Suffering and a Good Death

IMG_0809_2I read recently that people with ADD were far more likely to develop dementia in their old age. I read a few days later that people who had taken a certain medication for longer than a short period were far more likely to develop Alzheimers. I was on the medication for 12 years (and I have ADD). Such statistics are far from certainty – but they increase the chances that I will end my life less alert and aware than I am now. I’m not surprised. Once you reach senior years, such thoughts are always somewhere at hand – if you can remember which hand. Why would someone want to live so long?

An article in the Atlantic recently proclaimed, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” There were plenty of statistics to accompany the article. Chances are, the author will still be in good health at 75 – why not go while you’re feeling good? And, it’s better for the planet and friends and family not to be a burden. And then there’s the fear of drooling.

In a culture that loves youth, such articles should not be surprising. The author was not advocating euthanasia (he opposes it). He simply hopes to go at 75. He is a professor of bioethics (go figure).

What’s wrong with such a hope?

The Orthodox Church is no stranger to hopes concerning death. At virtually every service we pray that God would grant us:

…[to] complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance…


…for a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ…

The end of our life is clearly a matter of prayer. And we pray for a good end. It is a prayer for a good death. What constitutes a good death?

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain when I first became Orthodox. That work was primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee. My patients were largely Baptists and Pentecostals, but almost all were believers. Like most people, my patients would have preferred a death that was painless and peaceful. “Blameless” for them would have meant a death in which they were clearly professing Christ as Savior. A good death was defined by the life to come.

I saw many such good deaths. I learned to admire them.

Our culture is frightened of death. Most people in the modern world have never seen anyone be born and have never actually watched anyone die. The two things that no human being can avoid are missing from their experience. It is little wonder that we have such conflicted ideas about aging and death.

I grew up with old people in my life. My paternal grandparents were easily as close as my parents themselves, my grandmother in particular. As a child I was acquainted with my maternal great-grandmother in her last years. She had been born before the American Civil War and seemed truly ancient. Older people were the respected centers of every family gathering. Children played smaller roles than they do today, though there were more of us!

What is most lacking in our modern culture is a proper sense of tragedy.

Human life is tragic – or that is the Christian account. All the hope and wonder with which we are born is threatened to be erased with our death.

As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more. (Ps. 103:15-16)

Many of the moments of our grass-like life are tragic within themselves. Very few people are born and live without moments and stretches of genuine suffering. Sickness and every form of setback are our common lot. Though we strive for pleasure, it is not the stuff of our daily existence. It is not so tragic that we don’t generally long for more – but the inability to accept the tragic creates its own kind of tragedy.

It is also the unique teaching of Christianity that the tragic world is real and is both the arena and the means of our salvation. Christ is the tragic God.

Some may recoil at the language of Christ as a “tragic” figure. But His death on the Cross insists that we see this. The Cross is described as “shameful,” a “criminal’s death,” etc. It’s utter shamefulness is often lost in our modern culture, and lost among Christians who have so surrounded it with sacrificial and atonement doctrine that it’s tragic and scandalous character is obscured.

The story of Christ is a tragedy. But it is a tragedy that ends in triumph. The story of Christ, it should be well-marked, is not the story of His destruction of the tragic character of our life. Indeed, we are told that the Cross is the lot of all who follow Him. The Christian life is a voluntary following of His tragic path.

What makes it Christian is the faith and hope, as shown in Christ’s resurrection, that such a path is, in fact, triumphant, healing, redemptive, sanctifying, justifying, illumining, etc. The tragic path is the path to union with God.

The task of the Christian Church in the midst of our modern culture continues to be the proclamation of this tragic path (and its triumphant result). A good death is a death that is conformed to the death of Christ. A good death is not defined by the absence of suffering.

I recall Stan Hauerwas saying in a conversation that it is not the job of the Church to remove suffering, but to be the kind of community that can rightly support people in their suffering.

This will include end of life situations – all life situations. The great temptation for the modern Church is to see the modern “dream” (as in “American Dream”) as a normative goal of life – a preferred way to live. When this is the case, the Church will begin to become the locus of support programs for life-coaching and general improvement – a cheerleader for the Middle Class life. When the bourgeoise pleasures of consumer culture begin to wane, why would someone want to go on living? “Get out of the way and let the next guy have a chance.”

The suffering of old age is indeed tragic. To watch a brilliant mind numbed by dementia is devastating. To see the savings of a lifetime devoured by sickness is tragic as well. But they are tragedies that have been gathered into the Cross, the Great Tragedy, and by that gathering they become a locus of triumph, healing, redemption, sanctification, justification, illumination. If this is not true of all tragedy, then the Cross would be empty and of no effect.

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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82 responses to “Suffering and a Good Death”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Father and Margaret,
    I found practically ‘everything’ in Elder Sophrony. Nothing was missing, a deep inspiration from the very start…
    However, once I came to some understanding (it took me a while) of his dear friend Elder Aimilianos, and his particular pedagogical, paraenetical style, I was utterly hooked. His unflinching depiction of the tragedy of crucificial suffering as joy (throughout all of his teachings) even rivals that of the ‘Epistle to Romans’ by Saint Ignatius of Antioch! I hope more of his words appear in better translations outside of the Greek language…
    I believe that the charm of Elder Sophrony’s maximalist teaching on the height and depth and breadth of Love, Suffering and Humility gains an additional captivating advocacy in Elder Aimilianos’ unyielding, constant reminders of the “joyful transcendence” of all suffering. And I find this extremely germane to our times.

  2. Dino Avatar

    Oops: Margaret’s comment and quote of Elder Sophrony seems to have disappeared, and what a nice new look font…!

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Her comment got lost in the migration. Trying to get her to repost.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Here is my reposted comment:

    I came across a new favorite quote along these lines recently, in “Words of Life” by Archimandrite Sophrony… “When we decide to follow Christ, every day of our life becomes a day of suffering, of weeping, of pain. Sometimes this question arises in us: ‘Lord, why hast Thou created us thus? That we must go through so much suffering?’ We do not manage to understand that this negative experience is the way of salvation.”

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Glad you’re reading him.

  6. Eric Avatar

    Thank you once more for your teaching. Your posts are never less than edifying and challenging. Please, as someone from outside of your tradition, I would be grateful for an elucidation of the phrase ‘a good defense’ from the liturgy. I comprehend insofar as I have light, ‘the dread judgement seat of Christ’, but what might constitute ‘a good defense’ before Him?

  7. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m a bit confused by your use of the word “tragedy” and “tragic” – and that is making it more difficult for me to follow the rest of the article.

    At times, it sounds as though you are using it as a literary term, e.g. “The story of Christ is a tragedy.” Of course, it would only be read as such by a non-believer. To those of us who believe it is anything but a tragedy (i.e. a story with an unhappy ending, involving the downfall of the main character).

    At other times, you seem to be using the word to simply mean events that cause great suffering. Certainly there are plenty of those in life – and aging increases the frequency of some types of these events, without a doubt.

    I think perhaps what I am reacting to and confusing by is where you wrote: “It is also the unique teaching of Christianity that the tragic world is real and is both the arena and the means of our salvation.” Something in this almost gives the impression that God wants or requires suffering/tragedy for salvation to occur.

    Although I think I am following your meaning (from having read so many other articles of yours), this could be misunderstood. This sort of misunderstanding is fresh in my mind, having just returned from a visit with my recently widowed mother. Some well-intentioned RC fellow parishioner had given her a booklet on purgatory that stated that even very good people had to endure extreme suffering there for long periods which could be shortened if only we didn’t neglect to pray for them.

    (This is not mainstream RC understanding and it is puzzling that someone would think this would be helpful for my mother to read.) So perhaps it is my issue. However, if you could clarify a bit your intended meaning of tragedy and the role of suffering in salvation, it would be appreciated.

    BTW – glad to have you back. 🙂

  8. Dino Avatar

    me earlier comment on Elder Aimilianos’ unyielding, constant reminders of the “joyful transcendence” of all suffering and all tragedy was partly for that same reason – the potential for misunderstanding of ‘tragedy’ you rightly outlined…
    The key is that “enduring suffering” is not perceived as suffering by the true believer, by those who trust with an absolute assurance in God’s [infinitely greater] love for us [than the ‘love’ we might have for ourselves and others].
    He once used this example:

    say that, on my way to go to Church and receive Holy Communion after an objectively impeccable preparation, I trip and break my leg. What should I think? Why God? No. By no means. What has befallen is exactly as it should be and I glorify and appreciate and thank God for it. No matter what that is…
    Is His strength not made perfect in weakness? Do not the words “I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Cor 12:8) mean: “Paul! you cannot be saved without whatever it is that has befallen you?
    So: Come fire, come earthquake, come thieves, come persecutors. I will be overflowing with trust and gratitude in God’s sublime providence, without a single thought to the contrary.”

    Saint Gregory Dialogos says somewhere that Christ’s eyes where actually gleaming with joy as He was walking up Golgotha…

  9. Michelle Avatar

    I’m not saying that what you’re saying isn’t true, Dino, but I personally can think of some pretty horrific, disgusting, inexplicable things that could happen to my children that would drive me insane if I thought God felt it were “exactly as it should be.” This is a thought that I struggle with, that I don’t know how to get past. I just pray that should anything as tragic as my imaginings ever actually happens God would give me the Grace that transforms in the way that Father Stephen talks about, as in not merely moral, or psychological, but into something utterly transcendent and ineffable. It would take no less to endure some tragedies. But I am far from that sort of transformation. Instead I just sit and wonder how certain horrific atrocities could possibly be “exactly as they should be”?

  10. Michelle Avatar

    I’m not saying that what you’re saying isn’t true, Dino, but I personally can think of some pretty horrific, disgusting, inexplicable things that could happen to my children that would drive me insane if I thought God felt it were “exactly as it should be.” This is a thought that I struggle with, that I don’t know how to get past. I just pray that should anything as tragic as my imaginings ever happen God gives me the Grace that transforms in the way Father Stephen talks about, as in not merely psychological, or moral, but into something utterly transcendent and ineffable. Some tragedies would take no less a transformation in order not to be driven insane by despair and immeasurable grief. But I am far, far from this kind of transformation. I’m barely transformed at the psychological, moral level, which leaves me sitting and wondering how certain horrific atrocities can possibly be “exactly as they should be”?

