A Nature That Is Less Than Obvious

In modern usage, the word “nature” generally refers to growing things – “the great outdoors.” Having been born in the ’50’s, I have been the veteran of several “back to nature” campaigns. There is a sense, at least as old as the Enlightenment, that if we could only get ourselves “back to nature,” things would be alright. Some of the present day environmental movement has this sense about things. Green is good.

Christian theology also uses the word “nature,” but in a far more precise sense. The word was borrowed from Greek Philosophy and given a different meaning – one which eventually did double service – becoming part of the carefully worded doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as well as the equally nuanced doctrine of the incarnation of Christ (Christology). Later Protestant theology would take the same word and push it into further use – or offer varying takes on its meaning. Thus it is not unusual in some strands of Protestant theology to discuss precisely what is meant by the statement “fallen nature.”

The use of the word “nature” (Greek: physis) was also used interchangeably with “being” (Greek: ousia), and by the 6th and 7th century had acquired an extremely precise usage in the Church’s continued refinement of the Council of Chalcedon (457 A.D.). Perhaps the most precise usage was that found in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (whose feastday was but a week or so ago). His thought is frequently difficult, occasionally almost impenetrable. But much of what he wrote is quite important, even if often neglected.

I have been reading Andrew Louth’s book, Maximus the Confessor, with great interest lately and deep appreciation. I found a particular  passage (among many) worth noting:

Willing is a natural power, that desires what is natural….But with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfillment. For, in their fallen state, rational creatures are no longer aware of their true good, which is God. Various apparent goods attract them: they are confused, they need to deliberate and consider, and their way of willing shares in all this.

Maximus (and the Orthodox Church) teaches that the nature of something (or someone) is not fallen. Everything and everyone created by God was created good, and in its nature remains unchanged – else it would be something other than what it is. Nature is an answer to the question: what is it? If it has a human nature – it is a human. Were its nature changed – it would be something else.

This runs counter to much modern Christian thought – where nature is either used in a less nuanced manner – or where the traditional teaching of the Church is unknown or rejected. It is a commonly held opinion among many modern Christians, that human beings have “fallen natures,” some taking this into a misuse of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity and concluding that people are basically bad.

We are not basically (or naturally) bad. Human beings, and all of creation, are, by nature, good. Maximus offers a more precise understanding of our fallen state: our own nature has become opaque to us. We do not see who we are and what we are. We do not clearly see what is naturally good (the good that is naturally desired within our being). We were created for God, but this is not clear to us.

Thus, Maximus teaches, we find ourselves in a confused state. We have to “deliberate and consider.” Making choices is the stuff of our lives and we often do it badly.

None of this is to say that the confused state of humanity does not result in great evil – for it obviously does. Our confusion is more than a mental aberration. Our confusion is existential. Our own nature has become opaque to us: what it means to be human is not at all clear.

This can be taken a step further. It is the very desire of our nature to want God. But just as our nature is not clear to us, so God Himself is not clear to us. Confusion darkens our thoughts even when we turn to God.

Without the work of grace, the fathers taught, our confusion would leave us in rebellion against God (and our own nature). The Christian life, our growth in grace, is a movement from glory to glory, returning to the truth of our being, returning to union with God in whose image we were created.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12).
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

What is not now obvious will be someday. What is not clear today will be someday. What seems confused and opaque will someday shine like the noonday sun – when the glory of God is revealed.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





57 responses to “A Nature That Is Less Than Obvious”

  1. Yannis Avatar

    A beauty of a post. I always felt a chill at these words “for now we see through a glass, darkly”‘; A chill for what lies beyond…



  2. Neil Avatar

    Thanks for the post. There was a similar quote found in the church bulletin today, about human nature from St. Mark the Hermit:

    “The proud one does no know himself. If he knew himself and his own stupidity, he would not be conceited.”

    I think it fits nicely with your quote from St. Maximus the Confessor.

  3. Mike Avatar

    Perhaps we can then understand what is often referred to as “the fall” as a falling away from our true nature, rather than a change in our nature, and sin is whatever is contrary to nature.

  4. Yannis Avatar

    Nice posting about father Lazarus Mike,
    he also appears in “Extreme Pigrim”, the BBC reality show headed by an Agglican priest trying to show traditions that he believes kept what Agglicanism lost in spiritual terms (other episodes include Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Kung Fu Monks). Despite the “exciting” title and the reality format that make the programme commercial, it is not bad at all.

