Dwelling in a Strange Land

Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon-By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps upon the willows in their midst.
They that carried us away in captivity asked of us a song,
And they that laid us waste, required of us mirth, saying:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Psalm 136/7 provides the text that the Orthodox Church begins to sing in preparation for the Great Fast. It is a recognition that our life in this world is somehow foreign to the Kingdom of God. We don’t belong here. We sometimes experience this as a homesickness – which is strange indeed for people who have no memory of life in any other mode. But it is not an uncommon feeling.

How do we explain to others that we long for something we’ve never seen – that we sense our home is elsewhere? This is soul of the original Christian longing. Our modern world has often set this heart aside. In particular the social message of the 19th century turns the longing for Paradise into a longing for an improved world.

William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem,” is sung at the close of the Labour Party’s annual conference each year in England. It ends:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The modernist thought that the Kingdom of God is something that we are meant to “build” is frequently echoed in Church statements and modern prayers. “For the building up of the Kingdom” has become a modern Christian cliche. It is also heresy.

It seems ironic in the extreme that the inheritors of salvation by grace should so deeply embrace a Kingdom by works. In the name of various utopias (both Christian and Secular) great evil has been done.

The classical Christian heart is rightly found in the words of Psalm 137. We do not belong here, but we are not called to build Paradise. We are called to make the journey home and return to Paradise. This is not a renunciation of social progress or a call to turn a deaf ear to justice.

But social progress and justice are both easily betrayed by utopian schemes. In the name of an ideal, scoundrels do great evil. We will not build a society that is more just than its citizens.

We are resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. But are not yet ready to dwell in Paradise. Entering the land to which we are called is also a journey of transformation. There is a wilderness that lies between this land and the Land of Promise. The story of the Exodus is of a journey from slavery to freedom – and of slaves becoming fit for freedom.

The journey begins with the recognition that we do not belong. It is the problematic character of secularism. The secular world claims to be our home and bids us settle down. The secular Christian makes his home in this world and holds his faith like a hobby. There will be no journey that sets him apart from his neighbors. He will be like them in every respect excepting his hobby. It is as though the Israelites established clubs in Egypt for the discussion of Promised Land theories. There they could sing the songs of Zion.

I do not belong here. I will return to my Father’s house.


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.


64 responses to “Dwelling in a Strange Land”

  1. Grant Avatar

    Well put, Father, especially the last two paragraphs. Thank you.

  2. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I’m not sure how this relates or if this relates, but there are two veiwpoints on what one can do to bring salvation to another. One is to tell them about heaven and, perhaps, at the same time, scare the hell out of them. The other, which I think is more emphasized in Orthdoxy, is to become more heaven and less hell, more light and less darkness.

  3. Boris Bruton Avatar
    Boris Bruton

    Well said, well said. I can only agree with the previous commenter, esp. with regard to the last two paragraphs. I am, by the way, a Roman Catholic, but always appreciate your words. Thank you, Fr.Stephen.

  4. Perry Lee Avatar
    Perry Lee


  5. PJ Avatar

    “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

  6. Athanasius Avatar

    To take another angle at this, Father, I had understood (perhaps erroneously) that the teaching of the Orthodox Church was that “heaven” was to be found in the resurrection on a restored earth. More likely, that is one among several views. If that is the case, wouldn’t working to make this earth a better place make perfect sense? In my mind, the problem with the “Jerusalem” and other utopian mindsets is that they tend to use the sword to make everyone else subscribe to their personal vision of utopia, and leave Christ entirely out of the picture. In other words, I should be striving to establish heaven on earth by keeping the commands of Christ, but not by trying to use the government to enact some sort of “social change.” Is this off the mark, or is this another side to what you were getting at?

  7. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Heaven comes on earth as a person dies to him/herself and Christ lives in him/her.

  8. Jeremy Avatar

    I still have much to learn, Fr Stephen, and like the commentor above, Athanasius, I am a bit confused about some matters.

    If we truly live the way that Christ taught, and that many of the saints exemplify, I don’t understand how we wouldn’t bring a piece of Heaven to earth. While this isn’t our permanent home, it seems the example we have from the saints is to make this as much a Heaven-on-earth as possible by alleviating the suffering of others.

    Perhaps you can enlighten me as to what kinds of evil we bring about through social progress?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is probably too literal an account of the new heaven and the new earth to describe them simply as resurrection on a restored earth. We believe in a new heaven and a new earth – indeed – the fathers teach of the “reconciliation” of heaven and earth (and of many other things). Essentially it is resurrection of all things into an existence that is exemplified by the resurrection Christ. But exactly what that looks like is beyond anything I know.

