St. Mary of Egypt and Moral Progress

st_mary_egypt_armThe suggestion has been made several times recently that my criticism of moral progress is not supported by the example of the saints. Surely, it is said, the transformations we read about in the lives of the saints are clear examples of moral progress. A noted such example, perhaps the greatest story of repentance and asceticism known in the Church, is that of St. Mary of Egypt. It is worth looking carefully at her life (for which we have a canonical narrative) and consider what it is, exactly, that we are seeing. She is, indeed, a proper example of the transformation of the Christian life – one that is extended to the entire Church on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent. But I will again suggest that moral progress is largely a modern notion (it is certainly rife with Modern assumptions), driven by modern psychological and therapeutic models. And although moral progress would seem to be a correct way (for some) to describe the Church’s theology of synergy (that we cooperate in our salvation), it is  in fact a distortion of that teaching and a distraction from the true transformation that is ours in Christ. St. Mary provides excellent material for all of this.

St. Mary’s story relates her sudden conversion from drunkard and harlot to desert dweller.

The first thing we notice in St. Mary’s repentance is its suddenness. She had “worked” her way from Alexandria to Jerusalem by “corrupting” young men among the pilgrimage group. Everything was like a lark to her, until she couldn’t enter the Church of the Resurrection in order to venerate the Holy Cross.

The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I ad at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.

Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God.

And there she prayed and offered her repentance. She made the promise:

Be my faithful witness before thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’

And she was as good as her word. Praying again after leaving the Church she heard a voice say, “Cross the Jordan and you will find glorious rest.”

She then managed to buy three loaves of bread. She washed in the Jordan, made her communion the next day at the Monastery of St. John on the banks of the Jordan, and then entered the desert.

And there she struggled:

“Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish which of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much. for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once. But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.

And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience, and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”

Her repentance came in a sudden manner. God alone could have known that preventing her entrance into the Church would provoke such a reaction. God alone could have known that within this drunken harlot was hidden the greatest of desert Mothers.

The long struggle in the desert – she described 17 years (out of 47) during which she “struggled with wild beasts, desires and passions.” Obviously, the struggle was engaged through prayer. Her fasting was beyond comprehension. And she describes simply lying on the ground for days at a time, weeping and beating her breast. But then: “a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me.”

And of the 30 years after this great struggle she affirms: “I always had her [the Mother of God] as my Helper and Accepter of my repentance…even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”

There is a moral struggle; she battles the passions (with such ferocity!). But she describes her victory in terms of pure gift: a calm and sweet light. In all things she credits her victory to the help of the Mother of God. And she maintains the same testimony for the 30 years subsequent to her struggles. The fasting and the prayers continued.

But for all of that victory, she still recognizes her weakness. When the Priest Zosimas questions her about her life she says: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”

Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling. She becomes a vessel of grace in the manner described by St. Paul:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)

It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as “progress,” but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way down is the way up.” The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of “getting better and better.” It is a work of becoming “lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.

Because of the metaphors and images that dominate our culture, we quickly assume that change (for the good) is an improvement. But included within the progressive metaphor is an assumption of stability and a self-contained quality of goodness (improvement). Thus, if I buy a piece of property and make “improvements,” it is no longer the same. The streets and sewers that have been installed are now part of the property. In human terms, we presume that “progress” gained in the battle with the passions results in an improved self, a self that is less a prisoner to those same passions.

The human life is a dynamic relationship. We are not streets and sewers and electrical gridwork. What is “acquired” by grace in the work of repentance is a different dynamic, one in which our life is centered in the life of God. Repentance is never a one-time event – it is a mode of existence.

The modern laboratory of experience that is the Recovery Movement (AA and the like), provides interesting contemporary examples of this same principle. No recovered alcoholic ever says that he is no longer an alcoholic. He will say that he is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.” For he knows that the life of repentance that is described in the 12 steps, is a life that, once ended, will quickly return him not to a new beginning, to a state of non-alcoholism. He quickly returns to where he stopped and will in a short time drink as though he had never known a day of sobriety. St. Mary of Egypt did well to fear all the “dangers” that she overcame. They have not disappeared.

Our “progress” is a road into the life of God – one that is better described as repentance, the word by which we were first invited to the journey.

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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121 responses to “St. Mary of Egypt and Moral Progress”

  1. stella Avatar

    God bless you dear you are doing great job God keep hand on your all work

  2. Byron Avatar

    I am so hoping all this and more depth and insight will be in your upcoming book. Thank you, Father!

  3. Byron G. Curtis Avatar
    Byron G. Curtis

    Well said, Fr. Stephen. It is all of grace.

  4. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have recently been reflecting on what is meant by being “born again” as in Jesus discussion with Nicodemus (not as a reference to evangelical Protestantism). Similarly, I have been considering what it means to be “begotten by God”, as in 1 John, and whether these are references to the same thing.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I sense that this relates to distinction you are drawing between the transformative action of God that makes us a new creation and the “moral progress” that we imagine is brought about by our own efforts.

    It would help me if you could explain these concepts more – if you think it relevant. Thank you.

  5. Mark Bentley Avatar
    Mark Bentley

    I think you are doing an excellent job on this topic. Our righteousness comes from life in the Spirit, which is giving us both the ability to will and to do. The answer to Fr. Alexander Schmemmann’s imponderable question of why an increase in church “Piety” should ever be responsible for a “Decrease” in the participation of the Eucharist is touched on here. Our relationship with morality in time is not cumalitive. As long as the old man lives in us, his desire will remain in us as well. There is no cure for the old man, there is only death.

  6. David Avatar

    You keep several things in place quite well–

    The fact of our participation in the spiritual life through obedience to the commandments,

    Our inability to purify ourselves of our weaknesses,

    God’s gracious intervention through Christ in the Spirit, making his power “perfect in weakness” in response to our humble endeavor to be obedient.

  7. Dino Avatar

    St Dositheus of Gaza, who had spent his youth in worldly pursuits and gross ignorance of spiritual matters, yet after whose death St Dorotheus (his mentor) declared that he had surpassed the other veteran monks in virtue without the practice of any extraordinary austerity and in an extremely short time, is another -different sort of- example of a “man becoming centred in Christ, a new creature: old things passed away; all things having become new in him through repentant obedience” (2 Cor 5 -17).
    Dorotheus understood the difficulty of extreme swings of fervor but was careful to instill in him the necessity of perfect renunciation of his own will in all things great and small.
    Dositheus, (through Dorotheus’ guidance which led gently him to total renunciation with such tact and sensitivity as to be virtually imperceptible), went from eating six pounds of bread daily to eight ounces in a short time. This saintly pupil through constant and unreserved denial of his own will, and a perfect submission to his Spiritual Father, surpassed in virtue the greatest fasters of the huge monastery he had entered. All his actions seemed to have nothing of choice, nothing of his own will in any circumstances; the will of God alone reigned in his heart.
    At the end of five years he was entrusted with the care of the sick, an office he discharged with incomparable vigilance, charity, and sweetness. The sick were comforted by the very sight of him. Dositheus himself became sick with a lung disease but continued to the end to deny his own will and was extremely vigilant to prevent any of its suggestions taking place in his heart, unlike most of us who when sick think we should be allowed everything.
    The saints’ lives are full of this transformation that signifies exactly what this article explains: the humble way down, an increase in humble awareness of our weakness, an awareness of the need to “hate” our old self as our greatest enemy, is the glorious transformation, the ‘way up’, bestowing an ability to retain God’s all powerful grace within us, making us into an unrecognizable –to those who knew us before- being of light, re-centred on Christ and hating any falling back onto self-centredness. Calling it ‘self-improvement’ is a gross missing of the point.
    Tradition holds that St Peter would actually weep every time he heard the rooster’s sound for his entire life, yet that is key to why he retained his astonishing stability, which he couldn’t retain when being aware of his own ‘strength’ and fervour amongst the other disciples just before Christ’s betrayal. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirms, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sinfulness.” … “the one who is conscious of his sinfulness is greater than the one who profits the world by the sight of his countenance. The one who sighs over his soul for but one hour is greater than the one who raises the dead by his prayer while dwelling among human beings. The one who is deemed worthy to see himself is greater than the one who is deemed worthy to see the angels.”

  8. John Carter Avatar
    John Carter

    I like this distinction. I was trying to articulate this a few weeks ago in terms of needing to drive a wedge between our ideas of linear progress and timeless birth into the Kingdom. This is better.

  9. Mark Avatar

    Perhaps the AA reference is not the most apt. Statistically, it is either a completely ineffective form of treatment or possibly slightly worse than just not going at all.

  10. LI Avatar


    I was wondering how you were doing, long time no see. I was very used to reading your comments, just wanted to say “hi”. 🙂


    I find it important that God could start healing Saint Mary only after she “felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed” (btw, there’s a typo in the quote – puched). While we’re thinking moral progress possible we are still “pushing”. May God help us run out of strength before we run out of time.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Grace is not a science nor is AA a technique to be measured statistically. Prior to AA there was very little success of any sort, with the exception of a powerful religious experience, a spiritual awakening, as Bill W described. What AA represents is an effort to take that “experience, strength and hope” to other suffering alcoholics. It’s great that clinical scientists now set up programs (usually very expensive) and alternatives to AA. When AA began there was nothing, except very sad options. But it has plenty of success for those who work the program. “Completely ineffective or slightly worse” is simply not true.

    I dare say that some observers say about the same thing of the Church.

  12. Karen Avatar

    Mark, I’d be curious where you are coming up with this information re: AA statistics. I’ve heard many addicts credit their sobriety to AA. A relative who is codependent and mentally ill was the mentally healthiest she had ever been since her first mental illness crisis in young adulthood, when she was faithfully attending Al Anon and working the program. It is predicated on faithfulness to the program; however, just as transformation into the image of Christ is predicated (as this post shows) on day by day and moment by moment realization of our absolute dependence upon God and throwing ourselves on God’s mercy.

    For every Christian who recognizes their dependence upon God and places genuine faith in Christ, there are thousands of professors of Christian faith who are merely occasionally showing up at church, or who tried “faith” and left because it didn’t “work” for them. Should we evaluate the truthfulness/effectiveness of Christian faith by the latter cases, or by the Saints who are “faithful to the program”?

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good to hear from you (and thanks for the card as well). I think your observation is spot on (as the Brits say). I would add that we must think of being Born Again (and begotten of God) not as a singular moment, but a birth into a new mode of existence, in which we now have the source of our self and our being from God in a continual manner, and not in just another self-contained – “ok, God, I can take it from here.”

    Being born again is like walking on water (maybe precisely like it).

  14. Karen Avatar

    Father, LOL! “Great minds think alike!”

  15. Karen Avatar

    Father and Mark, Re: statistical studies comparing non-profit, non-medical, non-pharmaceutical models with their conventional medical “therapeutic” alternatives, I have to confess a very profound skepticism. If you wonder why that may be, I invite you to watch The Burzynski Movie (I believe it can be found on Youtube). I suspect we would find that is merely the tip of the iceberg and only one example of what is a regular pattern in the industry and its alliance with U.S. government. I also invite you to look up a PBS “60 Minutes” documentary from 1984 entitled “Crisis at General Hospital” documenting the transformation of conventional medical institutions in this country from being based on a non-profit service model to a conventional business model with only 3 or 4 gigantic parent corporations at the top owning everything. I’ll remind you of 1 Timothy 6:10 and then you can allow the implications of all that to settle in . . .

