Messiness in the Modern World

Salvation can be messy.

I believe this with all my heart and so I state it at the outset of this article. As such, it marks me as a heretic in Modernity. I not only believe that salvation is messy – I believe that messiness is pretty much inherent to salvation. And along with that, I believe that our aversion to messiness (in all things) is a peculiar affliction of the modern world and a vexation of the spirit.

Let me explain.

I hold no ill thoughts towards those who appreciate cleanness and neatness. I even recognize that there are arguments to be put forward in their support. But the universe tends towards messiness – in physics it is known as entropy – things tend towards increasing amounts of disorder. Human civilization has always offered a push back to the world’s entropy. We build roads and then begin the tedious work of maintaining them while all of the forces of nature conspire to return their invented cleanliness to a more natural, disordered state. Every home-owner knows the never-ending work of holding back the forces of entropy, for he or she has invested a tidy-sum into a structure that is destined to fall down.

Our lives are no different. For though there is some inner drive at work within us that wants to order things and make sense of them, the randomness of the day works in the opposite direction. I have often thought that movies (and novels) fail to rightly represent this aspect of our existence. These narratives always show the wonder of a beginning and an end. The story moves from one point in the text to another and finds its crisis, climax and denouement. A good movie leaves us with a feeling of resolve. But life is not like that. Just before the incredible job interview that would have opened a new chapter in life and provided the capstone for a personal story, the real-world protagonist has a heart-attack and dies. And that’s just it. The film breaks and the images flutter on the screen and render the entire work of art that is a life-time little more than meaningless tatters. And this happens every day. Many people do not die at the “end” of their lives. Their narratives are interrupted messes that frequently leave loose ends and deep, unresolved problems.

But Modernity despises this aspect of our existence. The Modern world is the triumph of human intellect and will. It is the subjection of nature to the force of order. Entropy be damned! The myth of progress is the imposition of an orderly narrative onto the canvas of the world, an insistence that things must come together in a more sensible, useful and productive manner. Our lives will be better if only we master the messiness. The myth of success only works if the world agrees to be predictable and manageable, yielding itself to our efforts to make it behave.

But it will not – ever. The world was not created for such behavior. Even in the Garden of Eden, man had to “dress it and keep it.” There were weeds in the Garden of Eden! Someone will doubtless suggest that our “dominion” over the fish, birds, and every creeping thing, etc.” is a commandment to bring order into the messiness. I respond that this is like “herding cats.” Fish and creeping things become orderly at our command, only when they’re dead and we can lay them neatly in rows. And even then, the entropy of corruption will reduce their rows to dust.

These are just observations on how things work. But the problem that I want us to see is how Modernity works – and particularly how it works within us. We have internalized the myth of progress and utility. We not only believe that the world and the things around us can be better, but that it is our God-given task to make them so. We push this same cultural mandate into the Scriptures as well. We imagine the parable of the good stewards (those who invested their talents of money and made a profit) to be stories of how God praised and rewarded them for their productivity and usefulness. We fail to wonder what actually constitutes faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God.

More than this, we are tormented by the abiding and increasing messiness of our lives and world. The cultural myth runs deep in our psyche. We experience guilt and shame in the face of entropy, knowing that we could have done better and should have done more. For some, such thoughts are the very stuff of insanity. They have more than occasionally been the stuff of great evil.

The darkest moments of the modern world have come as a result of various plans to “improve” things. The Modern state found its first great champion in the efficiencies of 19th century Prussia (later Germany). Rationality was elevated to new heights, not just on the philosophical level, but across the board. The result was an efficient state, an effective army, and a policy of improvement for the world that created two world wars, genocide and a legacy of darkness that has yet to be dissipated. Other visions of a better world sought to remove the irrationality of religion and any number of other “messy” human pursuits. And although it is popular among the new atheists to blame religion for human conflict, religion is purely amateur when compared to the ruthless efficiencies of the rationalized state.

The sad drama of contemporary Christianity is marked by the “improvements” of “productivity” and “effectiveness.” “Better” Church has given us increasingly silly and ill-invented forms of the Christian faith. Old mainline denominations are shuttering their buildings with increasing frequency as their once efficient forms fail to keep pace with the rapid morphing of the contemporary scene.

And it is here that I will point out one of the great virtues of Orthodox Christianity: it is irretrievably messy. It operates with a set of canons that have remained unreformed through the centuries. Some are so old that the date of their origin is lost in speculation. Its messiness is visible to all the world – particularly in such problems as the over-lapping jurisdictions that seem to serve as a constant embarrassment. It is a situation that others point to with derision. It is being addressed at the present time, though it remains to be seen whether the problem will be corrected in the lifetime of anyone now living. I am not confident.

The Orthodox life is simply messy (when it is properly lived). For it is not a way of life given to us in order to tidy up the planet. It is a way of messiness, or a way to live with messiness. Christ trampled down messiness by messiness (to paraphrase). Death is chaos, for those who have understanding. And we need fear chaos no more than we fear death because of what Christ has done and is doing.

The world around us is simply messy, chaotic and marked by the workings of entropy everywhere. And though we “dress it and keep it” we must not curse it or despise its “weediness.” And we should recognize and resist the abiding temptation of our times to fix everything. Rather than create jobs and insist on a living wage, we declare a “war on poverty,” much like our forebears fought the “War to End All Wars.”

Parenthetically, a pet peeve of mine has to do with a certain form of liturgy, primarily seen in the various revivals of the traditional Mass in the West. There is a precision to be seen there, almost military in nature, that is among the most unnatural of human behaviors. Things are too refined, too careful, too synchronized. Liturgy is not a martial art. Such a performance creates a false icon of heaven – or so it seems to me. I prefer the messy ceremony of the East, even the occasional klutzy fumblings of priests and servers. I worry about those who are intolerant of such things – whether inside or outside of the Church. For they are destined to be tortured by the world as it exists, and apparently the world as it is intended to exist.

“All things work together for good,” is probably the boldest proclamation of messiness that I know. Many are quick, even nervous to note that the sentence goes on to say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” That is certainly true. And His purpose doesn’t seem to be about making the world a more tidy place, only in making us to be like His glorious self.

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.



79 responses to “Messiness in the Modern World”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The photo is the trailer where my parents last lived before entering a retirement center. It is being quickly reclaimed by nature, much as the graves have reclaimed my parents’ bodies.

  2. Dean Avatar

    When I first looked at the picture on my phone I thought that the dark form was a pond. Only after looking more closely did I see it was a house. Your klutzy and fumbling phrase reminded me of something I saw early on in Orthodoxy. We had built a small altar area in the priest’ s home. It was so confined that the visiting priest (now a bishop) knocked at least two items off the altar. These were quickly recovered and replaced and the liturgy went forward. I’m sure that anyone with any time in Orthodoxy could relate similar missteps.

  3. Russ Mangiapane Avatar
    Russ Mangiapane

    There is an author that I greatly admired whose writings served to prepare the soil of my heart to embrace the Orthodox faith. His name was A. W. Tozer and he writes on this subject also: In a devotional book of his collected writings I came across this passage: “Every farmer knows the hunger of the wilderness, that hunger which no improved agricultural methods can ever quite destroy. No matter how well prepared the soil, how well kept the fences, how carefully painted the buildings, let the owner neglect for a while his valued acres and they will revert again to the wild and be swallowed up by the jungle or the wasteland. The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, never toward the fruitful field. What is true of the field is true of the soul also, if we are but wise enough to see it. The neglected heart will soon be a heart overrun with worldly thoughts, the neglected life will soon become a moral chaos. The field will be cultivated or it will be lost; spiritual gains must be conserved by watchfulness and prayer or they too will fall victim to the enemy.”