    The closest we can come to “bringing” heaven on earth, is for it to be found within us and living fully into that. We become an outpost of Paradise. The Divine Liturgy is Paradise, etc.

    But the use of religious imagery by political powers was simply a way of empowering themselves to do sweeping things (whatever it takes). We would all do well to be about doing good to others. Some even have opportunity to good to very many. But if we cease to be about doing good, and we become about managing the world so that good can come about, I think we lose our way.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    We certainly should relieve the sufferings of others, but we do it because it is the commandment of Christ. As to a social outcome, we never really have a way of controlling such things.

    The dangers within the ideology of progress is the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In the name of progress, many are willing to do evil (of some form) in order to bring about a desired result. Thus, we flood a river to create a lake for electric power. But we also change the environment, take some people’s land away, etc. We make choices and decide for ourselves what the “good” will be that constitutes progress. It is generally good to help people and to improve things. But there is what is called the “law of unintended consequences” that always accompanies change. Most people agree that the rate of birth outside of wedlock today (almost 70% in some communities) is creating a bad world for children to grow up in. But much of this same birth phenomenon is itself the unintended result of efforts to “improve” things for some people.

    At present, I would suggest that the US is pretty lousy at a number of very basic things: education, health care for the poor, family stability, etc. It’s not that there is a lack of programs for such things – its that most of these “problems” are of our own making and we’re not willing to tell ourselves the truth and do the truth in order to address them. Life for a child in the US is decidedly worse, I think, in 2013 than it was in 1953 when I was born. And yet, it has been 60 years of social progress.

  11. Athanasia Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

    Sometimes I forget that there are others who feel this way. The longing and all that. Thanks be to God for your writing this. A blessing on the night it is needed.

    By your holy prayers.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr would you agree that the institutionalisation of “doing good” and making it less of a personal response?

  13. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Institutions, especially the Church, doing good is good, but it doesn’t replace the need, the responsibility of us individuals doing good. I cannot personally ignore the needs of my fellow human beings just because part of my tithes and offerings go to aid for the poor.

  14. Lina Avatar

    What I am thinking/writing is based on my own experience as so far I have not come across any writings about this subject.

    But as far as I am concerned I have long sensed/felt that I have some sense of Paradise within me. Perhaps I am just an optimist, but I seem to have a longing for things to “go right.” Which to me means that I am comparing what I am encountering in life to some better ideal, which usually doesn’t exist in our world. Where do I get this ideal from?

    We have been told that God has written his laws on our hearts. Jer. 24:7 “I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord…” Jer 31:33 “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts: and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

    If God has inscribed these ideas, laws, into our being then we walk around with a bit of Paradise already in us. God has given us the information we need to learn and practice in order to live in His kingdom.

    Frank Sinatra used to croon, “I did it my way.” We are supposed to croon,”I did it God’s way.”

  15. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for your insightful response. It does seem that for all of our social “progress,” we are in sad shape. I was born in the 80’s, so I can’t rely on personal experience of having watched our society grow.

    The thing that is behind my frustration is the two attitudes that I tend to see in the church (Orthodox or Protestant):

    Attitude #1 are folks like some of the Methodists I know and love who make every effort to be like Jesus and so many of the saints before us. They clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, etc, etc. But often they can be wishy-washy in their theology and can even stray toward relativism.

    Attitude #2 are folks who give their tithe and are often willing to donate some money to an organization to help others. But they don’t like getting their hands dirty by actually touching people on the street and spending time with them; and if you ever push the social agenda they freak out because they don’t want to be called a liberal or even associate with one. Their theology is usually conservative, and they have compassion, but it is a guarded/distant compassion.

    I guess I get frustrated because I don’t see a third option: one in which there is a very solid theology, but also a people who aren’t afraid to get their hands “dirty.” Guys like St Martin the Merciful, St John the Merciful, and even St Chrysostom lived and breathed charity, and they also weren’t afraid to associate with those who were needy in a way that wasn’t condescending.

