To See Him Face to Face


“The self resides in the face.” – Psychological Theorist, Sylvan Tompkins


There is a thread running throughout the Scriptures that can be described as a “theology of the face.” In the Old Testament we hear a frequent refrain of “before Thy face,” and similar expressions. There are prayers beseeching God not to “hide His face.” Very clearly in Exodus, God tells Moses that “no one may see my face and live.” In the New Testament, there is a clear shift. The accounts of Christ’s transfiguration describe His face as shining. St. Paul speaks of seeing God “in the face of Jesus Christ.” He also speaks of us gazing steadily on Christ “with unveiled faces.” Orthodox Christianity has a very particular understanding of the face, modeled in the holy icons. It is worth some thought and reflection.

In both Latin and Greek, the word translated as “person,” actually refers to the face, or a mask (as a depiction of the face). The face is not only our primary presentation to the world, and our primary means of relationship, it is also, somehow, that which is most definitively identified with our existence as persons. Developmental psychologists say that the face-to-face gazing of mother and child in the act of nursing is an essential building block in the development of personality and the ability to relate to others.

It should be of note that the Holy Icons are always depicted facing us, with some few, turned ever so slightly. Those “turned” faces are found on icons whose placement would have originally been on an iconostasis and are slightly turned so as to be acknowledging the Christ icon. The only figures portrayed in profile are Judas Iscariot and the demons (or those who are fulfilling those roles). In the art of the Renaissance, and subsequent, this treatment of the face disappears. The human figure is simply studied for itself, as art, the relational function of the icon having been forgotten.

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is reflected in its treatment of icons. St. Paul’s description of being transformed as we behold the face of Christ is an expression of true personhood. Our “face” becomes more properly what it should be as we behold the face of Christ. This “looking” is, to a degree, what we today would call a “relationship,” though, I think, it has more insight and import. “Relationship” has become a word that is almost completely vacuous, lacking in substance.

With the face, and its implications for personhood, much more can be said. I cannot see the face of another without looking at them. To see your face, I must reveal my face. That face-to-face encounter is pretty much the deepest and oldest experience we have as human beings (first experienced with our mother in nursing). For the whole of our lives, our faces are the primary points of experience and reaction. We cannot truly know the other without encountering them face-to-face.

It is probably significant that art turned away from the face and toward the figure. The language of salvation as “not going to hell” or “going to heaven,” is, strangely, impersonal. The same is true of justification and the like. It easily sounds like a medical procedure, a treatment of the body (or worse).

Similar to the face is the treatment of names. In Revelation, the image of salvation is the giving of a new name. In the Old Testament, this same thing happens to Abram (Abraham) and Jacob (Israel). In their cases, a new name signals a change in them and a change in their status before God. By the same token, it has always struck me as deeply personal and touching that Christ sometimes had nicknames for his disciples: “Peter” (“Rock”) and “Boanerges” for James and John (the “Sons of Thunder”). I suspect there were others. In the Orthodox tradition, a child is named on the eighth day after birth, or, if later, at Baptism. The giving of a name at Baptism is also a very ancient part of Baptism in the West.

In these things, we must understand that we are “known.” We are known uniquely and not by reputation or reference. We are not in a category, nor are we the “objects” of God’s love. That we are being changed by beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ suggests that we have to look at him – directly. This is very much part of the meaning of true communion.

Psychologists describe the bonding between mother and child in nursing (and face-to-face) as communion:

Identification begins as a visual process, but quickly becomes an internal imagery process, encompassing visual, auditory, and kinesthetic scenes. It is that universal scene of communion between mother and infant, accomplished through facial gazing in the midst of holding and rocking during breast or bottle feedings, that creates the infant’s sense of oceanic oneness or union. (Psychology of Shame, Kaufman, pg 31)

I was somewhat staggered to find such a theologically compatible statement in a work of technical psychology. Sometimes scientific observation is simply spot-on.

As we grow older, we never again gaze into the eyes of a person as we once did with our mothers. Lovers are often drawn to the eyes of the beloved, and find a measure of communion, but wounds and injuries eventually interrupt the initial innocence of such eyes. The same is at least as true with regard to God.

Regarding the face of God, there is this very telling passage in Revelation:

 And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev. 6:16)

It is of note that Revelation does not simply speak of the wrath of the Lamb, nor merely of His presence. It is specifically a fear of His face. Our experience of the face is an experience of nakedness and vulnerability. On the positive side, the result is identification, communion and oneness. On the negative side, it is the pain of shame and the felt need to hide. I can think of nothing else in nature that so closely parallels and reveals the fundamental character of our relationship with God. Salvation is communion. Sin is an enduring shame.

It is into this existential/ontological reality of sin/shame that Christ enters in His Incarnation, suffering and death. The depths of hell are everlasting shame and yet, He doesn’t hesitate to enter there in order to rescue us. Christ’s rescue of Adam and Eve in Hades are a final echo of the encounter in the Garden. They hid in shame, but He came looking for them. Then, He covered them with the skins of animals, but now He covers them in the righteousness of the Lamb who was slain. Then they were expelled from Paradise; now they are restored. Then, they fled from before His face; now they behold Him face to face – and rejoice.

When I pray before the icon of Christ, I notice that His gaze never changes. He does not hide Himself from my shame – but He bids me return my gaze to His. Unashamed, painless. You can find paradise in those eyes!


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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79 responses to “To See Him Face to Face”

  1. pablo flotho Avatar
    pablo flotho

    Dear Fr. Stephen
    If you take the concept of the ‘face’ back into the Hebrew PANAIM. which is the word used for the shewbread or bread of the presence refering to the bread on the altar in the holy place. I think it has a typological relationship with the eucharist. You might explore that and comment on it.

    By the way I enjoy your teachings and find them edifying and sometimes challenging. I am a pentecostal but influenced by the ancient church and some Orthodox teachers.

    blessings to you!

  2. Dean Brown Avatar
    Dean Brown

    Fr. Stephen,
    A wonderful post. My heart sometimes rejoices when I read your articles. This time it was full. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said that before 40, our face is God’s business. After 40, ours. Of course the face reflects the kind of life we have led. Another thing I have observed is that a middle aged person who has lived a hard life, and then turns to Christ, doesn’t then get a soft face. But…the eyes do change after encountering Christ. The gaze is softened. The eyes are the the lamp of the body, as our Lord reminds us, either full of light or full of darkness.

  3. Manuel Petavrakis Avatar
    Manuel Petavrakis

    Another most excellent article. Thank you Fr Stephen.
    God bless you and your work.
    In Christ,

  4. Thomas Snowdon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen: Father, bless. Thank you for this insightful and very helpful post.

  5. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    the beginning of this post, especially, has helped me with regard to making a connection between Orthodox understanding, and the Roman Catholic teaching (what I understand of it) about the Beatific Vision being the telos of our existence. Even though we as Orthodox don’t describe union with God that way, I had the inkling that there must be some truth to it, but I was hampered by the seeming bare objective-ness of the idea of simply staring at one another throughout eternity… This helps to relieve my puzzling over it somewhat, and to veer away from the “east versus west and east is better” temptation. I want to be able to see what is good and compatible with Orthodoxy in other Christian teaching. Hope that’s clearer than mud (which is what we have had a lot of the past few days in northern California).


  6. Byron Avatar

    I recall my years of working with young children. They often bond by coming up to you and running their hands over your face, “getting to know you” by getting to know your face. Their eyes are very wide while they do this, catching everything about you. They take great care in doing this; I always just sat in silence and smiled as they worked (they sometimes talked, sometimes not).