  4. Maria Avatar

    Father, your thoughts have lent some courage to my life. It is painfully messy, particularly the marriage and parenting part of it (spouse is protestant, kids baptized Orthodox). What you’ve written at least, well, for this moment, has eased my need for “tidy” – in some respects anyway. Hopefully it’s a concept I can carry with me farther than today. Thank you.

  5. MdQ Mathematician Avatar
    MdQ Mathematician

    Bravo, Father Stephen! You have outdone himself!
    As a scientist (mathematician and physicist) I think you have characterized fairly well the worst of modern thought.
    Most thinkers left out the consequences of the entropy concept, i.e., its practical implications.

  6. Frdcn Dennis Milligan Avatar
    Frdcn Dennis Milligan

    Dear Fr. Stephan:

    I have been reading your articles with increasing interest since the beginning of December, starting with “The End of the Modern World”. Since then, you have been, as they say, ‘on a roll’, with this topic and its implications, which includes of course, “You’re Not Getting Better”, and all the commentary that has proceeded from that line of thought. I’ve not offered comment to this point, but your latest piece compels me to change that. To start, I want to offer a sincere ‘Thank-you’ to you and your very intelligent and insightful commentators. I have thoroughly enjoyed and benefited (made ‘progress’???) from your efforts. I have long considered the topic of Modernity of the utmost importance; not so much as an historical phenomenon…that is to a large extent obvious…but as a psychological one, which to a large extent, is not. The degree to which it infects (the correct word) our thinking, even those who are aware of it, is vastly under-appreciated; we are all, to use a modernist phrase, ‘co-dependents’ to greater and lesser degrees. Being in my late 60’s, I reckon it’s enough time to have some perspective on what has been called ‘Late Modernity’ (Chantal Delsol). Time and experience certainly doesn’t mean error-proof, but it may allow this observation to be tentatively made: it seems to me that the saturation effect of Modernity’s errors and influence is an accelerating thing, rather like the tightening of a vortex. If true, it is not at all an indifferent matter…certainly in regards to what may be called, spiritual urgency: the pursuit of The One Thing Needful.
    Speaking to the ‘messy’ topic of the current piece: “…the earth was void and without form, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.” I have always understood this passage as an image of the Holy Spirit of God bringing order to disorder, water being a primordial symbol of chaos. If it is an accurate understanding (please correct me if it isn’t) it would suggest that some fundamental sense of order preceded even ‘Fiat Lux’, and…extended further from that…is even intrinsic, ontological, to the beings He eventually creates. The problem would arise, it seems…and Modernity is a virulent exacerbation of this…when it is the autonomous ‘I’ (individually or collectively) rather than the Spirit of God, that attempts to impose that order.

  7. Kerry Avatar

    Thank you Father! Your wonderful blog makes me re-think my crazy, “messy” life and love my church, all the more, in all its “irretrievably messy” ness, filled with that faith, hope and love so needed in today’s world.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Father Deacon Dennis,
    I agree about the Genesis passages. We certainly do bring a certain order – we “tend” the Garden. Instead, we’ve backed up a cement mixer, drained the swamp, and set about building a Garden that will never fail, one that is 100% snake proof, and with appropriate housing for naked people who need to hide. “Virulent exacerbation” puts it rather nicely.

  9. Trifon Avatar

    Here’s my nitpicking comment: with Yannaras’ _Against Religion_ still somewhat fresh on my mind, I have to say that the secular, streamlined, systematized, efficient violence of secular powers (especially as seen in the last century) is the heir of the religious violence of the past. Unfortunately I don’t have the quote in front of me, and I can’t recall it exactly, but Yannaras is quite insistent that the cruelest forms of punishment, war, and torture are religious in their origin. But this all hinges on how one uses the word “religion” and whether or not one is making a distinction between the Church and religion, along with what rhetorical and other reasons are behind the distinction or lack thereof. Linguistic messiness.

  10. Trifon Avatar

    The main reason being that the state has largely replaced the role of the Church in most everyone’s life.

  11. Tim Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen, and thank you Dean for the wonderful, very fitting Tozer clip…..

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I respectfully disagree with Yannaras if what is meant by “religion” is meant to cast the broadest possible net. As wicked as abuses have been by some religious leaders or institutions, nothing rises remotely to a comparison with the efficiency of Modern State-sponsored violence.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Our dominion lies in our sacramental authority to offer ourselves and the rest in Thanksgiving to God and in our obedience.

    Entropy is the product of our disordered will and instead of working to heal our will we work to have everything submit to our disorder while labeling it “order”.

    Real order is a dynamic cooperation with God’s grace. I’ve seen it and felt it in a few homes.

    I frequently ask for the intercessions of Mat. Olga to restore my home. She has shown her good humored mercy.

    If she were Hispanic she’d be shaking her head and chuckling out pobre cito–poor child. And so we all are

  14. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Fr Stephen, it was the ability to live with the messiness that was one of the strong attractions of Orthodoxy for me…

    I wonder if there is any connection between what you’ve written about the Orthodox life and the comparative lack of scientific study in the east. I get how the west could easily tend toward scientific study from the same impetus that is behind Scholasticism. I’ve been wondering lately about the lack of it in the east. Can you help me make a connection, or fill in any holes of ignorance?


  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a good question. Archimedes seems to have been a genius at making stuff – and in the necessity of war some of them were quite useful. And there were some practical applications in Constantinople. Elevators that I’ve heard of, and mechanical toys and an amazing mechanical throne room described by others. But the methodical application was a bit of a non-starter.

    Many don’t realize the link between magic and science – the drive for knowledge for the sake of power. Alchemy was deeply concerned with this and a number of the earliest scientific thinkers in the West were also involved in alchemy. That would give the impetus for control and management in our science a rather sinister beginning. I wouldn’t push too hard on it, but we have frequently made a sinister use of science.

    War has always been a great source of innovation. Some of the recent books like Guns, Germs and Steel, or even Salt, make very interesting reading – actually I “listened” to these on some long vacation drives with my wife.

  16. Dino Avatar

    three ‘thinkers’ (for alck of a better word) come to mind… CS Lewis elucidating on what Father mentioned -science as the twin of magic-, Saint Silouan reminding us that in the traditional East, man would give his first impetus to the Spirit, the eternal instead of the ephemeral, and Metr. J. Zizioulas, who mentions that the Western need to ‘know in order to love’ is mistaken, and the Eastern reversal of that “love in order to know” is what [might not favour science, …yet] leads to true knowledge (implication being of a personal communion rather than an objectified utilitarianism)…

  17. Beth Avatar

    There is a game in our modern society, it is a childish game, but only as childish as the very first children. It is a bit like hide and seek, even if it is only hiding one’s head in a hole and never seeking further than ones’ nose. It is a game of incrimination called ‘Blame the Christians’, with a delightful variant known as ‘Blame the Church’ where every social ill and cultural catastrophe is merrily and squarely put on the shoulders of ‘Christianity’. It is easy, it is convenient, it is universally accepted – if Rome burns, it surely must be the Christians. However, the problem with this game is not really the defamation of a single religion, its not even because it is politically correct. The problem is that the real source and seed of social, cultural and psychological corruption goes completely unnoticed. And being unnoticed, it goes untreated, unrectified, repeated and replanted without any hope of eradication and eventual restitution of the original wholeness of the human soul, which is why I refer to this bane upon humanity as – the Cataclysmic Severance.