  16. Joseph Avatar

    I was reading your posts again, you often get me to think. I have to say the standard of living for the U.S has fallen, education, health care, but not because of the lack of progress. Being a MSW student I can say that some of what you say is true. Corporate welfare has increased since the mid 1970’s so the wrong kind of progress has been made. I don’t think it is wise to move away from progress on a large scale. I remember how my grandfather would tell me how things were before WW2 and progress on a large government scale has helped the middle class rise up. Think of social security and the GI Bill. If it was not for big government I seriously doubt many non- WASP’s would have made it. Privilege is hard to see when you are bought up with it. Why is government progress seen as a negative? Does our church believe in social justice? If not why not? Catholics do 🙂 anyway thanks for your input.

  17. EPG Avatar

    In response to Joseph —

    There’s a lot to unpack in your comment. First, I don’t believe Fr. Stephen was arguing against “social justice.” Instead, he was pointing out that, in the end, the lion will not lie down with the lamb as the result of a government program to teach lions vegetarianism.

    C.S. Lewis says something along the same lines in “Mere Christianity.” When we make Christianity serve a cause, whether it is our vision of social justice, our program for world peace, support for rails to trails, or simplified spelling programs, we corrupt Christianity. It becomes a tool for our desires, not something that transforms us. Lewis says something like this — seek to use Christianity to create heaven on earth, and you will wind up with neither heaven nor a better earth. Seek the Kingdom of God, and the rest will flow from it.

    We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the orphans and widows, and visit those in prison. But that does not necessarily mean that the Gospel commands a particular marginal tax rate, or that ever-growing government programs are the best way (or even an effective way) to fulfill these obligations.

    Many people merge society and government, as though the two were the same. Society is (or should be) much greater than government, and “social justice” is not the same as a lot of government programs. And, as Fr. Stephen pointed out (and was part of the original point of his post), there may be unintended (and inimical) consequences of well intentioned actions.

  18. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    It seems that in all of us there is a longing for paradise. We somehow know that we belong in a place of peace, joy, and happiness, without any suffering, disease, or hunger. For some, who have been blessed with a Christian education, this place is the Kingdom — to be experienced here and now inasmuch we grow in communion with Christ, and to be experienced fully after the Second Coming. For others, it is what drives them in a spiritual quest, provided they are true to themselves and recognize in this feeling its spiritual origin. But for many others, it is an incentive to build paradise on earth, which goes from the seemingly inocuous desire to be as comfortable as possible in one’s home to the utopian idea of building a poverty-free society.

    Apparently, there isn’t any contradiction between the Christian love of the poor and the Marxist love of the poor. And yet, there is.

  19. Steve Avatar

    If I may Father.

    When we feel that we are far from the kingdom, it is always because something has caused us to lose the way to the hidden door of the heart, that leads to paradise:

    “[T]he little foxes ruin that the vineyard, even when they are in bloom” (Song of Solomon 2:15)

    Wisdom demands that we:

    “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”. (Proverbs 4:23)


    He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.

    Christ is in our midst!

  20. Steve Avatar

    Please forgive the grammatical errors in the above. The last quotation is from Proverbs 21:23. Blessings to all.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is no opposition within the Church for justice – however, we must be careful and prudent. Justice is primarily experienced as a human passion, an infinite desire, and easily becomes a force for bad as well as good. But prudence (which I would actually encourage rather than justice) is always helpful. I don’t know anything about “government progress.” Indeed, the idea of progress is itself a modernist notion, an invention of the the modern world to justify many things. There has always been “material progress.” Even before the industrial age there were improvements in how waterwheels worked, etc. The very development of civilization was “progress” of a sort, certainly a material and technological gain.

    But “progress” is a mythic concept. It presumes a movement from one point to another (progress, egress, etc.). The myth of modernity is that we are moving from a bad world, made that way by the forces of superstition, irrationality and tradition. Modernity is the application of science to whom needs and desires and the use of technology to bring those things about. The goal is an ever more productive and just world.

    We are certainly more productive, but often without prudence. Thus we produce tons of things we don’t need and consume them, even though consuming them will do us harm. TV is the best example I know. I don’t know how many studies we need to demonstrate that this instrument has become a deeply negative thing in our culture (certainly it has more to do with obesity than fast food). But progress isn’t getting rid of a lucrative market. Progress is its unfettered spread. I could multiply such examples.

    The US is arguably the most technologically advanced example of progress in the modern world, but our per capita prison rate is also the highest. This is not progress – its a disaster. It has largely been the result of another misguided attempt at prohibition which predictably has been no more successful than any other historical attempt at prohibition. We have funded a criminal class, and destroyed several other client nations in our “War” against all of this. Our largesse in this war knows no bounds. It lacks prudence.

