Getting to the Point

With this Ring, I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.  – The Book of Common Prayer (1662)


English is a great language, except when it isn’t. We have an incredible range of vocabulary, both as a legacy of the many languages that have invaded the homeland, as well as its incredible propensity to borrow words. The English vocabulary exceeds 200,000 words, the most of any language in the world (I am told). Thus, it is interesting when English doesn’t quite have a word for something. This is the case with the language of worship.

The phrase quoted above, drawn from the 17th century is an excellent example. Here the word “worship,” clearly does not at all mean that particular honor that is given to God alone but something lesser. This lesser meaning, a form of exceedingly serious honor, can also be found in the honorific title, “Your Worship,” traditionally extended to an English magistrate or mayor.

In contemporary English-speaking Orthodoxy, the word comes up now and again with a meaning that is something less than what belongs to God alone. Thus, on the Sunday of the Cross, the Troparion hymn says, “We worship, Thy Cross, O Christ, and Thy resurrection we glorify!” I suspect many people who hear this hymn think that we mean it in its most extreme form and that we are, indeed, offering worship to the Cross as if it were God Himself (we are not).

During the Iconoclast Controversy in the 8th century, the Orthodox Church made a legislative decision about language in which it declared that latreia (latria) belonged to God alone, while proskynesis (dulia) was appropriate to things of honor, such as saints and holy objects (the Cross). Mary is given hyperdulia, a form of veneration that exceeds that of any other created person.

Sometimes the word “adoration” is used to translate latria and is a synonym for worship in its highest sense. And yet, we think nothing of a husband saying that his wife is “adorable” (all babies are adorable).

I suspect that these words (in English) will always be troublesome. Historically, we have never developed a very careful vocabulary. The fact that English became officially Protestant in the 16th century has also changed some words, simply in a typical English drive to argue against anything Catholic.

This process has not stopped. Beginning in the 19th century, American evangelical language began to take up the word “save” and “saved” to mean the notion of salvation in an exclusively theological sense in which it is only appropriate to say that “God saves.” Of course, we continue to “save” money, to “save stamps,” and to “save” a drowning man. The New Testament itself uses the word “save” in this normal manner as well.

The Orthodox are frequently criticized for the traditional language of our prayers in which we say, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” It is a precise translation of the Greek version of the prayer. Some suggest that we should say something else, “Help us, etc.!” I generally respond to such suggestions that those who are put off by the notion that Mary does anything to “save” us, are put off by our speaking to her in the first place, regardless of what we ask.

And this is the problem with language and worship. In the last analysis, we are speaking to God, and it is for this cause that we should speak the truth, nothing daunting. If it were not our words giving offense, then it would be our actions. Christ Himself was misunderstood, but most consistently by those for whom misunderstanding was an expression of their resistance to God.

The Church speaks in the language of mystery. We can only make known what has been given to us:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, (1Co 2:7)

The language of the Church (and thus of the Scriptures) is full of seeming contradiction, paradox, and even apparent foolishness. But such language is quite intentional. That “Mary can save” is a deep mystery (bound up with the mystery of God-become-man). If by some circumlocution we could make a perfectly reasonable statement, giving no offense to the sensibilities of the non-Orthodox, then how could they come to know the truth? For that matter, how will we come to know the truth?

The language of paradox and contradiction has a point. The point lies within the words and beyond the words. However, the words do not act as mere signifiers: they are dynamic interactions, verbal kinetics of self-transcendence. The experience of such language echoes the transcendence of divine communion. It is a verbal icon of theosis.

Ultimately, the truth is made known in silence. It is the nature of traditional Christian language to bring us to silence. We celebrate it. In the great Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, we declare that she has made the great speakers of this world to be “as mute as fish.” Nothing compares with the eloquence of the Word which she bears in her womb.

We live in an age of argument, frequently with no point in sight. Silence is the end of argument when the Point becomes flesh and dwells among us. Language is useless unless it gets to the point. And the greatest use of language is when the point lies beyond the words.


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.


26 responses to “Getting to the Point”

  1. Paula Avatar

    Thank you Father for these words of wisdom in a very timely post.

  2. Martin Zip Avatar
    Martin Zip

    Another example would be the translation of “kyrie eleison” from the Greek to the English “Lord have mercy.”
    “The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord,have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ ¬ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’ Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal ¬ a very Western interpretation ¬ but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.”* (Source:

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

    Thank you again, Fr Stephen. I love the pictures you choose to illustrate your point!!! If I might add, I’m grateful for it because it depicts where my own ‘head’ is at!

