A Secular Orthodoxy

jonah-s1Within Orthodox Christianity, the faith is generally “encultured.” It does not exist apart from the culture, but within – transforming, shaping and making the faith of Christ incarnate in the world. Christianity first expressed this model in the context of first-century Judaism. The disciples in Jerusalem met together on Solomon’s Porch. Small asides in St. Paul’s writings and in the book of Acts, show that despite dropping the requirement for circumcision, early Christians continued to observe many Jewish practices (St. Paul, for example took a Nazarite vow for a time Acts 18:18). The same can be said for the Church’s encounter with the broad culture of Hellenism. The Hellenistic language of Platonism provided the vocabulary (though the meanings were altered) for most of the theological expressions of the great doctrines. The vestments of the Church, and some sense of its ceremonies, clearly reflect both the Church’s roots in Judaism as well as the life of the Roman royal court.

This is not only how things should be, it is utterly inevitable. Our faith is not lived on a planet or world apart from the one on which we live. The language of the culture, the deeper, unspoken ethos of the world in which we live, will find its way into the life of the Church. Normatively, the inner life of the Church finds its way into the greater culture as well. This is probably the true meaning of symphonia, the theory often used to describe the relationship between Emperor and Church (not all cultures have emperors).

The modern world presents new challenges to this model. The secular construct of the world, the hallmark of the modern age, offers perhaps the most cogent and pervasive alternative to traditional Christianity since the Hellenistic period. More complicated still, is the fact that this construct is itself a product of certain expressions of Christianity, and thus has something of an acquired immunity to classical Christianity. In the modern world, Orthodox Christianity encounters the secularized God, the secularized Church and the secularized sacraments. The tragic results can occasionally be a secularized Orthodoxy. What does this mean?

The secular worldview (in its meaning in this article) is one that does not deny the existence of God, but distances Him from the everyday world. Human beings are seen strictly in individualized terms, communities only existing through the sharing of ideas and practices. Religious groups can exist in abundance in such a setting, but largely as expressions of individual choices. The world (and culture) are understood to be religiously “neutral” territory – places in which the presence of religious concerns is inherently unnatural. God is a preference, a choice, but never truly integral to daily life.

In secular cultures, Orthodoxy becomes a choice: “I am Orthodox because I like it.” This sounds perfectly normal (why else would someone be Orthodox?), but it is a subtle shift within the mind and heart of a believer. The kind of cereal we eat in the morning, the kind of beer we drink in the evening, are equally choices – products of our preferences. In the modern secular world, particularly in its current dominant form of consumer secularism, the believer consumes his religious preference. His God, his community, his set of practices, are subtly diminished to the set of consumer decisions. The result is often a lifestyle that is largely indistinguishable from that of other consumers. The pressures of Church on the culture of believers is rebuffed: the culture wins. In America it often means an Orthodoxy that is similar to surrounding secularized groups. Church attendance becomes sporadic, limited to Sunday mornings, prayers in the home diminished (if present at all), and the liturgical rhythm of the year reduced to Sundays, Christmas, Lent and Pascha.

These observations are not made in order to criticize or judge. They are made in order to describe the outlines of the modern cultural challenge. The nature of all cultures is marked by their unconscious nature. If you live in a culture and are part of it, you don’t have to think in order to be at home. An unconscious Orthodoxy, in the modern context, is likely to become a secularized version. The modern culture in which we live is a secularized culture – thus we have no choice but to think about what it means for the faith. How do we enculturate the faith in a culture that inherently spurns the nature of that faith?

The largest non-Protestant group in America that successfully resisted secular culture for a time were the immigrant Catholic groups who came into the U.S. from the late-19th century to the early 20th century. Needless to say, the secularism they faced was weak, and still “churchly.” However, they resisted the lures of assimilation through strong Catholic neighborhoods, Catholic schools, orphanages, hospitals and other institutions. They survived by creating something of a parallel culture. Today that parallel culture has been deeply depleted. Once strong school systems have been devastated in many places, both by increasing costs, decreasing vocations for the religious who once staffed the schools, and the dispersion of Catholic populations.

The movement to “mainstream” Catholic culture, following the Second Vatican Council, hurried this process along, just at the time that the secularization of the culture was gaining speed. Plummeting Catholic Church attendance, and rejection of Church teachings have accompanied the process. In many areas, Catholic populations are indistinguishable from the surrounding culture – existing as secular Catholics.

