Mystery as Reality

C.S. Lewis once discussed the question of how angels (and such things) could pass through a wall. His response was intriguing: he suggested that they could do so not because they were less substantial, but because they were more substantial. Just as a rock is more substantial than water or air, so, he posited, an angel (or such) is more substantial than our materiality. Of course, this is completely arguable and unprovable. But it is a useful image for thinking about another aspect of reality, that which the Church describes as “mystery.” Our tendency in thinking about anything we do not see in an obvious manner is to assume that it is either fictional or notional, that is, nothing more than an idea. This accounts for contemporary treatments of the sacraments as “memorials” and the like. Anything we cannot “touch” is just an idea.

To a certain extent, this treatment includes not only sacraments, but God Himself. The “God of our understanding,” easily becomes nothing more than an understanding. The radical claim of the Orthodox faith (and of classical Christianity in general) is that the “mystery” of the Kingdom of God is the very ground and meaning of what is “real,” while that which we see and touch is ephemeral and contingent, lacking in any ultimate reality.

 …for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)

There is a kind of “sacramentality” that describes many contemporary Christians who practice what outwardly appears to be classical Christianity. The forms are preserved, but the mind that accompanies them has embraced the less-than-real attitudes towards what lies beneath the surface. Our culture is permeated with “sentimentality,” the idea that what I feel (or think) about something is what matters. The things about which we think or feel only matter in that they are the occasion for our thinking and feeling. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is, however, utterly contrary to this approach.

Christ proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is not some “later” event for which we still wait. It was inaugurated in His own coming: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Neither was Christ announcing a process, the beginning of a project which He was delegating to His Church. The mystery of the Kingdom of God is not the work of human beings, nor part of a historical process. The Kingdom of God is whole and complete and always has been (and it cannot be otherwise).

This is utterly essential in understanding the proclamation of the gospel as well as its place in our lives (or, rather, our lives’ place within it). The Kingdom of God is hidden and revealed – it comes by revelation, by manifestation, by in-breaking, by uncovering. It was hidden from the beginning, and always existed from the beginning in its fullness. It is important to understand – the Spirit of God is only ever in fullness. We are “filled” with the Holy Spirit. He is “everywhere present and filling all things.” Fullness is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom. If we see something of it in part, it is not because the Kingdom is in part, but only that the fullness has not been made manifest.

This is important, for it speaks to the very position of our standing with regard to the Kingdom and the fundamental orientation of our Christian existence. Modernity has taught us to think in terms of process, evolution, and temporality. We imagine ourselves as creators and initiators. Too many (even among the Orthodox) imagine our “cooperation” (synergy) with God to be a mutual contribution to a common product. But the “product” of the spiritual life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit itself. We can contribute nothing to that end.

Theosis (divinization) is the stated end and purpose of the Christian life. This is, according to St. Maximus, becoming “uncreated by grace.” There is nothing that the created can do to make itself uncreated. This is solely a work of God. When we speak of “cooperation,” we properly are describing our acceptance of a completed work, not an addition to something unfinished. Misunderstanding this has contributed to a growing Pelagianism within contemporary thought.

The sacraments point unmistakably to the completed reality of the mystery of the Kingdom. A typical prayer in the Baptismal service says:

O Lord, through holy Baptism, You have given to Your servant remission of sins, and have bestowed upon him (her) a life of regeneration. Likewise, the same Lord and Master, ever graciously illumine his (her) heart with the light of Your countenance. Maintain the shield of his (her) faith unassailed by the enemy. Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

In the same manner, the Divine Liturgy is filled with references to a completed work, often stating things that we think of as future as though they were past:

It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.

This is a very strange grammatical construction. “We have been brought up to heaven [past] and endowed [past] us with the kingdom which is to come [future].” This is the “eschatological” nature of the faith. That which is to come has come into the world and made us already what we shall be.

The fundamental orientation in such a life is towards our salvation as gift. God gives, we receive. It is why our life should be primarily marked by thanksgiving, always and for all things.

There are subtle distortions that take us away from this manner of life. It is common for us to conceive of God as giving us grace (help) so that we can do this thing or that and become this thing or that. And the emphasis becomes our own doing, with God reduced to an auxiliary position. It is a path of anxiety, failure, and despair.

The Pharisees were champions of this approach and excelled in exercising themselves in everything they thought of as good. At the same time, they became angry that tax-collectors and harlots were freely given even more than they themselves had accomplished. In the end, they sought to destroy the Giver of gifts.

