With What Little We Know – It Is Enough

The question was offered earlier today: What is the place of asceticism in the life of a family? Should we learn to guard the intellect, strive for pure prayer, etc. in a similar way as a monastic would?

I offer here a reprint that speaks to the question. For the truth is, we will know little about the deeper forms of asceticism – even if we read books on the subject (or especially if we read books on the subject). My short list includes “seeking communion with the true and living God.” I understand that this is the purpose of all prayer. I hope this is a useful posting.


candlesI have written and posted at least three times that “I am an ignorant man,” which is to say that I do not consider myself a great source of wisdom and insight and that what knowledge I do have is indeed limited.

It is also true that wisdom and insight are in short supply these days. We do not live in a land that has monasteries everywhere within walking distance (or even a short drive). We do not have centuries of unbroken, living knowledge of the way of Christ in many places.

What we do have is a commercialized Christianity that panders to our culture and its passions at least as much as it considers the gospel. We do not thus produce a profound Christianity, but a passionate Christianity in which the impulse to consume remains unchecked and unnamed.

But to travel towards the Kingdom of God and to make true progress in the Spiritual life is not necessarily dependent upon a holy culture or hordes of holy people. Indeed, it depends upon the grace of God and the very little that we know.

In Christ, in the true light of the gospel, what do we know?

  • We know that God truly loves the world and gave us His only begotten Son that we might have life, true life, communion with the true and living God;
  • We know that this life is marked by love and forgiveness; even including and especially including the forgiveness of our enemies;
  • We know that giving is more blessed than receiving – thus we already have the means of being blessed;
  • We know that the Way of the Cross is the Way of Life and that following Christ on that Way means freely laying down our lives for others.
  • We know that we have been commanded to give thanks for all things, thus affirming God’s goodness as the true ground of our existence;
  • We know we are not alone – that many have walked this way before us and that our success in following Christ is of concern for them;

I certainly could add to this list with some further thought, though I find it is easy to state some things that not many of us know. What I believe is that, even in the absence of great and holy men, we can take the little that we know and live.

  • It is better to live seeking communion with the true and living God than to believe that God is somewhere at a distance;
  • It is better to forgive and to love even if it means we make ourselves victim to the hate and cruelty of others;
  • It is indeed better to give than to receive, even if I can give but little. No one can keep me from giving.
  • It is better to die for others than to die alone.
  • It is better to give thanks for all things than to be eaten alive with regret and bitterness;
  • It is better to have the saints as friends than to be famous or popular with those of this world.

I know that these things are small (though they are truly large). But such small things, lived and acted upon with prayer will make the way for paradise in our heart and write our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… (Luke 16:10)

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.





38 responses to “With What Little We Know – It Is Enough”

  1. Lucian Avatar

    It is better to give thanks for all things than to be eaten alive with regret and bitterness;

    Why not both? Why the dichotomy? Why the dialectic of opposition? I choose to be eaten alive with bitterness and regret. I want to suffer. (Matthew 2:18). I refuse to be comforted by spiritual anaesthetics (Matthew 27:34). I want the whole cup (Matthew 26:42). — Whatever Bible character I may be, I’m definitely NOT Job!

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Suffering is fine – but not when it is the affliction of our passions. There is a sorrow after the world and a sorrow which “is of a godly sort” according to St. Paul (2 Cor. 7:10).

    It is better to give thanks. But if you choose to be eaten alive with bitterness and regret…

  3. Damaris Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. Your points are a useful amplification on Micah 6:8, one of my favorite verses. This looks doable, through God’s grace. It is very comforting to believe that I can start where I am and with what I know. It also removes any excuse for a lack of spiritual growth — if only I were a monastic, had time, studied more, had a more reliable church life, etc.

  4. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you.

    Damaris, I can give a hearty agreement to your last sentence as well! That is a common temptation for me. “If only . . .” Those are among the most forlorn and futile of words!

