Get Out of Your Mind!

venerateiconI am not certain at what point modern Christians began to believe that “spiritual” and “mental” were the same thing. I know that it is a commonplace to interpret John 4:24 (“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”) to mean that outward actions and locations are of no value – only those things that take place in the mind are truly spiritual. The older English word “ghost” was often used to translate pneuma (Spirit, breath). Thus the English praised God: “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” That the word “ghost” now means a “spook,” the shade of a departed person, has made Holy “Ghost” fall out of favor. German still says, “Heilige Geist” and “geistliche” for “spiritual.” For years I fielded the terrified questions of young children who were confused by the older English usage. “Come, Holy Ghost!” is scary.

Far more frightening, however, is the transformation of Christian doctrine and practice that has accompanied shifts in meaning and thought. I suspect that the anti-ritual rhetoric of the Reformation drove the false reading of John 4:24. The emptiness of many Reformation Churches bears witness to the force of the verse. Stained glass disappeared in many places. Plain, white walls, with at most, the Cross as an image, expressed the iconoclasm of the new “spiritual” worship. The altar was de-emphasized, diminished, reduced to a table, usually under the imposing and central place of the pulpit. The “Word,” written, spoken or sung, became the spiritual sacrament of the community.

Of course today the heirs of such iconoclasm have forgotten the earlier rhetoric. Walls are being decorated again with images, though mostly drawn from mass media. Movement and rhythm are commonplace as well as the more “hands-on” materiality of Pentecostalism. Modern anti-ritualism feels better than is progenitor.

I am not noting these things in order to attack them. They are the inherited forms of modern Christianity and are at home in the culture which they helped create. As such, the thoughts and attitudes that belong to them are at home in the thoughts and attitudes of everyone, even among Catholics and Orthodox who officially disagree with such modern sentiments.

As an Orthodox mission priest, and a convert to Orthodoxy, I see these things in myself. I do the things that the Orthodox do (those whose native culture was formed by an Orthodox mind and practice). But I know that I often don’t do them in the same way. I stand before an icon and pray, but I doubt seriously that I see what the average Russian in my congregation sees – or if I do – it is only through great struggle and intentionality. American spiritual culture is inherently iconoclastic. We doubt that images are useful even after we have agreed that they are.

It is not unusual for me to watch a young man or woman of Eastern background show up in Church on a Sunday. They approach the icons like everyone else. Unlike the Americans, however, they do not “go about their business” quite as quickly. Americans tend to cross themselves the required number of times and bow. We kiss the icon, perhaps light a candle, and then we move on. After all, there is a line behind us and things need to get done!

But the young Russian reaches the icon and pauses (sometimes for much longer than their American fellow-congregants would like). He/she will cross themselves slowly, very deliberately, and will stand stock still before the image. It is at this point that I begin to think, “What are they seeing?” and “What am I missing?”

One simple explanation is that Americans (or believers shaped in our culture) see icons from the perspective of the two-storey universe. That which is “spiritual” is in the head, not in the icon. The icon only serves as an object that makes me think – and the thinking is the thing! My young Russian examples stand before an icon, pray before an icon, light a candle before an icon, as if the icon is what matters – the saint/Christ/Theotokos – is right there! How still would you stand if it were Christ Himself before you? That’s how they stand!

I sometimes hear modern detractors (iconoclasts) say that the images and ritual are distractions from spiritual things. Oddly, my experience is that almost all distractions are in my head, not in the room around me! Noisy children should be no more distracting that the blue of the sky – for both are entirely normal and natural. It is my dark internal musings, fears, anxieties and never-ending obsessions that distract. I would to God that I could get out of my mind!

And this lies at the very heart of traditional worship and devotional practice. God gave man a mind and He meant for him to use it. But “using” our mind and being caught up in an endless series of mental connections are not the same thing.

There is nothing inherently spiritual about the mind.

There is nothing that makes the mind at all superior to the body.

Making the sign of the Cross is just as spiritual as thinking about the Cross and perhaps far more effective.

Modern thought, in one of its better moments, has begun to recognize that thought is best understood as kinesthetic, a combination of movement, sensation and idea. It is the recognition that we are incarnate beings. Christ God did not become incarnate as an idea: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The means by which Christ descended to man is the same most appropriate means for man to ascend to Christ. In giving us the Eucharist, Christ did not say, “Take this and think about my Body… take this and think about my blood.” For many, the eating and drinking that are commanded have been replaced by a thinking that was never commanded. In the Church’s teaching, the Eucharist is Christ’s true Body and Blood whether you think so or not.

By the same token, the icons “make present what they represent,” in the words of the Seventh Council. They are who they are, whether you think so or not. The physicality of the Church and all that is in it (including the physical presence and noise of the people gathered there) are truly sacramental – they are not there to make us think – they are there to love, to cherish, to honor, to make God present, to be “the least of these.” Allowing ourselves to understand this will allow us to come to our senses and get out of our minds.


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 “Get Out of Your Mind!”

  1. Preston Avatar

    Thanks. Now I have to go buy a new pair of shoes, since you stepped all over the toes of these.

    Seriously, though, I think Orthodoxy for many converts is primarily mental and only secondly spiritual; the temptation is to convert in order to have the pride of coming to a right conclusion in our minds. Sometimes, I wonder if the convert in the style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is closer to the truth, as conversion in order to marry is at least based on love, while the desire to be right is rarely based on more than pride.

    Of course, the desire to be “right” is a different thing from the desire to be whole.