This understanding of the Kingdom of God as mystery, as the fully completed end of all things and yet presently entering our life and our world, is absent from contemporary Christian thought. It has been lost and replaced with historicized chronologies that exalt historical process over Christian eschatology. Indeed, “eschatology” itself has been changed to mean “things that happen at the end of time” (often complete with Darbyite nonsense). The Kingdom of God has been moved off-planet and has become synonymous with a “heaven” that exists somewhere else, and, at best, will come here only at the end of time. This is not the Christian faith as revealed by Christ and preached by the Apostles.

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is real and true – indeed, it is the ground of reality and truth. We are plunged into it in Baptism and eat and drink it in the Eucharist. The whole of the Christian life is properly shaped by its presence. Our salvation is nothing other than its manifestation and revealing within us.

I think of St. Paul’s words:

Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. (Col. 4:2-3)

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.


54 responses to “Mystery as Reality”

  1. Dino Avatar

    “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal”. (2 Cor. 4:18) Saint Paul indirectly sheds light to the crucificial aspect of Mystery here, since the ‘unseen’, eternal life is to be found in ‘seen’, transient death.
    I often think that the depths of all mystery cannot be fathomed without speaking about the crux of it all: the paschal Cross of Christ.
    Time and eternity, human wretchedness and God’s magnificence, the temporal with the everlasting, death and life, all become linked through the mystery of the Cross.
    In light of this key to all mystery in the Christian life (i.e.: of the Cross), death -as Man’s true birth into the Kingdom- also becomes the crux of the mystery of life! But this, as you insightfully say Father, contains our “cooperation,” only as an ‘acceptance’ of a completed work, not an addition to something unfinished.
    Does not our Saviour enter true life through His death? Indeed, at the peak of self-emptying -as He utters ‘God, why have you forsaken me?’ – is His entry, as Man, into the pre-eternal glory of the Father  – ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ .
    Christ does not trample death after His death but with His death.
    And the final, personal ‘appropriation’ of this gift is completed for each one of us followers of Christ with our individual death: the inescapable offering of ourselves back into the Father’s hands (which however ought to be utterly voluntary and desirable for a true Christian [Philippians 1:23]). This holds true from the first death, of Abel, to the last. It is in death that God “takest away our breath and we return to our dust” and then “He sends His Spirit and we are created and He renews the face of the Earth.” [Psalm 103/104] The formation of man by God with “the dust of the ground”, and then the “breathing into his nostrils of the breath of life” in Genesis 2 is but a foreshadowing of this ultimate ‘re-formation’ of man, an inconceivably profound mystery.
    It’s noteworthy that, since this gift of the resurrection and life eternal to all has been granted us through the death and ‘unseen’ descent into Hell of Christ, we could easily comprehend how very wrong it would be if icons of Christ’s descent into Hell, the putative Orthodox image of the Resurrection and Pascha, had ‘Christ’s Resurrection’ written, instead of the correct inscription: ‘The Resurrection’: applying to the entire creation.

  2. Byron Avatar

    The picture at the top is glorious!

  3. Dino Avatar

    *Perhaps I could have added that my reading of your article Father, this ‘week of the Cross’ in Orthodox Lent, is clearly affected by the theme of the Cross …

  4. Jon Boatwright Avatar
    Jon Boatwright

    It is this Mystery as reality/life that drew me to the Orthodox Church. I hoped to find Contemplative minds but haven’t. Perhaps we avoid mystery because we don’t know what to say or do about it to some extent. Thank you. Fr. Stephen, for your blog. If we miss the Contemplative dimension of the faith surely we miss it’s fullness.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not certain what you mean by contemplative minds… It might depend on how you’re thinking about that. I frequently encounter people who are indeed perceiving the mystery and “leaning into it,” but often without much of a vocabulary for it. The larger part of this perception is found in the liturgical life and sacraments of the Church. “Contemplation, contemplative,” etc. are not terms commonly found in Orthodox circles, in my experience. It goes by other names.

  6. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    There is much in this post to reflect upon. How tragic it is that we have been led down the wrong path in our education and have to relearn to think, but the good news is that we can by God’s Grace begin to see the reality in the Mystery.

  7. Justin Avatar

    Who is the artist of the introductory picture. It’s quite lovely.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alexander Prostev (I think) from a series on the life of St. Xenia of Petersburg.

  9. David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016 Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016

    Father – Is acceptance of the Mystery the purpose of hesychasm?

