Let’s Get Physical

feedpoorIf you go to the self-help section of a bookstore, any bookstore, you see row upon row of books, all promising another method to change or fix how you think, feel or imagine. It is as though we were certain that our lives would be great if only we could think feel or imagine better than we do now. Even Orthodox titles can hold a certain promise: Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives (says a book on the teachings of the Elder Thaddeus). But all of this can easily be misleading. For first and foremost – we are our bodies.

We have a very strange relationship with our bodies. On the one hand, we spend large sums of money making them look good and we want them to feel good. Americans spend more money on health care (on average) than any people on earth. We eat like royalty (or overeat like royalty) and indulge sexual appetites in a manner probably unknown at any prior time. But for all that, we think that we are our minds. We have bodies, but we are our minds.

I saw a quote recently, falsely attributed to CS Lewis that said:

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

In truth, you are a body and you are a soul. What is difficult, if we understood, is the separation of the two. That separation is not natural (it’s called “death”). It is also incorrect to identify the mind with the body. Most of what we popularly mean when we say “mind,” is nothing other than the “sound” of the body. Emotions and desires are very much things “of the body.”

Orthodox Christianity is deeply physical, almost embarrassingly so in our modern culture. We enter the Church and immediately begin crossing ourselves, bowing and kissing. Before a word is spoken in the service, it is very likely that the priest or deacon is already walking about swinging incense. And the words themselves are sung rather than spoken, which gives language more of a physical than mental form.

What is going on?

Human beings are not angels. The Tradition refers to angels as the “Holy Bodiless Ones.” This rather non-angelic title (it sounds like the title of a sacred horror film) is a reminder that the Tradition thinks that the most remarkable thing about angelic beings is that they have no bodies – they are “pure intellect.” But, by the same token, the Tradition rightly understands that human beings are the “Ones with Bodies.” We are dirt. Before we are anything – we are dirt. We are dirt that God formed and we are dirt into which “God breathed.” But we are dirt. St. Gregory of Nyssa famously said, “Man is dirt that God has commanded to become a god.” But we are still dirt. And if we fail to remember this we fail to be truly human.

Christ’s approach to His disciples seems to have started with the most practical, physical aspects of faith: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and come and follow me.” And He said this before He said anything else to them.

Christ did not say to His disciples, “Come follow me, and in time you will be able to give more of your stuff to the poor…” There is no gradualism in His approach. He begins with a command that is quite physical: you do it or you don’t. He said nothing to them about how they should feel about it.

He commands His disciples to give their stuff away. He does not tell the disciples to first love the poor or forgive them. That command comes later – but His initial approach is quite practical and physical. For the Rich Young Ruler who eagerly wanted to know what more he could do for his salvation, this very non-mental action was too much. He turned away from Christ.

But as we turn towards Christ, it is important that we turn our bodies. The rite of Baptism in the Church is dominated by physicality. It begins with the candidate facing West (the place of darkness – with no slight of the West intended). There are exorcisms and renunciations of the devil culminating in that most physical gesture – spitting! The candidate then turns to the East (for Christ is called the “Orient from on High”) and unites himself to Christ. He is then commanded to “bow down and worship Him!” And a prostration is made.

It must be noted that the point of Baptism is made in a most physical manner – we are immersed beneath the waters – physically plunged into the death and resurrection of Christ! Prayer is equally physical. Orientation and posture (standing, kneeling, etc.) are considered essential in the fathers, as is the making of prostrations. Evagrius tells us that the “soul will follow the body.” If we would humble the soul, we do so by humbling the body.

The disciples began by giving. They did not wait until they felt like giving – they gave. And they gave radically. If you would follow Christ, then get physical. Give things away – including your money. As you begin to live your faith like a human being (truly physically) you  will begin to see the transformation promised and described in the Scriptures. I remember a quote from Mother Teresa: “If I had not picked up the first child, I would not have picked up 40,000.” She followed the sure human path to the Divine Life.

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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45 responses to “Let’s Get Physical”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful insight, as ever, Father. Thank you! It is difficult for us to remember the interrelationships of our lives. As a society, we more and more compartmentalize our lives and ourselves instead of living in full relationship with ourselves and those around us. Thank you for this timely reminder during a time so associated with “spirit”!

  2. Eric Avatar

    Once more, your words are timely and much appreciated Father Stephen.
    Are you suggesting here that our huge physical indulgence in Western culture is ironically the result of the loss of our sense of the physicality of our being?

  3. Evangelos Avatar

    Wonderful post–thank you, Father!
    Nice to hear that quote is not from Lewis. I thought it dubious the first time I came across it.

