The Fiction of Relationships and the Fullness of Life

It is very interesting that we use the word “relationship” to describe everything from God to our lifestyle. More interesting still, is that, used in this manner, the word dates back to only around the mid-20th century. There are older examples, but the psycho-social meaning that it carries today does not appear until around 1940. This also means that no one, prior to that time, spoke about having a “relationship” with God. The word does not belong to the grammar of classical Christianity and represents, at best, a distortion of the faith. In truth, it also distorts what it means to relate to other people and the world around us. There is a better way to think and speak about these things.

Hidden within the word is an assumption about how we interact, how we belong, how we affect others and are affected by them in turn. In general parlance, the assumptions are almost all rooted in voluntaristic notions of what it means to be human. To be in “relationship” with someone, or something, is generally taken to mean a conscious and chosen mutuality. It matches well the concepts that permeate our consumer culture.

Relationships are things we choose as we shape the social character of our lives. This notion elevates our perceived psychological experience to the defining role within our lives. The illusion created by the language of relationship is that our world can consist of those things we choose while ignoring others. In that sense, the language of relationship only describes what we value and hold as important, but not things as they actually are. You may say that what matters to you is your immediate circle of friends, but this is a delusion. “Relationship” frequently describes nothing more than the boundaries of our narcissism. Our lives are connected with all lives, including those we fail to value or acknowledge.

We are not self-created. We are not the products of our choices and decisions. While our choices and decisions have a clear impact on our most immediate surroundings, they do not create those surroundings nor sustain them. The moment of our death will not mark a moment of significant change in the world. In that sense, thinking of my life as something constituted by relationships, particularly those relationships that I value, is delusional. We belong to the whole of reality.

St. Paul rightly observes that “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being.” The concept of “relationship” easily diminishes our understanding of God. God is not an analog to human consciousness writ large. We are not “relating” to God in the way we imagine ourselves to be “relating” to other willing consciousnesses. When someone makes a declaration about their “relationship” with God, they are describing little more than a particular aspect of their own psyche (and, even then, only its most conscious aspects). But if, as Christians hold, God is the ground of all being, then we cannot choose to have “no relationship” with Him. The whole of our existence is sustained and defined by its relation to God.

For most, the term “relationship” is bound up with the word “personal.” Some contend that because God is person (the Trinity), we may have a “personal” relationship with Him. Again, this is largely a projection of the modern fascination with psychologically constructed notions. That God is “person,” has very little to do with what we generally mean by “person” and “personal.”

For example, our use of “person” would naturally conclude that in saying there are three persons in the Holy Trinity, there are three distinct centers of consciousness. But this is not at all clear in the teaching of the Church. Indeed, it is affirmed that there is “one mind, one will” in the Trinity. More than that, it is generally understood that our personhood is something that is, at present, in a state of becoming. “We are not yet what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). Whatever we may say, the psychological construct of personhood as a center of consciousness and free-will is a radical reduction and distortion of its truth.

A particular aspect of this distortion is its dependence on the concept of radical individualism. The self as individual consciousness ignores the wide range of human experience (and existence) that is shared and common. It has undoubtedly contributed to the deep sense of loneliness and alienation that marks modern human beings. As the means of our “relationship” with God, it frequently creates the sense of one lonely ego relating to another lonely ego (however divine). It also exalts the will to a place of supremacy, despite all of the complications that surround the reality of human freedom.

Scripture and the Tradition do not speak of a “relationship” with God. Rather, they speak in terms of “union” (henosis) and “communion” (koinonia). “Relationship” requires a distance – it is inherently the lonely and the Lonely. The faith, however, teaches that what is lost in human sin is not such a notion of “relationship,” but of actual communion, true participation in the life of God.

Human existence is a complex reality, not confined to the narrow range of our conscious self. Simple biology alone should tell us this. But biology itself is also inadequate to speak of the fullness of our existence. Our individual existence is also a corporate existence. Our biology is an inherited reality, that inheritance itself containing an individual summation of countless lives that have gone before. The cultural context in which we live is similarly complex and we do not and cannot exist apart from it.

When the Church speaks of Christ, it recognizes that the fullness of this reality has been gathered into the Godhead. Christ is not a mere individual. He is a Jew in whom the whole experience of Israel is recapitulated. Indeed, He is the Second Adam, the entire human experience that can be called “Adam” being recapitulated in Him. His biology is the flesh of the Virgin, human flesh, utterly united with all human flesh. Christ speaks as God, but He also speaks as man, indeed, as the “Whole Man.” Our existence, in Him, is made to partake of this same reality.

My life and my death are not individualized, isolated moments. Baptized into Christ, my death is taken up in His death just as His life is taken up in my life. Paul can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Such theological statements are often treated as abstractions, mere ideas to which we assent. But these are not ideas – they are a manner of being and existence.

This reality of communion is the foremost aspect of the Church’s sacramental life. Baptism, for example, is not a personal transaction between a human consciousness and a Divine (“I now have a personal relationship with Christ”). Such a contractual construal of salvation (sometimes hidden by the language of “covenant”) distorts what is given to us in Scripture. Our life with Christ is a life of union, commonality, communion, sharing, coinherence. Very difficult for us is that fact that our culture champions radical individualism and the self as volitional consciousness. We have learned (or been taught) to ignore the larger, truer nature of our existence.