    It is a severance, as it has pulled apart and utterly alienated men from their inner selves, from nature, from their roots and from one another. It is the sort of doctrine that abolishes a good story and replaces it with moral dullness. The kind of philosophy that sees method as its greatest adventure and preconceived formula as a remedy to wonder. It probably had its origins and adherents in any number of times or places but it really only ‘came out’ (as one used to be able to say in good company) in 1637 in a very innocent phrase that sounded very much like a riddle or a joke, only it was very much the end of all the best riddles and the beginning of the saddest of jokes – “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).

    Descartes was a man in awe of his own mind, who felt the body was really only a kind of machine. The thing is, that Descartes was not the only man in awe of his mind, quite a number of people ware in awe of Mr. Descartes’s mind and the things going on in it, but it seemed that there were even more people in awe of their own minds and the new powers and liberties they found there. It was a new sort of thing, it seemed novel, it seemed brave – Man is a Thinker. Thinking was really man’s highest and purest modus. It was his thinking that set him apart from the animals, it was his mind that tied him to reality. Everything indeed, in the heavens and on earth could be made to bow low and make obeisance to man’s marvellous mind. Reason could pierce all, reason could explain all, reason would find all, free all, fathom all. If there was a god, then surely it was Reason – the new Messiah of the Mind!

    Now, lauding and applauding the human mind is not in itself a very nefarious thing. We have all at one point or another thought ourselves clever. No, the real danger in the thing was that the mind had the appearance of divinity – infinite, omnipotent and most importantly immaterial – completely separate and discrete from the low and crude mechanism that housed it, which is but mortal flesh. It was, therefore, not the new infatuation with the human mind that was so much the thing that marred humanity ever after, but rather its separation, its severance, from the body, indeed from all of the material world. And as mentioned before, this very idea was not entirely new, it can be traced through Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato even all the way back to Zarathustra. But in the seventeenth century it really became en vogue. It was really and ultimately the dawn of the Thinking Man, as if humanity had just suddenly and startlingly woken up, like the clap of thunder and lightning, that very much seem to split the heavens apart. The Age of Enlightenment that followed our Rationalists like Descartes was not unlike the wakening of old Rip van Winkel, who found that he had been beguiled by fairies for far too long. The old myths and mysteries could finally be put away, for the Enlightened Mind had made some investigation, and there really wasn’t any monsters under the bed. And the religion of the time – the Roman Catholic Church, could be dismissed, like an old nursemaid who had become something like a social embarrassment, the Protestants having had her paraded in her grubbiest undergarments only a little while before.

    The Scientific Revolution had provided all the tools that this new man needed to remake his world, the Enlightenment gave him all the justification, in fact all that was needed was to apply a new name for himself (such as men often do when they come into some new and great fortune or level of initiation), an epitaph worthy of this intrinsic break with his duped and deluded forebears – he called himself Modern. And Modern Man really did rise up against the old world and all that came before him, like Zeus casting the Titans, even his own father, down to claim Olympus for himself, as the new god, the supreme ruler of the world. And the split that had started in the mind of man became a crack that ran down the entirety of all of his future reign. Not only did he separate mind from matter, but the spiritual from the mundane, fantasy from reality, nature from humanity, history from actuality, science from superstition, in fact, if the Rational Mind could not prove something, it simply did not even exist. And so a myriad of things were condemned to obscurity, ridicule and eventual extinction. Who needed old tales of gods and heroes if there was progress and invention, who needed ritual if there was scientific method, what was nature in the wake of technology?

    If the Human Mind was so far elevated beyond coarse matter, then surely the products of the human mind had to supersede the natural world by leaps and bounds. And here we finally enter the Industrial Revolution that divorced humans from the earth so fatally that in a space of only a few hundred years he had altered her face so dramatically, exploited her riches so extravagantly, poisoned and polluted her so disastrously, that leaving her eternally in favour of a new colony on a neighbouring planet suddenly seems like a very viable and expedient solution. The horrors that sprang from the mind of man eventually became much more catastrophic than the curses of any gods. The cold sterility of modernism turned quickly into the very worst of obscenities, even insanity and should any of my readers doubt this, even in the wake of modern history, he only needs to examine modern art, where cynicism and vulgarity is praised so thoroughly against that weak old sentiment of beauty.

    Man is not a Mind as Descartes may have suggested, he isn’t even a Soul as Aquinas very much insisted – man is a Miracle.

  18. Grant Avatar

    This is one of your best, I think, in terms of resonating with that deeply held cultural myth about “bringing order”. I hope that you are able to write more about this, as I was hooked from beginning to end. Ironically, these blog posts “bring order” to some extent into a clouded and messy world of spiritual thought. Thank you Father.

  19. Sean Avatar

    One thinks of Mary and Martha.

  20. Matth Avatar


    I also have to disagree with Yannaras, without knowing the specific arguments he made or the context. It’s certainly true that some of the most barbaric punishments of which we have documented evidence came from the Middle Ages, but it is only in the modern world that the state bureaucracy (perfected also in those Prussian lands) were brought to bear on the “problem” of killing. While before, such terrible things as the Spanish Inquisition were able to kill a few thousand unrepentant heretics over the course of a century, the more efficient methods have allowed the modern state to kill millions in only a decade (or even just a year!). Obviously, part of that progress in efficiency was disabusing ourselves of the more romantic notions of torture.

  21. Benjamin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Perhaps I’m misinterpreting your message here, so please correct me. I have a problem with the term ‘messiness’ as you have used it as it implies chaos that one cannot, nor it seems, should try to understand. Should one live a life of chaos and enjoy the disorder or should we be looking for the over-arching pattern and meaning in life?

    In my understand, the modern problem is one of will and not of order. To look for order, to me, is akin to looking for purpose and understanding outside of ourselves. Civilizations were founded upon order but unlike us moderns, they looked for the order within nature and used that as their model instead of imposing their own will upon nature based upon their whims and passions. The Chinese had their own philosophy based upon their ideas of harmony with nature, with the currents, with the mountains, with the rains. The Greeks looked for the inner logi of each living thing and built their ideal cities (polis) around it. But since the modern era we have decided to become champions, instead of caretakers of nature. The individual, instead of the Creator through the Creation, has become the source of order.

    The Orthodox Divine Liturgy has may parts that in constant motion, but it is never without order. I agree that there is a lot of sterility in the modern traditional Catholic and Anglican liturgies. They have removed pieces like the asteroids and moons orbiting planets circling around the Divine Son and in doing so destroyed the fullness of the beauty. The modern world has done the same, and this can be seen especially in the arts. The world may not look neat but there is order, there is purpose. And I think that we must cast aside our ideas of order and grab onto the order of Love and Forgiveness. Love is simple, our egos just like to make chaos.

    God bless Fr Stephen, and please keep these thought provoking articles coming. I look forward to your next book.

  22. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    Sounds like we believe in the myth of progress as our Manifest Destiny.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matth and Trifon,
    I think a far more sinister aspect of the nation state and its secular-reasoning, has been the substitute of alternative models or values for making state decisions (versus religious models). Christian thought, particularly in the East, actually served as a “limit” on the evil and the reach of the state. In the West there were other lines of thought that complicated that process – the confusion for a time between temporal and spiritual power.
    But modern theories of race, social darwinism, nationalism, colonialism, etc. have all served to create actual genocide, combined with an efficiency unknown before.
    But I would need to read Yannaras’ comments myself to really see what he’s saying.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Beth, I enjoy your comment. Well said. “I think, therefore I am” is, IMO, a blasphemy. It overthrows God and replaces Him with ME. I would say a better formulation would be: “I am because God loves, I love because I am, I know because I love, I think because I know.”

    True order comes out of love and transmits love. To dress and keep the earth is an act of love. We are stewards. As God entered and sanctified His entire creation when Jesus took on our humanity, so must we welcome Him into our heart and every other portion of our being to fulfill that commandment.

