Glory to God for All Things

The Erotic Language of Prayer

00-vladimir-yeshtokin-a-joyful-place-07-12-12The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness’. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role. For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

44 Responses to “The Erotic Language of Prayer”

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  1. John D. Kemp says:

    This post was beauty. It helps me understand why I yern & long for His Kingdom. It helps me see what sin really is & how it causes pain & how it diminishes my being. Thanks. I love these posts.

  2. Michael Bauman says:

    “Whoever wants to become a Christian, must first become a poet”.

    That puts into perspective some of my recent journey.

    God is wondrous and can only be approached in awe and mystery and surrender.

    My mother in her work with autistic children help bring them out a bit by using their natural kinesthesia which allowed them a greater integration and awakened them to others.

  3. This article is awesome! I know I am a sinner, and dear to look up to God knowing that He, loves me and wants me to be closer to Him. Glory to God.

  4. Lisa A says:

    Thank you for this post. I plan to read it again and again.

  5. Brian says:

    I very much needed this today. Thank you.

  6. Matt says:

    Thank you for this. As someone who’s come in to Christianity desperate only to be saved from his own self-destruction, I’ve not taken as much thought of the positive side of that salvation as I ought.

    It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

    You’ve also corrected an error I have frequently been tempted to make in my prayers but have never been quite conscious of.

    You’ve also changed my understanding of a book I read long ago. A Tale Of Two Cities was one of my favourite fictional works as a teenager. Since then I’ve floundered between continuing to romanticize the late-introduced protagonist’s manly self-sacrificial idealized hopeless erotic love, denouncing the entire plot as sexist and objectifying of women, and questioning the protagonist’s “real” motives as being ultimately self-serving and vain – but looking back at the plot as a whole, in contrast with what someone of Sydney Carton’s apparent disposition might be expected to do, not thinking of the characters’ actions in modern terms of agency and boundaries and power but in terms of genuine, heartfelt Christian repentance… it all suddenly clicks and makes sense. Even the John 11:25 references actually fit in logically (or at least heuristically!) when before it just seemed to vaguely “feel right” in their context.

    All this is going to take a while to sink in.

  7. Lazarus says:

    Thank you for this purifying, illuminating, deifying post.

    Fr. Patrick Reardon uses the three terms – beauty, goodness, and truth. He says, “The true is being as knowable… Goodness is being as loveable… Beauty is being as admirable, attractive, and desirable.”

    Shame, the life-giving kind, is the recognition of our movement toward non-being as Reardon (and you) articulate them; the embrace of the Way which is life; and the ascesis of living differently not by trying harder this time but by letting go of living for Christ Jesus and having Christ Jesus live in and through us. Such a life is not “instead of” me living, but me substantially/really living – the manifestation of Christ’s beauty, goodness, and truth.

  8. fatherstephen says:

    For myself a number of things in the article represent some new places for taking “ontology.” I’ve been reading lots of St. Maximus. At long last there are beginning to be sufficient resources available, both in English and in Greek, to really push deeper into St. Maximus. There was a whole symposium in Belgrade back in 2012 whose papers on Maximus have been published (and even available on Kindle!). It is probably not wrong to say that Maximus represents something like the highest development of Patristic understanding viz. both God and man (and Christology – which is both) as well as a doctrine of creation. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, in modern times (Romanian), pushed things a bit further by making something of a synthesis between Maximus’ use of the logoi and St. Gregory Palamas’ use of the divine energies. I’m sure everybody needed to know this. :)
    But important thoughts for me in this center around the place that the perception of Beauty has – and the notion of creation being “called forth” drawn (in a move we can call “eros”) towards the Beautiful-Good-Truth.

    It seems to me that most human beings don’t necessarily perceive or articulate “I need God.” Religion, despite the fact that it is ubiquitous, is not exactly a primary category of existence. But the perception and desire for the Beautiful is. Even Eve in the Garden saw the fruit that “it was a delight to the eyes.” To see the fruit as delightful (desirable) wasn’t wrong – it was perceiving it as a thing in itself apart from God – without regard for God’s commandment.