    The episode about F. Lazarus and St Anthony’s monastery can be found here:

    Father Lazarus is a hermit in St Anthony’s Monastery. I was particularly impressed by his “bed” description in your video: “if i wake, fine, if not…” – life and death the same: a true spiritual master.



  5. Tim Avatar

    Indeed, I’ve always been taught that those who say mankind is “essentially good,” and that people are “good in nature” were wrong–that they were ignorant of scripture and of the fall of mankind. I also regarded those who professed such beliefs as having an unrealisticly optimistic, selective word view of the intentions and actions of his fellow man.

    As I turn to Orthodoxy, I see this is a very wrong thing to have once believed, however, I would deeply appreciate more teaching on the subject. I suppose this is a hard thing to get through my head due to the weighty differences in the creation account between western and eastern Christendom.

    Thank you for your post, Father.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, that would be correct.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    For some the entire question might sound like quibbling. After all, Orthodoxy does not deny that people do evil. But it seems important to me to understand the nature of the created order and what is actually at work in us (including how God is working our salvation within us). The position that “nature” has somehow become evil is a very serious error and can lead to some disastrous conclusions. Bad theology is not always obvious in its deleterious effects – but given time – bad theology is always a disaster.

  8. Theo1973 Avatar

    Hi Father,

    I’d like to ask about the ramifications of this for Immaculate Conception.

    Christ then, could have been born from any woman? He did not need to be born from a perfect woman? Am i in the ball park? If impurity of Heart does not mar our nature but means we fall from it, then no one is born with original sin? If it is not a sin to be falling from nature, could Christ have been born falling from nature. If not, what did He restore?

  9. Nick Avatar


    St. Origen, Scholar and Theologian of Alexandria, Greek Church Father

    This Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one (Homily 1 [A.D. 244]).

    St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Latin Church Father

    Come, then, and search out your sheep, not through your servants or hired men, but do it yourself. Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin (Commentary on Psalm 118:22-30 [A.D. 387]).

    St. Gregory the Theologian, Latin Church Father

    He was conceived by the virgin, who had been first purified by the Spirit in soul and body; for, as it was fitting that childbearing should receive its share of honor, so it was necessary that virginity should receive even greater honor (Sermon 38 [d. A.D. 390]).

    St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople, Latin Church Father

    As He formed her without any stain of her own, so He proceeded from her contracting no stain (Homily 1[ante A.D. 446]).

  10. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar

    Theo1973, although you have not addressed this to me, I think you are correct. I am suspicious that the doctrine of the IC is at odds with Maximus’ Christology (and others’).

  11. Seraphim Avatar

    I hope I don’t come off as rude by trying to answer Theo1973’s question before Father gets to it, but I want to see what Father has to say about my suggestion as well.

    In order to freely choose something as profound in its ramifications for humanity as the birth of our Savior, the Theotokos had to know in perfect freedom what she was doing – which means that her nature (the nature to be divinized by her Son) could not have been in the slightest way opaque to her. Just as Eve knew what she was doing at least in a fully human sense when she acted for all humanity by sinning, so our Lady Theotokos had to have had all the more knowledge of what she was doing in order to conceive the Savior for us – given the proportion between the gravity of her act and Eve’s, I would think she must have been granted the plenitude of theosis (at least as far as it is possible for a human to receive) in order to become the Mother of God.

    And, quite frankly, I don’t see why she would have been born immaculate if it were not proper for her to be – and we know that she was, because, well, the Liturgy says so. She is “more honorable than the Cherubim and in glory beyond all compare than the Seraphim [the plenitude of theosis!], who without spot did give birth to God the Word [hence she must have been immaculate from the very beginning of her life, or at least before she could have sinned].” And she’s treated as immaculate in the prayers I was taught: “To your protection do we fly, O Mary Theotokos; despise then not our cry. From every peril shelter us, for you alone are immaculate – the Mother of God.”

    And it was taught by both St. Gregory Palamas and St. Peter Mohyla. The point is, if she IS immaculate, then since God ordained things that way, I don’t think it would have been proper – on such a momentous occasion in “salvation history” – for things to have been otherwise.

