How Do You Feel About That?

In the near decade-and-a-half that I have been Orthodox, I cannot recall ever being asked, “How do you feel about that?” It is not a wrong question, but one that simply doesn’t come up much in Orthodox conversation. The Tradition of the Church is not set by feelings (at least officially). Neither is the Church a therapy group (officially). But I sometimes suspect that conversation is neglecting an important question – and that many Orthodox Christians are avoiding asking themselves an important question. “How do you feel about that?” is more than modern psycho-babble. It has a proper place within traditional asceticism.

The opening lines from the Philokalia (from the writings of St. Isaiah the Solitary):

There is among the passions an anger of the intellect (nous), and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without this anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them ‘dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks’ (cf. Job 30-1-4 LXX). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

There is not time or space in this post to explain everything meant by intellect or passion – they are technical terms (among many) describing the inner life of man. What is of note here, is the balance and the wholeness described by St. Isaiah. Human beings are never deprived of feelings, even in a state of spiritual purification. When writing about the passions, the early fathers and later ascetical writers do not describe them in a wholly negative manner. They are simply energies of the soul – often distorted – but subject to healing like all of our human existence. They do not disappear in a haze of holy mindedness.

Feelings, of course, is a word used in modern parlance and in psychological systems. Passions, an earlier word for much the same thing, has shifted its meaning in modern English and refers largely to sexual and romantic urges. Language changes.

I began thinking recently about the role of feelings when a modern writer (in psychology) noted that the will and the decisions we make are not completely rational – they are not a product of pure thought. Many people think they are – but they are ignoring much of what takes place within themselves.

Decisions require more than reason – they require energy. To choose something goes beyond our reasons for making the choice – it requires something to power it. Decisions bring about changes. The energy of our thoughts does not derive from logic or discursive reasonings – it comes from that which we label feelings. Feelings (passions in the fathers) have an energy associated with them. Anger, for example, has a sudden power, giving us the ability to do things quickly and decisively. Other feelings have their proper function as well. A life of wholeness requires more than proper thoughts – it requires a proper ordering of our feelings – both in their character and their direction.

The inner life of Christian tradition has far more depth than is often treated in modern psychology. It is deeply neglected in much of modern Christian thought and writing. The living tradition of ascesis (spiritual discipline) was largely lost in the West through a variety of historical circumstances. The focus on a forensic model of salvation made the inner life of less interest within Protestantism. If one’s sins are forgiven by God and we are admitted to heaven – of what concern is the inner life? The evolution of Western monasticism away from the contemplative life of prayer (as well as the growth of scholasticism) weakened the primary means of remembrance of the ascetical life. The virtual disappearance of fasting within Catholic devotional life is but one example of this weakening.

What remains within Western Christianity is the theological life of the mind (doctrine) and the inner life of a modern secularist. Popular books on Christian spirituality are largely Christianized versions of the psychological self-help genre. The three-fold dynamic of purification, illumination and theosis (the traditional Orthodox description of stages within the spiritual life) is foreign to Western ears and unknown to most modern Christians.

Books on the topic (of which there are today an abundance) are insufficient. We cannot regain the knowledge of tradition through reading, regardless of the benefits of information. The Orthodox spiritual life cannot be borrowed from without. Tradition, by its very nature, is handed down in a living manner – from person to person. The life of the Church in the fullness of her Tradition, preserves a model of the inner life – we fast, we pray, we confess our sins, we do penance, etc., and the Tradition knows no Orthodoxy apart from such a praxis. It is possible to be a member of the Orthodox Church and ignore such things – but only to one’s self-detriment. More than this is the living practice of the ascetic tradition in the monasteries of the Orthodox across the world. These remain a vital part of the Church’s life (their number world-wide has been rapidly increasing). America, which had less than 5 monasteries a generation or so ago, now has over 50.

The inner life of the Tradition is not inimical to modern psychology. In their own time, the early fathers adopted the popular language of the inner life, found in Platonic (neo-Platonic and Stoic as well) philosophy. However, they refined its terminology, conforming it to Christian understandings of grace as well as the Christian understanding the human.

Modern psychological language is equally useful (should a writer or thinker so choose). Words would need refinement just as the language of Hellenic culture itself once required.

“How do you feel about that?” remains a good question. Responsible spiritual growth requires that Christians slow down and look within. It is not enough to hold opinions. In the teaching of the fathers, opinions are generally worthless: they are manifestations of an unruly will and disordered passions. “Why do I value my opinions so strongly?” is a good question. “Why do the opinions of others make me angry?” is at least as good. Both questions require that we look at our “feelings,” for both of them have to do with the energy we invest in certain forms of thought. To leave such things unattended is to hand ourselves over to spiritual slavery.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, desire, lust of power and idle talk.
Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions,
And not to judge my brother.
For Thou art blessed, always now and forever. Amen.

