A Full Life

What constitutes a full life? In a consumer culture, I would suppose a full life to be one of maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity. We like being happy. Would a full life include suffering? The answer to such questions, for Christians, are found in Christ Himself. Christ alone fulfills what it means to be truly human. So, what does that mean?

Christ does not flee from suffering. We are shown a number of occasions where He works well past the point of exhaustion in serving others. He does not turn away from the enjoyment of his friends. He was called a “drunkard and a wine-bibber” by his detractors. He fasted but understood that, for a time, His disciples could not fast. His life includes the story of His suffering and shameful death, which He bore for our sakes. It also includes the revelation of His unending love for His disciples made known in His resurrection. For Christians, the fullness of human existence can be no different.

There are no lives that meet the standards of modernity. Those lives that are marked by maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity are never free from suffering (though wealth can forestall many things). A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.

The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.

In the Genesis account, the man and woman exist in the Garden. It is an abiding image of an unfallen world prior to sin. There is neither punishment nor death in that place. But at the very heart of the Garden is a Tree that says, “No!” This Tree alone makes possible the self-denial that is synonymous with love. Everything else within the Garden brings enjoyment and satisfaction. As such, the Garden could be the breeding ground of pure self-interest – a colony of hell. Only the Tree whose fruit cannot be eaten makes the Garden into Paradise.

That Tree also represents every other person and thing in our lives. We are not placed into the world to consume one another. There are elements within every person and within every object that are forbidden to us. There are boundaries that must be regarded and respected. Without such boundaries, we would become all-consuming demons, devouring one another and everything around us. We would be transformed into narcissists of infinite proportions.

This is not to say that suffering itself is inherently good. There are terrible and tragic things within our world –  wounding, death-dealing enemies of the soul. But terrible and tragic things are many times willingly borne in what can only be described as a sanctifying manner.

Our theological grammar does not permit us to introduce the notion of the passions into the Godhead. But the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit carries this very self-emptying-existing-towards-the-other. The Father delights in the Son; the Son only does those things that He sees the Father doing; the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself; and so on. Everything about the Son is referred to the Father, and everything we would know of the Father is referred to the Son. Though such things are not normally associated with suffering, they have within them the same character as the suffering that is borne voluntarily.

It is possible to think of the Crucifixion as something required by human sin, and thus not somehow inevitable in and of itself. It could be said that had we not fallen, Christ would not have been Crucified. I think this is misleading. Nothing in God is changed in the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed.

Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.

More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.

To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.

 

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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252 responses to “A Full Life”

  1. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Simon!

  2. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Santosh Samuel,
    Thanks for sharing that video. Beautiful. Truth.

  3. victoria Avatar
    victoria

    Dino : if the life of the martyr is not in English yet could you maybe translate some of it and share it with us?

  4. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Victoria,

    here’s a little from his earlier life – it is a very long and very detailed account to translate in whole here:

    Father Elias Diamantidis was born in 1880 near Trebizond.
    His parents were poor but God fearing. His mother taught him the faith and died in 1888. His father remarried and took a barbarian and evil woman. This step-mother delighted in secretly torturing Little Elijah. She often hung him upside down in a tree for hours and watched his martyrdom coldly, while he was imploring her to the free him. She’d strip him and with a bunch of nettles beat his genitals. She would tie his genitals with a thread, causing unbearable pains, not only by tightening but also by the inability to urinate. She would also set his clothes on fire to see the child running terrified to put it out. All day she left him with no food, giving him only a tiny amount of dry bread. (This was the beginning of his great fasts that he endured throughout his life. When his father asked him in the evening, if he ate anything, his wicked mother answered: “I fed him, I fed him.”

    In all his tortures he never once complained. He never spoke a reproachful word about his evil step-mother. Because of all the suffering he endured with total forgiveness of his perpetrators, Elias received from a small child abundant aunt Grace.
    Later, when his father died, and his step-mother, aged now, had the fear that Elijah would take revenge for what she had done to him. He was reassuring her however: “Do not be afraid my dear mother, I will look after you well”. She stayed in the bed and Elijah let no one else care for her. He loved her with authentic love, washed her, offered her everything. In place of the “gall” she had given him he “offered manna”, “instead of the vinegar water”;
    she would say, “Elijah, I was such a tyrant! How I traumatized you! Can you forgive me, my child,” and he always said to her: “Do not worry, mother, you are already forgiven.”

    He later had six children and became a priest (secretly due to the Bolshevik persecutions) saving (miraculously) numerous of his enemies who would often become believers afterwards, however, his tortures continued later and were even more severe – though mixed with great visions of Grace.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    While I have no doubt of the holiness of this martyr, I have great problems with a certain kind of hagiography – at least when it becomes seen as biography. This seems an extremely pious account, full of reverence. It also states things in the extreme, not one word of complaint, etc. There is no note of inner struggle – frankly of anything the rest of us can relate to, much less someone who has themselves endured torture in their childhood.

    Autobiography reads quite different most of the time, but is quite rare in the lives of saints. I don’t mean to tread too harshly, but this is a style of hagiography that I frequently encounter in Greek sources, and reflects a cultural approach to these pious matters, I think. Russian hagiography often tends to be more muted or reflective, in my experience. English hagiography, what little of it remains from ancient, Orthodox England, is quite taciturn with an unusual care for historical evidence.

    A troubling aspect of this, for modern Western readers, is that it is so lofty as to be unbelievable, or beyond the ability to relate to. Christ became what we are, and suffered as we suffer. The outward pain of suffering is a light thing compared to the inner torment (which can last a life-time). In Gethsemane, we are allowed a small look at something within Christ that we would otherwise not know, and which might otherwise lead us into a form of Docetism.

    While hagiography might be encouraging to some, it can also be condemnation to others who hear that their legitimate feelings are just failure and sin. It is also not appropriate, I think, as a solid grounding within theological reasoning. Hagiography is not Scripture and should not be used as such – i.e. to establish an unassailable point.

    I often think about this as an aspect of our Orthodox life that is more than problematic in the modern West. I have family members who simply cannot read such stuff. And this is an example from a pious, faithful Orthodox Christian. While I “can” read such accounts, I find myself inwardly discounting them – which is not particularly helpful to me.

    I tend to look for sober accounts of the saints with a depth of analysis and understanding that makes their experience accessible. There are not a lot of them, but I treasure them. The modern work, Fr. Arseny, from Russia, is an example of such a thing. Not lacking in miracle and wonder, it is also realistic.

    Again, I don’t mean to tread too heavily in this, but I think it is important for some readers who might find their own reaction to be similar to my own. They are not unusual or wrong.

  6. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    “Christ became what we are, and suffered as we suffer.”

    This is often forgotten or misunderstood in our culture, even by Orthodoxy. I did not understand the human nature of Christ, until I became Orthodox. The protestant culture I grew up in tended to downplay the humanity of Christ and a Christ without humanity is not truly Christ.
    I still do not fully comprehend the whole 100% God and 100% Man or fully human while fully divine, of 2 natures, not divided yet distinct. I accept it, because God has given me the ability to accept it. My faith, everything that is my faith right now, is fully given to me by God. After all, He is the vineyard master; I am simply the grapevine, submitting, though I don’t submit very well.

    “While hagiography might be encouraging to some, it can also be condemnation to others who hear that their legitimate feelings are just failure and sin.”
    The sacrament of confession has helped me so much in this regard. My priest has very much been patient and kind to me, slowly teaching me that which I do not know, even sometimes teaching the same lesson multiple times. And now, I cannot fathom my life without the sacrament of confession.
    I say this because I had trouble with the saints and my priest gave me pretty much the same advice you’ve given here Fr. Stephen.
    Thank you

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ananias,
    I have a strong sense that there are cultural aspects of how people read (and write) saints lives. I am actually quite nervous about certain treatments, particularly in the hands of Americans. I have seen it as an approach that nurtures a kind of naive “guru-ism” towards certain individuals and things. I suspect that many of us are pretty skeptical creatures – and that might be a function of having been nurtured in modernity. Nevertheless, the amount of fraud and deceit and misconduct that has been rampant in the Church – of every stripe and kind, including the Orthodox, would seem to suggest that some skepticism and discernment is helpful. Scandals are far more destructive than many acknowledge – but there are too many of them and too much that gets an easy pass.

