Living in the Real World

img_1204_2Nothing exists in general. If something is beautiful or good, it is manifest in a particular way at a particular time such that we can know it. And this is our true life. A life lived in a “generalized” manner is no life at all, but only a fantasy. However, this fantasy is increasingly the character of what most people think of or describe as the “real world.”

A monk lives in a monastery. He rises early in the morning and prays. He concentrates his mind in his heart and dwells in the presence of God. He will offer prayers for those who have requested it. He will eat and tend to the work assigned for him to do. And so he lives his day. He works. He prays.

And someone will say, “But what does he know about the real world?” But what can they possibly mean? He walks on the earth. He breathes the same air as we do. He eats as we do and sleeps as we do. How is his world any less real than that of anyone else on the planet?

A man lives in a city. He wakes in the morning, turns on the TV as he gets ready for the day. He dashes out the door (he’s running late). He gets to his car, listens to the news on the radio, takes a couple of calls on his cell phone. He gets to work and for every minute he does something that he thinks of as “work,” he spends at least another checking his email, looking quickly at Facebook, and maybe checking the news. He gets into an argument at lunch about what should be done somewhere else in the world and who should do it. Angry and distracted, he is frustrated with himself because he swore he was not going to have that same argument today. He goes back to work with the same routine. After work he drops by a bar, has a couple of drinks and decides to stay and watch some of the game. He gets home late and heads to bed.

Who is living in the real world? The man-in-the-city’s life is “real,” it actually happens. But he is distracted all day from everything at hand. He never notices himself breathing unless he’s out of breath. He swallows his food as quickly as possible. Even the beers he has at the bar are as much for the buzz as for the taste.

If the man refrained from these things his friends might taunt him, “What are you? Some kind of monk?”

What is the “real” that we should live in?

Increasingly, the modern world lives in distraction. But on account of the dominance of shared media experience, that “distraction” is treated as somehow “real.” The daily, sometimes non-stop, attention to this distracted “reality,” creates a habit of the heart. It is a common experience for someone “cut off” from this shared media experience to feel isolated and alone. Of course, three days of no media changes nothing. My attention to the distraction is not at all the same thing as attention to the world itself. For whatever reality might be, it is decidedly not the distorted snapshots presented in our newsfeed.

The experience of “reality” that is media-generated has the character of “things in general.” The habits that form within us as we give attention to this abstraction are themselves vague and ill-defined. We “care” about something, but we have nothing in particular that we can do about it. We are angry over extended periods about things that are greatly removed from our lives. Our attention itself becomes a passive response rather than a directed movement of the soul. Our lives largely become an experience of manipulation – only it is we ourselves who are being manipulated.

Against this is the life of Christian virtue. It is little wonder that frustration accompanies our efforts towards acquiring the virtues. The soul whose habits are formed in the distracted world of modernity cannot suddenly flip a switch and practice prayer of the heart. We sit still and attempt to pray and our attention wanders. It is little wonder that our attention wanders. It has been trained to be passive and follow a media stream. In the stillness of the soul, there is no media stream and our attention feels lost and empty.

This is the reason for the life of the monk. He lives as he does in order to be attentive to reality – to see and hear, taste and touch what is true and at hand. It is not so different than most human lives 200 years ago, before the rise of mass culture. And it is real. Deeply real. It is also the basis of the sacramental life. God gives us Himself, His life-creating grace, in very concrete and particular ways. The reason is simple – we were created to live in a concrete and particular way. The life of abstraction is alien to the life of grace. There is no sacrament of the abstract, vague or general. The only Presence is a real presence.

If we want to pray, then we will have to live as though we are praying. We cannot live in the abstract and suddenly attend to the real. We cannot “care” and then turn to love. “To live” is an active verb. The passions of mass experience are something else.

Live. Love. Eat. Breathe. Pray.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



111 responses to “Living in the Real World”

  1. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Is the real obtained/understood through the prayer of the heart and not the prayer of the mind?

    Please explain.

  2. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless, another great post. What is real? Recently my wife was frustrated with me because I did not consider a task like weeding as the same value as something else like prayer. I simply asked her if I weeded or not, would it matter in eternity. If it does, it needs a high priority for my time and attention, if not, it can get in line with many other things. I use the measure of “mattering in eternity” as a way to keep things “real” or in perspective. Yes, I did get around to weeding, but not in the order demanded. The things that “matter in eternity” simply come first. All else fits in where it fits. I confess that I did do a little paraphrase in our discussion. I told her that we would always have weeds with us.

  3. Michael Avatar

    Hi Father, would you elaborate on this? “We cannot “care” and then turn to love.”
    Do you mean that these things that concern us (care) while living in this fast lane of abstraction, these our cares, do you mean that in reality they fall outside the realm of genuine living where true love can be our experience? Lord have mercy.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that it is the heart that most truly perceives what is real. The mind is useful for certain things, but perception is not its strong suit. It has taken me a very long time to understand what is meant by “the heart.” In the Fathers it is the equivalent of the Greek word “nous.” And to make matters confusing, the West traditionally translated that word as “intellect.” It is often rendered as “mind” in the NT. And, admittedly, the NT is not always precise in its use of the word. It comes to have a very precise meaning in the Fathers, even if it is hard for us to grasp.

    I have used examples such as “kinesthetic” knowing (how to play piano, or how to ride a bicycle) when I’m illustrating the meaning of “nous” or “the heart.” It is actually the place, the Fathers say, where we do indeed perceive God and thus also the place we perceive what is real. There is an intuitive element (“a gut feeling”). But what I think is more accurate is something like knowing with every fiber of my being.

