Single in the City

I’ve been in London the past two days, as we are making our way to the Holy Land. London is a marvelous city, one of my favorites. It is quite English, very international and increasingly Euro. Like many places in Europe, secularism is far more advanced than in America (or America expresses its secularism in a far more “religious” manner). Today I was thinking about clothes as we traveled around the city (they were more interesting than the clothes worn in East Tennessee).

I grew up in relative poverty in the American South. At least, if I had a definable social group, it would have been poor, white, and Southern. There were very definable social groups within the public schools beyond the elementary level, and one of the hallmarks of those schools were very identifiable groups – generally defined by what was worn. There were groups and sub-groups. What was most interesting in those years was that there was nothing that distinguished the poor except for the lack of a cohesive group. We were individuals who could not afford clothing that would mark us as belonging. Thus our belonging was mostly marked by the fact that we “did not belong.”

Much of my youth and adult years has seen fashion used to define. My teenage child can tell a particular decade by the clothes worn. My awareness of such things stopped somewhere around 1975. Here in Euro London, I have no clue as to signals that may be given by clothing. I am certain that such signals are being sent – but they are subtle, extremely diverse, and, I think, increasingly marked by individual statement rather than group identification. If you will, it is the “secularization” of clothing.

I am no sociologist, so at this point I may simply be talking through my hat, as they say, or commenting on something that has little reality about it.

I generally wear my cassock in public – it’s something many, but not all, Orthodox priests practice. It certainly draws looks even in America – though the look may be mostly one of curiosity. Here, I find that it draws looks of anger, disgust and other negative experiences that I rarely find at home. A taxi driver, angry that I was slow crossing the street, yelled an epithet out his window that a cleric back home would simple never hear (and I find London cabbies to be a very friendly and knowledgeable lot).

One of the inner difficulties of secularism is its tendency to neglect the heart (as Christianity would traditionally understand it). T.S. Eliot called us a generation of “hollow men.” C.S. Lewis described us as “men without chests.” I would more likely describe us as “people with clothes,” for it is not so much the inside that defines the modern man as the outside. This, of course, has the advantage of allowing a person to assume a number of different roles, even identities (genders in extreme cases), with a simple wardrobe change. “The play’s the thing.”

The underdevelopment of the inner life makes for a certain kind of misery or malaise, and it makes for a very shallow evangelism. It also explains the fascination that the newly Orthodox have with some of the “outward trappings” found in the culture of the Church. The inner life takes much longer to acquire. The outward things are not a problem so long as they are not substituted for the development of the inner life.

I was recently given another award by my Archbishop (Russian practice loves to give clergy various awards of distinction). I told him later, “You’re only making it harder for me on the day of Judgment.” He smiled and I know he knows. He has told that when his sister was alive and living with him, he would return from a weekend’s visit at a Church, where all the honor the Church can muster surrounds and greets a Bishop. When he would walk through the door at home, he said his sister would call out, “Bubba, take out the trash.” That is the development of an inner life.

I trust that as I make my way to the Holy Land my clearest focus will be on taking out the trash. It is the deeper need of my heart.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





26 responses to “Single in the City”

  1. Academic Avatar

    As an academic, I frequently encounter this extreme celebration of the individual. Yes, individuals are important and can do amazing things. Yet there’s something mysterious about our human need for community. I see increasingly that communities are a venue to do violence against an individual if the community somehow restricts the individual from a behavior, particularly if that behavior is deemed to be “natural.” Indeed, many in academics suggest that even the idea of “natural” is a social construction that is continually re-created (through violence) to restrict “identity.”

    Lord have mercy.

  2. tallandrew Avatar

    I’m sorry you encountered a negative reaction from my capital city. I wonder if their reaction was lest to you as a cleric (although if you were in a black cassock they would have almost undoubtedly thought you would have been Catholic), and more because they were being slowed down. London is a city that is always in a rush. I’m not from London, but when I have been I’ve usually had to spend time looking at my map and following signs to find my way around. This, I’ve found has drawn unwelcome looks as I have managed to get in the way for business peoples fast walking. I wonder if this is a symptom of large cities as they become ever less personal.

