Psychology as the New Sacrament


The creation of the “two-storey universe” was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. I have recently been enjoying Brad Gregory‘s The Unintended Reformation, in which he traces the various historical currents and ideas that gave rise to the modern secular notion of the world. It is a magisterial treatment, and I recommend it to serious students of history, as well as anyone wanting to better understand our modern culture. I have written many times about the notion of a two-storey universe, one in which the so-called “real world” is neutral territory, inherently devoid of religious content. It has as well a “second-storey” in which spiritual things are relegated to “upstairs” and somehow cordoned off from daily existence.

Gregory traces this through philosophy, theology, politics, a whole host of concerns, and gives a spot-on account of the multiple narratives, world-views and explanations that run through the modern mind. Very similar to Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of modernity, he notes that our culture is a mass of contradictions, the aftermath of the assault on the much more homogenous world-view of the late Middle Ages. One particular victim of this unintended revolution has been the sacramental world-view that was the dominant mind of Catholicism at the time (and still is officially), just as it is today within Orthodox theology.

What is lost with the sacramental world-view isn’t simply the belief that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but the belief that such a thing is either possible or desirable. For many contemporary Christians, the absence of Christ’s body and blood in their lives in any manner they consider “real,” is simply unnoticed. There is, however, a deep absence that is worth pondering.

The sacramental world is utterly permeated with meaning and spiritual communion. It is not isolated to the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is something of a pattern for all of life. Everything within daily life carries the possibility of the Divine. Time moves through a calendar in which the days of the week and the whole of the year are a collection of occasions in which people encounter the reality of Christ’s saving work. None of this disappeared entirely with the advent of modernity. Orthodox and Catholic Christians still attend a Church in which all of this is true, but they increasingly do so in a culture where it is not. One result of this is the consumerizing of the sacramental life. We get the sacramental stuff we like, attend some of the feasts, but mostly leave the calendar on the wall. We worship in a sacramental world but often live elsewhere.

With the disappearing of the sacramental world, the presence of God has not been utterly rejected. Such a rejection, I suspect, would have been an absence too difficult for believers to bear. But, as sacramental reality receded, substitutes were found. The non-sacramental world of the post-Reformation is largely peopled with a distinct collection of individuals, largely conceived as centers of consciousness. Sacramental reality gives way to a psychologized notion of reality. We share ideas, thoughts and feelings, but do not consider ourselves to have sacramental communion with other people or other things. God becomes a Personality among personalities. In a world whose governing philosophy is Nominalism, little else is possible.

This is the basis for the modern notion of a “personal relationship with God.” The phrase is utterly dominant in large parts of modern Christianity. For many, it is considered the absolute minimum requirement for anyone claiming to be a Christian. And yet, the phrase does not appear until sometime in the 20th century. It is not simply a new phrase; it describes a new idea.

One dominant strain of modernity pictures the world as a network of “relationships,” that is, a web of affiliations, formal and informal, that comprise the collection of people whom we value and who value us. God has simply been added to this network.

In classical terms, however, the “personhood” of God bears little resemblance to the psychological construct referenced in modern usage. This fact brings into question the modern experience of “personal relationship,” and suggests that it is fraught with psychological projection and wish-fulfillment. The late 18th century, as well as the whole of the 19th century, were times in which extreme forms of religious experience became quite common. The various “Great Awakening” movements were marked by crowds swooning and falling down as well as other emotional manifestations. The Holiness and Pentecostal movements had their beginnings in these emotion-laden revivals, often multiplying experiences into new extremes. Today, various irruptions of Pentecostal fervor are greeted as yet one more “new move of the Holy Spirit.”

Doubtless, extreme emotional expressions have been present in Christianity throughout its history. However, only in the modern period have these expressions (and their milder form referenced as a “personal relationship”) replaced sacramental reality as the theological test of God’s truth. Baptism is thus despised by many, unless it follows an emotional experience now dubbed “being born again,” something that classically always named Baptism itself.

In contemporary practice, however, a newly-imagined world of psychological experiences has pushed aside everything else as it constitutes a new reality. It is not surprising that the “experience” of one’s gender is now seen as more important than the actual biology of one’s gender. Marriage is seen as a contractual affirmation of a psychological relationship, and not the actual union of a man and a woman.

Psychology has, in a sense, become a new form of sacramentality, much more preferable to modern tastes in that it is infinitely malleable. Psychological experience can be anything I want it to be – a consumer’s utopia!

By the same token, the sacramental world-view seems less “real” to modern sensibilities. The bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine, and we are not even asked to “experience” them as something else. We ask, “Did you get anything out of that service?” The sacramental answer would be quite clear. The psychologized answer invites various efforts to create feelings and experiences. It is an invitation to delusion as seen from the classical sacramental world.

A transition from the popular world of psychologized relationships to the sacramental world of classical Christianity is difficult. Our culture is dominated by a psychologized notion of reality. What it declares to be “real” is easily seen as real by those who have not begun to question their world. However, it is a very weak basis for spiritual stability (even as it is for a marriage).

Teaching a sacramental understanding to those in contemporary culture is difficult. While classical Christianity acknowledges the variety of psychological experience, it does not give it much attention, or spiritual significance. The sacramental worldview is rooted primarily in doctrine and teaching, and confirmed by experience, though an experience that is rightly understood as noetic rather than psychological. The great strength of a sacramental understanding is its grounding in reality – not as I think it – but as it is. The psychological approach to God seeks to be moved; the sacramental seeks to be still.

In Christ, God became what we are, but without sin. Much of what we imagine in our psychologized world is little more than the dizzying swirl of the passions caught in a cloud of imagination. Who Christ is, as the incarnate God/Man, is not known by assuming Him as a Personality among personalities. What it means to be Person is something we ourselves have yet to become. The way of life described in the older, classical form of Christianity, is the steady path towards that self-emptying personhood.

The Cross of Christ utterly altered reality, regardless of how we might feel about it. The world is sacrament and symbol, sign and signification. The presence of God is as palpable and real (and yet more real) than the ground on which we walk. The one-storey universe abides among us.

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.


87 responses to “Psychology as the New Sacrament”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will add an ominous observation to the article. With the psychologization of reality (“what I think it is, is what it is”) the need for raw coercion in the political realm is required. Since there is no grounding in a fixed reality (outside of the mind), the only way to establish order is to impose it on the minds around you. All of the recent gender legislation (and such) is an attempt to require agreement from the population as a whole to the psychological claims of a few. The arguments cannot be made in any other way. All of the tools of psychological enforcement play a role in this latest turn in modernity. Propaganda, advertising, shaming, bullying, speech control, etc. It is the darker side of a culture that is abandoning everything other than its own chosen mind.

  2. Eric Affsprung, Ph.D. Avatar

    I’m not sure if your objection is to “psychology” or our post-Reformation world. As an Orthodox Christian, and psychologist, I wish we Orthodox would be a little more nuanced when we talk about “psychology”. Psychology can never replace our Faith, and it certainly have its limitations, but it does routinely save lives (literally) and make folks’ lives and relationships somewhat more manageable and less painful. Thank you for your blog.

  3. Deacon Dani Schaerer Avatar

    Thanks father for your latest text giving voice to the fundamental problems in talking to modern people. As a psychologist I have often used the term “relationship” to make clear that all in spiritual life is about communion with the living god and not about a moral life and such notions. I did that because I am afraid that the term “communion” is not understandable any more. Of course (as you point out much mor eloquently then I could with my limited English) I then always hit the snag of a psychological understanding on “relationship”. As you point out it does just not do. I then often try to explain an ontological underastanding or a sacramental one. I now start thinking that I should go back to talking about “communion”. As you write: “noetic” not “psychological” . hm.

  4. Josh Avatar

    Excellent as always Father, thank you for your work! I wonder if you have also read James K. A. Smith’s ‘You are what you love?’ His book is a much needed corrective to the modern notion that people are inherently thinking-creatures. Rather, we are primarily lovers (in a classical sense) and where we place our affections shapes who we are becoming.