    Our governmental system so lacks prudence as to stagger any discussion. It is dysfunctional beyond belief (I don’t care whether you’re on the left or right – the US government is the poster child of dysfunctionality). Our drive for justice results in the death of over a million children in the womb each year – disproportionately those of the poor and those of color. This is “progress” at the expense of the most vulnerable.

    I’m an American Southerner. I’m deeply grateful for programs such as the TVA (I live in its heart), the CCC’s during the Great Depression, and a number of other Roosevelt programs. However, the difference between Mr. Roosevelt’s progress and the over-regulated, over-managed, top-heavy nonsense that is offered today in the name of progress is vast indeed. We may be living at the end of progress (other than the continued development of apps and the like). We have “progressed” our way to such inefficiencies that we cannot afford our own health-care, nor produce foods that are worthy of eating. Material progress is not the same thing as prudence. We have had the former and very little of the latter.

    Our legal system is broken. But I could write several more paragraphs on that…

    The Church certainly supports justice anywhere or anytime. But, to paraphrase, “Everybody talkin’ ’bout justice ain’t doin’ any.” I believe almost no political rhetoric today. It is deeply hollow, like the empty suits that speak it.

    Do justice. Love God. Forgive your enemy. But for politicians, “Put not your trust in princes nor in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.”

  22. Steve Avatar

    Father, in the Book of Proverbs, there are “six things (that) the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth.” namely:

    A proud look.
    A lying tongue.
    Hands that shed innocent blood.
    A heart that devises wicked plots.
    Feet that are swift to run into mischief.
    A deceitful witness that uttereth lies.
    Him that soweth discord among brethren.

    Blessings to all.

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Not to disagree with you, Fr. Stephen…A very good post. Yet some thoughts/questions are rumbling around in me.

    How is it that we would view this beautiful earth given to us by God as “a strange land” and to see ourselves as “exiles”? How can I think I belong somewhere else other than where God has put me?

    Another perspective, given by Jesus, is that “the Kingdom of God is within/among you” (depending on translation). I certainly agree with you that the Kingdom is not some earthly paradise that we are to build – wouldn’t be much of a kingdom.

    Yet I am also bothered when some Christians talk of the Kingdom as some place else – which will be our reward for putting up with this life. As though we were not called upon to realize the Kingdom in the present. (I doubt very much that that was your intent but I was reminded of that view.)

    I often feel as though I do not belong in my secular culture. This is a “strange land”, indeed. Yet my sense of separateness from the Kingdom, I suspect, is more my perception, a perception distorted by my failings and my human limitations.

    I believe I am invited (as we all are) to “come further up, come further in!” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle). That journey, for us, begins here as we go further into the reality of Christ, living that reality in our broken world. Living that reality does not (and cannot) endorse a particular social policy but it calls us to be lovers and healers in the manner of Christ.

    When no longer confined to our bodies, we will experience that Reality as more real than anything we can now imagine or perceive with our limited senses.

  24. PJ Avatar


    I believe that Father Stephen is using the word “world” in the same way St. John uses it in his epistles: the mysterious fallen reality which interpenetrates and infests God’s good creation.

  25. Dino Avatar

    Mary Benton,
    just a small clarification, I am sure you are aware of, although I personally certainly side with “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:14), I also believe, as an Orthodox, in that (based on the Hesychastic tradition and experience) Divine ‘materialism’ that would never quite agree with

    When no longer confined to our bodies, we will experience that Reality as more real than anything we can now imagine or perceive with our limited senses.

    In fact we believe that we will only ever experience the complete fullness of that Reality when we are reunited to our resurrected bodies…

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joseph, I would add a note. The utilitarian, technological “progress” that is so vaunted has a vanishing point where it ceases to be beneficial for human beings. Economists are right now looking into the not to distant future when virtually everything will be done by machines more efficiently and productively than human beings can do them. There will be no need for most of what we call work today.

    In addition to that, the modern economy is founded on debt (called credit). Without enslaving millions to unmanageable debt service, the modern economy ceases to exiist. It is ‘credit’ that allows we humans to consume enough to keep the economy ‘growing’. How is that ‘progress’? The classic definition of money as a medium of exchange and a store of value has been replaced by money as electronic blips that has only the value that governments choose to assign to it.

    Human culture and human life requires worship, craft and community in order to thrive. Technological ‘progress’ breaks down all of these because it takes a view that is only material and that human labor is but one form of capital. There is literally nothing sacred.