    For those who know Greek, what is the Greek word and the connotation of it in the phrase: “…have dominion over the earth…”

    Certainly in Christian terms to rule is to serve not to force.

  25. Ann Avatar

    I have a lovely memory of a bunch of “hippies” singing the following song in a Baptist church and handing out flowers and hugs as we did so:

    All things work together for good
    for them that love Christ
    All things work together for good
    for them called according to his purposes.

    Trials may come your way each day
    Some you may not understand.
    But just look up, praise the Lord
    And take your Savior by the hand.

    For all things work together for good
    for them that love God.

    I still sing this. I frequently need the reminder.

    I look forward to reading your posts, Father, and to reading all the responses.

  26. Dino Avatar

    It is not much different on this occasion (Genesis 1: 28) ; “πληρώσατε τὴν γῆν” does literally mean “fill the earth” and “κατακυριεύσατε αὐτῆς” can only really be translated as subdue it, and “ἄρχετε” rendered “have dominion over” is not far off at all.
    However, it can certainly be understood as “be the Earth’s/creation’s fulfillment” and be its “Lord”, and its “Master”.

  27. Matth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Genocide is as human as it comes, and a careful student of history sees genocide reflected time and time again, though it’s often passed down to us through the words of the victors and so it’s not seen as a “bad” thing until very recently. But we can see glimpses of it in the Biblical accounts, as well as the history of the Punic Wars. The barbarian invasions of Europe are often ripe with tales of what we could safely call genocide, especially the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. In North America, there are suggestions of genocide in the Athabaskan migration (though there are, from what I can see, absolutely no academics who make that claim, despite clear paleological evidence and oral tradition; evidently the idea of pre-Colombian genocide is relegated to the lunatic fringe, which I guess I have unknowingly been a member of since I first took a class on the history of the Native American peoples and saw what was clearly presented in the text for what it is).

    What separates the native human tendency to destroy and subsume the enemy from modern Genocide, in my eyes, is less the modern appeal to some Godless (and even godless) philosophical values, but rather the gross efficiency brought to bear on the task. There’s something really sick and disgusting about calmly planning and then rounding up a group of people, bringing them to a larger holding camp, and then cleanly and methodically killing them over the next few weeks. That is something completely lacking in the traditional massacres, except in small and limited cases (like bringing some people back for the Coliseum), and yet a defining characteristic of the efficient bureaucratic society.

    I think C.S. Lewis wrote about this aspect of evil, during the War, presenting evil in its modernist form as a methodical banality. I’m reminded of Prof. Weston ripping the legs off the frogs in Perelandra (though I must confess it has been exactly 10 years to the week since I read the Space Trilogy and my memory may be conflating things). A quick websearch shows that Lewis did not originate the phrase “banality of evil”, but the mundane daily workings of the modern Institution is certainly where he saw the greatest evil manifesting itself.

    I’m tempted to rant here, ad nauseam, as though I weren’t already past the limit. I’ll end by stating that I do strongly agree with you that the death of Christianity, especially the civil religion that Card. Ratzinger and Mr. Pera wrote about in their 2004 book “Without Roots”, has been a significant contributing factor to the growth of this sort of evil. It found its first, and perhaps most natural, home in Prussia and the British Foreign Service, and I have very strong suspicions that its next “outbreak” will be in the increasingly efficient, relativist, and godless French nation. (They have always been bureaucratic, but it’s only in the last 30 years that they’ve begun a program of streamlining and modernizing.)

  28. Matth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    As I think about my point and compare it to what you said, we’re actually saying the same thing. I’m describing the organizational structure, and you’re describing the internal philosophy or “mission statement”, which correspond to these horrifying, modernist tendencies.

    On the one hand, an efficient bureaucracy is necessary, or at least appears to me to be, but the reason for that is precisely as you say: it serves as a substitute or an alternative model for making a state decisions. A bureaucracy is defined by hierarchy, a cog-like attitude towards the workers, and carefully defined protocols and processes for everything that’s done on a regular basis. There’s no other organizational structure which has so effectively removed the actual workers’ values from the actual work process.

    It’s completely plausible to imagine a senior manager, a department lead, requesting proposals for how to deal with, say, the problem of obesity. They are all put through the same evaluation process, probably cost-benefit analysis, and what do you know? Camps with strict diet and exercise regimens comes out as the most beneficial. It’s a shock to everyone, but the evaluation process has to be obeyed because it’s the way things are done, so the recommendation comes out of the department that all obese persons should be interned. No one says anything because all employees are equally replaceable, or maybe someone does say something, so they’re fired and replaced with someone who doesn’t disrupt the work environment so much. Get enough of those departments doing this sort of evaluation process, with PR spin, and a certain cloak of secrecy for the protection of society, and you end up with the official government policy that obese persons should be forcibly “fixed”, whatever that means in this nightmare scenario.

    Clearly, this seems ridiculous to me as I write it, but the reality is that this very sort of thing has happened before, even in this country. I have never bought into the idea that every German involved in the Holocaust was a true believer, at least not since I have had jobs in the corporate world and seen how decisions are made on a daily basis which are deeply destructive even to the people making the decisions, but which are nonetheless implemented as being the logical outcome of some process. (I’m thinking here specifically of layoffs, where managers are often forced to choose their own friends because of some weird cost-benefit analysis, and they do it anyway!)

  29. Alan Avatar

    “We imagine the parable of the good stewards (those who invested their talents of money and made a profit) to be stories of how God praised and rewarded them for their productivity and usefulness. We fail to wonder what actually constitutes faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God. ”

    Father, I realize the above was sort of a side point to your post, but it’s a point that jumped off the page to me. I’m wondering if you would be so kind as to provide a brief statement on what constitutes faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God?

  30. Amanda Avatar

    My mother-in-law, after catching me late one morning with my bed unmade, posed this question to me, “Do you want to know what my daddy used to say about that?” I sheepishly nodded my head feeling the shame rise like she was seeing me naked.

    “Only whores sleep in unmade beds.”

    I was 19 years old, and right there in that moment began my obsession with order and cleanliness. I wanted her approval and love so desperately, and I believed the lie.

    It seems to me, some twenty years later, that modern religion is a lot like my MIL…a mouthpiece for a false idea of the “good life”. Since that morning I have rarely gone a day without making my bed, and for what? To prove I am not a whore? Maybe unconsciously. Religion can take on the same obsession.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Words wound us so deeply. It’s funny, but I love unmade beds! It is the only way they ever appear cozy to me. But, of course, I’m sort of the apostle of messiness.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I very much want to see Fr. Stephen’s response to what Christian stewardship of the earth entails but as I have spent most of my life pondering this question and usually failing to actually do it and I’m not shy my 2 cents:

    Some excellent starting points: Psalm 24 (western numbering)
    The Earth is the Lord’s

    {A Psalm of David.}
    1The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

    2For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

    3Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

    4He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.

    5He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

    6This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.

    7Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

    8Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.

    9Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

    10Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.

    And 104 (western numbering)

    O Lord, My God, You Are Very Great

    1Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

    2Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:

    3Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:

    4Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:

    5Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

    6Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.

    7At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.

    8They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.

    9Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.

    10He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.

    11They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.

    12By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.

    13He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

    14He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;

    15And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.

    16The trees of the LORD are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;

    17Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.

    18The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.

    19He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.

    20Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.

    21The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.

    22The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.

    23Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.

    24O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

    25So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

    26There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.

    27These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.

    28That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.

    29Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.

    30Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.

    31The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.

    32He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.

    33I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.

    34My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.

    35Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.