  5. Deacon Nicholas Avatar
    Deacon Nicholas

    Buried in a comment you made several years ago on this blog, or maybe it was your previous blog, you said, “I feel as if we are on the edge of the abyss.” I’ve never forgotten that. More so now, Father?

    Most of the Orthodox Christians of Russia in say, 1913, had no idea what was coming. You can see the shock on the NKVD arrest photos of the clergy.

    I fear for what is coming, mostly for my sons.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Psychology” obviously can refer to the study of the mind/brain, etc. It also has the meaning as used in the article, which uses terms such as “psychologized” (not psychology) to describe a way of seeing the world that is an abstraction, etc. I think I have used this in a careful manner.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a massive push across the nation to introduce the new gender-think into elementary schools. It would be a triumph of a disincarnate world, an ultimate two-storey universe, complete with legal enforcement. I try not to be an alarmist, but alarms should be sounding.

  8. Agata Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this amazing article. It is an answer to my prayer, to help a friend with whom I am having a difficult conversation about “what is different about Orthodoxy”. Thank you for addressing every single point we discussed. It’s absolutely unbelievable!

  9. Marjorie Osterhoudt Avatar
    Marjorie Osterhoudt

    Fr. Stephen,

    To add another dimension to your comment regards the state we find ourselves in as a “culture that is abandoning everything other than its own chosen mind,” I have just been reading in the current (October) issue of First Things “A More Perfect Absolutism” by Michael Hanby. (Reading hard-core philosophy is a challenge for me, but this one was worth the effort.) His approach to the problem looks at the effects the technological revolution has had on our concept of reality, whereby we define everything (and everyone) by its function, with no regard for what it is. Had me thinking of your one storey universe while I was reading it!

    BTW, I am not Orthodox, and given age and circumstance may not be able to complete that journey in this lifetime (God knows), but your blog and the comments have been a cool shower in a dry land. I am thankful for what I have been learning from you for some time now. God bless.

  10. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks, Father. This such a timely article! Our parish has just begun Church school and I am assisting with the Youth. We are discussing “symbol” and “sacrament” but our initial discussion never moved beyond the secular definition of a symbol (“something that points to something else”). I hope we shall go deeper as the class moves forward! Pray for us!

  11. Robert Rubinow Avatar
    Robert Rubinow

    Fr. Thank you for clarifying your use of the term “psychologized” in this article. As a mental health professional myself, I remain concerned, however, that many will not understand your distinction from the use of the term “psychology.” As you know, there is a great deal of skepticism, mistrust, and criticism in the church at large (and much of it rightly earned!) toward the professional treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Might we see a follow-up article on how a sacramental perspective can anchor mental health professionals as we treat those who suffer? Thank you again for this profound piece. Robert

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s a brief thought. The secularized notion of a symbol is that it stands for something that is not there – it’s a sign of absence. In the Church’s view, a symbol makes present what it represents. It is a sign of presence. Christ says, “I am with you always.”

  13. Christiana Avatar

    Hello! I very much enjoyed reading this article. It has helped me a lot in figuring out how to continue a conversation I’m having here with another volunteer – who has never read the Bible until a Jehovah’s Witness handed him one. He questioned why there are so many churches and why the Christians here emphasize what they do. And I brought up the idea that the churches here, for the large part, are Pentecostal and don’t provide anything resembling the Eucharist to their people. I suspect I’ll reference your post when we next meet, and link him to it. Thanks, again.

  14. Timothy HD Avatar
    Timothy HD

    Thank you, Father. God bless your teaching, that many (myself included) may grow in Christ.

    I am training as a professional counselor and an struggling to integrate my faith and learning.

  15. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you again Father or another thought provoking article.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Over the course of my writing, I strongly support good mental health. That includes the use of appropriate medications, etc. CBT, for example, is an excellent form of therapy. I recommend Fr. Alexis Trader’s writings on that topic. In writing, my effort here is to help people make sense (Orthodox sense) of the world in which we live. There are real pluses and minuses in the psychological profession. There’s a huge industry here in the South of “Christian Counselors” some of whom do great harm – one reason being because they have terrible theology.

    Good psychology, grounded in good medical practice, is very important. It offers no contradiction with the faith. However, in a secularized culture, it can be distorted by the “bad theology” (secularism is simply bad theology) to which some practitioners subscribe, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

    People should take their brains seriously, just like we pay attention to the heart or the lungs, etc. We should take our bodies seriously enough not to mistake thinking for reality itself. If I am depressed, it doesn’t mean the world is, in fact, how I feel. Knowing that (good theology), can be a key in recognizing that my brain is malfunctioning – it is not giving me accurate information (for many and varied reasons).

    The sacramental view of reality never denies reality itself. It doesn’t declare a duck to be a dove, etc. Good mental health includes dealing with reality…it’s the meaning of “well-adjusted.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said that the spiritual life consists in how we deal with what we’ve been dealt. That is also true for our psychological experience.

    I have little patience (after a fashion) with someone who has a diagnosed mental disorder but refuses to accept medical treatment, wanting to come to me for some sort of “spiritual” support to help them cope with the fact that they are not getting medical help. If you have a headache and won’t take an aspirin, then I have little sympathy for your complaints.

    On the other hand, mental issues are real (they’re not just in your head), and should be taken very seriously. A priest should give good support and encouragement, etc. (including telling someone to go to a doctor).

    My notion of “psychologized” it the abstracting of reality into nothing more than a mental category. It is currently rampant in our culture and is destroying people. It’s very bad theology.

  17. Byron Avatar

    Here’s a brief thought. The secularized notion of a symbol is that it stands for something that is not there – it’s a sign of absence. In the Church’s view, a symbol makes present what it represents. It is a sign of presence. Christ says, “I am with you always.”

    Thank you, Father! I recall this from previous comments/posts and I am hoping that we go there. I am not teaching the class, just assisting the current teacher. As such, I find I am not always a good assistant. I tend to sit and think, “I would say that very differently! Why isn’t he covering [insert subject here]?”. LoL! I am working on my humility right now.

  18. Timothy HD Avatar
    Timothy HD

    Thank you for this.

  19. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Great article. A lot of points to ponder.

    Many people in my background will say, “He’s not a Christian” or “I don’t think she’s a Christian.” And what they mean is, they have never seen any kind of emotion from them in relation to God, church, religion, etc.—even though the person is question is baptized and would say yes if asked if they were a Christian.

    It’s interesting that at some point confessing and believing became not enough. You must also do a tap dance.

  20. Robert Rubinow Avatar
    Robert Rubinow

    Father, thank you so much for your response. I really appreciate all that you teach me about the Orthodox way. I am transitioning into the Orthodox Church after many years of bad theology I have absorbed. Thank you for helping me to understand the Christian faith, and to know Christ– as He is, not as I would have Him. Blessings. Robert

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there is an additional problem created by the psychologization of God. When people say, “I feel like God is absent,” they are not describing a spiritual condition so much as a psychological artifact. I have never heard anyone say, “I feel like the earth and sky are absent.” And, of course, they don’t say such a thing because the earth and sky are not perceived as psychologized objects. God is more than objectively present. He is the Present, without Whom there would be no earth and sky. And this is not simply as First Cause. He sustains us and everything else. We swim in grace. We breathe grace. I still think the surest route in all of these things is to give God thanks always and for all things. The giving of thanks is similar to breathing. I give thanks because God is good, and not because I feel that He is good. I give thanks because I am a eucharistic being, and if I do not give thanks, then I cease to be what I truly am (and nothing we feel right).

  22. Byron Avatar

    I still think the surest route in all of these things is to give God thanks always and for all things. The giving of thanks is similar to breathing. I give thanks because God is good, and not because I feel that He is good.

    Simple living: humility and thanksgiving. Glory be to God!

    I give thanks because I am a eucharistic being, and if I do not give thanks, then I cease to be what I truly am (and nothing we feel right).