  11. Michelle Avatar

    Ok, sorry about the double post. I thought I lost the first one, so I rewrote it. The second post I think is slightly better than the first in explaining my thoughts.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll start with Mary’s question and observation. She said:

    “To those of us who believe it is anything but a tragedy (i.e. a story with an unhappy ending, involving the downfall of the main character)…”

    But that is indeed the gospel. The main character falls (is shamefully crucified). Of course, that’s not the end of the story, but the resurrection does not obliterate the Cross nor does a “happy ending” somehow remove the tragedy. Tragedy is transformed into the means of our salvation.

    Second. To Michelle’s thought on “exactly as it should be.” I would probably state things differently. Rather than say that we must suffer, I would say that we are simply going to suffer. God is not the author of our suffering or our tragedy. He is not the “cause” of these things.

    But He has changed tragedy (and suffering) so that it is now salvific, the means by which we are conformed to the image of Christ. It is, of course, not the only means by which we are conformed, but there is no salvation that is not “through the Cross.”

    As a parent with 4 children and 2 grands, as well as a parish full of such beloved, I am keenly aware of the tragedy that stalks us all. A phone call in the night (and they have come) and someone’s life changes forever. I have sat by the bedside of a dying teenager and given him his last communion with trembling. Over 34 years the stories add up. But I do not fear what God might do. Or that God might decree some terrible thing “exactly as it should be.” The mystery of His will is quite different.

    The will of God is not at work like the “cause” as we think of it. He is not a Master Billiard Player, arranging the smashing balls of our victimed existence. In such thoughts, we think of “God’s will” as a directing force that makes stuff happen – makes all stuff happen.

    It is more accurate, according to the mystery, to think of God’s will as a “force working for our salvation.” Gee, I hate that language – “a force.” I’ll try to improve it. But our salvation, by which I mean our ultimate union with God and complete conformity to the image of Christ, is and always was the purpose for our creation. It is, perhaps it can be said, the sole working of His will. Thus “all things work together for good.” Because God is at work in all things for our healing, sanctification, illumination, justification, etc.

    Things will be as they fall out. But every fall is already the Cross and the work of God for our salvation. Nothing will be lost. All tragedy is redeemed.

    And this brings me to the last thought, back to Mary’s question. The work of our salvation, that includes tragedy, is the gospel. The shape of the gospel is that Christ did not come and fix things. He did not come and remove suffering. Though He healed, etc., those things are “signs” of the greater work He is doing – sacraments of the resurrection. The man born blind, was still blind for all of those years before his healing. They were not undone. The heartbreak of his parents at the crib of their blind son was not removed. They bore it for many years. And it doubtless changed everything about their lives.

    Christ not only does not remove the suffering, He positively invites us into it: “Take up your Cross and follow me.”

    But the suffering has been changed.

    It’s much like Tolkien’s intuition in the Silmarillion. There creation is a song. God’s song. And the dark angel tries to change the song and inserts a different melody. God heals things, ultimately, not by abolishing the dark melody, but by singing in such a way that it is incorporated and healed.

    People say many stupid things in pastoral situations. I preach (and did last week at the funeral of my granddaughter) that the world is tragic. I tell people even in the good times that they must remember the tragic character of their lives. Only then will they have a chance of taking up the Cross and not constantly fighting against their own lives. Modernity is a lie. One of its lies is that we will remove suffering. We will not.

    We should certainly alleviate suffering when it can be done. But it will not be removed. It will become the Cross. And we will be saved.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, et. al. in the world of plays there are two distinct ideas of what constitutes tragedy. The one, highly influenced by Shakespeare is as Mary outlines. The Greek idea was quite different however. Yes, bad things happen usually because of the fate of the main character but there is, somewhere a catharsis even a metanoia.

    The great Greek plays were frequently a part of religious celebrations and there is a hint of liturgical form in them.

  14. Dino Avatar

    thinking of some pretty horrific, disgusting, inexplicable things [as such] that could happen to our children drive us insane. Thinking that God transforms these things as being “exactly as it should be” for our salvation does not.
    The things happen because of our falleness, we share the Prodigals sufferings (which enlightens our understanding of the futility of this world without utter union with Christ), because of our attraction to his “faraway land”, but the Good Father makes everything “exactly as it should be” in the end. The fact that we are time-bound and therefore blind to this eschatology, does not make us see clearer (when we see things as horrific, disgusting, inexplicable…), it is part of our blindness.
    I can’t help but admire the Elder’s (Aimilianos’) perfect faith in God’s providence no matter what! – equal to the great martyrs who -like Saint Sophia witnessed the torture of her 3 daughters- this unflinching joy demonstrates true Christianity and is the biggest ‘advertisement’ for it.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Years ago I set a rule in my life. I was in training in hospital during seminary. One day the other seminarians came to me and invited me to attend an autopsy with them. I demurred. They wondered why I was avoiding this “experience.” As it was, I was already assigned to a terminal cancer unit and the cardiac intensive care. People died around me all the time. I told them I had a deal with God. I would trust him to be me the grace to bear whatever came my way, but I would not ask for grace for the sake of an “experience.” If I needed to witness an autopsy, I would. I have never needed to.

    My reasoning was that grace is real and never imaginary. We can imagine terrible things, but we cannot imagine grace. And so our imagination is never correct for we imagine nothing as it shall be in the grace of God.

  16. Margaret Avatar

    Me too. His ideas are both interesting and deep. I have to read just a bit and ponder the depths for a while. 🙂

  17. Margaret Avatar

    I’ve struggled with this in my own journey, Michelle. If I look at the events which caused suffering in my life by themselves and wonder how they could be part of what God wanted to happen…. that way lies despair. But if I take the long view of my life, I can see how God made good come from what happened, and even see how what happened shaped my life going forward in such a way that I found Orthodoxy and its medicinal effect on my soul. In a way, He provided the medicine through the suffering. I don’t know, it’s not only hard to explain, but also hard to keep a grasp on in my soul. It’s easy to go the despair route if I don’t keep my mind on God. 🙂

  18. Margaret Avatar

    This seems along the lines of the “obediance” towards life that Fr. Alexander Elchaninov talks about in his diary… taking it upon ourselves as a spiritual discipline to receive life as it comes, with faith in God, and responding based on that faith and what actually comes our way rather than trying to imagine how life “should” be. It’s such a non-modern idea that it’s hard to get my mind around.

  19. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was pleasantly surprised by the website makeover. You invite comment on these things so here are my thoughts:

    –The bigger font is easier to read and a nice change.
    –Your comments are no longer distinguished. Perhaps that is due to your humility but I will admit that sometimes I only have time to browse the comment section and particularly look for yours. However, I can live with the change. (grin)
    –Again a time constraint: it would be nice to have a comment count at the top of the section like before.
    –The sidebar on the right looks much better, de-cluttered and more useable.
    –The search box still only looks at the postings and not the comment section. There are times someone has referred to a good book and I’ve only been able to find it by doing a page search on each post.

    My overall impression is very positive. Thank you once again for your ministry. Oh, and if dementia does set in, please let us know first. (grin)


  20. Drewster2000 Avatar

    P.S. One more website comment: I really like the new function of being able to reply to a particular comment. Nice touch!

  21. Michelle Avatar

    Just so you don’t get the wrong idea about me, I generally do not sit around thinking about horrible, disgusting, inexplicable things happening to my kids. Doing that all the time would definitely be a kind of insanity. It would be quite delusional to get lost inside your own head like that. I would probably liken it to demonic possession.

    BUT, on the other hand, I do watch the news and am fully aware that such horrible, disgusting, inexplicable things do exist for some people. And when I witness these things on TV I can’t help but wonder if I would remain as faithful as I often think I am in such a terrible situation. Its easy to see myself as “faithful” while sitting quite comfortably on my sofa, surrounded by my happy, loving family, having hardly ever tasted such intense suffering. But on a good day, when I am being completely honest with myself, I realize that in many ways I quite unfaithfully love my comfortable life and happy family more than I love God. And this is precisely why I agree with you, Dino, that God saves us by a transformation; But is it that He transforms “these things as being “exactly as they should be” for our salvation”? Or is it that He directly transforms us. We become like Christ; transendant and ineffable. Im not sure that the horrible situations themselves become transcendant and ineffable, causing us to be a-ok with them. I cant imagine being “ok” with these sorts of things in themselves, but I can imagine becoming a new creation that triumphantly victors over them (by Grace and Union with Christ our Victor). When I watch the news I realize I am not a new creation yet; I have not become a victor over such things, so I repent and pray for the Grace to be so.

    When St Sophia witnessed her children being tortured was it that “the Good Father made everything (the torturing itself included) “exactly as it should be” in the end”? Or did He make Sophia exactly as she should be; transcendant and ineffable; A women recreated beyond our understanding on this side of salvation (I speak for those of us who are not yet perfected like the Saints).

    I hope what Im trying to say in coming across coherently. It may be that we are in agreement, and Im just getting hung up on the semantics. Or is there a difference? Im also open to the idea that Im dead wrong, lol, and the horrible situations themselves are transformed “to be exactly as they should be.”

    I could be wrong, but I think what Father Stephen has stated in both his comments is more along the same lines of what Im trying to say.

  22. Karen Avatar

    Lately, I’ve been keenly aware of the tragic aspect of life (I doubt anyone reaches the half-century mark without realizing that). A couple of months ago, a relative’s 16-year-old son committed suicide (her father did the exact same thing 15 years previous to this!). I am the mother of a 17-year-old son, so this hit me especially hard. Then at the beginning of this month, just a few months after successful quadruple bypass surgery, my mom suffered a cardiac arrest. Miraculously, she survived and is recovering well by God’s grace, but at a point when her pulling through was by no means certain, I witnessed my dad struggling to contain his grief and tears (a rarity–I think I’ve seen him cry twice in my life before, both times at the funerals of loved ones!). All that, along with all that is reported daily in the news these days, has been weighing on my heart.