    A good while back in conversations here, I asked some questions about experiences of Beauty. The particularly strong ones are, I think, a common human ground for conversation even with non-believers. It just that Christians believe something about Beauty. We believe that Beauty became flesh and dwelt among us, for example.

    But that perception of Beauty – particularly of a transcendent sort – also provokes a healthy response of “shame” (not its toxic form). It is an awareness of my own emptiness/nothingness in its presence. The desire to move from that emptiness/nothingness towards the Beautiful is repentance.

    I’m continuing to ponder the article myself.

  9. jacksson says:

    Beautiful article that I sent to my godchildren and family.

    In the same edition of Road to Emmaus, there is an article about St Porphyrios the New where he is quoted as saying, “What is holy and beautiful and what gladdens the heart and frees the soul from every evil is the the effort to unite yourself to Christ, just as Saint Paul said, ‘It is no longer I who lives; Christ lives in me.’ This should be your aim. Let all other efforts be secret and hidden. What must dominate is love for Christ. Let this be in your head, your thought, your imagination, your heart and your will. Your most intense effort should be how you will encounter Christ, how you will be united to Him and how you will keep Him in your heart.”

    Over 30 years ago, I was attending an Assembly of God fellowship and just getting really started on the path to Christ; it took quite a few more years to find the real church, but that is another story. Anyway, I had just made a private verbal commitment to let God work in my life; a few days later I was driving my Sears service down the road to a service call and a voice (loud and clear) said, “follow the N’s.” I looked in all directions around the truck trying to figure out where the voice came from with no success, it happened and I have no scientific explanation.

    I contemplated the command; the N’s were a retired ministerial couple – very nice, dedicated to Christ kind of people who headed up the rest home ministry. I decided that I was supposed to get involved in their ministry and pick up pointers so that I could become a minister. That didn’t pan out, I went through some traumatic years and ended up Orthodox, but I did have some time with the N’s before they both passed away.

    Years passed and I reflected on the event infrequently trying to understand what I was supposed to ‘follow’ about the N’s. Here it is years later and just recently I came to a conclusion, what I was supposed to follow was their commitment to Christ. Bar none, Mr. N was the most Christ-centered man I ever met, almost every other word out of his mouth was Jesus in the most loving way possible; he was a man who was totally in love with Christ and his wife wasn’t far behind him. Maybe he wasn’t in the right organization of even in the church, but he was a Christian who was obedient to the First Commandment, to love the Lord his God with all of his being.

    What I am trying to say is that this article and the other articles in the current edition of Road to Emmaus (including an additional one by St Theophan the Recluse) speak to my heart, the center of my being needs to be the Lord Jesus Christ.

  10. jacksson says:

    To correct the above, I was driving my Sears service truck.

    And in the next to last paragraph is should say “organization or even in the church”

  11. fatherstephen says:

    Jacksson,
    Yes. St. Paul said to the Athenians:

    “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;”for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said,`For we are also His offspring.’ (Act 17:26-28 NKJ)

    If you read some of the works of the Platonists and neo-Platonists, its amazing how far they got without the Church. And as for our crazy-quilt times, to seek to follow Christ is always the best advice – even for the Orthodox. :)

  12. Allen Long says:

    Welcome words to my soul. Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

  13. Dana Ames says:

    Father,

    from which prayer book are your quotes taken? I really like the English used.

    Dana

  14. Wordsmyth says:

    Father Stephen,

    When you talk about “non-existence”, are you saying that some will not have an afterlife, or that their experience after death will be suffering instead of experiencing God’s love in peace? The “non-existence” terminology confuses me.

  15. CJD says:

    Beautiful! Thank You Fr. Stephen and God Bless You!!