    I find that this is the most difficult view to which we must orient our lives. Becoming what we are is not about self-fulfillment; rather it is about self-emptying so we can be filled with God’s Grace. (If I am off base here, please correct me).

  23. EPG Avatar

    “God is more than objectively present. He is the Present, without Whom there would be no earth and sky.”


    But is this what the various ethno-nationalist jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church actually teach? Is it what they actually live? My (admittedly limited) experience of the parishes in my area led me to the (reluctant) conclusion that they served primarily as cultural societies for immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Whatever the formal theology might have been, it played out more like fairly conservative Western Christianity with fancier vestments than anything else. Has the concept of the two-story universe infected the rank and file? If so, to what degree?

    (Not trying to be argumentative–but, in the end, the local experience was discouraging).

  24. Byron Avatar

    Has the concept of the two-story universe infected the rank and file? If so, to what degree?

    The easy answer is yes, this view has infected even the Orthodox Church (and the “rank and file”). Part of it is that we live in a society that bombards us with this viewpoint and we are simply not immune to that. However, much of it depends on our priests. I attend a parish that is made up (mostly) of converts but I find that our priest does a very good job of teaching us the one-story universe understanding. He shephards his flock very well in Orthodoxy, I think.

  25. Blind Guide Avatar
    Blind Guide

    @ Fr. Freeman
    This post seems to me a very clear rehearsal of what I have come to ‘see’ (ref: your recent post on seeing) as “the spirit of this age” from which I pray daily to be delivered together with all those whom I love just as I ask for deliverance from the evil one (ref: our Lord’s Prayer) as well as from the governments of this world (ref: your comments above) and even from myself (since I am a ‘recovering’ Pentecostal and strong proponent of free will self-determination).
    I am tempted to point up my reasons here for deep gratitude and the immense value of being ‘raised under the pew’ of Pentecostal parents in facilitating my own path to Orthodoxy but my poignant need today is to ask for your input in dealing with one of my own, a baptized, 1st generation, cradle Orthodox who has fallen prey to this spirit and the guidance of “health professionals” who are selling such delusion and is progressing through the stages toward full, surgical gender reassignment.
    I look forward to any wisdom you may have to offer and humbly petition you to pray – together with my wife and myself – imploring our Saviour to intervene to prevent the completion of this path and to restore physical, psychological and spiritual health.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what effect does you think the industrial revolution and the subsequent digital revolution has had an all that you outline?

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very good question. I’ve been served the Vigil tonight for tomorrow’s Feast. I think you’ll find my response to be of interest. I’ll get at it tomorrow after Liturgy.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Blind Guide,
    I’m not sure that I have any wisdom that would help. I understand the pain you must feel. Prayer for your child and their ultimate salvation is our refuge. The tragedy of life is frequently beyond anything we can effectively do. But it is not beyond God. Pray that even this will be, in the hands of God, for their salvation.

    I long ago prayed for the salvation of my children. At the time, I think I was only thinking about their accompanying me into the Orthodox faith. But many years have now passed, and I think more about their ultimate salvation, their final union with Christ. And I realize now that I will likely be long dead before they complete their journeys (I certainly hope so). So I pray for something that I will not see in this life. And thus we leave this life with unfinished business in our prayers.

    God can save any of us. I will be praying for your child and for you. God strengthen you both by His grace.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll get to this after liturgy tomorrow. Be well. Blessings of the feast!

  30. Margaret Naftel Avatar
    Margaret Naftel

    Returning from Liturgy tonight celebrated for the Exultation of the Holy and Life Giving Cross, this is a very very wonderful article to find on my Facebook feed, Fr. Stephen, thank you! I shared before I read it and then I read it and it is even more wonderful. I was thinking as I was driving home from our beautiful Liturgy tonight that I am so grateful that you are steadily “putting right” the language of Christian faith. I also have a BA in Psychology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I was able to learn a great deal there about the study and impact of the subject of Psychology here in America with extra emphasis on development and education. God is good all the time! And although I’ve said it before, I will say it again, Fr. John Behr’s book “Becoming Human” is an excellent study in this area. Plus the writings of Fr. Meletios Weber that you reference here and I also appreciate Fr. George Morelli. Godspeed your efforts, Fr. Stephen! Thank you!

  31. Margaret Naftel Avatar
    Margaret Naftel

    To Blind Guide, you are so right: No thing is beyond God. Prayers said for you and your family, thank you for your post here.

  32. Richard Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful article. You seem to hint that current notions of gender also “abstract reality into something no more than a mental category” (if I have that right). Is the idea that the reality here – the biology – is underlyingly a simple binary situation and that the various new categories we are hearing about – nongendered, gay, trans, bi, etc. are all purely psychological constructs that people have constructed for themselves based on emotional identifications, accidents of personal history, etc. – psychological fantasies in some sense? How, in your view, is the reality determined in this case? Is this something given by science, or by theology? Just curious.

  33. Blind Guide Avatar
    Blind Guide

    Thank you, Father, for your prompt reply and the assurance of your prayers.
    Like you I have consistently prayed for my children’s salvation and have confidence in His promises (both scriptural and personal) that His Grace is sufficient.

    Ultimate salvation notwithstanding – as my wife first lamented and I have come to ‘see’ – the beautiful, engendered child for whom she travailed to give birth late in life (2nd of 2 children who comprised our second family) will be DEAD…while yet living…if and when this pathway of gender reassignment is completed.
    In that scenario, your wish to be long deceased before your children (a wish which is natural to us all) will then become – for my wife, myself and our other offspring – a life-long conundrum of perspective on the reality of death, life and person-hood piqued by the same enigma you have raised in this post and that I have dubbed “the spirit of this age”.
    Caught between such divergent realities, I have had to admit that – although it seems preferable to be able to grieve our child’s death and close the door on our loss – I cannot seem to abandon my love for that child which remains; albeit; as a differently-gendered, awkwardly-alien yet intimately-known person.

    Forgive me; this is not the proper venue for rehearsing personal issues. I was drawn in by the precision of your description of my perception of the spirit of this age and have made of that a platform to vent my familial struggle. Nevertheless, I will post the mess just as I have written it in hope that it may be of use to someone.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are, of course, biological issues regarding sexuality in some very few cases. There remains no scientific evidence for a biological basis for homosexuality – twin studies consistently show otherwise. The notion of gender fluidity is itself clearly arguing for a non-biological notion of gender. Indeed, for the groups that are driving that agenda, it is dogma.

    However, “purely psychological constructions people have made for themselves” overstates things and is not my own understanding. First, psychological constructs are themselves quite complex and by no means always “made” by people.

    Gender dysphoria, I think, remains a valid medical concept. Cultures can and should be kind and supportive for people who struggle in any sort of way. However, our binary reality of gender is written into our biology. How we experience it is quite complex. But the triumph of “fluidity” over biology is beyond tragic.

    Like many pastors, I’m seeing a boatload of nonsense currently created by a fad of gender fluidity, in which very vulnerable middle school and teen children, who are themselves in a critical time of social formation, are being confused. When actually claiming a normal, heterosexual gender is frowned upon as somehow less than “cool” or some sort of thing, the culture has become insane.

    Somehow the culture went from a single Supreme Court decree regarding gay “marriage” to full-blown gender fluidity as a legally protected concept…without debate and without science.

  35. Laura Avatar

    Blind Guide,
    I saw your comment and my heart goes out to you. I have a daughter who is gay, who has 3 friends (I am blessed to know all 3 of them) that are undergoing gender reassignment. We stay in touch thru Facebook, and they are in my prayers every day. I ask God to remember them. I don’t understand them, I just love them. I’ll keep you and your child in my prayers.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your child will not be “dead.” Salvation is best described by Christ’s descent into hell to get us out.

  37. ernie Avatar

    Hi Father, I and probably many more agree with you completely, the world around us is as you have described in your article.

    So….How do I knock the ceiling out and convert my 2 storey into a large expansive single storey with a beautiful high ceiling? I cannot penetrate this second storey. Try as I might. I visit it regularly, senses fully engaged, yet I cannot go beyond my senses. I cannot penetrate my observed thoughts and feelings and their variableness over time surrounding the exact same thing.