    What is lacking in us is that we rarely know anything with every fiber of our being because we ignore most of our being (especially the “fibers”). The mind is clouded with emotions, passions, the constant barrage of make-believe that is the culture of our consumer society. We’re too distracted to know much of anything.

    The traditional spiritual practice in Orthodoxy is called “hesychia” (silence or stillness). It can be quite literal as in the life of a monk or nun. But it also means the stillness of our life, an attentiveness to the whole of our being and, then, that which is around us. It is more observer than decider. It watches rather than judges.

    “Be still and know that I am God,” we are told. It is still the right path.

  5. Eric Avatar

    This is so timely, Father Stephen.

    Just this morning I considered thinking out loud, ‘perhaps God is not remotely concerned about ‘the Olympics”, in which we are all so absorbed (sic)

    The French situationist philosopher, Bordieu (?) calls this ‘The age of the Spectacle’, and describes it as pervasive and all around. It is shall we say a Kosmos(World), something the human has created and called ‘the real world’

    Soberingly, he was writing well before the age of the Internet, smart phones and perpetual distraction as a form of (non)existence

  6. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Observe and watch is better than choose and judge.

    So different than this world.

    Thanks, father.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I meant by “care” what the world says when it sees something that touches its public sentiments. People “care” about all kinds of things, mostly whatever the latest disaster-fad is on the 24/7 news cycle. People “care” about poverty, suffering, etc., but it is only empty sentiment. Love sacrifices itself. The constant barrage of the media world wants people to “care” because they can easily be manipulated into fairly meaningless things – mostly registering their sentiments for pollsters in order to justify the abuse of power that will be done in their name.

  8. James Avatar

    Of the many things I find healing in Fr. Stephen’s blog is that we not only receive his theme, his essay, but in the Comment section we often receive further his reflection on a question which, like two for one, we get more of Fr. Stephen like, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “a little touch of Harry in the night.”

  9. James Avatar

    Also, in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, he quotes a Persian poet who writes:

    “Lord, teach how to care and how not to care”.

  10. Michael Avatar

    Thank you for clarifying Father.

  11. EPG Avatar

    Wonderful post.

    If you ever have a moment, please do take a look at Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” and “The World Beyond Your Head.” His thoughts on knowledge, including what you refer to as “kinesthetic” knowledge, and his description of the distracted state in which we live, closely parallel your observations here.

    He does not write from an Orthodox perspective (or even a Christian one, as far as I can tell), so it is fascinating to see two writers come to similar critiques of our post-modern world from differing starting points.

  12. Helen Avatar

    Seems that it takes a lot of saying Yes to live in the real world.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. We live in a culture of distraction. People who pay attention to the real world don’t feel very compelled to shop all the time. Our culture is largely driven to make us consume. Reality mostly invites us to exist and give thanks.

  14. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I know folks who shop, shop, shop.

    But most of the folks I know aren’t ‘compelled to shop’. I suppose most of my associates pay attention to the real world.

    Father, does that make them ontologically inclined?

  15. Ann Avatar

    God frequently “surprises” me with His presence and it is as physical as it is spiritual. I can feel energy running up and down my spine (which sounds weird but it happens) and a sort of enveloping energetic peace (if that makes any sense at all) As I sit outside the barn listening to the evening sounds of birds, distant vehicles, the horses crunching hay and watch the sun set with all its glorious colors, He graces me with His presence. Yesterday, as I pulled up a favorite song by Alex Boye (I Will Rise) for my bedbound patient and we held hands and watched it together, He was there and the room filled with His energized peace and presence. It is frequently in the “little things” and times in my life, that His glory falls all around.

    I thank you Father for your writing and I thank those who respond as well. I learn so much from you all. God bless you and keep you.

  16. maria Avatar

    Dear Ann,
    (also Fr. Stephen)
    I was glad you mentioned the “energetic peace”. See if i am describing the same thing you experience: I too have discovered this peace, which is different from the peace i used to seek on vacation, sitting alone on the beach for instance, away from noise. That peace (not a result of prayer) sort of droops and becomes empty after awhile, and you’re left lonely, wanting to “get back to the world”. The energetic peace is so full of life! I’ve discovered this first at a monastery and then also at home.
    Thanks, Maria

  17. Marcus Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this post. I guess first I must confess that I am reading and commenting at work, so alas, I am most certainly distracted. But I mostly wanted to say that I was recently convicted of how Facebook was twisting my perception of reality and tempting me towards a dissatisfaction with my present life situation. My wife and I recently moved, leaving behind our friends and church family. For many months, I was constantly checking Facebook, seeing what others were presenting as their lives in the forms of photos and videos. Everyone on my feed was having so much fun, having such great adventures, and here I was, stuck in the middle of nowhere with no friends (but my wife) and no excitement. I was growing ever dissatisfied with where I was and who I was becoming. By God’s grace, He intervened in my slow spiral downward.

    I’ve been ignoring Facebook for about two months now, and it has been a truly freeing experience. Moving is always hard, and certainly some of the improvement in my attitude towards life is probably due to just being more settled in our new location. But I know that part of the reason I feel more at home now is because I’ve allowed myself to be present here, instead of trying to constantly live somewhere else through my FB feed.

    Reality was meant to be experienced with all five senses. That which I can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel is real. The internet offers only a poor imitation of reality, feeding our eyes and occasionally ears, while tempting our other senses with a lack of fulfillment.

  18. Gregory (William) Manning Avatar
    Gregory (William) Manning

    Bless you Father–and thank you for yet another piece of the puzzle. The picture becomes clearer. Many years.

  19. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    What’s the difference between yin and yang and the energetic peace spoken of here?