    Political applications of ‘social justice’ have destroyed black families and have fostered an attitude of increasing dependence on government.

    Human craft alone produces beauty because humans alone are able to make icons that allow for the life and energy of God to be exchanged and multiplied. Human craft alone allows us to be the creative beings God intends us to be.

    We are fast loosing the ability to care for ourselves and work out our salvation in the sweat of our brow as Genesis commands.

    So called “social justice” is an ideological materialism that founded on eqalitarianism. IMO, it is fundamentally heretical in nature.

    The RCC has begun to find out that such social justice as interpreted by those in power will always come back to bite those of faith. Social justice now includes such horrific requirements as abortion pills; same-sex marriage; children’s “rights” and animal “rights”. All deeply antithetical to revealed Christian truth. To speak against such things is to be labled unjust and bigoted and even a perpetrator of ‘hate crimes’.

    Fr. Stephen councils prudence. An interesting word that I wish he would un-pack a bit more. In the meantime I’ll stick with the wisdom that Shakespeare articulates in “The Merchant of Venice”: “….in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I would say, if I understand Father Stephen correctly, that the Church’s approach is one of almsgiving. Given Fr. Stephen’s comments on that act in other threads, almsgiving dovetails with the idea of prucence (wisdom, sagacity, virtue). Almsgiving is not just giving money to someone. It is caring for them prudently much as the Good Samaritan did for the man fallen upon by robbers.

    Almsgiving can be done by the Church as a whole but its foundation is always in the personal, intimate response of one person to another out of love. It fundamentally involves genuine mercy and kindness. It frees rather than enslaves, it elevates rather than humiliates. It emphasizes true equality before God rather than the false bureaucratic egalitarianism of secular governments and institutions.

    Just my take, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Our governmental system so lacks prudence as to stagger any discussion. It is dysfunctional beyond belief (I don’t care whether you’re on the left or right – the US government is the poster child of dysfunctionality). Our drive for justice results in the death of over a million children in the womb each year – disproportionately those of the poor and those of color. This is “progress” at the expense of the most vulnerable.”

    The best discription of the current state of affairs I have ever read Fr. Stephen. It is insane.

  29. […] And, over on his blog, Fr Stephen reminds us: […]

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One last observation: We are called to be priests rather than do-gooders; transformative through the grace of God rather than palliative fixers.

  31. Dino Avatar

    I extensively agree with Father Stephen’s advise for prudence. I understand this prudence as that fruit that only develops from a life of unceasing Nepsis (implying a fiery, unwavering and illuminative vigilance/watchfulness -in the constant awareness of God’s presence). That fruit which would eventually develop fully into the gift of discernment.
    Discernment helps with all problems here discussed; not just with our evaluations of them, but, with our responses to them at every step.

  32. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    PJ – as indicated, I’m not disagreeing with Fr. Stephen (I’m not smart enough to!) – just mulling over some thoughts that came to me.

    Dino – I’m not smart enough to disagree with you either – especially regarding matters of Orthodoxy – misguided RC that I am :-). However, I do not think we are disagreeing. I believe Fr. Stephen said in one of his other posts that we cannot fully understand at this point the nature of our resurrected bodies. I didn’t mean to suggest that we would not have them.

    I referenced C.S. Lewis because I like how he described this in Narnian terms – as the children went further up and further in, after the ending of their world as they knew it, they experienced things as being the same but more real. My brain, with its limited hardware, cannot really fathom “more real” – but I look forward to being able to.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Benton,
    As some noted, I was indeed using “world” in the sense of St. John “cosmos” the “world” as understood apart from Christ, rather than “creation.” Thus St. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15). In a few icons, “Kosmos,” is pictured as a small figure. He is the world, but not creation. He is the world, as in the world-system. I’m not sure sometimes what to call this. But my “Jesus Freak Days” (early 70’s) tended to use St. John’s language. Sometimes I revert. 🙂

    It’s also hard to go wrong using the imagery of CS Lewis. He had a genius for these things.

  34. Dino Avatar

    CS Lewis’

    “they experienced things as being the same but more real”

    is, as a whole, a fabulous pointer to St Maximus’ “logoi” of things. I wonder whether he (Lewis) had any interest in St Maximus sometimes.
    In St Maximus the Confessor, the uncreated logoi of all beings doctrine is virtually the same type of eschatological ontology described in CS Lewis (albeit with far more precision and vastness). These logoi are not immovable archetypes in Maximus (as some people erroneously think) but eschatological destinations or existential vocations for creatures, awaiting for the human “logos”/response. This denotes (explicitly) an ontological dialogue between created and Uncreated which starts now and is fulfilled at the end times. Lewis’s effortless insight into such things is quite formidable – unless I read that in him to some degree.