    The latter is the beginning of Vespers in the Antiochian practice.

    My parents taught me the reality of the interrelationship of every living creature, the Church has taught me the power of God’s love for His creation and His living presence in everything, even the rocks and the tiniest sub-atomic particle. All have an absolute reliance on His life for continued existence.

    Thus, our stewardship is intimately bound up with our salvation, it is not a separate issue. The closer we come to union with God, the better stewards we will be and the beauty of creation will be enhanced as well as the way we use it.

    Ultimately our stewardship is founded upon our understanding that all here is a gift and we have a sacramental responsibility to give thanks to God for that gift and in union with Him allow Him to transform everything into what it truly is, just as we are made fully human by His grace and mercy, we participate in allowing the rest of creation to become what it truly is. “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee…”

    On a more mundane note, it means taking care of what we are personally given and has nothing to do, except in the most peripheral way, with politics, economics and other ideologies which are bound up in the myth of progress and seek to ignore God altogether. There is no scientific, economic or political solution or model which will do the job.

    There is an excellent book: “The End of Indian Kansas” which highlights dramatically the difference between the modern and the traditional approach to the natural world and her resources. The authors clearly favor the modern, utilitarian approach unfortunately. That does not lessen the power of their narrative.

    Pray, fast(asceticism), give alms to those in need nearest you and forgiveness always, worship and participate in communion, repent. Do not war. Our stewardship rests in the fullness of the faith and in the fullness of our humanity. We do violence to the creation when we worship it rather than our Creator. Look at Adam and Eve and their approach to the forbidden fruit. It beauty and taste took the place of God as the pride of knowing (falsely) initiated the action.

    The order of creation as God knows it be will be revealed and resurrected in our own resurrection and theosis.

    In the mean time, we live with a great deal of messiness, temptation, misuse and destruction.

  33. Rita Avatar

    I agree with you up to a point, though I find your outlook somewhat pessimistic. As a Physicist, for me entropy is a mark of the forward march of time. We can not go back in time, entropy if you like is proof that the world as we know it will one day cease to exist. However God stands outside time, He is the Eternal Present and He desires us to share that with Him. Surely He desires our hearts to be united with His in the Eternal Present? That is our aim. We are to seek from Him an entropy busting, messiness busting inner awareness of the Eternal Present whilst at the same time being ourselves very much tied down by increasing messiness and decay. This is not a paradox.

    Isn’t this the whole point of the Sacraments: to bust out of our straightjacket of time, space and mess and meet our Saviour with a foretaste of heaven? The order in Heaven is not like some over ridgid traditional Mass, the order in heaven is simply what we call Beauty, and somehow, yes “a little disorder in the dress”, a little frail yet reverential messiness is far more beautiful in our Liturgy than clockwork precision .

    I thank you for your blog, it is an oasis of good and thoughtful writing.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The apostle of messiness” what a wonderful appellation. Reminds me of the Apostle Andrew and his unruly hair that is shown in all of his icons. Dynamic order does not preclude a messy bed but it can be a sign of entropic passions at work too. Ah, the discernment…. When ‘order’ becomes an end in itself it is just another failed morality.

    …and Dino, thank you for your help on the Greek. I’ve always recognized dominion as the responsibility to bring to fullness, not license to rape and pillage; subduing it intimately linked to Adam’s naming — recognizing the logoi of each thing. I hope I do not do violence to the text in believing that. From what you said, apparently, I do not.

  35. Dino Avatar

    I very much agree with you Michael

  36. Dean Avatar

    Thanks Rita for the phrase, “reverential messiness” in terms of the liturgy. I remember poignantly the first time this struck me as we were worshipping in a Serbian Orthodox church. Must have been a vigil. Children were sleeping lying on blankets spread all over the floor. As some were in front of candle stands people would reverently, and with great care tip toe around and/ or over the sleeping little ones. All of this ” untidyness” while the holiness and beauty of the liturgy went on. This juxtaposition of the holy with the untidy strewing of bed pallets struck me as very wonderful and precious.

  37. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Dino, thanks for your note upthread. Helpful.


  38. Dale (George) Avatar

    Your article troubles me because I feel as though my life is “a mess.” In some ways and I’m trying to fix it. Should I not seek to address it? Or should I accept the “paradox” of entropy and the Genesis mandate to subdue and have dominion?

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dale, it is not either/or it is just that the expectation that things will get better or get ‘fixed’ as is usually understood is the problem.

    To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is not something we can achieve on our own will but by cooperation with grace being transformed, not fixed.

    Being made whole, not just patched up.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that we “fix what we can fix,” but then we also have to know that there’s things that can’t be fixed. For example, sometimes the messes we’ve made had created messes for others for which all we can do is ask forgiveness, make whatever mends are possible, and then “accept” it.

    The greater mistake in our lives would be to mistake the little order we are able to bring and our subduing and dominion with salvation itself. Sometimes this is the “American Dream,” the illusion that all is well. Only God is well and we are only well when we are moving towards Him. Managing the mess can become a great spiritual distraction for some.

    But, by all means, repentance certain clears certain kinds of messes – just not everything. Only God needs to be everything.

  41. Trifon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and Matth,
    I was using the term “religion” as Yannaras defines it: an egocentric, natural, individual need to protect oneself from uncertainty through adherence to a clearly codified moral law.

    Yannaras points out how morality can become for Christians a new law, and this is serious: St Paul tells us that the law is “the power of death” (1 Cor 15:56).

    The religious ideology that drove such institutions as the Inquisition and the fruit they bore bear witness to the individualistic nature of religion. Of course, “religion” in this sense must be differentiated from the Church.

    To reiterate, religion is a manifestation of the need for individual psychological security, even beyond death. This is guaranteed by enforcement of a moral “law” based on unquestionably and infallibly true “dogmas” (a priori accepted “truth,” very much different from ecclesial dogma).

    In the Church, we may come to live according to the truth by incorporation into Christ’s body and participation in the life of His Church. Yannaras emphasizes that ecclesial life is characterized by the transformation of individualistic biological life (man as animal in the animal, individual struggle of survival of the fittest–all against all) into true life. And true life is impossible within the strictures of religious moralism. Moralism is just another instance of the survival of the fittest.

    So in the Church, we are invited to live life in Christ, the description of which I’ll leave to saints and theologians. And in religion we have law which demands moral perfection, which in turn necessitates the use of the harshest psychological and physical punishments.

    The modern technocratic bureaucracy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. The groundwork was laid by religious institutions. The state gradually replaced the Church and here we are.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is as I thought, based on other things in Yannaras. Which is why I wanted context.

  43. Chris Avatar

    I sometimes wonder why God created a universe tending towards entropy. This was one of the reasons C.S. Lewis couldn’t believe in God the early part of his life. He saw the universe spiraling towards cold, dark, oblivion and couldn’t fathom a God at the center of it all. Some “cosmic messiness” is not the consequence of the Fall, or is it? Any thoughts?

  44. Matth Avatar

    I confess that I don’t know much about Yannaras, and am fairly new to reading deeply on the theology of the Church, but that description makes me wonder if he is even Orthodox? I could see how he’s actually critiquing the West with that, and the intrusion of Western thought into Orthodoxy, but it just seems so… modern. But, again, I don’t know much about the context, and what he’s describing.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He is a contemporary Orthodox theologian and social thinker. Oftentimes people get the idea that unless there are lots of quotes from the Fathers, etc., then it’s not Orthodox theology. It is certainly correct that theology must be rooted in the thought of the Fathers, but not everything is just commentary and explanation. Yannaras is a very creative thinker, working from Orthodox “principles” – and sometimes with clear quotes from the Fathers, etc. It is always the way of thinking that is the most vulnerable to critique – and has to be closely examined. But he’s thoroughly Orthodox.