  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I couldn’t make such a judgement. I don’t know them.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yin and Yang are concepts that are outside the language of the Christian Tradition. I have no idea of what relation there may be.

  22. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    This is addressed to Nicholas

    Your wife asked you to weed in the garden. You were busy doing something else, praying. You are out of time with the seasons, and missed your opportunity to walk in the garden with God. “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…And he walks with me and He talks with me….” Weeding is tedious and laborious. At the same time, some of my best intuitions and solutions have come to me after a couple hours of weeding. At the same time, it is a big job, one that shouldn’t be shouldered by your wife alone. In fact, if you each took a row and weeded together, what a wonderful conversation you could have.

    I believe you are closest to God when you are tending the garden, doing God’s work. Afterall, it was called the GARDEN of Eden.

    Wishing you the best,

  23. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Ordinarily, I would agree with you that a task shared is a good thing for a relationship but in my circumstance, weeding is not something I can do. I had back surgery with fusion and bending is not something that is possible. The point is that I have to chose between the ministry that I do and chores. I do the ministry first and the chores when I can. They get done, just not when others might think they should.

  24. Alan Avatar

    Father, Thank you for yet another outstanding post.

    Nicholas, thank you for your comments. I so resonate with them. What you’ve done is what I need to do. I get up early every Sat, mow the yard, trim the bushes, etc. At the end of every Sat, I find that my yard looks perfect, yet I haven’t spent any time praying that day. So, thanks again for your comments!

    Eric, great comments about the French philosopher. Just last night, I was reading (well, actually skimming) Brave New World and BNW Revisited. I’m fascinated that Fr. Stephen, from a Christian perspective, and Huxley from a non-C perspective have both hit on the same ailment of modern man. Funny, Huxley talked about the distractions of “radio, television, and cinema”. Just like you wrote about the French philosopher, Huxley wrote that long before the age of the internet and constant distraction.

  25. Paula Pepe Avatar
    Paula Pepe

    To Janis’s response to Nicholas. You took the words right out of my mouth! Nothing more to say…except….I also thought, Nicholas, that your response is an example of how men tend to compartmentalize their thoughts and life. Ah, yes, and my comment is indeed a generalization!! Though, I believe it is to make a point.
    Fr. Freeman, thank you for having this blog site. Like someone else said here, I learn from your posts and the responses as well.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the point here is, “Never disagree with your wife on a blog…” 🙂 She belongs to a very powerful union.

  27. Alan Avatar

    Haha…..great comment Father!

  28. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Fortunately Father, my wife does not do computers nor would she read a blog. But that is OK. I am dangerous weeding because I don’t know a weed from cilantro and I have very big feet that always seem to find the tender plant to step on. My point was really that some things in this life matter in eternity and some don’t. I am doing what I can to sort out the difference and in the few short years I have remaining stick to the needful things. As an example, I have not watched one second of the Olympics and I have no idea who did what. It simply will not matter to my salvation. I don’t watch football either. The last ball game I watched was my youngest son’s last game.
    Yes, men have compartmentalized minds. I love it. My wife figured out a few years ago that I could indeed think about NOTHING. She became exceedingly jealous because her mind runs 24/7 and she has a terrible time getting to sleep. I on the, other hand, often do not remember my head impacting the pillow.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry a stab at Yin/Yang. First as Father Stephen says there is no real correspondence to anything in Christian experience.

    Yin/Yang is a product of a dualistic way of thinking and perceiving and is intimately tied with other Hindu concepts/beliefs as transmigration of the soul which Christianity emphatically rejects. Remember that Hinduism for all of its claims to universality is a pagan religion. Thus there may be and I emphasize may be some faint shadows of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, shadows are all they can be. The “states of enlightenment” promised by Hindu or Buddhist practices are at best reflections of our own consciousness according to Orthodox teachers who have studied the practices.

    Also know that the Hinduism that is practiced in India is cleaned up quite a bit for American consumption. A friend of mind who traveled in India some years back came back with his eyes open. He told the tale of how real Hindu temples still had temple prostitutes, restaurants, etc because of the belief that one had to fully indulge the passions before going into the temple to worship–an example of how they tend to see Yin/Yang.

    It can quite easily lead to even worse things. IMO, best not even go there.

  30. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Michael B,

    I understand some Eastern, pagan religions have energetic peace. How does it compare or differ from ontological energetic peace discussed here?


  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Terry, Michael,
    I’ll interject. Experience is a very fuzzy thing because of its subjective nature. “Energetic peace” is an interesting phrase, but not one I’ve seen used within the Tradition. I can kind of guess at what the user meant, but, then again, it’s hard to know.

    Orthodoxy has a strong experiential base, and yet can be extremely critical about experiential claims. One of the best books on the nature of spiritual experience and problems surrounding it is St. Ignatius Brianchininov’s The Arena, written for monks.

    The Tradition is critical of experience because it can easily be delusional, and is almost always the basis for bogus claims by charlatans. Experience always has to be subjected to examination. I have experiences, but they’re not all that important to me. They come, they go, sometimes I have no idea why. God abides. True transformation is, strangely, deeper than what most people describe when they speak of experiences.

    We lived through the 60’s – everybody saw God in the 60’s.

    Ultimately it is true transformation that bears witness to the reality of the experience – transformation into the image of Christ. This is what is evidenced in the lives of the saints. And, interestingly, the saints rarely speak about their experiences in terms of how great it was, etc. Instead, we hear their profound humility and deep emptiness. It’s almost the most sure evidence of an encounter with God. In the presence of God, how can a human being not be aware of their own emptiness?