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark, et al
    I volunteer each week in a treatment facility and I know what I see.

  17. David Avatar

    “Do not straightway attempt extreme discipline; above all things beware of confidence in yourself, lest you fall from a height of discipline through want of training. It is better to advance a little at a time. Withdraw then by degrees from the pleasures of life, gradually destroying all your wonted habits, lest you bring on yourself a crowd of temptations by irritating all your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin to wage war against another, and in this manner you will in good time get the better of all.” [Saint Basil the Great]
    While I continue to love how you excoriate the of Modern philosophies of ‘progress’ and all its attendant errors…it seems clear the Fathers were willing to grant a certain sort of Spiritual progress via the Holy Spirit per our theosis, you seem for some reason reticent to grant?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll readily grant that advice like that of St. Basil is not uncommon. But what I think we see in such instances is not the most closely analyzed presentation of the matter. One of the reasons I have pounded on the moralist approach (common in Modernity) is simply because it doesn’t work. It is inadequate.

    The paradigm borrowed by the Fathers greatly predates the Christian faith (the analysis of the passions, etc.). It was able to be borrowed because it is generally pretty accurate in describe a certain aspect of our lives. It is possible, however, to remain simply a stoic or a Platonist in pursuing theosis. Our modern moralists aren’t even that good.

    This model had to be constantly re-examined. It surfaced in the Pelagian controversy – and St. Augustine was not quite up to the problem – too much theory not enough experience. In the East it finds something of its greatest refinement in St. Maximus. Though St. Basil is a great theologian, etc., he never was a spiritual giant in the model of a holy elder. He was not a St. Mary of Egypt. He was not one of the great desert masters. His advice should be seen for what it is but not for what it is not.

    The fathers are not an infallible source. They have to be read for what they are.

    The only spiritual progress that seems possible to grant is as I have described it here – a growth in self-emptying and an increasing openness to the treasure within (the Spirit). Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

    The problem, as described, is the notion that we have improved in a manner that becomes ours to keep – a sort of static possession, a victory gained in a battle that would never need to be fought again. And in this life there is no such thing. Nor would St. Basil say that there is.

    The victory over one passion, is not a moral improvement, it is a learning how to yield to God. Become a faithful steward in a small thing and in time He will make you a steward over much.

    I am only refusing to grant what God has not given.

    You can become a saint or a moral mediocrity. There’s not really a middle ground.

  19. Andrew Avatar

    I can say that I see 10’s of people every week who have been “sober” for years because of participation in a 12 step program. More importantly though are all the people who are truly experiencing “recovery.” They are receiving healing from the spiritual disease that manifests itself in the addictive behavior. There is a well worn “cliche” heard in the rooms of AA. “It works if you work it.” This is why “success” in AA can not be measured scientifically. Millions of people come in to the rooms. They may even stay for years, but never “work it.” I agree with Fr. Stephen that it would be like trying to measure the efficacy of prayer or the Church. I’m sure there are studies proving the ill effects of religion on humans. God help us!

  20. Andrew Avatar

    Somehow I missed Karen’s comment above. Forgive my redundancy. Thank you Karen for that well written explanation. I have very personal experience that agrees with you.

  21. J. Avatar

    Thank you for your work on this. It’s so hard to let go of my belief that I can fix myself. I think that’s about pride, and also about shame.

    Thank you, also, for your assessment of 12 Step groups. I agree that statistics are not the best way to measure their success.

  22. Dino Avatar

    The problem, as described, is the notion that we have improved in a manner that becomes ours to keep – a sort of static possession, a victory gained in a battle that would never need to be fought again. And in this life there is no such thing. Nor would St. Basil say that there is.

    This is exactly why a Saint is truly free – because he is, ironically, in constant jeopardy of falling, no matter how high he has reached. All that is needed is a little pride.

  23. Bruce Avatar

    Father bless!!!

    Father Stephen’s comment along with the amplification from Dino regarding the dangers of treating our ‘progress’ as a static possession reminds me of an important truth heard often in AA rooms. I find amazing convergence and symmetry between my Orthodox faith and my participation in AA.

    Page 85 AA Big Book regarding step 10 – “It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will.

    Much has already been said about receiving strength, inspiration, and direction from Him who has all knowledge and power. If we have carefully followed directions, we have begun to sense the flow of His Spirit into us. To some extent we have become God-conscious. We have begun to develop this vital sixth sense. But we must go further and that means more action.”

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bruce and Andrew,
    And I would describe the work that goes on inside someone in recovery, as this “gratuituous goodness” (grace) that is simply inexplicable. If it were self-produced it could be explained and measured. But it’s not.

    It is easy in the rooms of AA to be put off by its “ecumenical” character (nothing is more ecumenical that the church of addiction)! But the common faith is that of the unmanageable life. “I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.” And I think of the goodness of God, “who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” It is His extreme humility that pours out His goodness in such an indiscriminate manner – saving anyone who even slightly seems willing to allow that to happen.

    Orthodoxy is the fullness of life in God – and proclaims this fullness of the “good God who loves mankind.”

  25. Dino Avatar

    The elder Aimilianos, more or less affirms a different angle of this by explaining the following (loosely) in a talk on the Transfiguration: The Transfiguration of the Lord was no coincidence. It was a revelation of the new reality which entered human life and history when Christ was born, or rather, since he was conceived in the heart of the All Holy Virgin, probably when she was still in the Holy of Holies. This Reality – utterly inconceivable by any philosopher or theologian, nor any other human mind – revealed during the Transfiguration what had already entered the world; the revelation of the divine-human hypostasis of Christ, the blending of the two natures in His person. Unquestionably, the Lord did not change at all, how could He? What He already was, was merely (partially) revealed to the disciples. But since then we know both what Christ is and what man is. His disciples did not only see Divinity but human nature also, Christ was transfigured as man. And this obviously already exists inside of each of us, my transfiguration therefore is not a progress to some unknown destination; we have seen ‘it’ already –it has been revealed on Tabor – and the degree of its unearthing is dependant on my self (what I tend to consider as self in my falleness) – renouncement.

  26. Dino Avatar

    Concerning the gratitude with which he perceives the mere longing for self-renouncement acting in us, he later has this to say:

    When we desire martyrdom, that’s when we find Christ. Instead, desiring Christ, we merely find this mortal life. This is the big mistake we make. Instead of loving martyrdom, desiring blood like Ignatius the God-bearer, we love Christ. Of course, this is our great loss because this is but a dream of a pleasure-seeking soul, not of a wholesome soul abounding with harmony. It is but a yearning that reveals spiritual anaemia, weakness, self-absorption. The mentally disabled, the proud, say that “they love Christ”, because it does not cost them anything. Saying that they love Christ and believe in him, they put themselves in the position of those who suppose rights, entitlements and crowns for themselves. They manage the affirmation of their lives while living miserably. But the truth is that those who love martyrdom, those are the ones who find Christ and love Christ.

  27. Dino Avatar

    And this already-existent perfection in us – revealed in proportion to our renunciation and re-orientation- is a simple vigilant awareness. We do not progress anywhere other than in more awareness in proportion to our grateful awareness and vigilance:

    The spiritual life is not about eventually obtaining something I haven’t got… It is discovering what I have already now; vivifying within me something I have already received from God. This is our wretched lifelessness: that what God has already granted us is not alive for us, we feel nothing. God has done His work, completed His mission fully, brought it to an end, did everything. He has fulfilled our life, there is nothing else that could fit in it. However, we still live lacking this fullness of God. And this is why we say that the spiritual life is an opening of our eyes. We need open our eyes and see: God has given us His very own self.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is that “eschatological” reality of salvation mentioned a few articles back.

  29. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    Hello, Father

    I have an observation and a question. First, before reading the comments where you address it, I was thinking here that, to some degree, this story and really the thesis against moral progress aligns with a much more Augustinian or Lutheran-like vision than some may grant – that God’s grace in our theosis (when removed from the legal construals of the early modern period wherein grace and effort, supernature and nature, meet halfway) brings about repentance rather than through our own efforts. Yet I am not certain this line against moral progress discounts Cassian’s synergism. Like you said, perhaps Augustine just overworked it.

    Second, reading a lot of these antique accounts, Western and Eastern, makes me as a modern uncomfortable to say the least. How are we as Christians to take such “extreme” stories today? I mean, Thomas More (who was himself a quite conflicted early modernist in these matters, having loved the Carthusians but at the same time able to integrate holiness in his life as a family man) wore hair shirts, and Mary, well, starved herself and denied herself basic human pleasures and militated against the songs of her former life – which, certainly, by any Christian moral standard was wrong. Yet in itself she was quite hard on the swing in other direction – kind of like Jerome out of hand throwing away Cicero for love of Christ. For example, I really love jazz and swing music myself. Now, today, that might seem old fashioned and stodgy, but, at the time, it seemed (and was, to be honest) quite ribald.

    So…is, to be blunt, is our modern life and music not conducive to the life of saints? When does joyful living in God’s good creation become “worldly” or “sensual”? To be sure, reading many of the saintly accounts make them seem a bit inhuman and downcast people – like the Puritans condemning dancing, instrumental music, and card games. Of course, I know there are exceptions, and Basil did not reject the Classics, and, to throw in a Westerner, Aquinas certainly did not starve.

    I’m certain many have heard this question before, but, in the light of the past, I cannot help but wonder whether what seems to be our greater moderation in these matters, “enlightened” view, if you will, of the proper role of good, human pleasure is simple chronological snobbery, as Lewis might say. Is there something worldly about good food, good friends, and good pleasure in our created nature, in which we created and will be raised?

    Thank you.

  30. Dino Avatar

    Dante Aligheri,
    I think that the answer to that question varies on the person’s receptivity of it and there is nothing wrong with that. Milk is the best thing for an infant and solids for a grown up… Mixing it the other way round is counterproductive for both…
    The quote from Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra above

    When we desire martyrdom, that’s when we find Christ. Instead, desiring Christ, we merely find this mortal life. This is the big mistake we make. Instead of loving martyrdom, desiring blood like Ignatius the God-bearer, we ‘love’ Christ. Yet this is our great loss because this is but the dream of a pleasure-seeking soul, not of a wholesome soul… It is but a yearning that reveals spiritual anaemia, weakness, self-absorption. The mentally disabled, the proud, say “they love Christ”, because it does not cost them anything. Saying that they love Christ and believe in him, they put themselves in the position of those who suppose rights, entitlements and crowns for themselves. They manage the affirmation of their lives while living miserably. But the truth is that those who love martyrdom, those are the ones who find Christ and love Christ.

    is certainly ‘solids’ and answers the question as “solids to grown ups” not as milk to infants. He himself would say sometimes ‘harsher’ sounding words in his general homilies (e.g. a monk “only eats what he finds no pleasure in eating or else he might as well go and become a debauched dweller of the City streets”) and then a few minutes later, speaking to someone personally, shower them with treats, sweets etc (saying “all that matters my beloved child is that you live in thankfulness…)
    It would make people wonder out: “what?!?!”