    His critique is indeed pointed at the West and its intrusion into Orthodoxy.

    I like him – not like meat and potatoes…more like the dressing on a salad.

    It is a pity, somewhat, that there is a misperception about what constitutes Orthodox thought. Most of what people read is, well, readable. And the easier it is, the better. Some of the stuff out there is, in fact, misleading. The attacks on the “Parisians” in the 70’s or so, found sometimes in Fr. Seraphim Rose, are confusing for some, and make them wary of any Orthodox “intellectuals” and “academics.” When, in fact, it was primarily the noise of an inter-Orthodox polemic that should but be put to sleep. But there’s been a lasting effect from the ripples of that polemic (it did not originate with Fr. Seraphim). And I see it very often on our beloved internet.

    Much of the best in Orthodox thought is also just about impossible to read, or requires a great deal of training and knowledge to understand. I think, for example, that contemporary Greek writing needs to also have some solid acquaintance with the past 200 years of history in Greece and the Balkans to appreciate what is being said and why it has some of the force it does. When contemporary Greek thought says “the West” that particular history gives it far more of its force than the events of the Schism or the Papacy. And, sadly, its a bit of history almost no one in the West ever reads.

    I’m not an intellectual snob (or I don’t want to be one), but there’s a whole lot of ill-trained, underinformed writing out there. I’m glad you’re reading Yannaras. Again, he’s not central to Orthodox thought, but he’s part of it and it’s good to broaden ourselves as well as deepening ourselves.

    I am watching with interest the current politics in Greece. I’m very much a learner in that situation. A problem will be that everyone over here will see what’s going on there and simply interpret it into our own terms of Left and Right. It has some relationship to all that, but with a very different Hellenic twist. It’s a very difficult time in modern Greek history. I pray for our brothers and sisters there and their safe-keeping.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. First, we should learn to quit saying that the universe is “fallen.” It never fell. Instead, in St. Paul’s language it was “made subject to futility” in light of our fall. I think this was not as punishment, but because, strangely, since we made a bargain with death, we could only be saved in a universe bound by death. The entropy at work in it provides the same consequences as does our own fallen state. Christ will free everything.

    It is within the thought of the Fathers to say that the universe has always been subject to entropy and was created in such a manner with a view to our fall. Paradise, in the thought of the Fathers, seems to have something of a status removed from “this world.” We fall “out of paradise into this world” in the language of St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer.

    Of course, this requires that we not be utterly linear in our understanding of cause and effect.

  47. Dino Avatar

    what a terrifically pithy comment to Chris…!

  48. Matth Avatar

    Thank you, Father. As I tried to make clear in my comment, I have little acquaintance with Yannaras, and have only recently begun reading on what, exactly, Orthodoxy is (as opposed to just going to the Divine Liturgy). Your and Trifon’s comments helped give additional context.

    I’ve not been following the situation in Greece; I try not to follow the news at all, and minimize my time on the internet almost exclusively to this blog, so I’m often ignorant about such things. It looks like the false equilibrium they’d been teetering in for the past few years has begun to shift. Certainly these are times when much prayer and concern are warranted.

    Your comment about the history of Greece not being well understood by outsiders is a specific case of a general truism about Europe. On this side of the Atlantic, and seemingly in English-language media from Europe, history has been lost. But the reality is that history is a physical force in Europe, as I’m sure you understand from your first-hand experiences traveling over there.

  49. AR Avatar

    Beth, the words of your story leaped out at me as I scrolled through the comments. You have that Chestertonian skill of writing originally while saying traditional things. I would like to be your publisher!

  50. AR Avatar

    One huge religious impulse (religious in the natural sense) seems to be the hope of God ending evil. I think that is manifested in the Old Testament far more than the desire for immortality is. Usually evil is localized, sometimes in oneself, sometimes in one’s people or their enemies. I think someone with the time and skills to write a book on it could trace the entire scriptural development of the idea of Hell from some imagery in the Psalms and prophets, springing from this impulse.

  51. Chris Avatar

    Thanks for your reply, Father. That blows my mind.

  52. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!!!

    What an outstanding post and comments.

    I think it’s fair to suggest that if our lives are not messy we are unlikely to be following one of Christ’s most basic instructions to ‘ take up your cross and follow me’. This cross comes without worldly conditions for order, comfort, and progress. It is without any condition other than that of following Him. And, in a worldly sense, following Him and His commandments will lead us both into the paradise of His Kingdom and the hell of an earthly experience of pain, rejection and persecution so evident in the path He blazed for us.

    Indeed, the Cross is messy. And those who rejected Christ were looking for a savior that fit nicely and orderly into their misconception that his path should be full of worldly treasures, adoration and the certainty of his identity as king.

    In the Cross we encounter as we follow Him, we realize how desperate is our need for a savior and for His Power to allow us to continue in The Way. For when stripped of these earthly conditions we desire, we find that He is enough.

    And without the Cross, the illusions of order and progress I experience as I worship the imaginary gods of comfort, familiarity and predictable outcomes keep me stuck and ignoring the true Life that lies ‘not of this world’.

  53. AndrewT Avatar

    The renovationism of the Roman Church, very much due to its tidiness and uniformity, is helping it to kill itself off. Your church is one I actually trust to never change its liturgy.

  54. Alan Avatar

    Bruce, love your comments. Especially the last two paragraphs.

    Father, great post. I’ve sort of been thinking this for a while. I say “sort of” because the thoughts were jumbled in my brain and I couldn’t make any sense of them. So, thank you. This post made me think of my former Evangelical megachurch. Everything there is nice, pristine and is done in a VERY orderly fashion. The place functions like a well oiled machine where nothing every goes wrong or happens at the wrong time. Going there sometimes feels like being in the army. While seemingly everyone there loves this aspect of the church, I always had a sense that there was something wrong about that, but could never quite understand why it was wrong. One of the things that is drawing me to Orthodoxy is this messiness you talk about. For me, I felt like the Evangelicals I knew had totally figured God out and put Him in a nice, neat box with a bow on top.

    On a different note, this past Christmas, for the first time in years, my family and I got a real Christmas tree. In my circle of family and friends, that put us in a very small minority of people. Some will say “it’s so messy and drops needles everywhere.” I told my wife that part of the reason I love the real tree is precisely because it drops needles and needs to be watered each day. It’s messy, but like real life.

  55. Dino Avatar

    If I may add something of a minor caveat to the conversation perhaps… Yes, salvation is ‘messy’ –messiness being almost inherent to the salvation of any (created ex nihilo) creature- ; but, that should neither really cause us to ‘celebratorily’ bask in it, or mean that we are not in danger of falling into being “messy types” in our lives [both because of good or ] because of bad reasons. Equally of course, we can be “tidy-types” both because of good or because of bad reasons…
    I remember Saint Paisios’ story –(it was recounted to demonstrate a different notion, namely that of always ensuring we have “benign thoughts”)- whereupon entering a brother’s cell, which was meticulously tidy, he exclaimed ‘this monk’s cell mirrors his heart –clean and well-ordered’. Upon entering another brother’s cell that was extremely untidy and filthy he exclaimed: ‘this monks cell is a manifestation of one who gives his all to spiritual warfare to the detriment of all other (fundamentally futile) concerns’. So, instead of observing evil in both situations, he only saw only good –irrespective of the ‘objective’ truth. (This positive belief in you transformed you more than any reproach ever would -by the way.) In fact, I have found this way of thinking to be the objective truth in similar situations regarding some monasteries that appear to either function shambolically, or magnificently organized.
    Now back to the theme: let us not fall into praising messiness to the point that, when we encounter a Church or a Monastery or a family that for some special reason works like clockwork (as far as this is possible in this world), we end up denigrating that…!
    Besides, we are called to ‘dress and keep’, albeit in the overarching spirit of ‘acceptance of all that befalls us’ -that is equally uncritical of messiness. We are to “attend to ourselves”… Our movement towards eternal well-being must be both joyous as well as watchful – as we are walking on a tight rope… I generally find that the more dedicated one is the more internally ordered his heart eventually becomes -irrespective of any outward manifestations of this or not…

  56. Karen Avatar

    Dino, great points. I love the story from Elder Paisios.