  35. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Dino –
    “Lewis’s effortless insight into such things is quite formidable – unless I read that in him to some degree.”

    It may not have been effortless :-). It often surprises me when a truth converges upon me from different people and contexts – and yet why should it? There is but one Truth.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary, Dino,
    Lewis, good Classicist that he was, was from the Old School (he was a Platonist when it came to matters spiritual, rather than an Aristotelian). As Professor Diggory said to the children re:Narnia, “My yes, it’s all there in Plato. What do they teach in schools these days?”

  37. Joseph Avatar

    Father thank you again for your thoughts and answers. I like to think, hey I’m a graduate student 🙂 and your blog is a blessing thanks.I listened to your Justice Enough on Ancient Faith Radio. First of all thanks for sharing your personal loss as well. I have yes another question. How can I help clients who are either addicted to drugs, sex, even attention? This is real practical advice I’m looking for. Many priests just seem to suggest to people just not to do something, but are there other ways to look or act to change addictive behavior?

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    Joseph, yes. I recommend a 12 step program such as AA, pretty much without reservation. It has historically been proven to be about the only thing that is successful. Orthodox Churches in Russia and Romania (elsewhere I suspect but I know for sure in these places) have been working very hard to support the establishment of the 12 step program in their countries. Fr. Meletios Webber wrote an excellent book comparing the 12 steps to traditional Orthodox practice (Steps of Transformation) which I would suggest reading. If someone is battling an addiction – they should go to Church and a 12 step group. If their priest is not supportive of the 12 step group, they might need to find a different priest. You’re not of much use if you’re not sober. I volunteer and work in a local treatment center. I tell the men there that sobriety is job one. “Religion” will come. The best religion for them is staying sober. It will take all of the faith, hope and trust in God that they have for it to work. The success of the 12-step program (which is inherently spiritual) is among the stronger arguments for the existence of God that I know of in the modern world. If all Christians were as willing to be saved (day by day) as most people in recovery are to stay sober, the Church would be what the New Testament calls it to be. AA groups tend to be rigorously honest and straightforward on a level I’ve never seen anywhere else.

    If you’re not familiar with AA, get a copy of the “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous – comes in the color blue). Read it. Then read Fr. Meletios’ book. Let me know how I can help.

  39. Joseph Avatar

    Father I will thanks,,
    Is a lot of addictive compulsive behavior caused by thinking we must do something, achieve, have this relationship or that one,etc? How to break free

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    Joseph, most science on addiction would see something more than a mental pattern as the problem. Indeed, much like riding a bicycle, the path of addiction is laid down in the neural pathways. You never forget how to ride a bicycle. And addict never “forgets” their addiction. It is physical, on the one hand (very physical, with serious, even fatal withdrawal problems), it is also mental with patterns of destructive thought, shame, etc., and its spiritual as well. In AA, one of the early steps says, “We came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Thus, while recognizing the physical and psychological characteristics of addiction, it is also understood that freedom from addiction is pretty much a miracle. Only it is a miracle that God is willing to do. Thus the 12 steps is about learning to let God do what God wants to do. And it works. Not as a private thing. It requires group support and a daily discipline that never ends – not to a man’s dying breath.

    I frankly think that addiction is something of a model of how sin works in almost all its guises. Most people I know are addicted to sin. 🙂

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My God Father had addiction problems before being received into the Church. He was active in AA and became an addiction counselor. He still struggled with but never relapsed. Then he went to Romania and founded the recovery programs under sponsership of OCCM and the diocese of Cluj.

    He is now one of the few former addicts (alcohol) who doesn’t carry with him the uneasiness I’ve always seen in others. He has gained peace by helping others.

    He has authored books in Romanian, married and consulted several places including Alaska.

    His ministry continues to expand.

    A miracle indeed but one that also took much persistent effort on his part. When I first knew him he worked building and repairing clocks to keep himself busy and sober.

    A remarkable man.

  42. drewster2000 Avatar

    RE: Being strangers in a strange land vs. Social justice

    Reading the comments, it strikes me that the separator between these two comes when we strive to be like Christ – and then slip into over into actually thinking that we are God. If I can accept my limitations, then I feed and clothe my neighbor. But when I start assuming I know everything he needs and how to fix his life – I’ve crossed the line.