  4. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Fasting, prostrations, and posture while praying, etc are the hardest things for me since becoming Orthodox (not quite 2 yrs ago). These physical things always feel forced and uncomfortable, and to me it seems that if the state of my soul were more in love with Christ then my body would follow. In other words, if I were less in love with my self and more in love with God, then my body would perform these gesture with natural ease. For example, the fact that when tragedies or hard times strike my life then all of a sudden my soul becomes more focused on God, and my life becomes more Christ centered, and then all of a sudden fasting, prostrations, etc, come quite naturally. But you seem to be telling me that to heal my soul, first I must heal the body aspect of myself, where honestly In my personal experience it seems I need the healing of the soul first, and then my body will follow.

    So, as an Orthodox Christian I try to prostrate and keep a posture while praying, and attempt to fast, though I fail at these things over and over again, feeling as though if I had a more saintly love for God and a little more humble, repentant soul, then these things would not be so hard to do. However, I must admit that at least trying to accomplish these physical things have kept my mind on God way, way more than when I were Protestant. So, I guess I can say that to me both seem true; the body leads the soul, and the soul leads the body.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We have the habits of a life-time and find new things to be difficult. Children do this well. Our bodies have become used to being “led” by the soul, but it’s not really the soul, it’s pretty much the passions. But we do what we can and should not berate ourselves.

    Sometimes I just make a prostration and stay there for a while until my soul catches up. Do more than one seems to distract me too much. But kneeling and putting my face to the floor – and staying there is quite effective.

    Our souls are badly in need of healing.

  6. Dean Avatar

    Many years ago, even before becoming Orthodox, I was impressed by the physical aspect I saw to worship in the Revelation to St. John. There we discover censing, prostrations, singing, crying out with loud voices
    to God, tears, smoke from the glory of God, voices, peals of thunder around the throne…the list could continue. It’s no mere mental assent there.
    A monk friend of mine reposed recently in the Lord. The body was in the middle of the church, and the bier was no more than 10″ above the floor. Even little toddlers were able to come and give the final kiss to the hieromonk. During the service little ones were seated round about the body. A very poignant picture of the physical way in which Orthodox (at least monastics) say farewell to their loved ones.

  7. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Sorry if I gave the impression I was berating myself. That wasn’t my intention. I was just using an honest reflection about myself to bring up a point. A biblical example may help me to make my point better though. Without denying the truth that our souls follow our bodies, I also wanted to bring up the point that we can also engage in physical ascetic practices in a very empty way that does not bear good fruit. And these ascetic feats are empty because the person doing them has a soul empty of Christ. Ascetic practices enable us to become unified with Christ, but unity with Christ enable our ascetic practices. If we lack love for God because of the measure of our own sinful self-love, then our ascetical practices are hollow -“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone,” Luke 11:42; “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me,” Matt. 15:8. That’s all I was trying to get at.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I think it always has to work both ways. Our cultural bent, I think, is to start always with the mind. It’s personally a very difficult thing for me, if for no other reason than that I have ADHD, and my mind is a racetrack most of the time. I find peace in just touching something, or handling something (the Jesus Prayer works so much better for me with a rope). In my parish, interestingly, a number of us who serve in the altar have ADHD. The ability to move around and do things during the liturgy is probably a life-saver for all of us! When I stand in the liturgy as a non-celebrant in the Nave, I fidget terribly and have an awful time of it – enough to sympathize with any three-year-old boy. It’s a little cross to bear. But it’s mine.

  9. Michelle Avatar

    I totally agree. I spent a fair amount of my Christian journey completely unaware of the physical, ascetical aspect of faith. Faith was just an exhausting mental exercise. I’m glad to be past that part of my journey 🙂

  10. Adam Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen. I really enjoy your blog and have been reading your posts for the last 2 years. I did not realize that you have ADHD, and I’m guessing you don’t take medication based off of your comments. As someone who struggles with ADHD himself and is interested in becoming Orthodox, I was wondering whether or not the Church is for, against, or indifferent to taking such types of medications?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s nothing wrong with taking medication. However, my heart condition precludes it. So I happily endure the noise and distraction. There are other ways in which it is a gift.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I knew one person with a dramatically heightened sense of awareness and connections who was classified as ADHD-adult. After trying various medications and not liking the result he concluded that he was simply better than the rest of us and that what we labeled as ADHD was simply a higher state of consciousness, awareness and intelligence. He was an aircraft engineer and he claimed he could do more work in a day than his colleagues could do in a month. He had a little problem with humility but I do wonder if it is really a disorder or just a different way of thinking and perceiving.