    My own faith and experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is solid and real and withstands scrutiny quite well. That scrutiny is present in Orthodoxy in many ways. Having been subjected to spiritual fraud at a certain point in my early Christian life, I’ve remained wary. It exists in Orthodoxy as well as everywhere else. I prefer to stay grounded whenever possible.

  8. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    Fr. Stephen,

    It is good that you would say that, as many protestants regard skepticism, especially toward God or the church, as if it were a great sin. While I cannot say that Orthodoxy does not do this, I have not encountered such here at my parish. They tend to be kind and patient and if they don’t know the answer, they say to go and ask the priest. If the priest does not know, he tends to either say he’ll look into it, or he recommends a book.
    I have learned much being Orthodox and God has been able to do much good work within me. It has all been God who has done everything for and within me.

  9. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr.
    You are the real deal, man.

  10. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Father,
    Your mediation here is deeply appreciated, This has been a most challenging conversation. Thank you.

  11. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Victoria and Dino,
    Maybe sometimes it may be better to not know all the details… 😉
    But rather trust that this is the Saint to pray to in our specific difficulties, that they would carry our prayers to God.
    This is what I take from statements such as:
    “it is a truth of the experience of the saints from which anyone can take a small portion and breathe the air of true freedom…”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ananias,
    The balance is found in Christ’s statement that we should be as wise as serpents and as meek as doves. That is the razor’s edge of wisdom.

  13. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m grateful also for your words Father Stephen.

    When I reflect on suffering, I don’t ignore Christ’s words, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”. These words have shown me that Christ did indeed entered into the intense darkness that I have encountered in my life.

    I’m indebted to the words spoken about ‘fraud’. Until I had encountered and indeed began to live Orthodoxy first hand, I had sufficient experience to ascribe “all” of Christendom a fraud. I don’t like fraud, whether it is in science or in faith.

    Simon, FYI, you’re the ‘real deal’, I thank you and God for your participation.

  14. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    Father,
    Pray for me that God might teach me this wisdom; I certainly cannot attain it (or anything) on my own effort.
    Pray for me in all things, because I certainly need prayer, as much as I need oxygen.

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    ok I’m sorry, I know we don’t ‘live Orthodoxy” but life in Christ. But Orthodoxy is the path and way of Christ.–A statement which will seem terribly biased to some. And I have encountered people who I am willing to describe as holy who were not Orthodox Christians. And among them were ‘atheists’, Buddhists, and some ‘Christians’.

  16. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    It seems there is indeed a definite issue with how modern man reads such pious accounts. The Greek Orthodox culture is totally like that though! It is also inescapable: the entire Synaxaristis (lives of the saints), or Gerondikon (sayings of the desert fathers) is written exactly like that! As a matter of fact, it is considerably more ‘extreme’ in its piousness and loftiness! ( and is traditionally considered the main staple of studying for a believer after scripture and before the Fathers)
    In fact, I have heard Greeks –I mean those steeped in this kind of piety- hurl the exact opposite criticism at modern accounts of contemporary saints’ lives i.e.: they do not like efforts to make the story-telling more ‘relatable’ by expounding at length on the saints’ inner struggles.
    I understand both sides, but also do find it is a real shame that what has traditionally been read without such (modern) reservations hindering the readers, has now become problematic for many… There’s now far more unhealthy self-gauging against the saints in a nerve-racking manner, (rather than just being inspired!), there’s fretting over our own shortcomings (rather than healthily accepting them), there’s scepticism over details (in place of the embracing of the inner message), all this diminishes what are true treasures (because they’re too bright for our modern eye).

    One explanation I have heard and sufficed for me before, regarding how to read such accounts today, which I have mentioned in comments multiple times is this:
    A lecturer ought to give as perfect a demo as possible in public (100% of the topic in an inspiringly idealised presentation). From that 100%, individual students shouldn’t of course say: “OK, I just quit! It’s just too much! I can’t comprehend/perform/learn that stuff he just did!”, due to its loftiness/ perfection/depth ! They are naturally simply expected to take away whatever they can (70%, 20%, 2% etc) from it, without ‘logismoi’ about it…
    And in private, the ‘lecturer’ could obviously tutor them according to their ability in a completely different, personalised manner.

  17. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Thanks Dino,
    I have limited reading capability so I read Scripture more than Saints’ lives.
    I do find the Scripture refreshingly honest, though. Some of Christ’s disciples still doubted after seeing Christ, post resurrection. Paul confronts Barnabas publicly for hypocrisy. The disciples are shown, sins, foibles and all. And absolutely no punches are pulled when it comes to the Old Testament. Probably because of my own sins, I can relate to David
    and Jacob easier than to some Saints. So, God takes us where we are and molds and shapes us…some spoken to more by the Bible, others through lives of saints. Thanks be to God for the whole vast array of graces we receive in Orthodoxy, ancient and present.

  18. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Should say, “reading capacity.”

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dean,
    Thank you for your Dove-like words.

    I’m sorry Dino, on this occasion (12:06pm) I’m not so sure about that.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    I understand the thoughts. There are always cultural contexts to be considered. We are born where we are and when we are according to God’s good purpose. And so I take it that the struggle to relate the gospel to this culture (not make the gospel relative to this culture) is our God-given task. May He give us grace!

  21. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Dean,
    I too (personally) also gravitate to the sinful parts of the stories of St Peter’s, David’s, Mary of Egypt, or Silouan.
    But that does not mean I do not lament the modernist tendency to misconstrue the loftiness of the Gerondikon or the Synaxar. It is a pity and robs us of true treasures.

  22. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Fr. Stephen – I have read “we should be as wise as serpents and as meek as doves” thousands of times. Yet, I never understood it until today. Thank you, Father. I kiss your right hand, for you are an icon of the Christ.

  23. Santosh Samuel Avatar
    Santosh Samuel

    Diana, don’t forget to check out his other videos; he really was a remarkable character. A beautiful one i have sent to many is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3IKtj79rwE.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David,
    Well, then I’m badly drawn. God is merciful.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    They are, indeed, true treasures. So is the book of Revelation, but I wouldn’t read it without a commentary and guidance. The Synaxar and the Gerondikon require instruction as well – instruction that is of often lacking in a modern reader. It simply is what it is.

  26. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Dino said:

    If God were to yield to us before we sought Him with unbearably desperate hope,
    If He became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only),
    If His paradisial presence could be ours while we are still full of our contented self,
    If we encountered Him before crying from the depths of our beings,
    If His permanence became undeviating in us prior to us profoundly realizing the futility of everything other than Him (through suffering),
    then, alas, we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value…

    This has been my experience. I did not begin to know God until I realized I was in hell and completely unable to get myself out. I thank Him every day for that hell.

  27. SW Avatar
    SW

    I, too, was skeptical when reading about Fr Elias’s childhood and thank you for your helpful comments, Fr Stephen. Still, whatever inner struggles he did or didn’t experience with his step-mother, I was deeply moved by his treatment and forgiveness of her at the end of her life. Thank you for sharing about him, Dino. This post and the various comment threads have blessed me tremendously. Thank you all.