Our lives do not consist of those with whom we have a “relationship.” Our lives consist of the whole of reality. The greater question is whether we choose to live in that reality or to live in the make-believe world of our own choosing. I want more than a relationship: in Christ, I want everything.

All things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. (2Co 4:15)



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.


42 responses to “The Fiction of Relationships and the Fullness of Life”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Very interesting point of view Father. I must have missed the 20th Century definition of relationship because I never have defined the word relationship in a voluntary, chosen way, but in a familial way go best describe what I mean. There re people in history that I am related to as they are my fore-bearers, siblings and children and grand children. I am also related to God as one of His creatures that He has created. This sort of relationship, in my view, is similar to how fit into all of reality. I certainly can only say that I had some level of choice as to my wife but all other “relationships” that I am a participant in were established by God and, following the argument of Met John (Zizioulas) are part of what defines the “who” of my person.
    However, if I understand through your writing, the modern idea of relationship, I have to entirely agree with what you said. This modern view of relationship is a distortion and a lessening of reality. It focuses on the individual and elevates the Self to the level of a god that creates its own reality. This, with you, I reject utterly. I will have to question my Protestant friends more closely on what they really mean when they say that they have personal relationship with Christ. The answers should prove interesting.

  2. Lorenzo M Avatar
    Lorenzo M

    Thank you father

  3. Matt Avatar

    Father, can you give us a concrete example, however small (perhaps it is better if it were smaller), of an instance of “relationship” and an instance of “communion” in everyday life to distinguish them? Sometimes it all feels very abstract and like merely swapping one set of ideas for another… or worse, like the Green Witch’s idea that one is just a made-up supposedly bigger and better version of the other.

  4. Matt Avatar

    Nicholas Stephen Griswold’s comment reminds me of the way Ron Edwards suggests the use of “relationship maps” in sketching out characters in a role-playing game:

    Relationship maps as I present them in The Sorcerer’s Soul, though, are something very different. They are a diagram of two specific sorts of “connections” among NPCs, primarily – kinship and sexual contact. They can include other connections too (“friends,” “boss,” etc), but usually these are secondary and used only when the primary type of connection doesn’t apply at all. Feelings and actions are not mapped at all.

    Cue big discussion about why those two particular sorts of human connections are given precedent over all the other ones. Cue big misunderstandings and kneejerk reactions. Cue unconstructive posts for a couple pages …

    … all done? Good.

    To get back to the point, what Phelps is talking about is different from what I’m talking about. Relationship maps as I define them are not corridors and pathways of player-character “movement” during play. They are a way to remind the GM just what passions and issues are currently hanging fire among the NPCs.

    Such maps are supplemental to the back-story rather than being the whole thing. The usual wad of notes and who-did-what is still necessary. If Karen is sleeping with Alex but married to Bob, then how everyone feels isn’t part of the map itself; it’s in the notes or maybe scribbled in the map’s margins.

    The most distinctive difference in play between these two kinds of maps is that a GM using Phelps’ described method is usually keeping player-characters away from “the secret” or “the conspiracy” or whatever, whereas a GM using the method I describe in The Sorcerer’s Soul is usually grabbing the players harder into the web of expectations and fears of the NPCs.

    I have this feeling that this is the answer (or at least one possible valid answer) to my above question as well…

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matt. A relationship is like a pair of lines running side by side perhaps touching occasionally but always separate, distinct and fundamentally irrelevant to each other.

    Communion is an interpenetration without destruction of the unique–transformation occurs. God becoming man is the highest example.

    A relationship with God requires nothing: no covenant old or new, no Incarnation, no Crucifixion, no Ressurection, no Ascension, no salvation. Nothing.

    My Bishop while still a priest is reported to have said in one of his homilies: “There is no such thing as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

    Created things don’t have relationships. Created things exist in a complex tapestry of matter, energy and the divine life of the Holy Trinity in which there is nothing done or not done that does not have an impact on everything and everyone else. Everything and everyone are always being interpenetrated. Being separate is impossible. Only the evil one creates the illusion and propagates the lie.

    “We live and move and have our being …” is a concrete description of reality, not an abstract concept.

    In such a reality, discreet individual choices are also impossible. Yet our existence is anything but random. Life is never random. We are not just bouncing around wilky-nilly in some cosmic pin ball.

    Life is ordered by God. Human beings have the capacity to create disorder, but it cannot exist forever without constantly reinforcing the disorder against the order of God. That is why sin is so enervating and chaotic and deadly.

    Theoretically, it could be done I suppose. But one moment of laughter, joy or beauty tends to mess up a lifetime of disorder. Even a heart-felt rejection of the disorder is enough to disapate it like a puff of smoke.