    But Fr. Stephen’s post here reminded me of a service a few months ago at my husband’s church, where the pastor interviewed Saul Ebema, a Christian originally from Ghana. His story is here:

    Pastor Saul, who is now ministering in the U.S., mentioned in his talk at my husband’s church that as an African he was finding it difficult to minister in American churches, because unlike in Africa, everybody here wears a mask when they come to church. When he had the opportunity to became a hospice chaplain, however, he found a place even in America where this tendency of American Christians to put their best face forward is overcome. In facing death, people were finally able to be real, to not wear their masks, to be truly human, and to talk about what really mattered and ask for help. It is in sadness, he said, people become real. When he said that, a quote from an Orthodox Elder I had read some time before and the meaning of which I’d been puzzled about was suddenly illuminated for me. The quote from the Elder was something to the effect that it is not in joy, but in sorrow, that man is most himself. In effect, I realized he was saying exactly the same thing as Pastor Saul. It is the purgative effect of suffering, and the way that it delivers us from the illusion of our self-sufficiency, that gives it such a redemptive potential in our salvation. There is, therefore, for a believer, a bittersweet comfort in the words of the Apostle Peter:

    “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us[a] in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
    (1 Peter 4:1-2)

  23. Michelle Avatar

    Ok, now that Ive reread your post, Father Stephen, I think maybe I can clarify what Ive been trying to say. And these are really just some contemplative thoughts Im mulling over, so think of them more like questions, not declarative statements;

    You said,
    “The main character falls (is shamefully crucified). Of course, that’s not the end of the story, but the resurrection does not obliterate the Cross nor does a “happy ending” somehow remove the tragedy,” and also “Rather than say that we must suffer, I would say that we are simply going to suffer. God is not the author of our suffering or our tragedy. He is not the “cause” of these things.”
    -This I agree with. Tragedies are not removed. God is not the cause of our suffering.

    But then you said,
    “Tragedy is transformed into the means of our salvation,” and also “But He has changed tragedy (and suffering) so that it is now salvific…”
    -But this idea of “transformation” of the tragedy’s itself (which is essentially evil. For example, the tragedies that are rape and murder are essentially evil) is what I question. What I call for is the transformation of the PERSON (which is not essentially evil, but, rather, essentially the image of God) undergoing the tragedy, by being united to a Power so great that it is beyond great; A Greatness so transcendent that It cannot even be cognitively compared to anything at all. A Greatness ineffably beyond all things. Thus, when a person is united to this Greatness, and is transformed into Its likeness, the person transcends the tragedy its undergoing in the same way the Great God transcends all things. Its as though the person is united to Existence, while the tragedy cannot rightfully be said to exist. This is salvation; transcendence. Thus, the tragedy isn’t actually necessary at all, let alone its “transformation”, but since it does occur in a person’s life, and since it will not be “removed” (as was stated above), then it will necessarily be transcended by that person should they be united to the God who transcends all things. I believe a person is transformed in this way because they are essentially the image of God, while tragedies such as rape and murder are not transformed in any way because they are essentially evil (or non-existent).

  24. Michelle Avatar

    …just to be clear, when I say “rape and murder are not transformed in any way because they are essentially evil (or non-existent)” I do not mean “non-existent” as in illusory, but, rather, “non-existent” as in not-God, nor Graced with Existence by communion with God.

  25. Dino Avatar

    I see your point. I think we are ultimately in agreement but this is a fertile subject worth ruminating on…
    Pontificating from my sofa about the utter transcendence of suffering is indeed suspect. However, what do we see on Golgotha? Three sufferings and three different interpretations of the sufferings. Saint Desmas (the thief on the right) is saved through it, Gestus (the thief on the left) blasphemes, and Christ saves all who want to see – as Desmas does.
    If God has not come to transcend suffering, what on Earth is He doing on the Cross?!
    The Martyrs -such as Saint Sophia- did not have the power to be “joyful even in the face of suffering” -that is not possible-, they (and we) have the power to believe that God can do all things. It is this childlike, crazy hope -that He will ‘make things perfect’- that attracts the Grace to be “joyful in the face of all suffering”.

    The news present suffering inherently Godlessly. We think that the poor kids that are starving are doomed… Often however, those kids in Africa have a deep knowledge of the futility of this world and they become aware of the Kingdom of Heaven receiving them, while the mollycoddled kid in Sweden that enjoys everything (apparently) commits suicide…

    p.s.: It is a tricky issue, but -on a side note- even some (more honest) atheists (than the materialists of today) such as Friedrich Nietzsche, saw that this utter transcendence of all suffering in Christianity, its joyful acceptance even, was scandalous -and he came up with his Übermensch instead…
    He was wrong however, and religion (Christianity in particular) is not “the Opium of the people” which gives meaning to suffering and to the world (which they want to interpret as ‘random’).
    Things are the other way round if anything: it is
    “Atheism that is the Opium of the people”,
    which gives them the license to think like beguiled Supermen.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, while it may not be possible to be joyful in the midst of suffering, it is possible to know joy (all joy is the joy of the resurrection and is a gift from God, IMO).

    When my wife of 24 years reposed 9 years ago, shortly before Pascha it was and remains the deepest sorrow and suffering I have ever experienced, yet when Pascha came I experienced the joy more fully, deeply and completely than ever before or since. Still in the midst of my sorrow and grief.

    Frankly, it was that joy that allowed me to re-marry knowing that one of us would go through that sorrow and pain again (she also lost a spouse).

    Recently a parish friend reposed in the Lord, a truly good death. It is reported that he remarked not long before he died that if he recovered that was good, but if he did not that was good too. God would decide which good was to be.

    This is true tragedy in the fullest sense of the word. The pain, the loss, the suffering are real but they are truly swallowed up in Jesus Christ.

  27. Dino Avatar

    With a little paraphrasing 🙂 the above almost becomes Saint Paul’s words: “he remarked not long before he died that if he recovered that was good, but if he did not that was good [even better] too.
    Indeed, Michael, the cross remains the cross and the thief hangs for hours after he has heard that he will be in Paradise with the Lord. None of the tragedy is removed, but the joy of the resurrection fully transforms the interpretation of all experience (tragedy included) beyond recognition. Even a small measure of that Divine assurance bestows a martyr-like fervour in the believer that cannot be quenched by any tragedy.
    It is always, of course, in proportion to one’s humility.

  28. Margaret Avatar

    But the tragedy does still exist. It’s still part of the life of both the victim and the perpetrator as though it were a chapter in a book. In the latter case, the fact that it exists can lead the person to repentance and transfiguration. In the case of the victim… I have to say I’ve stumbled over this one a lot. It’s not always so clear that God is with the victim and transforming them even in the midst of tragedy. It may take quite a while, but because of the experience, the victim may find a reason to seek God’s healing and be transformed.

  29. Michelle Avatar

    Dino, you said,

    “However, what do we see on Golgotha? Three sufferings and three different interpretations of the sufferings. Saint Desmas (the thief on the right) is saved through it, Gestus (the thief on the left) blasphemes, and Christ saves all who want to see – as Desmas does.
    If God has not come to transcend suffering, what on Earth is He doing on the Cross?!”

    and also,
    “…the joy of the resurrection fully transforms the interpretation of all experience (tragedies included)”

    But this is how I am looking at the Cross; On the Cross Christ is burrowing deep down inside of the tragedies of suffering and death to allow His Life to burst through and utterly shatter them into oblivion, not to “transform” them, nor even transform the interpretation of them (when I think of the transformation of something I think of its modification, molding, or restructuring. To transform even the interpretation of something is to modify, mold, or restructure your interpretation of that thing). So, on Golgotha Christ burrows deep down inside of the suffering and death of both Saint Desmas, and Gestus, and completely shatters and destroys these tragedies (not modify, mold, etc). As a result Saint Desmas embraces and unites himself to the Life burrowed inside of him, while Gestus turns away from it and seeks to reject it. In this way Saint Desmas is not transforming (modifying, restructuring, etc) his perception of suffering and death; he need not to think differently about death while experiencing the actual presence of the Ressurection that is born within him. He is in the midst of Life, not death, and will not start calling death “Life” just because he finds himself in a paradoxical situation. In other words, maybe it could be said that though in the midst of these tragedies he’s undergoing they cannot be rightfully said to “exist” to St Demas, because they were utterly destroyed, and now the only thing rightfully said to exist to him is Life.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. Where I want to push, however, would be on the change of tragedy itself. The killing of God is always wrong and is and was the greatest crime ever committed. It was evil. We cannot say otherwise. But this from St. Paul:

    However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:6-8)

    The demons thought that their evil act would actually kill God. But the crucifixion (evil though it was), was transformed into the very means by which God would save the world. By His love and radical self-emptying, He transformed an empty, evil, malicious act of non-being, into the most glorious act of our salvation.

    What I am saying is that in Christ, and in our own self-emptying union with Christ, the tragedies of our lives, are transformed into the very Cross itself and makes a mockery of those who sought to make us their victims. Had they known, they would never have done whatever it was they did to us.

    I cannot count how many times I’ve heard recovering alcoholics and drug-addicts express gratitude for the addiction – not just for their recovery. It is often not understood by others – but their addiction often itself, through the work of their “higher power,” becomes a means of their transformation.

    The Cross, it should be said, is not transformative without the resurrection. But the Cross is never without the Resurrection. It is interesting that for a short period, apparently, the primitive Church celebrated Pascha (Crucifixion and Resurrection) as a single feast (on the 14th of Nissan). The Church in her wisdom chose to observe the feast differently, but in Orthodoxy, Holy Friday is a profoundly Paschal event and does not fail to mention the Resurrection. Having marked Easter in the West – where these things are almost too separated – I was at first troubled by how “joyful” Holy Friday’s services are. They have more joy expressed within them, liturgically, than is often the case in Western Easter. But I came to understand.

    Another verse that comes to mind is from Genesis. Joseph says to his brothers:

    “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Gen 50:20)

    I think it is important to recognize, as we are able, that the transformation God works is not only in spite of the evil done to us, but that He redeems the evil itself. In the end, it has no standing. It’s only lasting memorial will be our victory.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I know a woman who was sexually abused when she was nine, suffered through two abusive marriages (not unrelated I think) and decided not to be a victim. Although still working on forgiving and healing the trauma, she refuses to be bitter or seek revenge. She seeks to know God instead.

    Thus, I can say that such really bad stuff happening in one’s life is an opportunity to grow closer to God.