The Prayer of St. Ephrem

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.





25 responses to “How Do You Feel About That?”

  1. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father, there is one thing I’m certain of and that is that I could never live up to the fasting of the Orthodox church. I seem to have almost no ability whatsoever to fast. This is something that troubles me.

  2. todd Avatar

    I think it’s great how human feeling holds such a central place in the Orthodox experience. Some fundamentalist religions have helped to show me some problems that can occur when human feeling is kept as the caboose of the train, or left behind altogether.

    When visitors enter our church building, many tell me that they are struck by the beauty of the icons and the chanting. Feeling matters, because humans are feeling creatures.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Under the direction of a priest – it should become possible. One problem, I suspect, is the difference between a self-imposed fast, and accepting the fast of the community. Surely it is possible not to eat meat on a day, and eat fish instead. Proper fasting is more like that than simply going hungry. It can be ameliorated to meet our circumstances (no pun intended). I usually do that with catechumens as they begin to take up the discipline of the fasts. Anybody can fast – if it’s approached correctly, slowly and deliberately.

  4. Chocolatesa Avatar

    This makes me look forward to lent, thank you 🙂

  5. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! (And thank you for your response to Leonard, too, he is not alone!)

  6. AtP Avatar

    ” If one’s sins are forgiven by God and we are admitted to heaven – of what concern is the inner life?” and ” What remains within Western Christianity is the theological life of the mind (doctrine) and the inner life of a modern secularist.” Thank you, thank you for putting this in words!

  7. Darlene Avatar

    Your posting of St. Ephrem’s prayer is a reminder that Great Lent is around the corner. Time for a spiritual cleansing and a refocusing on what matters…our life in Christ.

  8. Athanasia Avatar

    Thank you for thismarticle Father. I learned the hard way that anger was okay. But now that I do, I can feel it, deal with it, and move it aside, which allows me to go to a healthier place.

  9. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Ascesis may be dead among western Protestants, but certainly it is alive and well among many western Catholics. All the serious Catholics I know fast regularly, especially before the Eucharist and during Lent. (This is especially true if you consider Mexican and South American Catholics “Western,” which I assume you do.) Observation of strict prayer regimes is not as uncommon as you may think: the Hours are increasingly popular among young Catholics.

    As for nominal Christmas-Easter Catholics, why even bother counting them? It’s like judging Orthodox spirituality by the actions of Vladmir Putin.

  10. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Phillip Jude, I think the problem with understanding Roman Catholic fasting is that it is difficult to get much information out of Roman Catholics who are fasting.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I’m glad to hear about ascesis among Catholics. I often hear, and see, less. However, I am aware of some excellent efforts by young priests and others to renew the depths of Catholic tradition. In many places of Orthodoxy, the practice of the Tradition is weak as well. The flesh is strong everywhere.

  12. Rhonda Avatar

    Well said as usual, Fr. Stephen, & as noted by another, just in time for Great Lent 🙂

    Also I agree with your response to Leonard. When I was a catechumen I too felt the same way about being able to adhere to the Orthodox fasting requirements especially as my family remains heterodox. As long as they are viewed as that–requirements–they are difficult. When through the guidance of my priests I began to view them as a means of ascesis, then they became much easier to adopt over time. Now I look forward to the fasts prescribed by the Church as they make my life much simpler & easier even with the demands of preparing “regular” food for my heterodox family in addition to my own fasting fare. Ironically, they now don’t mind all that much when I go “lenten” & like much of what I fix. I now only “supplement” the menu with something “un-lenten”.

  13. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Agreed. The so-called “JP2” generation has and is producing some excellent clerics, not to mention lay men and women. And those of us maturing under B16 are even more zealous about recovering our Catholic heritage. Movements like Communion and Liberation are full of orthodox twenty and thirty somethings. There is a convent not far from where I live — the majority of nuns are under 40. They love the habit and gladly embrace the life of prayer, self-denial, and service. Our parents’ generation was characterized by dissent and innovation. We seek submission to the ancient customs and eternal truths of Christian orthodoxy. It is extremely heartening, not to mention exciting.

  14. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    What do you think of St. James’ counsel that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”? How does that relate to what you’ve said here?

