What Does It All Mean? An Apology

Yesterday’s post, “What Does It All Mean?” was deleted this morning. I apologize to those whose comments were lost. I will attempt to recreate the article at a later date and take up the discussion. Thank you for your patience with my blogging.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





13 responses to “What Does It All Mean? An Apology”

  1. Tia Avatar

    I’m sorry to see that. I thought it was an excellent reminder to not worship a method, and to be authentic, deliberate, and honest in word and deed. I’m so new to Orthodoxy but it seems to be a trait across humanity that we sometimes fall into the habit of going through motions, of resting on methods we find satisfying to our flesh, of even elevating those methods so high that we don’t have to honestly admit to our reflection in the mirror each day that we don’t really agree anymore with what we say or do. Lots of times we (as humans) seem to rather prefer dishonesty with oneself over confrontation, which can oh so uncomfortable a process.

    I hope you do recreate the article and continue the thought. Especially if I’m off-base from what you were trying to communicate! 🙂

  2. t19elves Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, we have been able to find the text of your post. It can still be found in Bloglines. If you would send us your e-mail address, we can send it to you. We may be able to recover the comments too.

    elfgirl (who helps out Kendall Harmon with Titusonenine)

    email hidden; JavaScript is required

  3. t19elves Avatar

    Ah, no luck on the comments apparently. Those appear to have vanished. But here is the text just in case we are offline when you try to e-mail us:


    What Does It All Mean?

    By fatherstephen on Orthodoxy

    Some years ago, indeed, in the mid- 1970’s, I attended an Episcopal seminary for the purpose of studying for Holy Orders. I was successful in that sense, having been ordained an Episcopal Deacon and Priest in 1980 and 1981, respectively.

    The story of my conversion to Orthodoxy is long, not a little complicated, and personal on a level that makes it hard to share with others. That event did not occur formally in 1998. Having said all that, it is not the subject of this posting. Instead, something that occurred during those seminary years is.

    One of my professors, whom I shall not name, was a great “Anglo-Catholic.” At the time, we meant by that he was very interested in ritual and his ritual tended to be more like Old Rome and less like the the latest new thing. He was fastidious about crumbs at the altar and the like, and very demanding over how things should be done when he was serving the “Mass.”

    That was all well and good. I tended to like for those whom I studied under to be “high church,” or “Anglo-Catholic.” I tended to like the ritual and preferred that things be done that way rather than some other.

    To my great surprise one day, as we were translating a passage from one of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we ran across the phrase, “The Body and Blood of God,” with regard to the Eucharist. I thought nothing of it. It seemed clear enough to me, and in agreement with both the New Testament and later patristic writings.

    To my surprise the professor in question “choked” on the phrase. He disliked it immensely. To the best I could ascertain he was something of an Arian, that is, he did not believe that Christ was truly God. I remember asking him, “How about very God of very God?” Since that was what the Creed required of us at every Mass. I was given a lot of theological song and dance, but no “Christ is very God of very God.”The larger question for me was, “What does it all mean?” What does it mean when someone uses the actions and ritual of High Anglicanism while believing something like Unitarianism?

    Indeed, it became a common experience for me to find other Episcopal priests who were willing to “go to the mat” with their vestries over fairly fine points such as which way the priest faced when he celebrated the Eucharist, while at the same time urging tolerance and openness on questions of doctrinal orthodoxy and personal morality.

    And this it seems to me, is where the question of the heart becomes central. “What does it all mean?” What does a priest/minister, etc., mean when they appear in very traditional dress, use very traditional actions, say very traditional words, and yet mean something completely different?

    I had opportunity this weekend to attend (as part of a wedding) a traditional High Anglican Mass. I assumed, for a variety of reasons, that it meant what it said and said what it meant. But this is an act of generosity on my part, a kindness to a kinsman.

    But what does it actually mean? If someone is in fact in communion with people who do very similar looking things and yet mean something quite different – what does it mean?

    What is the human heart to do?

    For me, those days became solipsistic madness. The service only meant what I said it meant. That’s interesting, but it is not the same thing as being a traditional Christian.

    In an Orthodox setting, the question: “What does it mean?” is answered simply: “exactly what it says.” If we say, “And make this bread the body of Thy Christ,” then we mean for the bread to become the body of Christ, not a theory or an argument.

    If we say we are uniting ourselves with Christ, then we are uniting ourselves with Christ.

    Christ himself told us, “Let your yay be yay and your nay be nay” (Matthew 5:37). Whatever one may think of ritual, in Orthodoxy, it is never there to hide or mask what is going on. It is never there to give the impression of one century while meaning something quite different.

    I don’t know that I have an argument between the East and the West. But I do between the integrity of word and action. If you mean it do it. If you don’t mean it – don’t do it.