    And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is this a case where, by God’s grace, we grow beyond the moral recognition of good and evil and enter into virtue? Is not the knowledge of good and evil what we were not supposed to have and our arrogant grasping for it in disobedience the cause of our fall?

    I, for one, struggle continually with whether my acts are good or bad.

  33. Dino Avatar

    from a more theological angle, sufferings, are “offered” to fallen man from God as a new “Tree of Knowledge of good and evil”. Depending on how we “deal with what we’ve been dealt”, (our interpretation if you like) they become a source of glorious Life, or, alternatively, a source of perdition. They therfore acquire eternal value when we accept them with trust and faith in God… (But not when we experience them with fatalism.)
    Our interpretation of sufferings can range the entire gamut from Heaven to Hell (!), and this interpretation is mainly dependant on how securely we are united to God or to ego.

    Man’s greatness is actually made evident – in a certain sense – by his very ability to suffer. Just as God’s glory -which cannot be made any greater than it is, is made ‘greater’ through the Cross. God on the Cross, His suffering as a man, does indeed exalt Him even further in man’s eyes!

  34. Michelle Avatar

    Hi Margaret, you said,

    “It’s still part of the life of both the victim and the perpetrator as though it were a chapter in a book. In the latter case, the fact that it exists can lead the person to repentance and transfiguration…”

    Yes, in one way God does not initially remove the tragedy from the perpetrator, but instead He uses it (not “transforms” it) to reveal to the perpetrator that if he continues to identify himself with the crime then he is identifying with the emptiness and “nothingness” that sin is. The perpetrator is on a path to nothingness, because he is participating in “nothingness” (sin). At the same time God reveals His Fullness and Existence to the perpetrator. In this way the person who has committed the tragic crime could unite himself to God, and no longer identify with the sin/tragedy in any way, because it is a void, while God is a Fullness. This is the path to True Existence. To unite yourself to God is to become in His likeness, and God has no part in sin and death; He does not commune with sin and death, but rather destroys them, like the way light destroys darkness. I think the victim transcends tragedies and death in the same way, by uniting to the Fullness of Life that destroys death, like light destroys darkness. It is a mystery, though, because logic tells us that to experience something means that the experience can never be erased; it is forever a chapter in our book, BUT (paradoxically) at the exact same time to unite yourself to the Light that destroys darkness, and become the image and likeness of this very Light, means all darkness is utterly vanquished for us. I think when people start saying things like “God ‘transforms’ these tragedies into salvation” they are trying to explain the paradox. But I don’t think we should say a tragedy is changed from one sort of thing to another sort of thing. I think we should say tragedy is one sort of thing and continues to be that sort of thing, though paradoxically God utterly vanquishes and destroys this “sort of thing” even though it also appears to persist in a certain sense.

  35. Roman Avatar

    This is something I have been thinking about most recently. Our life is a tragedy. The more we try to forget this simple fact the harder the devastation will be when reality hits us. Which is why Christ warned us not to store our treasures on earth but in the kingdom of God. A kingdom not of this world, but has come into this world for the sake of the world.

  36. Michelle Avatar

    “The demons thought that their evil act would actually kill God. But the crucifixion (evil though it was), was transformed into the very means by which God would save the world. By His love and radical self-emptying, He transformed an empty, evil, malicious act of non-being, into the most glorious act of our salvation.”

    Let’s rewrite this to say,

    “The demons thought that their evil act would actually kill God. But the crucifixion was USED by God to save the world. By His love and radical self-emptying, He took an empty, evil, malicious act of non-being and destroyed it by His transcendent Life (Christ burrowed inside of death and His Life burst forth and destroyed it. Not transformed it from one sort of thing into another sort of thing), accomplishing the most glorious act of our salvation.”

    Also you say,
    “and in our own self-emptying union with Christ, the tragedies of our lives, are transformed into the very Cross itself..”

    But how about in our own self-emptying union with Christ we are Filled with this death-destroying Life. No transformation of death needed. When Christ burrowed into death he also mysteriously burrowed into All instances of death (mine, your, everyones), and he didn’t change them, He shattered them.

    ““But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. (Gen 50:20)”

    I would not interpret this passage, “you meant evil, but God meant it for good,” to say that the evil itself changed or transformed from one sort of thing into another sort of thing, so now we can say the evil thing is
    has literally become a good thing. Maybe it means “you meant it for evil, but God destroyed that evil when He created what was truly good (the salvation of their people).”

    Same goes for alcoholics. I can relate to them sort of because I was diagnosed a few years back with a chronic blood disorder that may or may not end my life here on earth earlier than I originally planned (I originally planned to live to be 120 yrs old, lol). Over time being confronted with such a disease stopped being a source of despair, but a source of increasing trust in God. But I would never call my disease a “good.” It is in a sense death, which is never good. But Christ is a Good because he has burrowed Himself deep inside this blood disease and burst through it and destroyed it with LIFE. Now I will never taste death.

  37. Michelle Avatar

    Let me just add, so in a sense my blood disease was a source of despair because it is a sort of death, but then quit looking towards my disease and changed my gaze towards Christ, the only source of Life, and even the source of trust and faith that I gained. The blood disease didn’t transform, I did, because I changed my gaze from death towards Life and grace ensued.

  38. Martha Therese Avatar
    Martha Therese

    Dear Father,
    Thank you, as just this week I have been praying to transform my experience of death & grief. As a former Episcopalian, being a Greek Orthodox believer now, my brother’s death (murdered by a stranger as a sports practice) still affects daily life for my family — decades later.

    I believe you have homicide in your family, too. I’d very much like further insight into God’s grace in times of unexpected and extreme grief, and your personal experience of living a Christ-centered life after surreal, violent tragedy.

    Also, I hope you and your family are holding up during this time of recent grief. May your granddaughter’s memory be eternal.
    Thank you, Father.

  39. Michelle Avatar

    “…sufferings, are “offered” to fallen man from God as a new “Tree of Knowledge of good and evil”. Depending on how we “deal with what we’ve been dealt”, (our interpretation if you like) they become a source of glorious Life, or, alternatively, a source of perdition.”

    Right, I can see what you’re saying. We’re pretty much in agreement, except I just like the way I explain it better, lol ;). Its like my comment to Father Stephens about my being diagnosed with a pretty serious blood disorder that has real potential of ending my earthly life earlier than expected. My attitude changed from despair to acceptance precisely because I turned towards Christ. I don’t think my blood disease is the source of glorious Life. But my attitude changed precisely because I realized the disease was death (including the despair I was experiencing) and that I needed life. I did not decide to interpret my disease as Life, I just simply seeked out Life and found Christ. For some reason I think the analogy of Light and dark works, so my blood disease is darkness, and I was living in darkness, so when I turned to Christ I entered His Light, and His light immediately made he darkness vanish. In a way I do not have a blood disease the further and further I go into the Light.

    Im mean, blood diseases will not exist in the Ressurection, if they were transformed from bad to good then they would, so then why would I want to interpret the blood disease as if it were somehow a good? The change was in me when I rightly interpreted Christ as Good.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I also like the way you explain it 🙂 I read your other comments and it your explanation makes complete sense.

  41. Dino Avatar

    However, if I may add that:
    the transformation/transcendence of suffering through our experience and effort (based on previous knowledge and faith bestowed on us through God’s grace and providence) is one thing.
    (Our volition and synergy is required here)
    The transformation/transcendence of suffering directly through God’s grace (when He chooses to bestow this) is such a transfiguration of Man’s nature that he “sees with other eyes”, it is infinitely more than we can even hope of conceiving…

  42. Christopher Avatar

    I wish I could reply to Michelle’s comment upstream because I think she is on to something important. This conversation reminds me a bit of the one David Bentley Hart had in public several years ago after a tsunami (which ended up being the “doors of the sea” book). I don’t think Dino intends this, but there is a way to read/interpret what he is saying in such a way that it seems the Tradition is in a very important way denying the reality of evil. Evil might not have the ontological reality that God or “the Good” does, but is a reality nonetheless.

    Perhaps it’s my lack of sanctification, but I cringe a bit when folks bring up the heroic faith of the saints in response to evil (such as the torture of children). Perhaps Fr. Stephen or someone else will correct me, but I don’t think the Tradition claims that ALL suffering is ultimately “transformed” into something good. This simply make evil part of the good, and takes away it’s character. Some evil, is simply senseless. The “Mystery of evil” is just that, but let us not “transform” evil into the good in the logic of our thoughts.

    I am not a pacifist, and as far as I can tell neither is the Tradition. Yes, some of us are called to die on the Cross (or some other such torture). However, others have been called to die in mortal combat with evil persons/armies/ideologies. I am quite certain that if returning from work one evening I walked into my home and found some deranged child of God raping my wife and torturing my children it would not be the “saintly” thing to stand by or have some other pacifistic response. In fact, I would not hesitate (not even a tiny tiny bit) to use deadly force against this child of God. As Fr. Webster has argued, I would not even call this a “necessary evil” (as if any evil is somehow “necessary”) but a “lessor good”.

    I suppose what I am trying to say (and not very well) is that there is a bit of dismissiveness of the reality and depth of evil in this conversation. When Dino says our sufferings “acquire eternal value” depending on our spiritual disposition towards them, it seems to me he has at once “fixed” the “problem of evil” (and thus plumbed it’s mystery), and even subsumed evil into the good.

    Dino forgive me as I don’t mean to single you out for special criticism – this line of thought is one I think we have all seen before and has always left me wanting…

  43. Dino Avatar

    I fully agree and see the point in what you are saying. However, paraenetically, pedagogically, (since Christianity has been watered down so much of late) I think it is better to be build up our trust and our fervour against our self-pity and the danger of accusing God that lurks around that corner.
    If you read Saint Isaac the Syrian on the three Faiths you will see what a difference there is between our rational-worldly thoughts and those that spring up once we have tasted of perfect faith… It is a very important exposition.
    It is also a fact that we are mightily attached to time:

    Once in a hut in Athos, a father begged an Elder who was a fool-for-Christ to pray for his sick child, whose illness was truly heart rending.
    The Elder’s answer was shocking:
    “My lad, I only pray for the souls of those who leave this life, in order that they enter paradise. I do not really deal with those problems related to our brief earthly sojourn, for those problems to be permitted, it must mean God allowed them. There must be a reason.”