    My wife also has the diagnosis. It is a bit like living in a pinball machine at times but this linear, slow-witted guy has mostly learned to adapt. The meds she has taken work for a few weeks and then tend to become toxic to her system.

  13. Jennie C-Knight Avatar

    Thought provoking and enlightening – and in Christ’s command to give we see a new take on Mathematics – that the more you give away, the more you have left…

  14. Jennie C-Knight Avatar

    PS Re: comment above: I am referring to your latest blog about the body…

  15. Euphrosynos Avatar

    That quote, Father, can be found in the novel Canticle for Leibowitz–though I’m not sure if that is the first instance.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I saw it recently attributed to George MacDonald, which would predate the Canticle. It’s the kind of quote that I would expect to come up in lots of places in that it sounds so right (but not).

  17. Rick Avatar

    “But, by the same token, the Tradition rightly understands that human beings are the “Ones with Bodies.” We are dirt. Before we are anything – we are dirt.”

    “One’s with bodies” seems to indicate that we are first beings (souls) before we are given bodies. Or that our bodies are at least “added” to our being. And nonetheless united afterward, though incomplete prior to becoming human beings as such.
    This seems to follow too as Christ was at the foundation, yet only incarnate ages afterward. We are in His image, and so forth.
    Otherwise, how do we reconcile these other knowns if the Lewis/MacDonald quote is not true?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Soul and body come into existence at the same moment in human lives. We are not in Christ’s image according to pre-existence.

  19. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    A technical comment: I printed off one of your recent blog posts and found that the “Store, Radio, Blogs” heading was across the top of each page and occasionally replaced some of the text from a comment. The problem could be at my end but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  20. EnochElijah Avatar

    A whomping amen Father. Few people preach this straightforward message of the gospel. I hear the word tithe, but in the Newer Testament there is no 10%, we owe Him and the poor 100%. May God grant you many years.

  21. Rick Avatar

    Father, thank you.
    Maybe I’m confused when you say “first we were dirt”. I understand the creation of man reference. And that in other posts you express the unfortunate tendency of our culture to devalue the body after death (I concur). And this post it seems we should perhaps assign equally infinite value to the body and soul (if so, also concur). But what do you mean when you say “dirt” which seems to devalue the body?

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The dust of the earth from which we were made. I thought about using “dust” but it seems so antiseptic that it didn’t seem to carry the force of the word “dirt.” Some places will say “mud” or “clay.” It’s all the same. We are of the earth. Breathed from heaven.

  23. Karen Avatar

    RE: ADHD, fish oil can help (and is also good for the heart).

  24. jacksson Avatar

    Hello Father,
    In reading the comment by Rick and your response, I was reminded of your statement in “The Invisible Shame.”

    “It would seem strange that shame surrounds the true self. Surely, we imagine, the true self would be a shining reality that we would long to embrace. But this is not the case. The nakedness of the true self reveals its nothingness. It is but dust whose essence is the nothingness from which all creation was brought forth. When perceived in the Light, the fragility and ephemeral character of its existence is revealed. We behold it in shame, realizing that it shimmers for but a moment and is gone. “All flesh is as grass.”

    If we think of ourselves as “nothing”, then the body has no intrinsic value; being only grass or dirt, our value is only found “IN” Christ (Matt 10:32). It is a matter of perspective.

    As Dean commented regarding the recently reposed hieromonk, a few weeks ago I was confessing to him and today he is in the process of returning his body to dust in the grave awaiting the resurrection. When he was in his final days, he called up a dear friend, a priest who was dying of cancer and prayed the service for the release of the soul; the priest friend reposed the next day. Then, a mutual friend of both priests, a certain Metropolitan arrived at the monastery to visit the hieromonk and prayed the same prayer, release of the soul; the hieromonk reposed two days later. We are here today and gone tomorrow, how can we attribute any value to the dust that we are made of unless we are in Christ and He in us?

    Being an approximately twenty year convert to the Orthodox church, I appreciate the matter of fact way that we live and die; at least the way we are supposed to live and die. The hieromonk, in his homilies, would always tell us that we can only count on one point in time and that is now; the past is past and the future (tomorrow or whenever God wills) is the grave. We need to keep ‘close accounts’ with God and remember that we are dust.