  2. Delwyn X. Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn X. Campbell

    Good comment. When I read people talking about Christian worship, and they fail to recognize that Greco-Roman culture have penetrated what was once the Hebrew covenant with Yahweh, yet they don’t like the idea of African American culture penetrating the worship of God in Christ.
    To what extent are we willing to let our culture become an offering to God, and to what extent do we resist our culture as contrary to God? Must we become Greeks in order to be Orthodox? Must we become Germans in order to be Lutherans? Remember the conflict in Antioch?

  3. Lx Avatar

    Preston, I understand your point about pride and being right but as an orthodox it only works and “reassures” you until you open a prayer book and word by word sink into the who you really are.
    I am well familiar with how many people perceive the orthodox (even in countries with eastern background, where I come from, they are regarded as “holier than thou”) but to them I’d say, open a book and take a glance to what (and whom) a practicant orthodox is (or should be) confronted daily, every sin, weakness, flaw, lack etc.
    It is different from the inside once you start walkinv the line and hold it. (Which uours truly still dodges)

  4. Rhonda Avatar

    “In the Church’s teaching, the Eucharist is Christ’s true Body and Blood whether you think so or not.”
    I have said this on several occasions with Protestants, sometimes when discussing the Literal Presence, but usually defending the Church’s stance of closed communion. I find great irony that if another Protestant group practices closed communion, no argument is given or only a minor comment perhaps. But it is considered a great negative for the EOC & RCC to have such.

    “By the same token, the icons “make present what they represent,” in the words of the Seventh Council. They are who they are, whether you think so or not.”
    I too have noticed the difference between how immigrant cradle-Orthodox venerate icons. We have an elderly lady immigrant that if she’s talking to you will touch you…on the hand, arm or shoulder. She does the same with the icons when she prays before & venerates them as well as during Confession. Our parish now is mostly white American converts from Protestantism, but when I was Chrismated it was about 1/2 cradle-Orthodox immigrants…my sponsor was a Greek immigrant. I was very nervous before my first Confession, so my sponsor in her heavy Greek accent said, “Just look into His eyes & pray as if you were talking with one of your dearest family or closest friends because you are.” Sure the priest had “taught” me in an hour about icons (“make present what they represent” & etc.) & how to venerate (in action), but her one sentence really served to make it real for me. I wish I could say that I always remember her advice, but often “there is a line & things have to get done” 😉

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy is extremely aware and sensitive to cultural context, historically this is true of them more than anyone. My British ancestors (English, Scots, Irish, Welsh) would once have been at home venerating icons and kissing the Cross. The philosophies of ratiocination and iconoclasm that destroyed that part of their culture are not inherently British, French, Western, etc. according to tge Ven Bede, St Augustine came ashore in Kent bearing a “Cross of silver and a portrait of Christ on a board.” Iconoclasm is anti-human, and not Western, or American. Orthodox do not venerate icons or use incense because they are Greeks or Russians. They use it because the Word became flesh. My parish, though Orthodox with a number of foreign nationals, is decidedly and unmistakeably American. Embarrassingly so, sometimes .

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well, my mother was a contemporary dancer and my father a pioneer and homesteader in New Mexico in 1905. Both had an essentially iconic understanding of creation and a sense of the oneness of all things (I know, I’ve mentioned it before). They were almost a generation older than most parents of people my age. They both went from a horse era to automobiles, radio, television, space travel and the early days of computers.

    I mention this personal history because of what it affords me to this day, an intuitive and deep understanding of the reality of the unseen and transcendent. The idea of being iconoclastic is so foreign to me. All matter is imbued with life, a personal life that can be experienced.

    There was a dancer and artist that my mother brought to town once to teach a master class with many other dancers years ago. Geoffrey Holder (his greatest exposure to most people was in the old 7-up Uncola commercials). A large black man from Trinidad. He walked out on the stage and in his magnificent bass voice announced: “I have seen God baby, and each time He wants to talk to me, He starts my body moving….”

    Icons (part of the communion of the saints), the Divine Mysteries, the prayers and writings of the Fathers, in the love I share with my wife and family and with my fellow parishioners.

    I’ve never doubted they who the Church says they are. Everyone and every natural thing is iconic. With a depth and a life that goes beyond anything we see with normal sight.

    God is with us. In all things, filling all things.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Actually what Mr. Holder said was: “I have seen God baby, and He is right here (pointing to the center of his body, just below his heart) and each time He wants to talk to me, He starts my body moving…”

  8. Rhonda Avatar

    Preston & Delwyn,

    As a long-time follower of Fr. Stephen’s blog, I assure you he did not mean to step on anyone’s toes or ruin any shoes.

    “the temptation is to convert in order to have the pride of coming to a right conclusion in our minds”

    As a convert myself & as a member of a parish that is almost entirely converts, I can honestly say that most do not convert so that we can be “proud” of being “right.” Most with that attitude do not stick around long enough to be Received/Chrismated because they are looking for a place where their opinions/beliefs will be confirmed rather than corrected. Instead we are looking for peace & stability. One does not just walk into an Orthodox Church & automatically get Received because they so desire. This applies even those that were Orthodox, converted out of the Faith & then desire to return to the Orthodox fold.

    Most of us are fleeing from conflicting beliefs as well as frequently abusive past experiences at the hand of well-meaning clergy, leaders & evangelists. Most of us are looking for worship that entails decorum, majesty & honor befitting God that involves right belief & practices befitting Christians.

