Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid”

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart


The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.


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.


20 responses to “Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid””

  1. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria

    So glad to see you covering this issue father. One of the biggest struggles I have had in approaching the EO Church is the echo of the Christian Anarchists in my ear pointing out the abuse of power in the world by the established Church. It is refreshing to see this teaching found within the fullness of the faith without having to look outside. The CA’s call it being “downwardly mobile” and I kind of like that phrase.

  2. T Avatar

    It is utterly mind-blowing to me that during my short time as a catechumen thus far in the Orthodox Church, that I am FINALLY learning what humility is, and that this humility is actually so central to the life of Christ (and ours shared in it)! Who would have thought such a thing?! I NEVER got this in my PCA church. Never.

  3. T Avatar

    The Protestant doctrines are so worried about “justifying” a sinner that they completely forget about suffering and humility. If there is any talk of humility, it has nothing to do with our walk or life, and is misused to show how un-legalistic we are and how leisurely we can wink at sin.

  4. T Avatar

    Sorry, one more comment (or, question)-and you can ignore my first two comments-where is that photo from?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    The Photo is of 12th century Norman Church down the road from St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex. The Monastery has use of the Church and has Sunday liturgies there. Also, this teaching in contemporary publications is probably best found in the books by either Elder Sophrony or Archimandrite Zacharias – though I see it everywhere I read. It’s just very well collected and commented on in those places. I teach it as a central part of catechumenate, I’m not certain how well taught it is everywhere. There is so much to teach! but if you are open to the word on humility, then you’ll find it in abundance.

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  8. Sibyl Avatar

    What or who are Christian Anarchists?

  9. T Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Ah that is great! Perhaps sometime I will be able to visit that Monastery. And let me clarify my first post. When I typed, “I am FINALLY learning what humility is,” that was to say that I am finally learning what humility is through my reading of “Saint Silouan,” that book by Father Sophrony (I’m reading the hardback version, the one with the yellow sleeve and grey binding). Our church carried “Enlargement of the Heart” and I believe it sold out within days of Matushka Stacy getting them in the mail (people apparently love the book!). My first introduction to the power of “St. Silouan” was in an interview with the awesome Archimandrite Zacharias on the Illumined Heart podcast. I will just say that there was a power in Fr. Zacharias’ voice that I had never experienced before. It was then clear to me that this whole tradition of teaching that had been passed down from Silouan to Sophrony to Zacharias was something very Grace-filled, and that the change that occurs in the Saints is very real and tangible and palpable.

    It was all very good.

    So fear not, Fr. Stephen, I am reading St. Silouan. I am in good hands!

  10. T Avatar

    (and I will definitely check out that link you posted, as well)

  11. Leroy Glinchy Avatar
    Leroy Glinchy

    I feel that the next step is to find the place beyond high and low. To discover what remains when all pyramids disappear. Enjoy the ride.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would have to say that your comment seems just based on pure theory. The descent of Christ in hell and his bearing the sins of all – that sense of an “inverted pyramid” is not theory, but an existential reality known through Christ and His Holy Church. “When all pyramids disappear” indeed the do in Christ. But nothing happens in our lives until we know Him. And we finally do not know Christ in His fullness until we know Him in His emptiness as well. That is a long journey.

  13. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria


    In a nutshell they are Christians who reject all marriages between Christ’s body and the powers of this world. They tend to believe that the Church was compromised when it was legalized and supported by imperial power. It is interesting that many of the Desert Fathers seemed to have sense that the Church was being compromised by the world at this stage as well. Usually ChristianAnarchists point out that early Christians did not use violence and did not serve in the military (this is disputable). Examples of CA’s would be Tolstoy or Dorothy Day although some CA’s would question Tolstoy’s rejection of orthodox beliefs. Many CA’s are also against any kind of hierarchy within the church itself.

    I must make clear that I don’t agree fully with the CA’s, but I think some of their criticism is legitimate. I would argue that the fullness of the Orthodox Church contains elements from within that can work to criticize abuses. I point out to many CA’s, for instance, that St. John Chrysostom stayed within the communion of the Church even while he stood up against the corruption he saw within it.

  14. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria

    This site has a FAQ section that provides a pretty good description of CA.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    My Archbishop, DMITRI, of Dallas and the South, when asked about the notion of a State Church, stated (during his last visit to my parish), “On the whole, the Orthodox experience has been that it has never worked out.” I thought he put it delicately but well.

  16. The Scylding Avatar

    One cannot overstress the issue of humility. I now that in my own life, the desire for prominence, especially theologically, has been very damaging. In my own blog writings, I find it a constant struggle – yet a worthwhile one. But it is also important to note that it is good if this remains a largely unconscious struggle: allow me to explain. Efforts to be MORE humble has the opposite affect. But to develop a habit of living straightforwardly, without pretension or overt consideration as to one’s image, and to do what God gives one to do, is the better way.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well put. I think Chesterton once said something like “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats lentils on principle.”

  18. T Avatar


  19. Isaac of Syria Avatar
    Isaac of Syria

    Fr. Steven,

    It is always refreshing to read or hear words like that from within the Church.

  20. Sibyl Avatar

    Isaac of Syria, Fr. Stephen, everyone,

    Thank you all fpr your kind and generous answers. I have loved reading this most edifying blog – both the teachings and the comments.

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