Orthodox immigration never gained the cohesion or the force of numbers of their Catholic neighbors. Those meager numbers have declined steeply as a result. Without large numbers of converts, Orthodoxy in America would be in an institutional crisis. But the conversion of parents by no means secures the adherence of children (or grandchildren). Raising Orthodox families, and creating an authentic Orthodox cultural expression, have yet to succeed in America (with obvious anecdotal exceptions).

Mission strategy in the modern world would do well to think about long-term models. Much of Orthodox mission in modern culture follows a pattern similar to Protestant Churches – including some of their worst aspects. Parishes are commuter communities. My own parish is one of three that serves a large metropolitan area. We have some members who drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half to get to an Orthodox Church. Our experience is not unusual. Success for a parish is often marked by its ability to pay its bills, pay a priest (though these are often part-time positions), and eventually construct a building. “Success” is not marked by the enculturation of the faith in the lives of the faithful. Much of this is the result of necessity. Commuting consumers is the default position of religious believers in America.

What I am describing is the essential character of the present arena of our salvation. Because secularity is cultural it will often be invisible – simply part of the way we do things and the way we think. Fr. Alexander Schmemann thought that secularism was the great heresy of our day. It will not be enough to write about or discuss it (let the reader take note). It is the personal and communal struggle of the faith. The non-Orthodox, our brothers and sisters, would do well to pay equal attention, for the secularism of our culture is eating away at us all.

The Catholic solution, as remarkably successful as it was, is not realistic today. We live in commuter suburbs (often) in a dispersed manner. Institutions such as schools require enormous capital and populations. Many parish communities have managed to create “micro-institutions,” an important and God-blessed effort. But the effort to live an integrated Orthodox life requires struggle – and most will likely fall short.

That struggle will be an unrelenting offering of the self to God. To be shaped by the life of the Church, rather than finding a place within our consumption for Church “activities,” will often seem obsessive. It will feel counter-cultural in a faith that is not inherently contrarian. Those who keep the prescribed fasts at any time of the year easily feel that all they ever think about is food. How can you fast in a fast-food culture?

The small, lesser disciplines (observing the fasts, keeping the feasts) will seem light in comparison with the greater struggle for the transformation of the inner life. The primitive Church was in a situation not unlike our own. Though in a matter of centuries Christians would change the face of the Roman world, when St. Paul wrote Christians were living within the belly of the beast. He said:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom 12:1-2).

May God give us grace!




About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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42 responses to “A Secular Orthodoxy”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am Orthodox because I would have no life without the Church. I am Orthodox because Jesus Christ led me to Himself in the Church and continues to pour out blessings on me despite my slothfulness, intransigence and general selfishness. Jesus is still faithful where I am not and gently (usually) reminds me that I need to return.

    Unfortunately, early in my Orthodox experience, I found distinct opposition to my attempts with my wife to build an Orthodox family. I still think that not enough attention is given to families to us to be Orthodox at home. Too much, IMO, demanded away from home–especially for those who have far to drive an a certain subtle strain of clericalism which demeans the capacity of the parents to tradition and disciple their own children. On the other side when parents attempt such they can be criticized for “forcing the faith” on their children and driving them away. Lord have mercy.

    A big difference between the early Church and us. There were many aspects of the Roman culture that could be transformed within the Church. I have come to the conclusion that that is no longer a possibility with the American culture it is beyond secular and is becoming increasingly nihilistic.

    We are faced, IMO, in the near future with either existing as a catacomb community within the larger antithetical culture; smashing and remaking the current culture by God’s abundant grace or once again becoming a martyred Church.

    #2 is the least likely I suspect given the rather flabby life that I certainly seem to live.

    #1 is now and will likely continue for awhile which will gradually bleed the life out of many. Perhaps it takes more strength to live life being constantly ignored and thought irrelevant and ridiculous than to live with out-right persecution, #3.

    Perhaps we need to be humiliated in order to be able to face more blatant persecution in the future.

  2. Rhonda Avatar

    Well said, Fr. Stephen. Many of the issues for missions my own parish mission is going through now. Sadly, I also agree with your final 3 assessments given the secular mindset that is deeply entranced in American religious culture.