  7. David Avatar

    And–mysterium mysteriorum–it is said that in the World to Come we shall behold the face not only of Christ but also of God the Father (Revelation 22).

  8. Michael Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I find it interesting also that one’s (or at least, my) impulsive, immediate response to shame is to cover my face, even if no one is looking. I don’t know if you’ve spoken about that before but I wonder what the relationship is between covering one’s own face and wanting to be hidden from someone else’s face.

  9. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. – note typo… Jacob was renamed Israel. You can erase this comment. I want to reflect more on what you’ve written before saying more.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s a direct correlation. The shame response is blushing, looking down, or hiding the face. It is hardwired, there from birth. It is one of nine identified “affects,” facial reactions that are present from the very beginning. Surprise is another, as is “dissmell” (the basis of disgust), etc.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Oops. Not a typo, but a brain stumble!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Wonderful! I learned something new. I just read your comment and went back to the Hebrew to follow. Indeed it is the “bread before the face.” One could call it the “bread in my presence.” “Showbread” is an oddity in English that makes little sense. But this is quite Eucharistic.

    One of the essential acts in the Eucharist is the “offering,” when the Consecrated Lamb is lifted with the words, “Holy things are for the holy!” I will think and read more on this. Thanks for pointing me in this direction!

    I will add that I first encounter typology under a Pentecostal Bible teacher in a little storefront church in a Mill village near my college. The minister was a brick-mason and an amazing typological expositor. Most of his stuff was end-time related, but it opened my heart to see that there’s more beneath the surface of Scripture than above. When I began to read the Fathers in college, I saw the same thing and became really excited. Orthodox hymnography is so full of types and allegories that it makes your head spin – each of them a world of revelation in the mystery of salvation.

    Blessings to you as well!

  13. Deacon James Avatar
    Deacon James

    C S Lewis wrote a wonderful novel spun from the threads of the story of Cupid and Psyche, ‘Till we Have Faces’.

    In the very end he writes, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”

    Thank you Fr Stephen for this wonder-filling reflection on person. Pondering on this draws me to the ever unblinking love filled gaze (Gaze) of our Savior. Though I cannot return even a glance, the loving energy of that gaze causes me to blush and yet desire to remain. That healing can come from shame is miraculous.

  14. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    What a wonderful icon you have chosen to accompany your article.

  15. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This beautiful post stirred a number of things in me.

    One was how the “Holy Face” of Jesus has been a center of devotion among some in the western Church. Most notably, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (also known as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) wrote a poem and also a prayer of consecration to the Holy Face of Christ.

    Although I consider her a beloved friend, I have sometimes thought her devotions a bit unusual. Yet, as I reflect on it more in the context of this article, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by how very important the face of Jesus must be to us.

    A google search revealed that there are 71 Bible verses referring to the face of God (some are only about parts of His face, i.e. eyes or lips). We are to “constantly seek His face” (1 Chronicles 16:11). We are given the image of His face shining upon us in blessing (see Psalm 67:2).

    And in Jesus, we are given a human face for God – one that we can “see” without dying. It is a face that has smiled and cried just like our own. There is so much (too much?) to ponder in this…

    Also stirred by this article, in seeming contradiction, is that it is my heart not my eye that gazes – or longs to gaze – upon Him. Nothing that my eyes see ever seems to be enough. I realize that this may be, at least in part, because as a RC I do not have a full understanding of how to experience an icon.

    However, I think there may be more to it. But, for now, I have no words to say what I mean. (Does this make any sense?) I will be quiet now and pray.

  16. Barbara Avatar

    A phrase from the Theophany services has lingered with me…”the light of your countenance has set its mark on us.” There are similar passages in the psalms and other prayers that have always spoken to me – this is truly how we become like Christ, become transfigured.

    This post also reminds me of the passing of my father. As I stayed with him, during his last hours and breaths, I could not remove my eyes from his face. I wanted so much for him to open his eyes – to see face to face one more time. I noticed the same attentiveness in my mother and some very tender gazing between them the night before he died. No words were necessary. I wrote a poem about the face of God after his death and long before I became Orthodox.

    I think this is also how we must become like little children. They save us with their innocent gaze and we find the courage in that gaze to share our faces with them. Their innate humility, trust and dependence is what we must recover.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is indeed an amazing icon. It dates back to the 6th century and is at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai.

  18. Irini Avatar

    Blessings Father,

    Thank you for this this beautiful post and the prior post on shame. I don’t recall where I read this – I think it was maybe Elder Joseph the Hesychast. He who warns that in that moment of that self awareness, the devil will immediately start showing us all the great sacrificial things we have done for others, to distract us immediately from this state. After I read that I realized that God was, throughout my lifetime, showing me who I was but I was quickly punting it out of my mind with thoughts far less painful, instead of letting it descend into my heart.

    I also just read this beautiful excerpt from Father Patrick Reardon’s book, Christ in the Psalms, in the section of Psalm 50, describing this intimate encounter through its words of repentance. It is a message you patiently deliver to us, over and over. He says, ‘ The true sense of our sinfulness does not come from measuring the distance between our own conduct and the grandeur of our moral law. Oh no, it is only in the overwhelming presence of the Holy One Himself that we sinners know how utterly sinful we are.”

    He points out in the book of Job how much Job suffered, reconciling his sufferings, until God abruptly reveals himself and Job’s mind is then altered.

    Father Patrick then puts in the beautiful quote;

    “I have heard of You by hearing of the ear./But now my eye sees You,/Therefore I abhor myself./ And repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5)

  19. paula roe Avatar
    paula roe

    I’ve always wondered if there is a theological reason for this icon’s asymmetry. The two sides of His face are different. One side seems more weathered or tired than the other.
    Could it be a representation of Christ’s divinity and humanity in the same person?


  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have heard many interpretations given to it, but there is no specific tradition associated with it, including whether or not it is intentional. All we have, really, is speculation – some of which is quite interesting.

  21. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    The Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion comes to mind

    “grant that (the gift of Communion) may be for me also unto the healing of soul and body, unto the averting of everything contrary thereto; unto the enlightenment of the eyes of my heart; unto the peace of my spiritual powers; unto faith invincible; unto love unfeigned; unto fulfilling of wisdom; unto the keeping of thy commandments; unto growth in thy divine grace, and the attainment of thy kingdom; that by them preserved in thy holiness, I may ever remember thy grace, and henceforth live not unto myself, but unto thee, our Master and Benefactor. And thus, when this life is ended in the hope of eternal life, I may attain unto everlasting rest, where the voice of those who keep festival is unceasing, and the delight of those who behold the ineffable beautify of thy countenance is boundless”

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Hmmm, brings to mind the Asian aversion to “loosing face” as an expression denoting deep shame.

  23. Justin Avatar

    Paula, Fr Stephen:
    The face is, from an artistic perspective, obviously VERY intentionally a crasis of 2 different expressions. Cover the face with a paper and observe the 2 sides – or, better yet, hold a mirror in the center so that whatever side the mirror is facing gets superimposed on the other side, giving you the entire face in that side’s expression.
    The left is an expression of love, acceptance, recognition (note it is Christ’s RIGHT side) while the right (Christ’s left side) is an expression of disapproval and unrecognition.
    It is an Icon of His parable – those on His right hear “Welcome into the joy of your Master”, while those on His left hear “I ever knew you.”

  24. Raphael Avatar

    I am reminded of something from Fr Serahpim Aldea.