    For the same reason I’ve told countless catechumens, “This is why we kiss icons.” And I’ve immediately added, “If you think kissing an icon is idolatry, then for God’s sake, don’t kiss it.” Our culture has become all too comfortable with doing things we do not mean. Cultures before us took their actions quite seriously. Christians were willing to be torn apart by lions rather than burn a pinch of incense before the image of an Emperor whom they believed to be no God.

    It’s worth dying to get it right. And if we get it wrong, our hearts will indeed be confused to death.

    That our inmost being and our outer being should mean the same thing in crucial. Anything less is traditionally known as hypocrisy. Perhaps I only mean to say that there is plenty of hypocrisy in our world. If so, then it’s still worth noting.

    Of course, the greatest danger of all, and the most common, is that I said these things and meant what the actions and words said, but then I failed to do them. This the inescapable sin of hyporcrisy that always dogs us. But it seems to me to be pernicious in the extreme if we begin to train our hearts to become accustomend to such madness. Better to be quiet.

  4. Alyssa Avatar

    Yay! for elfgirl!

  5. Mark Avatar

    This is really remarkable.

    Are there any dwarves and hobbits to assist the elves in the fellowship of the blog? 😉

    Regarding the post itself and the comments, I resonated with one comment in particular that made some reference to trusting the words of the traditional Anglican liturgy, even when those who spoke them (or those who were trying to change them) didn’t believe or live up to them. As a protestant, I championed that kind of Barthian (or New Critical?) trust in the power of text/word, regardless of the reader’s engagement/belief/presupposition.

    I’ve come to believe that I was playing a kind of mind-game that was profoundly damaging. Slowly, I’ve come to believe that the powerful text is properly situated in a believing (albeit sinful) community that receives the text in faith and opens itself to being convicted and transfigured in the mystery of engagement.

    I realize that may sound a bit po-mo, but really, I think it’s actually “pre-mo,” i.e. patristic. There was no place to go but Orthodoxy; not because of my great faith, but rather because I needed to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that would hold me accountable along the way…

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is not fair to those with a confused belief to be called hypocrites. Hypocrisy requires a lot more intent than simply failure to be consistent or having conflicting belief systems. Hypocrisy is the act of firmly believing in something while holding yourself out as believing in something else. Some people are quite honest that they do not believe the teaching of the Church, that it needs to be changed. These are not hypocrites either. They are the wolves in sheep’s clothing of which the Scripture warns us.

    Since many people, even in the Orthodox Church, lead unexamined lives not really knowing their own beliefs these wolves have a fertile hunting ground. People with divided minds can be quite destructive to a community. During the Baptismal service we reject all heresy, ancient and modern, before being Baptized. That is a commitment on our part to accept the teaching of the Church rather than accepting the teaching of the world and man’s mind. It is part of uniting ourselves with Christ. I was fortunate to not have had a prior authentic Baptism before coming to the Church. Considering where I was coming from, it was critical for me to make the commitment to the truth of the Churches teaching. Like all such commitments, it requires continuing work on our part as we grow in understanding and self-knowledge.

    When an organization not only allows, but encourages drastically divergent belief systems within itself, how does one know with whom one is communing? If we are going to be Christian, we have to believe in a Christian manner. Right belief consistently applied, leads to right action in the world, and right communion in the Kingdom. It is the bridge that creates synergy between God and us. Belief is not a static set of laws but it is a loving submission of our mind and heart to God’s love. We all need to be on guard against uncritically accepting adaptation to the world. We all have some element of heretical belief in us. To fully accept that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man is not easy. How can that be? Only in obedience to its truth does understanding begin.

    What Mark is talking about is the act of faith, “Let it be done unto me according to your Word” that allows the Incarnation in us and in the community. Merely speaking the Word is not enough.

  7. Mark Avatar

    “Let it be with me according to your Word…”

    The perfect phrase, Michael. Thanks. Especially on this, one of the feasts of our Lady.

    Perhaps we could also say, “merely hearing is not enough,” inasmuch as so many of us have ears and do not hear. The seed of the Word is often cast upon soil that is not receptive. I know that the stony ground of my heart needs to be broken and tilled with some frequency.

  8. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    This is well said, Michael. I recall when my family and I were being Chrismated, my six-year-old daughter (now 15), read and spoke in a clear voice: “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.”

    By the time she finished, I was certainly weeping, as were many others around me. One of the reasons I think we wept, was the purity of her heart in what she was saying. I knew her, and I knew she meant it with all she could bring of her six years. I said the same words, and I meant them, but I know I brought an old heart, frequently crusted over and hardened.

    My thanks to elfgirl – and in token of that I will let this post stand as she restored it to us. Besides, it seems more interesting this way. I am sorry for the responses (including my own) that were lost.