    What do you say to this, Father?


  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not expert in the matters of the immaculate conception – other than to know that though the Orthodox Church certainly holds that Mary is without sin (immaculate), we do not particularly teach the immaculate conception as is held in the Roman Catholic Church, largely because of the views of original sin required in that doctrine – views which are not common among the fathers of the East. It is a leap to go from quoting a father, such as Nick does, who speaks of Mary’s sinlessness, to the full blown Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

    I have heard at least one Orthodox priest comment that, given Maximus’ Christology and understanding of nature, we are all born without sin. But Seraphim’s comments regarding Mary’s nature not being opaque to her, I think, is indeed worthy of consideration. I find it a helpful suggestion – but one that I’ll have to take with me deeper into my reading in the matter. I cannot say what I do not know (or have good references for).

    Nick, surely you did not mean to say “St. Origen” since he was declared a heretic by an ecumenical council. He’s an important early thinker in Christianity, but cannot be considered either a Church father or a saint.

    Orthodoxy recognizes that we are born into a broken world, and that we ourselves are fallen (as St. Maximus describes it). But does not have a teaching of original sin in the sense of an inherited guilt from Adam. We’ve inherited a disorder (our nature is opaque to us to use the phrase quoted earlier). We are disordered, confused, and do not know the good in order to do it. Our will (the “gnomic will” as Maximus calls it) is a disaster. But sin is not a legal matter (as I have often wrote). We do not have a legal problem. We have a problem on the level of our very existence. Jesus did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live – as I have stated frequently.

    Sorry I cannot write with more clarity on some of these questions.

  13. Yannis Avatar

    Sorry to wedge in the discussion to say irrelevancies,

    i just forgot to mention that there is a first hand interesting account about F. Lazarus by a compatriot of his, the author James Cowan.

    His book on the subject is entitled: Desert Father: In the Desert with Saint Anthony, and is currently in my to-read list.


    Just thought that others may find it interesting.



  14. Nick Avatar

    All I know about St. Origen is that he’s honored by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. He has – or had – a feast day in both churches.

  15. Nick Avatar

    I found something about him here: http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?p=851156

    “Origen is not considered to be either a saint or a Father of the Church because he embraced a heresy known as the apokatastasis (the belief that all must necessarily be saved). However, because of his importance as an early Christian writer and because of his orthodoxy on most issues, he is often quoted alongside early Church Fathers when demonstrating the antiquity of orthodox Christian belief.”

    I guess the site I got the info on him from was wrong. Gotta be more careful, than.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Origen was a very important and influential thinker – although those of the fathers who were most influenced by him corrected his work rather profoundly. His errors consisted in far more than the apokatastasis.

    This is a great difficulty in quoting the fathers. It is necessary to read them – or spend time in works about them – going beyond quotes or the like.

    We should all be careful not to be in too much of a hurry about theological things. The point, always, is to truly know God. We should not hold doctrine as an opinion – a thing to be proved or argued. We should work and pray towards perceiving doctrine as a “verbal icon of Christ” (to use G. Florovsky’s phrase). In approach a dogma of the Church we should move with fear and trembling, and beg to know the mystery which has been given to us. Such knowledge changes us, works salvation within us (to some degree as we pray and fast, etc.).

  17. Pontificator Avatar

    I wonder what the relationship of this “original confusion” might be to the presence, or more specifically, absence, of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit can never be truly absent, yet many in the history of the Church, East and West, have spoken of man being born into a state of spiritual death, a state that must be remedied by regeneration in the Spirit.

    I suppose I am always looking for contacts between East and West. The Catholic Church in its authoritative teaching, e.g., speaks of original sin as the absence of sanctifying grace, the absence of which makes it impossible for individuals to truly seek and find their ultimate Good–hence the necessity of rebirth in the Spirit. I wonder if the existential manifestation of the absence of sanctifying grace is the confusion of which Maximus speaks. Just wondering.

  18. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar

    Is should also be noted that Apokatastasis appears only on the edict of Justinian (he is condemned for a variety of heresies at 2nd Const., but Apokatastasis is not on the list). There is some question as to how authoritative Justinian’s edict is. Complicating the matter, we have no copy of the acts of the council in Greek. Nevertheless, there are at least 18 other points on which Origen is probably condemned.

