that I’m a Westerner at heart, but I’m not aware of a reason why I would want to see myself as “worst of all sinners”. I have heard some of the church fathers speak in this way but I don’t understand it. I’m not calling myself right and them wrong, just saying that I don’t understand it.

    What if I go there? What if I see myself as worst of all sinners? What does it gain me? Where do I go from there? All I hear is that I’m a worthless piece of human trash that might as well do the world a favor by ending my useless life. Since I am so utterly worthless – because I’m the worst of all sinners – there can’t possibly be a reason for for me to stick around and trouble anyone else with my presence.

    The thought that I’m the worst of all sinners does not inspire to live a life more dedicated to Christ, or to treat my fellow man more kindly, or to do anything else. Why should I try to attempt anything? I’m worst and worthless; the best thing I have to look forward to is failure.

    And that’s why I and many others simply don’t go there. But perhaps you have good reasons I’m ignorant of. I say this with no facetiousness.

  18. Cassiane says:

    The problem I have with understanding “first of sinners” as “worst of sinners” is not primarily what Drewster2000 mentions in the comment immediately above. My issue is… mostly mathematical/numerical, and I’m probably thinking about things too numerically, but I can’t seem to get around it.

    If every Christian is supposed to hold “first of sinners” to be true about themself, then, well, if it means “worst of sinners” in a sense that means “I’m a worse sinner than everyone else”, it can’t be true for everyone, because that would mean everyone had to be worse than everyone else, and that just does not compute. It’s like if everyone said “I’m taller than everyone else”. And then I don’t get how everyone could be saying it honestly/truthfully. But I know the Church doesn’t expect us to say and believe things that aren’t true, so that line of thinking peters out.

    I could understand it as being “everyone’s equally bad of a sinner, so we’re all tied for worst”, and calling myself “worst of sinners” is at least reminding myself that I’m no better than anyone else, but if it means that the speaker is worse than everyone else… well, again, it just does not seem to add up that it could be true for everyone who’s in a position to say it.

    And that’s how I end up with what I said in my first comment: the only way I can make sense of it is that “I’m no better than anyone else, and if I’m looking around for a sinner, the first one I look at should be myself, and I can stop looking there.”

    I think Fr Stephen’s way of explaining it in the post above is less numerically roadblocky to me than just “I’m the worst of sinners”, but I’m not sure I’ve understood it well enough to really see how it avoids that roadblock.

    I’m likely coming at this from completely the wrong angle, but in any case, I’m kinda stuck there.

  19. Cassiane,
    Perhaps a problem is that we hear the phrase and want to leap to hearing as a comparison, when it is in fact a statement of our solidarity in sin, our common sinful life. We cannot judge another worse than ourselves – for that is not the nature of sin. Sin is death. No dead man is “deader” than another. Christ united Himself to us in our sin, “became sin,” that we might be united to His righteousness. If you will, the very effort we make to distinguish between ourselves and others is itself a sin. St. Paul who took pride in his righteousness as a Pharisee, accepts his common life with all sinners, even embracing the title, “first.” It is the pattern of his humble repentance we follow when we say “first” as well.

  20. Dee says:

    Drewster2000,

    I would certainly not want anyone to feel useless in the way you just described!
    It is of a very different kind, this feeling of being the worst…
    When Job felt God’s proximity he uttered: “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee, therefore I despise myself…”
    Father Sophrony often spoke of a ‘healthy’ self-hatred (or total disregard of oneself) which reaches its utmost limits when love of God reaches those same limits.
    The second that one goes ‘there’, and perceives himself as the worst of all sinners, Grace can finally do what It so desires, but couldn’t do until then: Abide in him fully and permanently!
    The minute he leaves that humble place though, Grace might need to ‘withdraw’ in order to protect him from Luciferean pride…
    This obviously implies that at that lowest point, man is at his highest as well, he ‘feels’ that too, he tastes Theosis, but can sustain it only to the degree to which he feels that he is unworthy of it.
    The deeper the roots – the taller the tree can reach (safely).
    The thought that I’m the worst of all sinners does, in fact, inspire to live a life more dedicated to Christ like nothing else – to the point of an utter desire and existentially felt need for inseparable communion with Him.
    Just remember the sinful woman who washed His feet…

  21. Cassiane says:

    Father Stephen,
    I think that helps a bit, although it’s still hard for me to understand, and hard for me not to hear the phrase as a comparison when it’s worded so very much like one. Thanks.

  22. Dee says:

    I believe that it is Father Sophrony (again) who used that beautiful metaphor that portrays both the union and solidarity with all, as well as the feeling of being below everyone.
    It’s the inverted pyramid, at the base of which, holding all the weight of the whole world, is Christ; and the closer one comes to Him the more he advances in both solidarity with all and humility towards all.