    When I was Chrismated there were 28,000 different Protestant denominations world-wide teaching beliefs that opposed each other externally as well as internally. By the 10th anniversary of my Chrismation, that number had grown to 38,000. An evangelical once told me, “I attend a church with 1,500 members & no 2 of us agree on anything. But you & this Antiochian believe exactly the same things & you 2 have never even met!” I am OCA, not Antiochian.

    Sadly, many parishes can be quite “ethnic”. They can be very closed to newcomers & this can be off-putting. We get many inquirers/visitors for this reason even though they may live closer to an established Orthodox Church. No, you do not have to become Greek or Russian or whatever…just Orthodox.

  9. Delwyn X. Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn X. Campbell

    It sounds like you all are disagreeing with the central premise of the author, which was that western (enlightenment/modern) culture has affected even how Orthodoxy is done in its American expression. Now I see you all write that this is not so at all. I’ll let you all hash this out, and get back to me when you all work it out.

  10. Rhonda Avatar


    “It sounds like you all are disagreeing with the central premise of the author, which was that western (enlightenment/modern) culture has affected even how Orthodoxy is done in its American expression”

    That is not the “central premise” of the article. It is not about the culture affecting “how Orthodoxy is done”, but rather how the culture has affected our (converts) mindset & capability to perceive & at times even understand Orthodoxy. Fr. Stephen, please correct me if I erred here.

    Also, I do not see where the “disagreeing” is to which you refer, at least not among the Orthodox commentators here. Perhaps you could explain?

    The native culture does flavor Orthodoxy…Russian chant is definitely different than Greek chant, for example. Another example is how icons are venerated. One tradition crosses themselves, kisses the icon & crosses themselves. Another tradition twice crosses themselves & bows touching the floor, kisses the icon, & finally crosses themselves & bows touching the floor once again.

    But the native culture does not change Orthodoxy in belief/doctrine. Icons are still venerated. God is still Trinity of three persons, Father-Son-Holy Spirit & Christ is still fully-God/fully-man. Even though I only speak English, I would be comfortable & able to follow a service conducted in Greek or Slavonic or whatever other language.

  11. Margaret Avatar

    I respectfully offer a different view: Icons do not make the portrayed person present. They can serve to remind us that indeed, the person is and was already present, whether we are mindful of that fact or not. But to claim that Christ is present because He is depicted on a piece of wood is too much for me to swallow. An Icon has no power in and of itself, God us just too big to be contained in a picture or piece of wood or a statue God can choose to work a miracle through it, but lets not become confused as to where that power comes forth.

  12. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    The next time someone tells me I’m out of my mind, I will remember to take that as a positive. 🙂

    “I sometimes hear modern detractors (iconoclasts) say that the images and ritual are distractions from spiritual things. Oddly, my experience is that almost all distractions are in my head, not in the room around me! Noisy children should be no more distracting than the blue of the sky…”

    Fr. Stephen, this mention of distraction reminds me of the discussion in your last post about embracing sacrifices.

    Although I enjoy praying in silence, I have learned in more recent years that those external things that I found annoying or “distracting” do not have to be…like noisy children, for example. My heart can be at prayer anywhere or with anyone, when I embrace whatever is around me or within me rather than resist (i.e. trying to force away, engage in mental criticism, etc.).

    God can and does make sacrament of all. It is my reaction of disdain, resistance and negative judgment (whether of self or others) that pulls me away from God. If I bring all to God and trust in His goodness, than nothing can pull me away from Him. The troubles of my mind come and go, as the noises around me come and go.

    So I perhaps do not need to be “out of my mind” at all?

    However, your point is well taken that we overvalue the mind and its products.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    The doctrine of the holy icons is not exactly as you are stating. It is not “in” the wood. The nature of the “presence” is described by the fathers as a “hypostatic” presence, that is, a presence which is “personal” rather than essential. Another example would be the Holy Name. God is certain made present in His name – even though the Name, spoken or written, is just sound or letters – and yet He is present.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary B.
    A subtlety – you speak of being pulled away from God – again, this judges what is happening as though the reality is measured by what is going on in your mind. The nature of the sacrament is that God is present. Present. Whether I think about it or not. I find this most helpful. At the Eucharist, when I approach the Holy Cup, I certainly try to hold my mind steady. But I am frequently distracted. But God abides and remains and gives Himself to me regardless of the scattering of my mind.

    Again, I think that we are scandalized by the materiality of God’s gift to us. Margaret’s point in the comment above, had some of this concern. The power is of God, but God has given Himself to us in material means from the beginning. The tabernacle, the ark, the manna, were all God’s ideas, not ours. The Incarnation, in which God becomes “inescapably united” to the material world, the Uncircumscribed becomes circumscribed, in the language of the fathers. Iconoclasm always sounds right – it always sounds as though we are defending the sovereignty and independence of God, that we are somehow protecting God from our idolatry. But these instincts ultimately would reject Christ’s humanity – which we do not intend. Iconoclasm, as I noted, has become a cultural knee-jerk. Incarnational, sacramental Christianity has to be learned.