  28. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dino,
    The problem isn’t necessarily the just the content of the Saint’s stories, but more often than not, they way (or how) that these stories are used (applied) for instruction. In Fr Stephen’s hands, who apparently has lots of experience with this (–which is apparent in his instructional tone and forbearance and the ‘fruits’ that from that, observable by how effectively his approach promotes healing in others), such stories can imbue the Life into others. When told differently, in less deft hands, it sounds more like (in the ears of the West) almost like promotional boasting, with the implicit punchline, “will you ‘buy’ that?” Some of us will not “buy” it. Is that the fault of the hardness of our own hearts? Perhaps. But it also can be due to the true lack of a ‘teacher’s’ consideration of ‘where’ the listener is, culturally, yes, but also spiritually.

    The teaching approach, (if I may call it that) in your last paragraph, leans toward what is called in the West, ‘scaffolding’. Educational research has actually demonstrated (at least here in the West) which approaches appear to be most affective in ‘reaching’ students. What you described in the last paragraph isn’t necessarily wrong, (based on pedagogical research) but the successful (defined by students who have actually learned the content and are able to incorporate that knowledge into their lives) scaffolding structure is actually different from what you have described.

    I don’t doubt you if you say this is the way the ‘Greeks’ do it. I take you word for it. And I take your word for it that it has been successful in that culture. It’s just that pedagogically the approach might not have the same results in this culture. Isn’t this why we need the Church, as well as the Divine Liturgy in the first place? We go into the services like children (speaking as an adult convert). What we see and hear can be entirely closed to us if there is absolutely no frame of reference to appreciate what is happening. Someone once asked me what kept me coming to services, initially and now. Initially it was science (not Liturgy, not Bible, not really nice Orthodox people). I began with what I knew already. Apparently, that experience isn’t just personal to myself, but has been corroborated by research into finding which pedagogical approaches are most successful. Granted, the research I referring to has been conducted predominantly in Western cultures.

    I wish to finish by adding, that I’m also always grateful for your contributions too. I sincerely believe that your comments help to bring about a deeper understanding, and I appreciate that.

  29. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Forgive me, I think it is important to add one more thought regarding how ‘science’ led me in. I was pursuing Christ through science. I just didn’t know that until I accidentally saw His icon in some data. I believe all of us (humans) are pursuing Christ in our hearts. Its just that some of us know that and some do not.

  30. Nancy Ann Avatar

    I have tried to keep up with the comments but they are deep and require a great deal of thinking. More than my brain can seem to ponder. The only thing that truly comes to mind with the subject of suffering is that just as it’s important for us to bear a little shame, I also wonder if it’s not equally important to bear a little suffering. But just as too much shame can cause a person to despair, it seems too much suffering can also cause harm. I like to think that God will relieve us of some suffering if it gets to be too bad for us to bear. I like to think that his stories of healing were sometimes to just give someone relief because maybe it was getting too much for them. Furthermore, maybe sometimes His relief does not come to us in the way we want. When our son went through two years of cancer treatment and than died of that cancer there was suffering all around but somehow we made it through that time feeling closer and stronger to God and with also laughter. Somehow we were able to bear it, even pleasantly at times. I look back on that time and think “How could their possibly NOT be God? How could anyone endure this and still laugh and love and just have the strength to go through it!?” His presence and strength was so obvious despite me wishing for a different outcome. His Mercy and Love was so present and strong. Others I suppose would say a truly merciful and loving God would have healed our son, but than we are back to Job again. But even still I have no problem praying to God for Get Out of Jail Free cards!! I have no problem praying for healing and for burdens to be lighter. I have hope that God does do that for us in His wisdom and His time.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thoughts for everyone:
    Ancient Faith has agreed for my book, Everywhere Present, to be translated into Russian. It is, God willing, scheduled for publication this autumn (late, probably). The St. Tikhon’s Theological University in Moscow is undertaking this work, for which I’m grateful. I mention this, because of my own wonderment that Russians would want to read my book. It seems so “American” to me (our Two-Storey world). My first encounter with a One-Storey Universe was primarily in Russian novels and spiritual writings.

    What seems to be the case, I think, is the masterful success of modernity – everywhere, including in traditional Orthodox lands. We likely see, at best, a “mix” of thought, the confusion of two world-views. It is also the case that Orthodoxy itself, over the past few centuries, underwent what G. Florovsky called the “Western Captivity,” in which alien ideas and approaches, unconsciously found their way into Orthodox thought and practice. The recovery of the fullness of the Tradition has been a global work across the Orthodox world.

    Knowing a little about demographics, it is simply the case that Greece has been deeply affected by modernity and has a substantial portion of its population that has to be “re-converted” to the Orthodox faith. I suspect that, for them, the words of their elders might be difficult to understand if they are listening with ears that have succumbed to the siren song of modernity. I have had a few conversations of that sort over the years.

    I will be very interested to see what conversations come about through my book’s appearance in Russia (if it gets noticed at all). We are ambassadors for Christ!

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    What I love about this thread (and others) is that it has revealed myself to me. The things that I chew on over the course of the day, the things that I push back on, the things that I dont understand, the things that I find inspiring they teach me about who I am: My values, state of mind, and even my beliefs.

    Theres a very nonliteral mindset to Orthdoxy that is hard for me to relate to and my mind pushes back on. Take for example almost everything Dino writes (Sorry Dino!). Most of the time it seems so poetic or hyperbolic that I cant relate to it all. And–I’m just being honest and trying to open up about how I see the world when I say this–to me he makes very little sense. That has nothing to do with how much sense he is actually making. People express their appreciation for his posts all the time. I like Dino as he is. But I know when he posts something that theres a good to fair chance that he’s going to frustrate me. I realize that Dino is 100% Orthodox–and Greek Orthodox at that, which is a difference that evidently makes a difference. So, my struggle is with this very nonliteral and nonlinear way of thinking. This is why book ends are problematic for me.

    For those reasons when I read stories like the one Dino shared I don’t just think “I don’t buy it” I think “What a load of crap.” Telling me it has pedagogical value doesnt remove the already elicited load-of-crap response. I don’t know how to overcome that or even if I need to, but many times what I read about in Orthodoxy seems outrageous. We can say that I’m a Western minded person infected by modernity, but I just feel like a very literal, regrettably judgmental person trying to acclimate to a very asymmetric and nonlinera and certainly nonliteral tradition.

  33. victoria Avatar
    victoria

    Thank you, Dino and thank you Fr Stephen

    I think what I take away from his account is that he was able to forgive and even nurture his abuser – which is steeped in the Scripture – a true witness of the light of Christ.

    “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Romans 12:20 –

    the coals being the Grace of Divine Love – which surely he could not have offered his stepmother on his own but through his weakness Christ’s strength and Grace was sufficient. Because that is what the Bible tells us – to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect – that we love & forgive our enemies.

    But I agree – especially in such an open forum -no one should ever take away from such an account to deny your emotions or even stay in an abusive dangerous situation or not tell anyone – Or think it’s your fault.

    This is one example of a Saint – what we take away is forgiveness of enemies and reliance on God in persecution – we don’t necessarily apply every detail to our lives because we are all unique and we also live in a different time.

    The Gerontikon is lofty – yes that is true and I wouldn’t believe for one second this Saint did not struggle – since we all fall every day – he wouldn’t be human and therefore not a Saint – if he had endured that without a struggle and pain and tears – and a deep soul wound. God put it in his heart to nurture and care for his stepmother There are some unnecessary details – and yet it gives you an idea of how horrifying was his situation.

    So, in some way – as a fellow struggler I appreciate the high bar – it gives us all an example of something to reach toward rather than stumble over. – the high bar being keeping the Light of Chrust alive in ones heart through a dark time and True forgiveness of an enemy. (Which we should consider normal – however difficult)

    I know of a man still living that mended his relationship with an extraordinarily abusive mother during the years she was dying – so this kind of stuff is not lofty after all – it is gritty humible narrow way of mercy and forgiveness – Grace shining forth in the messiness of a fallen world.

    Most of us will only need to forgive much smaller things – for which we can all be thankful.