  31. Karen Avatar

    Your last comment to Danti, Dino, about Elder Amelianos, reminds me of the attitude of the Apostle Paul, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” from 1 Corinthians 9:22. The Elder was certainly carrying on this Apostolic tradition.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I could not help thinking of a conversation with Stanley Hauerwas. He was joking about Episcopalians (he is one himself, now) and their invoking of the Incarnation. Many Episcopalians at the time were describing their Church as having an “incarnational theology.” Hauerwas said, “When Episcopalians invoke the Incarnation, you get the idea that the Word became flesh, looked around and said, ‘Hey, this is nice!’

    Of course the stories of the earlier centuries occur during a time where death was a constant presence, life-expectancy low, the standard of living minimal except for a very few. A major aspect of modernity has been the rapid rise to prosperity for a large percentage of people (in some parts of the world).

    I read a critique recently by a Russian economist (a bit of an odd bird) in which he described us as suffering from “Mammonism.” It is worth noting and thinking about Christ’s rather frequent warnings concerning Mammon. Statistically in the US, the poorer you are, the larger percentage of your money you are more likely to share. I think that one of the highest per capita levels of giving is in the state of Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union. The dynamic of the widow’s mite is alive and well.

    The fathers write about the two poles of pleasure and pain (hedone odyne) and the primary role they play in the bondage to the passions. To the simple “good food, good friends, good pleasure in our created nature,” should be added all of the passions in which they entrap us – along with the downward spiral of insipid, banal mediocrity.

    Imagine refusing to enter the Kingdom of God over a good port, a good cigar, and stimulating conversation with friends about nothing whatsoever. The problem of the mediocrity of our existence is its dual properties of anesthesia and amnesia. We are perishing.

    The very character of Orthodoxy is an ascetical form of Christianity. As such, it is inherently non-Modern. It has, thus far, steadfastly refused to accommodate itself to a comfortable existence. I think of the very sobering words of St. James, the brother of our Lord:

    Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you. Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.(Jam 5:1-8)

    The Lord is coming sooner for some than for others.

  33. Panayiota Avatar

    Dino, how I wish I would weep everytime I betrayed my Lord…

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of all of the thoughts that come to my mind reading St. Mary’s story–moral progress is not one of them. Just the opposite.

    As to AA: Just ask all of the people helped by the St. Dimitri Project in Romania if it is ineffective. My Godfather is a recovering alcoholic–he runs the program. Look it up, it is part of the OCCM.

    Part of the problem of modern therapeutic models is the unwarranted assumption of 100% effectiveness and their foundation in false anthropology.

  35. Dino Avatar

    indeed. If ti wasn’t for the “anesthesia and amnesia” (as Father just described it perfectly) that plagues our distracted hearts, we would be constantly weeping out of pure gratitude for God’s boundless and unwarranted mercies constantly poured out to us despite our unreservedness…

    His unfailing mercy will pursue me all the days of my life (Psalm 22/23 : 6)

  36. Roman glass Avatar
    Roman glass

    Repentance is not a one time event but a mode of existence. I like it. I recently listened to a lecture by Fr. John Behr, where he spoke essentially on the same subject. He said how we commonly look at the genesis narrative, when God formed man from the dust, as a progressive or chronological event. Where in light of the Gospel it is in reverse. In order to become a living soul man must first become dust. Behr goes on to say that everybody has one thing in common and that is that we will all die and that it is only God who will rise us up again. Thus we should live our life not clinging to life but rather to death as Christ himself said. Our existence is gift which means that by its very essence it is nothing. A void waiting to be filled by Gods grace.

  37. Jacob Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I enjoyed your book and your comments here. I’m not the blog follower like others. Have a day off and trying to read up on some things. I don’t have much free time to do so.

    Prior to my new time consuming truck driving career of the past 6 months, I worked away from home in the oilfield, but had lots of downtime to read. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything. I’ve still barely to scratch the surface of the writings of the Church Fathers.

    If I may, I’d like to ask you to put the writings of Clement of Alexandria into light of this topic, specifically his “Instructor” and “Stromata.”

    As the editor writes in his introduction: “The Instructor is addressed to those who have been rescued from the darkness and pollutions of heathenism, and is an exhibition of Christian morals and manners…”

    I found the Instructor hard to read as it no longer seems to be the attitude of the Church. For example, as a new convert, I am amazed at the immodest dress I encounter from some cradle Orthodox who wear miniskirts and show their cleavage at church. I admit I expected much more modesty among Orthodox than I encountered. Not that most aren’t modest.

    His discussion of food makes one wonder if he would overturn the banquet tables at many an Orthodox feast if he were alive.

    It’s not my intent to condemn those wearing the immodest apparel to liturgy, but to point out how different today’s Orthodoxy compares to that of Clement, who was head of the Catechetical school in Alexandria, which was the heart of the Church at that time, if I read correctly.

    I enjoyed the Stromata. It seems less moralistic and more in line with where you are speaking of. Yet, his Insructor and Stromata are good examples to address in this topic of morality and theosis.

    By chance do you know of anyone who has already written something addressing this with the teachings of Clement and modern Orthodoxy?

    I think a blog conversation doesn’t do it justice, but would you care to comment on Clement’s Instructor in light of this topic please sir?

    Thank you.

  38. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I often have similar questions as Dante. Often I am amazed at the beauty of nature and my surrounding environment. I find great pleasure in sitting outdoors an observing the beauty of the trees, and flowers, and even the quaint yards and lovely homes in our neighborhood. But would I refuse to enter the Kingdom of God for the sake of feeling the cool breeze while watching the sun slowly set over this beautiful landscape I just described? How do I know when my appreciation and pleasure in the beauty of my surroundings cross the line and become an object of greedy desire? I imagine God created the world so beautifully so that we can take some pleasure in this amazing gift He gave us.

    I also think of food the same way. Didn’t God created peppermint so that we can enjoy the pleasure of a hot peppermint tea on a cozy winters night, or lemons so that we can sit out on our porches in the beauty of summer and enjoy a cold lemon-aid drink with wonder and appreciation of such a gift from Him? Im sure any Christian gifted with culinary artistic skills would agree that God created the pleasurable taste of food as a gift to us. So how do we distinguish the fine line between pleasure from appreciation and pleasure from lustful greed?

  39. Alan Avatar

    Father, your comment from today at 8:17 AM is one of the most helpful comments I’ve ever read on your blog. It resonated (challenged) with me on so many levels.

    Thank you!!

  40. Alan Avatar

    Sorry……I also meant to say thank you to Dino as well for the quote you posted from 2:16 AM today. It’s pure gold!! Thanks.

  41. Jacob Avatar

    I was browsing thru Clements volume and came across something. First let me ask you to address Michelle’s question just posted about enjoying the flavors of life and eating. He point falls perfectly into what I was asking of Clement’s Instructor which sounds to be against enjoying the varying tastes of food.

    Then, I actually came back to post about this before I read Michelle’s excellent question.

    In his Stromata Book VI, Chapter IX, Clement states what I think you are stating. Is this in line with what you are speaking of?

    As time permits, please comment on Michelle’s question and if you would please expound on Clement’s Instructor regarding this. And then comment on Stromata Book VI Chapter IX please. Thank you.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jacob, Michelle, et al
    First, Clement. Clement should be read contextually. He is early among the Fathers, not yet writing in the controversies of later centuries that force various Fathers to speak very carefully and precisely. So there is much less care and much less precision in his work.

    He speaks in Book 6, 9, of apatheia (passionlessness) in terms of Christ and of the mature Christian (whom he calls a “gnostic” – a “knower” in a good sense). It is more of a theoretical construct than a discussion of practicality. Such a Christian is theoretically possible (and occasionally so), but not always. He was working in the Alexandrian philosophical schools and his moral instructions are very similar to those of the Stoics and others. All philosophers, pagans included, were quite moralistic at the time. He follows in the same path. We can get into trouble if we don’t have enough instruction (becoming moralistic would be problematic).

    We should add, as well, that no one writes about something that is not a problem. Meaning, if a writer addresses modesty, it’s because the lack of modesty is a problem. It was so at that time and it is in our time. Priests who pastor parishes certainly deal with the topic – some more strictly than others – and they have to deal with it in a manner that saves souls. It’s easy to get it wrong – one way or the other.

    I gently encourage modesty – but I do not want to make young women feel unwelcome in Church. It’s hard to get it right. We men are deeply guilty as well -complaining about the immodesty of women while ourselves watching porn. So we do our best to live out repentance in whatever circumstances we are in.

    On Michelle’s question. God obviously created all of these things to be enjoyed. I will use sex as an example (forgive me). It is perhaps one of the greatest pleasures – but we almost never get it right because we are so broken. It is hard not to misuse one another and not let pleasure somehow obscure the person, etc. Somehow the same is true for everything. The peppermint becomes about my pleasure of the peppermint and forgets the peppermint. My love of beauty easily gets perverted and broken, etc. These things (pleasures) are certainly created for joy – but it is our brokenness that makes us abuse those joys.

    My fasting and abstinence, my chastity and obedience, my self-emptying and self-denial, also cooperate in my healing in such a way that the true joy and pleasure of the world can be known. But we too often want the quick rather ersatz pleasure of our brokenness because it’s quick and easy.

    I play music. I started piano lessons when I was 5 years old. There was a lot of tedium and boredom, playing simplistic songs and learning scales. At age 13 I began to learn a little jazz theory and blues theory and slowly became a “sideman” as its called. I was playing in a band in a bar when I got married in college. It was one of my most favorite things to do – I often miss it. And it’s hard to describe the shear pleasure of improvisation in the context of a blues or jazz band. It’s a form of playing beyond rationality, almost an ecstatic expression.

    And none of that would have been possible without the boredom of practice and scales, etc. The ascesis of my childhood gives me the capacity for a pleasure that most will never know. All of that, of course, is purely true in a worldly sense.

    But ascesis in a spiritual sense has the same relationship to true joy. “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” Christ told His disciples. The joy of that food is beyond anything we can imagine. It’s sweetness is only “shadowed” in the sweetness of honey. It’s strength is only “shadowed” in the substance of bread and meat. And as for our thirst, “If you had known to whom you were speaking, you would have asked water from Him…and you would never thirst again.”

    Lastly, Jacob,
    The introduction in your edition of Clement is actually pretty incorrect. As I noted, the “heathen,” especially those studying philosophy, were very moral. There were certainly issues that the Church had to address – the life of the unborn (and the newborn), sexual practices in some cases, etc. But Clement is also “proving” in his teaching that Christians are not immoral – something we had been accused of because we rejected the State religion and were accused of cannibalism, etc.

    Reading the Fathers is good, but it often raises more questions than it answers – and we often don’t even know what questions we should ask.

    Good secondary sources are important. Books like Pelikan’s historical stuff, for example. The “free” stuff on the internet are often in the public domain, meaning they are out of copyright, meaning they were quite possibly published in the 19th or early 20th century. The text might be good, but the commentary can be misleading or just wrong.