  19. skholiast Avatar

    From what I have read (and I am not a great scholar on the matter), even St Maximus may have considered apocatastasis. I have not read Louth, but Thunberg’s book on Maximus (Microcosm and Mediator) suggests that the question is open.

    Thank you for this post on nature. I tend to think (and my impression is that this is fairly common in thinking regarding Orthodoxy during the last century or so) of Orthodoxy as focusing far more on the question of the Person than on Nature– ‘nature’, it is sometimes suggested, being a more ‘metaphysical’ a notion and foreign to the way Orthodoxy thinks. But obviously this is too summary a conclusion. I also greatly appreciated your comment that we should “not be in too much of a hurry about theological things.”

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    That is worth a wonder, Pontificator.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I speak from experience (more or less) on not being in a hurry. My reflection is that hurrying never got me anywhere (spiritually). There were many times in my life that I wanted too much too soon – and in so doing missed out on what was indeed presently at hand.

  22. Nick Avatar

    The only hurrying Jesus likes is when He hurries to a prodigal son that has returned to Him after living a life of sin.

  23. simona Avatar

    Father Arsenie Boca, from Romania is a good example of the Holy Spirit working along with the human. Event after his death in 1989 miracles happen at his tomb. And his writings and painting can give you the strength and desire to live a truly wonderful life. Too bad they are in Romanian and I can not send them to you.

    Here is a pict of his tomb:

  24. Burning Hearts Avatar
    Burning Hearts

    How true.

    The world certainly believes it is “born without sin”. And yet this thesis universally leads to the antithetical “absence of sanctifying grace”.

    In the life of the Church, crucifixion and resurrection are reunited in each moment. Her existence in non-linear time is fully corporate. Everything else takes on illusory qualities.

  25. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    “The first union that God had with man in Paradise was not hypostatic and for this it failed. The second union is hypostatic namely personal. In the hypostatic face of Christ, human nature was united undisturbed, properly, indivisibly, inseparably, with the divine nature for ever. No matter how much men sin, it is no more possible for human nature to separate from God, because in Jesus Christ, the God-man, it is united for ever with the divine nature.”– Abbot, Archimandrite George of our Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory of the Holy Mountain. 1989

  26. luciasclay Avatar

    You discuss nature and speak of thing or person. My understanding of nature has changed after contemplating the words in the blessing of the water in the western church, “…I excorcise this creature…”.

    The idea that all creation is a creature, simply a hiearchy of creature from the ranks of angels to man, the animals, the plants, the rocks etc.

    The reasons the idea of nature/creature/creation is so key is that we believe that things, like people, can be infested with the demonic. This likewise is why we believe things can be blessed, as in the holy oils/waters/salts.

    That things/places can be cursed is not something to be known by debate its something known by experience.

    Without going all panthiestic do we then conclude that all things likewise, as you say above things/people, have natures ?

  27. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    But, if all of creation is now united forever with the devine nature, how could anything be cursed in its nature? Is this not gnostic dulism? Superstition and magic?

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Absolutely, everything has a nature. No nature, no existence. You can read occasionally about some in the Church (saints) having knowledge of the logoi of created things – which is a reference to their nature. And it is easy to see, in this, that the nature of things is “opaque” to us. We do not know, in our broken state, the true nature of the things around us.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Creation, in Christ, is now united forever with the Divine nature (because Christ united the human (creation) with the Divine in His incarnation). But nothing is cursed in its nature – don’t think I said that. The union of the the created with the uncreated begins in Christ – but in the meantime – while we await the fulfillment of all things – there is still battle to be done. In saying that a things might be “infested with the demonic” – to use lucias’ phrase – we would not be saying that the thing is “infested in its nature.” Its nature remains unchanged.

    In the Orthodox blessing of the water we pray that no demon would “hide himself” in the water. I sort of like that phrase. Doesn’t explain much, but it’s clear that it does not become the water (or infest the nature of the water).

  30. Burning Hearts Avatar
    Burning Hearts

    Well put Father.

    Let us remind ourselves that it is the nature of the Devil, which is also his name as Diabolos, to slander all of mankind. This, in a sense, is his job — so to speak.