  25. jacksson Avatar

    Something that I picked up today from Dynamis:

    ““We love our flesh exceedingly and with it everything carnal, material, and earthly,” Saint John of Kronstadt reminds us (My Life in Christ, p. 234). According to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, this means “putting entirely away from us habits of wickedness” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, p. 484). “

  26. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I suspect you could do a whole post called “We are Dirt”. I say this because the “worm” theology still lays heavy on many, despite how hard we’ve all worked to demonstrate our utter freedom. The dirt reference could (most likely is) taken the wrong way. The way I take in light of the recent posts and comments is something like this:

    We take ourselves way too seriously. We are constantly taught to play the role of God, managing everything in our lives – and in the world around us as much as we are allowed to. We are daily told that this life is all about us and whatever we want.

    To be told we are dirt – in the very best sense – is to be reminded that while we are His children and will live with Him in eternity, we are also mere, limited, mortal, broken creatures whose only true freedom is to choose to serve Him and stop being a slave to sin/death/devil.

    We think too much of ourselves. To stay aware of the fact that we are but dirt without Him is a great tool in the cause of humility. It allows our swollen ego to dwindle in size long enough for us to see the needs of our neighbor. It is a devaluing of ourselves only because we tend to overvalue ourselves, to inflate our currency in order to play the role of God. If we humble ourselves (we are much closer to dirt than we usually believe) then He will exalt us.

    But again I think a whole article on this would be quite edifying.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I tried the fish oil, but it made me real slippery and I smelled funny. 🙂

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the suggestion. It’s a very useful sort of feedback. I’m working on what is becoming a massive article, much longer than I would have intended, but necessary. It’s more on the Modernity question, perhaps even a final (sic) word for the time being. Prayers would be appreciated. Writing long things is particularly difficult for me.

  29. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    My prayers are with you.

    P.S. I believe the fish oil is supposed to be taken internally, not applied externally. Just a thought.

  30. Christopher Avatar

    “I believe the fish oil is supposed to be taken internally, not applied externally. Just a thought.”

    Drum roll please/// THAT’S NOT WHAT JONAH DID!!! //// bow to the left, bow to the right….

  31. Drewster2000 Avatar


  32. Karen Avatar

    Father, did you try Carlson’s lemon-mint (or orange) flavored liquid? Very pure, pleasant taste, and no fishy burps afterwards. Maybe you’d smell better, too. Can’t help the slippery part! 🙂

  33. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Father, can you clarify the meaning of prostrations? They are in my mind a posture first of all of submission. Yet you recently argued that submission is not the Christian way of drawing near to God. What then am I “saying” when I put my face to the ground, and how is this different from submission?

  34. Dino Avatar

    there’s submission and submission. There’s bowing of muslim (or other) overtones, and bowing in the knowledge and gratefulness that we have been called to union with the Uncreated One (who calls us His beloved sons and daughters). Prostrations have always been a frequently practised and talked of part of Orthodox Christian ‘culture’ (they’re even resplendent in Scripture) and they were ‘stolen’ by Islam -chiefly from the Orthodox- (whereas Protestantism forgot all about them and now finds them ‘peculiar’, or reminiscent of Islam!)… God help us.

  35. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Thanks, Dino. It seems that “submission” is one of those knife-edge words in Scripture that can be so easy to “get wrong.” For me it has always been a joyful word carrying the Orthodox sense that you describe. I grew up singing and (for the most part believing) that “there’s no other way/to be happy in Jesus/but to trust and obey.” But I know that for some (women, especially) submission is a very negative word.

    Perhaps it is a casualty of our modern democratization that we have no intuitive sense of what is proper submission within a hierarchical order. And so the very idea of submission becomes difficult to express without stirring up all the wrong concepts along with it.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have always thought of prostrations as “adoration,” rather than “submission.” Submission, particularly as “obedience,” is never something we do against our will. It would be contrary to God’s express character for Him to force us to do anything. Obedience that is not a gift of self-empyting adoration is not obedience and is of no use to God.

    If submission in the forced or coerced sense were of any value, God would have forced us long ago. Love has no compulsion.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Obedience to God in the Church leads to adoration and freedom. If it does not, then it is not obedience.

    Prostrations are also penitential. But that is also a form of adoration.

  38. Andreas B. Avatar
    Andreas B.

    Father Stephen

    First of all, I want to thank you for the work you´re doing on this blog. I´m an inquirer in to the Orthodox faith and this blog is very enlightening and has drawn me closer to the Church.