  34. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    Words from our Holy Elder Sophrony of Essex, on the love and suffering of the theotokos:
    https://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/elder-sophrony-of-essex-on-love-and.html?m=1s

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Some years ago, as an Anglican priest, I became involved in working with the families who had lost members to violent crimes. My family had two such occasions. For most of these people, the Church and God had ceased to be part of their lives, such was their pain. Their willingness to meet with me (arranged by a social worker), was a bold and tentative step for all of them. It began with a careful and sympathetic listening to their pain. My own experience gave me just enough credibility for them to start this process.

    A common thread for them was an early response in the Churches about the need to forgive the perpetrator. In most cases, they simply were not allowed to express their pain and anger without this shaming caveat. They hurt indescribably but were largely told that they were less than Christian.

    I listened. I validated their pain. I reminded them that “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” is not a way of God saying that it’s wrong to have the feelings, but to be assured that God will Himself repay.

    That was a start. We prayed. There was a celebration of the Eucharist. It was only a beginning. Over the next year, a number of the people involved recovered their faith and were able to return to Church (not always the same one).

    This does not say that we should not love our enemies, or do good to those who abuse us. It says that there is a time and a season for such things. The first thing – if it is not your pain – is that it is the season to listen with care and sympathy and not jump ahead. I have been involved in the pastoral care of over 400 deaths over the years (I lost count). Most were expected and natural. All are difficult. But grief (in all its forms) has to be honored and respected – and that includes the anger that comes with it. The most unhelpful thing that can take place is trying to tell someone not to feel what they feel or to judge their reactions. It is our own impatience and lack of faith that make us bad listeners. If they are in God’s hands, He’ll get them there in time.

    I have seem some grief go quickly, while others go for years. If they remain in communion with God, it will go well eventually.

    For a variety of reasons, this blog has frequently been a place where people with pain find shelter. For my part, that’s intentional. I personally think that those who think that they themselves are not in pain and do not need shelter are the most dangerous – because they are carrying pain that they do not acknowledge and are crippled by it. Thank you, everyone, for your patience with me and with one another. This is not just my ministry, but something much larger of which every reader is a part. May God bless all of you!

  36. Victoria Avatar
    Victoria

    Simon – i read your comment which is just above mine after I posted it. Orthodoxy is not linear – it’s just not – Grace isn’t linear either. It’s radical and undeserved and it blesses. It’s easier to notice I think in stories like Dino shared or in Narrativrs if people like Fr Arseny

    A good example of radical Grace is that there were Greek priests who were set freedfrom concentration camps in WWII but chose to stay because they had shepherded so many spiritual children in the camps – perhaps even guards of the camps . ( the name Father Charalambos comes to mind – I can’t renember if he is a saint – do you know Dino?).

    The books ends are not linear either they are circular and it all radiates outward from Christ – our love of Christ and His love of us.

    Have you read the book The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? Like you I am a fellow sufferer of abuse. I read the book last year – i highly recommend it. It’s not about an orthodox woman or orthodox Saint but a Saint nonetheless. Anyone who ministers to her jailers is a Saint.

    The book about Father asrseny is good too like Fr Stephen said. .

  37. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    Thank you Father for your encouraging and loving words.

  38. Salaam Avatar
    Salaam

    Ebola has nothing on modernity, Father!

    I’d like to get every Ethiopian Orthodox Christian to read your book and your blog. It is only our poverty that has saved us from the type of infection that exists in Greece or Russia, perhaps. We still have priests and monks who went through the traditional clergy educational system, which meant not owning anything except cape and bag and depending wholly on food handouts while attending various rural educational centres – usually monasteries. Even still, modernity is encroaching hard.

  39. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    I wrote this way before the last batch of comments (they’re coming through fast!). This could very well be piggybacked on Dee and Simon’s responses…especially Dee’s.
    Father, another ray of light in your comment about your book, and the “recovery of the fullness of the Tradition” from Western captivity. Yes, Glory to God, He sees us through over the course of history! Glory to God about the translation into to Russian, Father. So very glad!
    Thank you all, every one, for the contribution here.

    Dino,
    Your “ought”, “of coarse”, “naturally simply expected” and “obviously” in your last paragraph @ 12:06 sound fine in theory, but what is your point when you know this is not reality? Is it just that “it is a shame”. Well OK, then…we’re shamed.
    The problem is insisting on following an “ideal” pattern, as you say it ‘ought’. Such would leave many students in the same condition or worse than when when they willingly sat down to learn. It is no different than that piece by Elder Aimilianos where he tells his students if their mind is distracted while in prayer it is a sure sign they do not love God. Well, in my trash bin that goes. You say that is a shame? Well, so be it. That gleaning of 2% was not worth the effort.

  40. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Dee of St Herman’s,

    The key to understanding that “teaching image” correctly is that there’s a difference between general and private speech. That “teaching image” is not mine of course. In fact, the reason I hesitate doubting its truth at all, is that it’s come from one considered a living saint and to whom we’d normally turn to for the most trustworthy clarifications on this sort of stuff.

    I can’t help remembering that I have witnessed many times that such people, who –because of their living faith– can seem “intolerant” in their communication of the Church’s principles (which inevitably forms the core of what we would define as their “general address”), are the ones that are by far the most “tolerant” in practice (which inevitably forms the core of their “personal, one-to-one address”) – because of their love. Of course that happens behind closed doors (rather than in the public cybershpere)…
    It’s also fairly usual to discover that those who are tolerant in their principles (and in their “general address”), are far more intolerant in practice (and in their “personal, one-to-one address”).
    I am not thinking of some modern-day liberals here, by the way. I am rather just reminded of conversations we had in Athos on how, even loving and pious ministers, would always hesitate to go beyond a certain measure of tolerance (‘going against the book’) as much as a (very shockingly for us) strict-on-himself saint, with a strict general word, who however, can, with true authority and discernment, confidently be tolerant beyond what another would even dare consider (when such a thing is called for).
    I am mainly thinking of the immense sweetness of people like Elder Aimilianos, Sophrony, Paisios (and their ‘offspring’) in their private tête-à-tête, as opposed to their highly lofty and sometimes scarily ‘unbending’ general word. True pedagogy is in the first, inspiring paraenesis, that inevitably falls on all sort of surfaces (Matthew 13:8) in the second.
    I struggled for years against the severity of their general “word”, but once I ‘saw the light’ there was no going back. Everything else seemed lukewarm and trite.
    Of course, there’s may other issues to consider. For example, many Americans have a great ease in speaking their private heart in public compared to many others.
    But that’s like a “general tête-à-tête”, there’s bound to be additional problems there!
    Of course, it goes without saying that when you know a certain ‘crowd’ you will speak accordingly. But that is not exactly what can be defined as a ‘general address’ – which is a word that lingers on publically for ever, and one cannot control it, and therefore (like Scripture), should better err on the side of perfection (communication of the Church’s eternal).

  41. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Victoria,
    if you mean Met Dionysius Charalmbous in Dachaou, he was the spiritual Father of Elder Aimilianos.

  42. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    Father Stephen,

    As a past victim of (multiple types of) harm by multiple people, THANK YOU, for validating the pain, the anger, the hurt, and the feelings I feel. So many times I am told “You really should stop feeling that way” or “You really should just stop thinking about it” or similar statements, especially “Christians should not feel that way” without regards to the fact that it does far more harm than good to tell a person this.
    When my daddy first passed away, I was told “You’re feeling grief the wrong way” which baffles me that someone could feel grief the wrong way.
    I cannot simply stop my feelings and thoughts, any more than I can stop my own heart from beating and continue to live.
    Speaking about it, with someone I trust, is how I process what was done to me. I have to talk about it with someone; I have to process and acknowledge the harm in order to be able to heal. Ignoring a deep wound will not make it go away; it will only make it worse. You must treat a wound properly for it to begin healing. This includes mental and emotional wounds, which are often ignored or worse, someone says the wrong thing in the wrong way.
    So thank you again Father Stephen for your words and for helping us.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I treasure the words of the Elders, and am grateful when you share them.