    And so, for example, we pray before communion saying that we are the “first of sinners.” Those are not words of self-condemnation. They are the words of a saint (St. Paul) who actually felt them to be true. Moses is called the “God Seer” on many of his icons. And Scripture says that he was the “meekest man on the face of the earth.”

    Many Eastern relgions have a goal of a certain state of mind. Orthodoxy does not. The goal is God in Christ. Sometimes it can even make you miserable. Love is like that.

  32. Geri Avatar

    Regarding gardening… the story of Brother Lawrence ( The Practice of the Presence of God), is the story of a monk who was noted for the joy he exuded as a dishwasher in a monastery. We also hear of monks who practice the Jesus prayer as they do mundane things throughout the day. Whether one is weeding, or dishwashing or changing a diaper…surely all moments can be moments of prayer. For some people, kinesthetic prayer may even be easier than standing in one place (I tend to wander around). Something that Modernism seems to teach is that there are “important” things and unimportant in a way that devalues the so-called mundane. I’ve been reflecting lately on how women have been affected by this…career being praised as “important” and baby care and “home”-making beneath importance. Ultimately, everything can be sanctified. This is not to say that we must do what others insist on…just that I certainly hope that prayer can permeate every nook and cranny of our day-to-day lives.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I trust Nicholas’ judgment on his routines. Just sayin’

  34. Alan Avatar

    Thanks again Nicholas! Your comments are very encouraging to me. Of course you and I (and everyone else who has taken “Orthodoxy 101”) get the point that prayer should permeate every aspect of our lives. I’ll take wild guess here though that Brother Lawrence spent large amounts of time in the chapel, or alone in his cell in prayer. Anyway, your larger point that some things in this life matter in eternity and some don’t, is of course a great one. I’m overly addicted to watching sports on TV. So, I’m glad you specifically made the point about football and the olympics. I needed to read that.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We take sports very seriously here in East Tennessee. We are particularly interested in football. If Tennessee beats Alabama and Florida both this year, it will be a sign of the existence of God. Of course, if they don’t, it will be a sign that His wrath is still resting on us for some unknown reason. The people here have done everything other than sacrifice a goat. They’ve already sacrificed several coaches in their efforts to ward off this terrible curse. Very soon in the season, the “Battle in Bristol” will take place, where the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, TN, is being converted into the world’s largest football stadium (over 150,000 seating) for a single game between UT and Virginia Tech. It’s going to be an enormous party with tailgaiting Bar-b-cue beyond imagining. You could ignore sports here in East Tennessee, but you’d have to dig a hole in the ground and stay there for several months each year. There’s football season and then there’s waiting for football season.

  36. Joseph Conder Avatar
    Joseph Conder


    Does there have to be this dichotomy between monasticism and “ordinary life”? God does not want everyone to be monks, so there must be a way for a non-monastic to live in Reality.


  37. Dana Sumar Avatar
    Dana Sumar


    Interesting you mentioned nous.
    I was talking to a Protestant friend about relationships a few days ago and she said something about forming relationships based on emotions towards another person. I was thinking about NOUS and tried to contest that kind of attitude by telling her that our mind should be in our heart, that we should love somebody but also know why do we love somebody, and vice versa, we may like somebody but our mind will tell us that it is not a good way to go.
    It seems to me that the Orthodox approach is just more sensible.
    And then again, as an Orthodox, I tend to doubt my understanding of the Fathers.
    Would you please comment on this.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sometimes I find the existence portrayed in books and even on some TV more real than most of what goes on in the “real world” which is more and more based on a code of sacrifices to the gods of money, power and lust where nothing is evil except virtue and God.

    Joseph, fast, pray, give alms with a merciful heart attend in the sacraments. Try to do a little more as you can. And here is the one most difficult for me: have hope. Hope in Christ and in His mercy to give the increase.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The modern period, particularly 20th century and beyond, is crazy about emotions. It’s the psychology thing. Healthy relationships with other people “have” emotions but are not based on emotions. Emotions are not meant to be used in such a manner. They’re not stable and they are subject to rapid change and the least rational part of our lives.

    The contemporary culture has no idea whatsoever of what a “noetic” relationship would mean. I’ll give some thought to an article on the topic. It’s a lot for a comment.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Absolutely. I’ll say more soon. Article in process.

  41. Victoria Avatar

    To all the weeders

    Several years ago u visited Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. It’s an oasis in the desert :: literally. Anyhow there was ALOT of weeding going on :: everyday, in fact.

    And as the monks would weed they would sing/chant hymns to the Theotokos or other hymns from the service.

    That said :: my hubby never weeds and that’s just fine by me. 🙂

  42. Victoria Avatar

    Correction: that first sentence should read “I visited”

  43. Byron Avatar

    You could ignore sports here in East Tennessee, but you’d have to dig a hole in the ground and stay there for several months each year.

    So, you’d have to become a monk and dig a cell? Deep prayer is obviously required! 😉

  44. Jordan Avatar

    “Many Eastern relgions have a goal of a certain state of mind. Orthodoxy does not. The goal is God in Christ. Sometimes it can even make you miserable. Love is like that”

    This is very interesting to me. I would love to hear you say more on the subject of experience. Ever since I read something by Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer on the subject of experience, I have become aware of its ubiquity in our culture. Some churches really focus on crafting experience. How is this different then, say, attention to how our senses are engaged (smells, sounds, etc.) in prayer and worship in an Orthodox service?

    There are many people I know who are, I think, looking for the one consummating experience- the experience that will fulfill and complete all their experiences. I wonder if this is because they are not looking for the author of experience.

