True Theology

From the book, The Enlargement of the Heart, by Archimandrite Zacharias:

For Elder Sophrony [Sakharov], theology was the state of being in God….theology was for him the description of the event of his meeting with Christ when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. [as described earlier in the text]. (For him theology was the narration of an event.) According to his writings, authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit. Theology is then a grace of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life.

The Archimandrite’s description of the Elder Sophrony’s understanding of theology is similar to the well-known saying in Orthodoxy that “he who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” At its very heart there is a steadfast allegiance to the traditional stream of Hesychast theology (as taught by St. Gregory Palamas) which insists that theology must be grounded in reality – in the experience of the Divine reality – and not simply in the creations and syllogisms of human reason. The point of theology is not to speak about God, but to speak with God.

This is always the difficult (and even frustrating) aspect of Orthodoxy. Unlike the inventions of the human imagination it is, instead, the gift of God, and therefore not under our control. Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God. The Liturgy is a mystery in which God is truly among us and truly gives Himself to us – and yet we struggle even there to give ourselves to Him.

St. John in the beginning of his Revelation greets his fellow believers with these words:

I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

In a very few words he sums up the common experience of the Christian life: “to share in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Our individual circumstances can differ greatly – but none of us escape the “tribulation” [he is here referring to the trials we all suffer and not the dispensationalist notion of a “great tribulation”], none of us are excluded from the Kingdom except by our own choosing, and for all of us there is the daily life of patient endurance.

I thought much about this during my pilgrimage in the holy land. Some places are more interesting than others for someone nurtured in a modern environment. My visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, carved and perched on the sides of a sheer cliff, in a sun and heat that clearly belonged in a desert – with a landscape which, though beautiful, is still largely uninterrupted rock and sky – was thrilling for the hour or so we were there. But the American monk with whom I had conversation had been there for 15 years. I found myself thinking back over the past 15 years of my life – 15 years of serious change – 15 years, busy enough in “God’s service” that you can ignore prayer and forget that you are ignoring it.

In the desert and monastic rule of Mar Saba there is prayer, and the chores of the day – but mostly prayer. It is unavoidably part of the “patient endurance.”

For many of us in our contemporary settings, we find it difficult to stay put long enough to have “patient endurance.” I think the length of Orthodox services is one of the first experiences many people have of Christ saying to us, “Slow down.” Or in Biblical terms, “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” There is a “patient endurance” that is an inherent part of Orthodox prayer. Some days we endure more patiently than others.

But the faith does not ask patient endurance of us, or tribulation itself, except for the sake of the Kingdom. God is not a taskmaster – we have been freed from the slave masters of Egypt. But just as the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness for two generations in order to become the people of Israel – so we travel in patient endurance, the Kingdom and the tribulation in order to become conformed to the image of Christ.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy. Saints are real and are forged in reality by the Spirit of God. There is nothing that separates our lives from that of the saints – for we are one body. Their endurance is part of our inheritance as our endurance must become the inheritance of generations to come.

It is in that day to day remembrance of God that becomes our patient endurance that we ourselves become theologians, or at least catch a glimpse of true theology from time to time.

I was not surprised to hear from the monk who had endured 15 years in the desert, “I have no enemies,” (as I shared in an earlier post). He is a theologian and knows the truth.

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.


14 responses to “True Theology”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo of Mar Saba Monastery. I ask for your patience with my writing – I’m still “enduring” a virus and not quite back to normal. Your prayers have been much appreciated.

  2. coldfire Avatar

    Your words [which really are God’s words as the spirit empowers you] here have grounded me again in the idea that life is really about being caught up in God. Prayer is the way this happens. So often in an American lifestyle I am caught up in deadlines and projects. While the kingdom of God is a great “project” (In a certain sense), I would argue that the greatest project is ourselves being more and more caught up in the grace of God. Thank you for reminding me of this.

  3. Robert Avatar

    My prayer is that you feel well soon, Fr Stephen.

    The following pasage leaped out to me: “Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy.”

    I have noticed in my life a recurring temptation of that romantic fantasy. Please pray for me that I may be set free from this hideous vanity.

  4. Luke Avatar

    This is so beautiful. A monk once explained to me that theology is like writing a label for a jar of jam: no one would try to explain how it tastes without having it tasted first. After knowing how it tastes one can write the label and only then the label can be trusted.
    I’m no Orthodox Christian, so I have to worship outside of the Royal Doors, but what I hear inside resonates in my heart in such a depth that it thirst for its reality, namely theosis.

  5. Timothy Avatar

    Father bless!

    I’m having trouble finding your previous post on Mar Saba. Could you provide a link? Thank you.

    We pray for your speedy recovery and for patience in your illness.

  6. Robert Avatar


    Since it appears Fr. Stephen may still be under the weather, I looked up the previous post about Mar Saba. It can be found here:

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks. I’m recovering somewhat today. But 2 days with little food has left me less than energetic. Thanks for filling in!

  8. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Glad to be of help, the least I can do: you have been an inspiration and blessing to me countless times. I hope you feel better soon.

  9. The Scylding Avatar

    True. I can’t tell you how much damage I have endured in my personal life, fom listening to those who “speak/reason” theology, but neglect to live it. Not to speak from the damage I did to myself and others, doing the same…

    God have mercy!

  10. Pandu Avatar

    Theology is to hear what God speaks about Himself.

  11. Harlemite Avatar

    To not have enemies. How wonderful and freeing that must be. What a blessing! And so much less stress as well. May God show us the way there.

    May God soon bless you with full strength Fr. stephen.

  12. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    When I attended Christian college, I took a class as a freshman called “The philosophy of epistomology” or something high falutin like that.

    For my paper, I wrote on the need for true knowledge to be rooted in prayer, a mystical experience, or some kind of union with God beyond or above rationality. It was just my intuitive sense that this ought to be the case.

    I got batted down by the professor, even made fun of a little bit, and my philosophical ambitions waned ever since. Your blog entry today articulated exactly what I was feeling and thinking 25 years ago.

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