  16. fatherstephen says:

    Wordsmyth,
    No not nothing. Rather, I’m describing a “movement” towards non-existence. It is generally taught that since existence (being) is a gift from God that He does not take it back – and non-existence is not in our own power. There is a tiny minority that suggest non-existence as a possibility (Christos Yannaras has “suggested” this, but only as a matter of discussion).

  17. mary benton says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is a beautiful article and follows nicely upon my reading of St. Porphyrios’ description of “divine eros”. I had never heard “eros” used that way before but, coming from him, it made perfect sense.

    However, your article pulls me in two different directions. I know we’ve had this discussion before (in other threads) but I’d like to re-visit if I might. You wrote:

    When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

    I cannot argue with this. There is no end to the need in this world – even in my own city. Thus it seems I need to give away everything that I own and live a profoundly ascetic life of monasticism – an idea which I do not find totally unappealing (though it would be difficult to combine with my work as a psychologist). But then you wrote:

    I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity.

    I do not disagree that “Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity.” In fact, to me, they seem to be expressions of one another – as God is Beauty and self-emptying (ultimate generosity). Yet, the beautiful THINGS that we build or own or wear (etc.) generally require an expenditure of money that then is “withheld” from someone in need.

    I am not making any criticism of Orthodox churches any more than I am of my own possessions. For example, I have a nice camera that allows me to receive and share beautiful images. In one sense, it helps me celebrate Beauty and offer something to those in need of beauty; on the other hand, the cost of it could have paid the rent of my neighbor who is now living on the street. To own the camera, I “withheld” the money from my neighbor.

    Repeating what you wrote:

    And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves.

    While that may be sometimes true, I know quite certainly it is not always true. Some of the critics of the RCC’s “wealth” are people who themselves have given everything they have to serve God’s people under the most difficult of conditions.

    I am not trying to make any argument here. Just sharing the deep personal tension I feel with this issue. How do we reconcile the two parts of your message (that I do not disagree with)?

  18. fatherstephen says:

    Mary,
    Generosity does not require that I consume nothing. There is a key element missing in your analysis of the situation. Much of the popular thought on this topic thinks of wealth, etc., as limited. Marxist thought, for example, (which has deep roots in popular assumptions), always assumes the “fixed pie,” i.e. that the pie is only so big and that whatever size your slice may be, it had to take some of my slice. It therefore thinks of fairness only in terms of a static sum.

    I have seen this discussed in a small work on envy. The ancient pagan world also saw goodness as a fixed sum. Thus, your good is at my expense, or even worse, your goodness, beauty, excellence is even at the expense of the gods. Their gods were thus subject to envy as well – a very dangerous situation.

    In the OT, however, with Israel, things change. There they see goodness as coming from God, and thus it is infinite. There is a vision of Divine Abundance throughout the Scriptures. We are counseled to give to those who have need – but we are also warned against living as though there is not enough (Matt. 6:30).

    There are very subtle turns in the human heart regarding all of this. It is possible to be overwhelmed by the poverty of the world – something that does not come from a lack of abundance but from problems of justice, etc. Giving that comes from that overwhelming emptiness appears generous, but it has torment within it.

    True generosity comes from an abundant heart. It gives without fear or torment.That is the source of my observation on beautiful Churches. The sentiment that the money could have been given to the poor assumes a “fixed pie.” In truth, there’s more than enough to do everything – churches, poor, etc.

    It is also true that a beautiful Church can come from places in the heart that are not abundant as well. They can be built as monuments to ego and the like.

    The RCC certainly has some wealth – though many of its assets are also old and are not “liquid” assets. It is, on the other hand, one of the single most generous institutions in the world. Local Catholic Churches excel in their works of charity and generosity in a manner that should put others to shame (or rather inspire them to do as much!).

    But I finish back at the heart. These “turns” of heart are critical. The “fixed pie” will always lead to torment and envy. We give out of love for God and confident of His generosity. An old friend of mine used to always proclaim, “You cannot out give God!”