  15. Margaret Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,
    Thanks for attempting to explain it in simple terms for my simple mind and heart. I have a hard time with venerating icons – I always end up closing my eyes and calling to them in my heart when venerating. Perhaps I am too simple in that I just cannot agree that God is present in an Icon the same way He is there when we call upon His Holy Name. Even the Psalms say He answers when we call upon His Holy Name or that I will chant unto the name of the Lord Most High – but I don’t recall them saying He”d be there when I venerate His image? To me, I can venerate an Icon only if I take it as symbolic. I jyst cannot bring myself to believe that God is present in a picture or statue – at least at this time…perhaps if the Lord wills, He will bring about understanding for me. LOL. I do believe He is everywhere present and fills all things though. Does that count? 🙂 Thanks again for your kind attempt to teach me.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    One further thought – perhaps this will be helpful. You understand that if we call on His Name He will hear us. Note that on an icon (always if it is rightly painted), the Name is there. Usually abbreviated for Christ IC XC (for Jesus Christ). Also in the halo, O WN (these are the Greek letters for “I Am That I AM” the Divine Name).

    He is not present “in” the icon, just as the Name is not “in” the icon. But think of His presence as being similar or like that of the presence of the Name written on the icon. This is closer to what the fathers mean in their teaching. The image is like the Name – just like the name – think of the image as the Name for those who cannot read. There is a mystery of how God is present in His Name, but He has promised that it is so, and even warned us against misusing His Name. And so we take care, with reverence and a kiss.

  17. Stephen Martin Reynolds Avatar
    Stephen Martin Reynolds

    German _Geist_ is ambiguous. Depending on context, it may me “spirit,” “mind,” or “intellect.” The adjective _geistig_ refers more to the intellect or mind, whereas _geistlich_ approximates more to “spiritual” and may mean “devout” or “pious,” more or less synonymous with _fromm_. Sometimes it is hard to figure out which meaning is intended; sometimes one may suspect that both are involved, esp. in the works of philosophers.

    In anthropology, _Geisteskultur_ corresponds to English “intellectual culture,” in contrast to _Sachkultur_ ‘material culture’ (which may also be expressed as _materielle Kultur_). Under German influence, Latvian uses _garīga_ here, sometimes to the confusion of persons much more proficient in the language than I: _gaŗš_ is ‘spirit’ and _garĪgs_ usually ‘spiritual.’ It would be interesting to look into other Western languages for the same sort of ambiguity.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stephen, of course “spirit” is also ambiguous in English, and can mean ghost in the spooky manner. Hmm. Dino, how does this work in Greek?

  19. Rhonda Avatar


    Keep venerating the icons & do not worry about your “issue” which is common with Protestant converts. Remember, take your time & look into the eyes of the one depicted as you say your prayer (call on them in your heart). Nothing is more revealing about a person than their eyes; this is especially true of icons (in my experience anyway). It will come in time.

    When you kiss a spouse, child, grandchild, sibling & etc. you are kissing an icon for we are all made in the image of God. In the Septuagint, the Greek word used for image in Gen 1:26 is “eikon”. If it is okay to kiss in love our close still-bodily family who are icons of God, then it is okay to do the same with our spiritual family via their icons.

    If you can, pick up or borrow a copy of “Three Treatises on the Divine Images” (aka: On Holy Images) written by St. John of Damascus. Amazon currently has it from 2 publishers: St. Vladimir’s Press (Popular Patristics Series) for $15 or from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform for $7.

  20. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen –

    Are we disagreeing? I hadn’t thought so – at least not in any significant way.

    I was suggesting that it may not be as important to get out of our minds as to “be” in our minds (and bodies), embracing what is there rather than fighting with the natural tendency for wandering and distraction.

    God is always present. But my presence is more questionable. Not that I can escape God by not being physically, mentally or spiritually present – but I can pull away from God by my responses to what is in and around me, can’t I? (If not, there would be no sin or need for spiritual growth.)

    I certainly concede that my comment was a bit tangential to your primary point. I was just struck by the parallel between embracing our sacrifices and embracing our distractions. Perhaps I need to just quit rambling and “get out of my mind”… 🙂

  21. davidp Avatar

    Excellent points. I hope you are safe in your area of Tn because of the rains and flooding that is happening all over the mid-west.


  22. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east


    Good morning, some observations from a different timezone (GMT+1):

    1. The cosmos assumes a far different shape when viewed through “the window” of eastern iconography.

    2. The leavened bread is that which it truly represents – it is symbol in the “lost” meaning.

    3. East and west are “places” not choices – or “sectors” as Dino once put it.


  23. Old Toad Avatar
    Old Toad

    Great post, Father.

    I remember reading years ago that Mozart was wont to complain that Protestantism was “all in the head.” Mozart isn’t a bad man to have on your side. And his critique is interesting, coming out of the reason-obsessed eighteenth century.

  24. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    Rather Mary, east and west are reference points – “markers of truth” by which one identifies. One should only “build” on the spot marked “x”.

  25. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    “Self identifies” I should say.

  26. Delwyn X. Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn X. Campbell

    With all respect, I wasn’t saying that Post-Enlightenment/Modern culture changed theology for the Orthodox, I said it changed the way you “do” EO. According to the author, the simple act of veneration is played out differently by an American as opposed to a Russian, because of the culture that we bring to the act. My point, as an African American who comes to Lutheranism from a culture that was generally outside of the Lutheran Church’s target audience, was that we were expected to reject OUR cultural heritage, including musical expression, in order to embrace Lutheranism. This is because practicing the Faith is more than just theology, it is also praxis, liturgy, hymnology, etc.

