Second Thoughts on Success

I have had a few emails and other notes regarding my recent articles on Providence and a non-modern spiritual life. To speak about a life that is not understood in terms of progress, but in terms of its struggles and weakness is the antithesis of the modern ideal. No matter how bad things might be, at some point, we are always assured that they can get better. “Getting better” has become the modern version of salvation itself. But if this is not the promise held out for us, if it is not a reasonable or necessary expectation of the spiritual life, then it sounds like we are being asked to give up and surrender ourselves to some form of abiding misery. I have been told that such a message cannot reach people in the modern world, or that life understood in such terms will be unhappy and depressing. I offer here a few thoughts.

First, the gospel of success and prosperity, of the ever-improving spiritual life, frequently fails to reach people in the modern world, except for those who are all too willing to be deceived. Second, given the present rates of anxiety and depression, drug overdoses and suicide, it would seem somewhat hollow to suggest that life in the modern world is not already unhappy and depressing for many. The narrative of progress and success fails to describe life as it truly is. To make matters worse, failure and suffering in our culture can often make us the objects of shame. The gospel of progress is the gospel of never really being ok – and being ashamed of it. The few who are described as successful and making progress mostly serve as examples that condemn the rest of us. We imagine ourselves working towards becoming the spiritual one percent.

The gospel of Jesus Christ does not offer us an imaginary existence. It speaks to us precisely where we are. It is not so much a message that tells us that we must change the world, but that we are living in the wrong world, or, perhaps, living wrongly in the world.

Can we use the image of progress in the Christian life? Undoubtedly. But doing so can make us particularly vulnerable to the distortions of modern culture. We should recognize that our cultural narrative offers nothing for the humble, the meek, the weak and those who fail, other than condemnation. These same qualities are, in a variety of places, extolled as essential in classical Christianity. The difficulty is learning how to live in such a reality.

Any number of times I have defended the existence of monasticism to outsiders. They wonder “what good does it do?” Many modern, Western monastics have turned to human service, making them more palatable to the modern mind. It strikes me as strange that simply saying that monastics “live,” is an insufficient justification for most people. The same is true for ourselves: life is itself is worth living. We are not put here to prove our worth or to make progress towards worth. Life is a gift whose purpose is to be thankful for the gift.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, himself, observed this “helpful” aspect of modern life and had harsh words:

For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be. Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained.

Much of what I offer in the critique of modernity is the unmasking of the “helpful” world of secularism and the revelation of death for what it is. When death is revealed for what it is, the result can bring a form of despair. But that same revelation also reveals the truth of life.

The writer of Ecclesiastes observed, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He saw the emptiness of our existence as it passes away. The Psalmist said: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Ps. 103:15-16)

The Christian life should not be marked by despair. It is, however, rightly marked by a sober assessment of the truth of our existence. In the face of death and its threat, we see Christ Who tramples it down in triumph. Because of Christ’s victory, we live in hope. But we live with hope in Christ alone. Christ’s victory over death secures for us the gift of life and makes the life of thanksgiving possible.

Modernity makes constant efforts to tame Christ, to make of Christianity a “religion,” a “spiritual” tool for aiding in the comfort and encouragement of its citizens. Christianity thus becomes a “helping profession.” This is often a very benign, innocent process. The closest thing to morality in the modern world is to avoid making people uncomfortable (unless it’s making people uncomfortable about making other people uncomfortable). If death makes people uncomfortable (and it does), then it is very tempting for Christians to want to soften the blow as well.

The world we live in is constructed in such a way that the reality of death (literally and metaphorically) never disappears. There may be a temporary ‘sleight of hand’ in which we hide from the devastating truth of our existence, but the truth remains: people die. We live on an edge and people tumble off all the time. For that reason, the truth of the faith does not disappear. It is never irrelevant. Indeed, in the light of the truth of our existence, Christ’s Pascha, His death and resurrection, is the only truly relevant thing. Only if Christ has trampled down death by death can we face the naked truth of our existence with hope.

It is worth noting that the monastic tradition of the Church tells us constantly that the spiritual life should be marked by the remembrance of death, and the constant remembrance of the name of God. It is the Paschal life, the life that follows in the footsteps of Christ. The common practices of prayer, fasting, repentance and almsgiving intentionally introduce a small measure of suffering into the Christian life. These do not mean to make our faith difficult – but to make it real.

In this life we will have successes and failures. We will make progress and fall backwards. Give thanks always for all things. Christ is risen.

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet, not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Set your affections on things above and not on things of the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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101 responses to “Second Thoughts on Success”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    As I read the discussion that led to this post and your post, I am struck with a recollection of an encounter I had with a search committee looking for a new Pastor for their church. I did not get the job, fortunately, as their search was for someone to help them feel comfortable in their success in life. They asked me the central question of the interview (which terminated my hope of being hired) of how I was going to grow their parish. My answer was about ministry to reach the lost and bring them to Christ. Wrong answer. As the interview ended one of the search committee took out his wallet and informed me that it was salvation as with it he had all he needed and that he did not want any new people in his church that could not pay into the treasury in large sum. This is the picture I remembered when you said the successful, well adjusted believer was not the type we would find in heaven. The reason is that their god is carried in their pocket and not in their heart.

  2. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes Fr Stephen,
    “For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

    Key words and hard for us who prefer a life of comfort and hope to have justification ( via our cultural norms) to want such comfort. We seem to want to think our life is the exception from such path. (And I need to be candid how readily I fall into that trap)

  3. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I was brand new in the Orthodox faith, two weeks in fact. I was invited to a blessing of land for a new monastery that was being formed. A table had been placed in the middle of a dirt road that would eventually lead to the monastery. One old man, body somewhat twisted, I thought looking emaciated, stood behind the table looking down. Had he been dressed in street clothes and placed on skid row, no one would have given him a second glance. He would have fit right in with the social outcasts, derelicts, etc. He was, though, dressed as a monastic. In fact, he was an elder, geronda of a monastery. This emaciated appearing man, I discovered , may one day be recognized as a saint by the Church. Though a newly minted Orthodox, I was squarely appraising him through our culture’s biased and skewed lens of failure/success. It has taken years for these false scales to begin falling from my eyes.
    Thank you for ending this article with Scripture. The word of God still inspires and, when needed, cuts to the quick.

  4. Paisios Jones Avatar
    Paisios Jones

    Where are we to expect contentment in all of this? It seems as though that has been on our minds and in our conversations lately at our home. This is especially true with all of the questions and difficulties we have faced lately. I am finding myself slowly abandoning the pep talk of “things will get better if we just hold on” for”this is our life and we should accept it and let our thoughts reflect that choice.” It seems as though this may be a surrender of hope but I am finding that we’re all a little bit more content with that decision if not, dare I say, happier. In the very least it has made my own prayers seem a little more genuine.

  5. Irene Avatar

    “Life as it truly is” is absent from this American construction, and this myth of success keeps people separated. We are so impoverished by Modernity, and addictions and suicide and despair are the result indeed. Grateful for your gifts, Father, in edifying us. It is The Gospel after all. We need this reeducation.

  6. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Despair and depression and all other forms of unhappiness I gave experienced during my life have come as a result of not believing in Christ and feeling like a total failure from a worldly perspective. Three decades of chronic severe ill health has made it impossible for me to succeed in this world. My life has been a physical and financial disaster in every respect and this reality certainly caused me to feel ashamed of myself. I always felt that my situation was somehow my fault. But finding Christ and Orthodoxy, and coming to understand that being successful in the world is not the goal for someone trying to live their in life in Christ, has brought me a tremendous amount of relief. I will never be able live up to the expectations of this world, but I can certainly strive to love God and love my neighbors. Each and every day, with God’s help, I have a new opportunity to be “successful” at these two great commandments, Neither physical well-being nor financial abundance are relevant for this journey, but only a willing and repentant heart.