  19. mary benton says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. This was extraordinarily helpful (and generous!).

    Early on in life, I suffered from a certain existential guilt that I had been given a life that has allowed me to experience so much beauty and abundance, while others live in great need.

    While that was an initial motivator to generosity (blessedly, helping me overcome great shyness as a teenager), I know now that it is no longer necessary.

    If my giving comes from love alone, there need not be any tension. Nothing really belongs to me and all will be given away in some fashion in the end anyway.

  20. Dino says:

    The above discussion reminds me of the key notion of being transformed from the inside out -rather than the outside in-, (cleansing “first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also”), being the sole ‘method’ that rightly safeguards our freedom and joyfulness in our keeping of the commandment (e.g.: for a generosity of bountiful giving that is “not grudgingly, or of necessity” since “God loveth a cheerful giver”)…
    The guided Orthodox practice of the Jesus prayer surely acknowledges Man’s inability to ontologically transform himself, and implies this very petition for transformation through God’s grace as the only real means that finally leads to the desired result: of God’s commandment becoming ontologically innate to the prayer’s practitioner who discovers the true depths of his incapacity to keep it of his own accord (God’s commandment of love).
    Its quintessence (The Jesus prayer’s) is encapsulated in Christ’s admonition to St Silouan of “despairing not” (because of God’s grace, love and mercy – according to His will) while “keeping one’s mind in hell” (in the awareness of my unworthiness)…

  21. Boyd says:

    This post is good medicine for depression.

  22. Joseph Jude says:

    Father,
    The “fixed pie” mindset can also be considered a realistic mindset as well. Most people will not do anything great( In worldly terms)so the pie seems limiting to most. Our culture does promote, ” You need this job to be happy” and “This kind of women to be happy” and more etc. Do you think God wants us to dwell in reality? Why should so few live in luxury and so many in poverty? I think it is a both/and situation; it is our mindsets that we develop, but also the way systems are set up. The myth of merit runs deep in the U.S.
    What would be wrong with holding people accountable for destroying so many in the economic crisis? Why should that not be ok? What should be done about it? Is it all in our minds?
    Thanks

  23. fatherstephen says:

    Joe,
    Justice is and remains an issue. As I noted, a great deal of poverty is driven by injustice. That injustice includes everything from bad social/jobs policy to banking issues – many things. Some of it, especially in America, is structural.

    But the fixed pie vision of the world is not “realistic.” It’s false. All good comes from God who is without limit. Generosity becomes impossible without faith in the goodness and providence of God. What is left without those things is resentment, envy, anger, and the desire to take people’s stuff away from them, etc. That’s when a culture begins to feed on itself.

    Many, even most, governments like to govern by a fixed pie policy. They used the fear and envy it breeds to govern people. The dynamics of a non-fixed pie do not seem “realistic” to people. Therefore they easily buy into the false messages fed to them by the powers that be.

    I have seen the spiritual liberation that can occur in someone’s life when they come to accept that God is the source of all good things (and not us, or the state, etc.). When God took Israel into the Wilderness they were slaves. The most primary lesson of the Wilderness was that God is the source of all good things. They had to learn that – and it took 2 generations. Most people prefer to live like slaves.

    Both the rich man and the poor remain in their bondage through the “fixed pie.” It’s not magic. And it’s not some prosperity gospel. Nothing is worse than being poor in a fixed pie world. I know plenty of poor people (and spend time with them) who do not live as though the fixed pie were true. They are perhaps the most generous people I know. They are the truly rich.

    This is not learned or understood rationally. It is a “noetic” perception – it comes ultimately by faith and experience.

  24. Lazarus says:

    The “fixed pie” mindset is the same thing as saying a thing — wealth and the like — is only what it appears to be, namely limited. It is a “two storey” mindset. The feeding of the five thousand and all the other examples from not only the Scriptures and the lives of the saints proclaim an abundance that addresses the seeming tension of which Mary speaks. In the one storey universe it is not about the “either/or” but the mysterious integrity of a “both/and” that unleashes the infinite creativity of God to provide all things needful. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above…” as the final blessing in the Divine Liturgy says.