  23. Drewster2000 says:

    Dee,

    Here is the context of my response in the next paragraph: I’m not ‘there’. Where you go, I cannot follow right now. Therefore I only understand wisps of what you’re saying. You take me to the root of the tree and show me Christ; all I experience is darkness and dirt – and the little bit of self that I have left to hate. From my position I cannot shed light on the reason for my blindness, but I guess that would be obvious.

    In my experience self-hatred is bad. I know people who hate themselves. It’s possible that everyone I know hates at least a part of themselves. But the only benefit of this disposition seems to be loathing, depression, cowardice, envy, etc. It’s back to worm theology, which I could never see the other side of.

    Perhaps Fr. Stephen will put proper self-hatred on his list of things to post on….

  24. Drewster,
    This is a very powerful comment. What you are describing is deep, toxic shame – which is not a part of St. Paul’s statement – but a very common part of the experience of many people. It is symptomatic of a very deep wound that crushes proper boundaries (of our personhood) and turns lies from the outside into a very painful, inward identity. It is the difference between saying “you did something wrong,” and “you yourself are something wrong.” We are not something wrong. We are created in the image of God. Even though fallen, the fall does not make us into something wrong. The fall is not what we are, but where we are. It is this where that Christ enters and rescues us in His great Pascha.

    It is very easy to hear “of whom I am first” in the language of shame. Without a deliverance from such shame, it would be almost impossible to hear such language in a positive light. It would be a healthy response to react against it, even to be angered by it (the anger would be a healthy protection). But the burden of shame should not be overlooked. There are ways for it to be healed. A very good spiritual father (fairly rare) could help. A good therapist can help. Depending on the sources of shame, any number of programs can help.

    Archimandrite Meletios Webber’s Steps of Transformation touches on some of this and is a good resource. None of us should accept the poison of shame. It is not our fault, and it can be healed. I am passionate about this because it has been an important part of my own life experience. May God help us all. Email me privately if you like.

  25. Dee says:

    Drewster2000
    i deeply sympathize with what you say but, please keep in mind that what would make one feel as the last of men more than anything else -in the healthy way- (even, in fact, if he has reached the heights of Saint Anthony the Great), is his ‘comparison’ to the only Other he has in front of his very eyes: God; remember it is about proximity to Him, ontologically, He, in fact is the Humblest of all!
    when man realizes that all meaning springs forth from nothing other than communion with Him,

    far from being ‘worthless’ in the worldly meaning of the term, it is the realization that he is, he should be “Christ”, God sees him as His Son, how can one not feel worthless when honored so highly?
    Even more so, perhaps, when endowed with virtues and not just burdened by passions, like the tree which bends lower and lower due to the many fruits it carries..

  26. Drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your response; it was very helpful. I will ponder these things and check out the Steps of Transformation you mentioned. And thank you for your offer.

  27. Dee says:

    I am sorry for the previous severely rushed post!
    to reiterate from yet another angle, a thought from Pascal might help:
    “Who on earth feels distraught for not being a King? – none other but a dethroned king!”
    So, when one feels God’s loving and immensely honoring gaze on himself, at close proximity, (even if he is the very St. Paul himself), he is bound to feel he is the last of all men, the first and worst of all sinners. Knowing his uttermost worth, paradoxically makes him feel so unworthy subjectively.
    It is that profound worth that God gives ‘me’ that makes ‘me’ feel worthless.
    St. Macarius explains this very vividly using a picture of a Prince who chooses to mary a certain poor beggar (‘me’).
    St. Maximus goes very deep describing how all things, (“me”, obviously included) were made with Christ in mind, or rather at heart. That would mean that he knows us and recognizes not according to our nature, but according to His own Will which wills us into being out of love.
    So, this extreme humility and knowledge of being the worst in creation, (when it is healthy), is diametrically opposed to the worldly notions on worthlessness (based on the ego being my tyrannical ‘God’, yet knowing I lack a god’s power) , in fact, it paradoxically springs forth from viewing ourselves the way God does, knowing that He bestows His power and all He has on us, knowing we are His sons and daughters, yet knowing our total human powerlessness…

    The healthy self-hate is the knowledge that me and my ego is the core of Hell, whereas others, especially that greatest of all others (God) is Heaven himself – to invert Sartre.

  28. Dee says:

    Drewster2000,

    When you wrote earlier: “I know people who hates at least a part of themselves. But the only benefit of this disposition seems to be loathing, depression, cowardice, envy, etc. It’s back to worm theology, which I could never see the other side of”, I would hasten to clarify it is NOT about that (‘worm theology’).