  10. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Col.1:13 gets to this point also, “…He has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” An aspect of “already, not yet.” The wonderful Protestant theologian, George Eldon Ladd, spoke of these 2 aspects of the kingdom of God in his book, The Presence of the Future, which I read over 40 years ago.
    Yes, we Orthodox use our own vocabulary. Someone mentioned, “contemplative.” I’ve read that a lot in Catholic authors. An Orthodox word that stuck in my craw for a long while is, “clairvoyant.” I had previously only associated this term with seances, etc., in those attempting to communicate with the dead. “Praise God,” is not used nearly as often as, “glory to God,” in Orthodox circles. And even words such as “faith” would mean one thing to an Orthodox, have a different nuance with an evangelical and yet another very different meaning for a Mormon.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen for another excellent article.
    Dino, your reference to the Psalm is a good reminder. I think I heard Fr. John Behr first mention this distinction there of the 2 creations of man.

  11. Dino Avatar

    I heard him reference this psalm in this way too. Elder Aimilianos made this reference before too.

  12. Karen Avatar

    “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
    Colossians 3:1-4 (NKJV)

    “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
    1 John 3:2 (NKJV)

    Thank you for these recent posts, Father.

    When I was Evangelical, Scriptures like those you have offered in this post and those I quote above were used to expound this “now and not yet” aspect of our sanctification in Christ. The Evangelicals and Pentecostals I knew were certainly reaching for this same reality, but being derailed in their understandings and explanations by modern Reformed notions of “positional” vs. “practical” (or actual) righteousness, etc. The end result was it always ended up sounding like St. Paul was advocating a salvation-as-legal-fiction, mind over matter (a sort of “fake-it-till-you-make-it”) approach to working out one’s salvation. It was an aspect of the Scriptures and the Christian life I found deeply confusing—it never did quite compute for me. It certainly wasn’t working to give me a coherent understanding of the Scriptures and life in Christ. I would have to wait for Orthodoxy to give me the sacramental and dogmatic framework both for a coherent paradigm for understanding the Scriptures and for the practical tools in the spiritual disciplines for effective application of the teaching.

  13. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You and I both see the error in the fake it till you make positional idea of salvation. When I was still a Protestant Pastor and I preached on salvation, someplace in the sermon I realized I was a) contradicting myself in a way and b) talking in circles. I would head home after preaching and restudy my text books on the subject and see I was repeating almost word for word the teachings in them. That is when I realized that it was not the Truth. It propelled me even faster into conversion. Now I see no contradictions or circle talk in Orthodox Theology.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nicholas, Karen,
    I encounter Orthodox who read the Scriptures in a Reformed manner, despite their profession of faith regarding the sacraments. I have been criticized for my assertions regarding the use of allegorical methods in reading Scripture, which is nothing other than discerning the mystery that is actually, really and truly hidden there. It’s a tiny minority, I’ll admit, but it’s sad to see an ignorance of our true inheritance.

  15. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Father, you say…

    “It is common for us to conceive of God as giving us grace (help) so that we can do this thing or that and become this thing or that. And the emphasis becomes our own doing, with God reduced to an auxiliary position. ”

    Practically speaking, how do we approach our life so as not to reduce God to an auxiliary position? Can you give us an example of how our prayer would sound/look/feel/be in order for us to know that we are placing God front and center?

    Thank you.

  16. Thomma Lyn Avatar
    Thomma Lyn

    Father bless. Thank you so much for these posts and for everything you do.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would think, on the whole, that the point of our prayer would be to gain God. Much of this is encompassed in the giving of thanks. But it is also in our longing for God Himself – this becomes the point of our existence. We serve others that we might serve Him. We yearn for Him within the icon of His image as we encounter them (people). It is also seen when we fail – that we simply brush ourselves off and start right back. Because God is the point, and not ourselves, my failure is minimized – He remains our stable rock.

    Just a few thoughts.

  18. matthew Avatar

    Father forgive me my precociousness, but awhile ago I made a comment about how scripted prayers meant more to me than they had when I looked at the world through my “Great Awakened” eyes.

    Esmee asked,
    “Can you give us an example of how our prayer would sound/look/feel/be in order for us to know that we are placing God front and center?”

    I find that for me, reading Orthodox prayers that have been received, collected, and vetted by tradition provide a very valuable way to place God front and center. The oldest ones – “Lord have mercy.”, and the Lords Prayer are no exceptions. My favorite, as I have said, is “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and forever unto ages of ages.” It gets to the glory and transcendence of the trinity, but can be a bit of a mouthful if you want something short. In those cases I go with something like, “Glory to God”. Sometimes I have to say it with gritted teeth. I try to pray the tradition – adding to that only when I feel I must.

  19. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, that helps. Most of the modern Elders I have read say that they never pray for specific things in this world, but for qualities of soul like repentance, humilty, love, etc.

