You Never Pray Alone

Forgive me if this offers any offense.

There is a conception of what it means to be human, rooted in Medieval thought and refined in the furnace of modernity. This conception views each person as a “free moral agent.” Each of us is a unique individual. Our choices are our own and set our path for good or ill. Moral decisions may be submitted to varying forms of ethical tests. The choices each individual makes may effect others around him, but does not impinge on the free moral agency of others. Salvation, in this conception, is an individual matter – between each of us and God. The Church, in this conception, is a free association of free moral agents, who gather together for worship and praise and other matters of mutual benefit.

This conception of humanity runs counter to the Tradition of the Church, substituting much later definitions and understandings for the thought of those who wrote Scripture, and those who, following them faithfully, propounded the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries. (A suggestion for reading – Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.)

When this matrix of a human as an individual moral agent is used as a lens through which Scripture is read – the result is often a distortion of Scripture (which was never meant to be a book for individuals). Such a lens all too easily ignores verses that clearly teach a different conception of what it means to be human and thus distorts the role of choice and free will as well as the account of salvation.

Were this distortion confined to an abstract debate then it would simply remain a matter of debate. But since it is actually based on flawed assumptions about the very nature of our existence – it goes far beyond mistaken thought and becomes positively harmful as a basis for human living, especially human life as a Christian.

We are created in God’s image – the image of the Triune God. This is not the same thing as saying each individual is created in the image of the Triune God (pace St. Augustine). All that God creates is pronounced “good.” The first thing described as “not good” is man alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are created in the image of God – persons of  one essence – our existence is inherently a common existence. It is this reality that ultimately provides the ground for understanding our life in Christ and the path of salvation.

St. Paul offers these admonitions:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Romans 12:5)

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26).

Within St. Paul’s statements is an understanding of what it means to be human – and particularly what it means to be persons who are members of the one body of Christ – in which individuality (as it stands alone) is the antithesis of the Christian understanding. Why should it be true that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, I should suffer as well? Does this not impinge on my freedom and reality as an individual moral agent? Of course it does – because I am not merely an individual moral agent. What each of us does effects all of us. Were it not so, Christ could not have taken upon Himself the sins of the world.

The forensic (legal) account of salvation, popular within many modern Christian circles, is easily misused, making our salvation extrinsic, a transaction offered on our behalf, but a transaction that only touches us as individual moral agents. We are forgiven as a man could be forgiven for a crime he has committed. He remains a criminal. This account of salvation is extremely well-suited to a world view in which man is seen primarily as an individual moral agent. He has been offered a forensic forgiveness. All that remains is for him to make a choice, accepting this boon with gratitude.

But such an account ignores the bulk of Christian Tradition (including large amounts of Scripture itself). Christ took the sins of the world upon Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature (at the Incarnation). He carried that burden to the Cross, into Hades, and raised it forgiven and healed in His Pascha. He remains united to us, having carried our humanity with Him in His glorious Ascension. Such an understanding of the Incarnation is consonant with the commonality of our existence.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” including the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus.

The truth of our existence is revealed in our life within the Church. The Church is the restoration of humanity to the truth of its existence. In the garden of Eden, human beings chose to act as individuals. Eve makes a choiceapart from Adam as Adam does apart from Eve. That rupture is perhaps more significant than the eating of the forbidden fruit itself.

The eating and drinking which are given in the life of the Church are a participation in a common life – the common life of God, given to us in Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). We are also told, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). All of the sacraments of the Church (indeed the whole of everything of the Church) have this same character.

The disruption of our common humanity is the result of sin. Such a disruption can be seen in the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and is writ large in the story of the tower of Babel. Our common life has been shattered by sin – and it is not healed by becoming more fully what sin made of it. We do not find our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The Church reveals the truth of human existence, indeed, the Church is what salvation looks like (as troubling as that thought may be). The life of the Church is a true union, a common life in Christ.

Prayer (as well as the whole of our Christian praxis) is properly understood in the context of our common life – and not within the confines of existence imagined as single and individual. Thus Christ teaches us to pray, “Our Father….” That prayer which is understood to be the most perfect – is a common prayer – the cry of our common heart in Christ.

Nor do we pray apart from Christ. “…God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). Our prayer is the cry of Christ through the Spirit to the Father. In is in this way that we can pray, “Our Father.”