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    The way I understand Fr Stephen and the Gospel, there is joy in Christ and both a dying to the world, a man-constructed world that is, that would separate us from God. Christ is the life of the world, the ‘natural’ world. And that means that our life in the classical Christian tradition is:
    “…to live in the world seeing everything in it as a revelation of God, a sign of His presence, the joy of His coming, the call to communion with Him, the hope for fulfillment in Him. Since the day of Pentecost there is a seal, a ray, a sign of the Holy Spirit on everything for those who believe in Christ and know that He is the life of the world—and that in Him the world in its totality has become again a liturgy, a communion, an ascension…”
    “It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself “ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions, and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.”

    Fr Alexander Schmemann, “For the Life of the World”, in Chapter 7, “And Ye Are Witnessess of These Things”, in section 2 and section 3.

  8. Dino Avatar

    A very astute elucidation! I find that the delusion of the ‘gospel of progress’ is revealed best in light of its opposite: “the monastic tradition of the Church, which tells us constantly that the spiritual life should be marked by the remembrance of death, and the constant remembrance of the name of God. It is the Paschal life, the life that follows in the footsteps of Christ”. This really hits the nail on the head and is what the Christian transformation of man is founded upon in its daily, practical expression.

    In fact, a particularly germane side-note here is that, even the vast majority of man’s daily conversations, (which are an inevitable expression of one’s opinions, feelings, desires, worries, frustrations, aversions or suggestions etc. [even the ‘Christian’ ones] are nothing but an exodus from our natural dwelling place: which is the mindful silence of the ‘remembrance of death, and the constant remembrance of the name of God’ which truly unites us to our Saviour and transforms our being – in other words, most of our many daily words become a sort of betrayal of our unifying and transformative attention towards Him alone (as well as a fall from the dignified height of a true disciple). That noble transformation, even if still small without God’s great grace, is undeniable (yet cannot be accepted as progress from modernity’s understanding). It is, however, inconceivably great a transformation with God’s grace.
    But we will only be asked to answer for our “side of the deal”, not Grace’s, so it is this that is required of us rather our demand of His transforming power.

  9. Dino Avatar

    *it is this that is required of us rather than our demands of His transforming power.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Contentment is a good question. The first thing that came to my mind was St. John the Baptist’s word to the Roman soldiers, “Be content with your wages” (that way they would not be using their power to coerce money out of others). Think of someone who has acquired an irreversible handicap. The acceptance you mention would be essential to their contentment. I think of this admonition of St. Paul:

    Now godliness with contentment is great gain.For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Tim. 6:6-10)

    What modernity calls success and progress if largely nothing more than the love of money. It is, oddly, the cause of “many sorrows.”

  11. Confused in Tennessee Avatar
    Confused in Tennessee

    Father, in your talks you have spoken with how your mother would opine not to be like “Uncle Pick’s people”. I was brought up in the Appalachian mountains by parents who grew up poor, and worked hard to get out of poverty. They are enjoying retirement and I am grateful for them. There is a gap between me and my parents, and between me and my children. While I experienced “success” early in my career, many things happened which changed that. My parents are old and I don’t feel like I can have an honest conversation with them about my Orthodox faith. My grandfather (who was an old time Pentecostal preacher from Virginia) I think would have been on your side – the side of spiritual detachment. My parents however, basically think that I’ve essentially joined a hippy cult in Orthodoxy, and that I’m not going to better myself by talking about nonsense like spiritual detachment. I left working for a Fortune 500 company to go into a helping profession, and I’m never going to earn what my parents and cousins do. I’m doing my best to do what God wants me to – yet in the back of my mind I can feel the Protestant work ethic of my parents judging me for not doing as well as them. There are so many people in our region who have simply given up and have turned to opioids and alcohol. A large number of births in East Tennessee are born with some kind of withdrawal syndrome. There was a brief period of prosperity in our region and our local “gospel” embraced that. I love my parents and my daughters. I would love to be able to have an honest conversation about this. But that would be very difficult for me to do without directing judgement back to my parents who honestly believe their Protestant work ethic is the summit of morality. Basically I’m a bit neurotic on this question and I spend a lot of time beating myself up and thinking it would be fixed if I was simply as successful as they were in their lives. Today we commemorate Saint Xenia – while I understand her position as a fool for Christ and how she is a contradiction to the world, I chuckle and sigh to myself in despair of every being able to have a conversation about something like that with my folks. I really wish there was some way I could break through the veneer and have a genuine conversation with my parents before they die.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I well understand your problems. I have to say that my parents (despite my mother’s words about “Uncle Pick’s People,” did not embrace modernity to a large extent – and had the general attitude that as long as we were happy (and content) there were no problems.

    Jesus had difficulties in Nazareth…so, a little misunderstanding from our roots is to be expected. In Orthodoxy, people extol the virtue of saints, and yet the tradition is full of stories of parents being upset with a child wanting to become a monastic.

    Thank you for serving the needs of people here in Tennessee.

  13. Dino Avatar

    I think there is another angle to this notion you mentioned too which relates to proper ‘watchfulness’: It is not right to think that because we know that things will eventually be ok, –eschatologically– and that because we are given to know the outcome of history as Christians we therefore can be happy only in the sense of being in a dark tunnel that sees the end has light, while enduring hardships and expecting the eventual salvation in the distant future.
    No, the Christian thought is to actually be somehow so re-orientated that we are even tasting and experiencing the eschata in the present moment, experiencing ‘eschatological joy now’ even when enduring hardships – here and now. This is the transformative power of God-minded “Nepsis”. A person can therefore (this has continuous verification in Christian history) have their feet planted firmly on Earth yet their heart and mind anchored even more firmly in the Heavens. Our mindfulness and remembrance of death and of Christ is the constant re-ignition of this internal divine fire, the continuous stoking of it, as well as our unceasing watchfulness against the constant threat of the dispersion of this joy’s ‘heat’.
    (The room is kept warm by both feeding the fire and stopping the heat dispersion from any cracks and windows.)

  14. Janette Avatar

    I haven’t ever written a comment, but have enjoyed all these posts. I know my own struggles between being successful and being content…when I feel most content I remember God’s promise to me, and to all of us. We will have eternal life with Jesus. Success is not an earthly thing, measured by wealth or power. Success is an eternal thing, measured by Jesus’ love for us, so that we can have life. I am confident in that promise.
    The other day I was talking to a friend, and she said she didn’t know what her purpose was. I said our purpose is to love God and to love others the way Christ loves us. That’s all. I worry about money and health and all those things, too. Those are earthly things that will mean nothing at all when I am with Christ. Thanks.

  15. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I think the talk of failure can be healing because we’re immersed in so many ideas of success. I grew up a little differently, so certain aspects of that were emphasized, but the overall thrust was the same. For example, in a military family in the US, you basically live under a form of socialism, as ironic as that may sound. But that is how it works: socialized housing, medicine, transportation, everything. Thus, the “money side” was a non-thing to me growing up—there were no needs it was required to fulfill (though it could definitely help with certain wants and luxuries) and there was almost no value to it, mentally or emotionally. On the flip side, service and “making a difference” were *huge*; you had to do your best in everything, regardless of what it was or what the stakes seemed to be. I think that is part of the reason it took me so long to be able to even get to the place where I could “just” get a job. I had no problem volunteering, even with physically-demanding stuff, or keeping regular commitments (I actually had the opposite issue, probably to a fault). But to put myself in a position where I would essentially be selling part of me—time, energy, knowledge, or otherwise—to “earn” money seemed not just against all of what I had learned from Christianity about the dangers of money and the value of the soul and body (back when I was pre-Orthodox), but against everything I learned [unconsciously] growing up. (And I am still very uneasy to this day about it, even though I do have a “job”—it doesn’t seem right on some level even now and I cringe when I hear the “get a job” advice given out, as if it were some theological good or universal given, in complete ignorance of all the spiritual dangers and consequences of it, unavoidable as they may be in our modern society. Work? Sure, that is one of our God-given blessings way back in Genesis. “Job”? That is a different story.) I like the succinctness of the idea that what we’re called to do is “live”—that helps me a lot where I’m at—and the observation that “‘Getting better’ has become the modern version of salvation itself.”, which I think is unfortunately very common, even if not often stated as such.