  5. Mary Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen. “We know that this life is marked by love and forgiveness, even including, and especially including the forgiveness of our enemies.” I am finding that it is quite a journey to really learn how to truly love and forgive, to come to a place where I love God and others more than myself. I’m finding it difficult to actually “do” these things I “know” without learning (not in a rational way but in a prayerful and experiential way) what The Fathers have said about them, how to deal with sinful action, thoughts, etc. It involves really learning how to deal with my passions (concerning the above quote, learning to wage warfare against anger, malice, slander, lack of judgment, etc.) Anyway, it seems it’s difficult to make progress without knowing how those who have gone before us have sought communion. Am I making this all too difficult? Father, bless!

  6. Mary Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I wrote this before I saw your response to me in the previous article. Thank you!

  7. seeker Avatar

    …good stuff ….im thinking of attending an orthodox church service soon..i’ve never been to one before..am i required to “dress up”?

  8. Lucian Avatar

    I meant ‘bitterness’ in the sense of extreme, uncomforted sorrow.

  9. E Avatar

    Father Bless,

    This is a story written by a doctor who worked in Africa.
    Sent to me by e-mail

    One night I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all we could do, she died, leaving us with a tiny, premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter. We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive; as we had no incubator (we had no electricity to run an incubator).

    We also had no special feeding facilities.

    Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts. One student midwife went for the box we had for such babies and the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in.

    Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly in distress to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst (rubber perishes easily in tropical climates)..

    ‘And it is our last hot water bottle!’ she exclaimed. As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk, so in Central Africa it might be considered no good crying over burst water bottles.

    They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.

    ‘All right,’ I said, ‘put the baby as near the fire as you safely can, and sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts Your job is to keep the baby warm.’

    The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me. I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby. I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough,mentioning the hot water bottle, and that the baby could so easily die if it got chills. I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

    During prayer time, one ten -year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our African children. ‘Please, God’ she prayed, ‘Send us a hot water bottle today It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon.’

    While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added, ‘And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?’

    As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot. Could I honestly say ‘Amen?’ I just did not believe that God could do this.

    Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything; the Bible says so. But there are limits, aren’t there? The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending me a parcel from the homeland. I had been in Africa for almost four years at that time, and I had never, ever, received a parcel from home.

    Anyway, if anyone did send me a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle? I lived on the equator!

    Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door. By the time I reached home, the car had gone, but there on the verandah was a large 22-pound parcel. I felt tears pricking my eyes. I could not open the parcel alone, so I sent for the orphanage children. Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly Excitement was mounting. Some thirty or forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box. From the top, I lifted out brightly-colored, knitted jerseys. Eyes sparkled as I gave them out. Then there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patients, and the children looked a little bored.. Then came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas – that would make a batch of buns for the weekend.

    Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the…..could it really be?

    I grasped it and pulled it out.. Yes, a brand new, rubber hot water bottle. I cried.

    I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.

    Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward, crying out, ‘If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!’

    Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully-dressed dolly. Her eyes shone! She had never doubted!

    Looking up at me, she asked, ‘Can I go over with you and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?’

    ‘Of course,’ I replied!

    That parcel had been on the way for five whole months, packed up by my former Sunday school class, whose leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.

    And one of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child – five months before, in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it ‘that afternoon.’

    ‘Before they call, I will answer..’ (Isaiah 65:24)

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    Generally, in Orthodox Churches the congregation does not “dress up” in the sense of a suit for men, or uncomfortable fashions for women. The general rule is to dress comfortably and modestly. With comfortable shoes (if it is a congregation that stands throughout prayer).

    Some congregations have guidelines – not short sleeves for men (this is by no means universal). Shirts with slogans are discouraged.

    No short pants on men is pretty universal.

    In some congregations women cover their heads (with a kerchief). In America this varies greatly. In Europe it’s pretty universal, I understand.