    I could go on but I have already said too much. Forgive me.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The single most used image of communion in Scripture is that of husband and wife. There, the two become one flesh. In “relationship” terms, we think about the state of their psychological/emotional interaction. But the Scripture, though telling us to love one another, understands that the fulness of that love of man and woman is (ideally) offspring that are literally bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. St. Paul, in telling husbands to love their wives, that they should love their wives as if they are their own bodies, “for no man ever yet hated his own flesh.” (Eph. 5:29) I can say, having been married for 41+ years, that this is indeed a great mystery – but our lives, even our physical lives, seem very bound up with each other.

    That, as I say, is the strongest image that the Scripture uses for the communion, even applying it to our communion with Christ. Interestingly, it is the source of all of the theology of the “Body of Christ.” If we only knew and understood, the communion aspect of our existence is far more profound than we imagine. “You are what you eat,” for example is truer than we know. The symbiotic “communion” that we have with the flora living in our gut is incredibly important – sometimes even within our thought-life.

    We are so accustomed to thinking in very distinct individualistic terms that we ignore the many connections that we have – with everything – and, as modern people, increasingly want to live as though we existed apart from nature. The modern cultural pattern of human living is almost totally dependent on technological intervention to prevent a normal interaction with nature. The entire sexual revolution that has changed almost every aspect of our culture (family, extended family, parenting, gender notions, etc.) is completely dependent on various technological approaches to birth control, including, sadly, abortion.

    It has been remarked that the most blasphemous words in the modern period is the rejection of an infant in the womb saying, “This is my body” (meaning, “and you can’t stay here”). It is the crowning “sacrament” of modernity.

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

    Father Stephen,

    This description of relationship versus communion brings back a memory of a time when I was 14 and driving our family car into a gas station. I came too close to the pumps and dented the front passenger door. My mother was at home and saw this experience in real time as though she were seeing it through my eyes. When I got home she asked me is the car door really as bad as you think it is? To which I replied something to the effect that I didn’t know (I was really concerned about what my dad was going to do). Then she walked out to the car and said “no it isn’t as bad as you thought”.

    This experience wasn’t unique with my mother. And as a young teen I wished to have more privacy. When I was about 15, I told them that I wanted to move far away from them (my parents), which broke my mother’s heart. If my memory serves me I wanted a life that seemed more similar to those I saw at school or on the TV. Ever since my parents died when I was 17, I’ve had no experience in my adult life that resembled these early experiences which I think evolved from the culture that my mom grew up in. However among some my Native American (lately I’ve been encouraged, via the media, to use Indigenous) friends, their stories about synchronicity of time and ways of experiencing each other’s ‘knowing’ seem similar.

    I don’t know for sure whether these experiences are examples of what you are describing. Since I’m still learning what is part of the Orthodox life and what isn’t, and what is meant by communion, I wonder, are these experiences like that what you describe? Although that they are in Christ, and Church? In other words, is the blindness to such experience, a blindness which I admit I have, a culture-bound blindness?

  9. Anna Avatar

    I often feel confused by some of the more militant aspects of feminism, as it seems that many parts of the whole push for women’s rights is also based on modern birth control and abortion. Without that technology, I think we would not be so quick to champion the right to independence from our children and partnerships in raising those children. We’d be begging for stable roles in which we were safe to care for the little ones who come along every few years.

  10. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen and Michael for your profound insights!

  11. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. Thankful a dear friend of over 45 years told me about this site as she attends St. Anne’s. The words I read are helpful and I also gain peace and knowledge from the words and podcasts.


  12. Dave K Avatar
    Dave K

    Father Stephen –
    Thank you for this reflection and challenge to “wake up.” This reminds me of the part in Mark’s Gospel, 8:18, in which Jesus, in quoting the prophet Jeremiah, and says, “This is a people that have eyes, but do not see, ears but do not hear.” We do not even see what is right under our very nose!! What is more we tend to look at the world around us the same way – we see a tree and just see an individual tree, when in fact there is no tree without the ground, sun, water, oxygen, space for it to grow, trees that came before it….etc, etc. It is the mind boggling, complex, and dynamic interdependence of all of this that makes this particular, unique tree we see before us even possible.

    I am currently reading Father Dimitru Staniloe’s book on Orthodox Spirituality and in his discussion of St. Maximos’s theology on discerning the logoi within every created being, being the imprint of the one Logos (Christ), he discusses the very thing that you are reflecting on in your article.
    Thank you again!!

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are absolutely right. The false assumptions and movements of modernity are revealed particularly in their artificiality.

  14. Sharon Avatar

    Most people – myself included – are limited in attention and intellect and therefore, rely on the word “relationship” to describe our “living and moving and being in Him”. Besides limited attention and intellect, however, there is the fact that I am a beginner in the Life of Christ and His Church.

    The words of the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos were brought to mind: “Where Orthodoxy is lived in the right way and in the Holy Spirit, it is a communion of God and men, of heavenly and earthly, of the living and the dead. In this communion all the problems which present themselves in our life are truly resolved. Yet since the membership of the Church includes sick people and beginners in the spiritual life, it is to be expected that some of them understand Christianity as religion…”

    Since I am a beginner, I have required substantial healing of relationships prior to becoming aware of a movement of my entire being from death to Life (and not simply the repair of broken relationships). The pain of the broken relationships spurred me on to communion with Life (without me even knowing it). Which was a good thing. God met me in modernity. Along with repaired relationships and becoming ‘more’ truly who God made me to be, has come an understanding of communion with the Life of the Blessed Trinity and all of creation.