    Some how I wonder if a large do-over might not occur in which Orthodoxy will come to the top? I am seeing an increased interest in Orthodoxy as more images splash across the media screens of Christian martyrs. Many seem to want to know more about the Christianity as practiced by those martyred & Orthodoxy is beginning to enter awareness a little more.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Rhonda, consumer awareness and curiosity is also a secular phenomenon. Certainly if we are authentic, some who are merely curious at first will have something deeper awakened in them, but our best bet is the gnawing hunger in people’s souls that a secular/nihilist culture creates.

    We have to guard against that in ourselves and in our parishes so that we will be able to feed those who do come.

  4. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I wonder if you could comment – if not write a whole separate post – on the notion of the Church “adapting to the modern world.” I hear this all the time from Catholics, especially now with Pope Francis, and it’s getting annoying.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mrs. Mutton, of course the world should adapt to us and to the truth if it wants to live.

    One thing I expect to see if it does not is a marked schism between those who hold to the Gospel and Jesus Christ as Incarnate Truth and those who ‘adapt’ We will tend to be more ready to put aside the various divides that separate us now: Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox and be Christian.

    Even in hierarchical traditions such as the RCC and the Orthodox, much more emphasis will be put on the local bishop and whether or not he adheres to the truth.

    That is my take and in some sense my hope. Could be wildly wrong.

  6. Steven Clark Avatar

    The eternal question that I first asked in College: How can we speak of a God Who IS beyond all culture and language in terms of language and culture (since we are thusly bound)?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is the within the purpose of the Incarnation. The God who cannot be spoken, has Himself spoken. The Word became flesh. “The only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He was declared Him.”
    As Christians we never step back from the Incarnate, Risen Christ in order to speak of the ineffable God. We always speak in Christ, through Christ and by Christ. We only know God as He has made Himself known. This is also why we cannot speak of God apart from the Holy Tradition, that which has been delivered to us (1 Cor. 15). Everything else is idle speculation. But because of Christ, we are bold to call God “Father,” and to proclaim the fullness of the gospel of His Son.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    He is not just beyond all culture He Incarnated taking on human nature and so He can be expressed, experienced and revealed in any culture.

    As we draw closer to Him we, by His grace are able to transform culture (to the extent possible). What cannot be transformed, is cast aside.

    Human beings being what we are bring back odious practices when enough of us abandon God. Like child sacrifice, hedonistic sexual cults and barbarous games for example.

  9. Rhonda Avatar


    Thank you for many good points in your several comments!

  10. Laura Avatar

    “That struggle will be an unrelenting offering of the self to God. To be shaped by the life of the Church, rather than finding a place within our consumption for Church “activities,” will often seem obsessive. It will feel counter-cultural in a faith that is not inherently contrarian.”

    Can you put in practical terms how this is lived out in the mission/commuter parish?

  11. Dino Avatar

    It might initially sound ‘theoretical’ but it isn’t:
    I often return to “watchfulness” (Nepsis) being the desideratum, the sine qua non, the panakeia, that lights our path. In all places, it joyfully reveals to us (while we hold on to it in the true Philokalic sense – joined to the Jesus prayer) that any apparent victory of the adversary we witness, no matter how shocking, is actually completely vacuous: Christ has overcome all…. And if we lose sepsis and become darkened and enslaved, it has the power to lift up once again, as well as to guide us to the solution of whatever problem befalls us. Christ has already solved it, He is the solution, our closer union with Him through constant Nepsis holds the key.

  12. Dino Avatar

    Sorry for typos, I meant:
    and if we lose nepsis and become darkened and enslaved, it has the power to lift us up once again

  13. Peter Avatar

    Father, forgive me for picking a nit, but to say that our faith “is not inherently contrarian” is belied by the very passage from Romans with which you close your post. If Orthodoxy isn’t contrarian what is?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Peter! Congratulations! I was waiting for the question – my statement begged for it!

    The operative word is “inherently.” Our faith is not inherently contrarian for the same reason that the Incarnation is not contrarian. Christ did not come to abolish the Law (for example) but to fulfill it. Neither does the gospel seek to abolish human culture, but to fulfill it. There will be tension between the gospel and sin – including sin that is culturally imbedded. But culture is not itself the enemy. Culture fulfilled (which has been quite rare in Church history) is an icon of the Kingdom of God. And it is something we should long for and pray for.

    For some Christian thinkers, culture, indeed creation’s very existence, seems like an affront to the sovereignty of God. I think of the verses:

    For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, (2Co 10:4-5 NKJ)

    But the “high things” that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God are “arguments” – our inner thoughts that war against Christ. Iconoclasm is the name for the destruction and denigration of culture. Or, properly, the denial the culture is capable of iconically making present the Kingdom would be Apollinarianism.