Prayer is the offering of our common life before God. Whether or not we ourselves enter into this common prayer, the prayer remains. In the Tradition we begin our prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What follows is thus not our own individual existence but the voice of our common life given in Christ Jesus through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

In the matrix of humanity conceived as individual – prayer – at best – is conversation. It obviously does not inform God of what He does not know – nor does it convince Him to do what He does not will to do. As such, prayer is reduced to the sound of our own ego.

There are times when such a sound is all that we can manage – indeed there are times when we cannot manage even a sound. Such times are all the more reason to become increasingly familiar with the ceaseless prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. It is also reason to become familiar with the voice of the whole Church (in heaven and on earth) as it prays in union with Christ.

The anxieties of those who refuse to understand the communion of saints, and the prayer which ascends ceaselessly from the Church, is, I think, largely born of an individualism – the hallmark of most forms of modern Christianity. Christ alone saves us (apart from Him we can do nothing), and yet it pleases Him to share His life with us (it is our true existence). There is not a life of Christ that is not also a saving life. Salvation is part of our common life, even though it be solely the work of Christ.

Many are scandalized when they first visit and Orthodox Church and hear the prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” What they think they are hearing is Mary put in the place of Christ. In the Tradition there is no such thought. The prayer is a recognition of the one salvation in Christ of which the Mother of God is intimately a part.

The shift from individualistic thought to the understanding of life as communion is perhaps among the most difficult undertakings in the modern world. It runs counter to modern culture and asks us to enter a world that can seem quite foreign. But this strange world is nothing other than the Kingdom of God – life in Christ – communion in the life of Christ and the life of one another. May God hurry the day of our transformation!

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.





61 responses to “You Never Pray Alone”

  1. Tim Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for these words of wisdom. It is a great help to me. The more I view life as communion (first with God, then other people, and then all creation), the more life seems to make SENSE.

    Thank you. Thank God for the words He speaks through you.

    Kissing your right hand,

  2. mike Avatar

    ….I dont know what to say…… just now i feel as if i’ve been exposed to something wonderful and mysterious that few will ever know….

  3. Prudence True Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m sorry, that came across wrong . . .

  4. Jim Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    It is very hard to change my way of thinking….after over 30 years in Evangelical circles and Western, individual thought, it is tough to take on an ancient mindset…but I am trying!

  5. Westy Goes East Avatar
    Westy Goes East

    Fr Stephen, thank you so very much for your thoughtful and meaningful posts. Between your blog and your podcasts, you have been instrumental (along with Fr Thomas Hopko and other Ancient Faith podcasters) for this 52-year-old ex-Protestant who is being chrismated into the Orthodox Church tomorrow.

    Jim, I know what you mean – but what amazes me is the clarity with which Orthodoxy looks at everything (the “fullness”). After most of Fr Stephen’s posts, I find myself thinking, “This all makes so much more sense to me now”, as opposed to what I used to believe all my life up until now.

  6. Bill M Avatar

    Westy, that has been my experience reading here as well, over the past several years. Blessings to you tomorrow…

  7. Romanós Avatar

    As always, far from giving offense, your words are faithful and true, taking into consideration the weakness of the brethren who still have difficulties accepting such things as the communion of saints. If Christ has said, ‘whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live,’ and if He showed his beloved disciple the souls of the saints under the altar in His revelation, what more can we expect or desire? We don’t know the specifics of how, but we know that since no one in Christ dies, the prayers the departed saints make on our behalf are made, and they are heard and answered by the Lord. What would our departed fellow saints be doing, if not praying for us to reach the place of safety that they have reached?

  8. Peter Avatar

    As I was reading this I was reminded of the admonition of Christ in Mathew 5:23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

  9. Lina Avatar

    Westy, God moves in a mysterious way! Treaure his workings.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    No problem…it’s easy for me to get a bit “heavy” in such a post…

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God grant you many years and your reception into the Church. God is truly good.

  12. Jim Avatar


    Thank you for your encouraging words and congratulations on being received into the Church!

  13. Allen Avatar

    For years, I knew something was wrong with my prayer life, but I was not sure of what. This gives me guidance.

  14. kevien Avatar

    Father, I can dodge fear without backing in to folly. And I don’t have to be so careful of the ditch on the right that I fall into the one on the left.