    Scripture tells us Job’s instant reaction to the clear vision of God was:
    “now my eye sees Thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. Isaiah’s response in his vision is very similar.
    This ‘despising oneself’ immediately upon beholding God, rather than oneself, is the opposite to Adams thoughts…
    As if Job and Isaiah utter “it’s all my fault’ as soon as the darkness of the Fall clears away,
    whereas Adam, our forefather, thought “it’s all your fault” (as well as the woman’s that YOU gave me), as soon as that ego-darkness takes over…

  29. Rick says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Like so many others, God regularly blesses and nourishes me through your blog. Thank you for your ministry in Him. I wonder, when Paul says that he is first/foremost among sinners may he not also be taking on the mind of Christ? Here’s what I mean. In Philippians chapter two Paul tells the believers they should “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The other is not in reality more significant, but humility counts them as such-humility puts the other first above self.

    Paul then advises the Philippians to have the mind of Christ who lived the perfect example of such humility. He was in the form of God but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, made Himself nothing, and took the form of a servant, humbling Himself to death on a cross. Christ counted others more significant than Himself. He put the needs of humanity above Himself at the cost of His own life.

    When Paul says that he is the first of sinners, could this not be another way of “counting others as more significant” than himself? He does not put himself above any sinner but rather puts himself below all other sinners, even the worst of them as a servant to all? Is this not the “mind of Christ” he speaks of in Philippians?

    May our glorious God continue to draw you ever deeper into His joyous, eternal communion.

  30. dinoship says:

    I would like to add one more thought on ‘proper’ self “hatred”:
    It is genuine love really, and nothing more. But, it is genuine love that has acquired the wisdom of who are its enemies from experience, and doesn’t want to return to ‘self’ and lose everything.
    It can only therefore be healthy when combined with a deep conviction, total trust and unwavering faith in God’s loving and omnipotent Providence for us.
    It’s just another way to say that one’s god, (point of reference for everything) has at last become God Himself – not the Ego anymore.

  31. Karen says:

    Drewster2000, as one who also struggles with toxic shame, I wanted to underscore Fr. Stephen’s very wise comments to you. So I offer the following quotes that I reread recently from some unquestionably saintly men, much advanced in the Orthodox spiritual life, as an example of the exceedingly gentle and self-giving spirit of a true (and healthy) spiritual parent:

    Elder Amphilochios of Patmos:

    “. . . Don’t act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.”

    “Man is not guilty, my child. Unfortunately hiding underneath man’s weaknesses is that hater of the good, the archenemy of God’s will, the devil.”

    “I was born to love people. It doesn’t concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.”

    Elder Epiphanios of Athens:

    “My heart only has entrances. It doesn’t have exits. Whoever enters remains there. Whatever he may do, I love him the same as I loved him when he first entered my heart. I pray for him and seek his salvation.”

    “My worst hell is to realize I have saddened a beloved person.”

    (The above are from the book, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit.)

    To confess oneself as the “first” of sinners (or the “chief” of sinners) in the context of the Orthodox Christian mindset is to identify in solidarity (i.e., out of self-giving love) with the whole of the human race of sinners, each and every member equally (as Christ Himself did), and is possible only by the grace of God as a result of a process of learning to radically lean on and feed on Christ’s love.

    In a sermon given by one of my former bishops, he described true repentance not as looking back in sorrow on my sins, but instead looking forward and up to Jesus, my Savior. True repentance is not self-hatred, but a kind of self-forgetfulness that is possible only because, in gazing into the face of Christ our Savior, I come to realize that I am truly seen and completely loved–my true self is held securely there in eternal loving remembrance.

  32. Drewster2000 says:

    Dee, Dinoship & Karen,

    I’m very grateful for your comments. In all honesty I am only beginning to grasp what you say on this subject which has been forever elusive for me. Here is my first attempt to “read” it back to you:

    When we hate or forget self, we are allowing the death of the “old man” that Paul talks about. And we are able to do this because we are jumping from our sinking ship to that of Christ which is triumphant.

    But (going back through) we can only make that jump once we’ve totally given up on the old ship, our will, our own attempt to play God.

    Am I going in the right direction?