    I have ADHD, but unlike Fr. Stephen, I don’t prefer unmade beds! 🙂 I like order because it helps my easily-distracted, scatterbrained self to focus and function. I struggle to embrace mess (all kinds), and it is only through ascetic effort I manage to embrace the human messiness of others (the kind God has called us to embrace). My heroine in this regard–a model I would like to more closely resemble–is my maternal grandmother, whose parents came to this country from Prussia (now East Germany). Her little cozy house was warm, comfortable and completely orderly, and her cookie jar was always full for our visit and her kitchen always smelled of something good! When we needed something, it was always easy to locate it and it was always in clean and serviceable condition. She had many grandchildren whose lives were frequently quite messy. I think some of my older cousins did see a different side of her when she was younger–she mellowed considerably with age. By the time I knew her, she somehow managed to convey only the most unconditional embrace for all of us, even if she couldn’t quite understand or approve of some of our choices.

    There is plenty of mess in my house and life as well. I normally only manage to accept my own messes because I’m adept at blocking out from conscious focus the notice of things that would otherwise trouble me. I’m in process of trying to bring order to an “office” corner of my house which has been a “catch-all” for years for paperwork I could not keep up with. It has been an oppressive burden to me and, more importantly, my husband who sometimes has to work from home and is one of those who struggles to focus and who suffers when his environment is not orderly. I have realized it is even hypocritical for me to go up to the Chalice as long as I am ignoring what amounts to a lack of love and consideration for the members of my family my neglect of the struggle to bring more order within my house represents. That is, of course, not to contradict the very excellent observations in Fr. Stephen’s post.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Great words Dino.

    Order is dynamic not just entropic. That means that even the messiest of people has some order in their life and the most tidy some degree of messiness.

    Either can become pathological if pursed as ends in themselves or have become passions. It is interesting that modern psychology is increasingly identifying hoarding as a type of OCD which is frequently associated with great structure.

    Which returns us to the wisdom of St. Paisios

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My own “Yes, but…”

    But our culture has no regard for the messiness and treats it as something to be conquered. I am not suggesting that it’s a great thing – only that it is unavoidable and that there is a genuine temptation to be found in our drive for mastery.

    Forgive me, but sometimes in the words of “balance,” everything simply dissipates into nothing. We have a cult of order and control and little understanding of what I’m calling “messiness.” Don’t be too quick to abandon the need to simply meditate on what has been said.

    I have little fear that the Drang nach Ordnung will be so completely abandoned that entropy will swallow our lives.

  59. Dino Avatar

    I know we are talking of a somewhat different ‘messiness’ here, but I think that the classic example of, on the one hand, the hermit who, in honour of God, is never distracted with these futile concerns of tidiness, cleanliness, (even if his daily programme is kept meticulously), while, on the other hand, as a monk living amongst others (eg. in a coenobium), must modify towards tidiness and cleanliness, again in honour of God, speaks volumes.
    That the first (and “messiest”) state is the one considered highest, perhaps implies something even beyond worldly ‘balance’.

  60. Evangelos Avatar

    “More than this, we are tormented by the abiding and increasing messiness of our lives and world. The cultural myth runs deep in our psyche. We experience guilt and shame in the face of entropy, knowing that we could have done better and should have done more. For some, such thoughts are the very stuff of insanity.”

    As a description of my life at the moment, this is damn near perfect. Pray for me, Father!

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I suppose I have assumed, if not taught it, that the entropy in creation is/was a product of our separation from God, i.e., the power of death. The Incarnation made it possible for the entropy to be overcome and indeed it has been overcome, just not fully manifest until the revelation of the new heaven and earth after this one passes away.

    Are you saying that the entropic principal has always been present and only suspended for awhile for as long as we were in the Garden?

  62. Dino Avatar

    I started with that view you just described as a child and gradually shifted to what Father Stephen described above [to Chris on January 28, 2015 at 8:05 am].
    I see more and more of this in the Fathers, (Athanasius, Maximus, Palamas etc) namely, that -on one hand- all of creation is death-bound/entropic from its beginning (according to nature) due to it being created from nothing, and -on the other- that it has been given to rational creatures to become (according to Grace) what the Uncreated One is (according to nature). Man, in his priestly capacity ascends to God along with all of creation which he drags upwards with him. He becomes like God (according to Grace). And in the Garden we see the manifestations of this (most probably) topically and in “seed” form.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I’ve listened to some suggest that we cannot trust what we see of the creation, because it’s “fallen” and that a disruption as therefore occurred at some historical point. That would obviously be true if such had ever been the case. But we have no need to posit such a thing as a theological necessity. Rather, the Creation “made subject to futility” would indeed be “from the beginning” – just as the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth. Lamb slain, creation entropic.

    The Fathers very much see Paradise as something of a “place apart,” and not this entire universe. Thus, we hear stories of saints still visiting paradise. It is rather more “noetic” in existence than “of this world.” And it was clearly separate from the beginning (hence the gates).

    It’s much more helpful in thinking through these things to hold this in mind.

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    So when we were ejected from Paradise we entered an already entropic world?

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. That would be the case. He was “subjected to futility” by God – but not through a mechanism of us “pulling it down with us.”

  66. Dino Avatar

    Metr. J. Zizioulas describes it as “defaulted back to the state inherent to creatureliness”.
    The descriptions of Elder Sophrony concerning his experience of God’s Light and then the ‘return’ to the previous (…”natural”…) state – now perceived as darkness – speak of the same.

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Is this another paradox: an entripic world where He is everywhere present–filling all things?

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that we have to spend time understanding what it means that Christ “tramples down death by death.” The wonder of our salvation is that the very thing that was destroying us becomes the very thing by which we are saved. It is the ultimate paradox. When I wrote “salvation is messy,” it embodies this paradox.

    It is right that we see death as the enemy, and messiness as a disordered antagonist. But we still have to see that the enemy death is defeated by death, and that messiness is not overcome by the application of order. The real paradox is given to us by Christ, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. (Luk 9:24)

    Which translates again to “the way down is the way up.” It is the slow, daily living of the paradox in its fullness that yields the fruit of the Kingdom. It stands everything on its head. Our salvation is inherently paradoxical.

  69. Michelle Avatar

    I’m reading a book that touches on the topic of the nature of Adam’s creaturely-ness called “Jesus Fallen?: The Human Nature of Christ Examined from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” by Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis. In it Fr. Hatzidakis explains that, according to the Patrisitic tradition of the Church, Adam’s creaturely nature is neither intrinsically mortal nor immortal from creation, but has the potential for either relative to his communal relationship with God. I imagine the rest of creation has this same potential, while not necessarily possessing either a immortal/incorrupt or mortal/corrupt nature in and of itself from creation.

  70. Michelle Avatar

    I’m thinking that our, as well as all of creation, potential for death and corruption is realized in our being created from nothing, while our potential for eternal life is realized in our being created in the image of God, and thus the rest of creation’s potential for incorruption is realized in Adam’s ascent toward deification. This is inline with what Dino is saying.