    The same thing can be said for a person in position of power. The only difference is that the need for prudence (that Fr. Stephen spoke of) is multiplied by the number of peoples lives that will be affected. The temptation is to take action and therefore show one’s own power. But the need is to show prudence and discretion, acting with humility and a great understanding of one’s own severe limitations – no matter if it is an individual or a group making the decisions.

    The world has no patience for this kind of far-thinking prudence. And that is why so often our call to be like Christ is only witnessed on an individual scale – and even then it seems odd.

  43. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “Most people I know are addicted to sin.”

    Well said, Fr. Stephen!

  44. tess Avatar

    Father, bless,
    Do you have any thoughts on the efficacy of the 12 step program, or any other pastoral approach, for narcissistic personality disorder? Modern psychiatry/psychology appears to have no solution.

  45. Dino Avatar

    Tess et al,
    Cognitive psychology’s terms for various mental processes are perhaps different to the terms to describe those same issues in traditional patristic language, however, I believe that an experienced Spiritual Father (not any experienced Spiritual Father, but, only those who have the particular gift) can easily loosen the addictive ties of these “personality disorders”. The thing is, this is ideally done in a very intense set-up (e.g.: involving daily confession and daily, guided practice of the Jesus prayer as well as simple life of obedience), one which is hard to emulate fully outside monasticism. Man can virtually be cured of ‘anything’ in that way – that is my experience at least. A lesser emulation is of course not at all without merit…

  46. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    I have found this interview with an Orthodox psychiatrist in Russia to be particularly insightful:



  47. Dino Avatar

    The generally unfavourable circumstances of our lives, as compared to the particularly conducive context of monasticism, means that very very few people have actual first-hand experience of the imperative introspection required in order to discover, way under our thoughts, our interests, our desires, our opinions, our worries etc, at our very inner core, in silent contemplation, the Lord Himself awaiting our return to the ‘Paternal House’. You are right that we do not really know God (as in having a relationship with Him which is not an imagined one) until we have -at the very least- a glimpse of that place, ‘out of our head and into our heart’.
    However, even if we are formidably vigilant throughout the whole day, it is the “night-life” of silent prayer that is the prerequisite to start having that relationship with unshakeable certitude; not that God does not come to us during the day, He rushes to us at every possible step, helping, aiding, comforting, supporting, but, it is only at night that we have Him revealing His very Self to us… As the Fathers say, God is always born in a person at night as He was born in this world at night.
    This is, in fact, (with the guidance of a Father) one of the most important steps in becoming free from all addiction to sin, by becoming united (starting at night, and carrying on for the rest of our lives with that ascesis) to God in unbreakable, constant reciprocity. This because He is united to me, it is me who must keep myself united to Him…

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m sorry but I removed your last three comments. They became too specific in offering pastoral suggestions. It is beyond the information given or the help asked. It was too much.

  49. Dino Avatar

    Oops! I just responded to a comment which seems to have now disappeared…

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    AA says that there are some who seem constitutionally unable to be honest with themselves and that they may be beyond help. It doesn’t judge them but it recognizes its own shortcomings. What is described as a narcissistic personality disorder – the real thing – is also quite difficult or impossible to help because the individual doesn’t recognize or want help. Nothing is beyond God’s ability, but there are some who leave even a monastery or a great Spiritual Father. We should be merciful and not judge. There are things that I don’t understand or know what to do about.

  51. Steve Avatar

    George – brilliant risposte…

  52. Steve Avatar

    Father, you appear to be ascribing a certain amount of authority to “AA”, and AMA “opinion” which are, how should I put it, well outside the tradition. I should add that this is your website and you may well do as you please. I am sure other have opinions which they prefer to keep to themselves. Blessings to all.

  53. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you, Father. I stand corrected. It has worked and still works for me. I thought it would be helpful.

  54. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I seem to be able to find silent prayer during the day as well as at night.