  33. Karen says:

    Drewster, I think you’re on the right track. The kind of “self-hatred” that is held as a positive virtue within the Orthodox mindset is a free will rejection of the false “self” of the ego and its demands in response to the will and love of God. IOW, it means a renouncement of all the dysfunctional, sinful coping methods we have adopted in response to satan’s temptations and the sin in our environment. I think what really strikes me is that, although within Orthodoxy I am still responsible for my response to God’s grace and call, the sin in which I become entangled (as in Romans 7) is not identified with my true self, made in the image of God, which I find in my deep heart. As I understand it (Fr. Stephen can correct me if I’m off base here), even though this deep self is incomplete without Christ and intrinsically needy in that sense, it is not for that reason evil or to be rejected. Its weakness and vulnerability to sin is not sinful in and of itself, but rather a reflection of God’s design for us as persons–a person, by definition, being made in His image to be in a communion of love with Him and other persons, and thus incomplete (and vulnerable to corruption) apart from an actualization of that union.

  34. Know it all,
    There is no statement that could not be misread by a psychopath. We are not responsible to speak in a way that prevents such misunderstanding. It is true that we participate in our destruction (which includes the poison of shame, etc.) but sometimes such participation happens at a very early age, and later it happens and we do not even know it is happening. If we are to “blame” for our situation, we would have to have a kind of knowledge which no human being possesses. We cannot and could not save ourselves. God does for us “abundantly above all we could ask or think.” So, I give myself to Him, and get more than I could imagine (such as healing) and what I do is give thanks. Giving thanks is what I am commanded. I am not commanded to heal something because the blame is mine. The situation is mine, but the good God comes into the Hades of my life and sets me free. Blame is a useless category.

  35. Dee says:

    Drewster2000,
    you put it so perfectly when you say: “When we hate or forget self, we are allowing the death of the “old man” that Paul talks about. And we are able to do this because we are jumping from our sinking ship to that of Christ which is triumphant.”

  36. dinoship says:

    “Self-hatred” as a virtue has nothing to do with what the term means in the understanding of “this world”. It is a pity that most of the terms freely used in Orthodox tradition have come to have a completely warped understanding by modern western influenced society. You now need to write a book to explain what the Church means by Love, Humility etc and to carefully differentiate those definitions from what the western mind of today presumes they mean.

    I vividly recall a talk by Elder Aimilianos where he keeps repeating that (self-hatred, self-denial) it is the very key to instant Holiness, the common trait in martyrs, ascetics, apostles…
    It is also the key to unshakeable Joy;
    the natural response to feeling God’s unfathomable love;
    the trait that Satan sees in a person and knows not how to fight him! the flame that provides the right kind of spiritual zeal;
    the cause of that deep compunction that brings about freedom from lifelong passions;
    the quality needed to retain charismatic unity with the whole of creation…

  37. dinoship,
    Modern terms (Western) have developed in a different conversation than the Tradition of the Church. They are not so much “of this world,” as they are a different conversation – one which with proper translation is fully capable of dialog with the Tradition. The word “self” has one meaning in Modernity, another in the Tradition – but “self” of course, is not the Tradition’s word. The word is “autos” which we translate as self. Much of the language of the TRadition needs translation, regardless. A word refers to something, and if we don’t know what the something is, then we necessarily misunderstand the word. I would observe that very few of us actually know what Elder Aimilianos means when he says “self.” Since most of us don’t know what he means by “heart,” either. Thus our need is not more language or more reaction to the language of modernity, but more true experience (or experience of the Truth) which is hard, slow, patient, filled with careful repentance and characterized by love. I read Elder Aimilianos (and others) and wonder.

  38. dinoship says:

    Thank you father for your invaluable discernment. I particularly enjoy recognizing its “taste” in the english language! In my experience I have only ever witnessed it first hand in Greek up to now! Particularly from Elder Aimilianos and certain successors of his at Simonopetra…
    I do, however, often encounter the problem of people either understanding the wrong thing (in the western society I know find myself – Greece included), or requiring exceptionally long and detailed clarifications – especially concerning those texts of Father Aimilianos which have already been published.
    This is for numerous reasons, including but not limited to: the compromised, imprecise or one-faceted translation into English of words like Λόγος/Logos or Νούς/Nous,
    the inevitable coloration that personal experience renders to every word -to the point of experiencing Babel,
    and, of course, westernized Modernity’s radically different world outlook compared to that of the Byzantine world which could understand writings such as Maximus the Confessor’s without a need for translation…
    One of the beauties of this blog, (secondary to many other even more important positive qualities however), is the effective use of the English language to transmit Orthodox notions so eloquently, a testament to the capabilities of a proper translation of the dialog with the Tradition…

  39. Thank you dino. I recall years ago (in college) reading some in the Philokalia. I knew classical and patristic Greek, but had no ascetical experience (as if I had much now). I read, but I understood very little. Translation (in word and experience) is part of our slow task today. Thanks again for your patience.