    And because of where my ‘head’ is usually at, I’m so grateful for the saving actions of the Theotokos. Most holy Theotokos save us! More honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, Thou who without corruption barest God the Word and are truly, Theotokos, we magnify Thee. By our actions we use the language of words and say these words in ‘actions’. We speak these words and cross ourselves and bow reverentially toward her icon many times in our Divine Liturgy. Hence, a toddler without prompting would crawl over to an icon of the Theotokos and kiss it (as we see in the picture of the previous post). How does the toddler understand such loving gestures toward the Theotokos? I have seen young children do this also in my parish, children without prompting, in innocence and love kissing crosses and the icons. Perhaps in the worship in the Divine Liturgy, these actions of love is just about all they understand.

    But that is enough.

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

    I will add, the children kiss the icons and they see their family and others kiss crosses and the icons.

  5. Debbie Anderson Avatar
    Debbie Anderson

    ‘Silence is the end of an argument when the Point becomes flesh and dwells among us’…how beautiful a description of the mystery of silence. No words as a response to The Word; silence as a response to His very presence, to Truth Himself.

    In a world where the ‘point’ of words are frequently used to ‘win’, to slay ‘the other’, where truth is irrelevant and where words are often the conveyors of shame – how stunning that our Church, our Holy God communicates to us to His Kingdom through mystery and silence.

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

    Debbie, I sincerely appreciate your words. I pray that I take them to heart and remember them. Thank you.

  7. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    You mentioned our actions also speak. So true. Body language can be very subtle, yet communicate at times better than words. My wife and I are coming up on 52 years of marriage, having met as teenagers in high school. Living with someone that long, a cue can be very subtle, nuanced….a bare lifting of an eyebrow, a slight nod of the head, a word breathed with a different tone, perhaps imperceptible to others, but understood by the life mate. Or silence, as hands are entwined, words unnecessary, yet speaking love. When I have ever deeply experienced God, it has always been in silence, almost always at night, that of which Dino sometimes writes. As with two in a long, profound, constant love, words are often not needed.

  8. R. F. Reagan Avatar
    R. F. Reagan

    As you say, Father – The truth is made known in silence.
    Do thyself but hold thy tongue for one day: on the morrow, how much clearer are thy purposes and duties; what wreck and rubbish have those mute workmen within thee swept away, when intrusive noises were shut out!
    ‘Speech is silver; silence is golden’

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. For me, when God speaks (in those rare moments), I seem to know and then only to say, “Yes.”

  10. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    Father Stephen,
    Perhaps this is a good place to clarify the use of the word “until” which is in a Western sense “up to a point…in which another condition becomes true” as in presupposing a change–likened to a change after the fact. Especially in Mt. 1:25 (…Joseph did not know her until…) which is often interpreted as a change in Mary’s virginity, while an orthodox response would be “ever-Virgin” based on “until” being before or while, but not implying a change in condition after the fact. Other references that include “until” where they cannot mean a necessary change would be: Duet. 34:6, 2 Sam 6:23, Ps 72:7, 110:1, Mt. 11:23, Mt. 28:20, Rm 8:22, I Tim 4:13 as examples. Could you expand on this? Or care to add to these thoughts?

  11. Subdeacon John (Walter) Kennick Avatar
    Subdeacon John (Walter) Kennick

    “The language of God is silence. All else is but a poor translation.” St. Isaac the Syrian

  12. Daniel Avatar

    Silence is golden
    Words are made of lead
    And in the alchemy of love
    Some things are better left unsaid

    — Michelle Shocked

  13. Burro [Mule] Avatar
    Burro [Mule]

    ‘we can know more than we can tell‘
    Michael Polanyi

  14. Z Avatar

    Not long ago, in one of my comments, I used the word “worship” and wondered if there was there another word that would describe better what I meant.
    In Romanian, “a sluji” stands for the verb “to worship”. “A sluji” means to work for someone – to work in someone’s garden or farm, for example. It means to serve through manual labor, but to labor in prayer, as well: to serve the liturgy, as another example.
    What the Romanian dictionary would not describe though, is this: the work described by the verb “a sluji” is similar to that of a slave – laboring without expecting a reward – another way of saying, “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.
    The irony is that during the communist years of Romania, you heard heads of the communist party bragging about “worshiping the communist party” (slujeste partidul) so the verb got the meaning of “carrying out a duty, as well… but how far from the original meaning of “doing someone’s will”, God’s will be done!

