You Don’t Mean a Thing


I am having surgery this week (cataracts) and will be less able to work on the computer. I will post a few chosen posts from the past for readers. I find that I gain something myself by re-reading older material. I offer this meditation on a quote from Stanley Hauerwas that I have shared previously:

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

There is an assumption within our contemporary world that the life we bring into this world doesn’t mean a thing, at least, not at the start. Meaning is something the individual must create for himself/herself. It is, we think, a version of freedom. We are told that if we come into this world with our meaning already established as a given, then we can never be free. Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.

This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free-verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness. When the story you are telling yourself is challenged or falls apart, you are bereft of a reason to live.

I saw an interview recently with a Romanian priest who spoke about his conversion from atheism. He had read deeply in Nietsche, Sartre, and other modern authors, and come to the conclusion that life is simply meaningless marked by interminable suffering. Anyone who finally becomes aware of this, he said, should commit suicide, and the sooner the better. He was obviously in a very dark place. A friend took him to the grave of the great elder, Fr. Arsenie Boca. And as he sat there, without recourse to reason, without praying, without thinking, he simply began to weep. He was astonished at his own weeping. “What’s the matter with me? How can I cry?” But he said, “Something like scales fell from my heart…” And he saw what he could not see before. By some miracle, he saw what he had been given.

Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.

It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.

A necessary delusion of the self-creation of meaning, is that the things we can choose are actually the source of our meaning. And so we invest education, career, family and the like with an ultimacy that does not belong to them. Indeed, it is a form of idolatry.

Saying to a piece of wood,’You are my father,’ And to a rock,`You gave birth to me.’ For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble They will say,`Arise and save us.’ But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, If they can save you in the time of your trouble; For according to the number of your cities Are your gods, O Judah. (Jer 2:27-28)

Meaning is something that is always larger than ourselves. It is the-self-in-relation-to-everything. Thus, to create one’s own meaning puts forward the arrogance of defining everything else as well. It is like taking a piece of wood and declaring it to be our God.

The classical Christian life is born of humility and thanksgiving. It is an acknowledgement that we belong to something greater than ourselves and not of our own making. Only with such an acknowledgement do we treat everything and everyone around us with the proper respect and dignity. For if my life is not my own creation, then neither is your life my creation.

Christians recognize and confess that the story of Christ and His Pascha are the meaning of all things. It is the story that God has told the world about itself, about Himself, and about our place in the midst of all things. It has a beginning. It has a place within history. It also has a place that transcends history and offers redemption to every part of the story. Nothing else has to be said.

A rich young man came to Jesus and asked Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him, “Keep the commandments.” But this wasn’t enough for the young man. “I’ve done that. What more can I do?” And Jesus said, “Sell what you have, give it to the poor and come and follow me.”

Keeping the commandments is not a bad place to start. Keeping them is a recognition that there is something greater than my own self. I yield before the law of God. But there is indeed something greater. More than the commandments, there is the radical abandonment of our self for the sake of the Kingdom. There is more than just adhering to a godly standard. The one who gives Himself completely to Christ has set himself in the position that Christ and His Pascha alone will make sense of his life.

If the rich young man kept the commandments, everyone would say, “He’s a good young man.” If he gave everything away they would say, “Is he crazy or something? Why on earth would anyone do something like that? It’s irresponsible! He could have accomplished really great things with all of that money!” And everyone would stare at him and whisper behind his back and shake their heads in disbelief. And he lives for many decades in this same state of poverty. When he dies, they wonder why he wasted his life. In the Kingdom of God, he will sit upon a throne.

What good is a compass that points to itself? It means nothing. It is a compass for people who are going nowhere.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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31 responses to “You Don’t Mean a Thing”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    May your surgery be successful Father. You are in my prayers.

  2. Karen Avatar

    Praying all will go well, Father!

  3. Gloria Weigle Avatar
    Gloria Weigle

    I’ll be praying for your surgery and recovery. God bless you!