  15. Darlene Avatar


    How has your family reacted toward your reception into the Orthodox Church? Have any of your relationships become strained due to becoming Orthodox? If so, how have you acclimated in this transition? What pit falls would you avoid and what suggestions do you have that would build bridges and bring peace?

    If these questions are too personal or if you are unable or unwilling to answer, I will understand.

  16. JB Avatar

    “haze of holy mindedness” 🙂

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    The operative phrase is “the anger of man.” It refers to disordered anger.

  18. John Sennett Avatar
    John Sennett

    Thank you, Father, for some rather valuable insight. My wife and I have struggled with this same issue and have found that some reading did help. Namely, “Orthodox Psychotherapy” by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and “Companions on the Inner Way” and “Christopsychology” both my Morton Kelsey, a rather insightful and seemingly Orhtodox thinking Episcopalian. In Christ, John.

  19. Elliot Avatar


    Thank you for your post. I always enjoy reading your blog and this is a particularly interesting post for me. I am was raised non-denominational Protestant and as you have posted about before, was raised in a very emotionally focused environment. Without delving into the mess of the good and bad effects of such an upbringing, I just wanted to give you some context for my frame of mind for my question. Through friends and various ways I found my way to Orthodoxy and me and my fiance have been attending an Orthodox church and participating to the extent that we can without being baptized as we still wrestle with decision of conversion. All that said, my fiance is the real point of my question! I have struggled my whole life with the idea of a very emotional Christianity and when I discovered Orthodoxy I was tempted with the idea that within the spiritual life of Orthodoxy emotion would “disappear in a haze of holy mindedness.” Whenever I struggle with this I am often brought back to call of Orthodoxy to properly order our feelings, not abolish them. I know that St. Paul says pretty blatantly that it is better not to be married for the sake of devotion to God and Orthodoxy often points to monasticism. I know that practically this is right. With less distractions it is easier to live the spiritual life. So my question is how does a married man properly order his feelings? Just like you said feelings are largely prescribed to sexual and romantic urges and I, being 21 and engaged, know that best. So my question what does the Church say about properly ordering those romantic feelings? How are we to live the spiritual life? What do undistorted romantic feelings look like? Is there such a thing? Or can you point me in my preparation for marriage to resources that speak of this topic?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is certainly such a thing as non-distorted feelings for a spouse/fiancee. It is very difficult to live in such a manner. The place to begin, is with chastity (my actions not being governed by disordered feelings). Being engaged is not a license be sexually active (for example). It is a process of learning to see another human being as a person rather than as the object of my desires. Keeping the person before us, being mindful of them as person, is a place to start. I would suggest discussing it with the priest at the Church you are visiting. Most priests can give good direction on this.

    Having said it is difficult is also to say that we should not condemn ourselves when we find this to be difficult. You can largely expect your desires to be disordered. That is why we start with our actions (it’s like fasting). God is not interested in condemning us – but in healing us. So we work at doing what is right, feelings take much longer. Indeed, I would say the purification and healing of our feelings is pretty much a life-long struggle.

    I like the book, Bread, Water, Wine and Oil by Arch. Meletios Webber as a general read on the inner life.

  21. Rhonda Avatar


    No, your questions are by no means too personal for me & they are very good questions! I apologize for not answering you earlier, but I have been working on a final exam term paper for grad school that is due Tuesday. I am 80% done & taking a much needed break 😉 FWIW I was received by Chrismation in November 2002.

    1) How has your family reacted toward your reception into the Orthodox Church?
    Answer: Hubby was not at all happy then & only marginally accepting of it now. He didn’t mind when I was “searching” & visiting several of the local Protestant churches. He was very much against me joining the RCC even though he is a “non-practicing RC” (his words) as he was afraid that I would pressure him to go back as well. He tends to be anti-religion overall though despite his claim to the RCC, a claim which still confuses me as he does not believe in what the group proclaims. He had never heard of Orthodoxy & therefore labelled it odd & aberrant. This view he got rid of when I informed him that the Orthodox Church is the 2nd largest Church world-wide despite it being relatively unknown in America.