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think the goodness of the Cross denies the evil of murdering God. But I think our treatment of the Cross has frequently robbed it of its scandal and we fail to in fact see it as the greatest evil there ever was. I agree that this is a very important theological point. I am now more convinced that Christians have come to generally think of God as “fixing” evil, or “getting around” evil, or doing something good despite the evil. Which is not at all what the Cross does. The Cross is the embracing and transformation of an evil act (I prefer “tragic”).

    Do evil acts earn an eternal existence by virtue of being evil? Or are they somehow redeemed? The Cross is the answer to that question. The Cross is the transformation of every evil act, not just an isolated event in history.

    The Cross’ transformation of evil acts in no way lifts them up to the category of “necessary.” But nothing is necessary except God. Nor does their transformation in any way justify them, make them to have been “ok.” The scandal remains – but is transformed. By the way, it is important in Christian theology to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time. Our relentless drive to eliminate this constantly shuts the door to the mystery of the gospel. The very heart of apophatic theology requires this.

    Dino is correct. And, if I may, when you remove what bothers you about his phrasing, you’ve removed its very value to push your heart and mind where it needs to go. Elder Aimilianos presses language beyond its limits precisely for this reason.

  45. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    It seems like your saying all of my previous comments, such as the “non-existence” of evil, and Christ’s complete destruction of suffering and death, etc., are perfectly Orthodox things to say, but (since we Christians hold contradictory ideas at the same time) evil is also redeemed and saved by a transformation because it was embraced by Christ. I did not realize that evil will be redeemed and eternally exist in the Resurrection. What will this look like? For example, (warning I’m going to get a little graphic) an 11 yr old girl is repeatedly raped, and then kept conscious while embalmed and her organs eaten by the perpetrator, all in front of her parents. Explain to me by what you mean that this evil will be transformed and redeemed eternally. Be very explicit, because generalized statements aren’t working for me. I honestly dont think I understand what you are trying to say. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t get it.

  46. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Let me add something. I think semantics may be part of the problem here. For example: while the practice of murder will always be evil, a particular act of murder is something God can use to transform the lives of those involved. It can indeed be the case that later down the road they are all deeply thankful for it. Not that they would EVER decide murder is anything but evil or that they would EVER condone it, but that they gave that particular event in their lives to God and asked that His will be done in the situation instead of casting their own judgments and shutting down in whole areas of their lives.

    So it isn’t that murder will become a standard practice in Heaven but there be somehow transformed into a good thing; it’s that here in this broken world God is able to take even the most heinous acts and use them for our salvation.

    Genesis 50:20: But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.

    God doesn’t orchestrate evil, but He “sees it coming” and comes in behind the perpetrator to transform the act into something that can ultimately bring about the healing of our person.

    hope this helps

  47. Michelle Avatar

    Drewster, you said,

    “…a particular act of murder is something God can use to transform the lives of those involved.”

    I agree 100% with your statement. God doesn’t transform the evil act itself (the tragedy as Father Stephen calls it) but instead USES it (using something and transforming something are not the same thing) in order to TRANSFORM the PERSON (again, not the evil act). In the horrific example I give I can imagine all of the persons involved (perpetrators and victims included) being transformed in their persons and thus transcending the evil act, but I can’t imagine the tragedy itself being somehow transform (used yes, transformed no).

    But I think Father Stephens is trying to say something different than this. Im just not sure I understand what it is he is trying to say. I think its something similar to the way Dostoevsky talks about suffering in his book The Brothers Karamazov, but unfortunately I don’t fully understand Dostoevsky either, lol.

  48. Michelle Avatar

    Im almost started to get it when Dino said this,

    “from a more theological angle, sufferings, are “offered” to fallen man from God as a new “Tree of Knowledge of good and evil”. Depending on how we “deal with what we’ve been dealt”, (our interpretation if you like) they become a source of glorious Life, or, alternatively, a source of perdition. They therfore acquire eternal value when we accept them with trust and faith in God… (But not when we experience them with fatalism.)
    Our interpretation of sufferings can range the entire gamut from Heaven to Hell (!), and this interpretation is mainly dependant on how securely we are united to God or to ego.”

    But then my mind reverted back and said “Nope, even here this could definitely just be the transformation of the person, and not a transformation the acts/tragedies themselves.”

  49. Dino Avatar

    That (your graphic example), and worse has happened to many martyrs in the past. And when they appear to people (such as Saint Ephrem the Great Martyr and Wonderworker) they appear ‘intact’ rather than dismembered and radiant with glory, although something signifying their glorious martyrdom often accompanies them (Saint Ephrem for instance appeared holding a fire in his bossom)

    Saint Isaac the Syrian’s “first degree of knowledge

    presumes that all things are by its own providence, like those men who assert that there is no Divine governance of visible things. Nevertheless, it cannot be without continual cares and fear for the body. Therefore it is a prey to faintheartedness, sorrow, despair, fear of the demons, trepidation before men, the rumour of thieves and the report of murders, anxiety over illnesses, concern over want and the lack of necessities, fear of death, fear of sufferings, of wild beasts, and of other similar things that make this knowledge like a sea made turbulent by great waves at every hour of the night and day. For knowledge does not know how to cast its care upon God through the confident trust of faith in Him; wherefore in all things that concern it, it is constantly engaged in devising devices and clever contrivances.

    It therefore interprets all suffering in accordance(…)
    The third (perfect) degree of knowledge (born through faith) since

    faith itself swallows up knowledge, converts it, and begets it anew, so that it becomes wholly and completely spirit […] it can soar on wings in the realms of the bodiless and touch the depths of the unfathomable sea, musing upon the wondrous and divine workings of God’s governance[…] even from now it has received, as it were in a mystery, the noetic resurrection as a true witness of the universal renewal of all things.

    This is the faith that adorned the martyrs and asetics who feared and loved nothing other than God. A corollary of this love is the transformation we have been discussing here, their joyous embrace of the Cross in every form with fervent and desirious yearning!
    Yes, They knew full well that Christ’s words “In the world ye shall have tribulation” are true, but the emphasis for them was on ” be of good cheer; I have overcome the world!”

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is the evil transformed or the results of the evil transformed for all parties?

    I think it is a mistake to push for explanations of any specific act. Those things, if we are to know them at all, will be revealed to those who need to know them to the extent they need to know them.

    A case in point: my son and I were at the bedside of a woman who had lived a life of pain, fear and abuse, trying to love God along the way. However the pain just kept building in her–physical and emotional. It became too much and her dying was painful and, perhaps, self-induced. Yet, there were many at her bedside praying for her in hope and faith. When she did finally repose, there were those there who saw an angel come to receive her. Her death does not appear to be blameless, certainly it was not painless. Nevertheless, it seems that God’s grace transformed it into a good death and her funeral was held in her home parish.

    That is the way of the Cross. Even Jesus Christ had someone help him.

  51. Christopher Avatar

    It is difficult to talk about these things, as language and rationality fail. I think Michelle again points to the problem of using “transform”, which the most relevant dictionary definition here would be “to change the character of” – and yet as Fr. Stephen points out evil is still evil (or tragic). That is to say, it’s character is retained. Or, as Dino quotes the good Elder “for those problems to be permitted, it must mean God allowed them. There must be a reason.” I would agree (thinking of Job) up until the word “reason” is used, because to use such a term is to take you right into rational Theodicy.

    Hart in his book discusses Doestoyevsky’s Ivan: “{Ivan}…constitutes the only challenge to a confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection”:

    (speaking of some senseless torture of an innocent child) “What can a finite Euclidean mind make of such things? How, with anything like moral integrity, can it defer its outrage to some promised future where some other justice will be worked, in some radically different reality than the present? Ivan says that he wants to see that final harmony, and to hear the explanation for why such horrors were necessary, but not so as to assent to either. For, while he can go some distance in granting the principle of human solidarity – in sin and retribution – he cannot figure the suffering of children into that final equation without remainder. What makes Ivan’s argument so novel and disturbing is not that he simply accused God of failing to save the innocent: in fact, he grants that in some sense God still will “save” them, in part by rescuing their suffering from sheer “absurdity” and showing what part it had in accomplishing the final beatitude of all creatures. Rather, Ivan rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue – anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary……….Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees – and this bespeaks both of his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if it were.”

    Rather than looking for a moral “transformation” or “reason” (realizing of course that Fr. Stephen and Dino are reaching for “apophatic” renderings of these terms) I like the way Hart puts it:

    “…However – fortunately, I think – we Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day – to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children – and to attempt to console ourselves or others with the vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred…

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your example is worthy of Dostoevsky. He never shies away from the most egregious assault of our senses. He later feared he had made the argument too well. But I think anything less than such a fierce and uncompromising statement of the case is less than effective.

    And I mean to use the word “transforms.”

    First, whatever has happened, has happened and nothing changes that. The child is tortured, eaten, etc. It stands. So Christ’s victory does not erase the fact that this terrible thing happened. And the transformation I am suggesting does not remove its terribleness – the Cross is still tragic – always.

    But, if there were no transformation (perhaps hidden from the view of all of us until all things are revealed) of these terrible events – then we could rightly ask why they have ever been allowed? Ivan Karamazov would argue that it would have been better for the universe never to have existed.

    But the Cross points to the fact that all evil acts will somehow be transformed, such that they will not have wrought the destruction, etc., that their perpetrator’s intended. They will have brought about something whose glory we do not yet see. We see the glory of the Cross and sometimes we can see the glory of the martyrs. The “glory” of a tortured child remains largely hidden – so much so that even discussing such a thing is terrible. But the Cross stands as something of a sacrament of a redemption (and transformation) that I do not yet see in regard to all things.

    The Christian proclamation is that Christ “tramples down death by death.” The very thing he destroys is the very thing by which it is destroyed. Death is transformed into the means of its own destruction. Thus the tragedy of the child will have been so redeemed by God that it will be the very means by which the tragedy is destroyed.

    There remains a contradiction in all that I have said – but it is the contradiction of Pascha itself. Pashca is both the means of our redemption and the pattern for every moment’s redemption. And it is foolishness to the Greeks and weakness to the Jews. It is also the only way in which to live without fear.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There comes a point where, it seems, we can live in faith and hope or continue to seek ‘explanations’ of matters that we cannot fathom.