    Would you have us believe that we are saved simply by joining the right church? Becoming a part of the collective?

    All this talk about individuals and free moral agents misses the point. And comes dangerously close to denying that we are persons. Persons who will, individually, stand before the judgement seat, who must repent, and who will receive a new unique name. The idea that we are “fee moral agents” is not the deception. The deception is thinking that we are “independent selves”. The truth is that we are persons. A person is a unique and free dependent.

    But for this minor clarification all you said above is absolutely true. And well said.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I certainly do not mean to deny our personhood – but personhood is not the same as independent, individual (see contained). Personhood (in its proper state) always implies a relationship. Persons are indeed unique and free, but unless that freedom is a freedom in love (which necessarily brings them into the community of relations) then the person is distorted. The names revealed to us of the persons of the Holy Trinity, are relational (Father, Son, Spirit). It teaches us something of what it means to be Person. “No man lives for himself.”

    There is only one Church – thus there is no other to join. There is a mystery in the relationship between the Church and those in schism. There is a mystery within the Church itself with those who are “in the Church” and yet “not” in the Church.

    I have not used the word “collective” for that would be wrong. Nor does one merely “join.” But are we saved by being united with Christ (and thus with His Body)? Of course – and that is a life-long, even eternal union. I would not be so quick to be sure of how the judgment will be – there are mysteries there as well. Christ’s prayer for His enemies are part of that mystery – just as St. Stephen’s prayer for his enemies is part of that mystery. We are certainly responsible for our acts, but our acts are often far more complicated that the simple “choice” model of modern individualism.

    For the present, “it is good to make friends of unrighteous mammon so that when we fail, they may receive us into the everlasting habitations” (to cite a rather mysterious saying of Christ.

  16. Ibn Battenti Avatar
    Ibn Battenti

    Truly wonderful…

    The (present) mystery is that all retain within themselves yet, the undistorted image of God. There are aspects of personhood that can only be understood (known) apophatically.

  17. kevien Avatar

    The question is,what I tried to raise, is how can we express this very important thing in a better way? How can we say that we are free and at the same time connected in such a way that we are influenced? I think that perhaps there is no way to express it.

  18. Peter Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    As I read your post I realized I felt a slight resistance to what you are saying. As I look at my own thoughts, what I am resisting is the idea of a coercive “collective”, vs a true communion that is voluntary and in love. These are very different things. A communion does not involve one ego ruling over another, or the manipulation of others in the group for selfish gain. Since we live in a sinful and fallen world, we never get to truly experience what a communion of saints in its fullness really is, without any taint of sin.

  19. Barbara Avatar


    One way that I have approached freedom is to consider what kind of freedom is absolute, “against which there is no law”. The only answer I’ve been able to discover is the freedom to love in a self-emptying, kenotic way, Christ’s way, the way of the Trinity. I can always choose to love, no matter what other conditions affect my life. This is why there is love in the midst of great suffering and persecution. To love is my only possibility of transcendence/ecstasy – freedom from a self-enclosed, self-determined life leading ultimately to separation from God and all others and death. Love is our only salvation. All other “free” choices or rights have the potential of harming others or imposing on others. The choice to love is a struggle of my will, but it is also a continual invitation from God and others – to be “face to face”, to become part of the divine life of the Trinity, to enter into that dance. To choose to love is never a choice I can make alone. I’m learning that freedom, love, salvation and prayer are synonyms.

    I think the prayer below echoes the mystery Fr. Stephen approaches in this post and his responses. It is prayer I love to pray.

    “Unite around Thy Love, in thy Love, those who know Thee, those who seek Thee without knowing Thee, and those for whom Thou seekest.” Prayer of Fr. Lev Gillett, Monk of the Eastern Church

  20. Yannis Avatar

    Dear F. Stephen,
    in your last three – obviously interconnected – posts, there is more justfication of certain Church doctrines and relative practices than elucidation of the same. Consequently they offer truths mudied by half-truths and inconcistencies.

    What should be precious individual conclusions are presented as necessary general assumptions, which is as logically faulty as is unrealistic.

    “No man lives for himself” isn’t the same as “you never pray alone”. Neither individual subjectivity (of the ego) is the only subjectivity within man (as you know).

