Assimilating the Gospel

A pilgrimage is reduced to tourism if it does not become a part of the pilgrim himself.

I have been home for a little over 24 hours – most of it in the stupor of “jet-lag.” I have sat down to write several times, only to find that I was too tired to say much. This week may carry some aspect of that until my body is back on Eastern Daylight Time.

But there are far more important things to be done than to get my body adjusted – it is the daily assimilation of where I have been and what I have done. This, too, is not particularly different than the daily task of any Christian. We have heard the gospel of Christ – but hearing must become doing. We have some understanding of the gospel but, in truth, we must become the gospel itself or it remains little more than a book.

I have said before that Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good but to make dead men live. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit (to use a phrase of St. Seraphim) is a daily existential act. We either live our lives based on the reality of the Truth of God in Christ, or we live it based on some other reality. The secular world will offer us many realities, even religious realities, so long as we do not give ourselves to the Truth that God is the only source and sustainment of reality and there is no life that does not come from Him.

Thus in my return home from my pilgrimage finds me back where I started. In many ways, having seen what I have seen, I will have to struggle yet more to say, “God is good,” for the sin of mankind has erupted in dangerous and obvious ways within the Holy Land. Cain and Abel still dwell there.

But I met a man (a monk), whom I mentioned earlier, who said from his heart, “I have no enemies.” God is indeed good and I realize in hindsight that I was standing on holy ground in the presence of a true spiritual struggler. I return home yet more convinced of the Truth and reality of the Gospel. Christ rose from the dead. I have stood where Peter and John stood and seen that the tomb was empty. But the Truth of the gospel in any human life will not stand for long on mere historical evidence. It must stand on the firm rock of Christ within us – Who is “the hope of glory,” according to St. Paul.

I found that while standing in very holy places my heart was as much in need of “guarding” as ever. Evil thoughts, tempting thoughts, thoughts of judging and the like were no more a stranger to me there than at home. Thus prayer was essential to make the pilgrimage and remains at least as essential as I have returned.

The Elder Sophrony taught that every word spoken by Christ was a full of the creative energy of God as the first words, “Let there be light!” Thus to take a commandment into our bosom and there let it dwell is also an act of re-creation – our own transformation. And so the pilgrimage continues. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church. Forgive your brother. Keep the commandments.

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.


15 responses to “Assimilating the Gospel”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is from the pilgrimage – it is the Christos Pantokrator from the dome in the nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

  2. handmaidleah Avatar

    I felt much the same after our mission trip to Spruce Island… Peace seemed to be much harder to find and keep the closer we got to home. It was easy to pray there, where St Herman is – the world wanted to strip away the grace that we had found there on the island.
    Assimilation is a struggle.
    So glad that you are back!

  3. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    I wish I could truly say that I have no enemies. The first is my own self-centeredness. Then there are those who hate me. Then there are those I hate or at least deeply resent (mostly for things they have done to those I love). Please pray for me. This is a great struggle and I am not deceived in thinking that I have made much progress.

  4. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Welcome home Father. Reading your thoughts during your pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a tremendous gift to me. Forty years ago my mother took me on a Mediterranean cruise to the Holy Land as a graduation present from high school. I was not a Christian at the time, nor was she. I understood little of what I was seeing. Thank you for carrying me through the journey again that I sadly was not able to appreciate completely the first time.
    By your prayers,

  5. Erik Avatar

    Father, the monk you met, who said, “I have no enemies,” do you think he meant to say that he is no one’s enemy? It seems to me, Christians aren’t enjoined to have no enemies — we are told we will be hated for Christ’s sake, but rather to love those who hate us, or even those who would kill us or or children. The commandment “Love your enemies,” seems to maintain the distinction between friends and enemies, while granting us the freedom to respond otherwise than (fallen) human nature would seem to dictate, that is, to break the chain of hatred and reprisals through active loving kindness and mercy. If you have no enemies, you are a lucky person. If you can truly, from your heart, love and forgive your enemies, you are blessed and graced by God. I wish I could say I was capable of loving my enemies.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    To say, “I have no enemies,” is substantially the same thing as saying “I love my enemies.” Further distinctions are not necessary – for if I love my enemy, then the fact that he is “enemy” is a description of his interior state, not mine.

  7. Lana Balach Avatar
    Lana Balach

    The comments on loving thy neighbor or having no enemies brought to mind an article I recently read about His Grace Bishop Teodosije’s experiences at Decani Monastery in Kosovo when people from all sides who hated each other were seeking shelter and help at the same place,( Decani Monastery). He went on to say that they received them all as brothers and did not discriminate against anyone. He said it was why they were so blessed and happy. He went on to say:
    “And while the two sides hated each other, we in the monastery could not hate anyone. This was also our security — a guarantee for our survival in that place. We are just regular people. Even though we are monastics, we could not have behaved in such manner — to have had such peace and love — without our Lord’s gift of Grace, with which He sealed us.”

    We learn to do the impossible such as, love thy enemy, always and only with God’s grace……
    Welcome home, Father.