  27. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    An inconsequential footnote on the most famous of all the icons, Father. The worshiper in the photo is wearing a veil whilst venerating the much loved Rublev icon – I understand the icon lives in a museum rather than a Church. How wonderful to see this.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Agreed. And your point is important. African American culture has much that is quite rich and “human” (in the manner that I am using the term). The gospel must be incarnated within a culture. But in the Incarnation, Christ’s divinity is not changed or altered by His humanity, rather the humanity is “divinized.” In our encounter with the gospel, who we are (culturally) is and should be engaged and incorporated (what a good word in its original meaning). But the gospel as it is incorporated should also divinize our culture, lift it up, humanize it in the fullness of Christ. A culture such as Post-Englightenment Europe-America, had falsely rid itself of many human elements, and this has only become more extreme in the present period. People in my culture don’t dance (in any normal manner). We have no folk music (just the paid sex entertainment music of the radio). We don’t produce art in any normal way. We are Consumers, dehumanized customers of the global economy. The Church also has to help us become human in the journey of our salvation.
    Orthodoxy has this long history of encountering cultures and really engaging them – that’s the reason there is Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Romanian, American, etc. In Alaska in the 1700’s, Russian monks created alphabets, translated books and Scripture, trained and ordained native Americans. Today, Orthodoxy in Alaska is quite Native American. I contrast that to the sad saga of engagement in the lower 48 by other Christian groups.
    But it is all one and the same Orthodoxy. Today there is a growing presence of sub-Saharan Orthodoxy. It has a fascinating history. In many cases it has been “home grown.” Native African groups have studied history and doctrine and come to the conclusion that Orthodoxy is original Christianity and have approached the Orthodox Church for help. Tanzania is a remarkable place with a thriving home-grown Orthodoxy.
    Here is a video from Pascha (Easter) in Ghana. It demonstrates just how seriously Orthodoxy is engaging the culture. The music is a Russian tune, with English words, but sung in a manner that is marvelously Ghanian! I love it!

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    And lest anyone fail to grasp the wholeness of the Orthodox expression – Greek Orthodoxy has “rhythm” as well. One of the losses in the translation of Orthodoxy to many other cultures is the inherent “pulse” in Greek poetry. Russians translated the words, but the “beat” of Greek hymns is missing, creating a loss of rhythm in many expressions of Orthodoxy. I think this is a serious loss but don’t have any idea about it other than to say it’s a loss. It can be remedied in many places by using some translated forms of Greek hymography – I’ve seen this in a number of American Churches (mostly Antiochian). It works. Rhythm is inherently human. Life has a beat.

    Example from Mt. Athos. The tambourine sounding thing is a hand censer with bells (katzia).

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Each land has a rythymn that is inherent to it that, when allowed, forms the culture in part. We need to find an English expression of our own rythmn. There are likely to be subsets.

    I am often struck by the fact that the Orthodox Liturgy is a call and response not unlike the Afro-American. It seems such a natural fit.

    Such a liturgy would be rather more physically energetic than what typically occurs in an Old Style Orthodox Church. Instead of Lord have mercy being sung in a rather controlled way. It would be Looord have MERCY! The Orthodox Church can accommodate a lot of variation. So can the RCC. Protestants not so much without changing the theology, or so it seems to me.

    Native Americans have a fit in a different way which was realized in Alaska and which the Protestant missionaries tried their best to destroy.

  31. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Where does “do this in remembrance of me” fit into your point here? i take your point that us protestant converts are too much locked inside our own minds, but surely this doesn’t mean i’m not supposed to think about anything while i do these things, no?


  32. Ron Spann Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, a terrific reading of what it means to be Christian in this American context. I am an Episcopal [Anglican] priest who resonates at your every point, whether the permeation of the many currents of western rationalism in their religious and non-religious manifestations, or what that says about the siren of iconoclasm that too easily side-tracks any culture. So much contemporary content re spirituality is heavily cerebral, even when it has to do with embodiment as in yoga and energy practices – or else heavily appealing to the affective side [emotions] as in the pentecostal-charismatic piety that is making its mark even in traditionally staid American evangelicalism.

    In my visit to Hagia Sophia I was struck by the contrast of the Byzantine iconography with the imposition of Islamic and Iconoclastic overlays that the ongoing restoration allows to emerge. It is crucial to remember that those first called iconoclasts were the offspring of the same cultural milieu that the Orthodox believers came from, as you so helpfully remind us. No, the Incarnation can be such an intimate embarrassment anywhere at any time. But that is also what should keep us so hopeful about how redemptively invasive it is, so that our hearts and consciences cannot go undisturbed when we begin to stray from the scandal of incarnation.

    Re a related issue that Delwyn points out, and I think you also, we forget too easily St. Paul’s struggle in the birthing of the church to clarify vigorously that the making of new Christians must not require that they first become “Jews”. That has immediate application in my own setting, that in making new Anglicans I cannot require them first to become Anglophile royalty lovers, or whatever variation the message takes… :-). I too am African-American, and my journey in American Anglicanism mirrors what Delwyn remembers about his time as a Lutheran.

    I have no difficulty appreciating what you are saying about your spiritual sensibilities as an Orthodox believer [a priest, no less!] whose soul is not imprinted with the cultural DNA of an historically EO ethnic identity. I dare say that I think I can spot this in the writings of Orthodox apologists who are also converts and whose ethnic heritage is not Eastern. What is thrilling, however, is to recognize that Orthodoxy has captured the imagination and hearts of 21st century Americans of many backgrounds. The Good News speaks, the Kingdom comes near. Its energies suffuse our own age. As the EO tradition pursues obedience to Christ God [if I may borrow your style] on this soil, you are awaited by your contemporaries, indeed by all creation on tiptoe to see you come into your own – for all our sakes.