  15. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams

    We do, it seems, live in an artificial world and so many false assumptions. I personally have seen what the media is doing to people of all ages. I do not live in a vacuum although listening to the news is not my way to start or end my day. I dare not go into how I view the media other than to say I abhor the words/things I have seen and heard. Mostly I would feel safer in the wilderness.

  16. Isaac Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen,

    You are hitting one of your common themes here (modernity’s notion that we make ourselves), but, as usual, bringing in a new twist (having a “personal relationship with Jesus”) .

    A couple of things come to mind. You may be aware that there is a long running debate in the Humanities over something called “Rational Action Theory” (affectionately called RAT by some, indicating the way in which it smells rather badly and sneaks around like a pesky little varmit that just won’t seem to leave). I have noted before that your thinking has some commonalities with Continental thought which critiques Capitalism and Modernity. Pierre Bourdieu was a fierce critic of RAT. I have tried to use his ideas on agency in my own historical work on Syriac Christianity in Medieval Central Asia and China, and I often wrestle with how to think about modern notions of agency (and its critics) squares with what medieval Christians were writing. Wiki notes:

    Furthermore, Pierre Bourdieu fiercely opposed rational choice theory as
    grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Bourdieu argued
    that social agents do not continuously calculate according to explicit rational
    and economic criteria. According to Bourdieu, social agents operate according
    to an implicit practical logic—a practical sense—and bodily dispositions. Social
    agents act according to their “feel for the game” (the “feel” being, roughly,
    habitus, and the “game” being the field).[20]

    Other social scientists, inspired in part by Bourdieu’s thinking have expressed
    concern about the inappropriate use of economic metaphors in other contexts,
    suggesting that this may have political implications. The argument they make is
    that by treating everything as a kind of “economy” they make a particular vision of
    the way an economy works seem more natural. Thus, they suggest, rational
    choice is as much ideological as it is scientific, which does not in and of itself
    negate its scientific utility.

    I know we are in danger of importing yet another confused modern idea and unchristian idea into our thinking, but I think Bourdieu is helpful. What St Paul says about the body and removing oneself from the world and its lusts and that the Christian “agent” only has agency within the body of Christ and with other believers is to me a kind of collective agency, and squares with Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus (note this word comes from Latin monasticism–the habitus is something that covers the body and separates him/her from the mundane world, but also re-shapes one’s “habits” and reorients the person the freedom in Christ (another Pauline metaphor).

    Your piece also makes me think about Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and the notion he insists on there that Christ was a human, in part, and took our real human flesh and being. He insists, and Chalcedonian Christianity insisted with him on this. They seem to be saying that we know Christ in some way, if only in part, in the way we know another human being. When Christ told us we could call God Abba “daddy’) he seemed to be telling us this too. Though he did not say this was where we stopped, or that this was a “personal relationship” in the modern sense.

  17. Martin Zip Avatar
    Martin Zip

    Fr Stephen, I totally agree with you. Thank you for this posting. I concur with you that the word “relationship” is utterly inadequate to describe what God desires of us. I am often reminded of this reality during the Divine Liturgy:

    “Calling to remembrance our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

    And this is not only a one time petition. It is repeated many times. Some have even dubbed it as the Orthodox “altar call”! It is interesting to note that the Greek word for commend is Parathometha. I understand it has multiple meanings, including commit, relinquish, surrender or attach. Its use suggests that we are to surrender or give up our life to Christ. This is not a Lone Ranger act. As the petition reads, we all surrender ourselves and each other to Christ as did the Theotokos and all the Saints. If my understanding of the word “relationship” is correct, there is no surrender, and if there is then it one dimensional, that is, to each other rather than to Christ our God. In so many ways, when we have a relationship, we try to control it and that is the problem.

    This brings me to what you stated: “Our lives do not consist of those with whom we have a “relationship.” Our lives consist of the whole of reality.” In the sixth century, St. Dorotheus of Gaza (Abba Dorotheus) reminded us of this reality with an exercise in geometry, specifically the forming of a circle. He said:

    “Draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. Let us assume for the sake of analogy – that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. At the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.”

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Martin, one of the reasons for the Incarnation was precisely what you suggest–to make the “knowing” possible. But that knowing has nothing to do with simple relating.

    Your comments on rational choice are fascinating since “choice” is such a hallmark of modernity.

  19. tess Avatar

    Dee, your story about your mother made me smile. My mom was the same way (though our family history isn’t Native American)– it was like she could see through my eyes. It was a little bit irritating when I was a rebellious teenager and my mother unfailingly knew when I was misbehaving or in distress, even from a distance. One could say it was like she was a partaker of my shame…

    But isn’t it such an incredible gift to be in such communion with someone?

    Between Father’s posts and the comments threads, I’m seeing a lot of connection between shame and motherhood, which are interwoven with the mystery of Christ and His Mother.