    This also complements the paradox Father Stephen has expressed. If Christ was slain from the beginning of the world, and creation participates in Christ’s death, then creation’s potential for incorruption is realized in its Baptism (dying with Christ).

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. This is very sound and accurate. Too much thought on this topic is not properly grounded in “ontology” the understanding of being and existence. This is quite critical to the Fathers – Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Maximus. Ontology, “Being, Essence, Person, etc., etc.” was the primary language of the Fathers in speaking of the Trinity and of Christ (and thus human beings). Slowly, and by the end of St. Maximus’ life (and finally in ST. Gregory Palamas), that language was refined to a very consistent level, with an inner grammar that worked across the whole of doctrinal thought.

    But that same grammar has been obscured by centuries of non-Patristic writing (particularly the introduction of forensic/legal imagery). Recovering this grammar into our thought and lives is an ongoing work of Orthodoxy in the modern world.

    You have expressed it very well.

    As a sidebar – much of what I’m doing at the moment in the conversations about “Unmoral Christians” is getting the forensic/legal imagery out of our moral thought and putting the ontological back in. Morality is the absolute stronghold of the forensic model.

    You can see how it coopted thought about Adam. In moral terms, something is good or bad. Thus, unfallen Adam must be perfect, even immortal, etc. But if we think about this in terms of being and existence – unfallen Adam simply exists – he has existence, movement and direction. It’s not a moral problem, but an existential problem. His movement in a direction away from God becomes a movement away from well-being and eternal being (ultimately a movement away from being itself and therefore towards death).

    It’s much more helpful, I think, to ponder these things in the framework established by the Fathers and not in the moralistic thought that so dominates our culture.

  72. Dino Avatar

    I think the truth that Christ “tramples down death by death”, is the key too… There is no other way for one who is (1) a creature, and (2) free to say both ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to his Creator, than this, namely: to be saved from death through death…
    John 12:24 refers to this: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
    As does Psalm 118/119 :25 “My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy Word.” and many other passages.
    To live in self-sacrificial love was our calling from the very start – and this certainly involves a perceived ‘death’ – as far as my egoism is concerned.
    Saint Maximus the Confessor says that Christ, “changed the use of death.” But even in our “un-fallen” state, we were called in a sense to ‘take up our cross’, to not live for ourselves, but for Christ, our God and our Life. To live an existence grounded in free, self-sacrificial love -which Christ subsequently showed to be the life and very being of God himself, demonstrating what it means to be God in the way he died as a human.

    Our perception of this ‘death’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘darkness’ can extend to its diametrical opposite in Grace: all the way to life (eternal), pleasure (spiritual) and light (uncreated).

    But this variance in perception, ontological interpretation, means our rationalisations struggle with such a concept…. Let’s present a practical example: I recall Saint Paisios who, after remaining in the Uncreated Light for a whole night and then -at the end of his wondrous experience- coming out of his cell and seeing the midday bright Greek sun… mistook it for the moon…! He thought daytime was night-time without God’s light, in comparison to what nighttime had looked like in God’s Light. I mention this because creation can look resplendent with light and beauty and alive to the degree of our communion with God’s grace and deathly, meaningless and dark to the degree of our separation from Him.

  73. Rupert Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Unable to “get a grip” on all of the demands in my life, I am often tempted to despondency because of the perceived MESS. I take heart when I am reminded that all I really have to do is continue in faith. I think it was St. Anthony the Great who said, “Today I begin”. Your article was yet another reminder and thank you!

    While your words certainly ring true to my limited mind, I wonder if you could pass on any passages from the Fathers on “messiness.”

  74. Michelle Avatar

    “I think that we have to spend time understanding what it means that Christ “tramples down death by death.” The wonder of our salvation is that the very thing that was destroying us becomes the very thing by which we are saved. It is the ultimate paradox. When I wrote “salvation is messy,” it embodies this paradox.”

    While I have come to understand this truth, it is a hard saying. Let me explain why; Ive been living with a chronic blood disorder that has the (slim) potential to turn into Leukemia for the past few years. I learned this while pregnant with my first child, and am now presently I am pregnant with my second child (praise God!). So I was pretty frightened when this past week I received the results of my last blood test and noticed a small discrepancy. I quickly proceeded to scare myself by researching online and self diagnosing the problem myself (this is a problem I have, lol. Anxious people always love best to continually scare themselves). And as I expected my worst nightmare seemed to be coming true. The next day I called my Doctor with the bad news, and, of course, he reminded me that he was the one with the Medical degree, not me, and told me to stop worrying because everything is fine. And I feel much better now. The moral of my story, though, is that during all of this, and even still now, I have been considering over and over in my mind this truth that “Christ ‘tramples down death by death.’ The wonder of our salvation is that the very thing that was destroying us becomes the very thing by which we are saved.” Christ has transformed death. He brought His Life into His death, and in this way He “healed” all death, even a death by Leukemia that leaves one’s young children without their mother. I do not mentally, emotionally, physically, know what to do with this. In the midst of suffering it is much harder to process the paradox. I want my heart to understand. And not even just for myself, but I want to understand also for all those mothers out there whose bad news really does end up being bad news. I want the peace and joy that the Saints have. Of course that takes purity of heart by the Grace of God. But for me in the midst of such suffering this “messiness” of our salvation is indeed a hard saying.

  75. AR Avatar

    Michelle, I’m sorry to hear of your situation. It is also very difficult for me to contemplate suffering, loss, and danger, especially when they affect children. I appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself in the middle of all this.

    Would you mind emailing me?



  76. Michelle Avatar

    Just re-read my last post and just want to make it more clear that when my doctor told me everything is fine he meant I do not have Leukemia (and to stop self-diagnosing, lol). Im not sure if that came across in my last post.

  77. Michelle Avatar

    First, thank you for your kind words, and, secondly, I just sent you an email. Let me know if you don’t receive it, just in case I messed up the address.

  78. Christopher Avatar

     “and I have very strong suspicions that its next “outbreak” will be in the increasingly efficient, relativist, and godless French nation. (They have always been bureaucratic, but it’s only in the last 30 years that they’ve begun a program of streamlining and modernizing.) “

    I think Islam is going to derail that project in soon-to-be-named “Francostan”.

    “ I have never bought into the idea that every German involved in the Holocaust was a true believer, at least not since I have had jobs in the corporate world and seen how decisions are made on a daily basis which are deeply destructive even to the people making the decisions “

    This made me think of the revolution that is happening in medicine. I can understand the average “voter” or “health consumer” being duped into an ever increasingly bureaucratic and rationed system, but what about those who actually work in medicine (as either doctors or in support capacity)? They are increasingly cogs – yet another W-2 employee who is so easily replaced and ever more distant from the patient. When you look at the percentage of doctors who opposed/supported Medicare in the sixties, and the percentage who opposed/supported “obamacare”, it parallels the numbers who are now W-2 “worker units”…

  79. Andrew McCombs Avatar
    Andrew McCombs

    In the fall of 2013, when I was still Roman Catholic, I ventured to the local Serbian festival, held at an Orthodox Church. Vendors sold mostly religious/cultural items. I picked out a small silver three barred cross (wearing it now) and bought it. I figured I would go ask the priest to bless it. I assumed it was going to be a nice, quick and clean blessing a la RC blessings over rosaries. Boy was I wrong. The priest invited me to pray with him, and then hold the cross as he fumbled to find his holy water. It took nearly fifteen minutes to conclude the rather lengthy rite. Many I think would find this to be a bad first impression. But to me it was the greatest-no rush, because we were operating not in earthly time, but in God’s time, eternity.

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