  33. Ron Spann Avatar

    Oops, Delwyn, I think I put your Lutheran sojourn in the past and missed that it is very much in the present! Apologies!

  34. Rd Andrew Avatar

    Fr Stephen and all,
    I have been learning and doing the Paraklesis service this week to the words and music in the attached video. The words to me are very poetic and are applied to a more “simple” Byzantine Tone 8. You don’t have to watch the entire video (it’s long), but you get an idea of how beautiful English and Eastern tones can be blended together, to get us out of our heads and into our hearts. Please forgive if this link gobbles up bandwidth.

  35. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for addressing this topic so beautifully! A great joy of worship since becoming an Orthodox Christian has been for me as you say here: “In the Church’s teaching, the Eucharist is Christ’s true Body and Blood whether you think so or not. By the same token, the icons “make present what they represent,” in the words of the Seventh Council. They are who they are, whether you think so or not. The physicality of the Church and all that is in it (including the physical presence and noise of the people gathered there) are truly sacramental – they are not there to make us think – they are there to love, to cherish, to honor, to make God present, to be “the least of these.” Allowing ourselves to understand this will allow us to come to our senses and get out of our minds.”

    Glory to God for All Things!

  36. Amanda Avatar

    Father, thank you for this post. I have felt that my “thoughts” about Orthodoxy were a barrier preventing me from fully participating. The concept that things are what they are is very freeing.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s been my experience. When I first found myself drawn to icons (1976), I had no idea what they were about. I got one. I would sit and pray and look at it and expect that something was supposed to happen. Then I thought there must be some way to “read” it. It remained a puzzle for many years (until I later did my thesis on icons at Duke). Icons “are what they are.” I recently wrote in a comment that sometimes when praying, just learning to be “present.” It’s helpful not even to think about God. Actually, I said don’t think about “Jesus.” And said, “It’s the icons job to do that.” What I’m pushing, or trying to press here, is that there is a reality that does not require me to think about it – and God is such a reality. I like being with my wife, and sometimes I think about her. But, I don’t have to in order to benefit from being with her. Being with someone and thinking about them are not synonymous always. It’s, of course, normal to think about those whom we love, and to think about God, but it becomes problematic when we begin to relate to our thoughts about someone instead of relating to the person himself.
    Orthodox practice allows us to get out of our “mind.” And that, strangely, allows us to have peace of mind.

  38. Rhonda Avatar

    “…there is a reality that does not require me to think about it – and God is such a reality…”

    That is perhaps my favorite aspect of Divine Liturgy as well as all of the liturgical services. I don’t have to “think”…just participate in & enjoy the moment. Your example of thinking about vs. being with your wife is quite timely. My husband & I just returned home from dinner out in celebration of our marriage 17 years ago today 🙂

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Malzetov. My wife and I just celebrated 4 years.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    And the Orthodox Church has the most complete and full understanding of Baptism of any Christian body. I know you can find a few articles here that touch on the topic.

  41. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Father Stephen, this is my biggest stumbling block as someone hoping to convert (from Presbyterianism). If you would ever expand on this topic, and your own journey, I would be most grateful.

    If we are talking about a thing that is believed to contain the essence of a thing, then how is that different from (for example) a voodoo doll into which someone stick pins? Or (for example) someone claiming to have the thigh bone of Christ or a sliver of the Cross?

    Thank you, and thank you for your excellent blog.

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ann K,
    It is a good question – one not written about enough – I think. I have some extensive unpublished material on the topic (my thesis was related to it).
    First, Orthodoxy does not teach that the essence of something is contained in another thing. This is quite important. Think of the distinction (in Trinitarian doctrine and Anthropological doctrine) between essence and person (ousia and hypostasis). The essence is the “being” of something – the word that answers “What.” Thus the essence of a human – is humanity. We also use the word “nature” for this. The person answers the question “who.” Thus the man “Peter,” has the essence of “human”, just like “Paul.” But the person of Peter is unique as is the person of Paul.

    Now we could move that thought over to anything – to trees, grass, etc. There is the common and the specific, unique – essence and hypostasis (we wouldn’t say “person” for a blade of grass, but “hypostasis” because that blade is unique, unlike any other blade.

    An icon is, in essence, wood, paint, gold, etc. In essence it does not differ from a pile of wood, paint, gold. But, the Fathers (and this is in the writing of St. Theodore the Studite rather than in the Seventh Council), teach that an icon is a “hypostatic representation.” It is not a depiction of an essence – indeed, St. Theodore noted that you cannot ever paint an essence. You can’t have a painting of “humanity.” Only of a “human.” This is a problem in some abstract art – the effort to depict what cannot be depicted.

    Thus, when the iconoclasts charged the icon makers as trying to make an image of the Divine, the response was, “The Divine cannot be picture. Only the person can be pictured.” And they noted that the person of Christ could be pictured because he became human, that is, he took upon himself a nature (human) that can be circumscribed or depicted as person.

    The image of Christ in the icon, is the image of His person (not of His essence).

    This is extremely hard for us to think about and understand. I know because I puzzled with it for about a year or more when I was researching my thesis. If you will, it helps to think of encountering the “person” of Christ, somehow apart from the wood and paint. If we smash the wood and paint His representation is no longer there. There is no “scattered” image of Christ, just wood and paint.