  9. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    Another blog reading friend recovered the comments. I am posting them here in the form recovered:

    12:26 AM (9 hours ago)
    Comment on What Does It All Mean? by Benjamin
    from Comments for Glory to God for All Things

    For the same reason I’ve told countless catechumens, “This is why we kiss icons.” And I’ve immediately added, “If you think kissing an icon is idolatry, then for God’s sake, don’t kiss it.”


    I really appreciated this thought, Father. At one point along my journey from an Evangelical background to Orthodoxy I confessed to my parish priest that with certain Marian hymns I had quite a difficulty in singing along with, as I felt a bit “jealous” that the language should be used only of Christ. He informed me that I needn’t feel required to fake any level of comfort with the texts, and that spiritual honesty was of a high value in this case. These concerns have largely passed and his guidance was a large part of this.


    12:26 AM (9 hours ago)
    Comment on What Does It All Mean? by Roland
    from Comments for Glory to God for All Things

    At the wedding on Saturday, we meant everything we said. But, alas, the same cannot be said of all who claim the label “Anglo-Catholic.” Too many Episcopalians see Anglo-Catholicism as nothing more than a “worship style.”

    Our last rector used to say, “Anglo-Catholicism has changed the face of Anglicanism, but not its heart.” Our bishops no longer persecute us for using candles, vestments, and incense. But that does not mean they have agreed to everything we mean by these liturgical usages. OTOH . . .

    You asked, “If someone is in fact in communion with people who do very similar looking things and yet mean something quite different – what does it mean?” This has never really bothered me. The words and actions mean what they mean, despite the disbelief or misunderstanding of those who might practice or say them. Truth remains true, even when repeated by a fool.

    And, on some level, we are all fools in the liturgy, doing and saying true things beyond our full comprehension. That is why there is value in sticking to the scripts bequeathed to us by the Church, even when our intention and understanding are inadequate. We grow into truth through the liturgy.

    On some level, Episcopalian revisionists know this. That’s why they are always tinkering with even the most up-to-date liturgical texts and rubrics. What they are doing in church in the 21st century looks less and less like what you saw on Saturday.


    12:26 AM (9 hours ago)
    Comment on What Does It All Mean? by Dixie
    from Comments for Glory to God for All Things

    I have walked a similar path but rather a mirror image of it where the doctrine proclaimed was to be taken seriously but the practice denied the doctrine. Regardless from which angle one is exposed to such disparity…it does come down to this:

    What is the human heart to do?

    Thank goodness for the Church. If it had not been for Orthodoxy, I fear I would have given up completely.

    Father, you blog is just one gem after another. Thank you for what you do here.


    12:26 AM (9 hours ago)
    Comment on What Does It All Mean? by Fatherstephen
    from Comments for Glory to God for All Things


    Thanks for the reply. I will have to say, that of the years I was an Anglican I always meant what I said. Being in communion with those who do not mean what they say did trouble me and would trouble me still, not that Orthodoxy is without all kinds of sin, and myself the chief of sinners (including not meaning with anything like the fullness I should the words I speak). But when words “officially” cease to mean what they actually say is troublesome – increasingly troublesome. Some of this may have been inherent in the very beginnings of Anglicanism in which Cranmer seems to have written if not vaguely, then certainly in a way that moderns would call “multivalent.” Sometimes it’s not so clear what he means, and it seems to have been on purpose. Of course, people were killed for meaning the wrong thing in those days.

    But our souls are dying for meaning too little today. I enjoyed the richness of the words last Saturday, and certainly have no doubt about the “validity” of my neice’s wedding or any such silliness as that. I assume that all the men who were serving were good men (better than me, no doubt).

    But the heart is a very tricky thing. I know that I frequently perjured myself in my Anglican days (now I’ve passed into confession) and often enough did it for very weak reasons. It’s why I’ve written little about my conversion. It was not the act of a brave man taking a brave stand, but of a very sinful man repenting. I was not sinful because I was an Anglican – I was just sinful and getting well paid for it. The sin was on me, though.

  10. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I hope you will not mind if an Evangelical stranger joins the conversation with a long post. I recently stumbled across your blog, and I greatly appreciate your insight into Christian doctrine and its application to individual and corporate life in Christ. I especially enjoyed your post “What does it all mean,” and I wonder if one might helpfully rephrase the question as, “Do I have faith?”

    Hypocrisy, the error you warn us against, is the opposite of faith or, more specifically, it is unbelief dressed in the garb of faith. The most readily identifiable hypocrites of history are the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Jesus’ time (readily identifiable because our Lord Himself identified them). Friends who know Greek tell me that the word hypocrite means literally behind the mask, the position of an actor. An actor, of course, is a man giving the appearance of being someone or something other than what he really is.

    Wherein did the Pharisees’ hypocrisy consist? As we know, they gave the appearance of being holy men through their deep reverence for and fastidious obedience to the Law of Moses. The NT records their ceremonial washings, their donning of wide phylacteries, their observance of the Sabbath, their observance of the law of the tithe, even to the point of tithing their garden herbs. How could men who practiced such diligent obedience to the Law be hypocrites?

