Who’s To Blame?


I frequently buy used books (indeed with the used books feature on Amazon, I often can only afford to buy used books). You try to get a good, clean copy, but occasionally they come with marginal comments.  My volume of St. Silouan the Athonite is used, and has a number of marginal comments from my anonymous predecessor.  Sometimes the comments themselves are interesting.

Reading today, I ran across marginal comments that said: “Nonsense…This is plenty enough guilt…blah, blah, nonsense.”

That will definitely make you want to stop and read. What on earth could Fr. Sophrony have written that got such a rise out of a reader?

The section was entitled, “On the Difference between Christian Love and the Justice of Men.”

I’ll quote some of the offending sections:

…What sense is there in enjoying only the pleasurable side of love? Indeed, it is only in willingly taking upon oneself the loved one’s guilt and burdens that love attains its multifold perfection.

Many of us cannot, or do not want to, accept and suffer of our own free will the consequences of Adam’s original sin. ‘Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit but what has that to do with me?’ we protest. ‘I am ready to answer for my own sins but certainly not for the sins of others.’ And we do not realise that in reacting thus we are repeating in ourselves the sin of our forefather Adam, making it our own personal sin, leading to our own personal fall. Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife; and by so doing he destroyed the unity of Man and his communion with God. So, each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin and likewise shattering the unity of Man. The Lord questioned Adam before Eve, and we must suppose that if Adam, instead of justifying himself, had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different, just as they will alter now if we in our day assume the burden of the transgressions of our fellow man.

For those Orthodox who have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “original sin,” be at peace. This is not an endorsement of that particular doctrine. Instead it is the common teaching of the Church that, as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “Each man is responsible for the sins of all men.”

This is only so because we are one humanity. Indeed it is a common teaching that we cannot pray for the world if we are unwilling to take the sins of the world upon ourself. Christ does precisely that. If we are to pray as He prays, then we must pray for all as though we are all. We cannot pray for our enemy as though he were somehow other than ourselves, guilty and condemned while we stand justified and condemning.

I understand the provocation of my predecessor and the caustic remarks (made only to oneself) in the margin of the book. It is a hard teaching. But this is the full revelation of love. I cannot condemn because I do not see you as somehow different from me.

As Fr. Sophrony goes on to say:

We can all find ways of vindicating ourselves on all occasions but if we really examine our hearts we shall see that in justifying ourselves we are not guileless. Man justifies himself, firstly, because he does not want to acknowledge that he is even partially to blame for the evil in the world, and, secondly, because he does not realise that he is endowed with godlike freedom. He sees himself as merely part of the world’s phenomena, a thing of this world, and, as such, dependent on the world. There is a considerable element of bondage in this, and self-justification, therefore, is a slavish business unworthy of a son of God. I saw no tendency towards self-justification in the Staretz. But it is strange how to many people this taking the blame for the wrong-doing of others, and asking for forgiveness, savours of subjection – so vast the distinction in outlook between the sons of the Spirit of Christ and non-spiritual people. The latter cannot believe it possible to feel all humanity as a single whole to be incorporated in the personal existence of every man. Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.

If you listen to the words of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, then you hear the constant refrain that reveals that we are not only no different than the great sinners within Scripture – we are worse. Is this just pious language? Do we utter pious nonsense when each Sunday we say “Thou camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first?”

I do not know if I would choose to use the language of guilt, with all of its forensic implications, but ontologically, on the level of my being and existence, I know that I am responsible for the sins of all.

As one modern monk once said to me, “The contemplative need look no further than his own heart to see the source of all violence in the world.”

Who’s to blame? I am.

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.





12 responses to “Who’s To Blame?”

  1. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    A wonderful selection.

    This is a difficult topic. Perhaps it is easier to understand negatively, not positively, so speak. We are guilty for all because we have done nothing to set the world aright. It’s not a question of what I’ve done, but what I haven’t done. Meat spoils when it lacks salt.

    I believe the recently reposed Elder Paisios spoke to this effect. If only I was a better person, perhaps God would listen to my prayers. If only I was a better person, perhaps I could make a difference in the lives of my fellows. What sorts of lives would they live if only they could see the Love of Christ in me? But I have failed them.

    Psalm 51 also has counsel to this effect. “Create in me a clean heart, o God . . . Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your Ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”

  2. Alyssa Avatar

    My first Forgiveness Sunday…and I can see some of this understanding of responsibility, but wow! this is a radically different teaching from my generic, interdenominational protestant training. No comments on content. I am no where near qualified.

  3. […] FATHER STEPHEN– Who’s To Blame? … […]

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar

    No. This is about not figuring where I fit in all this, but admitting that I am a part of all of this. All of this, is part of my own doing. Whether I knew it or not, I was part of this. So it is me I must beg forgiveness for – not someone else. This is the radical teaching of the faith.

  5. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    Fr. Stephen, I live in St. Cloud, Minnesota, an hour north of the Cathedral where you spoke yesterday; attending Holy Myrrhbearers here — Fr. Nathan Kroll is our pastor. I have been reading your blog for several months now, as a “lurker”? : )) My friend Michael Bauman introduced me to your blog and I have sent entries of yours off to all four corners of the globe; I just love how you see the universe and how you write about it.

    I was so looking forward to meeting you last night.