  43. Dino Avatar

    This, in a way, is the epitome of the Fall: that the very same Creation which would innately make our hearts (which were focused on God prior to the fall) gratefully rise up to Him and cry out to the Lord:
    “Thine own of Thine own I offer Thee and thank Thee for!”
    now becomes a veil that obscures Him, it suddenly has the power to stir our (now) self-preoccupied pleasure-seeking, and make us protest and complain:
    “I cannot even see You God, let alone feel and touch You! but I can certainly see, hear and touch and taste this object of my overpowering desire – why do you ask me to resist it! It is so much more experiential than You!”
    And the more we give in to our desire, whether it’s peppermint or porn, the more ammunition our adversary obtains. Yes, because this protest and complaint is the devil’s Trojan-horse-like missile, it conceals the agenda behind it to slander God – to make of us willing accusers of Him…
    If we only contemplated Who is our true, eternal and only Friend, and how our very own self is far more of our enemy, even than the cunning slanderer/Diabolos of God; then we would gladly and wisely and joyfully embrace the aforementioned self-renunciation in many more aspects of our lives. And we would come to realise our undeserved-ness of His continual forgiveness of such complete self-centredness we wallow in.

  44. LI Avatar


    I heard a young man once asking an elder what should he do if he walks through the city and sees many young attractive women with short skirts and bare legs, should he look down all the time?
    The elder said, no, child, if you look down all the time you’ll walk into a lamp post. Look to where you should be walking, and if your eyes fall on women/legs say to yourself, oh, Lord, if these people/body parts that You created are so beautiful and attractive, how much more so should You be!

  45. Michelle Avatar

    The reason I chose to throw the beauty of nature in there with the taste of food in my inquiry to Father Stephen is because I think its easier for people to believe about themselves that they are not abusing the gift of nature when they gain pleasure from observing it. It is much easier for people to understand that they abuse sex, and even food, though, because the negative experiences associated with “over-consumption” of these things manifest themselves more obviously (though I think food is tricky too, especially for those of us coming from protestant backgrounds that completely lack asceticism. Sex is easier to grasp because most Protestant Churches still speak pretty prudishly about it). Over indulgence of the pleasure created within us from experiencing the beauty of nature, on the other hand, festers dark spots within our souls in an almost completely hidden way. We imagine ourselves to be saying, as Dino noted, “Thine own of Thine own I offer Thee and thank Thee for,” that is until we here of St. Anthony’s self-inflicted banishment into a dark cave for 20 yrs (or more? I don’t remember). Then, at the thought of such a harsh deprivation, our complaints come out, as Dino also noted, “why do You [God] ask me to resist it!” Our personal offense to the suggestion reveals a love for the beauty of nature that surpasses our love and trust for our Heavenly Father.

    But this is why I asked the question; because it is so hard for us to discern within ourselves whether or not the pleasure we are experiencing is good or bad; from God or from the devil. And I would say that the apparent beneficial, and grateful sentiments towards God that the beauty of nature stirs within our bosom is also why we cannot clearly discern the dangers that such pleasure can also impress upon our souls. And the entreaty to give up this pleasure altogether (as St. Anthony did in the cave for 20 or so yrs) is rejected by us, first and fore most, because of our lustful desire to experience the beauty of nature that we’ve grown dependent upon for arousing sensual pleasure, but also partly because we feel that to give it up is to also give up something that truly did create good, grateful sentiments within us towards the Creator of such sublime beauty. So, more to the point, I would ask are we to give up the pleasure gained by the beauty of nature altogether and retreat to dark caves, just as an alcoholic must give up altogether, 100%, with no exceptions, the relaxing, warming feelings that a glass of wine harmlessly brings for fear of once again abusing the gift of good wine?

  46. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, LI. Very good anecdote!

  47. Michelle Avatar

    I would like to expand on my statement here:

    So, more to the point, I would ask are we to give up the pleasure gained by the beauty of nature altogether and retreat to dark caves, [GIVING UP ALSO WHAT SEEMED A BENEFICIAL EXPERIENCE FOR THE SOUL ALONG WITH IT], just as an alcoholic must give up altogether, 100%, with no exceptions, the relaxing, warming feelings that a glass of wine brings for fear of once again abusing the gift of good wine?

  48. Dino Avatar

    as Saint Porphyrios was fond of saying, better not fight with what enslaves you directly, but turn your attention to what liberates you instead. If you do this, by not considering any ‘beauty’ as prohibited, it is easy -almost effortless- to let the distraction and enticement of it behind, while simultaneously fanning the flames of desire for our grateful ascesis as an expression of our desire for the true Giver of Beauty.
    There is also a time and a place for everything.
    Nature’s beauty is of great help when the soul needs a rest from its intense focus on pure prayer and self-renouncing ascesis; but complete darkness and quiet -as in St Anthony’s example- is certainly the most conducive ambience for pure prayer. The one marvellously helps the other though over the course of a balanced day’s schedule.

  49. Karen Avatar

    Dino, or as Fr. Sophrony (Sakarov) counseled: “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”

    Personally, I find I sometimes start to creep toward the abyss (actually, I know nothing of it), but can usually be found just drinking tea! I do take encouragement from Fr. Stephen where he writes:

    No act of kindness is ever too small. No generosity of spirit is ever insignificant. No harsh word not spoken is a minor act of restraint. No effort of forgiveness is without value.

    My hope is if I remind myself of this often enough, it will begin to sink in and I’ll find myself actually doing it more often.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In the Garden, Eve sees that the fruit is good for food, is pleasant to look at, able to make one wise, and she eats. But she has seen the fruit as an end in itself. God had not given it. It could only be had in separation from God. It was the first secular object.

    The beauty and pleasantness of God’s creation are a gift to us – and they are rightly enjoyed as communion with God. What we lose in the “darkness of the cave” is things as ends in themselves. And the whole of that is the life of the Church – all of it – feast and fast. I’m not ready to stand too long in the cave (at the abyss). I need my tea (as do we all).

    But things had in communion are so much sweeter. The only wine I drink in my life at this time is the Lord’s cup. Every other vintage pales by comparison. All the wine on earth longs to be in that Cup. All lips long to be my lips (and those of every believer). A favorite poem:

    The Agony (by George Herbert)

    Philosophers have measured mountains,
    Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
    Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
    But there are two vast, spacious things,
    The which to measure it doth more behove:
    Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

    Who would know Sin, let him repair
    Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
    A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
    His skin, his garments, bloody be.
    Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
    To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

    Who knows not Love, let him assay,
    And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
    Did set again abroach; then let him say
    If ever he did taste the like.
    Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
    Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

  51. Andrew Avatar

    Among lives of saints, St. Mary of Egypt is one of the most powerful, because it is a retelling in every way extreme, in no way ordinary. Sign me up for that kind of Christianity.

    I am in spiritual crisis although it is not an affliction by passions but more by the lack of inertia, of zeal for God, of the poetic drive to get up and say “rejoice in the day which the Lord hath made”. Not two months in, I am already getting less able to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in the Roman Catholic parish I am exploring. I feel that the Roman Church, especially in America, has greatly mitigated its ethos and especially the range of language it uses towards a Protestant direction, towards the familiar and informal and mundane (which is exactly reflected in the current day Mass). People in catechism class (well, it isn’t even called that now) twiddling on their smartphones, not wanting to pronounce the name “Diadochos of Photiki” in the course, not wanting to touch mysticism or even the higher theology with a ten-foot pole. My soul is closer to the Christian East, I think, but any way you cut it, I ultimately have to assent to the whole dogma including bodily resurrection on the Last Day, which is what is meant by orthodoxy. Curses that I have a workaholic intellect, and expect integrity from people more than humor.

  52. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    My favorite story from the Desert Fathers is the one about Elder Arsenios (I think?). When he was old, every year the brothers would bring him various fruits and he would taste the smallest morsel of each one and give thanks to God. It seems the years of ascetic deprivation cultivated in him the ability to live without such pleasant tastes, and also the ability to give thanks. Maybe it truly takes so many years of effort to find the capacity for both.

  53. AR Avatar

    Michelle, can I just come out and say, NO! That would be silly and even fanatical.

    And I reject, on your behalf, Dino’s implication that your love of nature “enslaves” you. His invoking of our dear Porphyrios on that point is rich.

    Love of nature is a natural movement toward natural things. It is part of what allows us to go on existing in this world, sane and healthy. In fact, if there were no modern cities it would simply be a love of reality. If you find the trick, it can also contribute to growth in grace.

    When the time comes for that movement of your soul toward the beauty of nature to shrivel and give way to its archetype, like Fr. Stephen’s enjoyment of wine, you will be ready unless you cling to this world.

    For the innocent, I believe that the path of renunciation most often is experienced as a ripening toward glory. When the fruit is near ripening, the leaves and stalk become desiccated. What the monastics do is the same thing, only sped up. Miraculously. Because they have a gift, a calling.

    I think we should watch out for the implication that everyone is either a monastic or a failed monastic.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “a ripening toward glory.”

    Sometimes the beauty of language is the sweetest thing of all.

  55. Dino Avatar

    you misunderstood me – or rather the Elder Aimilianos to be precise. whose teaching I was describing. It is no different to what Fr Stephen just said:

    “In the Garden, Eve sees that the fruit is good for food, is pleasant to look at, able to make one wise, and she eats. But she has seen the fruit as an end in itself. God had not given it. It could only be had in separation from God. It was the first secular object.”

    It (this teaching) becomes clear as day when one truly tries to retain a pure mind in heart in God…
    There is nothing new in it, it is hesychasm, its pedagogical application -granted- rehires care, which is why it was said that

    “There is also a time and a place for everything.
    Nature’s beauty is of great help when the soul needs a rest from its intense focus on pure prayer and self-renouncing ascesis; but complete darkness and quiet -as in St Anthony’s example- is certainly the most conducive ambience for pure prayer. The one marvellously helps the other though over the course of a balanced day’s schedule.”

    Maybe you missed those comments?

  56. Dino Avatar

    St Silouan in “Adam’s lament” demonstrates how fervent repentance and how natural renouncement of ‘the world’ becomes to the soul that really loves Christ.

    ‘My soul wearies for the Lord, and I seek Him in tears.

    ‘And my spirit strains to God, and there is naught on earth can make me glad,
    ‘Nor can my soul take comfort in any thing, but longs once more to see the Lord, that her hunger may be appeased.
    ‘I cannot forget Him for a single moment, and my soul languishes after Him,
    ‘The desert cannot pleasure me; nor the high mountains, nor meadow nor forest, nor the singing of birds.
    ‘I have no pleasure in any thing.
    ‘My soul sorrows with a great sorrow:
    ‘I have grieved God.
    ‘And were the Lord to set me down in paradise again,
    there, too, would I sorrow and weep – “O why did I grieve my beloved God?”‘
    … every soul that has known the Lord yearns for Him, and cries:
    ‘Where art Thou, O Lord? Where art Thou, my Light?
    ‘Why hast Thou hidden Thy face from me?
    ‘Long is it since my soul beheld Thee,
    and she wearies after Thee and seeks Thee in tears.
    ‘Where is my Lord?
    ‘Why is it that my soul sees Him not?
    ‘What hinders Him from dwelling in me?’
    This hinders Him: Christ-like humility and love for my enemies art not in me.
    God is love insaturable, love impossible to describe.
    Adam walked the earth, weeping from his heart’s manifold ills, while the thoughts of his mind were on God; And when his body grew faint, and he could no longer shed tears, still his spirit burned with longing for God, For he could not forget paradise and the beauty thereof; But even more was it the power of His love which caused the soul of Adam to reach out towards God.
    But the man who has not known God through the Holy Spirit cannot seek Him with tears, and his soul is ever harrowed by the passions; his mind is on earthly things. Contemplation is not for him, and he cannot come to know Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is made known through the Holy Spirit.
    … ‘I cannot wrench myself from the love of God to speak with you.
    ‘My soul is wounded with love of the Lord and rejoices in His beauty.
    ‘How should I remember the earth?
    ‘Those who live before the Face of the Most High cannot think on earthly things’
    glorify me” ‘

    ‘Now from love of God have I forgotten the earth and all that therein is.
    ‘Forgotten even is the paradise I lost, for I behold the glory of the Lord
    ‘And the glory of the Saints whom the light of God’s countenance maketh radiant as the Lord Himself.’