    “Prayer is impossible. If you define prayer as “meeting god in a relationship face to face, being person in front of person and interacting” then prayer is impossible…

    I shall become a personal being, by the grace of God, after my death, but right now I’m not. I am a deformed version of myself.

    Just like I am supposed to hold on to the awareness that as long as I am alive in this earthly way I remain a mystery to me and God remains a mystery to me, in the same way prayer is an experience which is truthfully impossible.
    We are all aiming for the impossible.
    And it is impossible because a face to face relationship is impossible.
    Because one of the faces does not exist yet.
    Because one of the faces does not exist yet.”

    A highly condensed version of a few minutes of Fr Seraphim’s talk here:

    I have transcribed it here:

  25. MamaV Avatar

    This whole article and many of the comments were so encouraging to read. I appreciate Pablo bringing in the Hebrew, as well as the discussion of children learning people by their faces. What I want to know is: what if instead of making eye contact with my nursling daughter, I am reading this article? 🙂

  26. Agata Avatar

    I would be a little more careful with quoting such things from Fr. Seraphim (although I am guilty of doing that in the past, with the same good intentions you have). I am not sure some of these words and his interpretations would be approved and agreed with by those who knew Elder Sophrony and those who carry on teaching his spiritual tradition.

    “We are all aiming for the impossible. [prayer]
    And it is impossible because a face to face relationship is impossible.
    Because one of the faces does not exist yet.
    Because one of the faces does not exist yet.”

    That is definitely not what Fr. Zacharias teaches about prayer. These are Fr. Seraphim’s personal opinions and they seem confusing. They are not helpful to me at all.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect your daughter gets lots of eye-contact!

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It might be a way of stating things that is difficult for you, but Fr. Seraphim’s words are very much in harmony with those of Elder Sophrony and would be as well of Fr. Zacharias.

    The “person” in the teaching of the Elder is “not yet” in that it is the end and fulfillment of our life in Christ (“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1Jo 3:2) Thus, we are ever moving towards that becoming truly a person. And we do not yet see Christ as we will then (we see him “as in a mirror dimly” St. Paul says). But then, face to face.

    I’m sorry this may seem confusing to you, but is quite on target and in harmony with the teaching of the others.

  29. Dino Avatar

    I am guessing that Father Seraphim here is rather using romantically expressionistic, emotionally charged language (which its obvious risks of being interpreted another way from what he means) to primarily make a striking impression. So, ‘terminological precision’ is sacrificed in the process.
    Elder Sophrony and Fr Zacharias often convey a matching notion – yet with vastly different terms, less poetically – when they speak of how we only really come to address God with the boldness of His Sons in the final stage of Hypostatic realization.

    This wording issue is always challenging I must admit!

  30. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    I am sorry I rushed with my opinion…

    Thank you for your correction and explanation.

  31. Michelle Avatar

    The last article on shame and this one on being “face to face” with others and God has got me thinking about the psychological condition of psychopaths (not just the violent ones, since the majority of them are actually nonviolent and function in society). From what I understand they cannot feel true empathy or shame. Same can be said for some Autistic people (or maybe all of them? Not sure), though they lack the self-interested motives and drive to control and dominate others that psychopaths possess.

    I’m going to assume here that the science is correct and that they can’t repent because their brains won’t let it happen. They can’t be willing. We can, though, because our brains let us. Not to say that a brain that can be willing actually will be willing to repent, but its still quite the advantage. And it is an advantage that we cannot take any credit for. Maybe we can take credit for going ahead with the willingness that was afforded us, but we can’t take credit for the initial abilities we posses by virtue of having a brain wired just so. And apparently the psychopath cannot take any credit for his inability to bare any shame or repent. It doesn’t even matter if they weren’t initially born that way (though I do find it significant that scientists say they can detect psychopaths as early as 2 or 3 yrs old), because what we’re talking about here, despite whether it happens when your 2, 22, or 102 yrs old, is an apparent point of no return on this side of death. If you can’t repent then you can’t repent. But, as this article of Fr Stephen’s points out, repentance in the form of baring shame (which implies the ability to actually feel shame) is a pretty big deal. So what about those that literally cannot do it?

    If the Resurrection heals their brains then it seems they would have to repent and voluntarily bare shame after death, but this is against the voice of the overwhelming majority of the Tradition.

    And it goes against my intuition to assume that if someday I do manage to voluntarily bare a little shame and truly repent that it was because my brain was wired in a profitable way that psychopaths do not enjoy. The idea of being wired in an advantageous way over others kind of seems to take away the validity of my repentance. It’s like equating repentance to being a sports champ, because my biology gave me an edge.

    I understand a person’s nous, or ‘heart’ as I like to call it, is not equated with the brain. I’ve often thought of the brain as the organ that is supposed to translate and reveal the hidden heart of a person. A broken, impaired brain may do a poor job of this, and in this fallen world everyone’s brains are damaged in one way or another, but could it really be possible for a repentant heart to be translated into overtly unrepentant behaviour by an unhealthy, psychopathic brain? And this is where whether or not psychopaths are actually rotten to the core, possessing truly unrepentant hearts, along with what age this hardening happens to occur, do indeed become significant questions.

    According to the Tradition you aren’t born unrepentant, but are hardened into unrepentance throughout your life. And, to me, acquiring this irredeemably hardened heart in early childhood makes as little sense as being born that way. In fact, according to tradition, at no point in our earthly lives will we find ourselves at a point of no return. This isn’t supposed to happen until after our death, when tradition holds that repentance is no longer possible.

    If it’s ever proven without a doubt that psychopaths are utterly, truly incapable of repentance, then I would say it must mean repentance can happen after death when our broken brains are finally healed.

  32. Dino Avatar

    I think that what we perceive as ‘incapacity’ to repent is actually always capable of being completely rattled by suffering… It’s just a matter of degree (and drinking of the waters of utter desperation in order to come to repentance is not without its dangers but God knows how to handle everything)
    (I am reminded of CS Lewis’ famous saying here about ‘pain being God’s megaphone to wake up the deaf’)
    Our analysis of the life of others is precarious when done ‘with our mind’, and completely different when bestowed as a grace from God for fathoming our own sinfulness.
    Also, the classic patristic saying [which also closely relates to unceasing prayer] is somewhat pertinent here, namely, that (irrespective of the person and how their mind is wired), “a Nous that abandon’s the remembrance of God has only two states available to it (!), [to a lesser or greater degree], it either becomes brutally animalistic, or demonic… there isn’t a third one…!”s

    The unwitting monitoring of our ‘eagerness in forgetting God’ through the efforts to unceasing remembrance of Him, quickly reveals that there is little difference between the worst of men and ourself in light of this saying. In fact, we see that just as we are saveable by our good God in our unsavability, so are all others.

  33. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    The questions about free will, repentance after death, and many more could be whole series of blog posts unto themselves (I think Fr. Stephen has written on at least a few of them before but I don’t have any particular links in mind). But I think it would help to take a step back and look at some of the assumptions and whether or not the questions can even be asked in the manner they’re posed. As for free will, remember that when the Fathers speak of free will they’re not speaking of looking at and choosing between a number of different options. That is the gnomic will and part of our fallenness. Rather, the will is part of human essence and something that, as far as we become truly human, we all share—it doesn’t vary from human to human unless we’re talking about its distortion. And so when we talk about having a free will, that doesn’t mean freedom to choose options, but freedom in Christ, which really doesn’t involve that type of decision-making at all and would look a lot like slavery to a modern consumer (and St. Paul even uses that language 2000 years ago). It kind of undercuts the very question that asks it.

