Living in the Un-holy Land


Generally, our language reserves the word “unholy” to mean something evil or positively wicked (now there’s an oxymoron). Of course we also live in a culture where not much, or nothing at all, is considered holy. We think we live in a neutral zone – a place that is merely secular. Of course, the modern use of the word “secular” is just that – modern. It is part of our post-Enlightenment culture that believes that things are just things – and if something is “holy” it is only so because someone considers it so. Nothing is holy in and of itself – or because it has a particular relationship. Things are holy only in someone’s mind. Thus for one person a cross is holy – for another it is merely a piece of jewelry. There are plenty of Christians who agree with this cultural definition and generally hold all of their holy things lightly. Nothing more than their own good opinion renders something holy.

It is for this same reason that the dominant form of religious thought in our culture is any form that removes the spiritual life from our daily arena. Thus whether it is doctrine which is primarily intellectual in nature, or the general backdrop of a forensic (legal or moral) metaphor – God and His activity will always remain theoretical or imaginary in the context of a secular culture. A secular culture is a culture of the unholy. We live in the Un-holy Land.

None of this is to say that we are not a religious people. Every survey of American thought agrees that we are among the most religious of modern secular states. But our religion is held like all things holy: abstracted, and relative to our own private thoughts. When religious issues spill over into the public arena (as in the issue of abortion) many people want to scream, “Foul!” and argue that the issue is illegitimate precisely because it is religious in nature. Many in the Pro-Life camp will readily agree with this cultural critique and move quickly to point out that the right to life is a medical and political issue. A baby in the womb is a human person and is therefore entitled to the same rights as all others. But, of course, this is not the same thing as saying that all life is sacred, holy, and may not be wantonly and willfully destroyed. Many Pro-Life advocates do indeed believe that all life is sacred (and I see it as a genuine “wedge issue” by which Christians can be helped to see the bankruptcy of all secular thought.)

But for Orthodox, living in an unholy land is an absolute contradiction in itself. No place can be unholy. God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” An Orthodox Christian cannot secularize his world without betraying his faith. But in our culture, it is, doubtless, not an uncommon betrayal. It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve. For many (including American cradle Orthodox) it is easier to simply hold to Orthodox doctrine and practice the same way a Presbyterian or Baptist holds to Presbyterian and Baptist practice – which is simply an American holding on to the secularized versions of religion that populate our Republic.

It is very difficult to do something if you’ve never seen it or been taught it. The liturgies and sacraments of the Orthodox Church are in no way secularized. They completely pre-date the concept. Thus hearing them for what they are saying is important. Also listening carefully to those who have a life-experience from within some form of Orthodox culture is equally important.

One of my daughters is married to an Orthodox priest who serves in an all-Russian (or mostly) community in the U.S. Their observations are frequently interesting to me, even though I have to stop and think and pray to understand what at first might simply seem wrong. Living in a culture whose root metaphor for the spiritual life is “legal/moral,” it is easy to see some normative Orthodox practices as simple superstition.

I recall in the early years of our mission, we were moving from our original warehouse location to rented, commercial space. We set a day after liturgy, when we would pack-up Church and move. A good portion of our congregation were converts. Watching them, I would have said they were treating everything with respect. One of our members from Eastern Europe, however, was scandalized by how icons were being handled. At the time I simply thought he was being superstitious. But I have come to understand that like most things in the Church, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – and the right way is there to teach us a true and proper respect and to understand what it means that something is holy. Holy is not at all the same thing as simply “this is very special to us.” Holy carries with it boundaries and borders that often ignore the American sense of practicality.

For instance, simply failing to properly clean the holy vessels after communion is a canonical violation which a priest or deacon is required to report to the Bishop. The result can either be a suspension (not serving for a period of time) or even being deposed from one’s ordained position. These are not obscure or antiquated canons. They are still very much in force and are an inherent part of the faith. In our cultural context, this simply sounds like legalism. But they are canons that come out of a very different culture and are not in the least legalistic. They are for our salvation. Coming to understand how this is true is part of the inner journey of the Orthodox faith – the “renewing of our minds.” And it is a long, slow journey.

I wrote several weeks back that the Scriptural description of human beings as “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a confession that other people should be approached with fear and wonder (Biblical fear). The same should be said of creation itself.

I am writing about something that I am only beginning to know – as a pilgrim who has made the journey for only a short distance. I find that conversations with older Orthodox, reading lives of the saints and listening carefully to what is being said or shown, is an important part of the journey. As we pray in Vespers: “O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!”

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.



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15 responses to “Living in the Un-holy Land”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: from a state park near Las Vegas. If you look closely at the rock, you will see a man (very tiny) free-climbing the rock face. It seemed like an apt metaphor.

  2. Doulos Avatar

    Father, bless.

    This is something that has been on my mind for many many years and it wasn’t until I found Orthodoxy that found a place to express my thoughts. I know it’s beating a dead horse, but religion today has become all to often something you -do- rather than something you live.