    He slanders all for he knows too well, that Christ died to save all without distinction and without prejudice. But in this we are assisted by the power of the Spirit to uncover that which has been hidden since the beginning of time.

    The significance of Theophany as Epiphany is well worth thinking about and even more, praying about.

    Bless your soul Father, you are a good man.

  31. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Thanks for tackling this subject again. As I reflect on my experience as a Protestant, in teaching I received about the Fall of man, the need to be born again, and the role of the Holy Spirit in this process, I was many times given the impression that our initial creation in the image of God had indeed for all intents and purposes been destroyed by satan (a distortion of Calvin’s doctrine that you mention) and that being born again involved something analogous to apples being turned into oranges (rather than a rotting apple being restored to health (which I think would be a more proper analogy). The result was a lot of confusion about the meaning of Scripture and also an exaggeration in my thinking about the difference between the baptized and those outside the faith. I’m grateful for Orthodox teaching which has begun to clear up a lot of this confusion. Yesterday at church an infant was baptized. In the prayers of the baptismal liturgy, there was reference to “Christ Who enlightens *every man* coming into the world. . . . (my emphasis)” Orthodox teaching about our human nature in the image of God has also validated my intuitive conviction that it is more appropriate to marvel at the beauty and innocence of an infant or small child and look to nurture that child’s trust, self control, etc., than to see children as inherently evil and needing to be rigidly controlled and harshly disciplined as they grow because of their inherently “sinful nature.” Generally, Hollywood exaggerates the degree to which this harsher attitude is reflected in some conservative Christian circles, but I have seen it and have always found it deeply disturbing. It strikes me also as much more glorifying to God to acknowledge that what He has created remains good, in spite of our alienation from it and abuse of it. Also, I note that looking to see Christ in every human being doesn’t make sense outside of this more Orthodox perspective either.

  32. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    I’m glad you cleared that up. Thats the way I was thinking of it but wasn’t sure.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Jesus words “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” indicates two things to me: 1. All need to repent, therefor all are in sin; 2. Forgiveness is readily available to all who repent.

    Further the full forgiveness was pronounced by Jesus from the Cross which indicates to me that while forgiveness is readily available the process of repentance is often a struggle.

  34. Burning Hearts Avatar
    Burning Hearts

    Quite right Michael. We experience the Kingdom of God “in between times” between the “not yet” and the “already now”.

  35. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Did you know that no one, not even scientists and philosophers, have been able to prove the existence of God? Not in all the thousands of years that there have been scientists and philosophers, they haven’t. But that doesn’t bother me too much. They haven’t been able to prove there own existence either. No.

    The best that they have come up with is , “I think, therefore, I am”. They can’t do better than that. How sad…..

    But we Christians are aware of some one other than our selves. We do not close ourselves off or envelope ourselves in. There is ANOTHER. And there is love. We Christians can’t prove our existence either… other than to say: ” I am loved, therefore, I am.”

    As I study the Orthodox faith I keep running into the word “existential”. That really bugs me. Mostly because I have never been able to figure out what it means. I can not find any pat definition of the word. I have studied philosophy for years and still I do not know exactly what it means. Because I am not smart enough. Other than the fact that existentialism is the philosophy that led from “modernism” (complete rationalism) to “post-modernism” (completely irrational), I know nothing about it. The phrase, “ I think, therefore, I am”, is supposed to encapsulate existential philosophy. Or perhaps, “ if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?” But, really, what does that mean?

    But I think that it is beginning to sink in though. At least the way that Orthodoxy uses the word. We Orthodox think that we exist because some one, Father, wants us to. I am, because He wants me to be. Astounding! And not as just another object of creation out of nothing, like a rock or even a tree, but as a person. Another other. To relate all things, along with my self, to the One who eternally is. And to participate in the one who, as The Christ, recapitulates all of creation in his own person. Ineffable!

    So, could it be that when we say that something is “existential”, or that something exists, we mean that it pertains to this love between persons? Because that is the basis of all existence? Could if be that communion is everything?

  36. Frank Avatar

    Blaise Pascal,


    Section II: The Misery of Man Without God

    72. Man’s disproportion. — This is where our innate knowledge leads us. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it be true, he finds therein great cause for humiliation, being compelled to abase himself in one way or another. […]

    For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

    What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.