    I’ll pray that your first visit is blessed.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    Nonetheless – it’s the “choosing” to sorrow or the “wanting” to suffer. “Spiritual anesthetics” seems to unfairly characterize the comfort that God gives.

    If anyone were choosing such things – as an Orthodox Christian – and had no blessing from a spiritual father to do so – I would be in serious doubt that it was more than willfulness.

    Sorry to edit your note. I thought the question viz. attendance at services was directed to me.

  12. Stephen Avatar

    ‘My short list includes “seeking communion with the true and living God.” I understand that this is the purpose of all prayer.’

    Fr. Stephen,

    The challenge seems that one must “know” God before they “know” Him. Fr. Tom used a similar phrase but I use it here in a much different way. As we begin our struggle to know God, it does not take long to realize that we do not “know” God. Is there a point in which we can feel that to some degree we know God, more than just a subtle awareness? Most often it feels like I turn a corner to find myself at the beginning again, similar to a labyrinth. Your bullet points are right on the mark, since we must know something of God in order to realize these things are true but living and experiencing God through these points is another matter entirely. Is it possible that you could elaborate on the process of knowing God for the lay, family man (woman)?

  13. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    The place of asceticism in the life of a family? If you set aside your own will on a continuing basis — if you prepare meals for the family when you would really rather sit down and read a book — if you go out to work day after day and hand over your paycheck to support the family when you were really hoping for a new set of golf clubs — if you do the supper dishes for your parents or watch your baby brother when you would really rather be on the phone with your friends — if you sit with your aging parent when you would really rather be doing almost *anything* else in the world — you don’t have to worry about asceticism in family life. Family life contains all the asceticism you need. The one thing needful is to see it all as obedience to the will of God for you, for now.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,

    Amen. It reminds me of St. Therese’ Little Way. I think that it is likely true that no one has greater opportunity for “working out their salvation” than a man or woman in a family. The opportunities for kindness and love, for forgiveness and acceptance abound as greatly there as anywhere on earth. St. John Chrysostom refers to the family as “a little Church.”

  15. Steve Avatar

    Dear “E”,

    Thank you for the simple, honest account of your encounter with Faith. May your life, ministry and family be very blessed because of it.


  16. mary Avatar

    Dear father Stephen,

    Would you be so kind as to look at theses two article and tell me whether you believe this teaching is true?


    If you have time could you please also say small prayer for me because i am very sick without any hope and i also cant feel Gods love or know him because my heart is hardened.

    Thankyou for your peaceful blog
    God Bless You

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary, there are some things in these articles that I agree with (for instance that there are problems with the penal substitutionary model and with the notion of punishment itself) but other things with which I would disagree. The analysis of the “law of love” is still too rationalistic and protestant from an Orthodox perspective. I am sure the teacher means well – but there is not really a substitute for the teaching of the faith as the Church has received it.

    I will certainly pray for you. It is difficult, particularly during sickness or other adversity, to have a clear sense of God’s love. We are overwhelmed with our suffering. Nonetheless, God loves you regardless of how you feel. May you know Him in the depths of your heart and be assured of His love. May God keep you.

  18. Lucian Avatar

    I also cant feel Gods love or know him because my heart is hardened.

    Don’t mistake God’s love for You, which is unchaging, with our love for Him, which is sometimes obscured or marred by evil. Just hang in there! (And sorry for “stealing” again something directed to You, Father!) 🙁

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    No problem, Lucian. We can’t hear too much about the love of God.

  20. mary Avatar

    Thankyou Father Stephen and Lucian very much.

  21. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am wondering if my previous statement and questions were confusing, unclear or take away from the scope of this thread? since there was no reply. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions? Anyway sorry to bother.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    By no means – not a bother. Your question was and is quite good – but I’m in a busy day. It will make for some fruitful reflection and writing later – I don’t want to pass it up.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    Knowing God – in my limited experience – is filled with labyrinth dead ends and starting over and many such things.