    One of the blessings of Orthodoxy, and one of the things attracted me before I ever started looking at the theology, is how Orthodoxy imposes itself on your life, especially through its fasting schedule. We fast for a little over half the year; this means that for a little over half the year we cannot eat what we want and cannot satisfy ourselves how we want to. Some might see this as a bad thing but I positively love it! It’s a constant reminder that I am not just Zach-living-in-the-world, but also, and much more importantly Zach-the-Orthodox-Christian.

    One you start to let go of your own will and desires, no matter how hard it is or much you initially dislike ‘conforming’ to a certain way of life, once you get into the swing of things you recognize all the myriad spiritual, social, and personal benefits that come from it.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes indeed. Orthodox fasting is so far removed from “what are giving up for lent?”

  4. Chocolatesa Avatar

    “It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve. For many (including American cradle Orthodox) it is easier to simply hold to Orthodox doctrine and practice the same way a Presbyterian or Baptist holds to Presbyterian and Baptist practice – which is simply an American holding on to the secularized versions of religion that populate our Republic.”

    This is so true! I’m just finding this out myself. I’ve thought to myself in the past before my inquiry into Orthodoxy, “if only I could see things the way they really are!”, meaning the spiritual reality of things, and in leaning about the Jesus prayer as a means to continual remembrance of the prescence of Jesus within us and others I realized that this was what I had wanted 🙂

    Thank you for this!

  5. axegrinder Avatar


    On an unrelated note – what sources would you suggest for a study of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans? They may be books, articles, homilies, et al.

    Thank you,

    Jason K

  6. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    Yes….our faith should not be separated as just one thing among others that I do…it should be integral to everything. Thanks again for your thoughts Fr. Stephen.

  7. Michael Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your blog ministry, it ministers to me daily. Five years ago, I became frustrated and confused and left the Orthodox Church. Only now to be even more frustrated and confused. However, the perspective you keep giving on you blog is doing much to heal my wounds by providing a good framework to resolve issues. Please pray for me and my return to Christ and his Church.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Archbishop Dmitri’s Commentary is excellent and a very good place to start

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God help you Michael. I understand that frustrations can be overwhelming. The Grace to overcome them is even stronger. May it work mightily in you!

  10. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth


    Archbishop Dmitri (Fr. Stephen’s bishop) of the OCA Diocese of Dallas and the South has written a wonderfully rich commentary on Romans. It came out early last year, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In fact, I can highly recommend all of Archbishop Dmitri’s books.

  11. coffeezombie Avatar

    This reminds me of an incident that occurred at work not too long ago. After converting to Orthodoxy, I decided to keep a couple icons (one of Christ, one of the Theotokos) on my desk at work (whether this is “okay” or not—from the Church’s perspective, I mean; no one has said anything to me about them negatively at work—I’ve actually only begun recently to think about?).

    One day, my desk was bumped (I don’t remember if I bumped it, or someone else), and the icon of the Mother of God fell over. A coworker happened to be there, and asked me, “So, do you have to say so many Hail Marys or something like that?” (not, as far as I could tell, in a mocking sense, I think it was a sincere question). My immediate thought was “that would be silly” and I responded, “No” and placed the icon back upright.

    It occurred to me afterwards that this might be a wrong attitude. What I heard it that question was legalism and superstition. However, what I should have heard (and I have no way of knowing if this was the attitude in which the question was asked) was an understanding that this is a holy object, and it should be treated with a particular reverence.

    At some point, at church, during choir rehearsal, someone bumped into a framed icon hanging on the wall, and it fell (fortunately, it was hung low and wasn’t damaged). His immediate reaction was to pick it up, kiss it, and place it back on the wall.

    That seemed like a much more appropriate way to act.

  12. Meskerem Avatar

    Thankyou for your post Father. I have lived here for almost 18 years and for people from the Old Church and trying to understand how to handle it.

    You said:…“It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve.”

    Think of it the other way round. If you are from the old Church and see practices differently here, and in your heart you will first think of not being judgmental and examine yourself just ignore it as it is too difficult to do anything. All of a sudden you have to think twice. For example what will you say if you see people chewing gum before Communion and go take Communion. If you are from the Old Church you will feel like that guy in your church who was scandalized how the Icons were being handled. I really don’t know how we can correct this except to say GOD forgive me for judging them.

    It is a slow process too to understand if you are from the other side.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is a good point. Teachable moments have to be discerned by all.

  14. elizabeth Avatar

    Thank you for this post Father. I am blessed with a church that has a mixture of newer immigrants and North American converts; it can be a lovely blessing to have both. Your example put into words what I have been seeing in my church – the cultural understanding of people from Orthodox countries is very rich and instructive… things like cleaning your house before Pasca, the understanding of the sign of the Cross as protection, to mention a two… of course I have yet to be fully organized to prepare both my house and my self for Pasca! Thanking God for His mercy…

  15. graceshaker Avatar

    im not orthodox but this post has given me pause to reflect on the nature of holiness and the implications for living a holy life. thank you.

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