    Do you reach a point where you just watch and wait?
    Synergy? Have I done enough?
    Sacramental life? Following the 2 golden rules on which all the law and the prophets hang? I never give up, that’s why I’m a perpetual failure.

    Where do we go from here Father?….Ive read your book 🙂 . Should I read it again?! :)))

  38. Byron Avatar

    Blind, your family is in our prayers. Love them always and trust God with their salvation. Blessings to you in your struggle.

  39. Eric Avatar

    Fr. Stephen – I’m afraid I reacted without really reflecting on your post. There is a good deal of hostility directed at “psychology” among Orthodox Christians – some of it well-founded, and much of it borne of ignorance and anxiety. So, I sometimes get discouraged and defensive. But, you are correct, I was over-generalizing, conflating different uses of the word “psychology”.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Now. Very good question, indeed.”Is this what the various ethno-nationalist jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church actually teach? Is it what they actually live?”

    First, the Orthodox here in the West are immersed in a modern culture. It permeates their lives as much as anyone’s and they are not immune. And neither are their priests. If the priest is theologically astute (and not all are), he may be a good teacher and a guardian of his flock. But that is going to vary.

    What I am describing indeed reflects the teaching of the Church. It is the worldview of the Councils, liturgical life, sacramental life, etc. It is, indeed, pretty much the common Christian heritage, both East and West, prior to the end of the Middle Ages when the sacramental world-view was marginalized in the West (read Gregory’s book if you want a thorough and sophisticated account).

    The life of the Church (how we live) has not changed. It is thoroughly sacramental (one-storey). You probably don’t even notice it when you visit a local Orthodox Church – since it’s not actually what you’re looking for. But those ethno-nationalists go to Church for reasons that are often quite different than those of the evangelical mega Church down the block. If someone in the family is sick, they will go to light a candle and pray, and possibly light the candle in front of a specific icon. They probably won’t be looking for a support group to help them work through how they feel about their sick loved one.

    I have ethnic Russians who will drive over an hour each way once a week, not nearly as much for the service, as for the opportunity to light candles and pray. The Church is, effectively, a temple, a holy place, it “radiates” holy, and is where you go when you have something serious to be prayed for. As often as not, they don’t even speak to anyone. They come, they stand through the service, they light candles and go.

    Doubtless, the ethno groups also like to maintain their ethnic ties and talk a lot about food and festivals when they talk. They don’t pray about food and festivals, and they don’t come to Church to talk about all of that. They come to pray, to confess, to light candles, to commune. The social life is then whatever it is.

    Our psychologized world is highly intellectualized as well. We want to get an idea, or an insight, or a new angle on our lives. We want to feel. And we add value to all of this by strategizing how to get other people to come share this with us (evangelism).

    The background of the ethno Churches is a culture that was evangelized somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. They weren’t terribly concerned (nor did they need to be) how to do that. They’ve had to struggle more with how to keep their kids from being assimilated by the culture. I think the strategy of ethnic-Orthodoxy is largely a failure in the West. There needs to be much more conscious teaching and active resistance to the cultural themes that undermine the faith. I’m far from alone among priests who think this (I assure you that our seminaries believe it is necessary). But all of that is a slow business.

    But here’s another set of thoughts on the matter. The sacramental life could be likened to a large sanitorium, or 19th century health spa. You go to “take the waters.” There are medical treatments, dietary changes, exercise, a whole host of things aimed at improving your health. And you benefit by just going and doing what is there. If you will, the grace is “in the waters.”

    In most modern constructs, we don’t go to health spas. We go and listen to lectures and pep talks on health and are convinced that grace comes by ideas and how we feel about them. The spa would certainly be even more effective if you cooperated consciously with what was taking place. But the split between grace as active in a sacramental manner, and grace being removed to the realm of ideas (the so-called operation of “faith”), created Churches and Christians who are largely non-sacramental. Indeed, they treat physical holy things as suspect, and likely as objects of superstition. The word “superstition” should be a trigger word for the presence of a two-storey universe. It is born of modern dualistic thinking.

    Last night I attended a vigil. It took about 2 hours. We sang a lot of theological material. There were candles, processions, blessing of the litya bread, anointing with the oil of the Feast, etc. It’s the feast of the Holy Cross. So a Cross, surrounded by flowers and laying on a bed of sweet basil was brought into the center of the Church and venerated by the faithful (with full prostrations and kissing it).

    All of these things, I believe, communicated grace. I received grace towards the daily battle of my salvation by being there and participating in the service. Those who did not attend, missed something – a very important opportunity. Did I get any new insights, etc.? Maybe one, maybe not. It didn’t matter. I came for the Cross and the grace of the service. This morning we had the Liturgy for the Feast. I made my communion, having been prepared by the vigil last night.

    It is not unlike the process of life established by God for His people in the Old Testament. They had feasts and offerings (we offer the bloodless sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist), pilgrimages, fasting, and many such things. Those very things communicated grace. They sustained Israel. There were certainly things to think about, sermons, preachings of prophets, etc. But, day to day, Israel lived the life that God Himself had established.

    The sacramental life of the Church is clearly present from the very beginning. We have no evidence for any other kind of Christianity until the late Middle Ages/Reformation.

    If I lived somewhere that the ethno version of Orthodoxy was all there was, I would still go. I would light my candles, pray, confess, commune, consider the texts (in translation if I have to dig for them). It might not be my favorite version of the “spa,” but it beats the psychologized/emotionalized Christianity devoid of the sacramental world.

    One reason I recommend Gregory’s book, is that it does a good job of seeing that this break with the sacramental world view was also the occasion that created secularism, and is, inevitably, the breeding ground of modern atheism. If there is to be a saving of our culture, then it will eventually come through the sacramental life being nurtured back into a greater part of our lives. The other is already a losing battle. The insanity of our culture is not an accident.

  41. EPG Avatar

    Thank you for your kind reply. It’s challenging (that’s a good thing), and it gives me a lot to think about.

    I have added Gregory’s book to my (ever-growing) reading list.

    Then again, reading alone isn’t going to get me anywhere, is it?

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I “read” Orthodoxy for years. The hard part was when I actually started attended (when on vacation) and then, when I started my journey towards conversion. And it got even harder once I got there. Learning to actually live a sacramental life (one-storey) is much harder than it would seem (certainly based on reading my book). We keep waiting for someone to do or say something, not realizing that we’re actually standing right in the one-storey world.

  43. Blind Guide Avatar
    Blind Guide

    Thank you to all who have replied.
    I am grateful for your concern and – most of all – your prayers.
    No doubt, I should stop there – however – some of those replies have opened the door to further conversation. For example, although the various abberant-to-biology persuasions have been coalesced under the LGBT ‘roof’, LGB persons retain the open options of repentant return to either ‘straight’ expression of their biological gender assignment and/or celibacy and retain their physical capacity to function within that natural capacity (e.g. to impregnate or be impregnated). For the fully transgendered (T) community: not so much! Surgical gender reassignment culminates any ‘fluidity’; permanently rendering one a mutant being, incapable of any reproductive function and the polar opposite of those biologically-mutant individuals born with both types of ‘plumbing’.
    It is on this basis, Fr. Freeman, that I contend my child will be dead.
    Obviously, such a death is neither complete physical non-existence, nor spiritual death (e.g. the Second Death) but is certainly an end to reproductive capacity, the engendered person as they existed and related to themselves and to others in this life; is it not? To me, this seems even more painful than if my child ceases to exist in this world, a living death from which there is neither hope of recovery (no path of recourse) nor any natural way to relate as things exist.
    Perhaps, this is my problem, a ‘speck in my own eye’ but it remains the underpinning of my initial assertion (see first post) that my child will be dead.

    Again, thank you all for your prayers!