    Thank you Matthew – I do pray the nany wonder prayers that have been given to us through the holy Fathers. Interestingly, when i first cane to Christ and Orthodoxy, I coukd not read them without laughing. They sounded bizarre and I felt so insincere while trying to read them. But, over time, just being in the Church services, something shifted in my heart and now I miss them if I don’t pray them for a few days. The Jesus Prayer always was and is doable and remains my fallback prayer so-to-speak. But as you point out, there are many other short prayers from the Divine Liturgy or the Psalter that we can pray as well. I often find myself repeating “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”

  20. jacksson Avatar

    Father, you stated

    “To a certain extent, this treatment includes not only sacraments, but God Himself. The “God of our understanding,” easily becomes nothing more than an understanding. The radical claim of the Orthodox faith (and of classical Christianity in general) is that the “mystery” of the Kingdom of God is the very ground and meaning of what is “real,” while that which we see and touch is ephemeral and contingent, lacking in any ultimate reality. The opposite is the case.

    …for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)

    I am having trouble with “The opposite is the case.” seems like it should be written between “understanding. The radical claim” above. Maybe I am reading it wrong.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the practice of the Elders is wise. There are things, however, usually for others – that it is good to intercede for. When I do that, I offer an Akathist (most often). Most often, the Akathist to the Mother of God. Lately I’ve used the Akathist to Jesus Lightener of Darkness written by Fr. Lawrence Farley. It applies very much to many of the things I’m praying for on behalf of others. Probably my single most important prayer is the Divine Liturgy. I know I enjoy a frightful privilege to stand at the altar in the intimacy of the Liturgy and whisper names to God. Though, all of us, in the Liturgy can do the same wherever we are standing. There are icons within the Church that I am drawn to and find myself whispering to them (outside of the service). I have no understanding about the mystery of intercessory prayer. I know that it is important and have thoughts about why. Mostly, I think it is good to do it. It draws our heart out into the open and I think God likes that.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. When I was proofing the article it seemed awkward to me. I should have followed my gut and changed it. I’ll see what I can do.

  23. jacksson Avatar

    Father, I like your statement “There are icons within the Church that I am drawn to and find myself whispering to them (outside of the service).”

    When my wife and I first became Orthodox, we visited the Joy of All Sorrows ROCOR Cathedral in San Francisco with our then priest, Fr. Jonah Paffhausen (now Metropolitan) . We venerated Saint John and then wandered around the church looking at the wonderful icons. When we were outside the church, my wife said, “Father, who was the saint in the icon . . . I felt such a feeling love.” and then described the location of the icon. He responded, “that was Saint Barbara”, my wife’s name. I too and especially my wife, are drawn to the icons.

  24. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    Thank you for this.

  25. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I was drawn by your question about how to put God front and center instead of giving Him an auxiliary position. You later described how at first Orthodox prayers were bizarre for you but over time something shifted in your heart and you were able pray them with sincerity. I believe it is a similar shift which must happen for God to be front and center.

    Many of us still carry a Protestant/Western idea that we are just kind of dropped here on this earth, and though we can ask God for help, it’s really on us to make things happen. A familiar image is a special group of soldiers being drop-shipped to some location to complete a mission. They have radio communication with headquarters and can request things like an evacuation or a drop of supplies, but really they’re on their own. Headquarters can assist but they aren’t there with you. You are the driving force.

    This is opposite of the truth. Just as angels are more real than our world (and therefore able to walk through our walls), so is God actually MORE at the scene than we are. We are the ones assisting Him in an auxiliary way. This revelation is humbling but it also relieving as the world is taken off our shoulders.

    If you have never read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, it’s a wonderful story that explores these kinds of ideas.

  26. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Drewster2000 – Great analogy. I guess this is also part of us creating a “two-storied” universe, when is really only one story, as Fr. Stephen discusses. No, I have not read anything by CS Lewis, but that sounds like a good place to start.

  27. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Drewster2000 – here is a wonderful quote by Mothet Gavrilia that speaks to the reality of us being God’s auxiliary helpers, rather than the other way around…

    Be very careful on the subject of gratitude. Never expect gratitude from others. It is you who must be grateful, immensely grateful. When you become conscious of that, you will have God’s blessing. Do you know why? Because when God wants to help someone – you, for example – He will send somebody to do it. This somebody could be anyone. That is to say, if God had not sent this particular person, He would have sent another one. You would have been helped anyhow. “My help is from the Lord.” Who am I, therefore – this “anyone” – to take pride in helping? Sometimes we hear someone say, “If it weren’t for me, this could not have been done.” And other such nonsense. Whereas everything would have been done!