    However, the snowfall and a few other things prevented us from coming down (RATS!), so I hit your blog this morning hoping for a transcription of what you had to say… : ))

    Any chance you’d tell us?

    In XC,
    Ronda Sophia

  6. Theron Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

    This is a worthy meditation for Lent. Upon becoming Orthodox this is something I struggled with for years. How can I really say that I am “the chief of sinners”? Did Paul really believe it?

    I think you hit upon the key to understanding it and to be able to honestly admit it. One other source that helped me understand this was Russian philosopher IM Andreyev. He wrote a short essay entitled Weep! that addresses this issue.

    Here’s the link: http://swordinfire.blogspot.com/2006/04/weep.html

    It seems to me that we as humans are “one in essence” with each other, and therefore my actions, thoughts, attitudes, feeling, etc. contributes to the overall sin or righteousness of the human condition. In this sense I am responsible for all evil I see, and must ask forgiveness. Also, I am the only one I know, and I know how wicked my heart can be. Who’s to say it’s not the most wicked heart?

    Hopefully, I am starting to get it.

    Chief of sinners,


  7. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    What amazes me is that the Orhtodox faith teaches this AND joy at the same time.

    Struggling as I do to meditate on being the chiefest of sinners (I confess sometimes my own spiritual pride has no trouble declaring myself #1 even in sin), I also find myself struggling with the “joy” part of the sober joy the Fathers insist is the norm for the believer. Fr. Alexander Shcmemann, of blessed memory, declared that the greatest charge you can make against a Christian is that he has no joy.

    The paradox of humbly seeing myself as authentically part of the “one humanity” along with all the responsibility that entails, and joyfully invited to the “table of the Lord” all the while crying out for mercy is just the kind of theological depth necessary to both pull me down from the pillar of self-importance and pull me out of the “pit of despair.”

    I am the chiefest of sinners and I am the beloved of the Lord. No wonder the Church calls me to hold these truths in the midst of the Eucharistic Assembly. These truths are simply too large for me, alone.

    Thnak you, father. I needed this today.


  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Theron, thanks for the link. I think that much of this is about no longer viewer ourselves in purely individualistic terms, but that our common life is closer to our true life. It is this that makes it possible for us to be One with Christ. We have been given the capacity for a true communion with others and with God – something that would be purely impossible if we only existed as individuals.

    Much of certain strains of protestant theology, influenced greatly by American culture, has overly emphasized individual responsibility and choice, etc. It finally renders us deeply alienated from God and others because our hearts yearn to be one. “God has purposed to gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul says this in Ephesians (first chapter I think). I’m writing from a hotel room in Chicago where the travel problems of the storm have stranded me. Thanks be to God for your prayers and for all things!

  9. Mark Avatar

    Given the understandable Orthodox desire to avoid western Augustinian construals of “original guilt,” I wonder how else this might be phrased to capture the full import of St Silouan (and Fr Sophrony’s) teaching…

    I believe it’s in Fr Thomas Hopko’s talk on Ancestral Sin that he notes the difficulty of defining culpability – only God knows that of which we are actually guilty. And yet, guilty or not, our lives are damaged, distorted, and broken by countless sins that have accumulated through the ages – whether our own or whomever’s. It’s not so much a matter of “defining culpability” – as though that would solve anything – but rather of “how we deal with the hand we’ve been dealt.” (I believe that was one of Fr Alexander Schmemann’s favorite phrases). We each examine our conscience in preparation for confession, realizing just how damaged we are, how complicit we are in our own sins and those of others, how much violence and sickness there is churning within us… Upon such honest examination, each of us is the “chief” sinner, each of us must deal with the blame/damage/guilt/infection of the world that is within us and which is only healed in Christ…

    There is, in St Silouan’s call to bear the burden of another’s transgression, an echo of St Paul’s exhortation to bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. Throughout the Christian life, we learn to bear that burden and weep for the sins of the world, coming to know that in Him we need not be crushed, for by grace, the burden is light.

    Does that make sense?

    And please know that you’re in our prayers for a safe return home!

  10. dilys Avatar

    Struggling toward this, I can at least be certain that when the “sin” of, say, X, disturbs me, I cannot be certain but what –I have sinned against A,
    –who, confused and troubled by my sin, sinned against B,
    –who, confused and troubled…all the way to X, whom I now am tempted to judge because his sin troubles me.

    And who was it who reported when he sees a brother sin, he says, only, that he himself will likely sin in a moment. Finding it only too true, here.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that’s part of it. The interconnectedness of everything and everyone is so much more true than any of us know or guess – God alone knows – but the connection is there. It is also true for the power of a single good thing done.

    Actually, I don’t think St. Silouan or Fr. Sophrony either one had any particularly awareness or issue with some Augustinian language that some of us are so sensitive to these days and said guilt where I might say something else. But in the end it doesn’t matter much. It’s not guilt that I bear before God – it’s brokenness and sin, and by any other name it’s still just that.

    But I am also united to Christ. He is my righteousness. He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God. And this is my hope and always my constant joy. That even in sin, I cannot separate myself from Him. He has entered the lowermost hell, and I cannot and need not hide from Him there.

  12. […] I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then Fr. Stephen Freeman had a wonderful post on his website, Glory to God for All Things called “Who’s to Blame”. The whole thing is awesome, his posts usually are, but […]

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