    On the whole, though, I try not to think of success or failure much at all—it is not an integral part of my current spiritual “model”. For me, at least, that can become a distraction. Just as success can be a symbol of the modern project, I am prone to making failure something of a project, too! It is all too easy for me to sit down and make lists of ways I can “intentionally fail” and subvert various kinds of successes but that doesn’t work, either—it is just one more system, one more way to have a morality or a “Christianity” without Christ, who is always Personal and not manageable. That doesn’t mean that systems (or liturgical actions) are wrong, per se, but that they cannot be a substitute for or disconnected from what they symbolize and make manifest. So, since I can really only know what success and failure mean from the perspective of The Cross, that is where I try to take refuge.

    Somewhat tangentially, a post ago, unceasing prayer was brought up. I was in a parish a long time ago where this thing happened—it was not a monastic setting and, from what I heard, it happened in less than a week from the beginning of the “work”. And the parish was sending someone to seminary almost every year (with consequent ordinations, so it wasn’t just sending them to send them). And on and on and on. It was not a made into “big deal” or “advertised” but that kind of stuff, along with reading labels and head coverings and everything else, was “Orthodox normal” for me and I actually get a bit worried when I *don’t* see those things. But that worry is a problem, because God is still working everywhere and in all people. Is one parish or one spiritual thing a success? I don’t know. Is another parish or a lack of said spiritual thing a failure? I don’t know. And how does that all relate to Orthodoxy “working”? I don’t know. But Glory to God for His Mercy in both places and cases! That is how I approach it now, at least—again, I understand the pushback (and need it myself) but I don’t want to set my expectations “lower” so much as I want [on my “best” days] to get rid of all human expectations and simply be prepared to meet Christ, however He comes (and with a lot of help discerning Him!). And He always comes!

    In a similar way, I don’t worry about things like “ego”, which might also seem a bit strange. I think a lot of that is because of how much St. Porphyrios played a role in my catechism (pre- and post-baptism) and his emphasis on a more natural, joyful mode of life where Christ really does become everything and all joy. But I’ve also found it elsewhere, like in St. Paul’s striking assertion that “In fact, I do not even judge myself.” (1 Cor. 4:3). In the very act of looking for traces of “ego”, I am actually looking away from Christ, which is the very action that will never allow me to let go of it! The only way to get rid of the ego is, ironically, to stop worrying about it altogether. Plus, there are more subtle sins than that, believe it or not, some of which cannot even be seen or conceived of while “fighting the ego”. I think this was echoed by some of Mother Gabrielia’s quotes in the prior thread and may partly explain why St. Porphyrios was so receptive to various spiritual gifts (e.g., “spiritual television”), even moreso than some contemporaries from Mount Athos or who otherwise lived much more austerely. I don’t think such talk about the ego is wrong, of course, but I think it, like the success and failure dichotomy, can easily be misunderstood and actually hold one back at a certain point, if it is taken too flatly. It only makes sense from The Cross.

    That also makes me think of the Fr. Alexander quote, specifically on the place of death. It is more difficult for me to untangle that statement not only because physical and spiritual death are treated very differently in many Fathers but because Christ tramples down death *by* death, not some other means. But I think he is playing his “antithesis card” very strongly because he says later, in the same chapter, “And yet [death] can be also the ultimate victory of Man and of Life in him. The Church does not come to restore *health* in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light, and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to ‘comfort’ him in his sufferings, not to ‘help’ him, but to make him a *martyr*, a *witness* to Christ in his very sufferings.” (pg. 103, SVS Press’s 1973 edition). So the revelation of death is a lot more mystical than it may initially appear, as with so many things in Orthodoxy and, well, all creation. It also makes me wonder what would happen if we substituted “success” and “failure” for “life” and “death”: Christ has succeeded over failure, trampling down failure by failure. Lots to chew on in that, but a [perhaps dangerously] difficult statement for us to try to work a system out of. But from the perspective of Pascha, it “works”. It must. Still, I can see why there will be even a lot of honest confusion over these things, on top of all the angst from the modern mindset.

  16. Ephrem Avatar

    Is there a balance to be had or, can we actually abandon worldly wisdom for Christ?

    The Bible says that, if God so clothes the lilies of the fields, and feeds the birds of the air , how much more will he care for us?

    If this is truly the case, as there are many verses saying that wordly wisdom is foolishness, than shouldn’t we abandon wordly wisdom for our souls sake?

    If we acknowledge that this life is trial and temptation, and that our Lord and his saints speak truth. Than abandoning the pursuit of finance doesn’t seem so foolish anymore.

    Why is it so hard to have this conversation with many, even amongst Orthodox and, what is it that has us so enamored with Western idealism and financial gain? And, as a married man, how do I balance my belief in the foolishness in seeking financial gain, with my responsibility to my wife?

  17. Raphael Avatar

    I am reminded of a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse that I return to:
    “You ask, ‘Shouldn’t I be doing something?’ Of course that is necessary. Do whatever falls to your hands, in you circle and in you situation–and believe that this is and will be your TRUE work; nothing more from you is required. IT IS A GREAT ERROR TO THINK THAT YOU MUST UNDERTAKE IMPORTANT AND GREAT LABORS, whether for heaven, or, as the “progressives” think, in order to make one’s contribution to humanity. That is not necessary at all. It is necessary only to do everything in accordance with the Lord’s commandments. Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his or her life, and which is demanded by the individual events with which each of us meets. THAT IS ALL! God arranges the lot of each person, and the entire course of life of each one is all His all-good industry, as is each moment and each meeting. In all instances, and during each meeting, it is necessary to do what God wants us to do. As to what He wants, we certainly know that from the commandments He has given us. Is someone seeking help? Help him . Has someone offended you? Forgive and make peace. Did somebody praise you? Don’t be proud. Did somebody scold you? Do not be angry. Is it time to pray? Pray. Is it time to work? Work.”

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I like the Biblical concept of prosperity (which is something we actually pray for in the Marriage service). That concept is simple: that we have enough for ourselves and something left over to share with others. It is the consumerist mentality of our present time that has distorted a fairly simple and good thing. Prosperity, in this proper sense, is something to be desired.

  19. Byron Avatar

    But what of plenty and blessing? My own life has been successful, in most ways, from a world view. I suppose I qualify for “upper middle” class (whatever that is) or at least “middle class”. I am blessed with good health, more than enough finances and resources, and am generally surrounded by good people. I essentially live in a safety bubble of contentment and plenty.

    How is one to find God in the midst of the plenty that brings despondency? The only time I find real peace is in worship in our parish. My priest has counselled me that my challenge is to not only receive Grace (in worship) but become a vessel that carries Grace within it. The difficulty is to learn to live in such a reality. I do not know how to do this.

  20. Ephrem Avatar

    Give. And give a lot. When Jesus was asked this question by the rich man his answer was to sell everything he owned and give all to the poor.

    If Christ is truly the only life, and all other pursuits are death, than shouldn’t we flee wordly comfort?

  21. Deborah Avatar

    Thank you. I am turning 60 this year. Not really so old–but old enough to know that death IS a reality and a sooner reality than I would like to admit. I’m not looking to so much go out with a bang–success–but rather to die in Christ, embracing Paschal mystery. With this in mind, I am spending the week of my birthday on retreat–silence, solitude, prayer, and spiritual direction. I’m printing off this post to spend some deeper time reflecting on it.

  22. Dean Avatar

    “Life is a gift whose purpose is to be thankful for the gift.”
    Wonderfully healing and freeing words, Father Stephen. You also note that it’s not about proving ourselves worthy. Life is eucharistic, thanksgiving for all and in the midst of all. Spiritually minimalistic. We thank Him, we live in Him, we glorify and worship Him.
    What you are going to do is great! I am retired and will also spend a week next month in the desert alone….yet never lonely nor alone.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is sometimes said that a theologian does not do his best work until after age 60. I suspect that this is true of all human beings. It’s why, traditionally, “elders” (“old people”) were revered for their wisdom. The older you get (I’m 64), the less concern you have for success – success is a young person’s problem. How many of us have wanted to say to young people, “Don’t stress so much. You’re worried about the wrong things”?