    Asserting doctrines and their associated practices isn’t the same as making sense of them. The first results – predictably – to praise from the choir, while, the second infuses your posts with actual value for everyone reading them.

    If you ask me, the thinker, writer and priest you are deserves better texts than the last three.

    With respect.

  21. Alaska Mary Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Glory to God for your amazing blog site. I recently discovered it and am awed by your gift of communicating the truth of holy Orthodoxy. Where are those mysterious words of Christ –“making friends of unrighteous mammon” — found? Can you explain them. Thank you and God bless.

  22. Ibn Battenti Avatar
    Ibn Battenti

    Alaska Mary, if I may.

    These words can be found in one’s own heart, in perfect stillness…

  23. Chris Avatar


    There is a reason Fr. Stepen did not use the term “collective” (and if I assume incorrectly, I am sorry Fr.!) because the collective is simply the plural individual. If we understand ourselves as autonomous with individuality unto ourselves the only way then to get along with others is to understand that we are giving up some of that absolute uniqueness until we are so entangled into one being, that there is one beings united in uniformity. Think of a political rally where everyone repeats the exact same exact formula the candidate says. Think of an ant colony where each any works out of the same mechanistically uniform manner. This is a collective. The difference in a relational being is that instead of being autonomous, a person is formed within the community from the beginning. There is no contractual sorting of rights and obligations, but a way of life inherent to these relations. A chain of being to borrow a phrase. One thing that may be helpful is Vladimir Lossky’s thought. He says as God is three persons of one essence, so too are we many persons of one human essence. We live in a world where this ancient notion does not govern the world around us by-in-large, and part of the mission of the Church is to restore this vision.

    Fr. Stephen,

    May I quote one of your comments on FB?

  24. easton Avatar

    barbara, thank you for sharing that beautiful prayer.

  25. Karen Avatar

    Ditto on the prayer, Barbara. That’s a keeper! (Good comments, too.)

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Hard criticism.

    in your last three – obviously interconnected – posts, there is more justfication of certain Church doctrines and relative practices than elucidation of the same. Consequently they offer truths mudied by half-truths and inconcistencies.

    What should be precious individual conclusions are presented as necessary general assumptions, which is as logically faulty as is unrealistic.

    “No man lives for himself” isn’t the same as “you never pray alone”. Neither individual subjectivity (of the ego) is the only subjectivity within man (as you know).”

    Yes, there is a connection in my last three posts – I do not consider church doctrines to be relative practices, but true guides in the Kingdom of God. By what criteria would we judge Church doctrine? Doubtless more elucidation could be given, and I hope I will be able to do that in time. It is deeply unfair to others to simply criticize them as “voices of the choir.” I hope I do not breed sycophancy from anyone.

    I think there is indeed a correlation between “no man lives for himself” and “you never pray alone.” “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me,” St. Paul says, which offers far more challenge to the ego than I have offered here.

    I write, necessarily, in a context that is dominated (culturally) by an individualistic Protestantism, indeed my own background is found within that same cultural milieu. Thus I do not apologize for evangelizing the same, and challenging its assumptions. If I have offered something that is lacking in balance, then address the balance, rather than generalize about my as a “thinker, writer and priest.” Your criticism becomes extremely personal. I know that I am a poor spokesman for the faith of the Church and an even less proper example. But I speak from my own experience in the realm of prayer. I pray daily for myself and the people for whom I am priest, and I know that if that prayer were not but a small voice in the greater sea of the common voice of the saints, it would be nothing. My hope is in the greater sea of which my voice is but a small part. Who is sufficient for these things?

  27. mic Avatar

    @Alaska Mary,

    Please forgive me for answering a question that was not addressed to me, but the Scripture you are looking for is found in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 16.

    However, the explaination of these words i cannot help you with.


  28. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    Father Stephen,

    99% of your readers appreciate your comments, understand your background, platform and context.

    Please do not be derailed, even slightly, by anyone who doesn’t take the time to “get it” and to think from a proper perspective.

    Yannis offered a cheap shot, and even if done politely, was still without merit.

    You don’t me or anyone else to step in, but it is an honor to do so.

  29. reader john Avatar
    reader john

    Thanks, Father Stephen, for your last three posts. They each, in their own manner, address issues that have perplexed me for some years now and, frankly. they each resonate with a clarity that I have yearned for. You continue to make my daily visit to your marvelous site a fruitful one.