  4. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    May God bless your surgeon, Fr. Stephen, and your healing process. I’m right behind you, with my first eye scheduled for 3 weeks from today. 😉

  5. Paula Pepe Avatar
    Paula Pepe

    Praying for you, Father. Lord bless and heal.
    And for you too, Mary Benton!

  6. Myrna Avatar

    Be with God, Fr. Stephen as He is with us with us all the time
    My prayers for good results.
    – Sh. Myrna

  7. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    May the Lord bless, keep and heal you, Father.

  8. John Chiladakis Avatar
    John Chiladakis

    Hope you are feeling better soon and get best health.
    Thanks for your most valuable guidance.
    Best wishes

  9. AR Avatar

    Father, thank you so much for reposting this. Despair has been crippling me all day, but you have brought me back. Thank you. I pray your surgery goes well.

  10. Matvey Avatar

    Father, thank you for reposting this article! This is one article I can read and reread and continue to be surprised.

    I am praying to Saint Luke of Crimea for you! He was himself a prolific surgeon and doctor, even given an award for his scientific work by Stalin (though he was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured for his Christian witness), and he even created a pioneering method of cataract surgery that he could perform in Siberia with very little tools or medicine available.

    We will be glad to have news about the results of your surgery once you’ve recovered. God grant you clear vision by the prayers of Saint Luke of Crimea!

    About Saint Luke’s life:

  11. Karl Avatar

    Good luck with the operation, Father.

    The documentary about Fr Boca can be found here. The story of the guy who converted is around 1:15:30.

  12. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Your blessing Father!
    Long may your posts continue with refreshed, clear vision.
    The story continues…

  13. Dino Avatar


    What an outstanding article this is!

    I believe you would find this interesting (on the distinctly all-encompassing Logocentric Cosmology of St Maximos):

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have deep reservations about Rossi’s article for reasons I would prefer not to say.

  15. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    I do have some of my own you could easily guess, but I think they are probably very different to yours. I cannot say that you haven’t made me curious though…

  16. Alison Cloonan Avatar
    Alison Cloonan

    I pray that you have a speedy recovery.
    I think your article points out very clearly why our Founding Fathers believed that in order for this experiment of theirs (ours) to be successful it was imperative that we be a Godly people.

  17. Byron Avatar

    We blessed a new icon of St. Panteleimon in our parish yesterday. May he pray with us for your complete recovery!

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And the Founding Fathers were part of a losing path in history. It requires a culture of goodness in order to nurture virtue in people. They were early in the Enlightenment and its various projects. But they also were part of overthrowing some of the very things that work to make a culture of virtue. We are not the ones who have betrayed them. We are the pretty natural results of the long trajectory of modern culture, of which the Founding Fathers were important, early parts. America is not, and never can be a “conservative” culture. It was built on radical ideas that, in the long run, will betray the virtue required of a godly nation.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byran and all,
    The surgery this morning went well (I am told). It’ll be a few days for this second eye to stabilize and for us to see what I can now see. Thank you for the prayers.

  20. Victoria Avatar

    Glad to hear your surgery went well. Our prayers for your speedy recovery.

  21. Agata Avatar

    I’m sorry to be this late in sending you “get well” wishes… Hope you feel better soon!

  22. Salaam Avatar

    May you make an excellent recovery and many years, Father!

  23. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    The former atheist’s testimony in that documentary was very moving. Thank you, Karl, for linking to it.

  24. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I had forgotten this gem. Thank you:

    “What good is a compass that points to itself? It means nothing. It is a compass for people who are going nowhere.”

  25. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Thank you you Father Stephen for this article. I appreciate the quote from Stanley Hauerwas and your own elaboration of the classical understanding of our reality as ‘given’ as opposed to the idea of the ‘self-created’ reality. When I was young in school the ‘stream of conscious’ writers – for now I will not say who, we’re famous authors and their writings were required reading in the English Lit class I took. There was no real critique of this thinking- and I remember thinking to myself ‘Gee this seems awfully self absorbed’–I was brought up in a different culture in my home. This was the time I realized the reality that I thought was most real and meaningful came out if science–I wasn’t exposed yet to Orthodoxy. It also seemed that the religion I had been exposed to was equally, similarly experienced and encouraged. Grace came through to me in the vehicle of science where ‘reality’ was given by ‘nature’, by data and by what some might call ‘dry’ facts.