  44. Michael Lynch Avatar

    Thank you for this article, Father. Having spent most of my adult life in churches that emphasize a “personal relationship with God,” I find your comments on this term quite interesting. Thank you for these observations.
    Since being reintroduced to sacramental worship over the last few years, I have come to believe that we should probably think more in terms of a “familial relationship with God.” He has adopted us into His family through Christ. Our relationships with Him may have a deeply personal component, but we live it out in communion with our brothers and sisters (the church), which prohibits us from worshipping “God as I want to understand Him.”
    Thank you again for sharing your insights with those of us who read your blog.

  45. Michelle Avatar

    Father, concerning your comment, “When people say, “I feel like God is absent,” they are not describing a spiritual condition so much as a psychological artifact. I have never heard anyone say, “I feel like the earth and sky are absent.” And, of course, they don’t say such a thing because the earth and sky are not perceived as psychologized objects. God is more than objectively present. He is the Present, without Whom there would be no earth and sky. And this is not simply as First Cause. He sustains us and everything else. We swim in grace. We breathe grace.”

    I hug my children, I kiss them, and satisfy my loves desires through their physical touch. Those whom we have lost we long for this touch. If our child were to pass away we would still love them, and as Christians we would know that through the Power of Christ’s death and resurrection they still live. But, oh, how we would long to satisfy loves touch; to embrace their whole soul, physical body and all! When I feel like “God is absent” it has more to do with this longing to see Christ and embrace Him, physical body and all. You say we swim in Grace, but there still seems to be an absence.

    And lets be honest, the physical absence of a child who has passed can create feelings of doubt that they do indeed still live. Maybe they simply turned into to dirt and disappeared? An unbearably painful thought, but still a possible doubt in the recesses of a grieving parent’s mind. And when we do not see Christ in His body, that same doubt creeps in that maybe He is not really there. The sky and earth’s presence are indeed clues to His presence sustaining everything, but it leaves room for doubt when we heavily rely on our five, strictly physical senses to know and enjoy all the things of daily life -that is all things except the unknowable, imperceptible, ineffable God.

    And just as an aside, as one who suffered from depersonalization (a type of dissociatve disorder) for almost six months, at one point the “objectiveness” of the sky and earth were far from perceivable and reliable. To truly lose all trust in the reality of the sky and earth (as well as, literally, every known thing in existence) is an indescribable and horrifying experience. It is the closest thing to pure despair that I can imagine -to lose reality itself, and all that it entails, including love for those in your own family. Like, I said, its indescribable, how one moment you know and love your mom and dad, and the next you feel nothing for them, and seriously doubt their existence. An experience like that shakes your world view of its pinnacle. And though I am forever grateful to God that I came back to myself after months of this hell, its still something I look back at and ponder when thinking about ideas of “truth,” “relationship,” and what’s “knowable,” etc.

    Also, as an aside to my aside note, I think I read somewhere once that St Sophrony experienced depersonalization at one point in his life. Its kind of like the “the dark night of the soul” experience, I guess.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Blind Guide,
    The current practice of surgery is, I think, malpractice. I will continue my prayers.

  47. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Blind Guide,

    I second what Fr. Stephen says concerning your child not being “dead”. Though certain things will die according to the person you knew post-surgery, there is still a person in there, a creation of God. As such they still need all the love you can give them, just as much as they need breath in their lungs. No matter how they assign themselves, they will forever need love.

    God NEVER gives up on any of us. We ourselves are not God and therefore do find limits where we have trouble loving others and continuing to hope for them. But ours isn’t to look for those limits; ours is to love and hope until we run out – and then ask God for more. Ours is to pour out our lives for those around us in imitation of Christ Himself. It is through this very process that we become emptied of ourselves and are saved through the indwelling of Christ into our now-empty lives. This is the meaning of salvation.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is indeed a “dark night of the soul,” or some such thing. I suppose I’m wanting to press the point against a psychologized version of God (or anything else).

  49. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I have to wonder if some of our issues with life, death and resurrection are more due to our lack of separate words in English for Life. In Greek there are two Bios and Zoe. Bios is our biological life and in a two storey universe this seems to us that this is all there is. Zoe is spiritual life and it is the word that is always used in Biblical text. Because our culture is a two story one we can never fully accept that Zoe continues as a result of the Resurrection. I know that this is hard to understand and accept in our culture and of very little solace to most who have lost a love one, but it is an good example of some of what Fr Stephen has been saying about our culture being so secular.

  50. Agata Avatar


    You so beautifully and perfectly put in words my own thoughts, feeling and doubts, especially regarding the physical presence, even an embrace, of Christ in this life… The Saints must experience that somehow (they seen to have such certainty and assurance of His Presence), but I have not come across anything very specific about it… Maybe it is not shareable…

    I wonder if (according true Saints) we are not supposed to wish for it, but I do…

  51. Michelle Avatar

    Yes, I understand the psychologized God. This is the imaginary, close and personal Friend that the Reformed try to conjure up to fill the absence of God. But the absence can be felt just as well by the Orthodox as any other.

    I guess I took your comment as saying, “You doubt God because you don’t see Him in the sky and earth, but we Orthodox don’t have that problem because of our sacramental view of God places Him in the sky and earth (or, more so, bread and wine, icons, incense, and Holy Water, etc).” My point is that its easy to doubt the bread and wine, and even sky and earth, feeling that God is quite absent. The Reformed doubt the bread and wine, and as a result reject it, trying to replace it with an imaginary Best Friend. The Orthodox doubt the bread and wine, and even the earth and sky, but instead of looking elsewhere for His presence, they revisit this Sacramental world over and over again, sitting still and sober within it, in the midst of their doubts, and patiently wait on God to reveal His presence. Its hard to sit still in your doubts when your busy trying to shew them away with imaginary feelings of friendship/relationship and “movements” of the Holy the Spirit. But one can easily sit still in their doubts before an icon, or bread and wine, and patiently wait on God.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Blind Guide, while I cannot even imagine your sorrow I would also encourage you to find a way to recognize the life in your child and love him. Pray always.

    This world is a tough place and there are many ways of life that are intractable and from which full restoration even with repentance is not possible in this life. God is merciful to all.

  53. Byron Avatar

    patiently wait[ing] on God to reveal His presence

    This, it seems to me, is very much a part of theosis and salvation.

  54. Psalti Avatar

    Michelle said:
    “My point is that its easy to doubt the bread and wine, and even sky and earth, feeling that God is quite absent… The Orthodox doubt the bread and wine, and even the earth and sky, but instead of looking elsewhere for His presence, they revisit this Sacramental world over and over again, sitting still and sober within it, in the midst of their doubts, and patiently wait on God to reveal His presence… But one can easily sit still in their doubts before an icon, or bread and wine, and patiently wait on God.”

    This seems true. I appreciate the honesty and I’ve experienced the same thing. Sometimes it just seems like bread and wine. But I wonder…are we psychologizing the sacraments? Are we expecting some experience, some feeling, when we receive communion? If so, is that expectation just another modernist false assumption we both carry within us?

    How ought we approach the sacraments? What ought we expect? How ought we experience God? What did Christians in the past experience or expect?

    I don’t know the answer.

  55. Psalti Avatar

    Then again…as Michelle mentioned in regards to a lost child…we’re human. Emotions are part of who we are. All my questions may just be over rationalizations.

    Can’t we expect God to reach us via our emotions at times? In the sacraments?

  56. Mark Avatar

    Father: I have enjoyed your essays–this quote to me ties in nicely with the 2 storey universe, flipping the 2d storey back to the first:
    Evelyn Waugh:
    “Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.”

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed we psychologize the sacraments. Receive them as the Body and Blood of Christ – nothing wavering. How I feel is, on any given day, somewhat inconsequential. If you put yourself in the place of grace, from time to time, God grants us insight and perception. Emotions are part of us, but they are disordered to a great extent. We’re not called to be emotionless (we couldn’t anyway). Stillness is the sure path.