    ~Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love, p. 213.

  28. Agata Avatar

    Esmee and Drewster,

    Such (great) questions as Esmee asked always remind me of how Fr. Tom Hopko in his last years of teaching was on a mission to remind us all that “Church is about God” (and not about us)…

    Here is one more thing to read again, in case you have not done it in some time – I come back to this article of Fr. Stephen’s often, even if I discovered the blog many years later…

  29. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Esmee ,

    Thanks for that great quote. It is SO true. But I think her opening statement (Never expect gratitude from others. It is you who must be grateful, immensely grateful.) sounds totally unattainable to a person who is still in the mindset that they are the ones on the ground and God is in the background. Only when we go on to read the rest of the quote and begin to understand that we are the ones waiting in the wings – supporting and being supported – does it hold meaning and give hope.

    I should add that this mindset shift doesn’t happen overnight. God can bring it about any number of ways, but He is always faithful to give us good things we ask for. I think the best way to attain it is to ask for it – a prime example of what we’re talking about; by nature we are in the position of receiving, not giving. When we give, it is simply done as an imitation of what we’ve seen and experienced.

  30. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful story, Jacksson!

  31. NSP Avatar

    The paragraph about subtle distortions and the next one regarding the Pharisees are both pure gold!

    Please continue to develop this theme, Fr. Freeman!


  32. Sophia Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    You said-

    “There are subtle distortions that take us away from this manner of life. It is common for us to conceive of God as giving us grace (help) so that we can do this thing or that and become this thing or that. And the emphasis becomes our own doing, with God reduced to an auxiliary position. It is a path of anxiety, failure, and despair.”

    I do find myself praying in this way, but I am asking for grace/help to be what I thought God wanted me to be? Or to do what He wants me to do? I must be doing something wrong, as I am more familiar with the anxiety, failure and despair… I know that I still tend to think that I must attain theosis BEFORE being loved, so there is that explanation… I would just greatly appreciate if the above could be expounded upon.

  33. Byron Avatar

    Sophia, if it helps, I typically pray to be granted humility, love for my neighbor, and personal repentance. And then I go an live life, hopefully with that grace. It focuses me on my own heart instead of my trials or goals.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t pray for those in need, in distress, in trial, etc. But I usually pray that God will bring them close to Him during those times and leave the rest to Him (and when I am in trial I pray this way for me as well). I try to pray out of love for them, not for a stated goal for them (other than being close to God). Just my thoughts and perhaps I do these things because I am simple….

  34. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Byron – that’s exactly the kind of prayer that the both the holy Fathers and modern Elders seem to have done and encourage us to do as well. Simple is good!

  35. Paula Avatar

    Father Stephen, Bless!
    Thank you for these essays on “mystery”, which are so very helpful. You put into words these concepts that are hard to explain, yet for many of us who came from Protestantism it is the very thing that was so greatly missing.
    You begin by pointing out that sentimentality is a prime reason why us moderns have difficulty seeing past the surface of just about any stated idea. I have more than occasionally run across the term “sentimentality” in Orthodox writings. I can not say that I fully understand its implications towards “right thinking” and “right believing”, but I know more now that when I first began. I do understand how it is said that sentimentality is not love, but rather love of ones ideas, ones feelings. It is fickle and lacks depth. And it is the exact approach that was employed in the two churches I was in for 12 or so years. (BTW, that was my experience…for those who have fond memories of their time in the Protestant churches, I am glad. But mine wasn’t fond. It wasn’t all bad, but it was far from enlightening, to say the least. Glory to Jesus Christ, it was in spite of it all that my eyes began to open to Him…since He is everything but an “idea”, a “thought”. I see it as nothing short of the power of His presence, of His fulfilling the desire of the Father, through the effectual working of the Spirit, in this love for us, that He reveals Himself to us everywhere, even in a dead church, so that we may partake of His divine nature. Yes, solely the work of the Spirit..we can do nothing.)
    So Father, back to sentimentality…I have been reading articles online as well as from the archives here. I am concerned that because our culture is permeated with sentimentality that I still easily fall into that mode of thought. My question is this:
    Based on your words elsewhere regarding the understanding of the mysteries, you say it takes time and patience. Now that we are learning the roadblocks that impede “right thinking”, is it correct to say that by our living an Orthodox life, our devotion or intent to press into the Kingdom in the present moment is the means of “revelation, manifestation, in-breaking, uncovering” the hidden and revealed? That we can not “make it happen” any other way but by “being there” ?
    Forgive me if I ask or state the obvious. It is one thing to learn intellectually, but another to incorporate this knowledge into our life as Orthodox Christians. This phenomenon of “sentimentality” is something that concerns me.
    Lastly, I just want to post a link to a very helpful article that addresses this issue, in case others would like to read:

