A Mediated Presence – Thank God

For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, (1 Tim. 2:5)

There is no way to adequately explain priesthood without reference to mediation. A priest is a mediator between God and Man. From time to time over the years, I have had the verse from 1 Timothy pointed out to me with the argument that there cannot be any mediator other than Christ, and, thus, there cannot be any such thing as a “priest” within the Church. Sometimes the argument becomes even more pointed:

I do not need to go to a priest to have my sins forgiven! I can go directly to God. I don’t want anything or anyone standing between me and Jesus.

If the priesthood (ordained or otherwise) stood between a person and Christ, I would oppose it myself. However, its purpose, like all of the sacraments, is quite the opposite: it is to mediate the presence of Christ, that is to make Him present, not serve in His absence. The greater question, therefore, is whether there need be any sacraments.

That Christ gave us Holy Baptism and the Eucharist is beyond doubt. In particular, with the Eucharist, we are told, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Further, we are commanded to eat His flesh and drink His blood. The notion that the Eucharist is merely a ritual action designed to make us think of Jesus is, historically speaking, absurd. There is only evidence in the early Church that the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Everything said about it in the Scriptures, including the warning of possible sickness accompanying eating it in the wrong manner, argue against mere memorialism.

It is ironic in the extreme that the very Christians who champion a “literal” reading of Scripture, and excoriate the Orthodox (and others) for engaging in theological analysis, refuse to read the verses concerning the Eucharist in a literal manner and themselves engage in philosophical gymnastics in order to deny the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood. It is a case of an anti-Catholic petard hoisting them into nonsense.

But just as Christ gives us His own Body and Blood, that we might “dwell in Him and He in us,” so, too, does He give us a sacramental world by which and in which He may be known. Marriage is another example. In the God-blessed faithful union of a man and a woman, Christ makes known the mystery of the union between Himself and the Church. A sacramental world is not a case of the world standing between us and God, but the world being made something in which and by which we encounter God.

The great flaw in anti-sacramental thinking is its abstracted notion of “spiritual.” It is presumed that for something to be “spiritual,” it must have nothing to do with the material world. That “talking to Jesus” only consists in words spoken in our heads. In truth, it is a preference for the imaginary over the real. The Word did not become flesh only to get our attention so that we would no longer have anything to do with the material world. It is the Word who became flesh Who gives us His Body and His Blood, the waters of Baptism, the marriage bed, the Apostolic ministry, the oil of healing, the laying on of hands, the lifting of the voice and all such things.

Non-sacramental Christianity has a long history of delusional teaching and practices. If the encounter with God is primarily the stuff going on in my head, then the strange results are fairly predictable. Nothing is more subject to manipulation and delusion than our subjectivity. This is not to say that there is nothing crazy in the history of sacramental Christianity.

However, the sacramental life, as the primary means of grace, grounds the believer in a far more concrete and stable environment. The Eucharist remains the Eucharist, and, in its liturgical presentation, offers something within our encounter with God that remains unchanging. It will be there next Sunday as well. Strangely, this offers far more freedom than the tyranny of our own subjectivity. There is no pressure to maintain a subjective state in order for God to be present. Depression need not shut down the spiritual life.

Perhaps the most salient aspect of the sacramental life is something that has almost been forgotten within contemporary Christianity: noetic experience. The fact that I will now be required to explain the very meaning of noetic experience for my readers makes my point. In the writings of the Church fathers, it is assumed that this is the true character of the saving knowledge of God.

“Noetic” refers to that knowledge that is acquired by the “nous,” an aspect of the soul that is uniquely the place where we encounter God. It is not the place of the passions and emotions, nor is it the place of discursive reasoning. Rather, it is that place in which we “know” by a participatory knowledge that is sometimes described as “perception.” We lack a good vocabulary for speaking about noetic experience precisely because our culture has abandoned this once-essential mode of perception.

The Scriptures tell us, “Be still and know that I am God.” But these words are read by a culture that knows almost nothing about true stillness (hesychia) and ceaselessly engages in activities to prevent its possibility. Stillness of this sort includes the silencing of the passions and emotions as well as discursive reasoning. It then becomes possible to be aware and to know wordlessly with a depth and stability that are the very bedrock of the spiritual life.