  58. Randy Evans Avatar

    Father, thank you – have not read all of the comments yet, but intend to do so. Also, Amazon and Kindle thank you because when you recommend a book as an excellent and informative read, I take that seriously. So I purchased “The Unintended Reformation.”
    I have only read 47 pages or so (just received it today), but, aside from the fact that Gregory is a R. Catholic professor at Notre Dame, and it does seem to be a strictly “western” reading of history and theology, I am still struck, so far, by the complete absence, so it seems, of referring to the Eastern theologians and their reflections on God’s transcendance and His immanence. St. John of Damascus states that, when it comes to God’s Being as Trinitarian, and Christ’s incarnation, “some things can be known and spoken about, and some things cannot be known nor spoken.” (rough paraphrase.) Is St. Gregory Palamas the last Orthodox father to wrestle with Roman scholastic categories and therefore no Eastern Father seems to “have a dog in this fight”? I am always stunned by how writers such as Gregory, Kreeft, et al, seemingly never refer to the rich treasures of Orthodox theology and spirituality when discussing the implications and complications, and deep confusion of our modern culture. My question: Does Gregory ever in the rest of the book bring our dear fathers and theologians into the discussion? As erudite and scholarly as he is, it just seems hard to fathom, although the East was never really brought into the conflagation of the West, Reformation, etc. Thoughts?? Anyway, thanks MUCH for your continued wrestling and articulation of our Orthodox Faith with this extreme and deeply confused modern culture.

  59. Dino Avatar

    Blind Guide,

    My brother, one of the finest things you can do is to cultivate your complete trust in God’s providence, despite your predicament and its power to spawn doubts and perturbing thoughts and feelings (concerning the said Divine providence) for your child. Throw away all thoughts of the contrary altogether, despite their apparent validity… The more we trust in God when in such desperation and powerlessness (to affect what are exogenous factors), the more He is allowed and invited and obliged to take the wheel in His hands and stir it in ways that only He knows and which can end up proving nothing less than miraculous. But our prayer is this focused, patient trust. You will help yourself and all others, including your child in this. It’s His child and not yours. May God be with you and your whole family.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, that is a weakness in the text. It’s interesting, in his discussion of univocity, which he credits with creating a false metaphysical understanding of the world, etc., he does reference the older understanding (which is Orthodoxy though he doesn’t name it). But he also recognizes that univocity had already begun within several segments of Roman Catholicism. If he were to press he thesis a bit further, he would have to admit that the Reformation (and its unintended consequences) had already begun within the breakdown of RC metaphysics, with Scotus and Ockham. If it had not been Luther and the boys, it would have been someone else.

  61. Agata Avatar


    “Its hard to sit still in your doubts when your busy trying to shew them away with imaginary feelings of friendship/relationship and “movements” of the Holy the Spirit. But one can easily sit still in their doubts before an icon, or bread and wine, and patiently wait on God.”

    Thank you for what you wrote here again, it’s such a perfect summary of my experiences. I am encouraged that I am not alone in this desperate (almost stubborn) trying….

    Just about the only thing that help me when facing this desperate situation is remembering the stories from the lives of the Saints. How St. Anthony struggled for years without feeling God’s presence, and when God finally came to him, he complained “Where were you all this time?”. “I was here all along, I was watching you…” (Fr. Tom Hopko told this story, and I also remember Fr. Irenei Steenberg re-telling it very vividly in one of his talks). I think I also read in Elder Soprhony’s books that he was able to bare many of the difficulties of his life (especially as a hermit) by remembering the lives of the Saints.

    Maybe that is our answer – imitating the Saints….

    (But this is still only a partial answer for me, since even they don’t ever talk about the consolation of the physical touch and embrace, nobody seems to want to…. pastors, confessors, monastics… and it’s such a important part of our human existence – even the Lord embraced people, and His Holy Mother, He let St. John rest his head on His chest…). Where is this in the experience of our Church and Tradition?

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For myself, there is much I simply assume about the presence of God. Every breath I take, every moment of existence for myself and everything else, is only because of the abiding presence and gift of God’s grace. I’m not particularly aware of “my soul,” and yet, I am told that God is closer to me than my own soul. It’s hard to see things that are so close. But I wouldn’t want Him to create a distance just so that I could see Him. And with every breath, give thanks.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here is a quote from an interview article with David Bentley Hart:

    “a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere.

    Naturally he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there.
    More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would absurd.

    But, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we’re accustomed.

    What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.

    The question would no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds.

    It is the shear unexpected ‘thereness’ of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.

    The physical order confronts us at every moment with its fortuity.

    Everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery.
    How odd it is, how unfathomable, that anything at all exists: how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event.”

  64. Dino Avatar

    As a kind of rule, we are given us much of God’s special “embraces” as we need and as is advantageous to us, no more and no less. As well as an extraordinarily cherished experience, it’s a perilous one too. It is also something that can happen in an inestimable assortment of ways – this, almost bodily fulfilling, encounter that is “felt in one’s bones”. What we see in the great and noble saints however is that they care not for their pleasure, they seek not for themselves, they do not even seek life, nor even paradise, but the only thing they seek is God’s Glory! Their love in due course becomes so wholesome and liberated that it becomes just like God’s, it stops being a creature’s neediness of its God fuelled by (a perfectly understandable in this respect) self-regard, and actually becomes God-like noble love.

  65. Byron Avatar

    Father, as the Eucharist was brought up, I wanted to see if I understand the sacramental view of it correctly.

    As we are not Catholics of Rome, the Orthodox do not believe in transubstantiation (not a shot at Rome, just noting this fact as I think it important). So we take part in the Liturgy, in prayer, in song, in reading the scriptures; doing this not in preparation for a miracle of change in the wine and bread but instead preparing ourselves for the blessing of God’s Grace in the sacrament. His Grace is the revealing of Himself in the bread and wine, the body and blood.

    So, as we approach the cup, we approach the Incarnation–God revealing Himself to us. It is not the physical change in the elements we seek but the sight to recognize and receive God’s Grace; to enter into communion with Him. As one of the fathers said, (I paraphrase) “A man may come to know God by watching a fox cross a road.” The fox does nothing; the road does nothing. But God reveals Himself in His creation to anyone who truly participates in it sacramentally. The man enters communion (a noetic participation?); we approach the cup praying for that same communion with God.

    Please correct me if I am off-base and forgive me if I’m wandering far from the discussion.

  66. Agata Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Since it looks like you posted this quote from DB Hart in response to my comment, I must admit here that it does not do that much for me… 🙂

    However, if you gave me a really nice hug next time you saw me, that would go a long long ways to… I don’t know what, convince me there is still Love in this world 🙂 🙂

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agata there is still love in this world. Hard to remember even with someone in your life that loves you unconditionally.

    It is the lie of the evil one that makes our hearts hard. It is difficult, but giving love is the easiest way to remember.

  68. Agata Avatar


    Thank you, beautiful response…

    You are blessed to be loved unconditionally. I know how special your wonderful wife is (as is Fr. Stephen’s wife and a few other wives of men commenting on this blog, I was blessed to meet a few). I have never experienced such unconditional love, the “love” offered me at one time in my life came with many prerequisites on my part. So forgive me if I simply don’t understand what that might feel or look like….

    I guess it’s my opportunity to practice what Dino explains as ideal, to seek God only, for His sake and not for my pleasure. And to practice undemanding acceptance of what is my life, with gratitude and trust in God. Even if I have to wait for His actual embrace until the other side of the grave…

    I am stubborn enough for that, I guess. But I’m still putting out this “hug” request to the whole world, since I have this opportunity… 🙂

  69. Michelle Avatar

    “But I wouldn’t want Him to create a distance just so that I could see Him”

    I don’t think anyone is talking about somehow viewing the essence of the Father here. But Christ did condescend down to us, and became man so that we could know the Father in a human way, which included touching, embracing, and conversing with God the Man.

    When my Grandfather was dying he spiraled down into despair, crying out for his mom at one point. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing an 84 year old man cry for his mommy. In some of my harder moments in life I cried out to Christ to appear just so He could hold my hand. This is the presence of God that we are talking about here. The comfort of a loving embrace, and an audible voice telling us everything will be okay.