  25. Michael Bauman says:

    Understanding and living by the faith that “God provides” is not easy, but indeed liberating. Of course, that does not mean that we can tempt God either.

    I’ve been on both sides of the question and even though I’ve experienced the provision, it is quite easy to doubt when all around you is telling you the opposite.

  26. Lazarus says:

    Michael,

    I sooo agree. The struggle to live of the kingdom in the midst of the broken world and my as yet still very passionate inner life is excruciatingly gradual. Lord continue to have mercy on me as I endeavor to live a life of evermore fulfilled theosis.

  27. Matthew says:

    What a beautiful post! Thanks for sharing it. I really like the idea that we have this movement towards well-being and eternal-being. In the West we call the opposite movement concupiscence; the leaning away from God towards sin which our wounded nature leads us to. Does the East have a term for this? I also appreciated the line near the end saying (essentially) that anyone who doesn’t share the Gospel doesn’t understand it’s beauty. There is a lack of giving the Gospel from the heart because the heart has yet to truly *receive* the Gospel as Good News. It is, in itself, transformative, but often times people don’t allow it to pentrate – and so it doesn’t take root and grow. Thanks again!

  28. Subdcn. Stephen King, Sr. says:

    Your words so enlighten my picture of BEFORE – we’ve all read “In the beginning…”, but at a conference last September I was introduced into the pondering of what was BEFORE the beginning. God was already Three, with this Beauty and Eros shared among the members of the Godhead. Such love, such, joy, such unlimited intimacy without “confusion” of the Three or loss of identity.

    And how could God love His creatures if He knew nothing of relationship before creation? I don’t think that would be possible.

    So, thank you very much for writing this – I’ll be sharing the link broadly.

  29. Mark says:

    Thank you Father for such an illuminating and inspiring article. Like many others, I, too, am compelled to share this link with friends and family for its insight.

  30. Joseph Jude says:

    Father Steve,
    While I agree with you about how people can still experience God’s love and joy. It is also possible at the same time to address larger issues. If one of my patients has a disability, no jobs to hire them or a lack of housing; this very much runs to the heart of the Gospel. Holding people accountable for their actions should not be written off because we as human beings can change our perceptions about life. Both are possible, is not faith without good works a dead faith, a faith that becomes content to live with the status quo; a faith that closes itself in to others. By not holding people accountable, including the Church are we not deceiving ourselves and turning people away from Christ.
    To be realistic, well that a matter of perception; even saints in history have been at odds with each other on how to address these issues. The Resurrection of Christ renews all of creation and not just our inner lives, but the whole world.
    It’s not a either/or issue if it becomes that(Change) it becomes a irrational belief.

  31. fatherstephen says:

    Joseph,
    I think you are not understanding the point of the article or my comments. I’m not talking about a “matter of perception.” I am talking about the true nature of the world and its relationship with God. I’m not certain who you want to “hold accountable” or for what. We can hire political consultants who will tell us that this one or that one is to blame, etc. Both of the parties blame each other in America. Frequently, Church commentary or justice issues is equally naive and driven by various economic theories.

    Frankly “justice” issues don’t really need a God, just a set of rules. It is why I have frequently said that Christianity is not “moral,” i.e. responding to some set of rational rules.

    God in Christ revealed far more than a new set of rules by which to live. What is required is genuine Christian transformation. That begins with me – not with me figuring out what’s wrong with the world and trying to fix the world, frankly. There is a much more complex and long argument supporting what I’m saying.

    Mother Teresa got it and is a good example of what I mean.