  20. George Florovsky loosely quoted Avatar
    George Florovsky loosely quoted

    When we speak about “a personal relationship with God” or “being mindful of God” or “the fear of God, the words we use do not serve to reinforce some reliable conception we have of Him but they are only symbols or analogies that “indicate” Him or point to Him. Therefore these words have no meaning outside the actual experience in which their significance or symbolism is revealed and realized.

  21. skholiast Avatar

    I was quite given pause by this post. I have tended to use the term “relation” or “relationship” to oppose individualism, but I do see how they seem implicated in it as well. It is true that “communion” is the word with (by far) the longer theological heritage; but I’ve thought of it as coming from a tradition of philosophy that goes back to Aristotle’s Categories, or to certain Buddhist claims about the co-arising of all things. These provenances may bring with them their own problems, I admit, but they are not the problems of 1940s psychology. However, no word exists in a vacuum, and contemporary usage certainly has pervasive effects. I can only agree that one must be aware of how the idea of relationship can be — particularly since the 20th century — co-opted into an extension of egotism (I was especially struck by your warning that relationship can just mean “the boundaries of our narcissism”). But I feel sure that at least some of the time, the word relationship is used — perhaps sloppily, inconsistently, or unsuccessfully — to mean what “communion” intends. I have often tried to employ it to indicate that one is not oneself without others — all others — the whole of creation, and the uncreated God. Of course, this is not an easy notion to comprehend, or to accept, and I now wonder, in light of this post, about the degree to which the word “relation,” especially in its modern inflections, might actually be serving (for me, too) to be a kind of softening or even obfuscating of what is really meant by communion. I need to think about this more. Thank you.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is no doubt true. I myself have often used relationship in the sense of communion. But I’ve been increasingly aware that, because of its common usage and meaning, it is becoming inadequate. I have been thinking carefully, and creatively for a while trying to find more faithful words and images for communion. I’m open to any and all suggestions.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, my Dad when talking about the way life is connected always said “interrelationship”. In fact he preached it in terms of our responsibility to care for one another.

    It lacks the fullness but it has always been a guide to me.

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

    Father Stephen,
    Please forgive me as I embark on this memory again. Michael and others who may be familiar with Native American ways, or other cultures might help with your observations if you are willing.

    I want to thank you, Tess, for your response, because you got me thinking more about the effect of the memory in my life. I don’t think I appreciated my mother’s capacity as one might, as a teen. And honestly even now I admit to be uncomfortable with it. It seemed somehow intrusive and the experience often brought discomfort, and sometimes it almost felt like she had an ability to stifle me or whatever that was in me that she wasn’t able to reach. The ability was also common to her mother (my grandmother) as well. But in her, my grandmother, the differences in culture that I exhibited were not challenged but loved.

    In some respects I exhibit and live with this quality (if it can be called that) regarding natural/physical phenomena (molecules of all things). But, to use the word commune, and pair it with the word molecules, would sound odd to most people in this culture. I suspect but I’m not sure that early in my life I intentionally closed off this quality when it came to being in communion with people and Christ, and the Church, in the way I believe, Fr Stephen means. The process of closure, if I understand myself (and there’s definitely no guarantee of that) happened as a means to differentiate myself away from my mother and her culture but also away from the wider culture that also seemed foreign to me, to put it lightly. In the wider world such ability to commune with another imbued to me a vulnerability, for which even my mother didn’t want me to have. She coached me to protect myself from revealing the true nature of myself to others, particularly it seems, because we live in a wider culture that heavily stigmatizes “other”. And “other” typically is applied to race, psychological state, or whatever difference is the trend of the day, such as political persuasion, or the food we eat or the lives we lead. This is awkward to say in writing. Individuality as it pertains to difference, it seems, is both celebrated and condemned. I never sought to be an individual, neither sought relationships either paradoxically. But found myself embroiled in such configurations that belong to the wider culture.

    Interestingly my husband studied Bourdieu while I was studying chemistry in school, and it was his reflections on my experiences using Bourdieu’s insights, that enabled me to survive in that environment. I don’t think it was possible for me to succeed in school without his support via his capacity to help me articulate my experiences, using Bourdieu’s writings as the means for his interpretation.

    The St Andrew’s Cross comes to mind as something that describes this state of being, which also Solzhenitsyn writes about (according to Fr Stephen–I haven’t read Solzhenitsyn yet), that the line that delineates the sheep and the goat lies within us. That the cross we bare is the juncture of these pathways within us, one side slanting to God and the other side not. Perhaps the fullness that Fr Stephen mentions at the end of his writing, wanting it all, ontologically, is wanting all of the reality that is Christ. That it is the willingness to be open to Christ and the willingness to bear/bare the shame of the heart within us that would contend with such offering.

  25. Isaac Avatar

    Hello Dave K,

    I appreciate your bringing in Maximos. I am currently reading everything on him and by him that I can get my hands on. If you’d like somebody to discuss Maximos with, drop me an email. I am sure I would benefit (likely more than you would). I have collected a lot of PDFs and bibliography that I can share too.

    email hidden; JavaScript is required


  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, the more I see of otger people, the more I suspect that such perception as your mother had is actually quite common perhaps universal. It manifests in different ways. Some folks use it inappropriately, some folks never recognize it, some are afraid of it. Few embrace it in the context of God’s grace.