    If we are well informed, we understand that, as nature has graven her image and that of her Author on all things, they almost all partake of her double infinity. Thus we see that all the sciences are infinite in the extent of their researches. […]

    Of these two Infinites of science, that of greatness is the most palpable, and hence a few persons have pretended to know all things. […]

    But the infinitely little is the least obvious. Philosophers have much oftener claimed to have reached it, and it is here they have all stumbled. […]

    We naturally believe ourselves far more capable of reaching the centre of things than of embracing their circumference. The visible extent of the world visibly exceeds us; but as we exceed little things, we think ourselves more capable of knowing them. And yet we need no less capacity for attaining the Nothing than the All. Infinite capacity is required for both, and it seems to me that whoever shall have understood the ultimate principles of being might also attain to the knowledge of the Infinite. The one depends on the other, and one leads to the other. These extremes meet and reunite by force of distance and find each other in God, and in God alone. […]

    Limited as we are in every way, this state which holds the mean between two extremes is present in all our impotence. Our senses perceive no extreme. […] Extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, or we them.

    This is our true state. […] This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses. […]

    In comparison with these Infinites, all finites are equal, and I see no reason for fixing our imagination on one more than on another. The only comparison which we make of ourselves to the finite is painful to us. […]

    The parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole. […]

    Since everything, then, is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail. […]

    And what completes our incapability of knowing things is the fact that they are simple and that we are composed of two opposite natures, different in kind, soul and body. For it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself. It is impossible to imagine how it should know itself.

    So, if we are simply material, we can know nothing at all; and if we are composed of mind and matter, we cannot know perfectly things which are simple, whether spiritual or corporeal. […]

    Instead of receiving the ideas of these things in their purity, we colour them with our own qualities, and stamp with our composite being all the simple things which we contemplate.

    Who would not think, seeing us compose all things of mind and body, but that this mixture would be quite intelligible to us? Yet it is the very thing we least understand. Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.

  37. Frank Avatar

    I hold it true, whate’er befall;
    I feel it, when I sorrow most;
    ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
    Than never to have loved at all.

    — Alfred, Lord Tennyson,


    Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
    Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
    By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
    Believing where we cannot prove;

    Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
    Thou madest Life in man and brute;
    Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
    Is on the skull which thou hast made.

    Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
    Thou madest man, he knows not why,
    He thinks he was not made to die;
    And thou hast made him: thou art just.

    . . .


    Oh yet we trust that somehow good
    Will be the final goal of ill,
    To pangs of nature, sins of will,
    Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

    That nothing walks with aimless feet;
    That not one life shall be destroy’d,
    Or cast as rubbish to the void,
    When God hath made the pile complete;

    That not a worm is cloven in vain;
    That not a moth with vain desire
    Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
    Or but subserves another’s gain.

    Behold, we know not anything;
    I can but trust that good shall fall
    At last–far off–at last, to all,
    And every winter change to spring.

    So runs my dream: but what am I?
    An infant crying in the night:
    An infant crying for the light:
    And with no language but a cry.


    The wish, that of the living whole
    No life may fail beyond the grave,
    Derives it not from what we have
    The likest God within the soul?

    Are God and Nature then at strife,
    That Nature lends such evil dreams?
    So careful of the type she seems,
    So careless of the single life;

    That I, considering everywhere
    Her secret meaning in her deeds,
    And finding that of fifty seeds
    She often brings but one to bear,

    I falter where I firmly trod,
    And falling with my weight of cares
    Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
    That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

    I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
    And gather dust and chaff, and call
    To what I feel is Lord of all,
    And faintly trust the larger hope.


    “So careful of the type?” but no.
    From scarped cliff and quarried stone
    She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
    I care for nothing, all shall go.

    ‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
    I bring to life, I bring to death:
    The spirit does but mean the breath:
    I know no more.” And he, shall he,

    Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
    Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
    Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
    Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

    Who trusted God was love indeed
    And love Creation’s final law–
    Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

    Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
    Who battled for the True, the Just,
    Be blown about the desert dust,
    Or seal’d within the iron hills?

    No more? A monster then, a dream,
    A discord. Dragons of the prime,
    That tare each other in their slime,
    Were mellow music match’d with him.

    O life as futile, then, as frail!
    O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
    What hope of answer, or redress?
    Behind the veil, behind the veil.