    The prayers of the Church assisted the woman I mentioned in her dying and those she left behind in their living both here and in the world to come. Despite the pain, fear and abuse in her own life, she is remembered for the beauty she created in her life.

    All of us are capable of creating great beauty. All of us are capable of great darkness.
    The more able we are, by prayer and God’s grace, to face the darkness in our own hearts and still give thanksgiving and praise to God in hope and love, the less the darkness matters–our own or the reflection of our own we see in others.

    “Let you heart not be troubled. I have overcome the world.”

    How is this possible? Through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Him who is.

    Isn’t it sufficient to know that?

  54. Drewster2000 Avatar


    But in fact the evil act itself is transformed as well. Using my example, the practice of murder is never transformed but the actual historical incident of a murder is. Again this is something which is difficult to see from the outside. I imagine it to be kind of like those kestrals in Harry Potter that you could only see if you had experienced the death of someone close to you.

    This is difficult for our Western minds wrap itself around and I suspect you are correct about Dostoevsky. We are discussing a mystical concept and mysticism has forever been more of the province of the East.

    Let me try a picture analogy:

    Imagine your life as a pool of water that is relatively still on the surface. Then this big murder plunges into the center of it like a huge stone. A big splash results, sending waves crashing outward to every corner of your world.

    But when this wave of shock/despair/anger/etc attempts to wash over God in your life, we decide what happens: either we allow our image of Him to get tarnished and carried away with everything else, or we proclaim the reality that He is bigger than the calamity and turn to Him.

    If we choose the latter, then He begins to transform everything. In other words He sends a wave going back the opposite way. The transformation might begin with the mundane things in our life, then move on to the details of the event – and then sometimes though not perfectly, the act itself.

    Perhaps I should add that it is not something we do, this transformation, but something that we allow. In the end God is good and makes everything good – no matter what that “everything” includes.

  55. Dino Avatar

    Death’s essential precondition is a severed union with God/Life.
    It is a prerequisite that unquestionably exists (for Man), as it is me/Man/Adam who somehow willingly unearths and ‘cherry-picks’ sin and self-centeredness whilst in a state of Love and Light, in a garden of grace;
    I dissolve union with Life and with my Creator -as well as with Creation- (and this ‘datum’ clearly remains as we all see).
    It is perhaps also noteworthy that it is again I/Man/Cain who initially introduces physical death, through the tragic murder of the innocent one/Abel, (and this tragedy also remains as there does not exist a person who will not suffer death).
    I cannot therefore blame God in any way for this unwanted consequence of my severed union with Him…
    But in Christ –i.e.: Christ as Man- this precondition for death does not exist.
    His, consequently utterly unjust (yet utterly salvific) death, is voluntarily suffered only for our “salvation from it”-ie: salvation from death.
    So, God’s transformation of death eventually comes by death itself, His sharing in all of our suffering. There is no other means for Love Himself.
    So this ‘transformation’ of the problem we have been discussing here –as Father so beautifully explained it above- used the very problem itself – death, (albeit the unjust death of the Son of man –who is Christ-Life) as a solution to the problem-death (albeit the just death of all men –who are severed from union with Life). This paradox of Pascha, in another way is also key to the spiritual life:
    Just as our Saviour voluntarily chose suffering (against His human nature’s desire), and desired death (the most absurd death of all deaths – i.e.: even lacking in death’s essential ‘precondition’) out of love for us,
    so too, when we ‘choose’ (or if you rather prefer to say ‘voluntarily accept’) suffering and death as His grateful followers, His apostles, His martyrs, we taste of that transformation unto eternal life.

  56. Michelle Avatar


    “[Ivan] grants that in some sense God still will “save” them, in part by rescuing their suffering from sheer “absurdity” and showing what part it had in accomplishing the final beatitude of all creatures…He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue – anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary…….”

    Thank you for this. This idea was lingering in the background of my thoughts in all of my other comments. There are some evil acts I would rather not give meaning or necessity to. I do not want a reasonable Theodicy to rescue them from the depth of darkness that they currently reside in. It would seem egregiously immoral.
    But I do not side with Ivan that in the face such a dilemma it would have been better had we never been created with free will. Without free will there cannot be love. I just read what must have been someone’s term paper online about Dostoevsky on this very subject, which I think can be used to expound on the idea of the person being transformed in such a way as to transcend any suffering:

    “Dostoevsky’s moral in this case is thus: man must suffer, but man has life, and that is paramount.”

    Some quotes from his character Zosima also help the point:

    “Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced at the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”

    “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

    This is what I think happened in the case of Job. When God spoke to him He did not answer Job’s questions with a rational Theodicy. Instead He went on to show Job His sublime greatness and wisdom as it exist in creation, and in the midst of such ineffable greatness Job fell in love with God. In fact, Job already loved God as a friend, which is why he didn’t take the advice of his wife to curse God and die, but this close encounter experience with God revealed a glimpse of His glory to Job that inflamed his love for God so much that he repented of all of the angst caused by his suffering.

    I also liken this idea to St. Stephen who was so impassioned for God and his neighbor (including those torturing him) that the brutal stoning he underwent was like a single drop of water lost in an ocean of love. This is transcendence.

  57. Dino Avatar

    Those quotes from Zosima reminded me of St Isaac the Syrian.
    St Isaac makes the obvious connection of the transcendence of (personal) suffering with humility. He says that he who believes that he deserves to suffer great tribulations has reached a great measure of humility. Such a person is peaceful and assured in all situations. He is overwhelmed with gratitude in any setting, since he unceasingly feels like a receiver of immeasurably greater mercy than what he actually deserves.
    (it’s another take on Saint Silouan’s “keeping one’s mind in hell and despairing not”)

    Also, simply looking at the more general issue of suffering from a non-believer’s point of view (I am rather thinking of ‘struggles’ in general here), and leaving aside the infinite permutations of particular examples, if we try to be objective, detached and honest, we naturally see that nothing good – in any area of life – comes with ease. Difficulties and a certain suffering and pain produce a good athlete, a good musician, a good mathematician. Experience and confidence are only acquired after struggles; and a very deep delusion is the fruit of a life of ease, comfort, luxury and the phobia, escapism, truancy of/from pain (called φυγοπονία in Greek).

    Back to the subject of the Ivan-like scandalisation in the face of such absurd pain that (at the time) looks like utter hubris of existence:
    I think we mustn’t forget that this is exactly what our Lord came to partake of…!
    He did not create it though:
    I have to realise in humility that I have created it (as a cosmic ‘Adam’). But for this to happen, for the cosmic and infinite potentialities of my personal sin to be revealed to me, I must taste of purification and illumination. Otherwise, (this ‘hypostasization’ of the cosmos in me), it seems like a philosophical exercise in conceptualisation…

    A crack (my sinfulness) in a surface that already has thousands of cracks can hardly be discerned, and looks natural on the chopping surface of a kitchen. Whereas, a crack on an otherwise immaculate surface of a palace’s dinner table (the purified soul) looks so gross that it compromises the entire place…

    This forms the basis of the humility (after purification) that sees that, no matter how scandalous the suffering, it is I who must repent, me who must be crucified, and not God. (Even though He has already done this before all time and beyond all measure for our sake. ) We know the God-blaming “empathy” is the number one agenda of our adversary ‘Diavolos’ (God-slanderer)

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle and Christopher,
    Very important here. I am not in any way speaking about a rational or reasonable Theodicy that resuces evil acts. There can be no reasonable explanation. The “answer” to these things is quite different. It is a mystical union. God does not talk or explain or even arrange our way out of any of this. His salvation is through union. God takes upon Himself the sufferings of Job, etc. There are no words for this “transformation.” Instead, we make the sign of the Cross.

  59. Christopher Avatar

    After having ruminated on this for a day or so, I realize I do have a hangup with the language being used, so you are talking past me with “transformation” (I referred to what seems to be the most relevant dictionary definition of “change the character of” – which would seem to imply that God is “transforming” evil/evil acts themselves – but Fr. and Dino are emphasizing the results of, or the persons so affected, etc.). I also realize I have a couple presuppositions/ideas that may not be Orthodox:

    I have unwittingly been making a distinction between “suffering” and “evil”. Suffering can be the result of evil (though we often use it more positively like when we speak of “suffering through a vigorous workout”.) Evil I take to be something more akin to a force (or to borrow from Hart: either “imbecile chance” or “malevolent will”) that has a reality of it’s own (while being careful not to grant it the same ontological reality of “the good”). I realize that while we all “suffer and die” and are thus saved exactly through suffering (the Cross) I have been thinking that we are “saved from” evil (as opposed to saved *through* suffering). Thus, I thought evil itself is not saved, or transformed, or anything else. Like the world (which will be burned away – even down to the elements (2 Peter 3)) I thought that evil will be ‘left behind’ (no reference to popular books intended ;). Anything less (or is it more?) would seem to make evil part of the landscape, part of the “character” of salvation and the Eschaton. It also seems to me that this *transformation* of ALL evil implies a sort of universalism – for if all evil is ultimately *transformed* into something good, then can anything or any person be damned (“…they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29), or for that matter why a new creation and new earth if this one (and all that is a part, including evil) is changed itself? Do we (or creation or evil or…) go in the cocoon like a caterpillar and come out a butterfly? THAT is a transformation as I normally think of it.

    I know I am short on love, and if I loved enough perhaps even evil itself would fall into place. I thought maybe I need another voice. I was going to ask if anyone knew of a dogmatic treatment of the “problem of evil” from an Orthodox context (I can’t think of anyone who has dealt with it head on except Hart). Someone at church today thought Rico Vitz’s “Turning East” had an essay in it about this very thing, but this is a collection of “Orthodox philosophers” so who’s to say it is not purely speculative. I take Dino’s and Fr. Stephen’s admonitions to step out of discursive reasoning on this to heart, so perhaps I will just lay it aside for now, for as the monastics say you can’t rush spiritual understanding/discernment….

  60. Michelle Avatar

    I just want to say I think this conversation has been wonderful. Thanks especially to Father Stephen and Dino, Ive learned some new things here and have a lot to consider.

