The Unexplored Landscape

Like the Kingdom of God itself, the landscape of the human heart (considered spiritually) remains largely unchartered territory and beyond the easy access of most people. Our culture uses the language of “heart” quite easily, but means by it something emotional, something psychological and not at all in the sense it is used in either Scripture or the Fathers. Such confusion between words can easily lead to someone thinking they know what they do not know. The heart is not easily reached nor described and does not come readily available to one and all. Only the gift of grace opens its reality to us.

I have written fairly extensively on the “two-storey universe” referring to imagery that runs throughout much popular Christian thought. It is a use of imagery that seeks to describe the “flatness” and “banality” of the modern world in which we live. We are the inheritors of a rich spiritual vocabulary. But that same vocabulary, transferred into the landscape of the two-storey universe is cheapened and rendered largely inert – describing human experiences that are little different than those generated by a good movie.

In using the metaphor of a “one-storey universe” I have sought to collapse our language and our spiritual experience so that we no longer “outsource” the Kingdom of God and realize that the realities described by the Scriptures and the great giants of the Christian spiritual life are not speaking of a reality removed from us, but of a reality from which we have largely removed ourselves.

The experience of a St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Seraphim of Sarov, or contemporaries such as St. Silouan or the Elder Sophrony, did not happen on a separate plane of human experience. They belong to the landscape of the human heart, indwelled by God. Saints do not belong to a separate species, but point to the true nature of the species to which we belong. They bear witness of what it means to be “fully human.”

It is thus that the Elder Sophrony or his disciples such as Archimandrite Zacharias speak of the difference of the merely psychological versus the truly spiritual and the need for us move beyond one and to enter the other. These are not light matters, nor even matters that are easily accomplished.

The life of asceticism in which fasting and prayer, radical self-disclosure and honesty, with the attending humility (and occasional humiliation) are all part of the “violent” life of those who seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt. 11:12). The “spiritual” language that has accompanied various modern charismatic and pentecostal movements have generally served to confuse people and make them believe that they have arrived at something that is well beyond their ken. To a degree, the conversation about such things is one between the wisdom of classical, Orthodox experience, honed over two thousand years, and a recent phenomenon, barely 100 years old, which has come into existence within one of the most self-absorbed cultures ever known on earth.

It is a conversation that agrees on the validity of human knowledge of God – that God became man that we might truly know God in a manner that is real, existential, and fully part of our experience – and not simply to give us doctrinal formulas for the entertainment of professional theologians. As such, modern movements share many similar concerns with Orthodoxy when it comes to the modern world. But it is a serious mistake to take these modern movements and equate them with some Biblical prophecy that negates the faithful life of Christians throughout the centuries.

My own experience, some thirty-some-odd years ago within the Charismatic movement, taught me that we were frequently in serious delusion. My hunger and even pain within that experience pushed me ever deeper towards the Tradition of the Church, until my feet could stand firmly on the solid ground of the Orthodox faith – itself the hallowed ground where saints have trod and where their life and experience have been honored, defended, and merged with the dogma of the faith.

None of us ever go wrong by pushing for greater knowledge of God, for a slaking of the thirst which gnaws at us. For “this is eternal life: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We do well when we concede that there is an unexplored landscape – the heart of man – and that in such a place we are neophytes.

Before such a landscape it is better to confess what I do not know, than to proclaim what I do know.

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.





11 responses to “The Unexplored Landscape”

  1. neil Avatar

    There is a trend of the last 10 or 20 years (or more?) to want to “live in the moment;” you’re thoughts about reality and the uncharted landscape of the heart and of the Kingdom of God bring a deeper meaning to this that I cannot fathom. It will take a lifetime and more, I suspect to really get what the true moment—any moment—really is. Thanks for continuing to press us all further into this.


  2. Reader John Avatar

    Thanks for echoing my short-lived experiences of twenty years ago in the charismatic movement. One of life’s great mysteries for me is the rapid growth of Pentacostal “churches.” Like C.S. Lewis, I am respectful but I don’t understand charismatic spirituality and see it as a unbalanced over reaction to the Western churches’ miminization of the Holy Ghost. My attraction to Othodoxy may well have been that I was able to find a balanced understanding/experience of the Holy Ghost.

    At any rate, I have always understood the Jesus Prayer as a means for embracing “the grace of the present moment.” Reader John

  3. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Speaking as a former Pentecostal, I think the rapid growth of Pentacostal Churches is the result of the thirst that Fr. Stephen has described for real experience of Christ (not just doctrine about Him). People are searching for spiritual reality that is palpable, not correct dogmas. Unfortunately, that leaves them open in cultures where there is no strong and vibrant Orthodox witness (and perhaps even where there is) to charismatic enthusiasm and “phenomena” as well as New Age and occult expressions of spirituality. I thank God for those who take their first steps toward Christ and away from paganism or nominal faith in whatever context, and there are certainly many who do so within charismatic and Pentacostal contexts. On the other hand, much of what is touted as “prophecy” and “of the Holy Spirit” there is often far from the real thing, and nothing but the fullness of Christ can ever satisfy as I have found out as well.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Karen I agree with your assessment. Hunger and thirst are truly powerful. It certainly was a hunger and thirst for God that gave me my encounter with the Charismatic movement. It was also finally a thirst for God that drove me away (something seemed “wrong”). In hindsight, I would today say it lacked “nepsis” (sobriety) a term used much by the Fathers. Without spiritual sobriety we can easily become victims of things that are false. Though sobriety is not enough alone.