    Theory is our attempt to express and explain what we see– an attempt to organize data to reflect reality– not too different from what an icon is to our reality.

    On this note about the role of science in our *expression* (not our construction) of reality, it is extremely important to recognize the difference between opinion, rhetoric, polemic, ideology, and science. All are actions of expression -an attempt to say what is ‘seen’, but one seeks to find reality as it is given. And the others are compasses pointing to themselves. Not understanding this distinction, not being watchful and vigilent regarding the self- pointing compass, has gotten us into an ugly quagmire. Lord have mercy on us.

    I’m grateful for these lessons Fr Stephen. You help us to see. And may your own eyes heal, but your sharp and clear sight remains undetered and unclouded regardless. Glory be to God.

  26. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    I apologize for the typos and obscurity of the religion I referenced.

    It is a reference to my experience of Christianity at that earlier period in my life, which was not helpful for my salvation other than to demonstrate a distinction from the Church as I experienced it in Orthodoxy.

    Hopefully I’ll take better care next time I write.

  27. Whitney Avatar

    I apologize for commenting off topic. I am seeking advice as to whether I should respond or not and how to gently address a comment from a friend. They claim Christianity as a religion frequently implies a very progressive/modern/loose interpretation of such.
    Here is his comment below. It was writtrn in regards to a comment of his own about praying for Haiti. I have had several friends recently in semi-similar situations where they have rejected Christianity proper but still claim the religion in part.

    I don’t pray for people in peril expecting some 900 foot tall old white bearded sky god to directly intervene. I pray in order to center myself, to try to keep me right sized, and to try be ready to help, even of it causes some financial or other kind of sacrifice.

  28. Whitney Avatar

    As I read and reread my friend’s comments I become even more unsure of what to think about what he writes. Does it just sound new agey to me but he is on the right track?

  29. Matvey Avatar

    It sounds new agey and very far off from Orthodox Christianity. It sounds to me as if he prays for himself when other people are in danger—that’s quite an idea!

    The “900 foot tall old white bearded sky god” part sounds quite childish to me personally.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It sounds like they are wrestling with obvious questions about prayer. We do not change God’s mind, nor convince Him to do something He doesn’t want to do. Neither is prayer like some sort of force-field (“I sending prayers your way…”). So, what is it?

    That is where the mystery is. It is, properly, a uniting ourselves with God. It pleases God to share the work with us. Our prayer truly participates in the energies (actions) of God. Christ said, “I only do those things that I see the Father doing.” That is what union looks like. Christ prayed a lot. Why did He pray? Because He was united with the Father.

    Why should I pray? so that I might unite myself with the Father…so that His heart will become my heart…etc.

    The false imagery of God as a Supreme Being contributes to false notions of prayer. God is not “a being” at all. He is “Being” who alone causes everything to exist. His being is not like our being at all. Our being is contingent and temporal. He is without beginning, incomprehensible, ever-existing, etc. If we lived in proper union with God, everything would be prayer. I pray that I might become prayer.

  31. Karen Avatar

    Whitney, as I interpret your friend’s comment it sounds like:

    a) He is rejecting faith in a false idea of the nature of God (the “900 foot tall sky god …” who from time to time from a distance intervenes in the affairs of men)

    b) He prays to experience stillness of heart/awareness of what truly is and to ground himself in reality (“center myself”)

    c) He prays to experience humility in a realistic self-awareness (“to keep me right-sized”)

    d) He prays to be prepared to give self-sacrificially for the benefit of those in need

    If that is what he means by his language, it sounds pretty compatible with an Orthodox Christian understanding of the nature and purpose of true prayer to me. All he may need further is to be aware that because of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, if he sincerely attains that kind of prayer, he will also encounter the true God, Jesus Christ. It’s possible he doesn’t mean by his own language what I have interpreted it to mean, but exploring what he does understand by the terms he uses and where they may or many not overlap a fully Christian understanding of prayer may be a place to start a conversation.

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