  61. Michelle Avatar

    Im glad you brought up humility. The perfect humility of the Saints that you’ve described is something Ive overlooked throughout this whole conversation. I think because I am lacking in humility myself its easy for me to get hung up on the philosophical problem of evil rather than examining it within my own intimate relationship with God. I used to search for the perfect theodicy to fix the problem of evil, but as I began to develop a more prayerful and personal relationship with God I knew that rational theodicy had to go out the window. And yet I still failed (and still fail) to fully understand and embrace the significance of this fundamental virtue.

  62. Byron Avatar

    I think some care needs to be taken to keep the phrase, “how certain horrific atrocities could possibly be “exactly as they should be” from meaning, at least to some, “how God wants it to be”. We need to be careful to not equate God’s will with the tragedies that befall us and/or the ones we love/know in life. God does not wish the atrocities of this life upon us but this life is full of tragedy, as Fr. Freeman’s article states. In that sense, the tragedies of this life are “exactly as they should be”. Our rejoicing comes from the fact that, in spite of–or even within–the tragedies of our lives, God continues to work with and in us towards salvation.

  63. Dino Avatar

    You are correct in a sense about taking care with these words, but I can’t help remembering the classic words of the Martyrs to those believers who have -at certain rare instances that have been documented- had visions of their atrocious sufferings: “if I knew what joy awaited me, I would have gladly suffered a thousand-fold”…
    What I mean to say is that our understanding of suffering is clouded by being time-bound. The eschatological orientation of the Saints enables them to be released from this to a certain degree -no? When sufferings become the cause of such ineffable, eternal pleasure, what other language that does not scandalise those who do not comprehend this can we employ?

  64. Dino Avatar

    When a mother (for example) rushes into a blazing fire in order to save her infant she feels no pain. Her love is fiercer than the fire. She does get burned… But her love’s intensity masks all pain.
    Now, can we begin to comprehend, let us just try to conceive how much more than this, a Saint’s love for Christ can mask all pain, all suffering, all tortures? They truly entrusted their whole lives, their children, and all others unto Christ our God, and the most sublime joy invariably emanates from this sacrifice, a joy that perceives all suffering of this world as nothing other than: “exactly right”! I pray we all attain such plenitude of fervent love and trust too…

  65. MarthaMargaret Avatar

    I have not yet read all your comments here, Fr. Stephen, but it is for comments such as this

    “My reasoning was that grace is real and never imaginary. We can imagine terrible things, but we cannot imagine grace. And so our imagination is never correct for we imagine nothing as it shall be in the grace of God.”

    That touch a reality in my heart that I continue to read your blog and your comments. I do not usually read the comments of others for much the same reason you have not had to attend an autopsy. Glory to God for All Things! (And I am signing my name as my patron saint so as not to conflict with another commentator here. Thank you)

  66. Christopher Avatar

    “What I mean to say is that our understanding of suffering is clouded by being time-bound. The eschatological orientation of the Saints enables them to be released from this to a certain degree -no? When sufferings become the cause of such ineffable, eternal pleasure, what other language that does not scandalise those who do not comprehend this can we employ?”

    Dino, forgive me again for I am going to nit pick your language here ;):

    I don’t think one has to be something less than a Saint to be scandalized by the idea that suffering and evil are the “cause” (your word) of God’s goodness. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan argued (rightly I believe) an “eternal paradise” is not a sufficient justification (in a moral calculus) for evil. As Hart says, there is always a “remainder” to such arithmetic. I think it was Drewster who (now downstream) used a wave analogy. Fr. Stephen uses the word”transform”. What all these analogies and descriptions do (or at least can be too easily read this way – I know all of you have said not to read this them way) is “justify” evil, which is to say make it “part of the plan”, which is the same thing as to change it into something it is not, namely the good. In fact, it’s not even a real change – it’s simply a relabeling. It makes evil into a method or path or instrument of the good. I don’t think it takes into account the real MYSTERY of either good or evil. Fr. Stephen mentioned that addicts are often grateful for their addiction in that it was their path to God. Ok, granting that in full, does that then mean that ALL evil is a path to the good: for every instance of evil does only good come from it? How can one in the end call it evil then? Does this not deny the reality of evil, for then evil is simply a side or facet of the good – but then one has to ask anew what does darkness have to do with the light?

    Now you have said (referring to St Isaac) that with sufficient noetic awareness we would see the ‘renewing of all things’. Now I would take “renewing”, or even Fr. Stephen’s “transformation” over “cause”. I like “renewing” because one can see how the rust (i.e. evil) is removed – evil is somehow left behind and not made an essential part of all things in their (eventual) glory.

    Perhaps yourself or Fr. Stephen (or someone else with a first hand knowledge) could comment, but did not Origen go some length down this road and ended up in Universalism?

    To quote Hart again:

    “…My contention is that this places Ivan’s sensibility much nearer to the authentic vision of the New Testament than are many of the more pious and conventional forms of Christian conviction today The gospel of the ancient church was always one of rebellion against those principalities and powers — death chief among them — that enslave and torment creation; nowhere does the New Testament rationalize evil or accord it necessity or treat it as part of the necessary fabric of God’s world. All that Christian scripture asserts is that evil cannot defeat God’s purposes or thwart the coming of his kingdom. Divine providence, of course, will always bring about God’s good ends despite — and in a sense through — the evils of this world; but that is not the same thing as saying that evil has a necessary part to play in God’s plans, and that God required evil to bring about the kingdom. As the empty tomb of Christ above all reveals, the verdict of God that rescues and redeems creation also overturns the order of the fallen world, and shatters the powers of historical and natural necessity that the fallen world comprises”

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will pull my trump card in a verse of Scripture…

    For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21 NKJ)

    All of this is deeply grounded in the doctrine of salvation through union. The verse does not say that Christ merely took our sin away. It does not say that He destroyed or merely forgave it. For our sin is not a “legal problem.” Here we get to the meat of our salvation. I will amplify our “sin” here to be the same as “all evil.” And it scandalously says he “made Him…to be sin…”

    This is deeply troubling. How can God become sin? And what does it mean to say that He became sin? This is the mystery of our salvation. That God does not remove the very thing that is killing us and destroying us (and that certainly agrees with our experience). For our experience is that sin remains.

    But our salvation is wrought in the mystery of God Himself becoming in a deep mystery – that is -incorporating into His own Divine Life – the very cause of our death and destruction. And in that He takes it into Himself, He heals it. What will it mean for evil to be healed? This is indeed a mystery. I do not think (as Ivan would have argued) that this “becoming sin” means that God merely incorporates and uses sin (evil) in His greater good scheme – thus make it “ok” because of some Divine utility. Ivan’s rejection of this is right. It would be abhorrent and unacceptable. Rather, and it is a union that in someway that I cannot describe – changes the sin – the evil itself. It is for this reason that I have steadfastly continued to use the term “transform.”

    An example of this is the Cross – the best and most transparent example we have. We can see the clear evil of the crucifixion of the innocent man Jesus of Nazareth. There are certainly more cruel tortures of innocents – but it certainly ranks among the worst. And given the perfection of Christ’s innocence, we might even say that the Cross is the worst evil that has ever been.

    But our experience of the Cross is, mysteriously, not one of evil. Somehow the crucifixion itself is so transformed, has been so transformed, that we see it differently. We have to be reminded of its scandal. And I mention this, not as an exhaustive explanation, but as a token, as a beckoning into the mystery of our salvation.

    In the End, every evil event will have become the Cross. It will be transformed. I cannot describe it – except to give the one example that has been revealed to us. The others will come in their time. And in the meantime, the Cross stands for all of them.

    The Cross is my sin. The Cross is the Holocaust. The Cross is the betrayal of Judas and the slaughter of the Innocents. The Cross is Ivan’s example of the little girl.

    Utility is insufficient. It will not be a utility. It will be ontological. It will only be sufficient if it is truly redeemed – transformed. For I do not want things simply to be ok on this side of the sin – I want the sin to have never happened or to be somehow different. Somehow different. Transformed. And it is this that the Cross promises. Nothing less.

    Origen did not go down this road. His was different. St. Isaac of Syria, however, did go down this road. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos went down this road. But St. Silouan, we know, dwelled in hell and learned the mystery of hells redemption. I haven’t done so much – but I’ve heard the word of St. Silouan. And all of it is the Cross.

    He made Him to be sin. That’s the verse to ponder.

  68. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Comment regarding new format: while I like the idea of being able to comment on a particular comment, if I am away from the blog for a day or two when heavy commenting has occurred, I am lost. It is very difficult to follow the thread(s) because some people are posting thoughts at the end and others are posting midstream.

    Can anyone suggest a way that makes it easier to follow? (Beyond piecing together dates and times, while moving up and down the screen…) I am appreciating what I could make out of the discussion of transformation and the Cross.

  69. Dino Avatar

    I agree with Mary’s point, perhaps a longer list of recent comments (20?) could help a little more.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We’re going to go back to the older comments format. It creates problems for me as well. If the conversations were short, it would be no problem. But it is not unusual for the conversation to exceed 50 comments – and it then becomes problematic.

  71. Dino Avatar

    The older comments format certainly makes more sense here when all things are considered. But I am very fond of the new font. 🙂

  72. Michelle Avatar

    Okay, I’m going to do some thinking out loud. Father Stephen or Dino (or anyone else) feel free to help me out here:
    The verse that Father Stephens gives (2ndCo 5:21) tells us that Christ unites Himself to sin. But why? So that we no longer are. So that we are free from this bond. When do we become free from this bond? Baptism. Christ was united to sin (I also am amplifying “sin” here to be the same as “all evil”) which is accumulated and taken on in His death, and we are united to this death of His in Baptism. And as a result of our Baptism we are 100% free from this sin:

    “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

    For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:2-11

    But, if we are not perfectly sanctified and continue to sin after Baptism then we will still experience suffering and death, just as those who are perishing do, in order to bring us to repentance and thus back to renewed Life (in other words, repentance and going to Confession brings us back to the 100% freedom of sin given to us in Baptism; or “removes the rust” as Christopher said):

    “ deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” -1 Corinthians 5:5

    But, then I wonder what exactly is taking place during the “natural death” of a person who has already died 100% to sin in Baptism, and is so perfectly sanctified that they can say “its not I who lives, but Christ in me”? This is where we can say our death seems to be exactly the same as Christ’s death, where one who is perfectly innocent has been accused and sentenced unjustly, and because of this injustice the Devil loses his power and right to wield death over them.