    But the hunger is a God-given thing and I would never want to disparage it. As you have said, finally only the fullness is enough. I was moving towards despair when I first began to move away from the Charismatic movement that I knew. I knew what it wasn’t, but the hunger was only deeper (hence the despair). A friend gave me a book by a Russian theologian and suddenly the world of Orthodoxy began to open to me. It was more than 20 years before I was received into the Church after that – which is to say it is a very long story. But I recognized immediately in that book that there was such a thing as the fullness and that my hunger would some day be met. Providence is an amazing thing.

  5. Matt Avatar

    Fr., bless.
    You have been tagged.

  6. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Did I ever tell you about my mother? An ardent charismatic within the charismatic movement of the Catholic Church — she died screaming. I’ll never forget the terrified look on her face.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God have mercy and keep her.

  8. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Thank you, Father, for your comments. Yes, sobriety is one significant thing that is missing in charismatic and Pentacostal circles. There is a lack of appreciation for the value and necessity of the long, faithful, steady, self-disciplined work of putting to death the “old man”–what the Fathers call the “acquisition” of the Holy Spirit (or what charismatics and evangelicals might understand as the Holy Spirit’s acquisition of all of the believer) through the ascetic ascent–and also of the real spiritual power of a deeply holy life vs. flashy “signs”. There is also, obviously, a lack of full access to the grace of Christ in the mysteries of the Church, which is what empowers the faithful to have victory over their passions and become more and more deeply rooted in Christ’s love. What is substituted is legalism (excessive focus on external conformity to certain lifestyle patterns), and/or dependence on the manifestation of “signs” as “evidence” of the Holy Spirit’s Presence and work in the believer, which turn up to be empty of real spiritual power (to change one deeply from within) in the long run. I burned out completely in that context (as a short-term worker on the mission field, no less), so I can relate to your experience of despair. There was a cloud of “heaviness,” a sense of burden and bondage, that only increased over the years in that church. I saw this in other charismatic church contexts with some friends, as well.

    My experience with burn-out was the beginning of a return to the simple faith of my childhood (i.e., to childlike dependence on Christ’s mercy, letting God love me to spiritual health, not trying to “perform” for Him). It was about another 20 years for me before I “discovered” Orthodoxy. Rather, I believe the Lord directed me to His Church in answer to my deep prayer to be able to truly love Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and to truly understand the nature of God’s love. I know I have found the one place where I can find the grace that I need to increasingly begin to do that.

    Mrs. Mutton, truly may the Lord have mercy upon your mother and grant her His peace.

  9. The Scylding Avatar

    Pentecostalism/the charismatic movement and their derivatives in my mind has become the religious equivalent of the instant gratification / materialistic culture that is so prevalent. Having grown up in the periphery of many of these, the lack of patience and humility as described in the post is quite obvious, and does not differ from consumerist mania in a great degree.

    It can also be seen as an instance of the happiness-craze that infuses our culture – “smile or take your anti-depressants if you can’t” is the mantra, and these movements replace the anti-depressants with simplisitc quasi-religious fomulae. But true faith, although abounding in joy, also abounds in blood, sweat, toil and tears, dissappointment and sorrow. And that we cannot face, that we cannot bear.

  10. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    There certainly is a lot of “happy, clappy charismania” as well as the various prosperity gospel variations. However, there are also those, especially in the beginning of the charismatic movement, who were/are after a genuine move of the Holy Spirit and a holy life in conformity with Scripture, rather than some version of mainline nominal Christianity or mere formal observance of rites. So I guess I would feel it is unfair to tar the whole movement with the same brush. Of all the Christians I came across under the broad spectrum of my evangelical and charismatic experience, it was the charismatics/Pentacostals who were the most serious about prayer (“tarrying” in prayer), who held all night prayer vigils, and who seriously sought God (like the persistant widow in Christ’s parable) for real power for healing and deliverance in their own lives and those of others. While others were out partying, it was in my Pentacostal church that we saw each New Year in with a long and reverent candlelight prayer service seeking God’s grace and power for the year to come. There was an emphasis on missions and sacrificial giving to missions. I saw many career missionaries who sacrificed a great deal to take the gospel to other cultures and to the troubled spots of our inner cities (I think of Brooklyn Tabernacle and also David Wilkerson/Teen Challenge.) For many years, one of my charismatic friends who has been in leadership in her charismatic church has devoted a room in her home exclusively to prayer so that anyone who has need can come and pray as long as they like. There is the circus of the “televangelism” we often see on TV, but there are also many unsung heroes of the faith out there in their prayer closets seeking God with the light that they have from the Scriptures, reaching out to the poor and dispossessed, willing to look like fools in the eyes of the world to bring honor to Christ Whom they love, who are very close to the pious Orthodox in spirit and who will put many of us to shame when we all come to stand before the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    It was in such groups that I first prayed “all night long”.

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