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would suggest that our lives are best lived by “paying attention.” We do not have to achieve revelation or uncovering, etc. The Kingdom of God simply is doing what it does. So, yes, a kind of “being there” is important. Vladimir Lossky described faith (with a sort of outlandishly brilliant phrase) as “participatory adherence to the presence of Him Who reveals Himself.” What we are learning to do is to pay attention to God – but not in the manner of a dis-interested observer. We never “watch” God. What we see also involves a “participatory adherence.” That is we are personally investing ourselves in what we see and making it part of who we are (adherence).

    So, attending the Liturgy, suppose there is a moment of insight or when something of God becomes clear. One thing we do not do is suddenly back away and start examining our experience. That immediately removes us from what is happening and makes our own mind the object of attention. Instead, we “lean” into what we see – we give ourselves to it in some manner. For me, that often comes with the simple expression of the heart: “Glory to you, O God!” It is, after all, the point of encountering God: we worship Him, we give Him thanks.

    When the attention is directed towards God and not towards ourselves – it can stay healthy. We don’t have to take ourselves seriously. “Am I doing this right?” etc. We take God seriously – not ourselves. And always, if it becomes exhausting, take a break – have a cup of tea.

  37. Paula Avatar

    Thank you Father. I will remember Lossky’s phrase “participatory adherence”.
    So yes, in the unspeakable blessing of encountering God let us worship and give thanks, rather than have it dissipate in self-introspection. It is as you say “Our culture is permeated with “sentimentality,” the idea that what I feel (or think) about something is what matters” and “God gives, we receive. It is why our life should be primarily marked by thanksgiving, always and for all things.”.
    And the wise counsel to “take a break and have a cup of tea”…mmm, I’ve heard those words before 😉 !

  38. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful answer to Paula. It reminded me how Fr. Zacharias always emphasizes that even in the Liturgy, we recognize that God has already given us much more than He hasn’t given, and that is why we “worship and thank” Him three times [“we praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee] and we pray only once [“and we pray unto Thee, oh our God”].

    I think you are rightly concerned with the “sentimentality”… Maybe we all understand that a little differently, for me it was always being superficial and shallow and even legalistic in approaching anything religious. For me, it’s that difference between “lukewarm” vs “all fire”….
    And to that, I also found the answer in Fr. Zacharias’ teachings. I went looking through my notes and found these beautiful words, which I hope you will find helpful – for me, they are kind of an “explanation” of Father Stephen’s quote from Vladimir Lossky:

    (this is said about the writings of Fr. Sophrony on St. Silouan)
    “Zeal and desire for God are the central concern of our life [and for monks it implies the measure by which they assess their life]. To attain to this spiritual thirst, we should measure ourselves against God’s desire for us, as Saint Athanasius the Great writes in the life of Saint Anthony. He emphasizes that the Fathers of old in the desert did not measure their life by the number of years they had lived in the monastery or in the desert. But they measured themselves against the strength of their desire by which they presented themselves before God in prayer each day. Such was their criterion and not the number of prostrations or years of asceticism. So, desire for God is the measure of progress for our life.

  39. Paula Avatar

    Thank you once again for sharing your treasure trove of notes. These words struck me deeply:
    “Zeal and desire for God are the central concern of our life…To attain to this spiritual thirst, we should measure ourselves against God’s desire for us…they measured themselves against the strength of their desire by which they presented themselves before God in prayer each day”
    Now that is to me a measureless measure…to compare our desire for God against His desire for us! I don’t know what to say! As for participatory adherence, I suppose all we can do is present ourselves before Him, daily and in the Divine Liturgy, and say “here am I, Lord”. But I get your point Agata… although they are necessary in overcoming our weaknesses, it is not so much that acetic acts draw us closer to God but rather our longing to do so, to be one with Him. Because without that desire, shown in our willingness to engage with Him in prayer, our acts are quite meaningless, aren’t they? Reminds me of Jesus’ words ” For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
    Regarding “sentimentality”, I would say it absolutely includes being superficial, shallow and legalistic. My concern is the many forms it takes through the many ways we express ourselves. In other words, we can define it, but do we recognize it in our normal daily conversations? That is what I’d like to do, so I can at least recognize it and think about what I’m doing…and hopefully avoid falling into such a distorted thought process. It’s challenging because like Father said, our culture is permeated with this way of thinking and reacting. It certainly is not conducive to the search for truth!
    Again, thank you Agata. Your words are always a great help!