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a line from a Chekov play I saw once as the characters are struck to a prolonged silence in the midst of their conversation. That silence is broken by one saying, “the angel of silence passed over us”.

    May that angel bless us all for the remainder of the Lenten season.

  16. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Beautifully expressive Father. As a side note I have a friend who is a philologist who says: “English is a language that was invented for shop keepers to cheat their customers with.” This is not true, but it does illustrate the fluidity of meaning within English.

  17. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    So, should one keep talking “until” someone asks you to stop talking? Or should you be silent “until” you are asked to speak? Or should you keep asking a different question “until” you get the point? Or maybe worship is a way of life “until” time is meaningless. It seems that so many of our dilemmas have to do with an either-or polarity that is often “settled” with a synergistic “neither.”
    Even if you “get to the point,” is it so important that you are heard or get a response?

    I wonder if that was Oscar Wilde’s “art”? It seems that history awarded him for his “neitheristic” ode to the passions as he worked off his literary challenge of Victorian society in a labor camp. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wove an interesting relationship between the worship of self in art, mysteriously connected to his use of literary metaphor in the parabolic twist of what the reader expects and what the artist intends. What the speaker intends is often caught by the listener who is silent. But that doesn’t happen “until” what is spoken is seen. But when the point is seen, as that “until” shift is reached, do we then cease to see “until” the next comment is made?
    It seems this is the modern discourse of “knowing.” And somehow mainstream “worship” follows this ceaseless expectation of give-return pointilisms. I think this is why modern art stripped away the frames….(thank you Father for patiently waiting for me to sort out my own question above)

  18. Panayiota Avatar

    I was listening to a small presentation by a researcher of the deaf. She spoke of how the part of the brain that is responsible for hearing in the hearing impaired never atrophies. It remains active, (as it was explored with electrodes.) The presence, the person – body and soul communicates regardless.
    How great is our God.

  19. Victoria Avatar

    Panayiota!! I just love what you wrote : we have spiritual ears and eyes and the deaf hear and the blind see!

  20. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    A very interesting comment you made just above. It is especially important when we discover what the deaf “do” hear. It is said that they become particularly sensative to electronic sound waves in certain frequency ranges of which is received by that part of the brain normally used for “hearing.”

    These particular vibrational frequencies are the stuff of ancient technologies supposed by some to have existed before the flood and perhaps along the lines of binary communication that clues us into that “Tower of Babel,” post-human moment. A moment in time when humans reached a certain communicative “oneness,” as in being on the “same” wave-length: much along the lines of a certain baud-width that millions of hand-held devices run on.

    I think that if you dig a bit deeper you will find the “deaf” can actually hear, but on a much higher oscillation and that “hearing” is tuned into a quite similar frequency called–prayer–which to some is being investigated as the “quantum frequency.” However, the “sameness” that toppled the tower(s) is a power thought capable to replace God, while that frequency used to talk to God, the source that never changes, binds humanity together in a much different “sameness” in Him. (And this is not necessarily a pun on how often we pray conventionally.)

    See George Steiner’s After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. I think he also wrote Language and Silence.

  21. kay Avatar

    Thank you, Father, I have no words.

  22. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    Forgive me Father, I am filled with too many words, so let Fr. Maximos Constas say it from his book The Art of Seeing:
    “The icon…aims neither to satiate vision, nor to restrict it to a particular point, but to free it by confronting it with the invisible, proposing to it that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem. In using images to overthrow the power of images, the icon seeks to disrupt habituated ways of seeing, to subvert the hegemony of naturalistic representation, and to summon the eye to a new mode of vision, by opening it up to infinite depth.”

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you, sbdn Andrew. Wonderful words and well spoken of the experience of what the icons bring to us. I’ve now added another book to my reading list.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sbdn Andrew,
    I only recently discovered that small book and found an amazing quote…it’s in tomorrow’s post.

  25. Panayiota Avatar

    Sbdn Andrew,
    Your comments regarding vibrational frequencies remind me of how my witness speaks so clearly to those around me, how careful and prayerful I must remain for myself and my brother or sister.

    I love the phrase …. “Prayer is the only reliable wireless connection.”

  26. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    Well said. Remaining “careful and prayerful” is an insightful combination to being receptive. Thank you for this important reminder. I am re-sobered to the task at hand.

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