    . . .

    Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
    On knowledge; under whose command
    Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand
    Is Nature like an open book;

    No longer half-akin to brute,
    For all we thought and loved and did,
    And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed
    Of what in them is flower and fruit;

    Whereof the man, that with me trod
    This planet, was a noble type
    Appearing ere the times were ripe,
    That friend of mine who lives in God,

    That God, which ever lives and loves,
    One God, one law, one element,
    And one far-off divine event,
    To which the whole creation moves.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the quoted material. If possible, such quotes should be given as a link rather than entirely entered as a comment… lengthy quotes slow down the comments section for other readers. They become a separate post which defeats the purpose of the comments.

  39. Cheryl Avatar

    Father, bless,

    A side comment that is off-topic (sorry). I am going to be chrismated on Holy Saturday this year. I don’t comment much anymore, but I still read your blog daily–or as often as you post–and am so thankful for you and the work that you do. God has surely used your blog in leading me to the fullness of Orthodoxy, and for that I am very grateful.

    May God bless you and continue to use your blog for His glory.

    Cheryl (soon to be taking the name “Miriam” in honor of St. Mary Magdalene)

  40. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    Cheryl (Miriam)

    That’s awesome, for me it was June (Pentecost). May God the Father bless and keep you and may the Holy Spirit continue to illuminate your being.

    Joel (James)

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God bless you and protect you during this coming Lent! What a joy to read of anybody’s entry into the Church. I am deeply grateful that people find this blog to be of help – it means very much to me.

  42. Yannis Avatar

    Speaking of humble men devoted to God, Met. Anthony Bloom of Surozh was another person that emanated the aura of true piety. An intelligent man and a doctor with a profound view on the spiritual.

    His self conversion story is amazing in itself, and his sermons are also deep and uncompromising; many can be found here:

    There is in youtube a 3 part interesting interview of him, by a very… unconvinced and skeptical interviewer inquiring about the nature of suffering:




  43. Frank Avatar


  44. Frank Avatar

    Recommended readings:

    Blaise Pascal, “Pensees”
    (Section II. Thought 72)

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A. H. H.”
    (Preface, Canto XXVII, LIV, LV, LVI, Epilogue)

  45. […] post itself is worth a read and has little to do specifically with the comment I’m quoting. 2- This is […]

  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yannis and Burning Hearts, Yeamlak, et al, obviously my sins are too well-hidden behind the screen.

  47. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the lovely post.

    Last year I had the chance to study some of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the middle chapters of Romans. In them he seems to be at great pains to affirm both the goodness of our physical bodies (“flesh”) and the goodness of our nature (evidently even some of his contemporaries wanted to use the Apostle Paul’s words to declare human flesh or human nature evil). His most gripping argument, to my mind, is his simple observation that if our flesh or our nature were evil, the holy Son of God could not have shared them through His Incarnation.

    I have also been moved by some of David Bentley Hart’s essays (e.g., “Christ and Nothing”) explaining how modern man no longer believes himself to have a nature and how he has redefined “freedom” to mean the unfettered expression of his will — which ends up being only abject slavery to his own passions.

    Of course this all begs the question, how do we rediscover our nature and learn to submit our wills to it?

  48. Yannis Avatar

    F. Stephen,
    so are ours.



  49. Collator Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I think that your basic intuition in this post is correct and that the Fathers do often speak of nature in this way. But if I remember correctly, they sometimes articulate the problem of sin and death in a way that is close to speaking of a fallen nature. I don’t remember the details; Fr. Florovsky has written on this in relation to St. Maximos, and I think Fr. Louth may have done so in his book on St. John of Damascus.