    Likewise, the questions about children or repentance after death are interesting, but we have to be careful that we don’t look at things from an guilt-based soteriology. If we do that, then we’ll be tempted to buy into or invent all sorts of weird—even heretical—systems and “alternate paths” of salvation for infants and the like, something that seems to proliferate in popular “Christianity”. Without going into a lot more detail, which I think is unnecessary, it is enough to reiterate the basics. Whatever hidden things the Church knows about these matters, it doesn’t change the fact that we are called to—and must—repent here and now; unrepentance will cost us dearly and expose us, even in this life, to the chastising fires of Hell. And there is no salvation outside of Christ and His Church. But we must simultaneously remember that God is merciful and we cannot comprehend the limits of His Body, which is offered for all mankind; thankfully, the judgment is up to Him, not us, and He is Just in a way that makes even our understanding of mercy look harsh and short-sighted.

    As to the comment on autism, I can only speak from my own experience with any real depth, though some of these things hold true for many other autistic friends I have had. But as an autistic, I do experience shame. I may even experience it far more strongly, not less so, than the “average person”, at least if the physical manifestations are anything to go by. In addition to being overwhelmed by certain external stimuli, shame can cause near-instantaneous overstimulation, a state that is difficult to describe but will often manifest as either an extreme outburst (running around, screaming, both at the same time, etc.) or almost total “shutdown” (that is how respond, usually, and what I train for so I don’t run out of the room or something more abnormal-seeming), where we remain consciousness but many of the “normal” processes and functions required for normal social interaction simply turn off. Sometimes stimming is to keep me grounded in “the present” because my thoughts wander (ADD too, though not hyperactive), but other times it is an anchor because the effects of being different carry some level of shame and it takes effort just to be “present” in any socially-acceptable way. Empathy is the same: the emotions can get magnified by a few orders of magnitude, which is difficult to manage (to put it mildly), so we have different strategies for empathizing, expressing emotions, and many other “everyday” things people take for granted. And as to the face, the things spoken about it hold very true for us: many autistic people have difficulty looking at the face. I haven’t spoken in great depth about that aspect in particular with others but, as for me, it is because there is such a rush of emotion and information—even communion—that it is like drinking from a fire hose. Unless I prep myself, I cannot look at someone and hear what they say; the face is so overpowering that, if I look them in the eye, everything will “go in one ear and out the other”. I have worked for decades (I am now in my 20s) to be able to do this for *some* parts of conversations *some* of the time, but it is still hard and doesn’t feel natural. Finally, I wouldn’t put self-interest, or even sociopathy, on the same axis as autism; an autistic person (if I am any indication) can have very manipulative feelings—I have had lots of trouble in the past (and still struggle, to be sure) forming normal relationships with females, for example, even moreso than other relationships (which are hard enough already). I am not sociopathic and a lot of the struggles come from the culture we live in, a culture which promotes a very unhealthy understanding of relationships (again, to put it mildly) and the associated emotions—feelings of loss before the relationship even begins, etc.—are like 10 × that which I see other people dealing with. Again, not to say every autistic person has the same struggle in the same way—there is a ton of variation—but that linking of the concepts doesn’t seem to be very correct or very helpful. And, while this is a debate unto itself (and even moreso when you ask if being austistic or neurotypical is the normal, or closer to the normal, state of man), it can be difficult to pigeonhole autistics into a rigid stereotype and diagnosis; people of all kinds and personalities can have mental disorders you would not immediately [or ever] suspect, and that might be even more the case when it comes to the [very wide] autism spectrum.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle, et al
    Some of the questions and observations that you note reveal the shortcomings of many aspects of our “anthropology” (what it means to be a human being). Modern versions are often quite inadequate. For example, the notion that we are largely constituted by free will. This voluntaristic notion of human existence is, more or less, make-believe, well-suited for current economic and political theories, but not accurate when it comes to describing the truth of our experience.

    In very simplistic terms, the notion of salvation as a simple choice given to us between God and hell, doesn’t work when it comes to many aspects of our humanity. The Evangelical account of salvation (frequently imported into various versions of Orthodoxy) holds to this notion. The system is “saved” by making exceptions. I think the exceptions (such as autism, or various brain pathologies) are not truly exceptions, but revelations about the real nature of our existence.

    Much of this is revealed in discussions about the eternity of hell and everlasting damnation. For that to be true, it requires a certain account of human beings that doesn’t actually do a good job of describing who and what we really are. I am careful not to pronounce and proclaim the opposite (universalism), but I think it is important to uncover the inadequacies of various treatments of the question.

    What we call the “will,” is nothing nearly as simple as most people imagine. Repentance is not nearly as straightforward, either. The classical model of the atonement, for example, sees Christ as the “Christus Victor” (Christ the Conqueror) in which He smashes death and hell and destroys those things that hold us captive. It need not have as voluntaristic an element as is required in the Evangelical payment models.

    I see human beings as broken, held prisoner, sometimes even imprisoned by their own brokenness. We make bad, stupid decisions, frequently, and our own worst enemies. How does a narcissist repent? Can they? What does salvation look like? Are all of us narcissists to some degree? There is so much to be said and pondered in all of this.

  35. Michelle Avatar

    Dino and Joseph,

    I want to thank you for your responses. I have a busy day ahead of me, so I won’t be able to share all of my thoughts till later, but you guys have given me a lot to chew on.

    In my next comment I will try to better explain my argument under the tradition of free will and gnomic will that was brought up. I’m actually speaking within those terms too, but can see that I need to express myself more clearly.

    I want to especially thank you for your insight into Autism you’ve shared, Joseph. I greatly appreciate it. I know very little about Autism and am happy to learn and be better informed. Thank you.

  36. Michelle Avatar

    Also, to note that I am not speaking about narcissism, but psychopathism. From what I understand Psychopaths by definition cannot feel shame. The part of the brain that allows the consciousness of shame doesn’t light up on brain scans for them. This doesnt mean that I am concerned about their “free choice” being hindered, but rather that shame, which is something Fr Stephen has pointed out so many times to be essential to healing and becoming truly human, is not a possible experience for psychopaths in this life.

  37. Michelle Avatar

    Let me restate that- psychopaths by definition cannot feel shame at the face of another. They live in a world with no empathic connection connection to an Othet. In other words, by definition they don’t have the ability to distinguish people from trees.

    I agree with Fr Stephen that this state actually empjasize, not diminshes, our understanding of being truly human through communion. But, Traditionally, this sort of state of being isn’t supposed to be experienced by people until after death. Before death we are all called to repentance. Psychopaths, by definition, cannot repent, so it seems.

  38. Michelle Avatar

    Sorry, going to fast. I meant *no empathetic connection to an Other.

    And, *emphasizes*

  39. Michelle Avatar

    I am not saying they cannot *choose* to repent, I am saying they cannot experience repentance. Can a person’s nous repent in hiddenness, while these person lives an earthly life without the ability to experience it? Maybe.

    Ok, now I really have to go. Busy day. I appreciate all the responses so far.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a model, suggested by Sergius Bulgakov, that sees the story of salvation as worked out within each individual person, rather than simply between good people and bad people (we’re all a mix). In that understanding, “sheep and goats” describes aspects within each of us. Christ comes to destroy sin (your “goatness”) and to save persons (your “sheepness”). In that treatment, working out the fine points of the mechanics becomes less of an issue, since the point is that everything within that separates from Christ will be healed/destroyed and that which unites will be strengthened and saved. It takes a strong view of St. Paul’s “being saved by fire”.