  8. logismon Avatar

    Thank you Father for the words of Elder Sofrony:

    “… every word spoken by Christ was a full of the creative energy of God as the first words, “Let there be light!” Thus to take a commandment into our bosom and there let it dwell is also an act of re-creation – our own transformation.”


  9. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Jurgen Moltmann’s theology is equally compelling, born as it was in the darkness and destruction of war.

    Confronted with the awful truth of the concentration camps and his dreams dashed following his capture in 1944, a deep darkness descended. Even Goethe ceased to give him “knowledge that sustained existence” (hope).

    It was not until he read the psalms, that he found expression, gradually understanding that the God of Jacob was drawing him to Himself. Apparently Luther’s language in the psalms is much stronger than the English.

    A group of Dutch Christians finally sealed it, declaring that they knew of a bridge that crossed not the Rhine, but the abyss of desolation (Moltmann was involved in the action at Arnhem). For Moltmann, there was no going back.

  10. Basil Avatar

    Christ is in our midst!

    It’s important to get the gist of a statement and not force language to obey our every preference. For this reason I take the monk’s statement to mean, “I truly love my enemies.”

    Nevertheless, this *exact* distinction Erik makes above, is one that a very holy local monk always insists on– contrary to popular spiritualist babble about ‘having no enemies’, we christians must realistically see we really do have enemies– people we have intense negative feelings towards, and people we know wish us great harm.
    The goal of course, is to love them utterly and completely inspite of this, as intimately as we do our own children (according to St Silouan). This is the weapon of peace, which does not deny the existence of an enemy (technically), but refuses to respond with enmity, violence, or hatred.

    -Mark Basil

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Whatever – I only know that he “had no enemies” and that’s all I know about that. It is certainly good to know what is in the heart of another – that I am facing hatred, etc. But I take the monk at his word, and do not consider it “spiritual babble” for someone who has lived that life in that place for 15 years. I am quite aware that the enemy walks about as a roaring lion and would like to devour me. But I will accept the monk’s word and hear in it a fulfillment of the gospel. This should not be anything for us to have a disagreement about. Forgive me. God is with us.

  12. shevaberakhot Avatar


    If the goodly monk has no enemies, then he has in Christ, truly defeated the enemy satan and his legions.

    Let us therefore pray for him — and each other — by participating in the Life of God more fully.

    In Christ.

  13. mic Avatar

    I think, as Orthodox, we tend to look for the meaning behind the meaning.

    Sometimes that works, sometimes…not so much…somethings you just have to take at face value…like when a monk says “I have no enemies!”


  14. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Father bless! Welcome home!

    You said:
    “I have stood where Peter and John stood and seen that the tomb was empty. But the Truth of the gospel in any human life will not stand for long on mere historical evidence. It must stand on the firm rock of Christ within us – Who is “the hope of glory,” according to St. Paul.”

    I really like that. It expresses well the essence of the difference of experience for me between the spiritual emphases within Orthodoxy and within my former Evangelicalism with its focus on the historical reliability of the Scriptures in the sense of an artifact of the spiritual realities they proclaim. I’ve also found it very interesting that while there is much historic evidence that various other Christian communions hold some significant Biblical artifacts–e.g., Coptic Orthodox (in Ethiopia?) possibly have the OT Ark of the Covenant and the Roman Catholic Church retains guardianship over the Shroud of Turin (for which there is much evidence of authenticity) and many other such relics and sacred sites, and while such certainly can have their value in building our faith in the realities to which they bear witness, it is only the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch who is able to receive the annual living miracle of Holy Fire during the Paschal Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and who passes it to the other church leaders represented there. I find that very significant.

    I also recently read the account of how the structure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem came finally to be restored and preserved from near destruction of many of its features (completed only in very recent history). It was quite an education on all of the political and religious tensions of the area and even of the site itself over the past century especially. So in a fresh way I have also been reminded that “Cain and Abel” are active even in the holiest of places. The history of this church is a true commentary on the human condition and the faithfulness of our God despite everything.

    Finally, what a blessing to have encountered that monk! It seems to me that his words about having no enemies were spoken from the perspective of one who lives in reality of the Echaton and of the reality of Christ living in Him and no longer from a merely human perspective. In the Day when the Kingdom of Christ comes to be realized for all, truly we will all proclaim that we have no enemies. My prayer will always be, “Lord, may your Kingdom come now in me!”

    It is a dream of mine to make a pilgrimage such as you have been able to do. Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences with us.

  15. Shevaberakhot Avatar

    May the Holy Fire light many, many lamps this year.

    “The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is a unique and central event of our faith, establishing forever the triumph of God’s Power and Love over ANY an EVERY enemy known and unknown to us human beings in our life on earth” – Archbishop Demetrios on Holy Pascha 2008

    Christos Anesti!

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  1. This is a wonderful conversation! Father, thank you for your reply; it is beautiful. I’ll add that I IM’d you…

  2. Thank you Mark, so true! I am wondering if we can learn a lesson from the false predictions of the…

  3. I suppose to explain myself a bit better I would like to say that it seems to me that our…

  4. My latest commute listen is St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Janine. These folks were indeed the most learned people of their day.…

  5. Indeed, Father, I should introduce that topic into my teaching—lest it be forgotten!

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