  57. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I also was interested by your question. You got many good replies but I wanted to add that there are different answers for each desire, for each person. The alcoholic must abstain 100% from alcohol because he has found that he has ZERO ability to not make it the lord of his life.

    Not everyone is an alcoholic; there are people all across the scale. Accordingly their abstinence from it will vary from 100% to zero.

    Where does your peppermint tea fall on that scale? The warning sign is when something starts to pull you away from all that is good in your life – to put it more succinctly, from your communion with God.

    There can be only one Lord in our lives; all else must remain what God made it to be – a simple pleasure in this case. If it’s not satisfied with holding that position in our lives and going no higher, then it needs to leave. If it leaves but then returns with the same greedy disposition, then it needs to leave for good.

    I should add that of course the thing itself is not guilty of greed or any evil motives, but it is our weakness to it that we are referring to.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is very easy to lose the point in asceticism – to somehow abstain from pleasures as though they were creating a problem for us. It very quickly changes to a dislike for beauty or food, etc. that is false and destructive. Asceticism is only ever a means to an end – and the end is Christ and the fullness of existence in Him. I practice abstinence so that I can know true beauty, etc. It is the very love of beauty (philokalia) that is quite right, when it is able to be free from the many distortions we set in its place.

  59. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you. I was trying to find the truth, and I didn’t notice the beauty. Maybe there’s a poem there, somewhere.

  60. AR Avatar

    Dino, I did notice those comments, and many of them did me good, though not, perhaps the good you expected. I’ve said before that I tend to be overly-religious, and my temptations tend to be religious temptations. The warning against “love of Christ” as appetite I was able to use. It reminds me of Oswald Chamber’s phrase which, although he is not by any means an Orthodox father, has stood me in good stead as a guidepost for many years. He said, “I long to be a cup in the Lord’s hand for the quenching of his own royal thirst.” I think that is a positive statement of the truth which Aimilianos expressed negatively.

    I’ve also noticed your encyclopedic knowledge of the fathers, which is an excellent thing. Your presence here, your being, is of more value, but it is an excellent thing. What I don’t understand is why you are talking about “pedagogical application.” In English ‘pedagogy’ means ‘instruction of children.’ Is that what you are doing here?

    I suspect that you’ve mentally systematized all this knowledge you have, but I disagree with the idea that such a thing can be profitably done. For systematization you need propositions which you can really get to the end of, which cannot be falsified under any conditions, and that is a special use of language. Spiritual teaching rarely qualifies as such a usage.

    As for the poem of Silouan – good gracious, how wondrous it is – it clearly needs to be understood as literature before it can be understood spiritually. Like an Oriental painting that collapses events across vast tracts of time and space into a small flat frozen presentation, this poem shows the highlights and lowlights of Adam’s life. We’ve all been with Adam in those moments, I think. I don’t for one moment take this so literally as to believe that Adam never enjoyed nature again after being cast out of the garden. Why, humble acceptance of the joys one is given is part of repentance! It’s just that St. Silouan didn’t select those parts for the point he was trying to make.

    You mentioned a balanced day’s schedule, which is fine, but not really applicable to mothers, who have to be flexible above all else. It’s part of our built-in ascesis, really. We have to take our joys when and where we can get them.

  61. Michelle Avatar

    First, I want to thank everyone for their wonderful responses and insight. It seems all of my responders are in agreement about the place and purpose of the ascetic practice of the Church, as Father Stephen put it so clearly:

    “It is very easy to lose the point in asceticism – to somehow abstain from pleasures as though they were creating a problem for us. It very quickly changes to a dislike for beauty or food, etc. that is false and destructive. Asceticism is only ever a means to an end – and the end is Christ and the fullness of existence in Him. I practice abstinence so that I can know true beauty, etc. It is the very love of beauty (philokalia) that is quite right, when it is able to be free from the many distortions we set in its place.”

    I asked my original question because I know there are a lot of people like me reading this blog looking for guidance, who, coming from a Protestant background, are relatively new to Orthodoxy and its ascetic life. To be quite honest reading the extreme examples of the asceticism of the Saints, such as the highlight of this article, St. Mary of Egypt, can become quite confusing for those of us coming to Orthodoxy as a “foreigner.” This is a excellent blog post that articulates wonderfully what Father Stephen wants to express about modern morality, repentance, and grace, etc., but I personally fear sharing it to my still-Protestant friends and family, because I know they will misunderstand it, and all they will focus on is how un-Christian it is to starve yourself the way that St. Mary of Egypt did. The foreign language of Orthodoxy is sometimes too strong for our culturally Protestant-immersed ears, and when we read an article like this one of Father Stephen’s the only thing we “hear” is that the Saints of old, and apparently Orthodoxy too, hold the view that this created world is something evil and dangerous for our souls, which needs to be utterly rejected and abandoned. I’m sure a lot of readers of the blog here are not trained in Orthodox spirituality, and lack the backdrop of spiritual knowledge required to understand things like self-imposed starvation, and hiding away in dark caves for years on end, etc. So, I asked my question not only for myself (being still quite new to Orthodoxy), but for others too, because I know Father Stephen, and Dino, and many other wonderful commenters, will fill in the blanks, and share with us the invaluable knowledge and spiritual insights we new converts lack. And for this invaluable insight I thank you all 🙂

  62. Michelle Avatar

    I also want to thank you, AR, for jumping in and ” balancing the scales” concerning Dino’s responses. Not that I think Dino has said anything wrong, but just that your “positive” way of expressing the truth helps to understand better Dino’s “negative” way of expressing it.

  63. Dino Avatar

    I lament these “misunderstandings” and the need for constantly having to do full blown clarifications before saying anything to avoid them… (Your understanding is obviously terrifically clear irrespective of background…)
    I am afraid that I did not even stop and think that we might need to clarify such a rudimentary point as is the blessedness of creation. St Maximus does the best job of clearly differentiating what can be a fallen and what can be an unfallen appreciation of it. Besides, I’d be distrustful of any of my own personal supposed ‘insights’ compared to Maximus’ theology.

    AR, I am certainly not relating what I have heard from these holy persons – words that serve as an orientating polar star to all – in order for it to be taken directly personally by overworked mothers or anybody else and rendered into thoughts that push towards dejection. That is exactly why I mentioned the care needed not to mix-up ‘solids’ and ‘milk’

    I explained earlier (Fr Aimilianos’ point), that God’s ‘slanderer’ loves to make us accusers of Him. His hidden agenda in amplifying our enslavements (or the enslavement of those that are that way inclined), can be to evoke comparisons of its tangible, sensual quality with the ‘abstract’ property of the –still inexperienced- soul’s awareness of God in order to make us complain of our predicament when we cannot make the external things we perceive as aids, and they become instead competitors of our contemplation of God.
    But we can also -I have also caught myself in the past- become grumblers of the indigestion of ‘solids’ and ‘milk’ when we confuse the two. There is no need to.
    Saying all that, our adversary is, of course, likewise far more than content with creating mere distraction. Distraction –whether tangible or intangible- is sort of ‘securer’ from his point of view than passions, addictions and sins.

    Nonetheless, a key point (especially on Fr Aimilianos’, St Porphyrios and St Silouan’s word), is that ‘ascesis’, ‘renunciation’, is not forced – not even by ourselves on ourselves – it is joyous, grateful, fervent, effortless even…! It has value when it is free. The classic word for this in Greek is ‘Philotimo’, a favourite of Saint Paisios.

    When Silouan says that the world is left behind by the soul that desires –far more than the soul that contemplates- God, this is clearly felt as a blessed ‘possession’ which tastes of ultimate liberation…

    We perhaps do not see this as lucidly stated in some other saints, yet we can be assured that none of them lose the awareness that an asceticism of abstaining with any ideas of a dislike for beauty or food is false and destructive…

    I distinctly remember that even when a repentant drug-addict (who like the alcoholic example sited in the comments could not ever have a mere drink like the rest of us) was asking for some advise in Simonopetra, the Elder – who wanted and valued his disciples’ freedom, “voluntary-ness”, willingness, and hated the destructive self-oppression of misplaced priorities we sometimes see masquerading as Orthodox ascesis – shockingly asked him to go and take the drugs he so desires to (!), go and sin if he so wishes (!) if he still cannot see that he, himself actually hates it and nobody else is trying to impinge on his choices…! The Elder wanted [as Christ wants] free persons that know that their long-term desire of all desires is God. He wanted “sons” of God even at the very first stages of repentance… He knew full well that slaves and mercenaries won’t go very far, only sons will, and until they knew that all other short-term desires are not what they actually want, (until they had realized that particular ‘wisdom’ which leads to true spiritual freedom), until they started suspecting what that ardent joy and unconquerable freedom was – which made some martyrs physically run to their torture in fervent anticipation-, they had not yet become sons.

  64. albert Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    The first time I heard the story of St Mary of Egypt was at liturgy three years ago. I was a catechumen, with more emphasis on the human part of that term. First of all, I was puzzled that our priest, with a background in psychiatry, whom I have come to know and respect very much, would tell the story in rather graphic detail while small children were seated in front staring up at him. I felt an urge to stand up and leave right then.

    Fortunately I stayed, and stay still– but I keep trying to believe that this is a story, a story, with deep implications for me and the children, rather than a biography with historical accuracy. I have learned. to read some of our Scriptures that way (with help from my priest as well as from your writings), even though I am tempted to fall back into a very confusing time, and maybe even farther back into a non-thinking faith.

    My priest simply smiles in a non-critical way at certain of my questions, and says something like, “Anything is possible with God.” But I keep wondering about the children. Will they spend years, as I did, being angry that they were told something that created haunting images and a kind of despair at not being able, or even wanting, to reconcile those vivid pictures of sin and repentance with the notion, the actual experience, of love. Will they leave church behind, as I did, in the hope of finding God in art or in nature. Or will they be OK, as I am now, even though the path is rough and each one will find the way. (I omitted the question marks because I am only thinking, and maybe thinking there is no easy answer.)

  65. AR Avatar

    Albert, long time no talk. I sympathize with your feelings. I tend to go the other way with them, on fuller reflection, though. If St. Mary’s story is just a story, then it’s just a lesson, something that can be generalized and have rules made from it.