  44. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Paula,
    Elder Aimilianos’ general word, that if our mind is distracted while in prayer it is a sure sign we do not love God (it is actually St Maximus the Confessor’s), is similar to Christ’s about [more or less] not being His disciple if you do not ‘hate’ everything and everyone other. We might understandably –on the surface – put it in the ‘trash bin’ and not even glean 2% from it, as you say. Besides, they are undeniably harsh words indeed. The disciples themselves had times when they were shocked by them and scandalised, or revolted. But, as I said earlier, you need to know that the same Elder Aimilianos would surprise you straight after saying that harsh saying in public, by privately listening to you and reassuring you and sweet-talking to you in such a unique way that he’d make you realise as you haven’t before that you actually really love Christ more than you knew (despite your distractedness in prayer). He would do this like nobody else (who publiclly daren’t speak as strictly) could, shocking you with the “schizophrenic” difference between his two types of speech, yet helping you understand that there’s truth in both, and instilling in you inspiration that has staying power.

  45. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I feel like the Church needs to teach people how to read and understand this stuff.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino,
    Indeed. These things are invaluable – but learning to reading is important. The shortness of the sayings in the Desert Fathers – their pithiness, is similar to that of Christ – and would be less valuable were it to be stretched out like a blog article.

  47. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dino,
    I appreciate the context of Mt Athos and learned and learning monks you describe. But this blog is not Mt Athos. It is indeed the ‘frontier’. I would like for us to consider for a model St Herman. He worn heavy chains as part of his asceticism. But he kept them hidden.

  48. victoria Avatar
    victoria

    dino
    Yes I think that is who I mean. Did he have a vision of the Theotokos at Dachau and then was led to that icon of the Theotokos when he returned to Greece after the war? (I might have two different people woven into one – i am not sure)

  49. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Dee of St Hermans,
    That we have to start with ‘milk’ and keep at it for a long time does not mean we have to ban ‘meat’.
    It is very true that asceticism must be kept hidden, everything personal best be kept hidden from public in fact, it’s why I cringe with the great ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to have in speaking one’s private heart, or past experiences, in public -like a forum– as I mentioned earlier. That sort of thing is for the Holy confession. The ‘general word’ I referred to is what is in published books, in recorded homilies, (blogs too) –not an Athos affair really .
    But learning to read and stretching things out eventually comes to the aid of these challenging yet deeply valuable sayings.
    A soul will eventually yearn for nothing less than perfection even if perfection conventionally produces a terrible awe in it and is dangerous.

  50. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Father,
    I don’t know what prompted your comment about being grateful and treasuring the words of the elders. It goes without saying you’d feel that way.

    Dino,
    I understand what you are saying about the way words are spoken by say, Christ or the Elder. When I read the Elder’s teaching on love, I did not make that connection, though. So how would I know, except to learn these things in time? I refrain from making excuses, so lets just say I’m pretty much on my own here. Thank you for acknowledging my frustration and taking the time to explain.

  51. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Santosh Samuel –
    Thank you for the link to Pope Shenouda III.
    “Is God one of your aims? Or is God the first of your aims? Or is God your only aim?”
    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  52. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Paula et all
    It is as you say, something that takes time. We mustn’t discard it to the waste basket because of our frustration, but seek , as many do, the clarifications and explanations in good faith that there must be truth in such sayings even if I now cannot relate to them .
    Victoria,
    I cannot remember that…

  53. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Yes Dino…you’re right. No more waste basket, but seek…more like grope….

  54. victoria Avatar
    victoria

    Paula – about the thread with you and Dino
    I was taught by a Greek priest) that when I come across that extreme language – those extreme examples – I am to process it as hyperbole. We know that Christ does not call upon us to hate anyone – especially not our parents and so when He says if we do not hate mother or father we can not be His disciple that really is indicative of what it means to love Christ more than others. At least that is how I interpreted it. And that distraction in prayer comment should be taken the same way. It’s been helpful to me anyhow – not sure if it is to anyone else.

  55. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Victoria,
    Hyperbole…yes, good point. Thanks. I will remember that.

  56. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dino,

    He who said, “You must be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” is the same Lord who prayed from the Cross, “Father, forgive them—they don’t know what they’re doing” and who said, “Let the one of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” I hear what you are saying about the strictness of the greatest Saints in their general teaching vs. their private counsel, and I have been edified by that approach (having a certain cultural adaptability and developed something of an ear for how to translate this kind of “general teaching” for the most part, so I am not tempted to despair, but inspired). Still, there are some Saints I have to avoid reading or I do become quite discouraged. Generally, I set aside any Saint’s commentary that only tempts me to argue or push back or invites fear or despair—those are the ones I have learned to recognize can become ammunition for the enemy for me because of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We need good interpreters, and we do have a few. Father Stephen is one. It’s also very true we have to be mindful of the needs of our audience and speak the gospel in language that can be understood.

  57. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I always get an odd feeling when I hear someone talk about how this is meat or that is milk…as if they know the difference. If someone thinks that being distracted during prayer means you dont love God, that is their problem. That isnt a deep statement. It isnt challenging. It isnt profound. There’s nothing to unpack. It is entirely unnecessary. It is an exaggeration or hyperbole at best.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to suggest St Herman was keeping his chains hidden as a form of ‘milk’. Rather, if his wearing of chains was observed to be Herculean, and admired, the very same act taken up without ‘acculturation’ to the ethos of Christianity, as given to us in the Orthodox Tradition,would not likely support the faith fruitfully in his adopted community.

  59. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee, my last comment was just a rant directed solely to that anecdotal statement about distracted prayer. Its a very narrowly directed comment. Your remarks are much appreciated.

  60. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Whether distracted in prayer or not, I take great solace in the fact that it will be Christ who judges me…I can’t even judge myself correctly.
    Perhaps our prayer life can be likened to a compass. It usually points true north. But it can be bobbled or dropped and whirl ’round…(as in distractions in prayer). But if left alone the needle soon sets itself to true north again…our heart turned toward God.

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I too suffered under the hand of fraudulent men so I am quite hesitant to use the term “spiritual father”. In the our culture the simple “confessor” seems both more accurate and safer for everyone. That being said I do not have a problem calling Elder Zacharias spiritual father. Only met him once but he seems to be the real deal.

  62. David Foutch Avatar
    David Foutch

    “I cringe with the great ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to have in speaking one’s private heart, or past experiences, in public -like a forum– as I mentioned earlier.”

    Dino…I hear you, brother.

  63. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    David-Simon,
    What perfect timing for your last comment… I hope I manage to have mine show up soon after yours, especially since it’s the middle of the night for Dino in Europe 🙂
    (and the rest of the wonderful commenters are probably exhausted and went to bed – what an amazing day on this blog!)

    Don’t think that Dino directed his words towards you – he is speaking to (and scolding)… me! 🙂

    I am the greatest such “offender” on this blog, but I also have received the most healing from my “speaking of my heart, and experiences” here. Between Father Stephen, Dino and just about all commenting on this thread of conversation today… I thank them all one more time at this opportunity!

    Don’t feel bad about sharing, especially if it is therapeutic, if nothing else, you now have many people (on this blog) praying for you… 🙂

    The Greek tradition and the Church there offers them many more opportunities for Spiritual Fatherhood than we have here.
    Father Stephen comes as close as it gets for us, and especially for the seekers into Orthodoxy coming from the protestant background. That he is able to do this through the blog is amazing and incredible. If I understand right, you are actually in his parish, so you are even more blessed than most of us.