    God gave Moses the Law at Mt. Sinai for the Israelites. He gave it, however, not as an end in itself but as a revelation of Himself and a call to love and imitate Himself. The Law was, if you will allow me a clumsy attempt to borrow the Orthodox term, an icon of God’s nature, a window by which the Israelites might glimpse something of His glory. The Law, for instance, demands exclusive worship of God because God is one. It forbids graven images because He is invisible. It forbids murder because He is immortal. It forbids adultery because He is faithful. It forbids false witness because He is the faithful and true witness.

    The Pharisees, loving neither God nor the truth, happily mistook the icon for the original. They treated the Law not as a window but an oil painting, revealing nothing beyond itself. The words on the page became not an icon but an idol to them, and like all idols it soon came to bear the image of its creators – fallen, selfish men who wanted to indulge their sinful natures fully while still enjoying all the power and privilege that their society granted to men with a reputation for holiness. For instance an important purpose of the OT law of the tithe was to provide for poor widows. Our Lord Jesus reports, however, that the Pharisees diligently gave the temple a tenth of their garden herbs while “swallowing widows’ houses whole” (foreclosing their mortgages, I take it). The Pharisees happily observed the form of that law, which cost them nothing, while enriching themselves at the expense of the very people to whom God desired to show mercy. The Lord gives other examples of how the Pharisees “strained at gnats while swallowing camels whole,” always indulging their own greed while practicing an empty form of external obedience.

    This is why our Lord says His disciples must surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees in order to enter the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees were clean on the outside (actors) but corrupt within. The sons of the Kingdom are to be clean from the inside out, being the same on the inside as on the outside (which is, I think, what you say in your post, Fr. Stephen). Our Lord goes on, in the Sermon on the Mount, to explain what this looks like: avoiding not only murder but unjust anger, avoiding not only adultery but lust, being faithful in marriage for life (rather than following the correct divorce legalities), loving not only friends but enemies, praying, giving, and fasting in secret, storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, seeking the Kingdom of God before even food and clothing. This is the life of faith, desirable to those who “believe God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him,” nonsensical and contemptible to those who believe only in the rewards this world offers.

    The Pharisees, hearing Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, yet finding in Him no resemblance to their idol, declared Jesus an imposter and a blasphemer and had Him crucified. Perhaps it is not astonishing to find a professor with great concern about form and ceremony who chokes on the words “very God of very God.”

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I supppose my alarm was that the professor was a priest.

    But inside matching the outside is certainly a good example. St. Theophan, when asked why so many people (here it is Orthodox speaking to Orthodox about the Orthodox) go to Church and do all the things that piety demands and yet seem to get angrier and more subject to the passions with time, St. Theophan, to repeat, gave this simple answer: “They do not want God.”

    We frequently want many things in religion. God is all too often what we do not want. And it is God alone we should want.

  12. William Avatar

    Thank you Father for this incredibly insightful entry.

    I started as a Southern Baptist but eventually found myself worshipping in the Lutheran tradition (it’s where my wife was comfortable). I found the form of the Lutheran liturgy, the ritual of it, to be very appealing. Even though for all theological purposes I was still a Baptist it was the solemnity, the sense of holiness in worship that attracted me, or at least that’s what I thought it was. I did not mean, or even understand, the words I was repeating and I felt that most everyone else was doing the same.

    Now, as an Orthodox Christian, I see that I was seeking a place where the words had meaning. That the Eucharist really was the blood and body of Christ and as such should be treated with absolute reverence, not passed around the congregation in a common vessel.

    It seems to me now that the resolution of the dichotomy between word and meaning, between action and meaning is possible. I try to mean, to believe, to fully accept the words of the Divine Liturgy, but I do not, in the larger sense understand many of the things I/we say.

    For instance, the first sentence of The Creed states, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.” We can believe it, we can mean it, but can we really understand how God is the maker of all things visible and invisible? Fr. Schmemann addresses a similar issue in “Of Water and the Spirit” when he is talking about infant baptism. There he says (and I am paraphrasing) that the Orthodox practice infant baptism even though the child is too young to “understand” because understanding is a fruit of the act, not a prerequisite for it. Perhaps this is simply the true meaning of faith.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is always something that transcends our best attempts at meaning. The answer to the question, “What is a tree?” Is always a tree, not talk about a tree. The answer in the Liturgy, is, finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, for which there can ultimately be no words. In this sense there is a disconnect. But this is a disconnect because of the greatness of something, and not a disconnect of deceit or prevarication and the like.

    I like to say the Creed very slowly in my daily prayers, taking time with many of the words, and letting them carry me away – it is a good exercise. Not many words in daily prayers, but a few words with careful attention.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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