  30. Yannis Avatar

    Dear F.Stephen,

    some explanations in two points you, no doubt, misunderstood me:
    1. “…I do not consider church doctrines to be relative practices…”, and, like you, neither do i. What i meant by “relative” was related/associated practices that spring/are associated from/to the doctrines – not that Church doctrines and practices have relativity in them.

    2. As for the “voices of the choir”, it was not meant as a criticism to anyone in fact. What i did mean, was that your audience is clearly composed of people who are regular members of the Orthodox Church and people who are not – there are many Protestants, quite a few Catholics and at least one Muslim(!) For all these people, the doctrines and practices you wrote about in the last three posts, aren’t necessarily as self evident as for regular Orthodox, and thus, by asserting them more than explaining them, you predictably provoked positive reactions from people who are established members of the Church. What i meant was not to belittle the people that gave this as sycophants, or to say that you are conceited by them, but that these are the people who have less need of your posts in these matters.

    In my view, the highest value in your writings is that they can speak to all people – members of the Church or not – by clearly exhibiting the beauty, practicality and intrinsic Truth of Church doctrine and practice. That is far less the case though when one writes with justification rather than elucidation in mind – subconsciously or otherwise – and the last three texts seemed to be the former case, at least to me.

    I am aware of the importance of both of the doctrines and practices you mentioned in your last three posts, as well as their important relevance to the audience/cultural environment that are adressed to.

    If you read my post again, it should be clear that i did not deny neither the validity of the contents, nor the nobility of your purpose; howvever i said what i couldn’t help but see there was something lacking in terms of purity of intention, that inevitably was manifest as lack of purity of expression.

    I hope that its clear by now how much i appreciate your writings and yourself personally. If it isn’t, let me tell you once more how grateful i am to your writings and to you and how much you have tought me directly and indirectly in the last two years. Thank you – may God repay you manyfold for this.

    I apologise if i hurt you, and if so, please feel free to ignore my comment. All i meant by it was to be sincere, and perhaps help you through that – not to be discouraging and dismissive, and so bring you down in your admirable efforts, efforts in front of which i am very, very, unworthy.

    With respect.

    PS It is as difficult for me to complement things to balance out such long texts without seeming that i “argue” with the mainline of your posts, as it is untrue to call your self “poor spokesman for the faith”. In fact, you are one of the best in my view, and i wish we were closer geographically so we could meet.

  31. Yannis Avatar

    In any case F.Stephen,
    if there was lack of elucidation in your last three posts, my comment seem to have adressed it drastically – see how many readers for whom your posts were as clear as running water came out of the woodwork now 😉

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am always deeply aware, because of my cultural context (in the Southern United States) of the need for a voice of Orthodoxy that addresses the contradictions of popular Christian assumptions (particularly expressed in American evangelicalism). The beginnings of thought in contradiction of pure individualism is as difficult as it is important. The Scriptures amply support this distinction and it is important to put forward this distinction. I do so with confidence and with a sense of its importance in the context in which I write.

  33. Yannis Avatar

    Then it was all just my impression. Unfortunately it seems i can muster little more than a courteous cheap shot these days. Please forgive my harsh and utterly mistaken words.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not judge your words to be harsh or utterly mistaken. I think my last three posts have been heavily one-sided (if only because the point is difficult to make, and was deeply challenged early on). I think that the sense of individualism (in its worst manifestations) has invaded even the Orthodox context, in which prayers to saints becomes what is was never meant to be (as though we had a multitude of individual intercessors). The corrective should not pass over into a disappearance of personhood or the uniqueness of that experience – but very few in the modern world – experience personhood in its proper fullness.

    I might add, personally, that one of the places where I most perceived a proper expression of personhood, in the individuals I encountered, was at St. John’s Monastery in Essex. I cannot express that experience other than to say that I there encountered people who were “large,” not in the sense of ego (quite the opposite) but in a sense I’ve never met before. It was a true wholeness.

    Writing in this limited format, I can probably only swing from one emphasis to another – if only because I am such a poor writer (regardless of others’ opinions to the contrary). These are such “full” concepts and realities, that good writing is difficult indeed (particularly in the space of less than 1500 words). I appreciate your voice and thoughts and will continue to struggle towards the proper balance that gives voice to the fullness of Orthodoxy.


