The Inverted Pyramid

No greater image of prayer and the love of God has been given in our modern time than that of the Elder Sophrony’s Inverted Pyramid. The subject of such prayer has risen. I thought to share this as an effort to shed some light.

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

Picture 021The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

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.





29 responses to “The Inverted Pyramid”

  1. Steve Avatar

    An absolutely wonderful post Father Stephen. I particularly liked this statement:

    “Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

    It is impossible to approach the fullness (or even to understand what this might mean) without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And yet, Esau lost his inheritance rights not because he was not anointed, but because he did not have a sincere heart before God who is never fooled by outward appearances.

    Unless like Jacob, we enter the dark depths we remain unchanged (like Esau) and our concern is only the outward body (or the kudos everyone can see). But God is concerned with the spirit.

    The eschatological hope of Christians is that they are visibly changed, (becoming like God through the merit of Christ). This does not happen at some future event (as some would have it) though it is completed at the end of the natural life.

    The Elder Sophrony’s inverted pyramid is the story of Esau and Jacob and the gospels are replete with examples of the inverted pyramid in action.

    Thank you, more of the same please.

  2. ochlophobist Avatar

    This is one of those posts that you have written that really irritates me because it rises in me feelings of contrition, and the first notice of contrition is generally, for me, irritating.

    I love Hauerwas. I never studied under him but I have heard him speak several times, and I have read some of his books. One of the things I like about his views on violence, that causes me to trust the man, is that he is not passive in his temperament or disposition. I have met pacifists who are, well, pretty effete and the sort that one expects to get walked all over and they seem to just want to put a divine stamp on that. That sure ain’t Hauerwas. His earthy language resonates with me. Still, there is a lingering cynicism on my part – it is a lot easier to have his views on violence when you are a well off prof at Duke than it is when you live in my neighborhood.

    The former Orthoblogger Douglas Ian Dalrymple wrote an excellent reflection on the deaths of those Amish girls at their school, when the madman came and shot them all a few years back. I wish it were still online, I think it may have been the most beautiful account I have ever read online. There is hardly a week that goes by I do not think of his reflection on that event. It is a really hard word for me. I am convinced that it is wrong for me to ever use lethal force against another human being, but I also know what I would do if someone broke into my home and threatened my daughters.

  3. Stev Avatar

    What exactly has this got to do with the subject matter Ochlo? Are you trying to justify violence?

  4. Ryan Avatar

    “the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.”
    Amazing, Father. I will remember this always as the true meaning of “kenosis”. This should be in a Troparion (if it’s not already!) 🙂

  5. […] Another classic from Father Stephen. […]

  6. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    To put on Christ surely involves putting on HIS humility. A simple concept, but a supremely difficult task. I’m only just beginning to learn how difficult! The first step is the hardest and takes the longest, I think. That is the desire to live downward with Christ.

  7. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    I recently came across this quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; it seems relevant.

    “To continue to place our hopes in a social order achieved by external violence would simply amount to our giving up all hope…”

    We see examples of this misplaced hope every day in secular politics.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would probably do the same, though it would cost me my priesthood. But Hauerwas has a good word on the matter.

  9. […] or Humility 2009 August 13 by Jason Zahariades Fr Stephen Freeman has written another great post today. (Quite frankly, when does he NOT write a great post.) Please take five minutes to read […]

  10. A Hermit in the Clefts Avatar
    A Hermit in the Clefts

    Father Stephen,

    Every time, I see the image of the Monk in his cell praying the beam of sunlight streaming througth the window and bathing him – I see the Lord somehow ministering to you – you must have been praying to receive a spiritual charism. Somehow the light is resting on you and entering you in a strenghtening way.

  11. spiritof76 Avatar

    Another great post!! It contrasts the “way of the cross” with the “sickness of religion”. Humility with that subtle form of pride that always strives to ” do it for the good of all”.