    Technically, every image has this quality. A photograph of a loved one, is “iconic.” It “makes present” in an iconic fashion the person that is pictured. We have to add to our understanding the new category of “iconic presence.” This is a way of being present that is not the same as being “essentially” present. I am only present “essentially” when I am physically there. But we experience the presence of other persons in a number of ways other than full physical presence. A telephone conversation has a presence about it – a sort of “audio icon.” It is your voice, not someone else’s. Thus it is a “personal” voice – a hypostatic voice. It’s not just sound – it’s Your sound.

    Every photograph has this – as do other images. We’re far too cavalier, I think, about images. We should, I think, be theologians of the image considering how omnipresent they are in our culture.

    I once considered writing an article about Bugs Bunny and how he almost “really exists.” Though he is just a cartoon, with a voice done by Mel Blanc, nonetheless, in American culture, we sort of “know him.” I thought of this because back in the 90’s was his 50th birthday. I was working on the icon stuff and thought of him as an example. He is an example of the creativity of human beings. We cannot actually create a new existence (a “real” bugs bunny), but he “verges” on it. I think of this as well in our relationship with our pets. We infer, confer, and recognize in them, through our relationship, a kind of “personhood,” that is more than the mere “animal soul.” I think of it as being akin to Adam’s “naming” of the animals.

    C.S.Lewis thought of this and wondered if we would not properly have the vocation (in our unique place in creation) of raising animals up to the level of personhood. I think he was on to something.

    Those are some brief thoughts. Ask more questions. I’ve many more thoughts.

    Oh, and no thighbones of Christ (he’s resurrected – thigh bones and all). I’ve kissed the wood of the true Cross. I’ll say more about relics on this topic tomorrow. Running out of battery tonight!

  43. Rhonda Avatar

    Anna K,
    I too came from the Presbyterian tradition from age 3-17. I found that Orthodoxy greatly deepened the basics of my Presbyterian upbringing. Veneration of icons is not idolatry & is actually a very natural expression of faith. A story from my childhood:

    When I was 5 my parents divorced & my mother & I moved to a nearby town just after my 6th birthday. In my new bedroom she put up a picture of Christ commonly found in Protestant homes. This quickly became the equivalent of an icon for me. I would kiss it & talk (pray) to it. This greatly unnerved my mother who had been raised Southern Baptist even though she was now Presbyterian.

    She quickly called in our minister & he talked with me. After a few minutes he explained to my mother that I was well aware of the difference between a photo & Christ. I did not believe that the actual physical photo was actually Christ, but that I was expressing my faith & love for Christ through the photo. It had become my “link” to Him & somehow I was experiencing & relating to Christ through it. This was 1970 in a very small rural Midwestern town…none of us had ever heard of Orthodoxy much less iconography…the pastor might have from seminary, but if he had he never mentioned it. I personally would not learn about Orthodoxy & icons for another 31 years.

    He attributed it to my parents’ divorce. He wisely advised my mother to relax & not punish me nor remove the picture as I seemed to need it; but to merely to discourage the practice until I “outgrew it.” I never did; I just learned to not do it in the presence of others since they found it upsetting.

    Mom did however move the picture higher out of my reach hoping that would solve the “problem”. This in turn led to several “mishaps” as her very determined & strong-willed child contrived various ways to reach…after the 3rd round of stitches due a chair on rollers, a stack of books & my wooden toy box, she moved it back lest child protective services got called.

    As an adult I frequently find myself wishing that my faith was still as “natural” as when I was young.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Wow. Thank you for that story Rhonda.

  45. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Father Stephen and Rhonda,

    I am profoundly grateful that you took the time to respond, and at such length. You have given readers much to ponder!

  46. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar

    I notice that when reciting the Creed in Greek, the Greeks seem to relish pronouncing with great emphasis what I call the “thendas”, which is the mark of the past passive participle. They come in a torrent in the middle of the Creed

    yennitTHENDA ou piiTHENDA
    pathONDA kei taFENDA

    It kind of tattoos the Creed whatever part of your brain is processing it.

    The official translation of the Creed into English that we use doesn’t have the same poetic power, although the 1928 Book of Common Prayer version comes closer. I wonder why that is.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mule, probably because the people who wrote the Book of Common Prayer actually loved English and were steeped in the rhythm and beauty of English as well as Greek. That is hard to find these days.

    The English language has declined to the point of being barely utilitarian in most people’s minds and on most people’s tongues. It is a tragedy.

    I’d really like to find some modern poets of the English language that speak of the joy and positive mystery of being human. Most of the ones I run across speak only of the burden and the darkness.

    Anybody know of any? Good poets out to be the translators not technical minded academic theologians.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the things I find missing in contemporary Orthodoxy in this country is a full and deep love of the English heritage of law, language, character and faith. Until we acquire that, we won’t make much of dent on the culture. We don’t have to drop and shouldn’t drop the Russian, Greek and Arabic but we do have to be more creative in our use of English. We have the opportunity to craft, by the grace of God, a never before seen or heard expression and worship that draws on the best of all four languages and traditions as well as the Native American too.

    Perhaps the western rite can help here. If it can, that is reason enough for its existence.

    The language does not have to be neo-Shakespearean to be beautiful and rhythmic.

    I think, actually, we could learn a great deal from the Afro-American use of rhythm in worship using English.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    While we don’t have to use neo-Shakespearean language, it is still the height of beauty in English. I mean, where is there a better expression of mercy and the short comings of the law than in Portia’s monolog in Merchant of Venice:

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea; Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
    William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

  50. Dianne Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I agree with what you’re saying here and find it all illuminating, except for one little statement in the discussion of post-enlightenment rationalism that strikes me as possibly careless. It’s a tangent and may take us off topic, but I wonder what you mean when you say, “We don’t produce art in any normal way.” I get everything else you’re saying there about our consumerism killing off so much of our humanity with respect to cultural production, but really? “We don’t produce art in any normal way”? What do you mean? And do you really want to diss our music so generally? This sounds odd coming from someone who is, for example, as big a Dylan fan as I think I recall you claiming to be. (I’m one too.)