    What do we make of it? Why does Christ not appear to us in our distress? Back then I did not understand, but I now days I have some thoughts as to why.

    Christ has told us in the beatitudes how one can encounter God; the poor in spirit, the meek, and those seeking righteousness will see God.

    I am none of these things, so how can I expect to see God? Instead, like the thief of the cross, who accepted his pain and suffering as his just reward, I try to bear this absence in humility (not that I’m successful). Now I sit still in front of icons, embracing this absence without presumption. I see it as a fast. As a time appointed for repentance.

    For those who do not doubt, sitting in front of icons is a feast, but for me it is often a fast. Both, I believe are appointed by God for our salvation.

    I once read that Dostoevsky said even if it ended up his atheistic suspicions proved to be true, he would still side himself with Christ, because he had come to love Him so.

    This is what I desire, that even if I suffer and die without ever seeing Christ in His flesh, and wake up to find myself alone in hell, that even then I still side with Christ, because I love Him so. This is what the thief on the cross did -because he fell in love with Christ he accepted his plight without presumption of being freed from it. It was enough for him to simply love Christ.

    When I die, if I should happen to not see the angels coming in the clouds to gather me up, as some do, I do not want to cry out in despair over Christ not being there to hold my hand. Rather I want to die in love with Christ, saying to myself, “If my dearest Love chooses to withhold His hand from me, then it is good that it is so, and I love Him even more for it!”

    And as far as the strangeness of the ‘thereness’ of existing stuff, well, I would assert that an atheist could behold this wonder with just as fervent an awe without God. The absurdity of the situation would not phase him. Nothing about the experience Hart describes necessitates belief in God. I admit it does help me to believe, to wonder in awe at creation, but that it does nothing for others is not surprising.

  70. Michelle Avatar


    If I could hug you right now in the flesh I would. I hope you’ll accept this comment as a cyber hug 😊

  71. Agata Avatar

    Thank dearest Michelle,
    I accept with a grateful heart, and hug you cyber’ly right back! Till we get a real opportunity…☺️

  72. Byron Avatar

    Hugs are good, my friend Agata! If ever we meet, expect a big hug! 🙂

  73. Michelle Avatar

    I agree with everything you say, but I also want to note that when someone is in the pain of despair, seeking some relief, we should never be hesitant to comfort someome. Do not doubt that God wants to comfort them through ourselves and others.

    In my last comment (which is in moderation at the moment) I mentioned my 84 yr old grandfather crying out to his mommy for comfort when he learned that he was dying. His daughter’s pastor came in to talk to him privately. Nobody knows exactly what he said, but after he left my grandfather was exuberant with joy, proclaiming it was the best day of his life. He was in this state right before he lost consciousness for the remaining days of his life. God sent this pastor to him and gave him the right words to comfort my grandfather. God wanted to comfort him. And it was no more and no less than what he needed.

  74. Michelle Avatar

    Agata, you ask, “even the Lord embraced people, and His Holy Mother, He let St. John rest his head on His chest…). Where is this in the experience of our Church and Tradition?”

    I don’t know where to find this in the Church’s Tradition. I know it used to be tradition in the West for the parishioners to give each other a kiss and greet each other with the word’ s “peace be with you” (or something to that effect) as a sign of forgiving each other before partaking of the Eucharist. I don’t know if this pertains to the East also. But either way we obviously don’t practice this nowadays.

    However, in our day to day life we sometimes encounter this, even from strangers, and it is no less from God. My aunt is a breast cancer survivor, and once she was out and about, wearing only a scarf over her head, which was completely bald from chemo. Out of nowhere a complete stranger came up and compassionately hugged her, giving her words of encouragement and comfort. I believe in a way the embrace came from God Himself.

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I believe without a doubt that God comforts us. Indeed, “I will send you another comforter.” “I will not leave you comfortless..” And the comfort is not a stranger to our humanity. On the one hand, we are to “comfort one another…” So hugs, etc., are very good.

    I believe that God is not only making us gods (theosis), but is making us human (anthroposis). Many times it is my inhumanity that makes God seem like a stranger. When I wrote about Him being so close (closer than my soul), and not wanting to distance myself so I could see Him better, I should have added, I instead want to learn how to rightly perceive Him when He is so close. DBHart’s passage is wonderful to me – and I see God in it. There are no arguments for atheists, only prayers.

    When others around us behave as true icons of Christ, then we are perhaps helped most of all. Recognizing Christ in His icon, I then see Him elsewhere as well. Love reveals everything.

  76. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agata, my dear wife went through a kind of personal hell to get where she is. As in a lesser way so did I. God gave us to each other. An unwarranted gift for which I am humbly grateful everyday. A constant reminder of His love.

    She got through it by learning to rely on God and learning to like herself. That is one of the first things she said to me that got my attention: I like me!

    During that time she became a giving person where before she was withdrawn.

    We still struggle to actually love. Believe me that Jesus is the most constant source.

  77. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Michelle, Father, Michael and Byron,

    I appreciate your wonderful words and please accept an apology for my whining… I might be the only one with this problem, but I sincerely try to practice living my life as the Orthodox Tradition teaches, and a few things are still difficult to figure out.

    But maybe trying to “figure it out” is the wrong way, I should remember what Fr. Tom Hopko once told me, “You can’t figure anything out, you can only pray that God reveals it to you”…

    Thank you all for the hugs too! (sometimes I think our poor priests are worried to give us one because of all that “sexual harassment” environment. Even when they know and sense the need of the person if front of them. Sad consequence of the two-story world).

    And finally please forgive me for all my typos, misspellings and missing words (as in a Thank you, etc). I should not hurry as much.

    And really finally, I very much look forward to meeting all of you some day in person!

  78. Steve Avatar

    May God continue to bless you with insight and wisdom.

    I think this issue is my primary struggle. I have been a protestant minister for 25 years. The last 15 of which have been a gradual progression toward Orthodoxy. I left that ministry a little over a year ago culminating in my baptism the day before Pentecost Sunday. While I was a pastor I spoke against the secular mindset you describe, and the psychologization (both rationally and emotionally) of the faith. I clearly recognize that it is evil in that it is a dream state. It is something that is not–a fantasy.

    Yet I find myself shockingly bound to it. I pray that the scales will fall off my eyes and that I will stop seeking confirmation or validation in the old ways. The other side of this is that this old mindset serves my sin and passions. If God were present to me I would be ‘unable’ to deliberately sin. So I find myself, through passivity, hiding; effectively casting God out of my psychological world.

    Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  79. Agata Avatar

    (and to all who answered my earlier posts….)

    “As a kind of rule, we are given us much of God’s special “embraces” as we need and as is advantageous to us, no more and no less.” – Dino is always so right about everything, may God keep and bless him….. 🙂

    I hope Father will allow me to report my little miracle: your prayers (and cyber hugs) materialized in a most wonderful actual physical and perfect embrace. My 5 year old goddaughter, whom I have not seen most of this summer, came over to be with me during the Liturgy. She jumped into my arms, wrapped her arms around me and told me how much she loved and missed me… I spent most of the service nearly in tears from this unexpected and wonderful gift (and asking forgiveness for my impatience and presumptuousness in wanting God’s gifts…). In His great Love, forgiveness and patience with us, the Lord sent me an actual little angel to bodily embrace me. I will not complain on this subject ever again 🙂

    Wishing everybody a blessed week!