  55. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am well-acquainted with the subject of addictions. People are welcome to take whatever approach they wish. But, my pastoral judgment is that I know of nothing (excluding a very rigorous monastic setting – and even then success is difficult) that has the same track record as AA. AA is easily adapted to Orthodox piety. The book by Fr. Meletios Webber that I cited (Steps of Transformation) does an outstanding job of reconciling AA thought and the Tradition. I find no particular problems. But the Moscow Patriarchate and the Romanian Patriarchate have been rapidly implementing AA groups in association with the Church with great success. I take the disease of addiction very seriously, and would not want to undermine the only program I know of to be half-way reliable. It’s hard enough to get an addict to even get help. Every “doubt” sown, every backdoor opened, is counterproductive. As a pastor, and having a view to healthy pastoral practice on the blog, I would be irresponsible in the extreme to question the effectiveness of AA or denigrate it. It’s certainly “outside the Tradition.” Protestants came up with it. But the religion of a drunk is universal. What AA has is experiential proof – it works. What didn’t work was discarded. It’s why it agrees so well with Orthodox Tradition – for Orthodox Tradition is also “what works.” It is experiential. I’m pretty rigid on this one. It’s a lot of years of direct experience and work in the field. I volunteer every week in a local Rehab and work with a group of guys.

    I have a fair number of thoughts on how to engage in theoria on the subject of addiction. But I do that in leisure. If some one is dealing with a real addiction – I no where to point them. I assume of all Orthodox Christians that they are regular in confession and in the sacraments. Such grace is essential. But without the support and accountability of something like AA – they will most likely fail.

    I’ll trust Moscow and Bucharest on this one.

  56. PJ Avatar


    There are other paths to sobriety. I doubt anyone would deny that. After all, drunks sobered up prior to the early 20th century. However, speaking generally, NA/AA is the safest and surest path for most addicts. It surely is a gift from God. After all, Bill W. wrote the Steps in one 20-minute sitting, if we are to believe his account. His friend, a Jesuit named Fr. Edward Dowling, said of this moment of inspiration: “If it were twenty weeks, you could suspect improvisation. Twenty minutes sounds reasonable under the theory of divine help.” Indeed, the Steps bear a striking similarity to Ignatian spirituality and can be integrated into the Christian prayer life with relative ease. Heck, down South, most meetings conclude with the Lord’s Prayer! No surprise, then, that the ones who have the hardest time with AA/NA are atheists who can’t get over the submission to a Higher Power.

  57. Dino Avatar

    I have to agree with Father’s judgment that nothing excluding a very rigorous monastic setting has the same track record as AA due to the support and accountability found there.
    However, as it is a (partial) liberation from the old self we are talking about, there are “many ways to skin a cat”. This can only take one so far though… In other words it can take someone out of a life of hellish substance addiction, but, there is far more involved in becoming what we were meant to be – this would involve a far greater journey: from (1) being an addicted, split-personality at a level far beyond what is accepted for a ‘healthy (secular) standard’ to be lived out, to (2) becoming “normal” (in the secular sense), to (3) becoming purified from ALL passions, to (4) becoming illumined by the Holy Spirit, to (5) becoming glorified. (to use the classic 3 stages often used by the Fathers for (3), (4) & (5) ).
    As they often say to novices in the Holy Mountain nowadays with a touch of humour: “you have to first become human before you can then become a saint, not the other way round…”
    The huge gamut of the extremes in this journey reminds of :

    George‘s point:
    “silent prayer during the day”
    Of course, a certain amount of stillness is possible in the day too, (perhaps event to the degree that you are nearing self active prayer and even experiencing assaults from the Enemy as in Saint Anthony – although not quite there) but the unanimous voice of Orthodox hesychastic tradition knows that it is the Night time watering of the flower of Divine conteplation rather than the day time which is the most “effective”…
    As Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (and many others) used to repeat, one “Lord Jesus Christ” at 3 o’clock after midnight offered to God as the true first fruit of our existence is equal to more than one thousand “Lord Jesus Christ” said in the natural dissipation of the day…

  58. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you, Dino. I will change my routine to fit the advice of the Fathers.

  59. Dino Avatar

    There is something undeniably more “hesychastic” about the night-time vigil (even if it is a mere 1 hour waking up at 3 and saying the Jesus prayer up to 4), a secure bond is cemented in those hours that carries over to all the other 24 hours far better than more time spent in a daytime setting with so many more possibilities for distraction. As Elder Aimilianos used to say about praying at night: “the night! it is God’s definite bias! we must therefore always use those hours”

  60. Dino Avatar

    It goes without saying that we our prayer routines must always be known by our Spiritual Father 🙂

  61. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Again, thank you, Dino.

  62. Elizabeth Hounsel Avatar
    Elizabeth Hounsel

    Wow, thanks to all for these helpful discussions. I am so glad to find out about the book on transformation by Fr.Meletios and to hear comments on the AA program. I did not realize how sucsessful it has been. thx!!

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