    But if, on the other hand, this account is the doorway into knowing a person – a unique and valorous person of amazing energy and eros and self-abandonment – then there’s no need to generalize out from it and say something stupid like, “Sexually impure women should starve themselves in penance.”

    Does that make sense? The point is to know her. Once in my great need she came to me, when I called on her for help. Where did that reservoir of grace come from if not from her personal struggle with God? That, I think, is the point.

    It’s kind of like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, “I won’t let you go till you bless me.” That doesn’t mean we should all pray that way. It means that a prince with God is among us.

  66. Rebecca Avatar

    A member of my family is diagnosed with OCD and Tourette’s and is especially sensitive to sexually explicit “stuff”, including scenes from movies, billboards, magazines at checkout stands, and individuals acting or speaking without reserve. (Here we have something which can not be avoided in public settings, and how I wish he could rally folks round him to keep him from drinking it in, but except his eyes and ears be stopped, well, it’s not possible.) The Tourette’s makes him very nervous to watch a movie, for instance, because he fears his reaction may jump out of him before he can inhibit it. This meant that he didn’t want to go, for a while, to one of the Harry Potter movies he actually wanted to see–maybe he was waiting to hear a few things and not have to endure so much surprise. He puts lots of energy into the inhibiting or masking of movements and sounds.
    Yet, the story of St. Mary of Egypt has been for him a great solace. She was changed, and she speaks with such love, such hope in God. She knows the way through hell.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Given the stories our children are subjected to all the time, these should not trouble us. We should be equally alarmed, I suppose, to Christ saying, “Cut your hand off.” But, I’ve seen youth (especially young girls) in our culture, react in an extreme manner, internalizing stories in a wrong way. But I think, on reflection, that those who do so are particularly vulnerable to doing this and would likely internalize something else for a similar effect. Most anorexics have never heard of St. Mary of Egypt, nor any of the great ascetics of the faith. The danger lies somewhere else.

    Children need to hear all kind of stories. I’ve seen priests do damage when they only told certain sorts of stories and backed them up with a neurotic pastoral style (it’s called spiritual abuse). But you can get that in a Protestant setting as well. Good spiritual health starts with healthy teachers (and parents).

    I would stress, myself, the utter importance of hearing relentlessly about the love of God.

    Of course, we’re adults here and we need to hear about all of this as well. St. Mary is a wonderful love story, I think. The point of St. Mary’s story – the reason it holds such prominence – is because it is a story of great redemption. The harlot and the drunkard can be saved. I like to include Marmaladov’s speech from Crime and Punishment on the topic as well. It is a vision of Christ speaking at the last judgment (Marmaladov is a hopeless drunk):

    ”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!…and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even…she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!” And he sank down on the bench exhausted and helpless, looking at no one, apparently oblivious of his surroundings and plunged in deep thought. His words had created a certain impression; there was a moment of silence; but soon laughter and oaths were heard again.

  68. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    “In the Garden, Eve sees … the fruit… But she has seen the fruit as an end in itself. God had not given it. … It was the first secular object.”

    This language sweetly brings to a point a theme you’ve fortunately dwelt on for some time. Thank you again and again.

  69. Christopher Avatar

    David posts on Jan 12th:

    “Do not straightway attempt extreme discipline; above all things beware of confidence in yourself, lest you fall from a height of discipline through want of training. It is better to advance a little at a time. Withdraw then by degrees from the pleasures of life, gradually destroying all your wonted habits, lest you bring on yourself a crowd of temptations by irritating all your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin to wage war against another, and in this manner you will in good time get the better of all.” [Saint Basil the Great]

    Father Stephen,

    Your response seems to indicate the path that Saint Basil is describing here (perhaps this is general advice, or perhaps it is a word to a particular person – the source is not cited) is non workable and simply unreal – you put it in the category of “spiritual progress”. Am I reading you correctly?

  70. Christopher Avatar

    Albert says:

    “….I keep wondering about the children. Will they spend years, as I did, being angry that they were told something that created haunting images and a kind of despair at not being able, or even wanting, to reconcile those vivid pictures of sin and repentance with the notion, the actual experience, of love. Will they leave church behind, as I did, in the hope of finding God in art or in nature. Or will they be OK, as I am now, even though the path is rough and each one will find the way.”

    I wonder if someone wants to expound/comment on this, in particular “haunting images and a kind of despair at not being able, or even wanting, to reconcile those vivid pictures of sin and repentance with the notion, the actual experience, of love”. I don’t see how one separates this vivid ‘picture’ of sin and repentance from (L)love? If the ‘path’ was not ‘rough’, would that not indicate it is in the category of the “easy things in life”, that is not worth much? I’m pretty sure I knew this even as a child, even if I then rebelled (as I do now) from it. Are their children who are particularly sensitive who do not know this, thus drawing the wrong lesson from the slightest hard lesson or “vivid” picture of sin, it’s consequences and death?

    Don’t mean to single out you Albert – your comments just got me thinking…

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher, no not at all. First, no context is given. Is it a quote from a letter? A letter to whom? It’s simply a case of cherry picking the Fathers which is pretty useless in a conversation.

  72. albert Avatar

    Father Stephen, I must have hit the wrong tab, and sent an unfinished comment. If that did happen, please delete it. I believe now that I was writing more to clarify my own thoughts than to add something helpful to the discussion. If I can revise more succinctly, I’ll send a better comment. Meanwhile, I wanted to say thanks for the Dostoevsky quotation. I had forgotten that scene.

  73. albert Avatar

    P.S. I am talking about a comment addressed to Christopher, not my original one. Thank you.

  74. Dino Avatar


    I have no answer, but was reminded by your question that Elder Sophrony once said that he lamented the upbringing of increasingly mollycoddled children that are becoming incapable of ascesis -prone to despondency at its mere mention- and are being brought up with the culture of TV, air-conditioning, central heating, daily meat consumption, technological comforts and a general consumer-phronema etc…

    Sorry for the mistake in the earler quote selection from St Silouan’s ‘Adam’s lament’, it should read (near the end where Adam is meant to be responding fromHeaven to Silouan’s own lament):

    ‘Those who live before the Face of the Most High cannot think on earthly things’

    ‘Now from love of God have I forgotten the earth and all that therein is.

    I can’t help noting here that this is what monasticism, considered rightly is. And as the most authentic form of Christian life and the “light” of the Christian soldiers in the world, this is what Christianity (in the world) properly considered is too. There is certainly no implication “that everyone is either a monastic or a failed monastic here”, – this would miss the point that everyone, whether lay or monastics, are equally called to be saints, to love God with all their being and be at one with all others.

  75. Lisa L Walker Avatar
    Lisa L Walker

    Dear Father,

    I am a protestant in seminary. I follow your writings and blog; Anyway, this week my class is on intensive retreat centered around the enneagram. It is apparent that many in my class are broken with open wounds. Now, at the end of our time together, they are all asking the leaders for answers on “how” to fix themselves, to become healthier. I have been troubled throughout the week, because, for me, it is a lot of time spent focused on the Me. Very little focus on God. As they ask for ways to “improve,” all I can think of is how it is not we that do the work, but God and God’s grace. Only through the emptying of ourselves into God, letting go of the “Me” and clinging to God, can we be transformed. That has been my own story. I surely cling to the Lord in my earthly walk. It is the only way to live. When I get distracted by the world and life, and do not focus on God, I do become unhealthy in my inner self. You have put this idea in wonderful wording by giving me the word “repentance.” So, I thank you. Pray that I can communicate such to my fellow classmates. God Bless!

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What a wonderful description. And, of course, your classmates are broken and suffer from open wounds. I suspect that the immediate reaction is, in fact, just shame. Tools like the enneagram are useful in identifying wounds – like a diagnostic tool – but almost clueless on what to do about it. And the road to healing is counter-intuitive. “The way up is the way down,” as Elder Sophrony has taught. And the way down (St. Silouan’s experience of hell) is not some external suffering (that would be relatively easy). It is marked by the increasing revelation of the self that we loathe.

    For most people, the daily project in “the story of me” (I’ve written about this), is trying to coverup or improve the self that they loathe, trying to prove that it’s getting better, that it is not the truth about themselves. That is to say that our daily lives are spent “hiding in the bushes” with Adam and Eve. Anything other than appearing naked before God in the cool of the evening.

    But that nakedness (which is probably the very heart of vulnerability and shame) is a key to our healing. Elder Sophrony taught that in hearing confessions we should, “teach them to bear a little shame.” That does not mean to shame anyone or to force it. That is spiritual abuse. But if someone can voluntarily bear a little of it, and bring it into the light, then true healing can begin.

    I think, frighteningly, of the verse in the Apocalypse:

    And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)

    The “face of the Lamb” is the joy of every believer – to see the Face of God! It is also the primordial experience of being without shame – to see the Lord “face to Face.” The most immediate instinct of shame is to “hide the face.” We cannot even bear to look someone in the face when they are experiencing shame (think of an actor who has forgotten his lines – no one in the theater is able to look at him).

    But in this verse, they all want to hide from the face of the Lamb. All they can see is wrath – it is the fear that accompanies shame. In the litany of supplication which occurs in many services of the Church we hear, “For a Christian ending to our life: painless, unashamed, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.”

    If we will bear just a little shame at a time, in the presence of God, we will discover His comfort and healing. God will do this.

    May he give you grace!

  77. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    A few comments:

    1. Elder Sophrony’s oft repeated phrase of “the way up is the way down” reminds me of something a former pastor used to say, something he gained collectively from the Fathers: “Every good thing is found in the door of its opposite.”

    2. I found myself smiling when I realized that your teaching on confession, the one various people among us have asked you for, is indeed being taught – one little piece at a time, hidden like diamonds in the rough. I’m not saying you’ll never culminate them into one work, but it does make me realize that some things in life are like that: the more we demand it to come all at once, the more it insists on teaching us patience.

    3. The comments above to Lisa about Adam & Eve were pure gold, such an important connection to make. Thank you once again for your ministry to us.

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Just a prayer request to our community of comment. I am working away on “the book.” I’ve written lots already – and recently finished a possible introduction (which is always key for me). But I’m in the stage right now of “organizing.” Yes, I know, organizing is what many people do before they start things…but… I find organizing to be almost completely contrary to my skills – it’s always overwhelming. My brain doesn’t work like that. But it is actually necessary. Thus, I would appreciate your prayers for this stage of my effort. At the moment I am ready to follow St. Mary of Egypt’s path and just lie in the floor until the light comes. 🙂

    My experience tells me that once this task is completed, the rest will be speedily completed. Thanks for your prayers and your patience.

  79. Randy Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and all who have reflected and shared responses to your blogs on this topic. I have benefitted from all of them. Here are some of my musings about this important topic. Forgive the length of these comments – they’re about a month’s worth of summing up 45 years of my struggles to repent and seek God Who alone can save.