  45. Alan Avatar

    Oh yes Father. Even though I live a long ways away, I am well acquainted with the Vols. If they don’t beat Florida this year, after 11 straight losses to the Gators, I fear there may be a riot that ends with Neyland Stadium being torn down. 🙂

  46. Alan Avatar

    Victoria, well said!

  47. Karen Avatar

    P.S. Thank you, for those who saw my request, for your prayers for my friend, L., celebrating her birthday. Her party was a blessed event (this past Sunday), and I didn’t hear her once, either there or in the couple days since, complain of her pain!

  48. Dana Sumar Avatar
    Dana Sumar

    Thank you, Father.

    Looking forward to your article on the topic.

  49. Byron Avatar

    Glory be to God, Karen! I am thankful for this joy!

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A thought on “spiritual experience”: As one who fell prey to that search as a young man being led by that into all manner of heresy I can say it is a dead end. It is dangerous. It is not real.

    What, rather who is real, is Jesus Christ. He is really everywhere. In every person we meet. Most cover Him up but He is still there.

    “Spiritual experience” of the kind touted in the mind of the world is a lie. Any actual encounter with Jesus Christ is wholly different. We do not have to look anywhere for that. He is on our doorstep and closer than hands and feet.

    There was a homeless man who laid down in the parking lot if my office and went to sleep. There was much consternation that he might be dangerous. When I left that evening, I went over to him to make certain he was OK. He woke up and assured me your was. I gave him some money though he did not ask. For a brief moment I knew peace and mercy.

    Not because of what I did, but because Jesus was there.

    Certainly we encounter Him whenever we walk into an Orthodox Church and other places as well. He was there with me as I slogged through the swamp of “spiritual experience” lies.

    I met a man in Indianapolis several years ago in a Dairy Queen. As soon as he walked in, I could tell he was a man of God. We ended up talking for quite awhile. He was a pastor at a Protestant nursing home for former missionaries.

    We shared our stories and Jesus was there. I still pray for him, in a sense we still pray together.

    Jesus is where ever you are with whomever you are with.

    Now we need the opportunities to participate in the sacramental life of the Church and to be taught and reminded I’d sound doctrine and practice because it is all too easy to mistake things.

  51. Dino Avatar

    we try never to take our eyes off Christ, even in the midst of the greatest tempest. It is not an experience we are after though, (whether a fleeting or a life-transforming one, whether short-lived or drawn out over many decades), but the ontological transformation of our entire being into what it was meant to be.
    It’s understandable that ‘experiences’ might be seen as potentially imparting a transformation, but we cannot ‘seek’ them. It is our devotion to God and to His Grace, to His Spirit, that allows for this transformation to materialize more rather than less. As St Nectarios once said (summing up the entirety of Eldere Sophrony’s theology before him -when understood correctly), “salvation is originated by Grace, furthered by one’s resolve/will, and finally perfected again by Grace”.

  52. Jordan Avatar

    Thanks for the response. I myself feel the emptiness of experience-seeking (one might in fact call it addiction), though I do not know how to look beyond experience to Christ, at least not most of the time. There is a kind of instrumentalism of the body here- the body is used as a means to get the experience, whatever kind of experience it is. I also can look back and see that it seems like I was given experiences in proportion to my ability to ‘handle them’ to put it crassly. What I mean is I have sometimes bemoaned the fact that God did not “show up” for me when He seemed absent. But then I wonder, if I had been given a gigantic and vivid experience of God’s presence would I have simply fallen absolutely in love with the experience? The necessity of prayer and inner sobriety becomes clear.

  53. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley



    Salvation started and finished by grace.

    In between is man’s proper response.

    Thanks for sharing that.

  54. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I, too, would like to learn more about experience.

    Thank you.

  55. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, would you comment on ‘ontological experience’ vs ‘non ontological experience’?

    Thank you

  56. Dino Avatar

    the dangers of experience seeking you described so sensibly are very true, as Father already explained.
    Elder Joseph the Hesychast, a true master of the Spiritual struggle in all its depths always wished his disciples ‘experience’ as in empirical wisdom, practical familiarity, and mature acquaintance rather than ‘experiences’ as in the palpable encounters of God’s Grace, Light etc. Not that being utterly in His Light is not the ultimate calling of man, but that we must seek it without seeking it and we need to surrender to however He chooses to mature us into ‘Christs’. The love of martyrdom we see in saints is far more secure and a true proof of genuineness than the desire for the experience of God’s Grace we often expect to come to us because we are somehow deserving..

    The Elder Aimilianos cut straight to the core of all our delusions. He would stipulate that the love of God (as manifested in the witness of the martyrs) is different to that love that doesn’t cost us the death of ourselves.

    We want to belong to Christ but without suffering, without discomfort, without, illness, without hardship… But that greatest of joys only springs out from the Cross.
    We find Christ the immortal One through desiring martyrdom, pain. On the contrary, through desiring Christ, going after spiritual pleasure, we end up with no more than mortal life. This is our great failure: instead of loving martyrdom, fire and blood – as exemplified in the letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans on his way to the Coliseum- we ‘love’ Christ. And of course, that is how we lose Him, since this is no more than the reverie of a pleasure-seeking (rather than a pleasure-shunning) soul; it’s a longing which manifests anaemia, weakness, self-preoccupation. Spiritual cripples, the selfish and the proud, those are the ones that exclaim that they love Christ because that love costs them nothing. Saying that they love Christ they entitle themselves with rights and glory, they affirm their way of life, living carnally. But the truth is that Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom.

  57. Gregory (William) Manning Avatar
    Gregory (William) Manning

    Thank you very much for the quote of Elder Amilianos!

  58. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Can a ‘non ontological experience’ cause an ‘ontological experience’.