    First and foremost, I think it comes with patiently keeping the commandments. “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (Jn 14:23).

    That “keeping” is largely in the small things – since that is what comprises our daily lives. I’m sure this differs in many ways for us all. For myself, I find that it is largely in my life as priest that I come to know God. There are plenty of opportunities to stand with others and enter into their sorrow or suffering and there to pray. Fr. Sophrony writes much about this – and I think it is one of the things that draws me to him.

    An observation – It has been true for me that I tend to see God in the “periphery” that is almost as a sidewards glance as I go about doing what I am commanded to do. It is unexpected and surprising but joyful. On the other hand, pressing the issue, and trying to “have” a spiritual experience just never seems to work (so I don’t do it). I do what I am given to do, and try to do it faithfully, and struggle to keep my heart open (prayer, repentance, confession). Then things come along. God makes Himself known. Always as gift, never as a reward for my work, etc.

    I have said in a few places that 90% of Orthodoxy is “just showing up.” I mean by this that being faithful and putting ourselves in the right place is the majority of our life in Christ. In such normal, faithful living, God makes himself known to us.

    Some thoughts for starters…

  24. anonymousgodblogger Avatar

    You wrote, “…I tend to see God in the “periphery” that is almost as a sidewards glance as I go about doing what I am commanded to do. It is unexpected and surprising but joyful. On the other hand, pressing the issue, and trying to “have” a spiritual experience just never seems to work…”

    Yes, when I try to do otherwise I get in my own way and trip all over myself and make myself crazy because I’m relating not to the real God but to my own ideas and anxieties about God.

    “Speak a little softer so I can hear You…”

    Arthur A. Vogel wrote, “Special dangers arise if we try to relate to God in our thought alone…In our deepest sponaneity as selves, a dimesion of us always stands beyond the problems [and projects] we are working on…The Christian revelation is that Love is a Person and that nothing impersonal is found in God.”

    Trying too hard is ultimately in some sense impersonal, I suspect…

  25. GVM Avatar

    Fr, Bless!

    Thank you for this!

  26. Jonathon Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen!

    Thank you for this post. It is odd that I have just finished reading about some Orthodox spiritual life in a book by Bishop Kallistos, The Orthodox Church. He writes about St. Seraphim on pages 119-120. What is written there is amazing. After reading this I feel as if I’m about as spiritual as a brick. I may very well never be witness to such a miraculous event such as described there (well in this mortal life anyway) but I was curious about the things I could do to help strengthen the relationship between God and I. and then I turned on the ol’ computer and here was this latest post concerning my very question. Amazing.

    God Bless you, Father.

  27. Mary Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I appreciate your statement about “being faithful and putting ourselves in the right place is the majority of living our life in Christ”. What do you do if you are going along this road and you begin to see you struggle with boredom, sloth, gluttony, anger, sexual immorality, greed, depression, etc. What if you can’t “quit” these passions? When you find that you want to obey Christ’s commands but you can’t, how are people to know what to do? How can the will be strengthened? Thank you, Fr Stephen!

  28. Karen Avatar

    Mary, your questions are familiar to me. They are ones I have struggled with. I’m learning it is good not to try to go it alone–especially if one is sick. Do not cut off any opportunity for support. If you are struggling with depression, etc., don’t rule out medical help, help from a compassionate and experienced professional counselor perhaps, as well as your Priest. If you’re having chronic problems with discouragement, depression and chronic guilt, you may have a problem that has some basis also in your biochemistry. Do you have a Confessor, a Priest or pastor you can talk to person to person about your struggles? If not, it would be good to find someone you can trust, who knows God and who can see you and support you in light of the context of your whole situation. Fr. Stephen’s counsel is wonderful and this blog is very helpful, but you can only get so much from cyberspace. In my experience, the will can only be strengthened by grace, but that grace has many avenues by which to reach us. Forgive me for butting in to your questions addressed to Fr. Stephen. I hope my thoughts have been helpful. May all of us who read this blog also pray for one another.