    But I think that we should not confuse non-violence with pacifism. A pacifist is not neccessarily non-violent and some one who defends their family is not neccessarily violent. We are taught to hate evil and cling to the good. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. The oposite of love is not hate but indifference. The defence of ones family can be an act of love for both your family and the one bent on harmming them.


  12. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    “Hidden Manifestation”

    This is frustratingly contradictory: “their lives frequently hidden ….. are the continuing manifestation”. Is this by design, does this mean God is hiding?

    The out come of history is not our goal, but what then do we measure? The fullness of Christ, you say. What does that mean? Is this purely relegated to the realm of the abstract, the vague, the nebulous, the elusive; to that which is hidden? What should we expect to see? Is it even right to measure (ourselves)?

    Just pondering and wondering.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    We should expect to see the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory – in its time. It is already manifest when we have the eyes to see. The humility of God is such that there is no need to be a “player” on the world stage as the world counts players. The reality of history is not for the eyes of media or those who think they know history. It is as manifest as God was manifest before Pontius Pilate, though the world would have passed that day by completely had it not been recorded in the gospel. We live for God alone – He alone gives the measure. Nothing else would have any value.

    God does not hide – but neither is He seen by any for the sake of curiosity. Blessed are the pure in heart…

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    How very strange that an act of genuine love–protecting one’s family– could cause a person to loose his priesthood, but the arrogant violence often perpatrated in the name of THE CHURCH and THE CANNONS, is not considered much of a problem.

    There are those who use the physical sword who are far less violent–they merely kill the body. What of those who kill souls? What of the violence of legalism and Pharisitical locking up of the Kingdom–encrusting it with ethno-centric voodoo and rationalized lust for power.

    It is possible to kill someone and save their soul in the process if it prevents them from murdering someone and in dying they recognize their own sin.

    Fr. Alexander F.C. Webster in his work, The Pacificst Option articulates what he calls the “Zero-sum dilemma”. That is, a pacifist, by refusing to act allows harm to come to others. The dilemma is not limited to pacifist non-action however. The person who takes up the sword to protect, often brings harm to another. As long as we live in a fallen world and our hearts are full of sin, harm will come. Only those few who, by the grace of God and unceasing prayer, have escaped either action or inaction out of their own will are free.

    It is useless moralizing to argue about the difference before we reach that point.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Regardless of the utilitarian good (the canons, the state, etc.) violence, physical or spiritual is useless. The Kingdom is not a utilitarian good. There are many ways to justify many sins. That one is bad doesn’t make the other one good. My citation of Hauerwas is worth reading. He is not what people usually expect out of a pacifist and is worth the read, though he is a Methodist and not an Orthodox Christian. I appreciate his work.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. , I wasn’t trying to justify one by the existence of the other. I hope I was was not taking a utilitarian attitude either. It just seems to me spiritual violence, especially in the Church is worse. A priest who killed someone defending his family would be deposed but there are priests and bishops guilty of far worse violence who are honored and feted and retain their priesthood. That is a problem of living in a sinful world, but to ignore the situation is not edifying in my opinion and the Church ought (I know a dangerous word) to move as quickly and decisively in both situations. She does not typically.

    My own investigation of the attitude of the Church toward physical violence showed me that it is far from unanimous that physical violence should always be eschewed. It is a question worth careful study and contemplation with few easy answers. The mere existence of an icon of St. Demetrios on horse-back spearing an enemy soldier is enough to give me pause about the question, but there is much more.

    I am not sure that it is sufficient to merely reject violence per se. We are called to spiritual warfare. When Satan sought to spiritually destroy my son, I called in all the help I could get asking for the intercession of the Bodiless Powers, the saints and the Theotokos to do battle for him, not really sleeping until the crisis had passed. There was violence being done to him and to me. Perhaps it is my limited perspective but it certainly seemed as if the demons suffered violence in return. Should I not intervene physically if the attack turned physical? Given the hypostatic union with Christ that the Church teaches and Jesus is, is allowing physical destruction out of a whole surrender to God (even when someone else’s life is at stake) the only rigtheous option?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think I would readily agree – spiritual violence is worse – and also worse because it is more insidious and harder to correct. May God deliver us.

