More Notes from the Edge

railroadposterI began last week with an article on the End of the World and the Orthodox view of the “last things.” I have followed this with thoughts about life on the “edge.” That image, a common metaphor within a number of 20th century Orthodox writers, is continued in this post – and likely in several more to come. Perhaps it is an aspect of our modern life that we frequently find ourselves to be living “on the edge.” It may also be true that we share this experience with Christians through the ages. The gospel has a way of bringing us to “critical” moments. For all who find themselves on the edge – both religiously and existentially – I offer my prayers and the solidarity of someone who has been there repeatedly. Whatever “the edge” may mean – it does not mean we are alone.


A short but insightful quote from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. It came to him during his time in the Gulag:

…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The spiritual battle which confronts us all is to be found in the human heart – our own human heart. This insight, not unique to Solzhenitsyn, but characteristic of Orthodoxy in general, can be news to those who have not heard the faith spoken of in this manner. All too easily the battle between good and evil is externalized and one side settles for a legally defined morality while the other sets for a legally defined immorality and neither side understands anything. Even the debate on Abortion gets completely obscured by the externalization of its legal/illegal status, and fails to see, too often, the great battle that is waged inwardly to bring a life other than my own into the world. What is the state of the heart in this great moral debate?

The same can be said of any number of public issues – and even of issues within the Church. The Church necessarily raises the “level of the playing field” allowing everyone involved to speak in the most absolute terms and to judge quickly and with assurance. Easily lost is the state of the heart throughout all of our battles – both public and ecclesiastical.

Part of the genius of Solzhenitsyn, similar to the genius of Dostoevsky in the century before, was to move issues away from the abstract and bring them to the existential level of the human heart. Nothing was exempt from this requirement. There is no moral “free-ride.” Thus Raskolnikov discovered in Crime and Punishment that there was no greater good that could justify the murder of some “meaningless soul.”

This, of course, is simply the gospel. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” And none of us should doubt that every moment of our life, every decision of the day is a matter that bears on our soul. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

It means that every moment we walk on the edge of an abyss – not that Christ has not entered the abyss to bring us out – forgiveness is real. But having once been rescued from the abyss we need to learn all the more how to tread the narrow path and to pray for all who have fallen. Some brave souls, in their great love of mankind, even enter through prayer into the abyss with Christ, to pray for those who have fallen and to bring them home again. It is certainly the case that those who bore the suffering of Stalin’s Gulag, and yet prayed for us all, had entered the abyss and learned there, union with the Crucified Christ, to Whom belongs all glory!

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.





18 responses to “More Notes from the Edge”

  1. Deb Seeger Avatar

    Very comforting, thank you for this posting.

  2. Meskerem Avatar

    “…….none of us should doubt that every moment of our life, every decision of the day is a matter that bears on our soul.”

    Thank you Father, this gets into each step we make in the day, when we think, speak, make decision, and act.

    Lord have Mercy!

  3. davidperi Avatar

    The spiritual battle which confrons us all is to be found in the human heart – our own human heart. Last night I finished the 1st vol of The Philokalia. Came to the last page and read this: When images of some sensual pleasure arise in you, watch yourself so as not to be carried away by it. Pause a little, think about death, and reflect how much better it is consciously to overcome this illusory pleasure.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Reading and reflecting – strangely difficult on a Monday morning.

  5. ochlophobist Avatar

    I sometimes fear that a stress upon “the state of the heart” is read by some to mean a total disengagement from ecclesial politics and the like. I don’t think that is what is being suggested here, but I have read some who state as much outright.

    In the recent OCA scandal, and now with the AOANA scandal, there are those who have argued that any involvement, and, say, outcry for a bishop to be deposed or a public demand that information and real answers be given, is motivated by a sickness of the heart.

    I am not so inclined. I know a man who cannot go to the beach or watch TV, ever, because for him to see a woman in little clothing is too much for him to bear. I know several men who cannot be around alcohol because when they do they fall. I think for some folks the same is true of public debate and politics secular and ecclesial. I understand. But for some reason folks who would never argue that we should get rid of all beaches and beers sometimes argue that the Christian has no business getting involved in ecclesial scandals and the like.

    For Antiochians, this past Sunday we celebrated Fathers of Ecumenical Councils. In the Aposticha on Saturday night, we heard the Church sing words about specific men, most of them bishops at one point, who sought to destroy the Orthodox faith. Those words were harsh and unequivocal. Nestorius is even called “ugly.” The Church has a language for those hierarchs who place their own fantasies above the welfare of Christ’s bodies. I think the contemporary use of such language is a continuation of the same hermeneutic. The language can be abused, and sometimes is abused, but just as with alcohol, I don’t think we should get rid of it on account of occasional abuse.

    With Solzhenitsyn, we have a man who lauds as heroes (he approaches hagiographic language at times) those men and women who recorded, in often great detail, the sins of others, and sought to bring that record to light. I think this can be a holy work.