    The “cosmos” (“world”) against which we struggle is defined by St. John as:

    For all that is in the world– the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life— is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1Jo 2:16-17 NKJ)

    But normally, everything else in the world is capable of being holy and manifesting Christ. An asceticism which denies the world because it thinks the world is evil would be Manichean. We’ve had too much of that in our history.

    The present minority situation of Orthodoxy in the West (as in America) can easily lure us towards such denial. I’ve seen people think that children’s songs that weren’t somehow specifically religious were wrong to use in Church school. I could multiply such thoughts and practices almost ad infinitum. It’s an easy error to make. The culture, secular and commercial, is exceedingly powerful. As noted, perhaps the most powerful adversary the Church has ever faced. The struggle will be easy to get wrong, or ignore. We shouldn’t do either.

    Thanks for the question!

  15. Harold Curtis Avatar
    Harold Curtis

    I guess my question at this point is what Orthodoxy are you referencing since the following is Orthodoxy defined.

    1. Adhering to the accepted or traditional and established faith, especially in religion.
    2. Adhering to the Christian faith as expressed in the early Christian ecumenical creeds.
    3. Orthodox
    a. Of or relating to any of the churches or rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
    b. Of or relating to Orthodox Judaism.
    4. Adhering to what is commonly accepted, customary, or traditional: an orthodox view of world affairs.

    I ask because it seems to me by the above definition Orthodox is fluid and changeable so to a consumer oriented parish, that culture may indeed be othrodox so it becomes a “Fiddler on the Roof”.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I guess you’re new to the blog. I’m an Eastern Orthodox priest – thus the reference to Orthodoxy is that Orthodox Tradition. What other Christians might glean from my writing is up to them. “Consumer-oriented” is the default position of pretty much everyone born and raised in our modern culture, regardless of their religious tradition (the Amish get a pass on this one).

    Orthodoxy has a particular historic approach to the question of culture and the faith – having been around for 2000 years and been the dominant form of Christianity in a number of cultures – the most notable being the 1000 years in which it held that position in the Byzantine Roman Empire. Some forms of modern Christianity are inherently secular in and of themselves. Some forms of Protestantism are, in fact, the inventors of secularism. It’s within that context that I write. If you do a search on secular, you’ll see many articles on the topic that might be of interest.

  17. Arnold Avatar

    It seems to me that the early Christians set about adapting their cultures to their new way of life, rather than adapting their way to it or demanding that their neighbors adapt to them. They were “in the world” while “not of it.” I can imagine a contemporary Orthodoxy that could say the same of itself, though it probably wouldn’t.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    If I understand your point – I think I was speaking of adapting the culture to the Orthodox way of life. Not suggesting giving up cars, etc. But consumerist secularism does not have to be the only form of life in modern culture. If that were to be accepted, it would be the death of the faith, transforming beyond recognition. This has already taken place in many forms of Christianity.

  19. Dante Avatar

    What you wrote here is right on the mark, Father. Before the “commuting culture” (which really did revolutionize the way we work, think, and worship), churches served as the centerpieces of communities – gathering spaces for people who saw each other more frequently than just on Sundays to worship the Creator.

    I keep thinking that scene in Rocky (I forget which!) where the all the people are gathered with the kindly priest listening to the radio. That’s community!
    With the commuting culture, church became one more item in the capital market.

    The home became not the epicenter of human life and work but merely a pit-stop from one’s labor, a place for leisure, and a wedge between the sexes who used to work side by side in the home, the “oikonomia” – albeit this last one coming about during the Industrial Revolution. Now we don’t have “oikonomia.” We have the economy.


  20. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, the hallmark characteristic of secularism as you describe it seems to be separation, sundering, dissecting. Well, that makes sense from the etymology of the word I suppose.

    I think it’s very hard for us to experience what we wistfully refer to as “connectedness.” The other morning (please excuse this personal revelation) I dreamt that I went back to my childhood church. I stood on the outside of the circle and watched the friends I had left behind, now grown, working with their children, preparing for various tasks, laughing together at old jokes, making music in lamplight with songs of praise they’d sung together at least once a month every year of their lives. They had each married another person from the church, not needing to find some perfect partner but just pairing off as well as they could… the congregation was becoming family… the younger people had quietly corrected all sorts of problems in the church, the reasons we’d left in the first place when I was 12. One thing hadn’t changed – now as then the church was the center of their lives, their source of identity, the form around which they’d puzzle-pieced together the ephemera of modern living.