  29. yudikris Avatar

    This is very blessing, Father. Thanks!

  30. Lucian Avatar


    I’ve struggled with nervous (clinical) depression past autumn. It was absolutely horrible. Its cause was a certain passion (repeated, addictive sinning). Please e-mail me at Luci83ro at Yahoo dot com.

    Fr. Morelli has a therapeutic series on this issue here:


    What helped *me* overcome it was: a hearty pseudo-confession to a psychologist, a strong prayer-life (don’t overdo it), the decision to sin as less and as rare as I was able to; to struggle against the passions with all the strength I had so as to delay and minimize the frequency and intensity of their outcome to the best of my abilities (without despairing when falling, and without indulging myself in them out of laziness, or comfort, or boredom, or discouragement); giving alms to the poor (Tobit 4:10-11, 12:9, 14:10-11); trying to find love and care in my soul for human beings, having a normal and regular sleep-and-rest-schedule, and going for relaxing walks.

    Please seek professional therapeutic help, but don’t just rely on the drugs: You still have to struggle against the passions (without despair OR laziness), and ease Your conscience through spiritual and psychological therapy.

    (And sorry for intervening for a third time in a question NOT addressed to me, Father…) 🙁

  31. Lucian Avatar

    …this, and the fact that I don’t live alone: I had my parents physically present with me, and supporting me throughout that whole ordeal… 😐

  32. mary k Avatar
    mary k

    Sorry,I’d just like to add if i may in case there was any confusion, that two Marys have posted in this blog.
    Im Mary which posts are :
    July 29, 2009 at 5:18 pm and
    July 29, 2009 at 6:24 pm
    The other is a different Mary.I just thought i’d mention it because there was another Mary’s comments up already when i posted and also made some posts after mine.I should have posted with Mary K incase i caused confusion.If i comment again i’ll post using Mary K.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lucian, well said.

  34. Steve Avatar

    We live in dictatorship of relativism (to paraphrase Joseph Ratzinger) with all the listlessness of a ship going nowhere. Hold on to that which is good and eternal (the soul finds perfect rest in God). Father Stephen himself said that it is better to know one thing for certain, than nothing at all.

  35. Epiphanist Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. I wrote to you a little while ago that I had struggled with the lengthy post reformation statement of belief which you published. The short statement of things we know in this post is much closer to the mark for me, though in my ignorance I do not even know all these things. Is there reconciliation between the rigid dogma of the creeds and my own experience of Christ in the Spirit?

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think the dogma of the creeds seem rigid when approached in a rational manner – which makes them seem sort of two-dimensional or less. It is the living reality of which the Creed is an expression that is life. The experience of the Church agrees with the Creed – and the Creed represents something of a “fence” as some have called it – but it is the reality of the living knowledge of God that is our life. Ultimately there should be no contradiction between the creedal expression and our experience.

    If our experience begins to run “contrary” to the Creed, then there is occasion to examine and question our experience for the possibility of delusion (at the least). It is here that the Creed as “fence” comes in to play.

    If you have access to Fr. Sophrony’s writings, read some in his book We Shall See Him As He Is. There is a wealth of experience there – but also a faithfulness to the dogma. He is an example of how these things are not contradictory or in competition.

  37. elizabeth Avatar

    I found E’s story of the hot water bottle needed by children living near the equator to be reflective of many people’s attitude of not asking God for too much because they probably would not get it. That does not make sense to me. I thought we are encouraged to ask! In our prayer group one night people would praying for God to be with, generally help, etc., a person very much in need of healing. I spoke up and said, “Lord, actually, what we really want — and You know that — is for You to heal her.” Then others clamored in. And guess what. She was healed. I know that not every prayer will be answered exactly the way we want, but why should we expect God to answer a prayer at all if we don’t believe He can or will?

  38. […] I have since lost touch with Mary, but we both knew even then, that we were living in the Kingdom of God. […]

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