    The Orthodox Church has a long tradition of clairvoyant elders. Men and women who have become obedient enough to use it for others. The various tribal cultures that embrace man’s ability to perceive in such ways have no foundation for fully understanding it and it gets routed into shamisistic practice and sometimes turns to evil.

    It is, I think closely aligned with our ability to pray, even for the life of the world, the ability to bear one another’s burdens-even to embrace the Cross.

    You are right however that modernity in its hard-hearted utilitarianism and the desire to count everything, is fearful of such a reality and runs from it.

    However since it is a noetic faculty, it cannot be denied but it is certainly twisted.

  27. Eleftheria Kaimakliotis Avatar
    Eleftheria Kaimakliotis

    Your blessing, Fr. Stephen.

    I have been pondering this article since having read it yesterday. St. Paisios often talks about the σηγγενεια (sin-ghen-i-a) we ought to have with Christ. This word has wrongly been translated as “relationship”, as, given its modern usage (or non-Classical Christian meaning), it would then mean how we interpret Christ’s presence in our lives.

    What St. Paisios was referring to is how Christ becomes our “blood relative”- our kin. Besides the obvious reference to our reception of the Body and Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy, Christ becomes our kin at any point during which He and we meet. It does not matter whether the meetings are tangible or intangible. What matters is that He and we meet and that we are never the same again as a result of that meeting. Before He was crucified, such meetings were physical – like the woman with the issue of blood who touched the hem of His garment, or the man with the withered hand, or even Zaccheus, who, by merely looking at Christ while he was still in the sycamore tree, became immediately “kin” with him, as Christ afterward went to dine with him. (In a number of countries, to share a meal is to become kin.) Today, of course, we meet Christ when our hearts “burn within” while we read or hear Scripture, or when we imbibe holy water, or venerate an icon, or ponder creation…the list is endless. We can meet and become kin with Christ, providing we open our hearts, our nous, and join that fullness to which Fr. Stephen refers.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your thought-provoking articles.
    In Christ,

  28. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams

    Well, Fr. Stephen, I do believe I will be reading only your blogs lest I go up/down in a puff of smoke. Please excuse succinctness and doubtful this comment will get past the moderator. I am only a humble handmaiden of God who loves God w/ all of my heart and my neighbor as myself. This is the best I can do.

  29. Dean Avatar

    According to Jesus’own words, you are doing enough, loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments, giving to the poor, prayer, fasting, showing mercy, etc., are subsumed in these first two. God loves a humble and contrite spirit. In such a one life enters and flows out in abundance.

  30. Dimitri Christo Avatar
    Dimitri Christo

    With all due respect to Father Freeman and the commentators, I can’t help but notice that both the original essay and the subsequent comments seem to miss exploring the INTENT behind what the Protestants mean when using the phrase “I have a relationship with God”. Words and common parlance can indeed point towards a narcissism on the part of the believer; one need only look at the travesty of the so-called Prosperity Gospel movement as an an example of that narcissism. However, even with such an extreme example, I truly doubt that the heterodox INTEND to construct a narcissistic relationship, making God a great slot machine in the sky…rather, Protestants place a high value on each word in Scripture when constructing their theology. Scripture is replete with terms addressing the believer as “sons”, “daughters”, “heirs”, “adopted”, “bride”, “friends”, etc…each one a term of relationship, and as such, each one describing a relative degree of intimacy. I would hold that the Protestants are keying in on that aspect of intimacy with their Creator as they explore ways to worship and approach God in prayer and devotion while maintaining their avoidance of things “religious” or “ritualistic”. A commonality we Orthodox have with most Protestants, is that we do not view God as some aloof and unapproachable potentate, such as in the so-called deity of Islam, for over and over again Scripture exhibits God’s care and concern for us (ie., John 15:14, Romans 5:8, John 3:16, 1 John 3:1, etc); nor is God the god of the Deists, just setting creation in motion and leaving it to fend for itself. No, there is intimate care and concern on His part for humanity as a whole on the macro level (“Love one another”), just as there is on the micro level of specific relationships (Woman, behold thy son”). Without going off topic too much, I would say that there is something quite beautiful about being able to, at times, respectfully approach the Creator of the Universe in an intimate fashion, such as an extemporaneous moment of praise or worship, just as much as on bended knee as His Glory is due. It is that desire for intimacy, to be one’s true self communicating from the heart to God, and voice “Abba, Father”, that is porobably at the root of the INTENT in saying “I have a relationship with God.” No, I do not speak for Protestants, but I can say this intimacy factor comes up again and again when in dialogue with them. Respectfully, 🙂

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

    Thank you Michael for your observations. As usual your words are reassuring and edifying as are Fr Stephen’s.