    We are not immoral, we are dead. We inherited from Adam – all of us, including the Blessed Theotokos—the wound of mortality, and now, though we exist on planet earth, are in actuality, the “walking dead.” Our wound just hasn’t physically caught up with us yet.
    Corpses have no interest in “progressively improving their state of being.” Corpses never ask each other “Are you doing any better today?” or confess to each other “Man, I really blew it today” (as opposed to how well I did yesterday.) If a corpse has any grasp of his true state, his only concern will be for some one or some thing to remove his death from him, to actually make him alive. And hence Satan who “holds the power of death,” is ready with his abundant smorgasbord of “death defying treats”: often at the top of the list are drugs and alcohol. But in America, shopping, eating, fantasizing, working, texting, web-surfing, fornicating, intellectualizing, moralizing, religious proselytizing, saving-the-planet-izing, NFL season-izing, etc. ad nauseum. (sorry, but “Go Colts!) Because yes, death does make us sick.
    Our magnificent created world, which even now in spite of pollution and natural tragedies such as tsunamis and tornadoes, etc., still shows forth the very footprints and glory of our Creator and God. But in another sense, it is our cemetery, and we all groan because of this Adamic wound of our mortality. Our inner self, our spirit/soul, is born dead, our bodies will sooner or later join us in the grave.
    The beloved apostle St. Paul cries out from his own depths of darkness: “Who will deliver us from this body of death?” Thanks be to God for Christ Who is our Resurrection and our Life. “He who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
    St. Isaac reminds us that this life on earth, in our cemetery, is given to us for repentance, and everything else we do is a vain pursuit. Like trying to “improve” our moral state.
    Thinking that as Christians we are, in essence, called to be moral paragons, and to continually progress toward some ideal of moral perfection, is a thought belonging to dead people who believe doing so will make them alive. Of this sincere but misguided belief, I need to repent daily. Count me as among the deadest of the dead in this regard. Our God made flesh proclaims: “Only God is Good.”
    A dead person attempting to improve his state of being, to be a better person, whether atheist, agnostic, or a sincere and gentle Bible-believing Christian, will inevitably bump up against the “sin which indwells us” which is the bitter fruit of our mortality. It changes nothing central to our deepest need.
    This sin mindset and all our attempts to remedy it will inevitably invite comparisons. It has been rightly said that “all comparisons are odious,” whether comparisons within ourselves (yesterday, or last year’s Lent compared to “how I’m doing in this year’s Fast), or much more insidious, comparisons to “others.”
    Mr. Pharisee was so thankful he wasn’t like all those moral losers around him. His “death-sourced blindness” elicited Christ’s sternest rebukes, because a moral focus can easily blind us from seeing our Savior standing right in front of us. “I didn’t come for those who are righteous . . .”
    This recognition of our deadness is essential in understanding his command: “Do not let your right hand even know what your left hand is doing.” When we give alms or do other good deeds, we are at risk if our reason to do so is our desire to please God by improving our moral state. So if we stop, even for a split second, to reflect on how we have just performed, we will be rewarded: accolades and praise from dead folks.
    I’m reminded of the story of the wise abbot who told his novice to go out to the cemetery and spend the entire day praising and lauding the dead in their graves. The novice did so, and the next day the abbot told him to spend the coming day cursing and condemning those same dead people. Which he faithfully did. When he returned, the abbot asked him how the dead responded to him both days. His response was essentially, it didn’t affect them in any way whatsoever. “Then go and become like them.”
    As an addictions counselor, I am reminded of the blessing I have been given by God to work with folks who, in some dark corner of their slavery to alcohol or drugs, KNOW without a doubt that they are dead, that all of their boot-strapping attempts to stay clean are futile and breed a cynical despair. Of such Jesus said that many of them will enter the Kingdom of God before the religious of the world. Knowing and experiencing that we are utterly dead is the first essential step to look for and desire the empty tomb of our healing.
    But yes, even many of these folks struggle to “be a better person.” Their “confessions” to me as their counselor often include something like this: “I know my addiction has taken over my life, and I feel so terrible that I’ve abandoned my children, I’ve burned all my bridges, and wasted the opportunities I’ve had in life to better myself. . . but I’m really a good person… really, I know I’m a good mom…” “please don’t think bad of me.”
    Obviously, their fellow corpses, i.e. sober family or friends, have blindly judged them to be “bad, immoral, a terrible person, you don’t even care about your kids” and on and on. So because I am kind to them and am willing to listen to them, they feel desperate to convince me (their fellow corpse) that they’re really not all that – morally – bad.
    In that work context, I am not permitted to overtly proclaim Christ as the Resurrection, the only true path to freedom and healing. But as Fr. Stephen has pointed out, God is so humble that He will bring His healing power to any and all who “turn their life and their will over to the care of God as we understand Him” (Step Three). My blessing is to work with and listen to my fellow corpses, and even though by God’s grace I haven’t chosen a “drug of choice” to be my “resurrection,” I have many other things, addictions, from which Christ alone can and does save me if I seek Him with my whole heart.
    My sincere but misguided upbringing in a low-church Protestant denomination strongly formed me to believe that once I come to Christ and accept Him as my Lord and Savior, then I’m to sincerely live the Christian life each day. The blueprint for this new life in Christ is to be found fully and solely in the Bible, the road map to “prove” I am worthy of Christ’s love for me. And my “good works” will show my faith, and demonstrate I’m not “crucifying Christ again” by becoming the most faithful and moral and good person I can ever be… especially compared to all the “enemies of Christ” in our society. I thank God that He has had mercy and begun to open the eyes of my heart to see and desire union with Him as my everything.
    Of course this understanding needs to fully inform our daily life in Christ. If we are not attempting to “make progress” in the moral life, how then shall we live? We live in sacramental union with our Risen Lord, our True and Only Vine, our Lord Who is Life, Who is our Head and we are His body, the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This begins with our Baptism – our mystical union of our death with His death. “Do you unite yourself to Christ” we are asked 3 times at our initiation. And this question must remain with us minute by minute, hour by hour, temptation by temptation.
    Holy Confession therefore isn’t about how I have “improved on” or relapsed back from by moral journey since my last confession. It seems to me it is the sacrament where I have an opportunity to “come clean” about my love affair with death, and in so doing, be cleansed from that death and its disease, sin. I admit those times when I have “in knowledge or in ignorance” failed to trust and unite myself to Christ in this world of deathly pleasures. “I know I am dead, oh Master, and I ask your forgiveness for not relying on You as my only Truth and Life.”
    Yes, as St. Paul exhorts us, we must remember each day that “We are His (the Risen One’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Remembering that “we can do nothing” apart from Christ, as in nada, nyet, no way, we learn to discern what life-creating, not morality-improving, works God our Father has prepared for us to synergize with. That which we see Christ doing, we do by the power of His Spirit and nothing in and of ourselves for we are corpses.
    And we look for Christ, wherever He may be found. He has not hidden Himself from us, but tells us clearly that we unite ourselves to Him in every one who is hungry, naked, lonely, sad, bitter, incarcerated, addicted, etc., for that is where He chooses to be. St. John Chrysostom says “the rich in this world are given for the benefit of the poor, but the poor are given for the salvation of the rich.”
    A death-defined life makes efforts to improve its state by judging, comparing, excusing, justifying, isolating, and rushing after every illusion of the devil. A Christ-centered, Resurrection-defined life makes efforts to never forget we are corpses except for the grace of the Risen One, and as dead people, we more and more see the utter futility of judging, comparing, excusing, justifying, isolating and partaking even further of sin’s soul deadening powers. What shall it profit the most morally advanced human in this or any age if he loses his soul?
    Finally, in light of some of the later posts, over-scrupulosity can be very deadly, especially when layered over a foundation of toxic shame inherited from one’s family of origin. Why – because, quite simply, it turns one’s focus to one’s self, one’s mortality, one’s impotence to be alive apart from Christ.
    As all Orthodox are, or should be, I am so thankful for the Feast of Theophany where our Lord and Saviour and God baptized the water of the Jordan, and thus all of creation, as wondrous doors by which we can unite ourselves over and over to Him Who is the Resurrection and the Life of all.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very fruitful reflections. Well said, and worth the length. Thanks – and blessings!

  81. Nancy Avatar

    Mary can be admired for her determination to acquire holiness. However, her method of deliverance from her demons seems to lack real spiritual wisdom. Where is the focus on joy and on the righteousness Christ imparts? His righteousness as the scripture says is obtained by faith not by works. The emphasis on asceticism can lead to a self righteousness, self absorption, and subtle spiritual pride.

    “Oh foolish Galatians, ….having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?”( Apostle Paul Gal. 3) “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self abasement……in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men…..These are matters which have the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Apostle Paul Col. 2) She chose isolation, self abasement and severe treatment of the body as a means to overcome. Mary’s methods enslaved her for seventeen years….. Fortunately God’s grace is extended even to the misguided.

    Mary supposedly walked on water along with other supernatural occurrences as reported by one man, Zosimas. Impressive stories of saints and affirming miracles do not validate spiritual doctrine. We should be very aware that satan comes as an angel of light and he craftily supplies the supernatural to deceive, even a sincere believer.

  82. Dino Avatar

    beautiful reflection.

    I cannot agree with that point you made, we have a pertinent proverb in Greek about such speculation: “Those outside the dance claim to know the most songs”, not entirely dissimilar to: “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.” (Mathew 12 : 24)

  83. Christopher Avatar


    I get the point about ‘modern’ children. In my coaching of children in Jiu-Jitsu and soccer (football as it is truly known – what is known here in america as football should be called “armored handball” or something 😉 ). I sometimes note a laziness in the face of the slightest discomfort. It is not a lack of unwillingness, they just don’t know how to work through discomfort (physical and mental). Interestingly, it is the girls who seem more likely to push through this than the boys – at least with the younger ages I mostly work with. When I was younger, coaches were allowed to be more “hard” and demanding. Today, that is a big no-no (for good reasons in part) so we have to be more creative in our motivation. It does not always work. I wonder if this change in coaching style has not hurt the boys more. With my daughter, my wife and I struggle to find the right balance. How much do we “force” her to pay attention in Church (we have her pay stand an pay attention to parts such as the readings, Great Entrance, etc. – she is allowed to color and play otherwise), pray at home, etc. I believe the answers to these questions need to be tailored to the child’s ability, personality, etc.

    Randy says:

    “Holy Confession therefore isn’t about how I have “improved on” or relapsed back from by moral journey since my last confession. It seems to me it is the sacrament where I have an opportunity to “come clean” about my love affair with death, and in so doing, be cleansed from that death and its disease, sin.”

    I have approached it like this for a while, though Fr. Stephen has helped me to better understand why I thought this was the way to go. I have to admit, not every priest seems to take this approach. I have had more than one priest (at least two I can think of) that takes a more “pastoral counseling” approach, which is to say a more moral and “work on these things and get better” approach. I just grin and bear it. This is not to say I don’t attempt an acesis when given one. Perhaps it was my frightening confessions that brought this out of them! 😉 I doubt this, as I suspect I am a pretty “average” sinner, and that these priests have heard it all before – well, they have after I am through with them… 🙂

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Mary of Egypt belongs to a faithful tradition whose fruits are well known. Her life has been read annually in Orthodox Churches for nearly 1500 years. It’s been winnowed and tested. Many Christians have what they consider to be a superior ideology, but their life not only lacks miracles, but even the joy. St. Mary’s story includes stories of her joy – when the light would come. I strongly understand that joy to probably transcend anything either of us has ever imagined.

