Religion as Neurotic Delusion

From the Journal of Father Alexander Schmemann, Saturday, December 31, 1977

Father Tom gave me a circular Christmas letter from some Trappist in Massachusetts. In his monastery, all traditions meet (West, East, Buddhism), all rites, all experiences. Sounds rather barbarian. It is as if traditions were some sort of clothing. Dress as a Buddhist – and right away an “experience.” This cheap, murky wave of spirituality, this petty syncretism, these exclamations marks – upset me. “I celebrate once a week the Divine Liturgyin the rite of Chrysostom in the joy…” Shamelessness of this contemporary religion. “Culture cannot be improvised,” notes Julien Green. Nor can religion. In the midst of all the excitement where one has to live, one literally loses courage. One wants to leave. A cup of coffee and a hamburger in a simple diner are more authentic, more real, than all this religious chatter. As the sacrament is impossible without bread, wine and water, so religion requires peace, true daily preac. Without it, religion quickly becomes a neurosis, a self-deception, a delusion.


1977 was a strange time. I was in seminary, just beginning the heady study and thought of various theological teachers. Would that one of those teachers had been Fr. Schmemann.  For some strange reason, Anglican seminarians, were constantly afflicted with experimentation. Experimentation in parishes usally carried a back-lash, thus we were saddled with a never-ending drama of liturgies. Sometimes juggling as many as five or six books.

You cannot pray with five or six books to balance.

And then we had to report on the “experience.” I’m certain that I came off as a grumpy young man who wanted little more than to stumble into chapel in the half-dark, grab my well-word copy of Cranmer, and some beads and be allowed to pray without experimentation. Sweet peace.

Variety is not something we do for God’s sake. Appropriately the liturgy changes for Lent and feast days, etc. but the variety is there for our salvation nor our entertainment. The same is generally true of our private prayers – it is an offering before God, and if we pay attention to our hearts, it can become an offering of our selves, our souls and bodies.

The quiet of which Schmemann speaks is even harder – particularly when it is God who fills the silence and not us (rare occasions). Come sweet peace and fill our hearts, with the soundless wonder of the richness of the Word. Drive away the gloomy thoughts of sin, and neurosis, self delusion and delusion that so easily tumble from our hearts.

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.





21 responses to “Religion as Neurotic Delusion”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Hat tip to my wife who won this weeks contest for the most typo’s spotted in a single blog post!

  2. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father It is not difficult for me to see how an Anglican could become Orthodox.

  3. Philip Jude Avatar

    I used to go through rules of prayer like pairs of socks. I tried everything: incense, chanting, novenas, prayer ropes and rosaries.

    Now, I find peace in simplicity and regularity: the Gloria, a psalm or canticle, and a few minutes of silent contemplation five times a day. Plus, of course, meditative reading of the Scripture. Only on certain feast days do I deviate, and even then only slightly.

    When it comes to prayer, at least for me, constancy is preferable to creativity. In my experience, “creative” prayer is selfish prayer that leaves no room for listening to God.

    +Philip Jude

  4. Kevin (Basil) Fritts Avatar

    “You cannot pray with five or six books to balance.” Forgive me, father, but this does not ring true with my experience of common worship within the Orthodox Church.

    This strikes me to be a deeply Anglican thing to say, although even an Anglican might juggle the Book of Common Prayer with the Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the Hymnal. However, in the Orthodox Church, we usually juggle at least four books: Horologion, Octoechos, Menaion, Psalter. If the office is followed by the liturgy, add to that the liturgy book (sluzhebnik). In Lent (tessaracost) or Paschaltide (pentecost), add the Triodion or the Pentecostarion. For many situations, the Book of Needs must often be consulted. For most, a rubrics book must be consulted in order to make sense of the immense complexity of Byzantine worship. Leaders within the assembly (ecclesia) — whether clergy, altar servers or chanters — must learn to pray in a way that balances the complicated needs of Byzantine worship with their own needs to contemplate the content of that worship and to sense a connection with the object of that worship.

    In my experience, leaders often learn to accept that they have connected with the crucified Christ (almost ex opere operato) in spite of feeling busy and exhausted by Byzantine worship. I have had to learn to sacrifice the feeling of having prayed on the altar of actual common prayer. This has been my experience of Christ in Byzantine worship.

    Again, forgive me for challenging your words. You and Fr Theodore are in my prayers daily.

  5. Steven Clark Avatar

    Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says that rubrics are there to keep people like me out of trouble.

  6. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Kevin. this is the very thing that keeps me from becoming a byzantine catholic. The Roman breviary is such a simple thing to pray.

  7. Niphon Avatar

    I think that Kevin missed Father Stephen’s point. It seems to me that the point he was making was that his liturgical experience as an Anglican was jarringly discontinuous. I don’t think he meant that using books of rubrics was not consonant with prayer. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I am well aware of how complex our liturgical rubrics can be. But that is primarily a problem for readers or choir leaders and for the clergy. As a lay person, I can immerse myself in the Liturgy and lose myself in prayer. The service is like a river, changing with the seasons, but always the same. Furthermore, as one with some experience of rubrics, I can say that once a reader gets used to navigating, the same experience is possible (though it is easier to pray simply in the congregation). I believe the same would be true in the Roman Catholic or traditionalist Anglican liturgy; at least from the standpoint of navigating and getting used to things. Just my humble opinion.

  8. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father Tom gave me a circular Christmas letter from some Trappist in Massachusetts. In his monastery, all traditions meet (West, East, Buddhism), all rites, all experiences.

    When I said that it’s not difficult for me to see how an Anglican could become Orthodox. I suppose I should have added that I also understand why Roman Catholics become Orthodox.