    I’m not sure why but it is difficult for me to call such experiences clairvoyance, but I believe you are correct that is what they are called in this culture. I don’t hear of such experiences among people directly (outside of the media) in this culture as you have. Although it seems to be growing in this culture among those who appear to be more involved in “new age” activities. Please forgive me for these terms. They may not be appropriate but my limited vocabulary stumps me for better words. This may be because of where and among whom, I tend to live. And from the other posts you’ve written it seems that you might have an elder-type role in your parish and have a trusted role to be open to experiences that happen in prayer.

    Clairvoyance is given a kind of sensationalism that reeks of commercialization and commodification. When I have heard of it in this culture, those who may have such ability often utilize it for their own gain, whether in popularity or economic advantages. And last but not least they do not hold up well to hard science investigations.

    Because they are more often accepted as part of everyday life in some cultures as you mention, and not accepted as part of ‘everyday experience’ in this society, I find myself torn in my own openness to noetic experiences within myself, as they are described by the church elders, mothers and fathers. It seems that I have accepted a kind of openness before the icons, but resist anything similar outside of prayer. And reading what I’ve written here also indicates that I don’t live all hours of the day in prayer as I know one can. But at the same time I completely rejoice when I hear of such experiences among others in the Orthodox faith. Where they occur, in regularity and without fanfare among the Orthodox, it seems to be among those who were not brought up in this culture, where they express a kind of trust in sharing these experiences and assume nothing extraordinary about them.

    Nevertheless, as you caution, noetic experiences, while they cannot be denied, can become twisted. For this reason, I have not and do not seek them, but at the same time hope that I may not resist what comes from God as grace.

    The meaning of communion that Fr Stephen mentions, and what you have written, involves a real and tangible interpenetration of life. Other than experience in the sacrament of the Eucharist, I’m trying to expand in tangible concrete terms what that experience is like. I believe it is true that it is living every moment in prayer. What is it like to walk, not in relation to Christ but to live in Christ? I am baptized into the faith and life, but I am not aware that I have been able to carry that presence or at least my conscience awareness of it, once I step away from the icons. In my writing here, I know it shows that I walk in darkness. And to the best of my knowledge that is part of the cross I bear.

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

    Please forgive my repeated efforts to clarify and make things more muddy at the same time.

    Someone once asked me what fruits have I seen of my faith. I wish I could have said love of all, but that would not have been truthful. What I was able to say with complete sincerity was that I was the chiefest of all sinners–no one’s sins have been worse than mine, whether they be called thief, psychopath, or murderer. Yet our Lord would love me and bear my sins, and has called me to live the life of faith and sacrament, a life in Christ. I have no ability to love as the Lord loves, save for the grace of God.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, sounds like you have it right to me. “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven…”.

  34. Paula Avatar

    Dimitri Christo,
    I very much appreciate your comments. It helps iron out the results of an “us verses them” dialogue that inevitably occurs when speaking about the radical differences between the faiths. It casts a dark shadow, even when it is not meant to do so. It can easily quench a compassionate and loving dialogue. How ones words are interpreted depends on the intent of the writer and the discernment of the reader. Preconceived notions go a long way.
    When I attended the Protestant church, in general, they were very critical towards the Catholics…and it always left a very bad taste in my mouth. Yet, at the same time, I got caught up in that very mindset. My Priest once rebuked me when I spoke critically of the Protestants. It stung my ego deeply, but I sure learned from him to keep silent rather than criticize. It should be enough for me to concentrate on my own sinfulness, which if I did, would not allow even a split second to look at the faults of others.
    Thank you for your thought provoking post. Especially relating to the topic of relationships.

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


    Appreciate your observation and desire for generosity regarding the intention of the use and meaning as the word relationship as it is used by Protestants regarding one’s life in Christ and Church.

    However, over the course of my life and profession, I have seen it applied quite differently. Often I have seen it used by Protestants to delineate the ‘elite’ from the lesser beings who have no such relationship by their definition.

    Last I have seen it used in my profession in this way that I show in a quote that follows that comes from a set of Calculus problems for students: “The point A(2,2) lies on the parabola y=x^2 + px + q. What is the relationship between p and q?”

    When a student in this country is taught calculus in this way, as far as I had been a teacher, the questions that I was typically asked in this case was not: “What do you mean by relationship, as applied in this case” rather, it was automatically understood.

    It may seem a rather gloomy slight to Protestants or Orthodox who are inclined to use the word relationship. But I believe Fr Stephen as a point worth considering further.

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

    If this comment is submitted before the other that is in moderation is released, I wish to apologize for the awkward construction of my sentences and hope that what I wrote is still intelligible.

  37. stephen from Austin Avatar
    stephen from Austin

    Thank You father and bless you for the Article, and Thanks and blessing to all the other commenters. They all help sustain and deepen my thinking on these topics.

    I remember a class mate in college, who lived in the same dorm, raised Jewish in Brooklyn, moved to Texas when his Father died to live with an Uncle and his family ( non-practicing Jews). The school we attended, was a small Liberal Arts College in North Texas, He was the first and only person of the Jewish Faith that I had ever had extended contact with. As we talked and discussed the teachings of Jesus, in our required Course on Western Civilization I always had trouble, and did for a long time after, with Jesus teachings on the church and the “union of man and wife”. My friend told the story of an old Rabbi taking his wife to a MD, her knee was wrapped and she was limping badly. the MD asked: “What’s wrong?” the Rabbi replied, “Our knee hurts”. That is Union and that is communion. I was blessed to be “his best man at his Christian wedding to his wife, after our graduation; and he sung at our wedding.