    This post touches somewhat on some questions that I have wrestled with a lot, questions concerning the nature of giving and charity. You write that giving is in some ways the beginning of a genuine spiritual life and, in earlier posts, that almsgiving is a part of repentance. In the (Swedish) Protestant environment I grew up in the focus of giving and charity is to improve the life of the poor and has had almost nothing to do with an inner, spiritual transformation in trying to live a life in imitation of Christ (which, if I have understood it correctly, is the primary concern of the Orthodox). Charity is understood as a duty and there is often a utilitarian language associated with it (e.g. “How do we help as many as possible?”) and the focus is almost always the material well-being of the poor. There is sometimes a tendency to help people far away rather than neighbors as such, the orphanage in Africa takes precedence over the drug users in the hometown. I have many problems with this mentality but at the same time it is difficult to abandon it so I tend to think in terms of various “legal criteria”.

    Does the Orthodox teach anything about how and in which circumstances one should give and which relation this has to giving as a spiritual discipline? Is it right to give to people who might misuse it? Is it right to give to people when you suspect that manipulation or even criminality maybe involved? Is it better to help people close to home or those who might need it the most wherever they are? Is giving to organizations that work with, for example, specific health issues also giving? Which place has the material wellbeing of the poor in almsgiving? I guess it is the ethics around charity and how it relates to almsgiving as a spiritual discipline that I find challenging and difficult to understand.

    Please pray for me

    Best wishes
    Andreas B.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is no centralized teaching on the topic, but your analysis is quite on target. The “poor you will always have with you,” Christ says (Matt. 26:11). And they are certainly a proper responsibility for us all. We are indeed our brother’s keeper and our lives are part of one another.

    Nevertheless, the practice of almsgiving (generosity – particularly to the poor) is not a social scheme or utility. It is a fundamental necessity of the spiritual life. Were there no poor whatsoever, there would be the need to practice generosity, even radical generosity on some level. It is of note that the Germanic peoples (with whom I’m lumping the Swedes) have taken all of this in hand in their typical practical manner. The social net in those countries is excellent, and Church members are taxed in order to support the Church. The job gets done, and yet the fundamental spiritual state addressed by generosity is left untouched.

    We should and must care for the poor, but we must practice generosity (even radically so). These moral questions always present difficulties. A primary difficulty from an Orthodox perspective is that morality is not the point. Transformation is the point. We do not give as a moral duty, we give because we have received. We give because God gives (radically and generously). We give because it is our joy. We give for the same reason that we pray – it unites us with God.

    What another person does with what they have been given is another question. God causes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust. We cannot withhold our giving just because someone abuses it. Many times those who practice generosity want to use their gifts as rewards and punishments in order to produce a desired result. God doesn’t do this. But we want to be more moral than God (and we judge Him as well).

    The heart of the Fathers in this matter is that we should give like God gives. If we meditate on that maxim, the answers to these questions become clear.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have found truth in what Father says concerning not worrying about what others do with the gift. Part of the giving is giving up control. Giving with no strings. No conditions. It is freeing. I tried it the other way for a long time–I ended up giving in a pinched fashion if at all. Such ‘giving’ constricted my heart. I was becoming like the Grinch.

    I have also found it appropriate to pay close attention to the people who are near at hand, not some disembodied ‘poor’. Jesus in His gifts is intimate and deeply personal. It seems to me that our giving should mirror His in that too.

    Lazarus ignored the beggar at his door.

  41. Talya Avatar

    I have not been brought up in the Orthodox tradition, so I am struggling with some physical aspects of Orthodoxy, particularly kissing a priest’s hand. I understand the symbolism behind this act, but it is still difficult for me to accept the physical manifestation. Any word of wisdom would be much appreciated. Thank you.

  42. Michael D. Avatar
    Michael D.

    Dear Talya,

    Take this for what it is worth (admittedly not much) but I wanted to mention that in the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox church where I grew up, kissing the priest’s hand was not something that anyone really did. Only the bishop got his hand kissed. I have moved away and attend an Antiochian church where I’ve noticed at least some people kiss the priest’s hand. But I am still not in the habit and don’t really think to do so, though sometimes I do think of it when our church is closed and I’m attentively on my “best behavior” visiting the church across town where everyone seems to. But my lack of attention to this custom has never given anyone any offense, as far as I can tell.

    I am certainly not trying to belittle the fact that this might be something you are struggling with, but in case it would ease your mind to hear that there is at least some cultural variation regarding this practice, I wanted to mention that fact.

    Kind regards from Massachusetts.

  43. Talya Avatar


    Thanks! Everyone seems to be doing it in a church which I started to attend recently, so it is helpful to learn that there are cultural variations regarding this practice. I want to show respect to the priest and his office, but I am just not comfortable kissing his hand (I am still learning about Orthodoxy and not an Orthodox yet).

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not universal.

  45. Andreas B. Avatar
    Andreas B.


    Thank you, I think I understand more.

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