  40. Agata Avatar

    You are most kind in expressing your appreciation for what I post, but my words are always just a “copy and paste” from what I have received from others…
    I am thankful I can share with those who appreciate them, as I always appreciate it when others share.

    Your words “It’s challenging because like Father said, our culture is permeated with this way of thinking and reacting. It certainly is not conducive to the search for truth!”

    again remind me how Fr. Zacharias often says, very directly, that “this world is in enmity with God”… That we delude ourselves when we think we can love God and love this world. I know it’s hard to hear that, my whole being kicks and screams against this idea, especially (to give a concrete example) since I am a mother and how can I possibly love God more than I love my children…? But my children are not mine, they are God’s and the more I practice this truth, the more miracles I experience, even in my relationship with them.
    When I was looking for my notebook with the quotes, I also came across a book on my bookshelf called “Life’s Supreme Priority (Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize.)” by Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris.

    Fr. Anthony is a retired priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. He wrote many wonderful books, but this one is one of my favorite ones (unfortunately, it seems to be out of print on Amazon, and I don’t see it on, Fr. Anthony’s publishing company).

  41. David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016 Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016


    You said, “Fr. Zacharias often says, very directly, that ‘this world is in enmity with God’… That we delude ourselves when we think we can love God and love this world.” Yet, isn’t it true, as Fr. Stephen says, that “[God] is ‘everywhere present and filling all things’?”

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Zacharias is referencing James 4:4. It’s the ambiguity of “world.” If by “world” we mean “creation,” then God is truly everywhere present and filling all things. But “world” is sometimes used as a synonym for all that is in opposition to God. I’ve often wondered how I would translate those meanings in English (though in Greek they are the same word). I think I would likely reserve the word “world” for the negative – and “creation” for the other.Just thoughts.

  43. Agata Avatar

    I think it is one of those Orthodox paradoxes… 🙂
    I don’t know, I am trying to understand these things too, but especially figure out how to apply them practically to my life.
    I don’t like theories, they are not useful for me. I like examples of Saints, they show us in their lives how to love God in practice… It’s good to know that “God is everywhere present and fills all things”, but how do I make it into a practical response when my basement has flooded, or my kids did not do the chores I asked them to do? Maybe if I, at that moment, remembered to have that “zeal and fire for God” (and ‘the things that matter to God”), I would respond just a little better than I would otherwise?

  44. Dino Avatar

    ‘World’ in Greek means both ‘creation’, as well as what Saint John means when he says: ‘love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof’
    However, interestingly, ‘worldly’ the only word we have for ‘secular’.

  45. Agata Avatar

    Father and Dino,
    I remember reading somewhere once (or maybe hearing in a talk) that one of the early Fathers of the Church (I’m remembering St. Basil the Great) said something about the creation of the world in these terms: that Creation happened “through God removing Himself from it. That He sort of ‘stepped back’ (maybe it was about God the Father, when He sent forth God the Word)”… It was considered somewhat controversial, and yet very profound at the same time….

    Please delete this comment if you don’t think it belongs here. I just wanted to ask, this “idea” was presented in a very beautiful way that stayed with me all these years… I cannot remember where to find it again…

  46. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    that is something like the teaching of some Jewish mystics, though much later than St Basil. It’s not outside possibility that something of Judaism was passed along to the Fathers, who wrote it down in Christian terms. I can’t believe that God actually removes himself from creation, but it may “look like that” to us from our side. Father Stephen, please chime in!


  47. Paula Avatar

    Well, here’s my two cents on your question, Agata!
    Could what you heard have been said in reference to the Uncreated vs the created…that by God beings “wholly Other”, in that sense He is removed from His creation?

    Also, your comment about the importance of “how to love God in practice” is just so very….practical 🙂 ! That’s why all those notes you share are from the Saints! Really…I like to read both, the Saints plus “theory” (that is, all the other writings besides the Saints!). Most of the time I come away with the same questions as you state…how do I apply this with say difficult people, at work, family, traffic, long lines, etc etc. Maybe I should read more of the Saints, as I tend to lean toward the theological part pretty often!

  48. Paula Avatar

    opps, I meant “God being…”

  49. Agata Avatar

    Dana and Paula,
    Thank you both for your comments.
    Paula, I am sure the whole commentary was along the ways of what you said (the Uncreated vs the created), it was nothing strictly theological, more of a contemplation of the mystery of Creation: how does the infinite and immaterial give rise to the finite and material? (for sure there was no reference there to Jewish mystics, or any sense that “God removes himself from creation”).