    If I remember rightly (a lot of ifs so far!) it boils down to saying that human nature is fallen in the sense that it is now subject to death and corruption. This affects the will, the mind, and the other faculties of human nature. Human nature is not sinful per se, because only individual human beings as person can sin, not human nature in general (this would be logically and theologically nonsensical). That is why it was possible for Christ to concretely assume human nature free from sin, but still be in total solidarity with the rest of Adam by being voluntarily subject to death. By his Incarnation and all its workings — Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, etc. — Christ restores human nature to immortality and incorruptibility, at least potentially. This potentiality will be realized for all people at the Second Coming, regardless of whether they are righteous or wicked. But the free choice of each person in response to Christ’s gift of immortality determines how each will experience this restoration of nature — as a divine fire of light, warmth, and joy or fire of darkness, burning, and gnashing of teeth. Incidentally, this is what St. Maximos’ interpretation of apocatastasis is, according to Fr. Florovsky, thus distinguishing it very clearly from Origen’s version — the word is the same, but means different things!
    This can be found, along with many other things, in an online version of Fr. Florovsky’s writings on St. Maximos:

    But I think that even speaking of human nature as being corrupted by the fall is simply to acknowledge that human nature separated from God will “naturally” decay and die (St. Athanasios states this very clearly in _On the Incarnation_). Thus, to conclude, our nature is fallen or even evil insofar as it is subject to corruption and death (God did not will death, hence it is, so to speak, evil, but can be used by God for good, as a chastisement), but not morally evil, which I assume is what Calvin and his ilk meant when they spoke of total depravity. Moral evil is, however, endemic to human nature inasmuch as corruptibility makes it difficult for man to choose the good — as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, the devil held mankind in life-long bondage through the fear of death.

  50. Burning Hearts Avatar
    Burning Hearts

    Quite so Yannis, Fr. Stephen et al., this is most certainly always the case with me. But how incomparably greater is the latter state, than the former!! Sin, when redeemed, itself reveals the innate goodness contained within all of creation. I look forward to more posts on this.

  51. Micah Avatar


    The following thoughts ran through my mind as I read your burning question:

    “How do we rediscover our nature and learn to submit our wills to it?”

    1. When the Holy Spirit infuses our nature we are often unable to respond adequately because our moral compass is not calibrated properly. We often find ourselves in a “not yet” but “already now” situation. What to do?

    2. The Holy Spirit will make a way. Christ remember, is “the Door” that allows us to move from one situation to the other no matter hoe seemingly impossible in the eyes of the world. While this is a journey that may take a lifetime, there are often significant markers along the way. The more markers the better, if only to assist in regaining track should the pilgrim become disoriented at any point.

    3. Dashing oneself against the Presence of God will be very effective in demolishing the wall of stubborn resistance that always crowds out the Holy Light of Life.

    I hope this helps,

    God bless.

  52. Yannis Avatar

    There was a poem i once read:

    “Like a car without wheels
    a bird without wings
    a boat out of the sea”

    JRR Tolkien said it, perhaps, best though:

    “The wise speak only of what they know”

    But wisdom is hard to come by, and mercy and understanding even harder, especially when they are trumpeted from the rooftoops.

    Even the best intentions become a struggle of conformity in the end, when the means are taken for the goal.

    So in the end one has to dig a tone of dirt to find a drop of water.

    If lucky that is.

  53. John Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Much is made of Orthodoxy as being “mystical” as opposed to Catholic and Protestant traditions. Would this be because God’s immanence is associated with being itself? Not to the extent to confuse the two natures but in terms of pure Grace on the part of God? Christ is always “at hand”?

    If this is the case would the older Western Augustinian view be more in line with Orthodoxy?

    Is this what current debates about the Analogy of Being revolve around?

  54. Amritbir Kaur Avatar

    I am glad to have visited your blog. It was indeed enlightening…
    Though every word was very meaningful, I marvelled at your thoughts when you wrote: “But just as our nature is not clear to us, so God Himself is not clear to us. Confusion darkens our thoughts even when we turn to God”….how true! We all a world of doubts within us…even at sightest hint of some dark and dreary moments in our life we start doubting the very existence of God. But we fail to accept life as it is..a mixture of roses and thorns. My principle of life is: be positive, think positive and things would not stay the same, they change…and so life goes on..
    Thanks for sharing your inspring and noble ideas. I will visit again very soon.

  55. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Father Stephen:

    Can you provide a sentence or two commentary regarding how Calvin himself did not hold to the “Calvinist’s” theory of total depravity regarding human nature?

  56. fatherstephen Avatar

    Actually I cannot. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. 🙂

  57. […] Father Stephen has been conducting an excellent discourse on this in his blog (as, serendipitously, we have been discussing a similar subject in this season in my own church).  I would encourage all to read these posts as he is considerably better versed in our traditional understanding of these subjects (a good starting point is this post). […]

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