    Suddenly someone saw me and whispered, “She’s crying.” And I realized I was – I wept and wept, and woke.

    The scriptures call the church “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” The way I take this is that the Lord doesn’t fill us all, all things, individual by individual – but rather he does so “in all.” We are all filled in one another and in all things (in real things, not in false constructs.) And that is the fullness, his fullness, we call the church. It makes so much sense as a divinization of an already-potent human process. But for us who lack even the natural fullness of human family and community, of native land (“breathes there the man with soul so dead?” Yes – he does now.) how to be filled? How to gain capacity, how to stay put and accept what God is giving us? Like you said, how to fast in a fast-food world – if we don’t even love what is good for us how can giving up what is good for us be an act of love? I often feel as if grace is like a transplanted organ that my body wants to reject, rather than my natural food that my body hungers for. How much spiritual poison do I ingest in mass-produced culture-substitutes?

    Commercials and ads promise us that the latest gadget or product will “keep us connected” and “bring people together.” It rings so hollow because we wouldn’t need to be promised that if we didn’t feel so shattered in everything that makes us part of one another.

    You’ve stated that you think having our own communities and institutions is unrealistic, but because I grew up in a church that was trying to do this, I know that it’s not impossible. This church and others like it foundered, often, on judgmentalism and hyper-active consciences and enforcing on one another, but they clung together because they derived their identity through one another and because they had sacrificed immensely for one another. In order to stay together they had to forgive, sometimes terrible things. I feel as if this isn’t just some far-off idealistic dream but something that I’ve personally tasted and then lost.

    In my experience, as people come to believe in the value of this sort of thing, they make hard decisions in order to gain it. They give up jobs and move houses and try homeschooling and buy different clothes at the thrift store and make new menus and shopping lists and (sometimes) put a rock through their tv screen. They build their lives around the church. They think with the church, feel with the church, make art with the church, eat with the church, make friends within the church, marry in the church, clean the church, build the church with their hands, and evaluate themselves by the church’s standard. They even build livelihoods around the church.

    But no one ever did this spontaneously.

    Rather, what motivates people to do this sort of thing is that the leadership offers a specific and clearly articulated vision for living every aspect of life according to one’s faith, and there’s a core group that tries very hard to live it together. This is incredibly attractive to people who feel a sense of spiritual need. As I mentioned, it often goes with a rhetoric of “those wicked outsiders” but I don’t see why as much and more couldn’t be accomplished with a rhetoric of compassion and aspiration.

    But without this articulated and particular vision, people will substitute decorum for piety, politeness for kindness, and activities for living. They will be sheep without a shepherd.

    So, what I’ve said here isn’t a question – I don’t even know how to frame the question that my heart is asking… but your post brought up a cause of immense grief and even bitterness for me. I don’t understand why it’s not realistic for the Orthodox Christians to build their lives around one another and the Church, unless it’s because people have been suckled and weaned on secular entertainment and education… and they look at families like mine, who have nothing and struggle to survive, and don’t even have nice clothes to wear to church, and they think that just about anything would be better than to give up their current lifestyle to suffer and rejoice with us.

    Forgive me.

  21. Catholic facing east Avatar

    Christos Anesti — Super piece Father Stephen!

  22. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Someone once asked a bishop “should the government listen to the church?” He replied “no, the government should listen to the people and the people should listen to the church” That would be a good culture.

  23. Vee Avatar

    Father, in one of your comments you talked about the denial of the world and the example you used was eliminating none religious children’s songs from Church school. This made made me think of the many “problems” I’m facing in thinking of how to raise my child believing in God. My baby girl is only 7 months old, but I’m constantly finding myself thinking of all the multitudes of things that I want to guard her from in the “world”.
    Now, after reading your post, I have a strong feeling that keeping my child from the secular traditions in your society isn’t good. They will sooner or later face the secular world anyway. And in worse cases they may be resentful of you for coddling them. Instead, the Truth should be shown to them in everything in life. They should know that there is a world that does not believe in God, a world full of traditions, spiritually innocent and detrimental. But it is a world created by God and we try and remember that reality every moment of our lives.
    Any thoughts, Father….? You said about the example about children songs and Church school: “I could multiply such thoughts and practices almost ad infinitum. It’s an easy error to make.” What are some of those other cultural thoughts and practices that might be very tempting for us parents to eliminate from the lives of our children?