    Later after my marriage in the late 60’s, we changed Priests and I always dreaded seeing the new Priest’s wife at church , at coffee, or in the sanctuary after services, especially when I had un-confessed sin in my life. She would look straight into my eyes and ask, ” How are you?” Many times I would have to look away in shame – she knew ,she would touch my arm, and start to pray for me, calling on the holy Sprit to come and be present with us. I knew that even before she reached out to me or I walked up to her that she knew I was not in a right relationship with God, her prayers always brought me back to repentance and reconciliation.

    The presence of the Spirit “glowed “from her face and words and caused me both to desire to see her and would induce an urge to run away when I did (that urge to run was NOT from the Spirit)- she taught me that. God blessed me with many times of Prayer with her, and the opportunity to pray and be with her after her husband’s death two years ago let me return to her some of her blessings to me.

    Her ability to see “into your Spirit” was attested to by many others in our Parish. You knew she could really “see” what was happening to you and would be praying for you whether you approached her or not. She and her husband were the model of “the two shall become one” – “marital Union” that my wife and I have tried to pattern in our 47+ years together. Pray for others and speak to them in Peace.

    Thanks again Father Stephen and all the others who Comment in Peace” on this sight.

  38. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Language is such an interesting phenomenon. The meanings of words have different nuances in different contexts and often change over time.

    When it comes to God, no words are ever going to be sufficient. But what else do we have with which to communicate while we are in this life?

    I do not see the problem with the word “relationship” as described in this post – but perhaps I am not aware of the relevant cultural nuances. “Relationship” is a very broad term referring to how two people/objects/etc are “connected”. It doesn’t, in itself, suggest that the two are of equal status (I could have a relationship with my cat, if I had a cat) nor does it necessarily imply choice (I have a relationship to my brother that was established without my choosing – though I do indeed consent to continuing it.)

    I don’t think it is incorrect to describe a relationship/connection between between God and us. “I will be your God and you will be My people” is a statement of relationship, though certainly one transcending the limitations of our human understanding.

    However, “communion” suggests a deeper and more sacred connection/relationship. It thus refines the general word “relationship” and therefore feels clearer and truer to what we believe God offers us.

    We find the same problem in language all over – “I love God” and “I love my friend” are both correct in the general sense. But to say I “adore” God refines the general term “love” – especially because I use the word “adore” for God alone.

    Forgive me if it seems like I am splitting hairs over semantics. That is not my intent. Rather, as Dimitri Christo commented, we do not want to appear to be judging others who are sincerely seeking God with the only words they may know.

    As an aside (which is not really an aside), the comments regarding the “knowing” of others (“clairvoyance”, “6th sense”, etc.) piqued my interest. In my role as psychologist, I have had quite a number of people tell me of such experiences, often with a shyness or even shame, for fear that they will be thought crazy or even evil.

    I will share with you what I often share with them, in the event it may be helpful to anyone. I believe some people are given greater ability in this sense from birth. Just as some people have perfect pitch and others are tone-deaf, some people seem to be able to “see” in this manner while many/most cannot. While the use of any of our senses can be used for evil, they can also be used for good. This sense is no exception.

    If my patient has any spiritual inclination, I will further explain that there are some people to whom this sense is given as a gift from God, i.e. they were not necessarily born with a developed sense but God grants it to them in order that they might glorify Him – as He might grant any of a number of other spiritual gifts to people whose lives are holy and dedicated to Him. Such is the case with the holy elders and saints who see into souls, are aware future events, etc.

    If I might add a bit more to this hypothesis, the general sense may well be given to some as a foretaste of that for which we were made, to interest people in what lies beyond the visible world. When experienced in the holy, the vision becomes even clearer, i.e. in the fullness of “communion” with God, we will see and know and communicate without the burdensome limitation of words and time.

    We were made for this wondrous union with God and each other but now “only see dimly as in a mirror”. But then – “face to face”, able to “know fully” as we are known. (1 Cor 13:12, loosely quoted).

    (Forgive my lengthy ramblings…)

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary, good points.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary, et al,
    I suppose I should say a word or two about my reasons for the article. I do not mean to disparage the well-intentioned attempts at a relationship with God. I do mean to offer a critique of our culture and what it tends to mean by relationship. We are trained for something that is less than what we need (both with God and others). I mean to push us further into the depths of what it means to have communion – with God and with the whole of things. Relationship has become a very light word for a very serious thing. It is that problem that I am addressing.

  41. Janine Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I have written a blog post (on the Transfiguration) in which I mention you and this blog and also your comments on “relationship.” If you would care to take a look, I would appreciate it if you find corrections needed then please let me know. Thank you.

    To all commenters here, thank you. Mary I can relate very much to your recent comment and thank you

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