  9. Philip Jude Avatar

    There are wayward experimenters among the Orthodox, I’m sure. As a Catholic, I cringe at such syncretism. It is, however, sadly typical of a certain generation (cough Boomers cough). Thankfully, the last couple generations, my own included, have largely returned to (lowercase) orthodox thought and practice.

    +Philip Jude

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not aware of the kinds of experiments among Orthodox that would come close. Some of us boomers are converts, too, and go as strictly by the book as possible.

  11. Byzantine Jewess Avatar

    Speaking for myself personally, if I hadn’t “tried many things,” I don’t think I would have found the truth (or whatever limited version I eventually happened upon). However, I eventually saw that continuing to seek and roam about restlessly does not lend itself to real spiritual growth and maturity. I do hope there is a balance, however, as my intellectual curiosity and tendency to explore remains!

  12. Agnikan Avatar

    It’s unclear if the Trappist’s themselves engaged in Buddhist ritual, or if the monastery invited Buddhists over for mutual dialogue and understanding.

  13. Philip Jude Avatar

    He is probably referring to Tom Keating and his followers at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA.

    +Philip Jude

  14. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Mary Tudor tried getting rid of the Keatings of the world and all it accomplished was that they started calling her names!

  15. Philip Jude Avatar

    Sadly, Cranmer and company look more Catholic than the Pope next to the likes of Tom Keating.

    Then again, America is perhaps the most Protestant nation on earth. It is a wonder the Church has fared as well as it has. Anti-Catholicism is as American as baseball and apple pie.

    In general, those younger folks who have remained faithful are considerably more orthodox than their parents, who came of age between WWII and Vietnam. Unfortunately, only something like 10% of American Catholics ages 18 – 30 attend weekly Mass. The daily liturgy is basically devoid of anyone under 50, so that the few of us who do show up stand out.

    It’s a sad state, but I have some hope, given the courageous efforts of the Holy Father. As much as I adored Blessed Jonh Paul II, I am proud to be part of the “Benedict Generation.”

    This video cheers me up:

    +Philip Jude

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    It may not all be as sweet as it seems. On an Orthodox youth retreat, we would require (and receive) proper dress for the Orthodox Liturgy (long pants at least). The invitation to modernity has robbed too many Catholic youth of a deeper sense of piety. The spirituality of Cursillo and Pentecostalism as replaced the spirtuality of the sacraments. Don’t mistake the enthusiasm of a modern moment to be more than that.

    Our trouble in the modern world (for all Christians) runs extremely deep. We must not fear youth (and therefore cater to them). Their 15 and 16 years old – God bless them – but what do they know. They know their hungers. Apparently, all too often their elders do not know the answers. Evangelical piety is rife with this sort of spiritual pandering. We need generations who are ready to die for God – not “enjoy” the service.

    Soviet Russia in its great evil, did more to prepare generations of God than the fearful purveyors of modern culture. Forgive me.

  17. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father you’re exactly right on this. and it is a very great frustration of mine. It should come as no surprise to you when I say that I love both church’s. I was raised a roman catholic but when I was 27 I left the church and went into the church of Christ for 17 years. During that time I would have, and did say, a pox on both your houses. I guess that experience has given me a balance that keeps me from tilting in one direction or the other that I will never lose. Rome just happens to be where I am and where I came from.

  18. Philip Jude Avatar


    I guarantee that most of these young folks are steeped in the sacramental life. Devout young Catholics have a great love for the eucharist and are enthusiastic about true liturgical renewal. There is a place for charismatic exuberance in spiritual life, the sort of creative joy that characterizes World Youth Day. We of the B16 generation don’t see it as an either/or, but a both/and. We have a great love for the mysteries and adore the Body and Blood. Most of the folks I know who attended World Youth Day loath modernist Mass and cultivate spiritual lives built around the solemn celebration of the liturgy. Indeed, many are even Latin Massers.

    World Youth Day is not something to be cynical about. While secular nihilists rioted in England, their Catholic peers gathered for three days of Christ-centered worship. Hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults peacefully enjoying Christ’s gift of Church. Really a statement about the choices our culture must make. Against the backdrop of the anarchy in Britain, this World Youth Day was a clear and beautiful sign of contradiction.

    Blessed John Paul II emphasized the need for Catholics, especially young Catholics, to live the Gospel, to manifest our Catholic faith in the public sphere with hope and love. The current Holy Father has continued this program of renewal. I am as fond of the sacred liturgy as the next high-churcher, but there is a time and place for pentecostal zeal, just as there is a time and place for the Hours, for eucharistic adoration, for lectio divina, and so on.

    You might look up Communion and Liberation, an up-and-coming Catholic society dominated by 20- and 30-somethings that proclaims the importance of an “existential” encounter with Christ. Read some of our literature. We gratefully draw upon the wealth of the Orthodox tradition.

    May the peace and love of Christ be with you.

    +Philip Jude

  19. Philip Jude Avatar

    That said, I would Iike to thank the Orthodox — and here I am not alone — for remaining committed to authentic liturgy through thick and thin. You are all inspirations for those Catholics who cherish the Mass. Benedict has written extensively on the importance of liturgy. He is just the man to restore dignity and grace to the ancient ceremony which bridges heaven and earth and gives us the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord.

    +Philip Jude

  20. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Though I was ordained in ECUSA, I was spared the Episcopal seminary experience. I am so thankful for that. I was given a special dispensation to do all 4 years at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Mt. Airy) and I found the Lutherans less interested in experimentation. That may not be the case these 24 years later.

  21. Andrew Avatar

    “Variety is not something we do for God’s sake. Appropriately the liturgy changes for Lent and feast days, etc. but the variety is there for our salvation nor our entertainment.”

    Amen. Thanks Father.


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