  24. Vee Avatar

    *our society (not your), excuse me 🙂

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Vee, re children and secularism.

    The most important place to start is to realize that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” is a false distinction. St. Paul says, “To the pure, all things are pure.” The idea that something is not religious, is itself a secular idea. God is everywhere present and filling all things. Heaven and earth are full of His glory.

    We begin making mistakes by thinking that the choice is between religious and non-religious things, rather than teaching how to be present to God at all times, and to learn the presence of God in all things at all times. This is the heart of our Orthodox faith. Those who think in terms of religious versus non-religious will always be overwhelmed and under assault. The world will always feel as though it is against them. But God has not given the world away. All things are His, and He gives them to us. To teach a child how to see and find God always and everywhere is the greater goal. All things become pure.

  26. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Great article as usual, but of course it is only one piece of the conversation. I can see from some of the comments one of the most common reactions: joining Chicken Little in feelings of terror and hopelessness, wanting to know what’s going to happen and the list of defenses one can deploy, etc.

    I don’t fault your article of course. In fact I think it goes back to the one vs. two story universe you speak of so eloquently. For most of us, currently it is the secular world around us that is everywhere present and fills all things. Therefore when you speak about the encroaching world, that seems so much more real and credible. When you speak of God, we unconsciously mutter something like, “That’s nice but He’s way up there – and probably busy – and we’re down here having to figure it out on our own!”

    We sheepishly hold to the idea that communion with God is just another thing on our To Do list – but He’ll have to wait right now because we’re busy doing damage control.

    The answer – which you allude to in your response to Vee – is to kill two birds with one stone by switching the places of God and the world, putting God up close and personal and all important in our lives & hearts – and putting the world at arm’s length where it belongs. This of course is a huge mindset change and is generally only achieved in baby steps.

    BUT….it is in fact the simple solution that simultaneously makes the world & its tyranny go away and brings the total peace of God that passes all understanding into our lives.

    It requires faith and all the virtues in their own turn. It is the narrow gate – not because God throws stumbling blocks to keep people away from it, but because we are so saturated with the wisdom of the world that it sounds like the total foolishness of a doddering old deity on a throne in the sky who has no power to make good on His promises.

    Having said all that, it is – He is – the Truth, the Way and the Life. In this vein our first priority should not be figuring out how to defend ourselves from the world, but how to give ourselves wholeheartedly – as individuals and as organizations – to God to do with as He sees fit:

    “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

    We must stop playing God and start serving Him. And make no mistake; this is a giant leap of faith for a people who barely believe in God at all.

  27. Dino Avatar

    what you allude to, the solution to that ‘dichotomy’ – what Father describes- is essentially what we call Nepsis.
    One thing. Not many…

    St. Hesychios’ words on Nepsis describe this and exist in English, the outstanding contemporary commentary on it by Elder Aimilianos should also be available in English in the near future..

  28. Jonathan Anderson Avatar

    Father, just to clarify, are you suggesting the creation of a Christian sub-culture like what Evangelicals have failed horribly at trying to do? Just wanted to make sure.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Quite the opposite. But I am suggesting that we have to be fairly conscious of how we live in the culture and how we live our Orthodoxy. A “go with the flow” approach, in which the culture itself tends to be a prime mover, will not work in our situation. I’ve got another article related to this coming out today.

  30. drewster2000 Avatar


    I believe you. I will reveal my ignorance when I say that the word ‘nepsis’ doesn’t communicate very well in our part of the world. It sounds more like a condition that you wouldn’t want to catch.

    In any rate, I do understand in my heart that all good things in this life are found in the door of their opposite. Therefore, do you have a link to St. Hesychios’ writings? Or a name of the work?

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino am I correct when I say that the state of nepsis is at the heart of the scripture command to watch and pray and always be ready for WS know not at what hour our Lord will come?

    Or one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare: “If it be now ‘this not to come; if it is not to come it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all”

    The crux is how to be ready.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We know not

  33. dino Avatar


    St Hesychios the Priest is in the Philokalia (of the Neptic Fathers) Vol 1


    He describes and exults the (“art of all arts and science of all sciences”) of Watchfulness (Nepsis) as the only road, the only ability given to the human person to refuse the sinful thought at the very moment of its first appearance in the mind, before it develops. Watchfulness is a “spiritual method” which, if ceaselessly practiced over a long period (simple yet strenuous), completely frees us (with God’s help) from all impassioned thoughts, words and evil actions. It leads, “to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God”, to penetrate into the divine and hidden mysteries. “It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment” in one fell swoop and “bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come.”