    St. Mary’s life ultimately has to be read and heard in its proper context. We read it on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, during a time of traditional fasting and self-denial as we concentrate on repentance and preparation for the coming great feast of Christ’s suffering and resurrection – the very heart of the faith. At that near midpoint in Lent, the story serves to encourage the faint-hearted, reminding us that the greatest of sinners can find healing and forgiveness in and through Christ. And not just forgiveness, but even the heights of joy and holiness. It encourages us to be steadfast and to redouble our efforts. We do not believe in salvation by works nor do we teach such things. But, we carefully follow the words and example of St. Paul:

    Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1Co 9:24-27)


    Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1Co 6:18-20)


    Therefore, brethren, we are debtors– not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. Rom 8:12-14)

    The Orthodox practice of asceticism, so sadly missing in many forms of Christianity, is simply the form we received from the Apostles and continued in the Church today. We’ve had centuries of Protestants warning us about works righteousness, while their own Churches have too often promoted and imported this entertainment culture that is now killing us. Fasting and the like does not earn us anything. But the Scriptural witness is clear – somethings are only defeated through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29) – and that is from the lips of Jesus. We must read the whole of Scripture as preserved in the teaching of the Church.

  85. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I so sympathize with your difficulties in organizing your text. One wants to respect the flow of ideas, but – perhaps your experience is the same – a single stream can have a half dozen tributaries and as many channels! Or perhaps the ideas form a crystalline multi-dimensional architecture that somehow has to be reduced to a 2-D blueprint for transfer to other minds. It can be agonizing.

    I have an INTJ friend I have sent my short fiction to. She has been helpful with organization.

    Anyhow, prayers coming your way.

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks. AR.
    Last year or so I did a radio interview program with Kevin Allen. I was amazed at this capacity to think about what I’ve written on a particular topic and to organize a conversation around it (I think it was “beauty”). He is one of those people gifted in that area. I tend to see “everything” when I see anything (typical ADHD). It might be why my brain so utterly rebels against the method of scholasticism.

  87. Karen Avatar

    Father, your comment to Lisa is one of those many “keepers” for me, too. Thanks.

  88. Matth Avatar

    I ran across this article today, and it made me think of Fr. Stephen’s earlier comment about Mammon.

    If you don’t want to read it, and I certainly would understand, it’s an invective directed against the Pope’s soon-to-be-released encyclical on climate change and the oppression of the world’s poor at the hands of the wealthy (which is usually taken to be a First vs Third world thing).

    I apologize for bringing a Catholic rant against the Pope into this, but I do think it highlights the tendency within our society to live so completely within our sin that we can’t even comprehend that it exists.

    I wonder what that writer would think about the story of St. Mary of Egypt.

  89. AR Avatar

    Yeah, that sounds familiar. Like how my stories try so hard to double in length every time I revise them. Oh, that strikes me funny. You know who probably had ADHD by that measure? Robert Burton – the fellow who wrote ‘Anatomy of Melancholy.’

    Kevin Allen… I will have to look up that interview.

  90. Christopher Avatar


    I think the article is main correct. This Pope’s (or more relevant for us Orthodox the current “environmental” EP) willingness to bless the secular worlds current apocalyptic thinking around “climate change” is troublesome and I don’t see the link to St. Mary of Egypt.

    See Fr. Stephens “we will not make the world a better place” and similar essays for thoughts on the underlying Christian “dilemma”…

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We are called to dress and keep the earth which requires communion, asceticism and repentance to accomplish. Political and ideological agendas will not cure what needs to be cured.

    At the same time mere ideological ignorance of real problems does not help either.

  92. Rebecca Florence Miller Avatar

    Hello Father Freeman,

    I was just introduced to your blog by an agnostic that I met on a blog. He said to tell you he sent me over and is called TLO here. I am a Lutheran pastor’s wife and lifelong Christian. I am also a person always trying to work through questions regarding faith and searching for new ways to better understand God’s Word.

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you so much for your writing on hell. I read two of your pieces here on the website tonight. Hell is something I deeply struggle to understand. Your writing is probably the most profound and Scriptural thing I have read about hell. I will definitely be back. I’m unfamiliar with Orthodox theology, but deeply blessed by what I have seen so far. Thank you.


  93. TLO Avatar

    ^ Do I get any bonus points for the referral? :o)

  94. Matth Avatar


    I may have erred in posting that, since the current disagreements in the American Catholic community about the Pope’s economic and environmental views may be unknown to frequent readers here.

    While the author’s arguments against the embrace of secular philosophies are no doubt valid, no church exists in a vacuum, and I posted it specifically in response to Fr. Stephen’s comment from Jan. 13 at 8:17 am in which he spoke about the modern world’s embrace of greed and the loss of asceticism from Christian practice and doctrine.

  95. Timmy Avatar

    Hi Nancy,

    I read you comment above, and was wondering if you are an Orthodox Christian or from another Christian tradition?

  96. Drewster2000 Avatar

    TLO: You’ve got my vote! Mark the man up for 50 points! (grin)

  97. Climacus Avatar

    “and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), which really meant bloody rags at the time. Substitute the word “righteousness” with “moral progress” to get the idea. If anyone is impressed by our moral progress, God isn’t for it is as good as bloody rags in His sight.

    Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, entreat Christ our God for us!

  98. albert Avatar

    Father Stephen, I’ll start off again, this time I hope with more objectivity. I’m thinking particularly about a comment by Christopher. My reaction in church came from inside, spontaneously, partly as a father and partly as one who in adolescence and well beyond, has experienced conflicting sexual and spiritual emotion-laden urges. Later, I read the complete story at Here is the introduction:

    “This Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt was written down in the seventh century by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, some hundred years after the repose of the holy Mary, who fell asleep in the Lord April 1, 522. It is one of the most beautiful and edifying lives of a saint. Its obvious and stated purpose is to glorify God and to feed the souls of its readers. St. Sophronius lifts up the life of blessed Mary as a most wondrous example of repentance for all the faithful. Indeed, the Church has lifted up this life before all the faithful on the Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. It is both a challenge and an inspiration to us. It shows us what a human being is capable of when she works with the all-powerful saving and forgiving grace of our all-loving God.” (Father John Townsend, Rector, St Mary of Egypt, Atlanta, Georgia)

    Bringing to church the background of a long-time teacher, I must have responded to the literary qualities first. Sophronius was a gifted writer. The way the story is told, with its vivid imagery, intriguing plot, double narrative, far-away (to us) settings, and extensive dialogue — well, it is gripping. It reads like a novel. But not one that I would give to my students without also providing a context and the opportunity to hear each other’s as well as my own responses, and then to figure out its possible meanings. It doesn’t read like biography. How could Sophronius have gotten all that dialogue and unique detail from persons who handed the story down over 100 years? I don’t know enough about hagiography to hold forth with a reliable opinion. I respect and hope to learn from those who do. But if you tell me that “Anything is possible with God,” I’ll try to stop thinking about it, and leave the young persons’ reactions to God. (No sarcasm. I know that what I might do, except for prayer, has little consequence unless God decides that it does. I mean, I don’t know but believe it now)

    But if my thoughts on this topic might be of help to certain parents, I’ll explain my concerns further. Possibly the strongest of fantasies for boys are sexual in nature. At that age, i would have fixated on the first part of St. Mary’s story. What guy wouldn’t be curious about random offers of sex. It’s like pornography in church, couched in formal adult language, except for the word “filth,” which, though clear in its metaphoric meaning, is still somewhat general–even though its ambiguity in popular usage allows for an equivalence of sex with other bodily functions that fascinate children and adolescents, boys in particular. In addition, for some it could merely reinforce the “dirty joke” syndrome.

    I cannot speak for girls, except that from spending extended time with my teenage granddaughter I am pretty sure that many girls would latch on to the desert part of Mary’s story. Not because they admire her actions and what others might call her “lifestyle” but because of its bizarre (to them) quality. In both cases, the notions of human love and Divine love might get lost in, or at least confused by, the powerful storytelling itself. I think that was the basis for my initial reaction. Why tell them something that will stir contradictory or at least conflicting thoughts and feelings. You said that what young persons see on TV, internet, and movies stirs far worse imaginings, and I would agree, except that most young persons I have dealt with understand fantasy, and probably soap operas, movies, and even television “reality shows” as something not really real, and in most cases not even attractive. It’s more the fascination with what is taboo, what is conventionally off limits (in the case of sexual behavior) or repulsive, as horror shows often are.

    On the other hand, religious stories can have a much different impact. I remember as a young person hearing in a tradition-based Western church the story of “the good woman Bona,” whose love for God was such that when she came down with a strange illness which caused worms to grow in her breasts and crawl around her body for additional food, she courageously accepted her condition and did not ask for treatment out of a kind of solidarity with Christ’s sufferings. I don’t need to describe the hilarity among my friends and me once away from adult ears. Nevertheless in private I for one was dumbfounded and have never forgotten that image over my many years. Would God really expect, or even welcome, this attitude from us? And if not, it is either an example of masochistic behavior in the name of love, or a deliberate denial of reverence for the human body. Breasts are for nourishment, not for maggot food. Mary of Egypt’s story is not quite so repellant, but its features have some similarities. What she did to herself, or allowed the desert to do to her, in the name of repentance seems so extreme, so opposed to the notion of the body as a temple, a beautiful amazing creation of God’s. Without helping young persons understand the role of such behavior in certain special Christian settings, our church risks losing their trust and confidence when they go out on their own, especially if they attend a secular university.

    Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps children can separate ordinary reality from “saintly” behaviors. I was never very successful at that. I took them seriously and eventually dismissed them almost completely. I’m not talking about prayerful behaviors, even rigorous ones. Nor about healings or other interventions.

    As a result of extreme emphasis on suffering and penance in my childhood church, I could not participate fully from then on. I stopped going to Good Friday services and stations of the cross because i couldn’t take the relentless reminders of physical pain. I never ever could accept that God would want a human being to be tortured that way, or ask others to torture themselves. I started imagining how popular a religion would be that used an electric chair or a noose or a gas chamber as its sacred symbol. Consequently it took a lifetime to understand the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.

    That is my story, and some will see it as my problem, not the church’s. At any rate, because of its beauty and mystery and meaning and powerful prayer content, I stayed for the rest of that particular liturgy during great lent. I am so glad that i did. I return again and again–only God knows why. I mean, it’s a work of grace not something I can take credit for. I thank God for that, and for communities of believers who support me and each other in prayer and love.

    To Christopher: I appreciate your comment. I wouldn’t have spoken up if i didn’t want also to listen. No singling out here. We give and we get–together.

  99. albert Avatar

    Note: I should have deleted te phrase “pornography in church” I could better have said that details of Mary’s escapades might have the same side-tracking effect that “pornography-lite” (as in so many TV commercials and in some popular music) has on some adults and young adults. True pornography is a far different issue.

  100. Dino Avatar

    it is a very simple answer I believe: “milk” is appropriate for a child, St Paul says, “ye were not able to bear meat, neither yet now are ye able.” (1 Corinthians 3 : 2)
    The same child will have no problem with solid food at a later stage. He does not need to ponder on why he had accidentaly tasted meat while still a babe…

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