  32. Cyranorox says:

    Re: shame. I am not convinced that there is any nontoxic form. This may be a linguistic matter only, but given the stakes, and in light of a couple of suicides in the last few years that seem to be related to shame, I’d like hear if you can better state this distinction. Can you rename and clarify this ‘non-toxic shame’? or are you quite committed to the usage here? if so I’d like some help with understanding it.
    Re: beauty. Beauty is the obverse of Love. When we perceive beauty, we are ipso facto feeling love; when we love, we perceive beauty. This is easily observed with the inanimate and vegetable worlds, though it gets complicated as soon as you consider a person.

  33. fatherstephen says:

    Cyranorox,
    A place to go and think about this is Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy. He describes a range of experiences of the “Holy.” Some are of beauty, others of simple “bigness.” It can be extrapolated. What he does not pay much attention to is the whole aspect of “how do I feel about myself in the face of such things?” That, I am saying, can be described as “non-toxic” shame. The feeling of “there is something wrong with me,” is also descriptive of “I am very small and insignificant.” “I am overwhelmed.” And many such things. There is nothing toxic about these. Toxic shame is rather the forcing of such feelings on someone through physical and emotional violence and similar things, often communicating something that is simply not true. Some toxic shame feelings can be generated by brain disorders such as OCD, etc.

    The distinction between toxic and non-toxic is still useful and accurate, I think.

  34. Dino says:

    Cyranox,
    It must be a linguistic matter to some degree. I think this because to a Greek like me, it is the other way round: I want to say that I am not convinced that there is a toxic form of ‘shame’(!) -the original/traditional notion of shame in Greek (αἰσχύνη) being a thoroughly biblical and healthy one, as seen in Adam, in the Publican, in the Prodigal and in all the Saints. There is of course a toxic feeling that leads to unhealthy self-destruction. Healthy shame on the other hand leads to restoration…But these clarifications have become necessary.
    And shame (the healthy type) does not stop (paradoxically) as we acquire more boldness (its opposite) through God’s Grace, since that Grace itself brings more humility (its relative). CS Lewis describes well this increase of humility as being (in a certain sense) nothing more than a greater awareness of one’s despicable pride. And the more God ‘honours’ me the more (healthy and ‘grateful’) shame I feel…
    It is connected to that key Spiritual ‘double-knowledge’ (St Gregory Palamas expounds on this well) of one’s unworthiness on the one hand, and God’s unconditional and infinite love on the other. The second part of this double-knowledge (ie: God’s love) is ‘crippling’ in the sweetest way. But it leads to the healthiest form of being – what we call “Eucharistic ontology”… Living out the paradisial “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee” in a most intense way.

    Even in simpler emotional language however, would I not call my feeling something like ‘shame’ if, while I carelessly recline cross-legged I suddenly see God, the only One that truly exists, naked on the Cross through love for me who does not know how to love myself other than by perverting him? Would I not be both shamed and thankful beyond all thankfulness for having such a God?

    Also, what psychology has unfortunately termed “toxic-shame” and the way it employs the term ‘shame’ for those special cases (unfortunately confusing that term that has been used in Christianity with a different connotation), is really based on unawareness of God’s love while what we are talking of here is clearly based on the opposite…

  35. Michael Bauman says:

    I was reading a short article yesterday about a form of OCD called scrupulosity. It entails a feeling of “damned to hell no matter what” and generally has a religious context (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu were all mentioned).

    Would you say that toxic shame is not only forced on us but is of a nature that tends to deny any possibility of relief or mercy or a denial of such mercy? “I cannot be forgiven as my sins are too great.”