    As the years press on, just “living” is a joy, as well as the prayer for dying well.

  24. Agata Avatar


    What Father said in response to your words is so beautiful:
    “As the years press on, just “living” is a joy, as well as the prayer for dying well.”
    (I will try to post a prayer by Fr. Zacharias “for the moment of death”… but later…. still fearing a bit for the loss of my “successful” job [one that is indeed a pure gift and not guaranteed whatsoever in this world, as NSP commented recently], if I get found out that I am doing all this at work)… 🙂

    And Dean,
    that was my favorite sentence of this article too!
    “Life is a gift whose purpose is to be thankful for the gift.”

    You may enjoy reading this article “On death”, by Met. Anthony Bloom….

  25. Paula Avatar

    You say “the vast majority of man’s daily conversations….are nothing but an exodus from our natural dwelling place: which is the mindful silence of the ‘remembrance of death…most of our many daily words become a sort of betrayal of our unifying and transformative attention towards Him alone,,”
    Is this true? that most of our conversations are “nothing but” an exodus? Couldn’t they also be part of the very road to transformation that we inevitably stumble along? Are our words really a betrayal of our attention toward Him? I don’t know how God “thinks” but I do know He knows who is betraying Him intentionally vs those who are willing, who’s intent is to attend to Him but as yet fall short. What does it mean to you to be unceasingly mindful of God? Because I think in some way or another, each person who is in Christ can not but be mindful of Him at every moment. But that we are does not mean that we will not err in our thoughts.
    Your words, Dino, if I left them without further guidance, would leave me hanging in mid-air, face down, and terrified, past the edge of the cliff. Why? Because you speak with such authority. I take that seriously. Yet, at least I have enough sense to know it is not your intention to terrify and that I fall short of understanding (in this post) some of your words.
    Also, you say “That noble transformation, even if still small without God’s great grace, is undeniable…” Am I reading this correctly, that we can have even a small transformation without God’s grace? I must be reading this wrong. Because I can do nothing, not a thing, nonetheless ascend 1000th of a millimeter toward Him, without His grace. I certainly understand the synergy aspect, but when we choose to act, to do “our part”, does that necessarily mean it is done only by our own effort? I hope not, because at this point it would be dangerous for me to take credit for such a thing.
    My last question: what is meant by the remembrance of death? Is it more than carrying our cross, as Christ commanded? more than the dying daily to the passions of the flesh? If it is not more than this, then I think we each, in our own way, with the resources we have been given, are doing just that.
    Forgive me please Dino, if I ask amiss or have misspoke. I just am at a loss here.

  26. Paisios Jones Avatar
    Paisios Jones

    Confused in Tennessee
    We should really compare notes after Divine Liturgy sometime. You shouldn’t have a problem figuring out who I am. I’ve experienced similar struggles with my own family. Sometimes I think it would be easier to go do something that would earn more money and fulfill all of the expectations. Yet, here I am, still teaching in a poor community, trying to do something worthwhile. Seems that I am stuck on this idea and continued question of contentment. Finding peace through contentment seems to me to be a necessary step. Although the end of such thinking may be to give it all away and find oneself more like St. Xenia. Yet, there are responsibilities (wife, children) that demand otherwise. It really is something to ponder and hopefully settle before death or old age.

  27. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    “We are not put here to prove our worth or to make progress towards worth. Life is a gift whose purpose is to be thankful for the gift.”

    Amen. As Meister Eckhart, said, “If the only prayer you say is thank you, that will be enough.”

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Intriguing that the MVP if the Super Bowl, Nick Foules, said something not dissimilar to all of this in his press conference.

    He told everyone that his “success” was due to the fact that he embraced his failure within the context of his faith and family. It was his failure and his daily struggles that got him there.

    He is the Super Bowl MVP who has already been told he will not have the starting job next year on his own team. Seems he has failed yet again. He was almost out of pro football two years ago and has rarely been more than a backup. He is still a backup even though he got the MVP. The loosing quarterback performed better than he did in almost every statistical category except points.

    The last time he got the opportunity to start, he failed utterly.
    Rich, famous, handsome and still struggling to prove his worth in his profession. Such has crushed other men. I do not think it will crush him.

  29. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for your response to Ephrem. There are people and single parents who must care for dependent children who are struggling to ‘make a future’ for their children. The narrative of the culture likely weighs heavy on them and I believe your words to Ephrem is helpful.

  30. Debbie Avatar

    I would like to apologize to you Fr. Stephen. a long while past I shared one of your blogs with another Christian friend. Your blog was returned with 6 1/2 pages of scripture. Since that time I have been alienated my other members of her church. I had thought about attending-I no longer think thus. I regret to inform you you we are doomed to Hell.
    Keep doing what you are doing Fr. Stephen. A very dear friend of mine recently was chrismated into your church. We have been through Hades in the church. I no longer attend a church and have not for years. I read your words and find we are on the same page.
    Thank you kindly.

  31. Dino Avatar


    That’s right – we take no credit for anything at all. But this firm grounding upon the foundation that we are but “unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10) is not to be understood as if it were some gloomy premise – which can happen quite easily if interpreted from the point-of-view of egoism – but as a most joyous confidence in the truth that any good comes entirely from God with whom “all things are possible”. (Matt 19:26). However, there is hidden Grace bringing about good, and great Grace! There is “our part”, and blessed states bestowed by Grace that are nothing short of complete ‘possession’ by God. Knowing that there are such states might only be a guiding star in the distance, but it still serves a purpose in rightly orientating our calling. We demand nothing other than (from ourselves) to be renewing our own presence in the gaze of the ever-present Lord, again and again and without any worry or terror at our utter weakness – we must have total acceptance of it without giving in as far as we can… Our despondence at our own weakness is just a concealed egoism, because joy is grounded upon God’s love and not our own achievements.
    In this light, our powerlessness to be constantly and unceasingly ‘in Christ’, our inability to be unceasingly invoking Him, to be aware of the Truth, the only Truth that is the One who has no beginning and no end, to be awake to the futility of all else (this is the freedom conferred through ‘remembrance of death’ by the way) is a known factor that only increases our focus upon God.

  32. Dean Avatar

    Thanks for what you wrote about Foiles, the Eagle’s quarterback.
    The first thank you that the head coach Doug Pedersen gave when interviewed right after the game was to “his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” As Fr. Stephen wrote several weeks ago, any profession of Christ is good.

  33. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Someone shared this quote on Facebook this morning and I feel it speaks very clearly to this topic…

    You ask, “Shouldn’t I be doing something?”

    Of course that is necessary. Do whatever falls to your hands, in your circle and in your situation–and believe that this is and will be your True work; nothing more from you is required.

    It is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors, whether for heaven, or, as the “progressives” think, in order to make one’s contribution to humanity.

    That is not necessary at all. It is necessary only to do everything in accordance with the Lord’s commandments.

    Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his or her life, and which is demanded by the individual events with which each of us meets. That is all!

    God arranges the lot of each person, and the entire course of life for each one is His all-good industry, as is each moment and each meeting. In all instances, and during each meeting, it is necessary to do what God wants us to do.

    As to what He wants, we certainly know that from the commandments He has given us:

    Is someone seeking help? Help him.

    Has someone offended you? Forgive and make peace.

    Did somebody praise you? Don’t be proud.

    Did somebody scold you? Do not be angry.

    Is it time to pray? Pray.

    Is it time to work? Work.

    +Saint Theophan the Recluse

  34. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Oops! Sorry… i just realized it was shared here earlier in this conversation. How silly I am! Please forgive me Raphael 🙏 and thank you for posting it. It’s a keeper.

  35. Karen Avatar

    Esmee, no worries. It was a gem–it bears repeating (saves me having to scroll up and find it again, too)!

    To all, so many good things in this post and comments thread! Glory to God!

  36. Karen Avatar

    I’m sad to read about the rejection (using Scripture!) you experienced from your friend (and her church). It’s hard indeed not to be able to share the things that are meaningful to us with those we care about–as is the case with many of us who are Orthodox (or nurtured by Orthodox teaching) in a culture (and with friends and family members) shaped by Protestantism and secularism. Feeling misunderstood and rejected seem to be our lot to one degree or another–occasions that offer opportunity to practice the death to self of which this post and St. Theophan speak, wherein we voluntarily enter in some measure into the sufferings of Christ!