    Obviously, confidently assuming that the work one is doing is holy is a very bad idea. But so is, in my mind, a functional antinomianism which more or less says in a deterministic fashion, I am so much a sinner that I cannot possibly engage in such activity, and so forth. Had everyone done that in the OCA scandal, had there not been +Job’s and Mark S’s, there would be no +Jonah today. Not everything was always done in the best spirit, and for some it certainly became destructive, but I continue to think it a necessary work. Those for whom it is destructive should stay away.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree with you and do not mean to imply otherwise. I have been keeping up with your site and writings on the present distress and have found it helpful. My word to myself and any of us, whatever roles we are called to play is “guard your heart” for it is very dangerous territory. My experience as an Anglican was that doing nothing was perhaps the worst sin of all. But I also know as one who was quite active in those ecclesiastical wars, just how much damage I did to my heart. It is perhaps the greatest testimony for some of the saints that they engaged the battle and yet preserved their souls. May god keep you and correct and preserve His Church.

    It is very much in my prayers.

  7. ochlophobist Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your kind words.

  8. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! I love this quote from Solzhenitsyn. I believe the first time you posted it, I mentioned that the budding realization I had of this very thing about my heart was a big part of the impetus behind my journey to Orthodoxy.

    Darlene, Heavens! I surely would have had a difficult time, too in your shoes. I’ve been in similar situations, but not quite so intense.

    I not infrequently find I’m unexpectedly being asked to defend my Orthodoxy (usually in briefer and smaller ways), even when I don’t seek it out–especially since for family and love’s sake I still attend my husband’s evangelical church (formerly mine also) and have many evangelical friends there. (He also attends my Orthodox parish with me.) I know they are puzzled and curious about my Orthodoxy, and many of them likely suspect the whole legalism/works salvation scheme because my new church is liturgical and practices the time honored traditional Christian spiritual disciplines, doesn’t hold to “eternal security,” and doesn’t buy into retributive punishment explanations of the Atonement (God, be praised!). No one has commented yet, if they’ve noticed, on the fact that I don’t partake of the crackers and grape juice anymore, during evangelical Communion. I would have no difficulty acknowledging that Christ has forgiven all my sins–past, present, and future–because He IS forgiving love and has clearly taught that He forgives even His enemies. The question is if, while I am unrepentant, I can benefit from that forgiveness. It would be a good forum to point out that from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the problem has never been that God is unwilling to forgive all my sin (according to Scripture, Jesus died for the sin of the whole world–not just the repentant–that surely makes a statement!), but that I am in no spiritual condition (due to my corruption, sin, and blindness) to appropriate it unless He in reality transforms me into His image, which is a progressive thing and subject, because He is love and doesn’t force Himself on us, to my degree of willingness. I would also want to ask them to think about whether a forensic “forgiveness” that doesn’t actually impact the quality of personal fellowship I experience with God (which those of this theological bent are inclined to agree depends on one’s actual level of sanctification) has any real meaning. Bp. Kallistos Ware’s video teaching (referenced in the Vodpod section at this site) on salvation from an EO perspective, might be a good one to send them: “I trust that by God’s grace, I AM BEING saved.” 🙂

  9. Darlene Avatar


    You said, ” My word to myself and any of us, whatever roles we are called to play is “guard your heart” for it is very dangerous territory. My experience as an Anglican was that doing nothing was perhaps the worst sin of all.”

    I have become very aware within the last few years of the need to guard my heart. In doing so, I have also become more aware of the enemy of my soul. How true and wise the words of Scripture, which instruct us: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”

    This past Sunday I met with a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in 3 years. She was visiting some folks in my area and invited me to a baptism. Little did I know what lay ahead.

    Not long after I arrived at the home where my friend was visiting, I was called upon to defend the faith. I didn’t expect this and actually anticipated having fellowhip with these folks. As I was served some lunch, a conversation began among myself and the many Christians who were there. I asked which church they attended and that started the whole ball rolling.

    These folks claimed that they no longer needed to attend church. Churches are man-made institutions, they claimed. The hierarchal structure is not what was intended by God. They wanted to be like the churches in Acts that meet in each others’ homes. Organizational church structure is “of man” and “not God.”

    However, more disturbing than their ecclesial view was their soteriological view. They were “free grace” proponents. Anything that we “do” for salvation is works and adds to the work of Christ. Of course this thinking leads to Once Saved Always Saved. Several of these folks zealously began an attempt at convincing me of their viewpoint. They asked me if Christ’s salvation was sufficient to forgive ALL of my sins past, present, future? Did I think He only forgave my past sins when I first repented? How sorely mistaken I was and how I limited the power of the cross. God revealed to them that they had been forgiven of ALL of their sins and nothing that they could ever do would make them “unsaved.” Nothing they could ever do would prevent them from going to Heaven. According to them I am in bondage to works, because I do not adhere to “free grace.” They began testing me with questions such as, “If I, heaven forbid, would murder someone tomorrow, after having been saved, would I go to Heaven?” They filled that murder category with other sins such as adultery. Turns out they do not think God considers one sin worse than the other. Sin is sin in their book and taking a pencil from work is as much a sin against God as pedophilia. So, they emphatically assured me that if they committed ANY sin, God would still receive them into His Heavenly Kingdom.