  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Since “ontological” means “having to do with being,” and thus is a synonym of “real,” a “non-ontological experience” would, I suppose, mean an imaginary experience. It would seem hard to imagine one’s way into reality.

  60. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    This morning I had dental work done. It was not pleasant or fun.

    How can that experience be ontological?


  61. Onesimus Avatar


    Read all of Paul’s scriptures in which he speaks about the redemptive path of suffering and what it is to “suffer in Christ” and “with Christ.”

    Even Paul’s own “thorn” was for his salvation.

    2 Cor 12:9-10“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.…”

    Col 1:24, Rom 8:17, 2 Cor 1:5. Phillipans 4:11-13, 2 Cor 12:7-8.

    All pain and suffering can be salvific if it is experienced in faith.

    Heb 12:4-12“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:

    “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    or lose heart when He rebukes you.
    For the Lord disciplines the one He loves,
    and He chastises everyone He receives as a son.”a
    Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you do not experience discipline like everyone else, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Furthermore, we have all had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Should we not much more submit to the Father of our spirits and live?

    Our fathers disciplined us for a short time as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields a peaceful harvest of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

    Therefore strengthen your limp hands and weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, so that the lame will not be debilitated, but rather healed.”

    While dental work may seem like a small obstacle…for some it may be the struggle which leads them to either rest in faith…or not.

    Faith makes all things excercises in ontology ; for our true being in God is based on faith and communion with Him. If pain causes us to draw close to Him and trust in Him, then our faith draws us to true ontological being – as it reflects Love.

  62. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Sorry, father,

    but I missed that opportunity with my dental work.

    If I had had major dental surgery, that would have been different.

    Today was just an inconvenience.

    However, I do understand what you are saying.

    Thank you.

  63. Onesimus Avatar


    Father has not answered. That was my take.

  64. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    So very true about pain drawing us nearer to God, if experienced in / with faith. Funny how we tend to run from pain and hardship, especially – it would seem – in our modernist/postmodernist culture. Thanks, Onesimus, for that.

    Dino, or Father, or anyone else with confidence and/or experience (there’s that buzzword again, sorry) in these things: is all pleasure to be taken as carnal and thus sinful? For instance the pleasure we feel when surrounded by those close to us (e.g. an intimate loving union of man and wife)? What about playing sports, things like that?

    I tend to take things very literally, all-or-nothing like, but I also am aware that my flesh is opposed to the Spirit, hence my reaction to Elder Aimilianos’ words is one of no small angst. (But that too is or at least can be salvific…)

  65. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Got ya.


  66. James Avatar

    Experiences in the spiritual context spoken of here cannot in themselves be prepared with an expected outcome — like a formula, but “alertness” and sobriety can be cultivated in the spiritual life. “Let us attend”, and, “stand aright”, are liturgical expressions of this instruction.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James Isaac,
    Of course pleasure can be good. It is not inherently sinful, by any means. The Fathers write about the cycle of pleasure and pain created by the bondage to the passions. We don’t have to look for suffering – there’s plenty of it in life. Jesus did not come to remove suffering. He did not die in order to keep us from dying (we obviously still do). But He removed the “sting” of death. It is no longer a rupture in our communion with God, but becomes a means of our union with God through Christ. He has changed the nature of suffering as well. All suffering has been sanctified by His suffering and will, in the end, be seen for this. It is well for us now, in our present sufferings, to rejoice and offer them in communion with Christ. Again, we don’t have to seek them – there are plenty enough. But neither do we need to fear them.

  68. Dcn James Avatar
    Dcn James

    Every day I go to and from my place of work. It is an experience; most times very mundane. I don’t really dwell on the quality of the commute, but getting there is paramount. I try to see my spiritual life in a similar light.

    In the Letter to the Hebrews (chap 12) we are called to ‘run with patience the race set before us, looking unto Jesus.’ The experiences of that running can and do provide opportunities to know Christ’s Grace in our lives. The ‘commute’ can sometimes be difficult, but is usually routine. However to try and make the journey’s experiences a goal in themselves can easily lead to a meandering and possible failed effort. It helps me to not have great expectations in the experience department.

  69. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I don’t go to work anymore; I’m retired.

    I see even more now that my life is a commute, generally routine but occasionally difficult.

    Thanks for the post.

  70. Dino Avatar

    James Isaac,
    the Elder’s words remind us that true joy – which is to be found not just in thanksgiving for pleasure but in intense trust and thanksgiving even in suffering (the Greek term is ‘martyric phronema’ [a fervent martyr’s mindset]) – is the key.

  71. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you, brothers – if I may be so bold as to call you that, unworthy as I am. Thankfulness in ALL THINGS is the key, I see that. (Now if only someone would start a blog with that theme…hmm) 🙂

    I find that seeking pleasure as an end in itself is idolatry, and it turns to rust so quickly, prompting further vain seeking. (The addict cycle.) But when we merely receive whatever we experience as from the Lord, and embrace suffering when it inevitably comes, that which seems as pointless or at least as annoying as rust is transformed to gold. Which is what you’re saying.

    A little saying i remember on my ‘better’ hard days is that whatever is, is for our benefit, if we shall only receive it as such. May God grant us all this mind and Spirit, I pray.

  72. Agata Avatar

    James Isaac,
    I hope Dino does not mind if I quote something he wrote a while back, explaining God’s words to St. Silouan, as it seems so applicable to this beautiful conversation above:

    “Keep Thy mind in hell – in an undemanding contentment of thy lot, whatever that is – and despair not – do not cease presenting your soul before God in trust”.

    May the Lord help us see everything as coming from Him and for our salvation. And be thankful for anything and everything, remembering that He will be our reward in the end.