    I’m glad you are drawing sustenance from this blog. I pray you may find an Orthodox parish where you feel welcomed and can draw strength from the Church’s liturgical life of prayer as well as the thoughts (here) of one of her good Priests. We are such a tiny community in this country, though. It’s not always easy to find a suitable parish.

  37. Paula Avatar

    Yes… now I see that Jesus’ parable of the unprofitable servant was in response to the apostles request for Him to increase their faith! So we, as unprofitable servants, know that as we go about in life learning to live the way of Christ, have “joyous confidence” (faith!) knowing that any good comes entirely from God. No egoism, as the focus then is off Christ and upon ourselves. Well thank you Dino for stretching that out!
    Further, if I understand correctly, we can assume hidden Grace is present when doing our part… great Grace when in His total possession. Being mindful of His working for our good (this Grace), although hidden, should still keep us focused (always) in faith and trust. This is accomplished by “renewing our presence” in Him. Do not in despair and worry that we don’t see much progress, success or results but remain confident in His Love.
    Finally, our powerlessness, inability, and the futility “of all else” is how you describe the remembrance of death! and that it brings freedom! Now that’s good Dino…I actually understand what you’re saying…and I would have not described the remembrance of death in that way.
    Much appreciated and many thanks!

  38. Confused in Tennessee Avatar

    Paisos, it would be a pleasure except I don’t think we are in the same parish. Sounds like somebody in your parish has similar problems. So maybe we ain’t alone. I’m on gravatar like you if you want to reach out. It’s the link in my signature.

  39. Agata Avatar

    Dearest Paula,
    All day I wanted to write more to thank you for engaging Dino and asking him the questions you asked. I also find things he writes difficult and challenging often, and it took me years (of reading this blog) to understand some of the more “difficult sayings” he offers us, along with the challenges Father Stephen presents in his articles.
    You however needed just a few words of explanation to “get” everything. You are a blessed soul, which needs just a little to get out lot… 🙂
    May God grant you even more Grace and understanding of His mysteries…

    Dino, and thank you for teaching us to recognize our egoism and how with “God all things are possible”, if we only “keep our eyes on Him”…

  40. Heather Avatar

    Father, I am reminded of a Ted talk I watched recently called “Lessons from a mental hospital”. This was one of the most hopeful things I’ve seen in a while. Life is beautiful, and it is brutal. One heightens the other and vice versa. But we can stand in it with Christ and endure. The most painful and exhausting thing is to run endlessly and try to escape the pain. We can face it and feel it and be okay. In fact, that is the only way. It seems so Orthodox to me.

  41. Deborah Engleman Avatar
    Deborah Engleman

    I was also stuck by the statements of Eagles (back-up) quarterback Nick Foules; actually I was amazed. You never know from whose mouth you are going to hear words of wisdom. To hear such thought-provoking words about failure from this person who at that moment was on top of the world was almost disorienting. God bless him.

    I want to point out that the back-up quarterback for Alabama Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Tide to the championship, also offered praise to Jesus Christ in his first on-field interview after the Tide’s dramatic win. In fact, he later said that throughout the game, he was praying in tongues (!) to keep calm.

    These two outstanding athletes, at their pinnacles of success, when the whole world (okay, a lot of the world), was showering them with praise, were not swallowed up by all the glory. I found them both to be very inspiring and was humbled by their testimony.

  42. Paula Avatar

    Thank you for your very kind words.
    When Dino, and Father…who have much knowledge of the holy, and who freely and kindly teach and share there thoughts with and engage with us, say things I know are profound and I do not understand, I can’t help but ask 🙂 ! And even more, it is highly likely that others have the same question as well, so we all benefit!
    So I am very thankful!

  43. Paula Avatar


  44. Matthew Avatar

    I’m trying to collect some thoughts here, so bear with me.

    Before discovering Orthodoxy, the thought of martyrdom seemed impossible. Even protestants pointed to the early christian martyrs as heroes – “icons”, if they had understood the term, of the ideal selfless Christian. But there was an obvious disconnect between the way we practiced Christianity as protestants, and the lives of historical Christians that we claimed to celebrate.

    When I read Dino’s comments, I didn’t think monastics at first. I thought of these martyrs. I see a martyr as one who has totally abandoned the idea of success, or a progressive agenda of perpetual improvement. I see a martyr as someone who has thoroughly bought into the kingdom of God. Casting away all earthly things – life, reputation, family – every earthly thing with “reckless abandon”, in exchange for that pearl of great price. The martyr sings with anticipation of the life that awaits. the mind is not on the momentary pain and suffering, but on the face of Christ.

    There can be a joy in suffering. But that joy isn’t of this earth. It is in this alternate reality that Christ offers, if we are able to see it. It requires repentance.

    I know it’s there, and I want to see it, but unfortunately I’m not there yet. Maybe in a few more years.

    Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

  45. Deborah Avatar

    Thank you Father, Dean, and Agata for responding to my comment. And Agata thank you for sharing “On Death.” I have added your comments and “On Death” to my materials to read while on retreat.
    Peace and joy,

  46. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    To Matthew’s comment on 6Feb, 8:40pm – I think one of Fr Stephen’s most helpful reminders is that this Christocentric reality is not an “alternate”. It’s the only reality, and what we so often take for granted as ordinary reality is really the lie. Babylon looks very real from inside. But then we see the New Jerusalem, and realize the lie.

    I, too, came from protestantism – from a denomination that had one martyr. The great cloud of witnesses (martyrs) with whom we worship every Sunday in the Liturgy is one of the most beautiful things about Orthodoxy. In a recent conversation with my mom (still protestant), she expressed the common discomfort about the saints. At one point, she remarked “But they’re DEAD!” A few years ago, I would have understood that as a seemingly real objection. But God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all live to Him. That is the reality we live in. It’s humbling. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs! Let us repent and clear our eyes to see the world as it is, with the Spirit everywhere present, and filling all things.

    In Christ,

  47. Paula Avatar

    Somehow I missed your link “On Death”. I am glad Deborah mentioned it again, as I am now reading it. It is an excellent addition to Father’s post and especially the conversations here about death. I am only half way through the article and already have benefited greatly by the Metropolitan’s words. Thank you so much for sharing your treasure trove of links with us!

    Matthew…thank you for sharing your thoughts…I do appreciate them. If you haven’t read Agata’s link, I encourage you to do so, as it is helping me collect my thoughts as well….plus, it addresses the theme of your post.

  48. Aric Avatar

    Thank you father, there is a lot to think about here.

    Two MAJOR questions I have:

    1. What about the Wisdom literature in Scripture? What do we make of the admonitions to acquire wealth, a place of honor, a spouse, children, wisdom, discipline, and other “worldly” virtues that are replete in Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, etc.?

    2. If “Christ’s victory over death secures for us the gift of life”, the next logical question is, “what is the gift of life for?” So Christ has trampled over death and given us the ability to live forever: Well, what are we going to be *doing* in forever? Thankfulness must take form. Are our competitive and creative drives to be nullified in the Kingdom of God, or will we go on to build grand cities, compose symphonies, play spectacular games where there are winners and losers, but all in the worship of God and charity for one another? If the latter, doesn’t it seem that our inclination for progress is good, but it is our motives that need redemption? I struggle with this question daily.

  49. Dean Avatar

    I’m not a biblical scholar but I do know that much of what we see in the O.T. is culturally determined. For example, in Dt. 22 you are told to build a parapet on the roof of your new house. In the same chapter we are instructed in appropriate attire, as it relates to both sexes. It speaks of stoning those caught in adultery…whoa! Fortunately Jesus changed that one for the woman taken in adultery…it does take two to tango, right? In Psalms the Israelites are told to dash their enemies little ones against the stones. Many of these Psalms are spiritualized by the Church, where our “enemies” are in the Psalms read as demons, etc. Women, by St. Paul, are told not to speak in church. I could never sort all these out by myself. That’s why I look to the Church’s 2000 year tradition to help me. After all, the Bible is a book of the Church, it was conceived and birthed in her. It is only natural that she alone can interpret it correctly, the Holy Spirit working through her.