When I was first ordained, perhaps the most difficult part of my spiritual life was the need to “think” as I celebrated the liturgy. Remembering what came next, or fiddling with the pages of a book were distractions of the first order. Every priest would agree that the best liturgical experience comes only when the actions and words are no longer the product of reasoning, but are simply known “by heart.” It is then that noetic experience is able to flower.

The same is true among the laity. What is often experienced at first as “boredom” (the sameness of the liturgy or the interminable character of the Psalms or Canon in some services) is nothing more than a description of something that exists for the nurture of the nous rather than the emotions and reasoning. Imagine walking with someone through a Redwood forest, or along a quiet beach and being told, “I’m bored.” In truth, the forest and the beach are quite common examples of noetic experiences that have yet to be eradicated or destroyed by our culture. It is not surprising that many people report an awareness of God in such settings.

It is not incorrect to describe our relationship with the passions as an addiction. The fathers described the passion-driven life as a constant swing between pain and pleasure. We experience boredom as a pain and seek to replace it with pleasure, which will only yield more pain later on. This movement, as it dominates our experience, draws us away from the opportunity to grow in noetic experience. As such, it tears us away from God other than as an entertaining idea or a concept to be considered.

This brings me back to the question of mediation. The sacraments present God to us in a manner in which He can be noetically perceived. We enter into Him as communion. The so-called non-mediated paths are themselves hopelessly trapped in their own subjectivity, mired in the passions and ideology.  We may protest that we need no mediation, but this turns out to be a desire to dwell in the imagination. The sacraments (including the priesthood) do not present a barrier to Christ, but make our access to the One Mediator immediate and independent of our own subjectivity.

God knew what He was doing when He gave us the sacraments!



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.



77 responses to “A Mediated Presence – Thank God”

  1. Roy Campbell Avatar
    Roy Campbell

    This is precisely what I needed to convey after Liturgy yesterday to three serious enquirers about the Holy Orthodox Faith! I shall print this for each of them to consider. This answers their concerns wonderfully. Thank you.

  2. Byron Avatar

    The sacraments (including the priesthood) do not present a barrier to Christ, but make our access to the One Mediator immediate and independent of our own subjectivity.

    I can readily fool myself and rationalize everything I do but I cannot do so while speaking of it with my priest. Father Ambrose is a very objective restraint on my own (dis)honesty! Thank you, as always, for such a positive and enlightening perspective.

  3. Patrick J. Teague, Sr., Sub-Deacon Avatar
    Patrick J. Teague, Sr., Sub-Deacon

    Your comments are remarkably timely. Yesterday my wife and I didn’t make the 1 1/2 hour drive to go to Church from our retirement cabin. We watched a TV service broadcast from Boston Ave. Methodist Church, Tulsa. The senior minister read from John 6. My thought: “Oh, this will be good.” The first half of his sermon was denying what Jesus said, or as we would say, what Jesus said in “Red Letters!” was in fact what Jesus meant. Oh my. It has been 48 years since Madeline and I were Southern Baptist. However having been both Baptist and Eucharistic Orthodox Christian, it still makes me shutter to hear ministers deny that Christ Jesus didn’t mean what He said. Then deny that His Apostles didn’t understand what He said. Then His Church didn’t understand for 2000 years what Christ God said. Lord Have Mercy; or as my saintly great-grandmother used to say, “Lawzee!”

  4. James S Taylor Avatar
    James S Taylor

    Wonderful. Upon such distinctions regarding “mediation” and the priest, such as made here, and the life of the nous (“heart”), are enough to set Orthodoxy apart from all religions; not from snobbery or elitism, but from the very kind of appeals to truth and mystery made by St. Paul. I think my view here is sharpened by being a former protestant (“rational proof” of God) and Roman Catholic, (where in my experience where clericalism and legalism were present). Thank you, Fr. Stephen — very liberating.