  73. Agata Avatar


    “Keep thy mind in hell – in an undemanding contentment of thy lot, whatever that is – and despair not – do not cease presenting your soul before God in trust”.

    (“thy” should not have been capitalized).

    P.S. To all who have supported and follow the Orthodox Monastery of Celtic Saints:
    I have had a great blessing of participating in the last pilgrimage organized by Fr. Serafim this summer. It was an unforgettable experience, to walk in the steps of the Celtic Saints, and pray where they prayed. Please know you were all in my prayers in the Liturgies (among other places, in the chapel of St. Oran on Iona and in the bee-hive cell of St. Brandon on his [now deserted] island). The history of Celtic Christianity is so rich and interesting. And the sites so breathtakingly beautiful. If any of you want a true adventure next summer, please consider signing up for the next round of pilgrimages in 2017. The web site for the monastery is

    And please support the monastery with your great generosity!

    I hope you don’t mind Father that I mention this here…. Thank you.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the encouraging word regarding Fr. Serafim’s work in the Hebrides. My parish enjoyed a visit from him this past Spring and are pleased to have built some ties with his marvelous work. I share your enthusiasm.

  75. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Jordan’s comments reminded me of an interview Frederica Mathewes-Green did in 2010 with Deacon (now Father) Barnabas Powell. He converted to Orthodoxy and commented on how he is so exuberent when watching sports and in daily life but that one thing that drew him to Orthodoxy was that it gave him an opportunity to be sober in worship.

    Also, this quote regarding St. Silouan’s guidance to us as we work to distinuish true experience from deception by the enemy of mankind:

    “Those who have stood in these places of the spirit may ask in dismay: ‘Where are we to look for a criterion by which to distinguish genuine communion with God from delusion?’

    “Blessed Staretz Silouan explicitly asserted that we have such a criterion—love for enemies. He said:

    ‘The Lord is meek and humble, and loves His creature. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love for enemies and prayer for the whole world.’

    Elder Sophrony then writes

    “Let no one be so bold as to belittle this cannon, for the state it relates to is the direct result of divine action. God saves man utterly. He sanctifies not only his mind but also his psyche with its emotions, and even his body.”

    page 102

    St. Juvenal also came to mind again, how in his myrterdom he was deeply concerned with the salvation of those who were assaulting him rather than with himself.

    August 26 is the feast day of Sts. Adrian and Natalia, a married couple who show us again how our Lord blessed marriage. St. Natalia showed her love for her husband by helping him to love martyrdom rather than flee

  76. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Can a non-monk be as ontologically perceptive as a monk?

    Is a monk better prepared and better inclined?


  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, depends on the monk and the non-monk. I purpose a new word to replace ontological– human.

  78. Byron Avatar


    It is possible that a monk, having devoted his life to prayer and seeking God over and above all else, may be more ontologically perceptive. However, that is not in any way a given. Any person, focused in this manner, will be perceptive in it.

    There’s nothing magical that makes monks “better prepared and better inclined”, but their living focus on God may bring them to an ontological perception in a greater manner than those of us who are struggling within and with the distractions the world brings. Just my thoughts.

  79. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Michael B,

    Do you mean:

    a human or

    being human?

    I don’t thing ‘man equals ontology’.

    Looking forward to your explanation.


  80. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, Bryon, for the comment.

    Makes sense.

  81. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Following Fr. Stephen and some Fathers greater union with Christ allows us to become more fully human. It is one of the consequences of the Incarnation.

    Humans are ontological. We have a being that is contigent upon and in some way reflects, even magnifies God, as Mary’s testimony says.

  82. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    So, do all humans reflect and magnify God?

    Are all humans ontologically prudent?


  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Terry, Michael,
    “Ontological” refers to a model of understanding how things are (God, man, creation) when viewed in terms of being and existence and such. It would not be proper to substitute “human” as a synonym.

    Nonetheless, Terry, you are overusing the word and putting it in places where it would never be used. “Ontologically prudent” pretty much has no meaning. I would suggest generally using the word when describing that model of understanding, but not everywhere else. It will doubtless be confusing for many readers – particularly if they thought you knew what you were talking about or asking.

  84. Onesimus Avatar


    Please, please, Please read “being as communion” by John Zizioulas. I will send you a free copy. I understand your reading list is large, but this should be catapulted to the top of your list given your intellectual struggles with this. You may email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required

    Your line of questioning has a mechanistic feel and approach as if ontology were a philosophical category. It’s not.

    Blessings and prayers.

  85. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, father, for the nice words. They mean a lot.

    The big difference between most of you guys and me is that you all apply ontology to everything you speak about, but don’t use the word. I on the other hand use the word where I intentionally mean to.

    To you all it is a be all, end all interpretation of things. To me it is one view to help explain.

    I accepted your view after a bit, but with ‘all’ you mix in it, you all talked me right out of it.


  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, I don’t do what you say because it is not something like a tool or a philosophical concept that you apply. It is not even a way of thinking.

    I don’t live and love my wife ontologically. I love her in Christ as that is the only way I can love her. The more I know Christ the more I know her. The more I know her, the more I know Christ.

  87. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    If it’s not a way of thinking, try to stop thinking that way.

    And by the way, stop thinking that way clearly, sensibly, and wisely (which is prudent).

    Most theologians (and philosophers) are extremely prudent. That is a good word in this context. It was a good question.


  88. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    By the way, ontology is a branch of metaphysics which is a branch of philosophy.

    It is using abstract thinking to draw conclusions.


  89. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I think all of us are trying to be prudent in our thinking and writing.

    Nobody intensionally tries to be imprudent.