    Of course, it carries the controversial element of universal salvation (to which Bulgakov subscribed). I’m not advocating it – I’m simply describing it. There are aspects of it that are quite strong.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Even following Bulgakov’s model does not lead inexorably to universalism.

    There is certainly persistent darkness in my own heart. Although I must admit when I am comforted by St. Paul’s description of the fire testing and purifying.

    Especially when I look at Jesus command to pluck out an eye,etc.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your point viz. universalism not being necessitated in Bulgakov’s model is certainly correct. What seems clear to me is that we often work with a highly caricatured model of what it means to be human.

  43. Victoria Avatar

    Is shame/repentance a movement of the brain or the heart or both?

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Both, I would think.

  45. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am not familiar with Sergius Bulgakov but something you wrote in that comment (11:51 AM) stirred my interest.

    St. Paul’s “being saved by fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15) is an interesting passage because it is sometimes seen in the RC church as a description of what we call purgatory, i.e. a state of being purged (purified) of sin and its consequences in someone who is repentant, not in deadly sin and desiring the fullness of God’s presence.

    I believe the reasoning goes something like this, though I am not a scholar of such matters: this “fire” cannot be the fire of hell for that does not save anyone; but neither can it be celestial fire because heaven does not cause people to lose anything. (This is derived from the writings of St. Jerome, I believe.)

    My understanding is that the Orthodox Church does not accept the notion of purgatory. I am interested in your thoughts on this. I realize that may be too big of a topic for this comment thread… just wanting to understand more, if you are able.

  46. Michelle Avatar

    I can see why my original comment lead everyone in the direction of speaking about free will and the simplistic notion of making a choice between options, though that’s not where I intended to go.

    When I stated “ They can’t be willing. We can, though, because our brains let us,” as well as other references to voluntary will, I wasn’t saying anything about what the human will entails. For my argument it really doesn’t matter what it entails (whether libertarian, compatibilist, or any other theory of will you like), it just matters that when we are taught by the Orthodox tradition to go to confession and “bare a little shame” (which is, to me, interchangeable with the word “repentance”) that we are, in fact, willing to do so. We do not bare shame, or go to confession, or repent in any way unwillingly. Whatever this mysterious ability to will is exactly is neither here nor there, so long as we all can at least agree that the tradition of the Church is that shame is to be embraced willingly, and not endured unwillingly.

    This is why I appreciate Dino’s remarks on suffering and pain being able to wake people up. It is actually a comment of Dino’s from the last article, “The Sound of Shame,” that got me thinking about the unique state of psychopaths in the first place (I know this term has a lot of stigmas and stereotypes around it, but if you look into it you’ll soon learn that actually many people suffer from this disorder, and the vast majority of them function as well as you and I in society, though in their case it is a protective façade). This is a portion of Dino’s quote, and it is portrays well the tradition of the Church:

    “God will often sanction some manageable “tests” for us (although these episodes subjectively feel the opposite of ‘manageable’ during their occurrence), in order for us to practice ‘gluing unto Him’ (despite His seeming utter inexistence at the time) and also unto His saints who have gone through all this before us, ‘learning’ about hell and humility yet despairing less and less until ‘we despair not’, but acquire willingness and even gratitude in it all…….. it is prudent to sow and cultivate wisely and diligently while we still can: we will surely reap accordingly when we cannot cultivate anymore, ultimately, (both the difficult episodes as well as the opportune and easy times which we decide to not waste away but use them as explained) this is all preparation for the time of our death…”

    And this aspect of the Orthodox tradition is what I was referencing as something psychopathic persons are incapable of experiencing in this lifetime, by virtue of what defines them as “psychopathic” in the first place. Namely, an inability to experience shame before the face of the Other. They have no emphatic connection to the Other, so they cannot see themselves in the face of the Other. An emphatic connection seems necessary for communion. They cannot consciously commune. But who knows, maybe it’s possible their inner nous can commune while the person’s consciousness is completely unaware…?? It seems unlikely because, inline with Dino’s statements above, our tradition seems to overtly express our consciousness of what’s happening to us as crucially important. That’s why in Dino’s latest comment to me he said “I think that what we perceive as ‘incapacity’ to repent is actually always capable of being completely rattled by suffering…” Being able to be “rattled” is important. But from what I understand science has shown psychopathic persons incapable of being rattled to repentance by pain, both physical or emotional, precisely because they are incapable of emphatically connecting with the Other. Pain and suffering will no more cause them to repent before the face of the Other than it would cause any of us to repent in communal relation to a tree.

    And I realize psychopaths aren’t the only ones unique to the situation of being mentally incapacitated in such a way as not being able to consciously experience repentance. And Fr Stephen’s comment “Repentance is not nearly as straightforward, either. The classical model of the atonement, for example, sees Christ as the “Christus Victor” (Christ the Conqueror) in which He smashes death and hell and destroys those things that hold us captive” really gets at the heart of my concern I’m struggling to express. And the concern is that the Orthodox tradition that Dino expressed in his comments, in which our ability to consciously experience suffering and pain in such a way that it moves us towards our true teleos, being an important and irremittable aspect of attaining salvation, doesn’t exactly lineup with this mysterious expression of repentance of Fr Stephen’s (and, apparently, SergiusBulgkov) where the experiences Dino speaks of don’t matter so much for certain people; this repentance where Christ swoops in and destroys what’s corrupting the person mentally incapable of what Dino has expressed. Does Christ resolve this problem for the handicapped person in this lifetime, so that they may go ahead and get started doing what Dino has expressed? Or does He free these people from their corruption so they can get along with this work after their deaths? Or does He free these people, and they are totally exempt from all that Dino expressed?

    Now, I admit, I personally can easily accept and adhere to this expression of repentance Fr. Stephen refers to (whatever it is) for mentally incapacitated people, where consciousness of such things is not possible, such as in babies and young children, as well as various mentally handicapped people, and those in vegetative states, etc. And thus, for these people the tradition Dino expressed does not properly apply in the way he has presented it to those of us who are not incapacitated. But there is something profoundly different about psychopaths from these others, which is how well they portray the fearful image of the irredeemable hardened heart. It’s almost like they are a perfect personification of that truly hellish state, in that the nature of their inability to relate and see themselves in the face of the Other affords them an utter aloneness, without a single soul apart from themselves to commune with. It’s terrifying. And what’s more is that I am certain that if the same portions of my brain ceased to “light up” before the face of the Other, I would no doubt be that same express image of perfect aloneness of hell myself. I am no different from them in that matter. And so for this reason it is important to know whether or not the psychopath personifies this aloneness we often term damnation in appearance alone, due to a physical mental handicap, no different than any other handicapped person, or if this appearance is in fact true to the psychopaths actual state of his heart. This, in my opinion, would equate with a total depravity, since indeed Christ would have to swoop in and heals this corruption first before we could get along with the synergistic notions that Dino present to us. And now I have just expressed the basics of Wesleyan arminianism. Thank you for playing! Good night! Lol

    But in all seriousness, I just wanted to break my recorded for longest comment ever. Lol, my apologies to everyone who read it.

  47. Michelle Avatar

    I just want to add a thought to this statement of mine,

    “Does Christ resolve this problem for the handicapped person in this lifetime, so that they may go ahead and get started doing what Dino has expressed? Or does He free these people from their corruption so they can get along with this work after their deaths? Or does He free these people, and they are totally exempt from all that Dino expressed?”