  80. Dino Avatar


    I think the superb example you provided points us to the prominence of what Saint Paisios of the Holy Mountain termed “good thoughts”, or is better understood as positive interpretation/outlook, as opposed to a negative, offhand one.
    His classic and insightful saying of the flies and bees might have been initially aimed at another topic, however it can also be applied to this one (perceiving God’s consolations and embraces in their indirect manifestations):

    “I know from experience that in this life people are divided in two categories. A third category does not exist; people either belong to one of the other. The first one resembles the fly. The main characteristic of the fly is that it is attracted by dirt. For example, when a fly is found in a garden full of flowers with beautiful fragrances, it will ignore them and will go sit on top of some dirt found on the ground. It will start messing around with it and feel comfortable with the bad smell. If the fly could talk, and you asked it it show you a rose in the garden, it would answer: “I don’t even know what a rose looks like. I only know where to find garbage, toilets, and dirt.” There are some people who resemble the fly. People belonging to this category have learned to think negatively, and always look for the bad things in life, ignoring and refusing the presence of good.

    The other category is like the bee whose main characteristic is to always look for something sweet and nice to sit on. When a bee is found in a room full of dirt and there is a small piece of sweet in a corner, it will ignore the dirt and will go to sit on top of the sweet. Now, if we ask the bee to show us where the garbage is, it will answer: “I don’t know. I can only tell you where to find flowers, sweets, honey and sugar; it only knows the good things in life and is ignorant of all evil.” This is the second category of people who have a positive way of thinking, and see only the good side of things. They always try to cover up the evil in order to protect their fellow men; on the contrary, people in the first category try to expose the evil and bring it to the surface.

    When someone comes to me and starts accusing other people, and puts me in a difficult situation, I tell him the above example. Then, I ask him to decide to which category he wishes to belong, so he may find people of the same kind to socialize with.”

    (From Elder Paisios on the Holy Mountain by PriestMonk Christodoulos, p.43-44)

    Of course one can object that when the Grace of the Holy Spirit abounds, everything is interpreted positively, while without It, we naturally doubt there is anything angelic about even the hug of a child as we, at best, interpret everything through the prism of the secular naturalism of current atheism, [i.e.: which is categorically the hellish futility of an accidental reality bereft of God].
    But the witness of our treasured saints mustn’t be disregarded; they counsel us to nurture such positivity… They are, indeed, Christ’s “faithful witnesses/martyrs” (Revelation 2:13), especially since Christ Himself refers to them with this same epithet He uses for Himself earlier in the Apocalypse (Rev 1:5), thus reminding us that the saints (from the greater to the lesser) are His very presence in this world, planted for our sakes.
    It’s also noteworthy here that the palpably direct experience of God (to return to the main topic of these comments) is something that we predominantly hear –with any frequency– from hermits that have abandoned ‘human consolation’ and indirect solace (from others) has been renounced along with everything else for the sake of bravely finding oneself and one’s God in the [literal] desert…
    May we open our eyes to see God’s secret hand (Exodus 17:16 LXX) constantly pursuing us with His mercy…

  81. Michelle Avatar

    Beautiful! Truly a gift sent from God! Thanks for sharing it with us, Agata.

  82. Agata Avatar


    Thank you for this beautiful reminder from St. Paisios. May God grant us all to “be the bee”…. 🙂

    And for your reminder to seek the Lord Himself, not experiences of Him (this is one of the most surprising and new ideas I got from reading this blog, and your posts in particular).
    My favorite contemporary story of somebody doing exactly that is Fr. Lazarus, who lives in the cave of St. Anthony in Egypt. He himself beautifully tells (there are YouTube videos about him) about how he left everything he ever knew (his life as an atheistic university professor in Australia) and became a monk in the desert, where God’s “sweetness, peace, consolation, joy and love” are his daily companions…
    (I recently met a Coptic Father who takes pilgrims to Egypt, guess what is new on my dream travel list… ? :-))

  83. Byron Avatar


    Children communicate God’s love in the most wonderful ways!

  84. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen, I can’t recall the first part of the phrase, but the second is, “Then have a cup of tea.” Is this in reference to bearing shame in confession, or about how difficult noetic prayer can be (at least for me). My mind wants to wander away all the time and I keep trying to quiet it. I’m sometimes successful for brief periods.
    It has taken a lot of pressure off of me to realize that Christ meets us in the mysteries (sacraments). I don’t have to think about anything or try to have some kind of experience. His Presence, grace, energies are there for us if we just show up. This and prayer of the heart are all that I’ll ever need, all wonderfully available to us as Orthodox Christians. Grace mediated through what we do and not what we think.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a quote from the Elder Sophrony. It goes, more or less, “Stand on the edge of the abyss until you cannot take it any more, then have a cup of tea.” He does not define the “abyss.” I think the abyss can indeed be the abyss of shame – the abyss of hell – the abyss of our own nothingness in the presence of God, etc.

  86. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    An interesting article and many good comments. I am obviously joining in rather late in the game. I’d like to share a thought or two.

    As some of you know from my past commenting, I am a clinical psychologist. Also a Catholic, but with warm ties to Orthodoxy.

    While I am certainly on board with you, Fr. Stephen, about the near disappearance of the “sacramental world”, I share the concerns voiced by some of the other mental health professionals about tying this to psychology. Since “psychologizing” means “to analyze or regard in psychological terms, especially in an uninformed way” (Merriam Webster), your use of the word may be appropriate. However, the fact that the post title uses the term “psychology”, not “psychologizing” suggests a broader implication. Although I feel fairly certain that you aren’t intending to demean the profession per se, this may not be clear to someone who has not followed you for a long time or read the 80+ comments here.

    The issue of identity is a complex and difficult one – and I appreciate your recognition (in comments) that many of the dilemmas people experience in this regard are not chosen.

    A dilemma on the societal level is how not to inflict unnecessary pain on those who are different – but, at the same time, educating rather confusing or deluding the masses who aren’t personally affected by the differences of others.

    On a personal level, it can be agonizing. I have talked with a good number of people who experience differences or minority status on identity issues. For those of us who have not had this experience, it is hard to imagine just how pervasive is the impact on a person’s emotional stability and relations with others.

    Our identity as beloved children of God is, of course, the only one the truly matters in the end. Sadly, some people are so burdened and confused that they don’t know how to experience or recognize this relationship.

    If I may, I would like to share a post from my blog on the topic of difference – or rather, of God’s perfection: You may erase this paragraph (or the entire comment), Fr. Stephen, if you think it inappropriate.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think those of you in the profession of psychology are being overly sensitive and protective of the word. Merriam Webster clearly has a very narrow definition – since its definition does not fit my usage at all.

    If I say, “The psychologization of society,” then we’ve obviously crossed into some kind of metaphor in which we’re talking about a cultural phenomenon. On an individual level, one example of “psychologization” that does fit within the profession is the deep misunderstandings people have about mind/body. There is a strong tendency in our culture to somehow separate mind from the brain. We get depressed and almost the last thing we think of as a culprit is the brain. The number of times people come to me with problems that are clearly medical in cause and cure, but instead want a “spiritual” approach (by which they mean “psychological”) is legion.

    The profession of psychology is itself sometimes riddled with such notions. “Psychologist” can be so many things, so many schools – from Freudian and Jungian quacks to down to earth CBT therapists. It seems to be increasingly grounded in a good understanding of the brain, but I have seen therapists do damage when working with bad theory. People “shop” for a good psychologist for a reason.

    I am deeply sympathetic about things such as body dysphoria. It is a tragic condition. The politicization of bad medicine (the current gender-fluidity theory is simple nonsense with no science) is going to make the culture at large increasingly crazy and the first victims are already children and adolescents whose socialization is being disrupted by gender fads. It is a pastoral nightmare. The practice of surgical gender fixing, in everything but the most clearly clinical cases involving clear genetic issues is medical malpractice, I believe. The psychological literature seems to be bearing that out. The madness of our drive to end all suffering is an abuse of technology. Imgaine, doctors in some cases (plastic surgeons) are agreeing to help someone look more like an animal. Where, in heaven’s name, does that possibly fit in the Hippocratic oath?

    Socialization is always a difficult thing. It does tend to “norm” people towards some accepted standard. But it’s also unavoidable. Even the most radical reformers clearly believe in some kind of “norming” since they working so hard to redefine “normal.”

    We need to help one another bear suffering – with gentleness and kindness and compassion. But not with enablement and insanity.

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