    2) Have any of your relationships become strained due to becoming Orthodox?
    Answer: Yes, definitely. Hubby unequivocally refused to attend my Christmation in 2002 & still has not yet attended a service with me. At one point over the past 9 years I left the Orthodox Church for the better part of 5 years & attended only yearly Pascha services in order to avoid a divorce. He voiced his unhappiness over my return & it became his turn to back down or risk divorce…I am still Orthodox & we are still married. In the 2 years I have been back, hubby has actually gotten much better. My priest broke the initial ice with him when he attended my mother-in-law’s funeral & the family get-together at our home afterwards; both appearances were totally unexpected as I had not yet returned to the Church. Since then I have had my local priest & matushka in our home on several occasions for home blessings & just dinner in general (the matushka is now my best friend). They have been great with him & he really likes them, especially the matushka’s desserts 😉 While hubby will not grace the doors of our local temple for a service, he has made several minor repairs inside of it! Derogatory comments like “that’s stupid” or “that’s silly” are no longer said. Hubby is also now crossing himself (although in RCC style) & saying the Our Father for dinner grace. I also now have an icon corner in the main room of the house for daily prayer time where at one time even the closed back bedroom was not allowed. Orthodox books & the Holy Scriptures are now allowed to be out on the table where I sit as well. So things are really improving, although we still have a long way to go. Just this past year hubby tried to talk me into attending the local RC parish adult initiation class with him. I responded that I would, but with 2 requirements: 1) that he attend our catechumen class with me & 2) that neither of us would be required to change faiths…he grumpily refused, but has not attempted to interfer with my choice or practice. I also must conduct my daily prayer time in the icon corner when hubby is not around because it makes him uncomfortable.

    The “adopted daughter” (not adopted nor a daughter, but friend that is “family”) loves the chant of prayer time & grouches at her “father” when he enters the house & demands I stop prayers until he leaves. She has attended a couple of special Church services & will probably become Orthodox in the future. She was not living with us when I was received & well, let’s just say that life was kicking her in her young & dumb issues; now though she is happy to have a stable home. She was originally uncomfortable with my religious practices, but was curious so we talked when she was willing & asked. She especially enjoys attending the Memorial Trisagions with me.

    I also have an evangelical seminary-trained brother who is quite proud of his master’s in Christian Apologetics. We have the same father/different mothers. We did not meet until 2 years ago when he & his wife visited us. He attended a Vespers service with me & was appalled at the “idolatry” in our reverence of icons. Nor could he believe that we would lower ourselves to bow/prostrate, kiss the priest’s hand & the blessing cross…the typical unlearned Protestant reaction which has often led him to try really silly arguments to refute Orthodoxy. He was even more aghast when his former-RC wife defended & explained what we were doing, even doing some of them & crossing herself in RC fashion & kissing the priest’s hand & the cross. He refused to attend Liturgy the next morning when he learned that the priest would not administer communion to him. He is still quite bothered by my insistence to remain Orthodox, which he viewed as just another form of RC. He kept repeatedly trying to refute Orthodoxy using his well-used anti-RC arguments. He has repeatedly become frustrated by how easily & quickly his “uneducated & ignorant” (yes, he has repeatedly called me that despite my own grad school education) little sister can absolutely shred his philosophical & theological deductions quoting simple Scriptures & the Early Church Fathers. Ironically, he & his wife now pray daily in front of the 2 icons I gave them! Also, he decided that he needed to return to seminary to obtain another masters degree & a doctorate in ancient biblical languages in order “to better refute Orthodoxy” (his words).

    3 & 4) If so, how have you acclimated in this transition? What pit falls would you avoid and what suggestions do you have that would build bridges and bring peace?
    Answers: I am answering these 2 questions together & with two words: LOVE ! PATIENCE! Also:

    Avoid overwhelming uneasy family & friends with too many Orthodox practices too fast when incorporating practices into the home, especially if they are like my anti-religious husband or protestant friends in which “religion” tends to be done “out there” rather than in the home. Religious practices in the home, other than perhaps scripture reading or praying while seated in the La-Z-Boy, are a new (& thus strange) concept to many. Hubby relaxed with the icon corner & other things once he learned that they were “normal” for the Orthodox; he is finally also begining to realize that the Orthodox are “normal” (people) as well.

    Icon corners & daily prayer in front of the icons or talking about fasting or other Orthodox subjects such as ascesis, deification, theosis & etc. can be intimidating; they were with my husband & friends. Now I let them bring up a subject via a question or try to include Orthodoxy as a side note if the conversation is such that Orthodoxy will not take over or dominate it.

    Sneak in the lenten food & fast without their knowing! Don’t tell them that it was prepared without meat or dairy or eggs & etc.–they will rebel as to their ears vegan means bland/tasteless. One time hubby did not realize that the entire meal was lenten until the priest commented that he was continually amazed at how us women could prepare such tasty lenten meals at one of our dinners here. Fasting & lenten foods are now allowed as hubby really likes trying out the new foods now that he knows they will taste good 🙂

    Prepare a meat or special non-lenten dish for the family anyway. I actually use the fasting seasons to prepare hubby’s much loved liver & onions (ick!) & other dishess that he loves that I do not really appreciate.