  34. Mourad habib Avatar

    Thank you Father for this important and enlightening article. Culture is an important factor in our Orthodoxy indeed. I feel that through unity, Orthodoxy can retain and regain its culture of Holiness. This means that all orthodox families from different domination should do cultural activities together. After all, what unite these people is that they immigrated and now live in the same country.
    We , lay ordinary people, have to do it for our churches and not wait for the churches to do it for us!

  35. Dino Avatar

    I think that you have a very good point indeed. But I think that for those who strive to live the watchful life mentioned above, even amidst the sometimes chaotic world, for those who seek that inner Kingdom first and foremost, very little ‘enforcement’ of such external activism is needed – as all these good cultural activities together come to them very very naturally then.
    As St Seraphim said, once you acquire God, your benign influence on thousands around you becomes effortless…
    It does not work the wrong way round though.

  36. drewster2000 Avatar

    Thanks Dino

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I understand the grief and the energy behind it. I lived communally for two years in my youth, part of a larger housechurch that was a very intense experience. Some of the relationships I formed then still seem to me to be among the closest friends I have, though I rarely see them. It was an experience that was filled with both joy and suffering. It’s hard when you’re 19 years old to get much right. I find it just as hard, if not harder at age 60.

    When I was 19, I often had a very bitter critique of what I termed, “Bourgeoise Christianity.” I was no Marxist, but it sounded more biting than merely complaining about the Middle-Class. I could see, for example, that those of us who had the least (I worked minimum wage jobs, and gave away all that I earned) were also the most generous. I still see this to be the case. Without exception, almost, the most likely people to risk and share and extend themselves beyond what they can afford are those who can least afford it. There is a comfort zone within our economic groups. The Middle Class are pretty scared of many things and they have, more or less, social rules by which they avoid that which scares them. It also stands in the way of greater community, I might add.

    I’ve never re-entered communal life, or been part of such a community. I know a number of priests who have (especially brother priests who were part of the Christ Our Savior Brotherhood, for example). I have personal reservations about many aspects of communal life (or deeply connected community). I’ve seen its abuse. But, in truth, I’ve experienced just about as much abuse in one way or another in the context of “Bourgeoise Christianity” where I’ve lived now for many years.

    That’s all by way of personal revelation if you will. I think that there is room for much greater community than we have in most parishes. But I admit to not being sure how to create it. I’m interested – and follow with great interest places that are exploring various things.

    The “Church in walking distance” models that I’ve seen have been among the most natural communities, and the healthiest I’ve seen. They are marked by generosity and kindness and greater willingness to take risk – or so I’ve observed. Proximity, I think, is utterly natural and necessary to anything like a normal “base community.”

    When our nation perishes, we won’t see it in person. We’ll watch it on TV.

    Thanks for the sharing. Let’s pray for one another!

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father a suggestion. To create greater community you need a couple of folks with loving hearts who ignore conventional bourgeouse barriers–not maliciously just naturally. They will usually be older women who love kids. Turn them loose and walls will begin to come down.

    It is not all the answer but it can’t hurt. Trouble is there doesn’t seem to be very many of them.

  39. Dino Avatar

    funnily enough I was just having this conversation, on how we, (as well as other fellow Orthodox living in ‘non Orthodox’ countries I know), have always been drawn to go back to Greece. And delving to find out why, we agree it is for that one reason alone: there is no place in it where there isn’t a Church in walking distance…

    Creating such a setting somewhere else would instantly have a profound effect on the place. Then again, -truth be told- it would really only be transformative once monasteries and saintly persons start appearing. Even if that is in an “extended” walking distance…

  40. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for sharing in return for my comment. I’m very encouraged by your words and although you didn’t frame it as advice I’m hoping to personally start by moving my family within walking distance of our current parish within the next week or two, since thankfully I’m in a position to do that. Several things have happened to help me realize that the richness of the life of the church is there and I should dive in as much as possible. Even though my circumstances are difficult right now, I have that particular freedom. So perhaps that is God’s meaning.

    You do have my prayers and I ask for yours.

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    What a blessed decision! May God give you grace – to you – the parish – your family!

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