  5. Andronicus Avatar

    A great post as always, thank you Father Stephen. Have you read “The truth of our faith: On the Christian mysteries (Vol 2)” by elder Cleopa of Romania? He frequently uses the Old Testament to show how the types / shadows, under the law, are now fulfilled in Christ through the sacramaments of the Church. I think (speaking as an ex Protestant) one of the challenges for Protestants is that they look at the OT Priesthood and see an intermediate between God and man: man could not approach God directly. After Christ’s death and Resurrection, man can now approach God directly – there is no need to go through someone. But perhaps the OT Priesthood should not be seen as something that Christ came to do away with, but something that He came to fulfill / perfect? As you state so beautifully, it makes our access to Him immediate and not dependent on our own thoughts / actions.

  6. Cliff Kirk Avatar
    Cliff Kirk

    And it seems to be that faith itself takes us out of living in a subjective environment. For faith is not a certainty, and therefore ceases to be subjective. However it isn’t completely objective either, but only has a tendency to be so.

  7. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Too bad Roms. 12:2 is translated “mind” in most Bibles. For years I saw the mind as most moderns do, as the seat of our reasoning faculty. But the word is “nous.” It is to be transformed, changed, polished as it were, getting rid of years of accumulated dust, that in our heart we can truly perceive God in stillness.
    You are the first I’ve read to say that forest/ocean can resonate in our nous. I was awed this summer by the coastal redwoods. At Niagara I almost wept standing at the Fall’s edge. This makes great sense to me since beauty is so aligned with what is true in our being.

    William, just a couple of words on “father.” Jesus was speaking of the Pharisee’s pride, their love of status, their pride, their love of salutations, such as first seats in a banquet. The same passage speaks of Rabbi (teacher) and master ( I think a form of our word in English, Mister). And we have the office of teacher in the Church. Paul refers to father Isaac. Stephen calls Abraham, our father. In I Cor. 4:15 St. Paul says he is their father in Christ Jesus. Citations such as these are numerous.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A frequent problem in many traditional Protestant readings is that instead of seeing what’s actually in the text of Scripture, they want to see an argument against Roman Catholicism. They have no clue about priesthood in the Old or New Testament.

  9. MamaV Avatar

    I have experienced this firsthand. As a recent convert lots of my Protestant friends are worried that so many “forms” have “come between me and Jesus”. But truly I have never experienced Jesus so closely as in the icons, or confession, or the Eucharist. I didn’t have words to explain it but this article says what I have been feeling in my nous.

  10. Karen Avatar

    Andronicus, the way I have often seen Fr. Stephen explain this is that there is but one Priesthood in Orthodoxy (whether OT or NT)—that is Christ’s. The Priesthoods exercised in the OT were “shadows” or “types” of Christ’s Priesthood, and the presbytery/Priesthood of the NT is “Icon” of Christ’s Priesthood, which itself is the Reality (made present in the Icon).

  11. Fr. Elias (Warren) Avatar
    Fr. Elias (Warren)

    By your prayers, Father Stephen,
    You did not learn this at the seminary you first attended! Glory to God for your writings, of which this one
    is particularly stellar. God and you certainly cook up carefully, graciously, and mercifully soul satisfying and informed banquets! Thank you! MANY YEARS!

    In Christ Jesus,
    Fr. Elias

  12. Adam Kohlan Avatar
    Adam Kohlan

    Thanks Fr. Stephen,

    Do you mind explaining “nous” a bit more?

    As I understand it so far, you are saying it’s our “perceptive mind”. Would it be fair to say that it’s where we focus our “attention”, or am I not understanding it correctly here?

  13. (Georgiana) Lynn Mate-Cramer Avatar
    (Georgiana) Lynn Mate-Cramer

    Dear Father,
    There is probably a better way to contact you but I am unable to find it. Forgive me for bringing it here. Several years ago I was a subscriber to your blog, then overrun w all kinds of emails, stopped everything I could. Recently i’ve tried to re-subscribe. After several attempts i’ve not been successful. Could you please add me to the email list? Feel free to delete this once read.
    Thank you so much for your ministry.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The theology revealed in the sacraments is profound but the reality of the meeting of the Lord in them and in their extensions of them that is life is truly ineffable.

    I first met our Lord on a hill in northern Illinois over fifty years ago –twenty years before being received into the Orthodox Church and united to the same person I met on the hill. He welcomed me on the first day I entered the parish in which I was to be Baptised and Christmated first as He sat on the lap of His Mother and then unmistably as He walked with the priest down the aisle during the Great Entrance. Welcoming me, then a heathen schooled in heresies yet wanting the truth. My experience is far from unique or special. I think something very like it is extremely common in the Church.