    And so that you don’t think I am making things up, you could go back to one of the greatest EVER (*for me*) conversations on this blog called “Marriage as a Lifetime of Suffering”. I participated in it freshly divorced/left after 25 years of marriage -the most painful, difficult, lonely and angry time of my life. My “bearing of my soul” here was very therapeutic and healing. Since that May three years ago, I have made a great journey of recovery and towards God. And yes, I am definitely one of those people who cannot wait to read what Dino writes…. even the very difficult and strict words have a new and life always transforming content for me.
    Since then, I have also been contacted by several women who identified with my life story and experiences, and was able to help and share with them… All thanks to the love and healing effect of this sharing.

    One of the recent discussions touched on the issue of “revealing too much” personal stuff in such a public forum where “thousands may read it”. It has not been my experience whatsoever. One or two of the closest friends may comment, and only if they happen to visit the blog after me mentioning it… nobody cares as much as we think, about us….

    Glory and thanks to God you are here and more importantly in the Orthodox Church. It’s the Body of Christ in this world, the rest will fall into place for you in due time… Pray to the Lord to show you the way. I am praying for that too, for myself and for all of us!

  64. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon,
    Don’t just relegate something to the dustbin like that because it’s so ‘monastic’, you can instead put it on a shelf for possible future use without reacting frustratedly towards it. It’s the wisest thing to do for those who
    long for spiritual insight into things that currently, aggravate or perplex them.

    Here is the original on the issue of distracted prayer:

    All the chapters concerning love written by St. Maximos are inspired by and reflect the everyday life of man and the mystical unions of God and the soul. These chapters expressions of nuptial experiences. The legitimacy of our love for God is related to the legitimacy, legality, and fidelity of marriage.
    For he who ‘genuinely’ loves God is the one who does not divorce himself from God, that is, who does not introduce a third person or party that comprises the fidelity of his soul’s union to God:
    “He who genuinely loves God prays entirely without distraction, and he who
    prays entirely without distraction loves God genuinely. But he whose intellect is fixed on any worldly thing does not pray without distraction, and consequently he does not love God” (Maximos the Confessor, Chapters on Love II.1).

    Because St. Maximos understands love to be a conjugal union with God, he cannot imagine that real love for God exists in a man who cannot pray without distractions. The absolutely necessary condition for the spiritual life is an undistracted mind, since union with God takes place principally through the mind. When someone says: ‘I’m distracted by thoughts during prayer; I can’t concentrate,’ or ‘I’m indifferent to prayer,’ or ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ you can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.
    Often we say that we love God, and we sing and celebrate our love for Him, but yet we are not able to pray to Him without distractions. If this is the case, we are not speaking the truth, because genuine love of God is the generative cause of undistracted prayer, and undistracted prayer is the of the love of God.
    […]
    Scripture has the habit of calling thoughts ‘idols,’ so that when the Israelites fall into idolatry, becoming victims of their thoughts and opinions, they are said to have committed fornication.
    Thus the one who prays without distractions does not engage in spiritual adultery or produce illegitimate offspring. Instead whatever he creates, whatever he gives birth to, comes naturally and truly from God. […] Only he who genuinely loves God is truly with God, truly walks together with God, truly sees and is seen by God, and stands together with Him. […]
    From the very beginning of the Second Century, St. Maximos makes a noble and decisive clarification. He doesn’t want us to fool ourselves, to be deceived, to live an empty, deluded, and vain life. He doesn’t want us to waste our time living a life devoid of love. And so, from the very first word of the Second Century, he presides over the marriage of love and prayer, for it is prayer that unites us to God, while love is the opposite of isolation, egotism, and individualism, being a union with another.

    Challenging indeed my brother! but why say it: “isn’t a deep statement. It isn’t challenging. It isn’t profound. There’s nothing to unpack. It is entirely unnecessary. It is an exaggeration or hyperbole at best.” rather than say, not for me right now, I’d love to be given the right spiritual insight to understand this in a helpful way though.

    A relatable explanation I would offer is this:
    Someone who has, even just once in their life, had the experience of falling in love completely, especially if it was someone who was previously used to know himself as being a totally two-timing, dissipated, promiscuous and seeking-continuous-lustful-distractions-type-of-person, marvels deeply with the ‘miracle’ of seeing himself effortlessly being disinterested in even the most alluring women! His new found inate ‘concentration’ shocks him and delights him! He witnesses this incredible concentration of all his being into just that one person and cannot -even if he tried– go with another…
    Well I think that’s a desirable monastic experience (in the spiritual erotic love towards God of course) of those who talk like St Maximus the Confessor above and Elder Aimilianos.

  65. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    But don’t just read that and dejectedly say, ‘I do not love God then’; no, the kind of love we actually have while we are still miles away from what St Maximus describes, is the certain (still partial and interrupted) engrossment with His attraction, the joy that we see that comes from turning towards Him, so remember that stuff instead…

  66. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “Often we say that we love God, and we sing and celebrate our love for Him, but yet we are not able to pray to Him without distractions. If this is the case, we are not speaking the truth, because genuine love of God is the generative cause of undistracted prayer, and undistracted prayer is the of the love of God.”

    You’re right, Dino. Clearly, if that statement is right, then the truth is that I don’t love God. I believe it to be true. I struggle to genuinely love the things that I see so of course it would only be make sense that I wouldn’t really love God whom I cannot see. I was hoping that love for God might be like faith, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” In other words, like all other gifts, love for God is a grace that God grants more fully over time. But probably all God sees in those times where I am distracted is that I really don’t love him.

    You’re also right that I shouldn’t have shared anything of my personal history on this blog.

    Dino…you are right about all these things. It was inappropriate for me to challenge you on any of those things.

    So, thank you for this.

  67. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon
    Please refer to my very last comment about not dejected ly saying ” I do not love God then” and that the stuff to remember is our joy at turning towards God instead.
    I cannot be right or wrong about these things myself by the way. They are just statements like yardstick of the saints and not mine…
    Better not go beyond, “I don’t love God as I should. ”

  68. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino…you have revealed to me what I have struggled to see, somewhat suspected but did not want to accept, and now I feel it in my guts.

    I dont love God. Regardless of how often I pray….or the remorse I feel…or the times I retreat in prayer to save me from myself…I am frequently become distracted. So, you are right, Dino, I DO NOT love God.

  69. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I do not love God genuinely and have never loved him.

  70. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    That’s like saying I cannot attain what the Theotokos is, although I am called towards that.! So we cannot stay on that in ‘negativity.’ but be must always joyous instead in our trust that, though we all fall short, God has the power to grant us according to -and even well beyond – our ‘positivity’.

  71. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Similarly I could not quite say “you are right I am not human then” as a response to Father Stephen’s last paragraph: “To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.”

  72. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “When someone says: ‘I’m distracted by thoughts during prayer; I can’t concentrate,’ or ‘I’m indifferent to prayer,’ or ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ you can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.”

    Thank you so much for this. I certainly have prayed for forgiveness for getting ‘distracted’ or being ‘unable to concentrate.’ On this very thread I have as much as said ‘I dont understand any of this.’ Now I know why: ‘You can be sure that such a person does not love God ‘genuinely’ and has never loved Him.’

    I believe it, Dino. You can be sure that the earth is round, the sky is blue, the sun sets in the west, and I do not love God ‘genuinely’ and have never loved Him.

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “I don’t love God.”

    In the classic book, The Way of the Pilgrim, there is an example of a confession. It begins with “I do not love God,” and then elaborates. It makes the point that none of us love God, for if we did, this thing and that thing would follow. Thus, I see that I do not love God.

    That is, however, only a way of speaking a certain thing. It can also be said, “I do not love God well,” or “I love God badly, etc.” Three times Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” with varying words for love, by the way. It must have indeed been painful for St. Peter. The responses of Jesus “Feed my sheep,” were restoring Peter to his former position – healing his denial.