  50. Agata Avatar

    Hi Paula,
    I am so glad you found and like the article by Metropolitan Anthony (I especially love the story at the end). He is wonderful and a great treasure. If you have not done that yet, look for YouTube videos, there are several of his recordings available… My favorite ones are on prayer and doubt.
    I just looked and found one on death and suffering of children – this topic has been brought up here many times, by both Father Stephen and in the comments … It’s so difficult, for mothers like myself especially….

    This past Saturday, when so much of our world was getting ready to watch the Big Game, an elementary school friend of my middle son Marc (they are all around 19 now) hurried in his truck to do the same with his friends, in really bad weather… He did not wear seat belts. “It was slippery and he flipped” my son said…. He died from severe brain injuries on Sunday. I knew him and his family, and am so heartbroken. The whole school community is, and it’s not the first death, some were because they start driving (cars or motorcycles), some were from depression and suicide…

    But as Mark M. says above, they are not dead, they are alive in Christ… If only our Faith was strong enough to penetrate through all the doubt, and reach into that Reality… Forgive me for sharing this heartbreak so openly, but I have many friends here who I hope will say a prayer for us.. I have been devastated by this, I have three sons more or less this age…

  51. Dean Avatar

    I mght add….So much of our theology comes to us through the prayers, poetry, hymnography of the Church. It is a theology that is lived, known, and hence believed. A world view (phronema) is developed through years of liturgy, prayer, obedience, repentance, etc. Have I had questions such as you note? Yes. But years ago I placed many of them on the back burner, so long ago that the fire has gone out. Questions are good, especially amongst young, eager minds. For us older ones hopefully there is more “ease”, with such questions. As we approach life’s end we desire the flame of Christ to be ever ascendant.

  52. Aric Avatar


    Thanks, and yes, I think you’re right in one sense. It’s important to make a distinction between different types of literature throughout the Scripture. As you were intimating, there are different *senses* of Scripture (which Father Stephen has talked about numerous times here) which can only be understood within the context of the living Church. That said, I don’t think Wisdom literature is commensurable with something like Levitical/ceremonial law in that it subsists as a cornerstone of catechetical training (especially moral training) throughout all in ages in Holy Mother Church.

    Maybe though it’s as simple as understanding Wisdom Literature as a kind of partial revelation: Christ Himself is true Wisdom, and the disparity between the greatest fool and the wisest king is made as nothing on the level ground at the foot of the cross. Or something like that.. It’s hard to find good Patristic commentary on Wisdom literature, because I think historically it’s been understood as so “matter of fact”.

  53. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Aric – Regarding your #2 question, i have read from modern holy Elders that the primary purpose of our life is to praise God (ever a work in progress) and that in the Kingdom (after Christ’s Second Coming?) we will be able to do this with purity of heart like the Angels (unencumbered by sin). I could be completely wrong, but this is what I have come to understand. I look forward to Fr. Stephen’s answers.

  54. Karen Avatar

    I’m so sorry to read about your son’s friend. I lost one of my best friends when I was In high school to a winter auto crash. As I write, we have been told to expect about 8 more inches of snow tonight. Last summer one of my son’s friends lost his mom unexpectedly from side effects of cancer treatment. The next week a teen daughter of the owner of the Crossfit gym where he works out and did his Personal Trainer internship unexpectedly committed suicide. We returned from vacation a day early so he could attend both funerals that were on the same day. Very tragic and sobering…I’ll pray for your son’s friend and his family.

  55. Agata Avatar

    Karen, thank you…

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not certain about Wisdom literature extolling wealth, per se. I think it is rather the Biblical notion of prosperity (check translation problems). Prosperity means to have enough with something left over to share. The worldly virtues you describe, if run through a Christian filter, are fine. I.e. What do we mean by “honor.” Surely not the kind of honor that the world gives, etc.

    The life Christ secures for us is “zoe” not just everlasting life in the sense of non-ending. It is life that is the very life of God. Whether we will have any interests in building cities, etc., is speculative. I think the Fathers would point us towards pure theoria – the contemplation of God. That might seem boring…unless you’ve ever tasted it. Everything else would be of no value in comparison.

  57. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    How easily we fall into misunderstanding through our choice of words. In recent conversations with someone who was curious about Orthodoxy, I mentioned that there were places in the Bible that ought to be interpreted as allegorical, and the conversation ‘went south’ pretty quickly and I had to curtail further explanation to avoid conflict.

    The same happened again when I was told that the Orthodox faith doesn’t offer anything to society regarding democracy because, they said, it was a ‘hierarchal institution’. I attempted to go down the path in the conversation to reflect what was meant by democracy, and, again, ended up in an ‘unresolved’ and very brief conversation, on that topic. Glory be to God that my heart wasn’t engaged with the conflict of words and I managed to ‘bow out’. Nevertheless, it was a near miss that I didn’t become engaged in the conflict.

    Today I listened to your podcast ‘Getting to the Point’ which was very timely. I’ll need to listen to it again. And your last words to Aric is also pertinent to these experiences. Ultimately words cannot convey what I might attempt to describe as ‘abiding with Christ’ in contemplation. It is as you say, everything else is of no value by comparison. And there are no words, just The Word, unspoken.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    And such a Gift is given to us as needed for our salvation.

  59. Paula Avatar

    Agata…I will be praying for your people…so very sorry…

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I surmise that the folks you tried to engage were some brand of Protestantism that beleve only in the literal Word of God!

    See how quickly they become at least metaphorical by asking them about John 6: 53

    It is usually best to ask questions with these folks rather than make statements. Easy to forget in the moment however.

  61. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Very good advice, thank you Michael. I didn’t ask questions and I should have.

  62. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. It’s an all-too-obscure message that seems to fall on the deaf and dumb; I guess by that I am thinking of the ever propounding messages that the “pop” culture world is all there is, especially as given to us by the expanding media of our time. It’s good to have this blog in the middle of all of it. The latest driving-me-crazy moment is a friend posting the wisdom of Oprah Winfrey on Facebook, and Oprah’s admonition that the real secret of happiness is finding the self. Well, you know, Orthodox Christians and monastics would not disagree. The problem is when one leaves out the Mystery of the self, the ongoing adventure of faith that teaches us who we are, the communion that gives us that identity — and the mystery that this happens particularly through struggle. The same friend once remarked that daily reading the NY Times cover-to-cover is like the foundation of their reasonable life. As a former journalist, and one who presently many years later seeks a meaningful prayer life, I can only conclude about what is missing. The biggest chunk is what I believe you are speaking about. How does Christ ask us to go about bringing that news to the world? Surely in our care of others is one answer, but too often this is abstracted apart from faith — another tare in the field that looks good but isn’t the real thing. I remind myself that part of faith is to know it’s really not all up to me how this works 🙂

  63. Andrew Avatar

    “Neither physical well-being nor financial abundance are relevant for this journey, but only a willing and repentant heart.”

    Amen Amen Esmee. Such a beautiful revelation. So easily do we determine our own value in the things of this world, in our accomplishments, our abilities, our work, etc that when we suddenly lose any of these, we suddenly suffer a loss of identity and meaning. Indeed, only a “willing and repentant heart” is what we need. Only then, in the deepest throes and depths of our hearts, can we truly find how God sees us and from whom our true value comes.

    Thank you for your words Esmee.

  64. Debbie Avatar

    Success for some is getting through another day.

  65. John Avatar


    This may be old news, but have you watched or listened much to Jordan Peterson’s videos? He’s a religiously unaffiliated clinical psychologist/professor in Toronto who’s gained quite a bit of fame in the past year for his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns in the face of Canada’s newly adopted federal regulations to do so. He works within a chaos vs order narrative, and provides a marvelously refreshing voice on any number of hot button social issues. I mention him here because I think his thoughts on the meaning of life intersect decently well with your discussion of progress and success in the Christian life. Granted, Peterson would likely have us be far more “active” in the world for the purposes of righting it than you suggest is good; but his first step is abandoning the notion that the aim of life is happiness, and changing our aim instead to meaning – which has everything to do with suffering.
    (I hasten to add that watching Jordan Peterson videos can be quite a deep rabbit hole to fall into!)