    No matter which option we go with it will ultimately end up undermining the tradition that Dino has expressed, in that what he laid forth was the supposed to be the crux of how we end up achieving salvation. But any of these presented option places something before that which was supposed to the decisive factor. Maybe I’m wrong here, but it seems to me that inserting an extra step impedes on what Dino has presented as the decisive factor, and ends up bordering on monergism.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary benton,
    Orthodoxy often sees the fires of hell as saving. In that sense, they have a purgatorial role. Orthodoxy is not nearly as specific on all of those questions. By and large the details of such things tended to get hardened or honed in the Catholic/Protestant debate in which Orthodoxy did not participate. Thus there’s more latitude and variation in Orthodox thought – reflective of the earlier Patristic period. It also is the stuff that creates debates within internet Orthodoxy. I think that many among the Orthodox would like us to be a definitive as the Catholic/Protestant debate and there’s even some who would argue that we already are – but I think they are mistaken.

  49. Victoria Avatar

    I forgot to ask “what about the nous?”

    Where is the nous in relation to shame / repentance and the heart and the brain?

    Does the nous factor in here too?

  50. Dino Avatar

    The ‘ “work” one can get along with’ is simply realizing his dependency –that he is a contingent being. Whether this realization happens early in life and one ‘works’ even more [accordingly with this realization] for the rest of his years, whether it comes to them on their deathbed, in a veiled manner, or as their soul departs (which I believe is far more often than we think), or at a later time afterwards as many believe, it is this (Slightly humbling) realization [which is not hindered by one’s inability to feel true empathy or shame due to their brain’s wiring – since every being that does not believe they are God in a Luciferean manner can do this] that allows Grace to come and cure even a psychopath; besides, God does not judge as we do.

  51. David Avatar

    Michelle: The things you speak of are complete mysteries to me. Fortunately, I have learned that finding God is not an intellectual achievement. That has freed me from worrying about mysteries I cannot solve. God will take care of psychopaths and such, I am sure. I don’t need to know about it. “Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.” – Fr. Thomas Hopko

  52. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen.

    I sometimes think that my RC church tends to over-define things we cannot know with any certainty. Yet that is a temptation that afflicts many who seek the Truth.

    I also believe (and have read) that it may all be one Fire. “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12: 29, etc.) This consuming Fire may be torment to those who reject God, purification for those still longing for Him and the fullness of glory to His holy saints.

  53. Michelle Avatar


    I think you’re right that a psychopathic person need not have feelings of empathy or shame to come to an understanding of God’s existence and they’re dependency on Him. But I can only imagine this realization for the psychopath as an interesting fact that they could either entertain or dismiss. Maybe if they happened to value and respect truth they would deem it as important. You don’t need these feelings to have a logical understanding of truth.

    But I don’t think even this realization would be able to ever cause them to ‘care’ about God in any sort of communal relationship, and thus would lack humility in its fullest sense of the word. Because even if they logically realize the truth of His existence and their dependency on Him they still can’t relate to an ‘Other.’ God is still a tree to them, and hence they are still utter alone in this respect (that is, if the science of psychopathism is correct about their mental incapacities).

    I don’t, though? Maybe realizing the truth of your dependency upon a “Tree” could incite a certain sense of humility in them? This may be right.

  54. Michelle Avatar


    I appreciate your comment. You’re absolutely right. I’m only attempting to understand these things in an intellectual way, and I don’t have any true spiritual insight on the matter. I guess I’m not totally convinced that intectual endeavors have no edifying benefit though.

    And Fr Hopko I’m sure is right that I imagine and analyze to much. It probably distracts me far to much from attending to the business of trying to humble myself before God in repentance.

    But if I didn’t do it at least just a little bit throughout my life I would still be a Protestant, listening to the similar advice of my previous faith that it’s dangerous to ask questions about things like forensic guilt, penal substition, “justification by faith alone,” sola scripture, and yada yada yada, because we’re all utterly depraved monsters who can only reject and hate God’s so-called “justice” when separated from said faith.

    And Im not actually all that worried about figuring this stuff out. I don’t know how, but I know God can handle the psychopaths. I just like to think about stuff, and seek out the truth everywhere I go, and in everyone I meet. I just thought maybe even the psychopathic persons among us (because they really are among us as our neighbors, our doctors, our fellow parishioners, our fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, etc) could offer us some insights to the truth.

  55. Dino Avatar

    I imagine none of us can truly ‘relate to another’ if we properly scrutinized ourselves– we are all psychopathic to various gradations. It’s just that this is not revealed to us in conventional living. Only with God’s grace we can. Then we are miraculously transformed. If God demonstratively took away his Grace though, we could outdo, not just the ultimate psychopath, but also the devil himself in indifference, while with Grace, everything, including what science has to say, can be overridden.
    Science –for instance– might assert that man cannot survive for longer than four weeks without nourishment, however the saints who have tried it, with God’s Grace, have had the irrefutable personal verification that this can be easily exceeded.

  56. Agata Avatar

    Michelle and Dino,

    Thank you again for your conversation, I cannot believe how they are applicable to my life, and how Michelle seems to be God’s instrument in my healing that I did not even realize was still needed…

    Unlike David, I relate very well to wondering if people who are sociopaths can repent and change. To find out that their brain chemistry may not allow for such changes is helpful and comforting (while heartbreaking, for their sake, at the same time). Of course, as Dino said, God’s Grace can change anything and everything anytime, so maybe my prayers for that person (who fortunately is not longer the most immediate part of my life) are not “a wasted” effort… I know no prayer is ever a wasted effort, but it is also good to know that some changes may not happen for these poor people on this side of eternity…

    So thank you both for this conversation. The issue of suffering bringing about repentance is very interesting, it’s not good to wish suffering on others ever, but if that is the only way they may repent, and come to realize their dependency on the God, may God grant them some ‘manageable “tests”’, for the sake of their salvation and waking them up….

    I don’t know if either of you were able to listen to Father Stephen’s interview (very wonderful!). I connected a few minutes early and heard another wonderful commentary by Fr. John Oliver which almost summarized this conversation of yours… Fr. John said that Christ will pursue the one sheep, leaving the 99 behind… But the most important prerequisite for that to happen is for that sheep to “want to be found”. Christ could not have saved Judas even though he was so close, because Judas’ heart was hardened and “he did not want to be found”…..

    So I think Michelle you are right on, some people have such hardened hearts, they don’t want to be found by Christ…. May the Lord help us not to end up in this category..

  57. Byron Avatar

    I’m only attempting to understand these things in an intellectual way, and I don’t have any true spiritual insight on the matter. I guess I’m not totally convinced that intectual endeavors have no edifying benefit though.

    Intellectual endeavors certainly have edifying benefit; Orthodoxy is not against intellect, after all. My only advise is to remember that, in Orthodoxy, we worship and live in fullness–the whole of the human body and mind is involved in our salvation.

    It is worthwhile to remember that healing, our salvation, is something that cannot be reduced to only an intellectual endeavor, or a sense of feeling, or an effort of some sort, or any other one thing. David is correct; God may work in many ways that are unknown to us and usually does in both our lives and the lives of others.

    I know you have not been advocating against this fullness but I thought it worthwhile to mention it anyway. Please forgive me if I’ve in any way misrepresented you or what you’ve discussed.