    I told them I would never be convinced of their doctrine, of which they strenuously objected that it was no doctrine at all, but what the Bible teaches. They had stern admonitions for me and my “works based” salvation. God had revealed grace to them and they were free from the shackles of having to earn God’s love.

    I tried to convince them that if one is “in Christ” there are certain things they will not do. Christ said tht “Satan cannot cast out Satan.” I said that Christians having the Spirit of God within them, will not commit adultery. And if they continue in such sin without repentance, they will not be received into Heaven. My final word on the matter was that “we would have to agree to disagree.” I could not be convinced of their belief system.

    Needless to say, I left there that day with a heavy heart. I thought beforehand that I would be able to have fellowship of some kind with these folks. I realized how different we are. Just because someone calls themselves Christian, that does not necessarily make it so. While I do not judge the eternal destiny of any of these persons individually, I believe their doctrine to be deadly to the soul. They are in peril of being sadly mistaken when they face Christ in judgment.

    May Christ have mercy on each of us, and may we seek His face continually as we journey toward the Celestial City.


  10. Edward Hunter Avatar

    “Once you’re saved, well… you could even deny Christ and become a Muslim and God will still let you into heaven.”

    -A former student at Asbury Theological Seminary

  11. Edward Hunter Avatar

    horrifying… 🙁

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course all of this is a make-believe intellectualization or legalization of the meaning of salvation , which utterly denies the reality of personhood. It is as great a sin against a person as to deny personhood to the unborn. Though it is not conscious. However, in the name of the Orthodox faith, it must be resisted. True personhood is a call to fullness and not a call to make-believe, no matter how nifty their intellectual constructs are. The truth as we have received it in Christ is true. That is that. We stand firm in the faith because the world needs to hear the faith.

    May God help you all!

  13. wpatrick Avatar


    It seems your friends are confused as to what being “saved” is. Being saved is seen as something to the effect of God not being angry at a person anymore and allowing them into (as Fr. Stephen would say) His second-storey dwelling place. IOW, God chooses to not be mad at you anymore because you have uttered the magic words (a “work” perhaps?). It doesn’t occur to them that being “saved” is actually union with Christ: “I in you and you in I; I am the vine, you are the branches.” Sin is us, yet again, breaking that union. Sin is our giving a certificate of divorce to Christ.

  14. coffeezombie Avatar


    I can understand where you’re coming from. When I was first moving toward the Orthodox Church, I had many similar conversations with my mother. Also, the former college pastor of my Baptist Church and I used to meet weekly for lunch and chat. We had some interesting conversations as well.

    One thing I’ve noticed about Evangelicals is that they have no patience for real answers. If you cannot answer their question in a soundbite, they don’t want to hear it. And, in many cases, if your answer does not take the form of a proof-text from Scripture, they won’t accept it (unless they already agree with it).

    It sounds to me like the people you were talking to were only aiming to convert you. In such a situation, just about all you can do is stand firm and pray. You could sooner convince a brick wall to get out of your way than convince someone whose only goal is to convert you. 🙁

  15. Stephen Avatar

    “One thing I’ve noticed about Evangelicals is that they have no patience for real answers. If you cannot answer their question in a soundbite, they don’t want to hear it. And, in many cases, if your answer does not take the form of a proof-text from Scripture, they won’t accept it (unless they already agree with it).”

    This was about my experience as well having gone to an evangelical College. Most of the questions I had were answered with soundbites. When I pressed more I received only frustration. Those who did not play the soundbite, prooftext game and were looking for real answers were considered jaded and skeptical. Most of these people eventually found their way into the Orthodox Church and are quite content. The others left the faith entirely or continued to be jaded. I have never heard anyone in the Orthodox Church say that life or salvation is or should be easy but in no other place on earth can one learn to suffer with such hope and joy.


  16. Karen Avatar

    “I have never heard anyone in the Orthodox Church say that life or salvation is or should be easy but in no other place on earth can one learn to suffer with such hope and joy.”

    Stephen, well said! That is my experience as well.

    Darlene, in your situation, “stand firm and pray” is about the best any of us could do! (I think Orthodox have good answers to those questions we face, but they don’t lend themselves to soundbites or prooftexts, and I usually can’t think that fast on my feet in the middle of such a situation anyway.) Good advice, coffeezombie!

  17. […] thoughts turned to Fr. Stephen’s writings on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn during his time in the Gulag. “…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that […]

  18. subdeaconnik Avatar

    Thank you, Father. This is comforting. I stumbled on this item searching for something to help me cope with the feeling that our society is falling into the abyss. You might consider re-posting it, Father.

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