  35. Yannis Avatar

    Thank you for your blessings F.Stephen, and all the best in your struggles.

    May God direct your every step.

  36. Ibn Battenti Avatar
    Ibn Battenti

    Amen! Quality commentaries. . . thank you Father Stephen, Yannis, All.

  37. Karl Avatar

    ” I think that the sense of individualism (in its worst manifestations) has invaded even the Orthodox context, in which prayers to saints becomes what is was never meant to be (as though we had a multitude of individual intercessors).”

    Father Stephen, could you expand on this comment at some point? How does one properly pray to the saints? I have heard people Say that this saint is good to pray to for this problem and another saint is good for another problem. Is that an improper way of praying?
    Your last three posts have helped me to think in new ways and I am very thankful for your writing.

  38. Fr. Benedict Crawford Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Against individualism in our prayers to the saints, whenever we sing the final verse in (the Byzantine version of ) the Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos, I’m always amazed by the corporate character of our prayer:

    “O all ye arrays of angelic hosts,
    who with the Baptist,
    the apostles’ twelve-numbered band,
    all the saints together,
    as well as God’s Birthgiver,
    pray make ye intercession
    for our deliverance!”

  39. […] Blog “Glory To God For All Things” is the award-winning work of our brother priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, who serves an OCA parish. […]

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you mention the limitations of this context, the digital, electronic medium.

    How does the Church express communion in an age where superficial, often passion-filled, narcissistic communications have become the norm? An age in which it has been said that if ‘your church does not exist in the social media, young people will not be aware of it at all’?

  41. mic Avatar

    The picture to go with this post is very striking, it is beautiful!

    Where was it taken? (forgive me if you have explained on another post, and have to repeat it here)


  42. Darlene Avatar

    I’ve a question regarding one of your comments. You stated,

    ” Personhood (in its proper atate) always implies a relationship. Persons are indeed unique and free, but unless that freedin us a freedom in love (which necessarily brings them into the community of relations) then the person is distorted.”

    I concur with you but then I question whether or not the desert Fathers and those saints who lived alone in the desert weren’t just a bit odd, or as you say, “distorted.” How does one reconcile your comment above with the solitary life of many monastics throughout the ages?

  43. Preston Avatar

    Forgive me if I have misunderstood things, but I think there may be a reason why the idea of communion of saints is so important that is being missed. I may just be rehashing what Fr. Stephen has already said, but this is how I see it (I am one of those non-Orthodox readers of the blog.) We are in communion with all saints, and all saints are in communion with God, and we are in them and they are in us, and we are in Him and He is in us. But this is not the type of communion that results in a loss of personality or personhood. Requesting the intercessions of an individual is possible because Mary is still Mary, James is still James, Nikolai of Ochrid and Zicha is still Nikolai, and so on. But not only is this the case, the individual becomes more so the individual the deeper into communion with Christ and the saints he or she goes. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and against the communion they shared with God and with one another. But they also rebelled against their true selves. American individualism that says, “hey, I did it my way,” is, ultimately, a rebellion against the true self, which says, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” The Mother of God finds her true identity, and the same might be said of all the saints. All people find their true identity only within the community that God intended. Outside of this community, it is but a vain striving after the wind, vacuity.

    As regards the comment above, the solitary saints placed themselves in communion with others through their prayers. They learned to identify with others by taking upon themselves the burdens of others in prayer. The Publican was not in solitude, but he might as well have been, for he prayed to himself and found only himself. The person who prays “Lord, have mercy upon me, the sinner” takes upon himself the sins of the world and is in solidarity with the world, although he may be far removed from it.

    How many of our extemporaneous prayers sound like that of the publican? We need to be saved from ourself to find ourself.

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    The hermits, through the ages, remained in the communion of the Church, both through their prayer for the Church, and the discipline of receiving the sacraments (this was the common practice). It is possible to be solitary and be in very deep communion with God, the Church and the world. It is also possible to be in a crowd and be in communion with none.

  45. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not know where the picture was taken.