  66. Byron Avatar

    I’m a fan of Jordan Peterson, although he is not Orthodox. He has the necessary guts to speak out loudly against the nonsense that is gender politics and that is rare in today’s world.

  67. Confused in Tennessee Avatar
    Confused in Tennessee

    Agreed. He is not Orthodox by a long shot but he is greatly influenced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and focuses on meaning rather than utility. This may not be perfectly Orthodox, but it could well serve to introduce many people to Orthodoxy who might not consider it otherwise. In a world in which so many wish to shout down the timeless values of the gospel, it is refreshing to see an academic who at least argues we should be respected and taken seriously.

  68. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you, John, Byron, and Confused, I’m going to look into his writing. Fr Stephen, do you have comments to offer on his work?

    Michael, or others who might like to help, will you suggest a delicate way to explain to RC family why I cannot accept RC communion. Last time I attempted to explain, there was a negative response and misunderstanding. It is clear to me regarding the theology and life of communion and yet I get stuck for words to explain this, I think my lack is related to my own entry into Christianity was through the Orthodox faith, lacking experience to be able to speak about other practices, lifeways, and theology.

  69. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    That is confusing to me as well. We are not allowed, by the RC church, to take communion in a Protestant church because our belief in transubstantiation is not shared by those churches. However, we are allowed to take communion in an Orthodox church because it shares the RC belief in transubstantiation. That would seem to make it permissible for an Orthodox to take communion in an RC church. It would also seem to make it permissible, from the point of view of the Orthodox church, for an RC to take communion in an Orthodox church.

    But it is my understanding that the Orthodox prohibit the taking of communion by the Orthodox in any church other than an Orthodox church, and that the Orthodox ask all non-Orthodox to refrain from taking communion in an Orthodox church, even the RC.

    I do not understand.

    Perhaps Father or Nichols can help us. I hope they do.

  70. Byron Avatar

    But it is my understanding that the Orthodox prohibit the taking of communion by the Orthodox in any church other than an Orthodox church, and that the Orthodox ask all non-Orthodox to refrain from taking communion in an Orthodox church, even the RC.

    The simple answer is that Rome and the Orthodox are in schism; we are not in communion so sharing in the One Cup is prohibited.

    LTBS2016, The Orthodox do not share the Roman view of transubstantiation. There are many other differences as well and, while we share a significant past together, there is also a deep separation of which many are wary.

  71. Byron Avatar

    As a follow up note, Fr. Damick’s book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy presents a good outline of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

  72. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I appreciate your comment and the suggested reading. Given that my conversation with family will likely happen faster than my ability to do this reading, may I ask, is Transubstantian the primary focus of difference in theology? And how does one delicately say what the Orthodox believe that contrasts with the RC regarding the Eucharist?

  73. Alan Avatar

    Forgive me Dee, I think Byron’s first comment is the real key: We’re not in communion with Rome (since 1054 AD) and that’s the long and short of it. For me (and this is of course my lowly opinion) getting in the RC doctrine of transubstantiation would likely just go down a long rabbit trail.
    Many folks on this blog over the years, on a variety of topics, have made the point that often we attempt to explain too much and that itself leads to problems. Perhaps a simple statement of “I’m not partaking” just needs to be all that’s said. It’s funny, prior to probably 1960 here in America, the only people who could receive communion in just about any church of any stripe, were the actual members of that church.
    These are just my thoughts. Take them and $5 to your local Sbux and you can buy a fancy drink. Forgive me.

  74. Byron Avatar

    Dee, Transubstantiation is not the main difference between Rome and Orthodoxy; I would, in my only semi-educated way, say that it is probably well down the list, although not unimportant.

    I think Father, or someone much more knowledgeable than I, should answer your other question, concerning the Eucharist.

  75. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Ok, just did a search in the ancient faith blogs, and I’m a little confused again. Byron, if you have time, would you check out: https//

    I’m still a bit confused too.

  76. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Alan. What you suggested might be my only recourse. But I was asked for an explanation and after an attempt to explain theology which was challenged , I ended up saying succinctly that we were not in communion and that I would be excommunicated. That statement got me into hot water fast, too.

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The article on ancient faith is spot on in its accuracy.

    Here’s a problem. Many Catholics are taught that they should not take communion in a Protestant Church because the Protestants do not believe in transubstantiation. I suspect that this is incorrect, but is used as a handy, quick way to explain things. RC’s may not receive communion in the Orthodox Church (no matter what their own group tells them) because, in the Orthodox Church, communion requires that we be in true union: in faith, practice, ecclesiology, etc. We have not been in communion with each other since the 11th century (more or less) and, in many ways, the distance has grown over the centuries.

    The Orthodox indeed believe the Eucharist to truly and really be the Body and Blood of Christ. We are “Realists” in that matter, as was the universal Church of the early centuries. Later discussions and developments in the West generated the doctrine of transubstantiation (using the categories of Aristotle). The Orthodox have never used such categories and prefer not to. You will, however, find Orthodox documents that use the term to make it clear that we believe it is truly Christ’s Body and Blood. Those same documents, however, make it clear that we do not necessarily endorse the technical meaning of transubstantiation – because it says something that we think cannot be said.

    Were there ever a reunion with Rome (something I do not see at all in the future), the nature of the Eucharist would probably not be an issue – it never was in the historical and formal disagreements with each other. Of interest, though, is the fact that the Orthodox thought the use of unleavened bread by the West was problematic (we use leavened bread, only). But that’s another whole matter.

    Much of all of this has to do with the Orthodox understanding of what it means to be Church and what it means to be in communion. The notion of sharing “communion” with another Church is an impossible notion. There is only One Church (cf. the Nicene Creed) and cannot be two. The share communion would be to say that whoever it was we were sharing it with is also “us.” And that would, at present, not be true.

    We should love one another, and not beat each other up, much less engage in triumphalistic arguments.

    But, for the Orthodoxy, the Cup is the Church and the Church is the Cup. It is all, everything, totally, completely, etc. There can be no partial communion. That would be a self-contradiction.

    I’m very short of time this afternoon. Perhaps tonight I can say more.

  78. Byron Avatar

    I’m still a bit confused too.

    Dee, please forgive me for causing any confusion. My understanding of the issue around transubstantiation is that the Orthodox lean towards the mystery of the Eucharist and Rome leans towards a much more detailed explanation. Hence, the difference is really in the root of the viewpoint, not in the understanding that the Eucharist is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ. I think the article you posted does point this out but offers a much more nuanced view of the issue. Again, forgive me for causing confusion and thank you for the article, which has assisted in my own understanding.

  79. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Andrew – I’m glad my words resonated and spoke to your heart. Glory to God!

  80. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you so much Fr Stephen. This was helpful.

  81. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I need to thank you Byron, if you hadn’t have mentioned Fr Damick’s book, I wouldn’t have connected with that blog. I’m out of my depth when it comes to theology and appreciate your suggestions and commentary along with Fr Stephens comment and clarification.

    Fr Stephen, if you have more to say, I would definitely be interested.

  82. Aric Avatar

    To press the question further: what does its mean to contemplate? I don’t think the contemplation of God is passive, in fact, it may be the most active thing we can do. It’s probably best to say, “we don’t know what it means to obtain Beatific vision” and leave it at that, but considering he makes us in His image, and that He Himself is a creative being, it follows that our beholding of Him manifests as a kind of creative endeavor. The angels, for example, eternally sing His praise. The construction of a song, like the construction of a city, like the construction of a game… we were made to make, and I believe that is how we may behold.

    Think of a time in your life when you began to really know someone or something. It does not consists in a kind of passive consumption, but an active interplay between subjects.

  83. Dino Avatar

    the utter internal reorientation of repentance is -ultimately – the cause (the active part that is ours) of contemplation.
    However, God is the one Who causes all causes whether we know of them consciously or not.