    St. Maximus does not mean to create a yardstick: “If you’re distracted then you don’t love.” The point isn’t to read this as a judging statement. And, forgive me, Dino, but you compared it to a yardstick. That does not engage the nous – but the critical mind – and is a mistake.

    St. Maximus’ statement is diagnostic – if I loved God this would be healed. It is an invitation to love God even more, not a judgment for loving Him too little. The is the thrust of his Chapters on Love.

    I fear that in this conversation, something far different was taking place – in the night while I slept.

    The comment about sharing too much personal matter – whether right or wrong – in the context of this string of conversation – was exceedingly unhelpful. It is frankly shaming – Someone shares such things with great vulnerability. They are thus utterly unable to defend themselves when that vulnerability itself is attacked. Shaming is simply out of bounds – a serious injury – whether the point made is true or not.

    When very personal things are being shared – which is only from time to time – then everyone should tread lightly – you are on holy ground whether you wanted to be or not. Take your shoes off! We are speaking to souls – not idealizations.

    Everyone take a breath. Say a few prayers. God forgives us all – but take care of your souls.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Year’s ago, I observed on a friend’s blog, that when comments number over 100, not much good can come of it. We’re up to 175 on this one. There has been a fair amount of “talking past” one another – things intended well that came out wrong, etc. Some of the conversation became too personal, not in the sense of too much information, but too directed at another person. We generally don’t know each other well enough to do that – except by invitation.

    As the daylight grows here, I pray all will be well.

  75. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Recently it became clear to me that circumstances are such that I should leave my PhD program. One professor went out of his way to tell me that it was a mistake to have invited me in the first place. I didnt take it personally or seriously. One, I really dont care what that person thinks. Two, its okay for that to be true. Perhaps I dont have what it takes to be a professional scientist. Fine.

    I take this whole discussion in the same manner. I really do have trouble loving the people I see so it doesnt surprise me tp learn I dont really love God whom I cannot see. I accept it. It makes sense of a lot of things I have experienced over the last year.

    Peace.

  76. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Oh Father Stephen!….your words….Lord have Mercy….

  77. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father
    That’s a vital point. And the critical mind shouldn’t be engaged indeed either.

    Simon
    I am personally fascinated by the notion that those saints that more or less say something that sounds like “hardly anybody loves God” say such a thing because they are utterly certain that (simultaneously ), “eveyone loves God but doesn’t know it” (whether in our sins or distractions.) And hence invite us to make the unconscious or misdirected, conscious and Genuine.

  78. victoria Avatar
    victoria

    Simon….

    But regardless of where you are at right now in terms of how you feel or How you have been led to feel from this conversation of comments about God and whether you love Him

    do you know that God loves YOU?

  79. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Yesterday I called a friend of mine and I prefaced the conversation with ‘This wont take five minutes l just need to hear myself say something.’ Much of my last few comments have been just that.

  80. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Please forgive me my contribution to all this. I posted the link to the commentary of “Chapters of Love”. For me, it was an answer to my *personal* prayer in which I ask God how I can love Him more (as I make certain efforts and decisions in my life). But even Paula (for whom I excitedly intended it) hated that…
    I agree that we write past each other, Simon did not even acknowledge my two apologies… I wish him peace.

    But it’s not fair to beat up Dino so I’m chiming in for the last time. I have never read anything he said as shaming, only an invitation to examine myself more deeply. And it’s very true that once we do that, we are surprised by what we find and comeback to the superficial responses and reactions…
    Thank you again for wat *you* do. You know me personally and know that what I share is true, and how much I’ve been helped here. You are Fr. Tom Hopko, Fr. Zacharias, Fr. Aimilianos for us – we don’t have anybody else..

  81. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Agata,
    A good friend has a motto on his blog (a paraphrase from a Star Trek episode), “Dammit, Jim! I’m a blogger, not a theologian!” I’m not certain I would say that is true of my friend, but it’s certainly true that I’m no Elder, or at all to be compared with these giants. If I’m useful, then that is enough.

    There are layers in these conversations – our own emotions, needs, shame, ideas, etc. – and in the awkward world of typed conversations! The truth is, that in our modern world, we are such strangers, often lonely, within our own communities. These communities are built to serve the interests of the economy and not the people who live and work in them. Social media has grown because our consumer world has killed normal life.

    I am reminded, many times, that a few years back, the blog was frequented by “TLO,” a troubled reader who did not believe in God – though he struggled greatly with it. He was a regular for several years. Then things went silent, and we learned that he had taken his own life. We do not have the back story. I would like to think we were of help. I do not think we hurt him – but we were not enough in that setting and situation.

    But I have not forgotten it, nor him. There’s a quote (unknown source), “Be kind. Everyone you meet is enduring a difficult battle,” or something to that effect. And it’s the truth – more than we know.

    I wrote some years back about being cautious regarding intimate details of our lives being shared – mostly because they belong to the treasure of the heart. On the other hand, certain things must be shared lest they kill us! When it happens, then we are on that holy ground I mentioned.

    Dino’s graciousness towards my attempts to moderate are greatly appreciated. I appreciate everyone’s patience with each other and caring words. You make this a special place.

  82. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Thank you Father, very beautiful words!
    Fr. Zacharias says often: “When sorrow is shared, it’s diminished. When joy is shared, it’s multiplied”.
    This is what often happens here, in plain sight or behind the scenes.
    And graciousness in conducting difficult conversations is one of the most valuable skills that are modeled here!
    Indeed thank you to all, and you especially Father.

  83. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Agata,
    Forgive me for not responding to your apologies. I did not intend to ignore them at all. As I said before there is no reason to apologize. I appreciate your comments very much. Just say whatever it is you have to say and we’ll work the rest out as we move along.

    I truthfully did not mean to overlook your kindness and consideration.

  84. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Simon,
    No worries, you have a beautiful and loving heart. I think it’s St. Silouan who said: “The greater the Love, the greater the suffering…”
    You had more than your share of suffering so may God bless you with His abundant Love now.
    Hope you save my “rain check” for a big hug some day! 🙂

  85. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Agata,
    Just a word about your intention toward me…first, know that I deeply appreciate and am very aware of your love. That is how I see you every time your reach out to people here. That I missed the point and misinterpreted the lesson in that link is no reflection on you whatsoever (and I think you know that, but I want to say it anyway). You make a good point in that the article was an answer to your personal prayer. The ‘answer’ for me was different, but not a total loss by any means. I learned not to brush a good word off to the trash bin, for one thing! I learned even more through the comments here, even the talking past each other. That would not have been possible without the ‘wrenches’ combined with Father’s good counsel. It is a perfect example of the suffering of our sins…these difficult conversations that expose our sinfulness (where we fall short) are not going to go away, should not be buried in ‘secret’, and are dealt with properly when we remain united in Christ. So once again I thank you Agata, and forgive me for the disappointment I have caused.

    It is interesting that Father said during the night as he slept, he feared something else was taking place in this conversation. Last night I woke a bit after falling asleep, having a very disturbing dream. I can’t even make sense of it, and I am not one to rely too much on the specifics of dreams, as they are highly symbolic. But I awoke disturbed…scared, frankly. Alone, all I can do is cross myself several times and pray, ‘please take this away’. And He did. I do not know if there is any direct connection with Father’s statement…I really don’t. But I can’t help but ponder that. I can say though, since the beginning of this post, back when the ‘heavy’ comments first appeared, it affected me as any trial would. It was difficult. But I do not regret it…and am thankful to all.

    One last thing, Agata. We are not beating up on Dino! We’re not! We are just challenging his words, or if you will, “beating up” on his words because they need clarification….and even correction….no different that any of us!!

  86. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    again I say….Oh Father!…
    I just read your comment. I remember TLO. Oh Lord have mercy!
    You make such a good point that we are treading on holy ground here amongst each other in this awkward world of blogging…as strangers in the world, alone in our communities. I’m saying…how dire without the Church to exist in! That is us, here….wherever we gather….