    Enlist your priest, matushka & Orthodox friends to help in unobtrusive ways & non-religious settings, especially those with things in common with your non-Orthodox family. I once arranged for my husband & an Orthodox friend to re-roof a very poor parish family’s house. This gentleman my husband now calls friend. Another gentleman in my parish is also a retired police officer that my husband worked with before he retired. These two have had many great conversations. Have the priest & matushka over for dinner occasionally for no other reason than to have them over. My priest being willing to be in our home without wearing his cassock & pectoral cross really made an in-road with my anti-religious husband. Not all priests may be comfortable or willing to do this & I am very thankful that mine is.

    Learn how to present & defend your Orthodox Faith patiently & with kindness. Many Protestants, especially the fundamentalists, have an insatiable need to “save” you from your “cultic & heretical” beliefs. Devout RC followers will have an insatiable need to return you to the fold of the pope. Learn to speak their “theological language” & to present Orthodoxy in terms they can understand. Be willing to agree to disagree & learn just when to do so. Resist the need & desire to win every debate or argument. Sometimes the person you are talking to is just thinking out loud rather than being argumentative.

    Most importantly: LIVE your Orthodox Faith! Your example, your prayers, & your life are being watched & noted. Many a time my husband has made a comment about something Orthodox I have done or said that I hardly remember saying or doing, but really impressed him favorably. Many a time I have seen the fruit of my actions only much later when I thought they had been of no effect or had been ill-received at the time.

    I apologize for being so long-winded, but these are just some of the things I have experienced. Other converts to Orthodoxy have experienced much of the same. Hope this had been edifying & informative. If not, feel free to ask Fr. Stephen to delete it.

  22. John Psuche Avatar
    John Psuche

    Dear father,
    I have followed this blessed blog for a long while now and it is a source of inspiration, correction, and illumination- exciting to read. As someone feeling my way into orthodoxy, it has been a lighthouse.

    Your comments made me realise that I need to question where my energy-passion-libido does go. If it is not going into purification and, then, into collaborative illumination and, then, the submission of Theosis, then where is it going. It has to manifest in something- without it I am lifeless. Mine goes into the obsessions of my daily life, organising time to sin, smoking, lying, fear of everything from job loss to social humiliation, and frustration about not being good enough. I mention this for two reasons. One, I do it unconsciously and often find the busy-ness of my daily life drowns my focus and intention; life is too loud. Second, it is an enormous commitment- like getting married. I can’t do it alone. I do need the orthodox community. These are scarce in the UK, viz finding an English liturgy near my home. This new marriage of mine might require a move near to an English church. The prayers from this community would be greatly appreciated. As always, thank you so much for your blog.

  23. Karen Avatar

    Rhonda, thank you so much for your response to Darlene. How very instructive and encouraging for us your journey has been!

    I am in a similar situation, except my husband is pious and Evangelical (but not the scholarly intellectual disputative kind like your brother), and we attend both our churches together with our two children (on alternate Sundays). After he was able to determine that the Orthodox Church was not a cult :-), he was at peace (if not overjoyed) with my desire to convert. He likes my parish and Priests–our Rector is particularly good at seeking people out and welcoming them. My husband had to get used to the fact that although people are quite friendly at my Orthodox parish when you get into conversations with them, they also tend to not seek to draw you out, especially around matters of faith, the way that would tend to happen in an Evangelical Church–with its strong emphasis on overt outreach and verbal witness to faith, inviting others into small groups and Bible studies, etc. This can be perceived as a lack of genuine spirituality or personal interest. My husband struggles with not being able to commune also, but overall is quite understanding and supportive. Reading your story, I realize how very blessed I am in my situation.

    I, too, have seen amazing spiritual growth in both of us and in our relationship that I see as the fruit of Orthodoxy. It has required us both to really work and flex our “trust muscles” with each other and with God, which can only be a good thing for two recovering anxiety addicts! I am occasionally pleasantly surprised when I find my husband spontaneously making observations or expressing convictions from his own walk with God that coincide with an insight gleaned from Orthodoxy that I have at some time or other experienced or briefly shared with him. I am very grateful for how the Lord has been working in your home as well over the years.

    Thanks again for sharing your journey.

  24. Rebecca Avatar

    Father, bless! This is one of the things I love most about Orthodox worship: That it gives the worshipper space, inspiration, even examples for proper ordering of emotions without manipulation or pressure of any kind. The visual and musical atmosphere is not overbearing but real, and that authenticity calls forth a genuine emotional response.

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