    While I have offered my confession many times “not to me (the priest) a sinner, but to Christ Himself…”.and received absolution — the deepest confession I ever made took thirty years and a lot of tears. Even so it is still not complete. Most of the work has been “outside” the formal sacrament directly with Him who is:

    The same person who kindly introduced Himself to me on that hill in northern Illinois in January, 1968. He is merciful and I take the mercy He gives me into the formal sacrament as an offering of thanksgiving so there can be completion and the seal that only a priest of the Church can give “arise, having no further care…”. Reminiscent of the earlier sacament of Chrismation “The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”

    What a gift. A gift that I too often fail to accept in joy.

    There is nothing between Jesus Christ and me except my own sin. However I did not know that until I walked into my first parish and found Him waiting. He indeed “Came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Dpirity and was made man…”

    Look in vain for any inkling that He is not still fully man and fully God to this day. His mercy endures forever.

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Michael….poignant words…thank you.

    Though our experience is not unique, that experience, when one enters into His Presence in their first visit at Church, after being stirred by Him “outside”, can be the most captivating, overcoming experience of meeting Him in His house of worship one could ever have. It is being “taken” not by force, but by the power of His Love. It is special in that it is the first time meeting Him in this particular place, and the very reason we hasten to return…only to find more, endless, treasures.
    It is simply His Presence. He is there, among the rites and rituals He Himself has sanctified….through His priests, as High Priest…through the holy bread and wine, His Body and Blood…through the incense, as He blesses…through the oil and water, as He purifies…through the icons, as His image of the Father is in them…through the sacred words of Liturgy, as He is The Word…through the vestments, cloths, bowls, fans, as they speak of His majesty…in hymns and song, as in His presence we sing forth praise…in the architecture, as His abode on earth is as it is in Heaven. He is not only represented in these things, He fills them and makes them holy.
    Without the sacraments life is not lived. This is what was missing that I had no idea of in the Protestant church. But I knew something was greatly lacking. When I first discovered it, in my first visit, I knew with a knowing (is what is meant by noetic?) that I was home.
    That I am in my “beginnings” goes without saying. It will always be so until the age to come, and even then we continue to move toward Him. Questions, answers, doubt, faith, love, hate, purity, sin define our struggles. But only One defines the Way through these struggles, to Life, union and communion with Him and His creation. This is our purpose. Those who wonder what life is about, why the struggles, why the “addiction” of chasing after happiness (those addicted to drugs aptly call it “chasing the dragon”…I know this too well), I believe are better able to respond to God’s voice and make for “die-hard” disciples. They know they were lost and have been found, blind but now see, dead but now live…all because of the love of God. Yet all this can slip through the fingers if not kept alive through the sacramental life.
    Maybe I’m wrong…but I don’t think so….

    Thank you Father Stephen….and I love the picture. May God bless our priests!

  16. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    I think it’s worth noting (at least it was overly convincing for me) that if the gospel of John was written in say the 90’s – well after the epistles – then the Eucharist would have been observed for say 60 or so years give or take before he wrote his Gospel. This means the writer of John would have known about any confusion he might be conveying in chapter 6 and there would have been some explanation if he wanted to avoid the literality of what was being expressed.

    Also, if the theory that the synoptic Gospels were written for catechumens is true and that John was reserved for use after baptism (the placement in the church calendar) since the mysteries were not spoken of to cathechumens – then John itself would be all about sacrament.

  17. Helen Avatar

    Years ago, while I was pregnant, I was overcome by panic, convinced that something was wrong with my child. I couldn’t find peace, no matter how hard I tried to rationalize my fears. It felt like I was trapped within a sphere of craziness. Suddenly, I saw that my crazy sphere was surrounded, and indeed held within a larger sphere of God’s love and peace and I knew that even if I couldn’t control my thoughts, God had everything under control.