  18. Karen Avatar

    “Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.”

    Dear Father, bless! In my heart I dearly love this teaching, but also fear its implications! How foolish we are to hold back anything from Christ for fear of suffering with Him, but that is the human predicament. What else is there, except to suffer without Him–and that is far, far worse! May the Lord have mercy on me and grant me greater courage and purer vision. I would hope one day to have the opportunity of attending a retreat with Archimandrite Zacharias. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for those books. . . . 🙂

  19. Andreas Avatar

    There are two things I’d like to comment on.

    First, the division between the outcomes of history and the fullness of Christ. Why should taking responsibility for the outcome of history be a beginning for violence? Why can’t Christians both shape history and preserve their Christian identity? Why do you, an Orthodox priest, assume that this Dostoevskean contradiction exist in the first place? Why is it a true contradiction, and not an imaginary contradiction born out of your theology rather than reflecting reality?

    I was reading the book “What is the West?”, by the French philosopher Philip Nemo. At one point he mentioned the story from the brothers Karamazov, explaining how this magnificent story reflects the tragic misunderstanding between Orthodox and Western theology. While for the Orthodox theology the Western will to organize the world is “proof” that they have forgotten God, for Western theology it is the only sincere way of worship, exactly because the human work in the world reflects the transcendent ideal that guides it. He who tries to change the world the most is he who wants from the depths of his existence to enter Heaven.

    Moreover, this assumed contradiction lies at the heart of the underdevelopment of traditionally Orthodox lands. While the West has been developing and progressing, the Orthodox East has stagnated. And Orthodox theology is to blame for that stagnation!

    Because the toll of this theological view is that great, I reckon it’s a position that must be discussed. Why take for granted that the outcomes of history are in opposition with the stature of the fullness of Christ?

    Which brings me to the second point I’d like to comment on.

    Why is the life of those charismatic elders the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst?

    By avoiding an argument (“the answer… is not a counter argument…”) you make an arbitrary position upon which you build a series of arguments and an entire story about how the world works and how man is supposed to live.

    The arbitrariness of that initial assumption, that the life of those people “manifests” the Kingdom of God, needs to be addressed. There is a series of questions that arise and one will have to reply to those questions with reasonable arguments rather than avoid arguments to preserve the assertion upon which much of the Orthodox Faith depends.

    How is this the answer when the questions don’t go away? Could it be that it’s not really the answer, but an evasion? Could it be that exactly because the questions are still there, the Orthodox view of God is mistaken and the life of those charismatic people does not validate Orthodox theology but points to something else, something different than the Orthodox God?

    These are issues I’d like to see addressed. I’d like to see reason and the life of faith be in harmony with each other, and reason forming faith, rather than using faith as a way to evade the tough questions and subdue reason.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    Many questions and reasonable.

    I have suggested what I have about the “outcomes of history” (actually citing a protestant theologian – Stanley Hauerwas) because, in agreement with him, I recognize that God has already settled the outcome of history in His Pascha. I do not have to make Pascha happen. It has already happened and is being made manifest among us in those who will live in accordance with God’s will.

    There are things which all of us should do in obedience to God’s commandments. The Orthodox teach this as clearly as anyone. However, it is another leap to project such obedient actions forward in an intellectual scheme that see them as “changing the world.” It is these intellectualized schemes that I am critiquing as idealistic substitutions for the Gospel. They have, at their worst, produced some of the greatest suffering the world has ever seen.

    What you describe as “developing and progressing” is interesting. Are we to measure development by economic progress? Is the Kingdom of God found in our GDP?