  87. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Good comments and clarifications. I so appreciate Father and all the friends here on this site. Often it is a healing balm for my soul. I feel a real affinity with so many here. It is a well from which I can drink…very unique and wonderful!

  88. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Agata,

    I didn’t sense any personally directed beating from Father Stephen, should have I?
    Although I generally think it better to avoid going into ‘personal areas’ in public (another classic ‘Athonite advise’), my earlier comment, which was that many Americans have a great ease in speaking their private heart (or private past) in public (and that such a thing creates a “general tête-à-tête, and makes things uneasy)”, certainly wasn’t personally directed towards anyone, despite it taken as such in one comment (which I thought required other things answered in my response to it to be prioritised over and instead of rectifying that specific, truly miniscule error, of re-wording something to sound more personal) [May 19, 2018 at 5:40 am].
    Which brings me to:
    Forgive me Simon.
    I didn’t think to rectify what you said earlier -as there were other matters taking precedence in your comment [May 19, 2018 at 5:40 am]. It was: “You’re also right that I shouldn’t have shared anything of my personal history on this blog”.
    I still don’t know if acknowledging and responding to that sentence with something like: “I never said such a thing of you, please check, those words never came out of my mouth” is a better idea? Especially since I thought that comment was obviously in the general spirit of all the other objections you had, which were (understandably) worded in a similarly frustrated manner, re-wording what I had said to make the point clearer was natural.… (I’ve been similarly frustrated by the same issues myself in the past BTW, and it took me a very long time to learn otherwise, so I could very much empathise with the frustration). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that when you express such inner struggles and I think that it’s part and parcel of getting somewhere in the end while correcting the key misunderstandings as much as possible – {which is hopefully what we continue doing}

    Father,
    I suspect that that’ comment is what must have prompted you to your vital caveat. Although my own comment that the “ease with which ‘American-style communication’ seems to speak of private matters” could be the exceedingly unhelpful one? In fact, the ‘unease’ created by any private to public revelation, is exactly as you said, that then: “everyone has to tread lightly as we are on holy ground whether we wanted to or not. We have to quit idealisations and remember that souls are in front of us exposed now.”
    Even most sympathetically acknowledging the private matter that anyone has confessed, I have been told, can be verging on unintentional shame-induction in public, especially if the one who confessed it then does not want to reignite the matter further or regrets having exposed it.
    I think we ought to always move back to the ‘general’ plane, to recover courtesy and remain in that noble place in public conversation.

  89. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Dino,
    No, you should not have sensed any such thing! It’s again my “hypersensitivity”…. I always worry that one day you will get tired of “throwing pearls” at us and stop commenting… 🙂
    A friend told me I should not have made my comment to Simon either (about sharing too much). He also said:
    “I can’t help but think Father woke up this morning, looked at the blog, and thought “Oh My God!!!!” ”

    Paula, thank you for your words. And Dean.

    “A Full Life” it certainly is… made more beautiful by beautiful friends! Thank you.

  90. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen thank you so much for your response at 8:12am. We needed that, regarding the admonition we tread with shoes off on holy ground, when someone shares personal thoughts.

    Simon, we don’t know each other, but your words tug my heart. You have my support, and if you need support regarding your situation lab/science etc. Let Fr Stephen know in an email. If you’re in dissertation stage, it is indeed difficult no matter where or who you work under. I might be able to help as a reader outside your situation.

    I lost count how many times I was told I shouldn’t be in science.

  91. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Father, thank you for your words and for the gracious spirit of all in this “community.”

    TLO lives in my heart and memory, too. As often as I think of him I pray for the Lord to have mercy on him and on his family, wife and children, he left behind. May they be granted His peace.

  92. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee, thank you for that. Im okay. Disappointed, but okay. It has been no small adjustment for sure.

  93. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I remember TLO. I did not know that he had died.

    O Lord, the only Creator, who in the depth of Your wisdom provide all things out of love for mankind, and grant unto all what is profitable; give rest to the soul of TLO, for you, O God, made him and fashioned him. AMEN.

  94. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    NSP,
    This is much delayed (or at least spaced by many comments), but I think Dino may have answered your question in one of his remarks. Smerdyakov accepted the trite arguments against God (Day 1 vs Day 4 of creation was all he needed). Smerdyakov was free to behave as though God was dead, and did so. Alyosha is not absent from the picture, but I think generally speaking, Alyosha did what every Christian is to do – simply to live as a light in a dark place and love those around him. That a faithful Christian witness does not necessarily save everyone should come as no surprise. To me, Lise is the most troubling character in the book, for she turns away from what she knew and loved, just to embrace spite. And all of that is in our hearts, too.

    In a related aside, Notes from the Underground is a really illuminating book – arguing for and demonstrating that the utter caprice of man’s heart reflects the freedom that is necessary for redemption. In the thick of social-perfectabilty schemes and theories, Dostoevsky stands up and denounces them as ultimately costing the soul of man. The man who stands with arms akimbo and knocks social contrivance into a cocked hat can also become the man who stands with head bowed praying in the midst of an avaricious and irreverent world. Man is not perfectable by man, but he is redeemable by God. And this theme, I think, runs through all Dostoevsky’s works. Not that all are redeemed, but that all are redeemable, and exploring that freedom makes for really wonderful novels.

    Finally, in light of so many comments, I wonder if this Road to Emmaus piece is helpful – I thought it was the best discussion of trauma & liturgy I had read yet: http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_52/THE_OPPOSITE_OF_WAR_IS_NOT_PEACE.pdf

    God keep our souls,
    Mark

  95. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Mark
    That discussion is quite outstanding… thank you.

  96. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I want to say something to Dino. I wasnt being sarcastic about not loving God. I think the most accurate thing to say is ‘I know I need to love God. And I want to love God. The ‘poverty of spirit’ I feel is how little I love God.’ But if we’re being honest…I dont know God, Im not really aware of having experienced God or God’s love. How can you love someone you only read about. I guess just like we say a fetus is a human being, we could say I love God. But I’m convinced at this stage in my life that the only love I’m going to have to give to God is the love he gives me to give back to him.

    I really just don’t have it in me.

    I agree with the statement that I don’t want to be deluded into thinking that I have something that I really dont.

    So, Dino, its fine. I actually appreciate having heard that.

  97. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Simon – We tend to think of love as a sentiment or feeling, but Christ tells us it is made manifest through our actions. Prayer is only one form of action; helping our neighbor is another. I don’t think love is an all or nothing thing and it is certainly not static. If you are doing your best in each moment to love the person standing in from of you, then you are loving God in that moment. Love is given one moment at a time.

    “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me”. (John 14:21)

    May God continue ro guide you on your journey towards Christ.

  98. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Please forgive my typos:
    “standing in *front* of you”
    “continue *to* guide you”

  99. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I am also convinced at this stage in my life that the only love I’m going to have to give to God is the love He gives me to give back to Him. I am utterly dependent upon God. Since it has taken me over 50 years to learn that, I hope it is a step in the right direction.

  100. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Simon – whenever I think about this “problem” you describe (and I have it myself big time, btw), I remember how Fr. Meletios Webber says that “Love isn’t a feeling, Love is a decision”… You can always make a decision, regardless of whether your feelings follow or not. As Esmee said above, you can keep Christ’s commandments and that will mean you love Him (whether you sense Him, feel Him, know Him – or not!).
    Another answer I once heard to a question similar to yours is that you actually have it (love, faith – you have it because you are questioning it, otherwise you wouldn’t be). One way practice your faith and love is with your body, doing prostrations for example. You may do one thousand, ten thousand of them and when you raise from 10,000th, you will raise completely transformed…
    Just a thought. I too look forward to Dino’s reply…

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