  90. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Since ‘that word I use too much’ is philosophy, I am not out of order to try to approach it philosophically.

    Thank you all.

  91. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Terry,

    A few years ago one of my students was a member of the military. He said that in his branch of the service (Army I believe) the same acronym is sometimes used for two or more phrases. He said that this causes significant problems and that sometimes people will walk into one meeting prepared to deal with one issue and find themselves sitting with people who are working on a totally different project that uses the same acronym.

    How philosophy uses a word is different than how Theology uses the word.

    Philosophy may even exclude God from its discussions! I don’t want to walk into that meeting….

    Father Stephen used the lovely phrase ‘how things are.’

    That is one I will remember.

    And Fr. Thomas Hopko mentions how little children know their total dependence. Thank God we won’t be quizzed for definitions across many branches of earthly knowledge to get into the Kingdom. Somehow book learning and two dollar words are less profitable to me than childlike faith.

    How things also includes Christ helping us be one body even across vast distances.

    I’m greatful for your recent trip to the dentist because Father’s comment on suffering to you and JamesIsaac was one of my favorite ever.

  92. Roman Glass Avatar
    Roman Glass

    Great post, thank you.

  93. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Nicole, Thanks.

    There is an overlap of theology and philosophy where ideas like God, etc. are discussed. We are in that overlap where both ‘sciences’ can be applied.

    There is even a study called ontotheology. Again this discussion falls under the philosophical branch metaphysics.

    I have asked questions about metaphysics in the past.

    I agree 100 % that terms need to be defined. I agree that this is very important.

    However, remarks like ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’ are totally uncalled for, no matter who says them.

    Thanks again.

  94. Dino Avatar

    Conventional philosophy and theology are miles away from the first-hand acquaintance of God’s Spirit. They truly are… This is witnessed when comparing the learned scholars who spend the overwhelming majority of their time ‘in their heads’ to the authentic, humble and obedient believer –plunging the depths of his/her heart seeking to be with God- experiencing an existential transformation of his/her entire being through the Holy Spirit. The cerebral, scholarly, analytical method will hardly ever bring us closer to God while habitually separating us from our neighbour – puffing us up in almost sublime ways. The prayerful, childlike, frank and sincere approach on the other hand does not divide us from our neighbour and is like a magnet for the Spirit, Who bestows on us the living, transforming, ‘ontological’ awareness, (a sort of unquestionable assurance that permeates us to our very core), that ‘we are forever one with God and others’.

  95. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I’m sorry for that comment to the priest I added to my post to you.

    That was not appropriate.


  96. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Terry, et al.
    I have been traveling for two days, attending the consecration of a Church in Virginia. Terry, my caution or advice was simply that you were using the word ontological in an awkward sense which makes the conversation difficult. There is indeed a branch of philosophy that is about ontology. It overlaps a bit, but is not identical with its use in theology. Since it has been a formal part of theology from at least the 2nd century, and continually in the Eastern Church since then – it has its own life, language and usage in the Church. It is not merely a way of speaking and doing theology – it is the most common and dominant form of theological discourse in the Eastern Church and is the language used in all of the Seven Great Councils. It’s part of the very grammar of Orthodoxy.

    But if every time you say something in English, you pause and say you’re saying it in English, it gets a bit tedious. Also, for the sake of how the conversation on the blog flows, if possible, compose questions or comments that combine several thoughts into a single post. Multiple one or two line questions or comments is difficult. I do not work on the blog 24/7, but only off and on in any given day as time allows. Just a suggestion to help me out on my end.

  97. Byron Avatar

    It is not merely a way of speaking and doing theology – it is the most common and dominant form of theological discourse in the Eastern Church and is the language used in all of the Seven Great Councils. It’s part of the very grammar of Orthodoxy.

    I think this is a root part of the issues Terry is working through. “The grammar of Orthodoxy” is very difficult to perceive in our lives. We all, too one extent or another, struggle through this on a daily basis. This grammar is not a model of understanding but an experience of God on a moment by moment basis that reshapes the individual into His likeness.

    In my own life, I was at Vespers tonight after struggling through a week of backsliding (for lack of a better word at this moment) in my life and wondering, “how do I pray better, worship better, conform my life better to Christ…?” when all of a sudden, I was blindsided by His Word saying, “why do you not find joy in giving thanks to God?”. I was (and am still) dumbfounded. I was thinking of how to do things and God spoke about something much, much deeper.

    So now I am wondering “how to give thanks with joy” in my life. I think that if I over-think it, I will “miss the mark”. I believe this is an example of an ontological change. This is something that changes us into the likeness of Christ. For all my life, though, I’ll never understand how it does this (which is honestly a bit frustrating), but I know I will see the fruit of it (not necessarily only in my life) by letting it happen. Just my thoughts. Please forgive and correct me if I have misrepresented anything anyone else has said.

  98. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, if you are anything like me, intersects as you describe are always surprising and yet there us an element of duh, of course.

  99. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Your comment above coincided with my having read this from the “Idiosyncratic Catholic”: Extract:

    “37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

    Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. the human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13

    38 This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error”.14

    The Catholic position, as always, is decidedly both/and. On the one hand, the Church went so far as to anathematize those who denied the human capacity to conclude that God exists on the basis of reason (Vatican I). On the other hand, the Church clearly teaches the necessity of revelation-we simply could not know God by reason alone. Reason can postulate the existence of a greater (metaphysical) Reality, but it can’t bring us into a relationship with that reality.”

  100. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Amidst all these words and all our conversations, something deep inside me calls out, “say yes to God, say yes to God”.

    Father God, You are almighty, immortal, and full of love and love. Help me in all my life day by day to say yes to You.


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