    BTW: you head down towards Plymouth, please do get in touch!

  3. Diakrisis Avatar

    Are you planning to visit Essex while in England ?

  4. […] Despre violenţa vizuală împotriva hainei preoţeşti în Londra O experienţă recentă a părintelui Stephen Freeman. […]

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    We fly out tomorrow for Tel Aviv and take a bus to Jerusalem. Most of our small group covered a huge amount of London today. I took a bit of a break after about half a day. Saving my legs for the Holy Land. I suspect a cassock will look rather normal over there.

  6. Chris R Avatar
    Chris R

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t know if your itinerary will put you in contact with any of the local Hebrew speaking or Palestinian congregations. But if the opportunity presents itself, I would be happy if you could convey to them how much of an inspiration they are to me and many others. Their struggles do not go unnoticed, and they are in my thoughts and prayers. It’s so very important that an indiginous Christian (especially Orthodox) presence remain in the Holy Land. What an example of steadfast faith they are to the rest of us! Through the intercession of the Most Blessed Theotokos and all the saints, may God strengthen them in their difficulties and persecution.

  7. blackincense Avatar

    Fr. Stephen!
    Fr. bless –
    I’m so glad you checked in…Since you’re in London, will you please take out the RUBBISH ??? and be sure to bless it curbside. That should give people something to stare at!

    (Just kidding !!!!)

    i loved this update from you….so wonderful that you had a moment to spare for it. God bless!

    My feeble prayers go with you dear Fr. as you go on your pilgrimage.

  8. Diakrisis Logismon Avatar

    […] I suspect a cassock will look rather normal over there.

    Yes !

  9. Dean Arnold Avatar

    If you were in Philly, it wouldn’t matter what you were wearing.

  10. Margaret Avatar

    My prayers are with you and your fellow travelers, Fr. Stephen. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. And thank you for your prayers.

  11. T Avatar

    “When he would walk through the door at home, he said his sister would call out, “Bubba, take out the trash.” That is the development of an inner life.”


  12. Richard Collins Avatar
    Richard Collins

    I, too, am sorry that you encountered irritation in my homeland. My priest sometimes wears his cassock around Cambridge and says that he meets with a lot of curiosity and a large number of Orthodox stopping him to ask after the local parish! London is a funny place. I lived there for 7 years (during university days and afterwards) and finally was glad to leave for more friendly areas. Do let us know if you will back in the UK again soon and nearby since I would dearly love to meet you in person!

  13. shevaberakhot Avatar


    What would you do if you knew that God hides all His treasures in the rubbish?


  14. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, it is so good of you to thoughtfully post here while traveling. I’ve been in London and so know the crush of people.

    I like very much your description of we are “people with clothes” in keeping with the other description of the “hollowness” of man (and woman) in the midst of secularism, when neglecting the heart, when neglecting Christ. Being “people with clothes” is a good definition of how secularism strongly infects the human being, espeically here where I live in America and in the Western European countries I have visited and lived in.

  15. david p Avatar

    As an American living overseas, 24 yrs this summer, I fully understand how this secularism has invaded life. The Americanism of ………. This is why I divorced myself from one of the Protestant churches and will be in communion with the Orthodox shortly. Too bad this secular feeling and thought has entered many churches and the end result is the lost of true worship and devotion to God, the Father, and His Son.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    The hollowness of modernity is not just the world of secular man, but is also commonly the world of Christianity. Recovering the heart is a long and frequently difficult struggle. Wearing a cassock can be another easy way of avoiding the heart – of being an empty cassock, a symbol without a core. There are no easy routes – every road has a cross if it leads anywhere worthwhile. We catch our flight to Tel Aviv in just a few hours. To a part of the world where I have never been.

  17. ochlophobist Avatar

    I know this is not the place to discuss Orthodox “politics” and I do not mean to by this comment, but, I could not resist the urge to note that perhaps because of your beloved “Bubba’s” faithfulness in taking out the trash for his sister, he has been allowed by God to be placed in a position to, well, as it were, see over the departure of “waste” on other levels (by that I mean “waste” as wasted time and actions which are wasteful – the term is not directed towards any person). Many years to your bishop!