    So far I am still blind to the “change” in death’s essence though. In all that I explained death’s essence is still intact. I would even go so far to say that it must be intact, because it is the fact that death is according to its essence the wages of sin that makes it unjust when a sinless person dies, in turn causing the Devil to be the one who is unjust for causing the death of the sinless person.

    Father Stephen also said, “And in that He takes it into Himself (evil), He heals it. What will it mean for evil to be healed?”The first thing I thought of was the analogy of a wound, such as having a deep cut in one’s skin. The cut itself you could say has no ontological being, where the skin does; The “cut” is merely the description of what our skin is doing. To heal the “cut” is simply to cause the skin to be doing something different than what it is currently doing (namely sealing it back together). So when the “cut” (or “evil”) is healed it simply means the ontological nature of the skin (or person) is restored, and thus the description of “cut” (or “evil”) no longer applies (you could say it “disappears” while keeping in mind it had no real existence in the first place). I thought this was what St. Maximus the Confessor said; that our nature is essentially the image of God, and the fall did not change this nature (if it did that would be total depravity and evil would have ontological being), but rather we were jumbled out of place and thus need our “pieces” to be rearranged like a puzzle back to the original order of the image.

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good thinking. The one thing that would be helpful is to remove the time and chain of cause and effect. The sin after baptism is also united with the death of Christ in Baptism. In confession, etc., we are simply living into that one union.

  74. Marylouise O. Burnum Avatar

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  75. Christopher Avatar


    Thanks for you last reply to me – I keep trying to wrap my head around this but it should be done with the heart…;)

  76. 'lex Avatar

    Father, bless!
    Coming back to this article of yours tonight, I remembered having read years ago a letter of Fr. Alexei Young (a spiritual child of Fr. Seraphim Rose), who had been diagnosed with dementia. I’d like to share it with you and your readers because sadly, there has since been nobody in my life to share it with. 🙂

    But first, I’d like to, perhaps not unrelated, quote from memory something that I may have read here on your blog some years back, or maybe elsewhere, unfortunately I can’t remember, but the quote stuck:

    “God sings. The angels sing. John, with multiple infarct dementia, sings.”

    And now, an excerpt from the letter, which I found very gracious, given the circumstances.

    “It’s quite all right for you to ask. I am very open about my illness, as is Gerondissa, and we do not hide anything or keep any secrets. And I have very little false pride about my limitations any more—I’ve already been through ‘that phase’ and have been able to embrace my disease in the shadow of the Cross. More than that, I have begun the slow process of climbing up onto the Cross with our Lord, and sharing now in His Passion. This is incredibly sanctifying; I don’t know how else to describe it. So although I don’t talk much about my illness, it’s not out of secrecy or pride or sensitivity, but only because I am keeping the Lord on the cross as close to my heart as I can. And He will get me through. It has frankly become as much a spiritual experience as a mental one.

    So, I want to take this opportunity to share with you, since we haven’t really talked about it much. I have discussed it on several occasions with some friends, and they are wonderfully and appropriately sympathetic and helpful. They are more than relatives; they are good friends. I will talk more about it with my other siblings when we have a family reunion this summer. My children are completely on the same page with me already, but for them it is too painful to talk about much.

    This illness is the oddest feeling of being somehow detached and experiencing a slow metamorphosis from being one person into another; not dramatic, but disconnected, and yet still able to pray, read, do email, recognize others (although my short term memory and my malapropisms have gotten worse over the last week). But at the same time it’s oddly not depressing. (I went through the depressing stage last year.) In fact, I woke up this morning with Finn having crawled up and curled into my left arm, and at the same time I had the most intense longing for heaven, which made me very happy.

    The neurologist told me some time ago that there is a small percentage of AD victims who in some way consciously ‘know’, all the way through, what is happening to them, and he thinks I am one of them. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or not, but I do think it’s a blessing that I can share with others the various stages of this illness as long as possible. That sharing is helpful to me, and perhaps for others if they see that there is a spiritual way to ‘do’ something that is otherwise so awful.

    As you know, Alzheimer’s is a long and slow process, for which reason it’s called ‘the long goodbye’. But I read Patty Davis’ fine book about her father, President Reagan, ‘The Long Goodbye’, and she said that he remained cheerful, happy and polite as a three year old, right to the end. And I also know about the Alzheimer’s of some great and holy Elders of our time, who were able to serve Liturgy and say the Jesus Prayer right to the end, even when they no longer recognized anyone else. So Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to be grueling and ugly, the way it is so often portrayed. I think that the perceived ‘terribleness’ of this disease is at least in part a reflection of our incredibly morally and spiritually bankrupt culture.

    With drugs and medical help, and very good care from Mother Theadelphi, I have had three years of relatively slow deterioration, and I think that ‘slowness’ will continue yet for some years. Right now is a different phase, though. I am very blessed to be in monastic life and here with Mother and the Fathers and Brothers just down the road, who also stay in contact and are very affectionately supportive. I feel safe and well cared for. There are many in my condition who cannot say that. Mother is a good friend, caretaker, intellectual and spiritual companion, but you and Tim will have to help her to harden her heart as time goes on and my symptoms become worse. I have already spoken to her about this, too. She is very tender-hearted and quietly suffers over my illness, although she’s no drama-queen about it, as you can well believe. That’s not her style. She only quietly says, ‘I don’t like it’, and that, coming from her, actually says a great deal.

    From a purely spiritual standpoint I want to share with you the insight I believe God gave me from the time of my diagnosis. My greatest and overriding sin—indeed, even vice—has always been pride. Pride of mind, of ‘knowing better’ and judging others inappropriately, sometimes thinking of them as being less than I am. This is a most grievous sin, and one that many people don’t even recognize in themselves, but it is the one sin that will, above all, consign us to hell if we don’t overcome it! It was the sin of Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve.

    I understand fully how I got this way. I have throughout my life been inordinately proud of my mind, my intellect, my ability to think clearly about difficult and complicated things, to speak and write well, understand, process, and explain difficult things, etc. Growing up, I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t attractive to the ladies, I couldn’t dance, I was an intellectual bookworm and loner, I had no other skill than my brain, and I used it and developed it as far as I possibly could, although actually I wasn’t particularly academically brilliant, as all of that just seemed like some kind of superficial ‘game’ to me. But that was my path in life. And although I have put these gifts to the service of Christ and the Church, as best I could, the pride has still been there.

    Now the Lord has offered me a chance to mortify and humble down that pride, by accepting without complaint the slow crumbling of my mind. And I do accept this, with my whole heart, even if with the occasional tear, as a gift from Him for my salvation. So it sometimes ‘feels’ as though this dying of various parts of my mind is also a dying of self, a dying of ego, a dying to pride. And isn’t that the purpose of spiritual life, after all, anyway? The Lord looked down and saw that I wasn’t going to do it any other way, and so, because He loves me very much (unworthy as I am) and wants me to be with Him forever, He offered me this incredible opportunity to die to self. I see this as a great, if sometimes painful, blessing!

    Well, these are my few thoughts about it. Never hesitate to ask me how I’m doing. I will tell you honestly. But never feel sorry for me, or pity, as I do not for myself, but rather rejoice for me that I am on a sure path to the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe this with all my heart. —Fr A”

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The sweet voice of one becoming a saint. It is such a witness. I am well and generally healthy. But I have entered the latter years of my life – where health issues are largely about aging. Such a witness as this rings so deeply true – and quiet trust and an acceptance of the goodness of God and that He is working all of these things for our salvation. It is such a profound witness because it is just the sort of thing that people seem to fear the most. It is the voice of a good martyr.

    Thank you for sharing.

    BTW, it was “George” with infarct dementia. And yes, it was on this blog. Thank you for remembering.

  78. Dino Avatar

    I very much appreciated the comment you shared… thank you.
    The Elder Aimilianos came to mind after reading it, who has not been able to even talk at all -due to his (similar) illness- and has been virtually bed-bound for almost 18 years now! And, though he was a ‘truly hesychastic’ abbot, a man of holy silence who had beheld God’s glory, he was also someone recognised throughout the Orthodox world for having been blessed with an outstanding talent for ‘homilies‘ (Ormylia & Simonopetra monasteries have thousands of inspired sermons recorded)…
    His witness and patience have added more to his positive example.
    The only visible communication he has had with the outside world in the last couple of years is that he is seen by his carers shedding tears when Holy Communion is administered to him.

  79. 'lex Avatar

    I’ve read the name of Aimilianos from Simonopetra here in the past few days – repeatedly even, I think from you. Rang a little bell.
    Couple of weeks ago, my spiritual father gave my family a couple of books at gifts. I didn’t have the time and right mind to start reading any of it, because I am preparing for an exam/mothering 8 month old twins/being sick with a cold at the moment, all of us.
    One of these books consists in homilies on Psalms and is written by Arh. Emilianos Simonopetritul. I think it can only be the same person.
    I am deeply sorry to hear about his condition : ( and seeing that you recommend his writings a lot, will make time to read his works.
    I don’t even know what to say.. I pray God is with him every single moment and sustains, supports and blesses him in every way with the best gifts.

  80. Dino Avatar

    He has never ever come across as anything other than rejoicing…

  81. Karen Avatar

    Father, your comment of the nature of the Cross–Christ’s becoming sin for us–and the subsequent discussion of the suffering of some contemporary Saints-in-the-becoming made me want to affirm again the profound sweetness of the suffering (even our own, and even when it is anguish) that effectively cuts us loose from our sin! It also brought to mind a recent homily by one of my Priests where he was observing that in the Orthodox Icon of Christ in His crucifixion, we do not see Christ bloodied and wincing in anguish as in Western Iconography and statuary (and Hollywood drama!), but profoundly peaceful and composed (my observation: humble in His Victory and victorious in His humiliation)–only the Mother of God and the Apostle John, witnesses at the foot of the Cross, show their pain and sorrow in the Icon. Christ’s entering into our Sin seems to me to be the same thing as His destruction of it, and this is why the Cross for us is no longer a symbol of cruelty and death, but of salvation and life.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Indeed. Joyful sorrow.

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