    Let’s leave it at “Mystery as Reality”, or maybe “Reality as Mystery”… 🙂

  50. Paula Avatar

    Agata! Thank you so much! I almost missed your comment as I was engrossed in the current post (The Sins of a Nation)! I am only a third of the way into the first link where I found the phrase about God withdrawing Himself from creation:
    ” [The universe]…was created radically new, from nothing as is clearly affirmed for the
    first time in the Second Book of Maccabees 7:28, and as is implied in the two creation
    narratives in Genesis. The notion of “nothing” here is a kind of “limit” and suggests that
    God, who has no “beyond,” makes the universe appear by a kind of “self-withdrawal”:
    the location of the world is thus within the love of God, a love which is supremely
    inventive while at the same time it is sacrificial. To indicate this creative act which is
    reserved for God alone, the [Hebrew] Scriptures use the word “bara” as opposed to the
    word for being made or constructed. The universe springs from the hands of the living
    God Who sees that it is “tov,” that is, “good and beautiful.” Thus it is willed by God, it
    is the joy of his wisdom, and it exults in that reverential joyfulness which is described in
    the Psalms and in the cosmic passages of the Book of Job. Here the universe is described
    as “a musical ordering,” as “a marvelously composed hymn.” A father of the Church has
    called it “hymn, music, rhythm and change.” ”
    Indeed Agata…He is withdrawn in the sense of being the Author of creation…in His good will He “composed”, “stood back” and saw it is “good and beautiful”!
    Agata, thank you for posting these links…I will finish reading them and keep them in my “notes”! I also thank you for inadvertently bringing me back to thoughts of joy in the Lord, His goodness and nothing but good intentions for us all. Once I start pondering the extent of our sinfulness I really need the Grace of God to turn back to giving thanks for all things. It is so easy to fall into the trap of despair. Nevertheless we are called to accept these things in a “bright sadness”…in repentance and love for God and each other. Thank God for giving us the Lenten season each and every year to remind us to live this way!
    God bless you Agata! I can’t believe you found these links!

  51. Reid Avatar

    Regarding the two opposed meanings of cosmos/world in the Scriptures, I wonder if the two meanings appear because of the very tension Fr. Stephen’s original post addresses. Mystery is the reality of the creation, the medium and context whereby we enter into communion with God. But as fallen people we mostly have delusions that we mistake for the reality of the creation (e.g., the delusion that the evening news–including the commercials–is reality), whereby we shrink from God. Perhaps Scripture uses cosmos/world for the creation both as it is and as we falsely imagine it to be.

    As I recall, St. John Chrysostom takes a similar view of the Apostle Paul’s disparaging words about our “flesh” or our “sin nature” (two common translations of the same Greek word, I think). He carefully explains that there is nothing sinful about our flesh or our nature since they, like everything made by God, are good and since Christ, otherwise, could not have taken them on. Rather, he says (if I remember correctly) that when the Apostle uses this word, he is simply using it to talk about sin itself.

  52. Bessarion Avatar

    Coming from an evangelical background that embraces the “already, not yet” mentality, I think I am perhaps in a better position to start to grasp towards an Orthodox understanding of mystery and sacrament. While the “already, not yet” theology that embraces the in-breaking of the Kingdom into our world is a step in the right direction, it seems to stray into what Fr. Barnabas Powell (a former charismatic himself) would refer to as fire without a hearth. There is the “fire” of words of knowledge, moments of ecstasy, sometimes physical healing (sometimes not), the general expectation that God is going to do *something*. But without a sacramental hearth to put it in people get burned.

    Interestingly enough, even though Pentecostal/Charismatic/Spirit Filled/Whatever groups have no problem expecting limbs to grow back, or to get laid out every week at church, or to speak in strange sounds, there is still a skepticism that God could possibly allow us to ask those who have gone on to pray for us, or for us to pray for them. Or that the Flesh and Blood could possibly be actual. I suppose this is what @Karen meant by them being derailed by Reformed notions.

    In any case, thanks as always for a helpful post, Father, as I continue to explore this Orthodox thing.

  53. Karen Avatar

    Bessarian, “Fire without a hearth” is indeed an apt image for those aspects of Protestant faith that somehow seem incomplete or, full of promise, yet somehow fail to satisfy for the long term. At least, this was my experience as I traveled over the long course of my earlier Christian formation through several of its various strands. I found Protestantism also a bit like a patchwork quilt which seams will not hold—yet there are many very sound parts that prepare you well to recognize in Orthodoxy the “whole cloth” of coherence in the gospel we are all looking for. Welcome to the exploration of Orthodoxy. 🙂

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