  36. Dino says:

    test

  37. Dino says:

    Cyranox,
    It must be a linguistic matter to some degree because to a Greek like me, I feel unconvinced that there is a toxic form of the original/traditional notion of shame (αἰσχύνη) which is a thoroughly biblical and healthy one, as seen in Adam, in the Publican, in the Prodigal and in all the Saints.
    It presumes –first and foremost- that God’s mercy and forgiveness is a given that is pursuing us no matter how unworthy we might become…
    There is of course a toxic emotion that leads to morbid self-destruction. Healthy shame, on the other hand, leads to restoration… But these clarifications have become indispensable.
    Also, what psychologists have alas termed “toxic-shame” and the way they engage the term ‘shame’ for those special cases (unfortunately confusing that term that has been used in Christianity with a distinctively different connotation), is categorically based on unawareness of God’s love while what we are talking of here is clearly based on the very opposite…

  38. Dino says:

    shame (the beneficial type) does not stop (paradoxically) as we acquire more boldness (shame’s opposite) through God’s Grace, since that Grace itself produces more humility (healthy shame’s relative). CS Lewis portrays this increase of humility as being (in a certain sense) nothing more than a vaster awareness of one’s despicable pride. And the more God ‘honors’ me, bestows graces on me, the more (healthy and ‘grateful’) “shame” I feel…
    It is linked to that key Spiritual ‘double-knowledge’ (St Gregory Palamas develops this well) of one’s unworthiness on the one hand, and God’s unconditional and infinite love on the other. The second part of this double-knowledge (ie: God’s love) is ‘crippling’ in the sweetest way. But it leads to the healthiest form of being – what we call “Eucharistic ontology”… Living out the paradisial “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee” in a most powerful way.

    Even in simpler emotive language however, would I not depict my feeling as ‘shame’ if, while I carelessly recline cross-legged I suddenly see the Lord, the only One that truly exists, naked on the Cross through love for me who does not know how to love myself other than by perverting him? Would I not be both shamed and thankful beyond all thankfulness for having such a God?

  39. fatherstephen says:

    Michael,
    It can be healed – in some ways its toxicity is related to its intensity. An example is the toxic shame associated with being a victim of abuse. The victim is not even at fault, but can have shame to such a degree as to become a danger to their life. The shame that a murderer might feel, if they came to repentance (it does happen), might come close to toxic shame – though their healing and forgiveness requires actually touching and embracing the shame.

    Dr. Patitsas, whom I quoted in the article, writes about “trauma,” which I think has a shame component. He looks at the “liturgy” of healing trauma. In a previous interview he looked at the Iliad and the Odyssey as “liturgies” (public recitations) that served to heal the trauma of warriors. There have been numerous ways of healing the trauma of warfare (and many other things). There’s more than superstition at work in the ancient sacrificial systems. Only moderns who are so removed from their own lives theorize silly things about such stuff.

    Nothing, I think, is more essential to the human soul than addressing shame in all of its forms. The story of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery is perhaps the most profound example I can think of. He utterly removes her shame. Utterly. “Then neither do I.” Wow.

  40. Dino says:

    Shame (the beneficial type) does not stop (paradoxically) as we acquire more boldness (shame’s opposite) through God’s Grace, since that Grace itself produces more humility (shame’s relative). CS Lewis portrays this increase of humility as being (in a certain sense) nothing more than a vaster awareness of one’s despicable pride. And the more God ‘honors’ me, the more (healthy and ‘grateful’) “shame” I feel…
    It is linked to that key Spiritual ‘double-knowledge’ (St Gregory Palamas develops this well) of one’s unworthiness on the one hand, and God’s unconditional and infinite love on the other. The second part of this double-knowledge (ie: God’s love) is ‘crippling’ in the sweetest way. But it leads to the healthiest form of being – what we call “Eucharistic ontology”… Living out the paradisial “Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee” in a most powerful way.

  41. Yannis says:

    Dino, I too regret the apparent hijacking of the word by modern psychological parlance. It may have become a technical term among practitioners, but such usage seeps out into the language, particularly in a “psychologized” culture. The problem then becomes that the word is lost to those who would talk about the traditional concept. Conversely, the traditional concept becomes lost itself, having been detached from its name. There is almost something “new-speaky”/diabolical about this. Now one can be shameless and think that they are being mentally healthy.

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