  58. Dino Avatar

    Agata and Michelle,

    What is quite discernible in ascetical, patristic writings is that we ought to apply all this analysis [I am thinking of our conversation on the save-ability of psychopaths and psychopathism within all of us etc] in a judicious way, being ‘wise serpents’ where needed and ‘innocent doves’ elsewhere.
    What I mean is that at times when we incline towards an internally sanctimonious criticism of others, that’s when we ought to remind ourselves of how excused another is, (to such a degree that God gladly brushes aside what we perceive as immense ‘objective’ sinfulness in the subject of our criticism) and therefore eschew any hostile assessments of our neighbour.
    When we look at ourselves however, we must change our ‘prism’ (if we have such a readiness and solidity for working on self-condemning humility) and recognize that even –to use one example– : thoughts we unconsciously entertain of being forsaken or exploited (since “…we are just that, clearly, in everyone’s eyes!”…) are possibly not the ‘objective’ truth. In fact, they are a justification mechanism for our very feelings of downheartedness and our persistence in them while …’fighting them’ (the wrong, self-preoccupied way) and while what we are doing, is in fact, slumping into further deafness to the love of God – a self-justified desolation.
    We wouldn’t even require suffering and pain to wake up if we had such a ‘prism’ (or rather suffering would then be deployed for far more advanced objectives by God’s faultless providence), i.e.: if we ‘kept our mind in hell without despairing’ on such a healthy, grateful, wise foundation.

    “ pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

    ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

  59. Michelle Avatar

    I also know someone that possesses some strong sociopathic characteristics. He’s never been professionally diagnosed, but he believes himself to have schyzotypal disororder. I’ve always thought maybe a severe bipolar disorder with hallucinatory tendencies. He’s one of my best friends, though we rarely see each other or talk these days. I think it was rough on Him when I went away to college (almost ten years ago), but in my absence he found ways to cope. And now that we’re both older, and now that I’m married with kids, I don’t think I have much use for him anymore. You see, though I felt a strong connection to him, for the most part (but maybe not totally in his case, since he’s not actually suffering from psychopathism) I was mostly just someone whom he could respect enough to have around to keep him from going crazy from boredom. Boredom is a big factor for many with these kinds of disorders. It motives them to actually go out and socialize. They don’t do it for the sake of communing with others, and if they could stimulate themselves adequately enough by themselves they would, but in the face of unbearable boredom and a strong need for entertainment (causing many to become alcoholics or addicts) they seek out friendships. They use people. And I was more than happy to be of use to my friend. Back then he needed me -maybe not in the way that I needed him for the sake of a communal relationship, but none the less he needed me, and I was happy to be of service to him. Somehow it kept him balanced, even just to use me, and seemed to keep him from going into the dark deep end. And his deep end had the potential to become very, very dark indeed. I don’t know about now, but back then he had suicidal tendencies, with homicidal fantasies. But he was very self aware and did his best to curb these tendencies. He had an astounding capacity and respect for morality, though it was hardly based on compassion (not that this is entirely absent for him, because, like I said, he is not a textbook psychopath).
    But this disorder did not prevent him from believing in God, nor from being baptized on our front porch many years ago (he’ll probably never willfully enter a church. He has no need or desire for that kind of communion). And to my utter amazement and wonder, without any persuasion from myself in that he wasn’t even aware of my own conversion at the time, he has recently informed me he has been attracted to the Orthodox Church. And his entire Christian walk has been almost a purely intellectual endeavor based on a very strong sense of respect for truth. He amazes me, and I am honored to know him. He’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life. My friend has taught me a great deal about truth himself, and has been a big part of my own journey of faith.
    I’m not worried about God’s ability to save my friend. But the path that he needs to walk towards salvation may be a qualitatively different than the traditional one of ascetic humility, due to his disorder. Not that I think he will never reach ascetic humility, or communal desire. It just wouldn’t surprise me if he, and others with certain disorders, never reach them in this earthly lifetime.

  60. Cyneath Ian Avatar
    Cyneath Ian

    Michelle, I find this discussion of ‘psychopaths’ most embarrassing (especially in light of Fr Stephen’s post today: ).

    Each one is a distinct creation of our God and cannot without impunity be lumped together because of similar characteristics. In the Gospel we find that when Jesus dealt with groups of persons – feeding the 5000, the Pharisees, etc. – His mission was seldom accomplished. Looking at yesterdays Gospel Reading of the Ten Lepers we hear Him ask, “Where are the nine?” Apparently it was only the one which was fully healed, body and soul, for which he was eternally grateful.

    My investigation of psychopathology leads me to understand that we in this sin-sick world have all been mis-parented, some more seriously than others. This seems to be the ’cause’ of our individuality, even to the point of an un-bearitability of communion with others.

    As this most recent political season has fractured us a society I believe it is our Christian responsibility to Pass the Peace, to abandon our human proclivity of ‘other-ing’, to forgive all for all, that Christ will appear in us.

    May it be blessed.

  61. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for sharing your friend with us Michelle. He will be in my prayers.

    A story like that always makes me think of that saying “that if we knew what problems other people have to deal with in their life, we would never complain of our lot, see that our cross is the smallest of all”…

    May God grant your friend that miracle of His Grace and healing that is always a possibility, even in this earthly lifetime. I think it was Dino who said in one of his comments in the past that “God can rearrange the whole universe to save one sinner”… Maybe even against that person’s wish…

    From the prayer at daybreak by Fr. Soprhony, I always think of this line:

    “…. And when my perverted will would lead me down other paths, do not forsake me, my Savior, but force me back to Your holy path….. O God, my God, I plead with You for many and great things: do not disregard me. Do not cast me away from Your presence because of my presumption and boldness, but by the power of Your love lead me in the path of Your will…..”

  62. Michelle Avatar

    Cyneath Ian,

    I apologize if I have come across as shaming anyone by lumping them all together and making unfair generalizations about them (I’m assuming this is what you were referencing from Fr Stephen’s latest blog post). If I did this, or appeared to do this, I assure you it was not my intentions and am sorry.

    It seems we may have differing ideas of the cause of these ailments I’ve been discussing. I don’t deny the plausibility of nurture being a driving force for some who suffer from mental disorders (sometimes the main force), but there is very much a physical aspect to these ailments, involving chemical imbalances and brain physiology. And I do believe that for some these physical forces are the main, or possibly only factor, and that some people are even conceived and born with these disorders from the start.

    It is these latter sufferers who are cemented in these disorders by their physiology that make me cry out, “But they cannot!,” when I hear something such as, “In our voluntary union with Christ and His Cross, we bear a little shame, and bring the cycle of shame and violence into the silence and healing of paradise” (from Fr. Stephen’s latest blog post). But as Dino has rightly pointed out when considering others we should be sober and watchful, remembering to quickly to attend to ourselves with the realization that there is little difference between ourselves and the worst-off of men in our “unsavibility.” And never forgetting that “just as we are saveable by our good God in our unsavability, so are all others.” And Fr Stephen has an answer to my cry also in his latest post, stating, “Christ’s healing of my evil is accomplished by His acceptance of my evil within the burden of shame that He is willing to bear. In in the very evil that He allows, I find that He has united Himself to me. He enters my shame and transforms me at that very point – and nowhere else!” What the person suffering from psychopathism cannot do Christ did, and in this way has united Himself even to the person’s psychopathic disorder. And maybe some of these persons will be healed in this lifetime through a divine miracle, and maybe some will not. Either way it does not change the fact that Christ has united Himself to them.