  51. Cathy Avatar

    This post hit home to me because of the way I’ve been reacting to the Reformed/Evangelical mode of worship that I’ve been steeped in the last 40 years. Sunday-morning sermons last 45 minutes. We have our Bibles, sermon notes and highlighter pens. We learn about Greek and Hebrew verb tenses. The way to be involved in church life is to attend the mid-week Bible study, with the workbook. Hermeneutics is everything. It’s all very intellectual, and I’ve found it dry. As someone who is often too much “in my head” I’ve been trying to find a balance. This blog has helped. (Thank you).

  52. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I think I mean it – and I am a great Dylan fan. 🙂 What I mean by “normal” way, is the normal manner in which cultures traditionally generated music. Folk music is an example. The closest thing today, frankly, would be the more impromptu blues or the work of a garage band – but even there they are not striving to produce from within themselves, but too often to mimic what a consumer industry has taught them.

    This is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are certainly islands of real creativity – but something has been lost. Here in East Tennessee, where Appalachian String music is quite native, in the “outback” it is quite possible to find authentic music generated from within the culture in a manner that is not commercially driven.

    I think the drive to do these things is so utterly human, that only massively dominant commercial structures can keep it from happening. People sing, dance, make music as naturally as they do anything else. If we’re not doing it, it’s because something is keeping it from happening, or is derailing it. So, no doubt, my statement is too extreme.

    Dylan is an interesting example. He had the ability to almost “channel” an American folk sound that baffled even himself. He did not know what he was doing – it just happened. To his credit, he refused to be made into a political tool or the “prophet” of his generation that so many wanted. He famously said, “I’m just a simple song and dance man.”

    His work in the 60’s makes me almost want to believe that there actually is a zeitgeist that can speak through someone. It was uncanny. But, yes, I mean to diss our music, believing rather firmly in something like, “the day the music died.”

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Having come to the Church from an esoteric syncretistic mystery cult, I must stress the need for all of our quest to be “in Christ” which can only be accomplished within and obedience to the Apostolic Church.

    That is the place of life and safety. Sound doctrine is essential for sound practice.

    Learn of the ancient heresies and flee from them and guard your heart against them in whatever form they assume in our world.

    Iconoclasm, Arianism, Gnosticism and all forms of dualism those beliefs that do not acknowledge, even subtly the full humanity and full divinity of our Lord and Savior. For these are the essence of the 2 storey universe and the bifurcation of our humanity it postulates.

    The Incarnation is radical to belief even more radical in its impact on we creatures and all of creation.

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, music that is electronically generated partakes less and less of the human soul and more and more of the machines that generate it. Acoustic and a capella music has to come more from the heart.

  55. […] another wonderful post by Fr. Stephen Freeman. It smacks of Chesterton: “Let your religion be less of a theory and […]

  56. Fr Nathan Thompson Avatar

    So, when Dylan went electric he was no longer a “simple song and dance man.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
    Thank you Father for this. If I can be so bold as to put in my two cents, I would love if you would write catechesis concerning true Orthodox Theology (i.e. prayer, ascesis, the sacraments, etc…). I already give your book to catechumens to illustrate the radical difference between our shared rationalist, materialist culture and the reality of our life in Christ, but would love even more. Thank you again.

  57. Lynne Avatar

    Michael Bauman:
    Regarding good poets–do you know the work of Scott Cairns?
    One of my favorite lines:
    Glory to the One who sank to save the sinking sinner.

    It’s from Love’s Immensity, Mystics on the Endless Life.

    Give me a day or two and I will find the reference.

  58. Lynne Avatar


    It’s from a translation/adaptation of “Due Praise,” by St. Ephraim of Syria, page 19 in my book.

  59. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    In my opinion one of your greatest gifts to those around you is your brutal honesty (as much as you can muster). It’s very refreshing for me to hear about the way you stand before an icon and that young Russians “get it” in a way that you don’t. I was exposed to icons from the age of 14 but never really got it – and grew up around converts that never really did either.

    It is encouraging to me to think that even though you are an Orthodox priest, you are still in many ways accessible. So instead of viewing you on a pedestal from down below and seeing you as a goal to aspire to – but as far away as the moon – I’m able to have hope and to see a bit more clearly my way toward the good place that you are in and to imitate the goodness that I see in your life.

    Once again, thank you for sharing your life with those around you. God bless you.

  60. Ron Spann Avatar

    Rhonda – your August 12 response to Anna K. is, as others have shared, priceless. It certainly links with your earlier comment re the Greek parishioner who counseled you for your first confession. I have excerpted both as a resource for my work with Episcopalian clergy in a series of sessions during their retreat. One of the sessions addresses praying with icons, and I am sure that your words will open many eyes and hearts. Thank you, and bless you!

  61. Catholic facing east Avatar

    Absolutely Ron. Icons are friends that are worthy of veneration. They are angelic witnesses in the true sense of the meaning. I am deeply attached to mine. Anita Strezova has done some stupendous research on the relationship between image and prototype and on the role of icons in affirming apostolic witness. In brief, there are things that icons can do, that the written word can’t.

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