  18. Edward Hunter Avatar

    It’s a beautiful place, Father, and a very strange one. I hope your visit benefits you greatly.

  19. shevaberakhot Avatar


    In broader terms, the secular reaction we are seeing against Christianity in the world today, is symptomatic of a Church that is moving not in the visible signs of the Holy Spirit, but according to the natural order of things.

    It is hard to imagine for instance, that God would choose to glorify himself by allowing his saints to succumb to affliction (as some seem to be saying). This is not the kingdom Jesus intended. It would seem much more plausible, that God’s love for mankind is more authentically manifest in the diverse manifestations seen in the book of Acts.

    We may rest in the knowledge that the one who comes to steal and destroy, his eternal destruction is assured.

  20. tyrporter Avatar

    Many in the book of Acts succumbed to affliction: St. James, St. Stephen, St. Paul, St. Peter, etc. and glorified God by it.

  21. Lucias Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Prayers for your continued safe travel and that you will be able to find yourself even closer to God as you visit these Holy Sites.

    As to rudeness and such from cabbies and others. I’ve heard similar complaints from other tourists who weren’t wearing cassocks :-).

    Without disagreeing with your excellent post above at all I find that its often easy to think peoples disgust or irritation is due to something or other about us. When in truth they are just irritated in general or having a bad day etc.



  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would not use affliction in the sense of what martyrs encountered. However, there is much delusion and fraud in today’s “manifestations” of the Book of Acts. My own journey included a serious time within the charismatic movement. I do not recommend it. It is very poorly shepherded in many instances.

    God has not changed and is quietly always been at work. The lack of “nepsis” or “sobriety” in much of today’s charismatic and pentecostal movements is a serious concern for the Orthodox.

    Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I meet today in an hour or so with the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.

  23. shevaberakhot Avatar


    I understand affliction in it’s one-storey context, so well exemplified by the writer of Psalm 119. Forgive me if I am wrong, but the living Church has it’s roots in the Day of Pentecost, does it not?

    The prayers of the saints are with you. PEACE to all men and women of goodwill.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course the living Church has its roots in Pentecost. There would be no life, no sacraments, nothing without the grace and fullness of the Holy Spirit. But to confuse the Day of Pentecost with “pentecostalism” is a mistake, I believe. Orthodox have a profound belief in the Holy Spirit and a strong living history of miracles, etc., but treats these matters in a very sober manner, prefering to speak of God and His revelation in Christ rather than matters that are better spoken of quietly. I believe the world is fascinated with various kinds of Pentecostalism not because it believes in God, but because it desperately wants to. It is very much a by-product of the 2 storey universe and the fear that there’s nothing up there. I am speaking largely from my own experience. Someone’s else’s experience might describe things very differently. God will use what He will use and won’t consult me about such things. Thank you for your prayers. It’s very exhausting here, but good.

  25. Dean Arnold Avatar


    About a year and a half into Orthodoxy (under your tutelage!) I suddenly realized I was not concerned—I was not even asking the question anymore—regarding whether “the gifts of the Spirit” are operative in the Orthodox Church.

    Firstly, as you noted, miracles are so common in Orthodoxy that there is no threat that rationalism is an idol, a common convern as a Protestant.

    Secondly, the fullness of the Spirit is truly revealed in the Church, a much more overwhelming and comforting experience than a few supernatural events here and there in the charismatic scene.

    Yes, for me, the drive towards Charismaticism was the quest for fullness. In a rational, or “two-story” universe, the closest thing in the West to something smacking of communion with the Deity was supernatural phenomena. God must be somewhere near! But, as the sheep and goats parable tells us, all that miraculous activity may not be all that its cracked up to be. “When I became a man, I put behind childish things.”

  26. The Scylding Avatar

    Protestantism (writing as one) lost so much when “Reason” took over. Had we but remembered even the words of Luther – A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.

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