    I do not avoid the argument – but suggest rather that the answer to the argument is found in a human life – not in another rationalized diatribe. “The Kingdom of God is not in word but in power.” St. Seraphim of Sarov (one of those great elders) taught, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

    My assertion that such individuals are a manifestation of the Kingdom of God is not an arbitrary assumption, but a proclamation of the Orthodox faith. It is why we canonize such persons and declare them to be saints. Strangely, we do not canonize state planners and economists – those great builders of the engines of Western commercial republics. Their works come and go. The life of the saint and the thousands saved around him abide forever.

    The questions “do not go away” because what God has given us in the life of His Church is not the blueprint for fixing and improving life on earth – but the proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It has come in the Person of Christ and continues to come whether the world knows it yet or not.

    Reason and faith are certainly in harmony with each other – but reason must first be redeemed and faith must be the true faith.

  21. Ryan Avatar

    Increasingly, the world has accepted the “Gospel of Prosperity”, instead of the Gospel of Christ. The “Good News” is not earthly riches, but spiritual riches of course. That said, Andreas makes a point, that “changing history” can occur in a Christian context when put in terms of innovation – which may in turn be triggers of economic and political “progress”. (recent progress in agricultural methods is a prime example). The motives for that innovation should always be carefully examined by the Christian innovator. He/she must duly accept the consequences of “changing history”.

  22. Damaris Avatar

    “Reason and faith are certainly in harmony with each other – but reason must first be redeemed and faith must be the true faith.”

    I think I’d like to print this on a twenty-foot banner that I would carry with me at all times. Not practical, I know, especially for crowded buses and public restrooms, but I really appreciate the expansion of the terms reason and faith. Thank you.

  23. Karen Avatar

    Andreas, even Protestants recognize in principle that mature believers are those in whom the fruit of the Spirit is manifest and which in turn qualifies such spiritually mature individuals for positions of leadership (elders & deacons). I would think all biblically informed Christians would recognize that there are those in the Church (even in the records of the NT–I think of instructions in 1 Timothy and in Titus and also Acts 6:3-5, for example) who qualify for those positions over others. If Orthodox Christians recognize Saints and charismatic Elders in their midst (as those who have attained maturity in Christ according to the norms given in Scripture), why shouldn’t this be considered a manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth? I don’t quite grasp why you would question such outstanding spiritually mature men and women being considered (according to the Scriptural teaching) a manifestation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. What am I missing?

  24. Andreas Avatar

    Father Stephen, my last comment (and your reply to it) do not show up in the page. Karen’s comment is the last comment that shows up. I think something’s wrong.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar


    After working on a response for awhile, I was not satisfied. There was too much to say. I chose to remove the comment and my response. Sorry. It’s just a choice I make on behalf of the site – sometimes the comment takes things too far afield and is better left off if not addressed. I meant no animosity.

    You opened up an area, generally known as “esoteric” spirituality, that is, from an Orthodox perspective, highly problematic. I would like to address it at some point, and felt it needed a response, but far more than could be done right now. Thanks for understanding and for your patience.

  26. Andreas Avatar

    Oh, I see.

  27. Micah Avatar

    Another great post Fr. Stephen.

    The eternal treasures that the Lord speaks of are always found in the most unexpected of places. Not where moth and rust destroy but in the deeper heart of man. And what better illustration of this than the royal we hidden away in the Lord’s prayer?

    The idea that God breathes on creation, unbidden and nearly always hidden, is often overlooked. Do not wonder why, after speaking words of peace following His resurrection, the Lord performs an action as simple as breathing (see John 20).

    Thus He brings forth, through the Church, the fragrant calamus of the Chant of the Paschal Troparion:

    Christ is risen from the dead,
    Trampling down death by death,
    And upon those in the tombs
    Bestowing life!

    What He sees His Father do, that He does.

    Christ is in our midst!

  28. Steve Avatar

    Wonderful, just wonderful!

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