    And now I think I have fully exhausted the subject, and will quit beating this poor dead horse. But I would like to let everyone know how much I appreciate their input. I never post on Fr Stephen’s blog for the sake of pointless argument or debate. I value so many people’s opinions on this blog, especially Fr Stephen’s and Dino’s, and only comment in eager expectations of others’ opinions and wise council . I cannot express the extent to which Fr Stephen’s blog and the many conversations Ive had here have helped me. So I again apologize if this thread I’ve lead was indeed an embarrassment. Forgive me.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will offer one additional thought that, I think, will be helpful. That is from Exodus (in the LXX): “For with a secret hand the Lord wages war upon Amalec to all generations.” (Exo 17:16) It applies to us all in one way – God’s work within us for salvation is largely hidden – it is the “glory that shall be revealed.” But I also trust it to be the hidden (“secret”) work that God is doing within those whose salvation is utterly opaque to us. I believe this and always pray with it in mind. It is my hope in Christ. Or rather, “Christ within us, the hope of glory.”

  64. Polly Avatar

    Having just found this site, I am enraptured by the deep discussions. Well done to all who contribute to this discussion. I am not a scholar but have four years of study for a Diploma in Theology.
    Most of what I hear here is news to me.
    I value the ideas new to me.
    My question is “what is the salvation of the stillborn or the child who dies in childbirth? They cannot repent but are God’s creation.
    I gave my three still born babies names and offered them to God’s protection.
    Where is their salvation?

  65. Agata Avatar

    I am sorry I could not post earlier today, I was upset over that comment all day (but too busy to gather any thoughts – not that they are much better now, but I still wanted to say this).

    I think you are courageous and honest to ask these difficult questions, especially if your goal is to help a friend (or maybe just to understand them better). Maybe some people don’t appreciate that, but many of us do, so please don’t feel bad.

    You, Father Stephen and Dino have helped me sort out some very important issues in my life, thanks to your questions and comments. Only the Lord knows how many people (maybe in the distant future) will read these comments and be helped by them. If Father Stephen thought the conversation was not appropriate, he would have stopped it….

    Thank you Michelle, Father and Dino, and I will go away now…

  66. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Believe me when I say it is helpful.

  67. Michelle Avatar


    And I almost forgot to thank you for your prayers! They are a blessing, thank you!

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    They have no sin from which to repent. They are “the Innocents” as we call those children slaughtered by Herod. It is right to name such children (for how else could we pray?). Their salvation is in Christ who receives them to Himself. There is, of course, a mystery in this – but the mystery is resolved in the Face of Christ. His love overcomes all things. They were created for Him and are with Him.

    We do not inherit a burden of guilt for Adam’s sin, as some say, (that’s based on an incorrect translation of the Scriptures). Rather, we are born into a world in bondage to death and decay. If Christ entered Hades to set free those who were held prisoner, how would He not immediately receive these children whose only fault is to have succumbed to a death not of their own making?

    I have a son, Michael Seraphim, who died in the womb nearly 25 years ago, and have held him in my prayers ever since. I am confident of his place with Christ. The following article was recently brought to my attention. It is quite dear:

  69. Polly Avatar

    Thank you Fr Stephen,
    I have read the article you gave the link to. Made a lot of sense. It has taken me 45 years to have my babies deaths explained in this way. It gives me peace to know they are in Kingdom of Heaven.
    At the time I was just told to “get on with it”, by family and my priest. Obviously I didn’t as my tears still fall today as I remember them.
    I know now they are at peace with Christ and I can have peace too.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Give me their names and I’ll remember them in the Liturgy. May their rest be preserved in Paradise.

  71. Polly Avatar

    Adam, Anthony and Hope.

    Thank you Father and God Bless you.

  72. Agata Avatar

    Could you also pray for my Lucy?

    Thank you Polly for your question, another wound beginning to heal for me too. Glory and Thanks to God for His great providence.

  73. Agata Avatar

    I also meant to say that I am so very sorry for your losses… You are in my prayers.

  74. Eugenia Parish Avatar
    Eugenia Parish

    As a recipient of scathing e-mail——have forgiven considering the inability/unwillingness of sender to meet face to face Also would like to categorize this as “hiding behind the mask of technology ” so prevalent to-day .

    Any positive suggestions on this point? did request a personal visit during which was met by denial / no resolution to the event .

  75. Jeannette Avatar

    Father Freeman, thank you for this post and many others I have been privileged to read. I will read it again.

    I am also frequently grateful for many of the commenters. Tonight I didn’t get very far in the long stream but the word “psychopath”caught my eye and now without even reading the long post in which it appears I dare to make a suggestion.

    Michelle your use of the word “psychopath” is very common, standard, acceptable even, and all the other diagnostic labels can be used as nouns too…but it is almost as if it is being used as pronoun. I think it’s helpful to keep the person in the picture. I can diagnose patterns of behavior, patterns of suffering, patterns of sinning, etc. and apply the handy labels to those configurations, but that is what they are, descriptions, a kind of shorthand in a sense. I would rather not say of another human being, “he is a schizophrenic.” I find it more accurate to something like “he suffers from schizophrenic tendencies or symptoms.” To say “she is a psychopath” is different than saying she manifests or exhibits or suffers from psychopathic ( ______ fill in the blank…delusions…fugues…)etc.) in this or that specific realm. It seems a small point perhaps, but the language we chose to use can remind of us of eternal verities or confirm our social constructs and cause us to adopt the views and habits of the world rather than to hear from on high. How we look at each other really does matter.

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


    Thank you for your reflections in your comment. It reminds me of the time my son was in the hospital as a baby for pyloric stenosis. A head nurse was walking student nurses around the floor and introduced my son as “my pyloric stenosis”. I can’t remember if I had response other than feelings of frustration.

    Here is a quote that I believe comes from St John of Kronstadt, that I keep on hand when I have internal reactions and become aggravated with myself or others:

    “Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him: because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of a person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

  77. Agata Avatar

    What a wonderful quote! Thank you for sharing it.

    I hope Dino does not mind if I quote his quote from Elder Aimilianos. Each Saint gives us their ways of looking at life in a way pleasing to God. How wonderful to have this great treasury!

    Dino says
    January 20, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    “God provides all of us with a cross. The cross is my various physical, mental and spiritual diseases. Physical illnesses are the various afflictions of the body, which are not my fault, but are due to organic reasons. Mental illnesses are such things as the natural sluggishness of the body, a slow-wittedness, a natural melancholy, an inability to concentrate the mind… Mental illnesses are such things as selfishness, fanaticism, excessive tendency towards something … Of these three categories the most terrible ones are what I called ‘mental’ afflictions, because they are the deepest. If we want to be relieved from this cross of these ‘diseases’, we will not succeed, we will find that we never really make any progress and improve; we only will lose our years. But if you lift it, take it up and proceed with your blessed running of the race, then your whole life will become a little bridge that will get you directly to heaven.”


  78. Jonathan Byrne Avatar

    Thoughtful article, thanks. . Though, as a professional artist and having studied most of the popular images of Christ, I find that to make a guess about the eyes of Christ might be a step too far, ie: interpreting the eyes is a judgement. Just a personal view but I think it rather cheapens an image that is so powerful.

    I have written about this artistic dilemma by way of an allegory that has been picked up by Catholic theologian writers, as documented on my website:

    I hope that it may be of interest. I think that the eyes-closed image leaves more room for the imagination. I appreciate that its not the biggest issue in the world today but thought it might be nice to have an image that allows the viewers imagination some room for contemplation.

    Yours sincerely,

    Jonathan B

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  1. I second the connection between theology and poetry. Beauty is often, maybe always, conveyed to us via symbol and metaphor…

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