  46. Yannis Avatar

    One reconciles it, by noticing the single most important relationship of all: that with himself. There are two subjectivities within man; that of the ego, and that of the Self, which St Paul refers to as “Christ in me”. Unless the man has rejected the ego and permanently dwells in the Slef, one is always subject to the instability of the ego; its back to desire, anger. fear, shame, opinion – back to diversion and procastrination ie death in life.

    The monastics live life by establishing living and unwavering communion with the Person that matters most – the innermost divine Self upon which they exist. They know that man’s goal is to be a bridge between heaven and earth, and the key to this transformation lies within. In the icon of the ladder of divine ascent, man is none other than the ladder itself.

    Saint Ambrose of Optina said that: “each person carries his cross – ie his life – the wood of which comes out of the tree of his own heart”. Its only when one dies to himself that he can trully live with and for others.

    Generally, there are three types of believer: those who approach God via action, those who approach God via devotion and those who approach God via experiential knowledge. The three are of course aspects of all people, but each and every one of us is inclined mostly in a single one of them.

    These, are personified in Scripture by Martha, Mairy and Lazarus, that moreover are made members of the same family, to make the very same point.

    Martha, is the believer that is entangled in wordly action. Once her brother dies, she waits at his grave and once Jesus arrives she rushes to God with her complain. Although she believes, her faith in God is placed in something “beyond” – her hope of resurection is not in here and now but in “judgement day”. For this type of believer, God means hope and consolation, and this is what Jesus offers to her. What Martha sees most is the world, and so in this occasion she cannot see past death.

    Mairy is the believer that endeavours in devotion. Unlike Mairy, once her brother dies she is fixed in God and waits for Him. Only upon the arrrival of Jesus Mairy gets out of the house to meet Him. Although she also does complain ie she is affected by wordly death, she falls on his feet and reverently prostrates. Jesus was “groaned at the spirit”, because although Mairy is disturbed by the death of her brother, still, all she can see is Him.

    And lastly there is Lazarus, who, we are told, was “a friend of Jesus” – clearly indicating someone whose relationship to God is first hand knowing. Lazarus’ illness is no ordinary illness – and Jesus knows this, hence he lets him die, because in fact this is the will of Lazarus himself. As such, and unlike his sisters, Lazarus does not go to meet God. His self will – his ego – is completely mortified. He dies to the world, and he refuses to come out unless God in Person specifically instructs him to do so. Lazarus is a mystic, a Saint, a hermit, a monastic – someone who “sells everything to buy that pearl”.

    Hence Jesus weeps for him, before He commands him to live.

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yannis, I am less than certain that Christ within me and the “Self” are to be utterly identified (or there are cautions that come to mind). I know that our true life is “hid with Christ in God” and Christ “is our life.” But it would be possible to read your early paragraph in a manner in which Christ becomes but a cypher of “the innermost Divine Self” at which point things begin to get a bit fuzzy. I exist because of the Person of Christ, but I never become the Person of Christ.

  48. Darlene Avatar

    Ok…I’m just going to chat out loud here a bit. I am a hermit at heart. My mother’s nickname for me throughout my childhood was “Hermit.” I am the kind of person who could find enjoyment worshipping God in my backyard among the trees, or in a beautiful mountainous setting with birds chirpping and streams flowing. I must work at being connected to community, that is, it is a struggle for me to get out of my solitariness and love others.

    I take it by some of your responses that I could successfully being a religious recluse (which is my nature) and that would be just as pleasing to Christ as the gregarious person who loves his/her neighbor by going out of their way to do good deeds.

    However, when I contemplate this matter, I can’t help but think of Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep truly understood loving Christ as loving their neighbor, their brothers and sisters, by feeding/clothing them, visting them in prison and when they were sick. They did not just remain in their closet and pray, they loved God by their actions in loving others and serving their needs.

    So, in conclusion, although I would like to be able to defend the solitary monastic life of the desert saints, since my nature is inclined toward solitude, I understand from the gospels and what our Lord Jesus taught that we must demonstrate our love toward others in our actions. We must be what I would call, “Jesus with skin on”. Our Lord, though He took the time for solitude, gave of Himself to others in ALL that He did. And He did it by healing people, by praying for others, by teaching others, by giving of His very Life for the world.

    Christ is our example and we must strive to imitate Him.

  49. Yannis Avatar

    F.Stephen, precisely as you say; hence i wrote “Unless the man has rejected the ego and permanently dwells in the Slef,” instead of “permanently becoming the Slef”.