    In a nutshell, we could say to any person: to the degree that you live in repentance, to that degree the Kingdom of Heaven has already come for you.

  84. Aric Avatar


    Indeed, but I was speaking more of what it means to live, and what life-eternal consists of. The idea that contemplation is only a kind of static or comatose gaze seems to run contrary to our very nature. Or, to use your words, living in repentance manifests as a kind of endeavor, and such a life is probably infinitely varied and infinitely creative. I was speculating earlier that it may even be competitive, but it would have to be a perfected and charitable competition.

  85. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    Thank you, Father, for your explanation of the difference in RC and Orthodox attitudes towards the Eucharist. I am troubled by the seemingly incessant RC need to explain everything. Scholasticism, I guess.

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think many Catholics would prefer a more Orthodox approach. They have a historical legacy in scholasticism that still haunts them (or so it appears to me). There was a scholastic period in Orthodoxy, but it disappeared. The Hesychasm of the monastics largely displaced it. That, and the collapse of Byzantium.

    It would be healthy for us to consider the role the East played in the problems that we label “Western.” The Renaissance was largely a product of displaced artists and scholars from Byzantium settling in Italy. And there was a lively cross-fertilization in the scholasticism of the early 2nd millennium. History is extremely complex. We share a common root – and, if we cherry-pick things a bit – we still have much in common.

  87. Agata Avatar

    Your comment that “The Renaissance was largely a product of displaced artists and scholars from Byzantium settling in Italy.” reminded me of the Amazon show “Sophia” which you recommended recently. Thank you so much for that, it was a beautiful film to watch, even if a bit too graphic in a few places (my first ever “binge watching” experience, LOL).

    Dino and Father,
    “to the degree that you live in repentance, to that degree the Kingdom of Heaven has already come for you”
    What does it truly mean to live in repentance? Surely it is much more than the narrow meaning of being sorry most of us associate with this English word… I know this may be too big a question to answer in a short comment, but if anybody can do it, you and Father Stephen can… 🙂

  88. Byron Avatar


    Fr. Damick’s latest blog post (homily) is helpful in considering how we live in repentance.

  89. Paula Avatar

    Very helpful article by Fr. Damick, thanks. I find it interesting, and not surprising, that time after time I need to be instructed in the same teachings, in the hope that these truths will go from the head to the heart…from the intellect to the soul. It seems like a great barrier, impossible to penetrate, but this is not the case. It’s just take a lot of time, faith, and perseverance. If there was one perfect example of “works”, it would have to be the work of repentance. It takes action. Father Damick describes it well. I am really glad he shared his experience concerning Elder Aimilianos. No coincidence that he was referred in our previous talks about the meaning of Love vs attachment.

    I surely appreciate that you dig deep for answers to the call to live “in” eternal life…what it means and how we do it. I do that quite often myself. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share with you my thoughts, in hope that it will help somewhat in answering your question…and also your comments about contemplation.
    I recall the words of Christ that address the question of what is eternal life”…”This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Jn 17:3. That is the basic answer, full of truth. Further, the Church has taught us, through the experience of those gone before us, who have even gone through much persecution in defense of these teachings, on the “how” of eternal life. On the impact of contemplation and its role in living life “in the Spirit” Saint Gregory Palamas and all who came after him come to mind. Fr. Damick (in the above link)…and Dino, have suggested to you that “If you live in repentance, then the Kingdom of Heaven has already come [eternal life]” This is a quote from another Elder, Fr. Serapion, who I trust knows more about these deep issues of the heart than we do. That those who live lives of holiness by the means of contemplation tells me that this way of life is not in any way a “static or comatose gaze” but rather is continuously sought and developing in a “personal” way throughout our lives, as you imply.
    In our search for answers, we are usually dealing to some degree with an element of doubt. So we learn both sides of the issue, in hope of and not short of revelation (!) that will lead us to the truth. I’d like to give you and example where I had faced an important decision. Upon entering into Orthodoxy, I came from another faith that taught that the Virgin Mary was not a virgin and was used merely as a “vehicle” to bear the Son of God, that did not pray to Saints, that did not light candles, pray to icons, etc etc. So from the very beginning, after a lot of research but not yet “in” the Church, I knew I that what I had been taught could not be right, because the faith I knew was dead…it was just plain dead. I decided the Orthodox must be right, because what do I know…I’m just searching…and I prayed and literally begged God to lead me. So when I went to Church, I prayed to and venerated Mary, because that’s what the Orthodox do…I lit candles, because that’s what the Orthodox do…I prayed to the Saints, because that’s what the Orthodox do. And in time it became part of me…now I do it not because it is what “they” do, but because I have learned from those who know a heck of a lot more than me and whom I trust, and it slowly becomes integrated into my very being. So Aric, forgive my many words…I can’t help it! But as your search for answers, I encourage you to look to those who have given answers, that have godly knowledge that we do not have and who turn to us and lead us…to the “how” of eternal life, to “how” contemplation is done…lots is written on this. Pray that God lead you…the Spirit leads to all Truth. Please don’t make it complicated by “over thinking” … or when you over-think, look to those who know better. Then contemplate….!!

  90. Dino Avatar

    Elder Aimilianos made a great deal of the notion (spoken pretty unequivocally by Saint Symeon the New Theologian), that, for true believers, (i.e.: those who have truly repented [ “re-orientated their entire being towards God” is a good way to define repentance btw Agata]), there will be no Second coming!: it has happened already for them, they live it now, they are in the Kingdom now (to the extent that they repent, understood as explained above).

    Aric, there is nothing static in the continuous revelation of the infinite God to his beloved, e.g.: the angels might seem to simply exclaim: “Holy! Holy! Holy!”, continuously, and we might think that gets tedious, but, just as one who constantly walks through new and wondrous rooms in some magnificent museum keeps repeating ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’ and there is nothing static or boring for them –quite the opposite– think of something similar but inconceivably more lofty about those to whom God reveals more and more and more of Himself…

  91. Agata Avatar

    Wow! Wow! Wow!

  92. Roman Glass Avatar
    Roman Glass

    As always, you blog helped me in my momentary slip of faith. Thank you Father.

  93. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for your balanced and fair-minded comments about relations between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.

    If you have not yet read this book, you might find it interesting, since the author touches on various points that you mention often in your writings. He even traces the roots of the current problems that the Catholics face to developments in the Catholic Church after the Great Schism, and openly expresses his admiration for the Eastern Orthodox:

    The Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church (T&T Clark Studies in Fundamental Liturgy) – by Geoffrey Hull

    -NSP (a Roman Catholic)

  94. Confused in Tennessee Avatar
    Confused in Tennessee

    Hi NSP. It is very good to see Catholics of good will participating in the discussion. A warm and brotherly welcome to you.

  95. Dimitar Koparov Avatar
    Dimitar Koparov

    Father, somehow when I was reading this I was thinking of you and some of the things I have read in the blog.

  96. Brandon Avatar

    Father, for the New year, would being more content or focused on salvation be an appropriate “goal”? Could you think of any other way to state something to focus on that doesn’t succumb to the modern tendency towards progress (even and especially moral progress)? Thank you

  97. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the best path is that which lives day by day (as Christ teaches in the Sermon on the Mount). We should not think of “getting better” in our spiritual lives, or “getting worse.” The Thief on the Cross was saved “in a single moment,” we sing. So, even if we have gone through a period of diminishment – our salvation is still “in a single moment.” This is the only path of peace – to live as free as possible from anxiety, trusting the good providence of God – seeking Him in each moment and throughout the day. More than that is a distraction.

  98. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father – Thank you for your last comment to Brandon. It reminded me that my only New Years resolution should be to ignore the calendar and just take it one day at a time.

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I struggle to do the day-to-day thing. I think it is only by embracing the providence of God, the confidence in His goodness in all things, that makes it possible. Sometimes my brain feels like it is wired to tomorrow. I pray for God to cut the wires.

  100. Dean Avatar

    This little saying is from a school poster l had up. ” Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery, the present…gift.”

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