  40. Dee says:

    The time (lent) is nearing when we will be reminded of the importance of this whole subject for Spiritual life from this angle:

    “…Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother.”

  41. Dee says:

    I couldn’t help smiling when reading the above my friend Know-it-all, as I, too, have lived through that exact description of yours…
    I wouldn’t change a thing, to be perfectly honest, you will see clearly (with the benefit of hindsight) after some time, what Father Stephen beautifully refers to as “God’s secret hand fighting Amaliek”, even if you can’t see the point of it now…

  42. Drewster2000 says:

    Know-it-all,

    I don’t have your answer, but I can tell you that you shouldn’t make your decision about something based on how great or how bad it makes you feel. “The heart is deceitful above all things…” Base your decision on the truth, as best you can.

  43. Karen says:

    Know-it-all, I pray that your experience may change. In my experience, my own foibles can be exasperated by the kind of tone set in a parish by its leaders and members. I have found there is nothing like a judgmental and/or perfectionistic anxious spirit on the part of a Priest or fellow parishioners to quash any capacity I might have for a moment of communion with Christ and any inclination I might have to really offer myself in worship during the Liturgy and prayers of the Church. My Priest has been known to deliver announcements or even certain prayers in the Nave with his small grandson clinging to his fingers or attempting to play with his pectoral cross! He has been known to escalate his voice and proceed without comment when delivering his homily (without a mic) over a bawling toddler as a flustered parent attempted to escort the youngster to the Narthex.

    Having or finding an understanding Priest might help. I know I very easily become anxious or angry when I feel some sort of proper religious “performance” is being expected of me (either imposed by me on myself or by others on me) at which I cannot possibly succeed. For that reason, I thank God in my parish we don’t have any “shushers” in our midst. The exception might be me occasionally attempting to shush my own special needs daughter who is prone to inappropriate loud comments and/or frequent and loudly whispered questions!), and I believe this is because our Rector leans in the direction of accommodating human need and/or immaturity in order to more perfectly implement the spirit of Christ’s commands to love God and each other over perfection of every aspect of liturgical decorum. Since I suffer from performance anxiety, this tone set by our Rector has allowed me to calmly focus on the Liturgy, and I can honestly say I am never bored by it, but find rather to be full of Christ–living water for my parched soul.

  44. Marie says:

    Karen, thank you for sharing and especially your comment, “I know I very easily become anxious or angry when I feel some sort of proper religious “performance” is being expected of me (either imposed by me on myself or by others on me) at which I cannot possibly succeed.” Your words explain what I have felt at numerous over the years, but was unable to put into words. Being one, who too is prone to anxiety. This gives me a place to rest. May God grant you many blessings on your journey.

  45. Darlene says:

    Know-it-all: In regards to “that man dying during the Liturgy and the priests continuing as though nothing happened” – I, too, would be angered by such an occurrence. Not as appalling, but what would you think of a situation in which one of the parishioners suffered from a serious health issue right in the middle of the Liturgy, during the sermon? The parishioner was escorted out of the nave and health professionals within the congregation tended to her needs. However, immediately after this incident, the priest was a bit flustered and acted as though NOTHING had happened. No mention to pray for the person who was suffering from this serious health issue, nothing – nada. In fact, having been interrupted from the normal course of affairs, the priest couldn’t even continue on with his sermon. He swept the whole matter under the rug and got on with doing the Liturgy. The show must go on, you know.

    I put myself in that sick person’s place and considered how thoughtless and unfeeling not to even mention to pray for this one who had to be taken out of the church. How sad that even this one’s name was not mentioned. This whole mattered was troubling to the very depths of my soul. How can a person’s difficult plight – such that it is visible in the eyes of all during the Liturgy, be ignored by one who would call themselves the shepherd of that flock?

    And yet, I take heart that God sees all and judges all rightly. Do I give this priest a pass? Definitely not! But I must leave this matter finally into the hands of our Lord, who will judge rightly. And I must pray for this priest. I must also pray that no root of bitterness or malice rises up within my own heart. Honestly, my struggle is intense.

    Lord have mercy! Please pray for me, all who read this.

  46. Darlene says:

    Knowitall: No, I’m not angry at myself. Of course, I have been disappointed with myself, but such is the condition of many human beings.

    I did ask for prayers, so yes, I do struggle with hurt feelings and offenses (perceived and real). Such is my current predicament.

    Remember me when you pray.

  47. Russ Mangiapane says:

    Fr. Stephen said in a previous comment: “We cannot judge another worse than ourselves – for that is not the nature of sin. Sin is death. No dead man is “deader” than another.”

    Very helpful…thank you!

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