  50. Robert Avatar


    To add to Fr. Stephen’s comment, it is to be kept in mind that the common practice is (as I understand it) that monks are allowed to live in solitude only with the permission (and supervision) of their elder, and this usually after many years of living in the monastic community.

    Distortion occurs when disordered passions rule one’s life, a condition which Fr. Stephen points out can occur irrespective of the presence or absence of others.

  51. Robert Avatar


    I would agree with Fr. Stephen on this, unless I misunderstand you (quite possible! :D) , your comments about the “Self” would seem to indicate some form of monergism or monothelitism. The Orthodox Church has made it very clear that the self (without capitalization) does not become Christ, our persons are not obliterated by God.

  52. Yannis Avatar

    All well and good. There is however no need to question other’s spiritual vocation as much as there is a need for others to question your’s.

    Elder Paisios the New said: “I often see a strange thing that occurs with religious people, reminding one of a vegetable market. There everybody shouts. One says, take oranges; another says take beets, and so forth, each in order to sell their own stuff. Something similar happens with Christians. Some say if you enter this association you’ll be saved. If you go there you’ll be saved. However, many people are not for here or there but for somewhere else., . A man of God can help. Help but not strangle. Now, let’s imagine, I go to some army base to tell them various things about monasticism. I won’t tell them lies. I’ll tell them as it is. So what happens? Are all to become monks? That way naturally I cause trouble, because perhaps some of them will undertake monasticism and later will suffer and fail. I have to find the pure one to help him choose.

    The elder spoke again on the same theme: Someone want to paint icons, has decide to become an icon painter, to make icons which will perform miracles; may it be. Another wants to become a married priest; it is my joy. One wants to be unmarried; let him be unmarried. One wants to be a monk? He should be helped accordingly. All do not fit in one basket. Some set the people to do things contrary to whatever they can do.”

  53. Yannis Avatar

    i am no monergist or monothelitist. I understand how what i said seems the way you took it, but infact we all agree and talk about the same thing.

    I should be indeed careful to criticize others, because every coin has two sides 😉

  54. Robert Avatar


    Well put! Are you sure you are not Orthodox? 😀

  55. Jesse Avatar

    Fr. Bless!

    You wrote (in one of the above comments):
    “I think that the sense of individualism (in its worst manifestations) has invaded even the Orthodox context, in which prayers to saints becomes what is was never meant to be (as though we had a multitude of individual intercessors).”

    As a catechumen who is struggling to understand (but not struggling to accept, I don’t think) prayer to the saints, can you explain a little more what you are getting at? That is, what is it that prayers to the saints is that it “was never meant to be”, and what should it be?

  56. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good question. At its worst would mean when saints are simply seen as “talking to the right department” to get something done. It’s like talking to the Ward Boss. The practice of Orthodoxy should also entail some awareness of our communion with God, with one another, and with the saints. When this is lacking it creates room for superstition and abuse (of which there is also plenty within Protestantism).

    I don’t mean to make something simple seem complicated. We are called into communion with Christ, one another and the saints. That common is certainly expressed in prayers, moliebens, akathists, etc., but should properly have at its heart a sense of relation out of which our prayers arise. I hope that’s helpful.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Darlene, solitary does not mean without or outside communion. For some, the communion is heightened by the solitude (remember the title of the post) because of the ability to enter more fully into real prayer. Not just the personal contemplation of divine union, but the entering into communion with each other through Jesus Christ and thereby entering into the spiritual warfare on behalf of others and in concert with others.

    Such activity requires enormous focus and effort if it is to become other than a passing grace granted for the moment. Solitude, under direction and in obedience, can provide the space and environment for such focus and effort.

  58. Gabriel Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!! I am always challenged by your posts! Life is very hard right now and this post, especially, forces me to take a step back an look at the big picture! Please add me, if you can, to your very long prayer list. Father bless.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Gabriel I will remember you in my prayers.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

  60. Alaska Mary Avatar

    Thanks mic and Ibn Battenti for responses to my question. I find Jesus’ words interesting and enigmatic. They seem to demand consideration. God bless you.

  61. Ibn Battenti Avatar
    Ibn Battenti

    Thank you Mary, the Lord bless you!

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