  18. Dean Avatar

    I am always pleased, Father Stephen, when you write about John 6 and the Eucharist. Yes, those who deny the real presence are very disingenuous in their handling of this passage. You point this out about their exegetical flip-flops.
    It was this passage that eventually brought me to Orthodoxy. I kept wondering, what if Jesus meant what He said? In Jesus’ response to His detractors, 5 times!, He states that we are to eat His body and drink His blood if we are to abide in Him. If He were speaking metaphorically then He had the moral responsibility to clear up the issue when certain disciples here drew back from following Him. He should have said to those leaving. “Come on back boys, you’ve misunderstood me. I wasn’t speaking literally. ” But He didn’t, He let them go. I am so glad I started reading the Church Fathers. They helped me to see the truth of what Jesus was saying.
    Cardinal John Newman said, “He who delves into history ceases to be Protestant,” or words to that effect. It was true with me.

  19. Simon Avatar

    This will be my fourth attempt at writing a response to Fr’s post. I am trying to make the post succinct, to the point without loss of meaning. This post has touched on several things that have been weighing heavily on me for over a week. And I have given this post considerable thought. Four expressions stand out in my mind: 1) Preference for the imaginary over the real 2) Nothing is more subject to manipulation and delusion than our subjectivity 3) More freedom than the tyranny of our own subjectivity and 4) There is no pressure to maintain a subjective state in order for God to be present.

    I’m trying very hard to be non-argumentative, but I have a sincere question: Are we suggesting that these problems don’t exist in Orthodoxy? Isn’t it fair to say that, whether a person is Orthodox or not, that without a noetic understanding that the allegorical and sacramental speech seems like a strong preference for the imaginary? And even though no one is putting any pressure on me to maintain a subjective state or insists that I have certain experiences, I certainly feel like my experience of liturgy and of God is very…nonexistent. Of course, isn’t that what one would expect without noetic sight? I definitely agree that subjective states of mind are susceptible to manipulation and delusion. The irony is that we are usually the ones doing the tyrannizing, the manipulating and the deluding. Without noetic understanding, doesn’t it all reduce to a willingness to believe, a suspension of reason, and a near total suspension or discounting of our own subjectivity? Certainly there is a strong subjective component to anything we are consciously aware of. To attack our subjectivity as tyrannical seems misguided or at the very least suspicious.

    Maybe what this tells me is that I have yet to have the noetic understanding open and when I do things will be clear, but even at that rate I get the feeling that someone is going to tell me that noetic understanding and transformation isn’t something that a person is aware of. Which again seems suspicious. Why is the human mind such a problem? Why is reason so problematic? The Greek word logos means “reason.” It is in the word “logic.” I know, I know…I shouldn’t anthropomorphize the notion of reason: Conforming the Logos into the image of human reason. It used to be that the Greeks believed that among other things the human capacity for reason was what made us like the gods. There are even passages to that effect in the first volume of the Philokalia. What happened that human reason and subjectivity has become such a problem?

    I perceive in myself a war between my mind and my heart. And I have to tell you, that my heart has lead me astray many more times than my mind. I don’t think Orthodoxy is dangerous. Sometimes I get the overwhelming feeling that I am working very hard to make myself comfortable with my ‘preference for the imaginary.’

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will contact the web master guy and see if we can get this fixed.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re quite right. And thinking about things like timing, etc., is a very helpful exercise. One of the earliest post-Apostolic writings are the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He knew the Apostles – a very important early witness in the life of the Church. In one of his letters he uses the phrase, “the Body of God,” in reference to the Eucharist. It is impossible to read St. Ignatius and come to any conclusion other than that the Church taught a clear realism regarding the Eucharist from the very beginning.

  22. Simon Avatar

    I guess my point is that without a noetic understanding wouldn’t our expectation be that all the sacramental and allegorical speech would sound like gibberish?? Without noetic understanding, wouldn’t we expect people to turn away and say ‘This is offensive. Who can bear to listen to it?’ And so if we recognize the role of noesis to a proper way of understanding the scriptures, then apart from noesis wouldn’t the rational response be…to NOT understand…to NOT see it?

    I feel like I am trying to convince myself that something is true and I have lost sight of why I am trying to do it.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good reflection and questions. Of course all of this is as much a problem in Orthodoxy as elsewhere – because we live in a culture in which the options seem to be only 2: reason or emotion – no noetic experience. At least in Orthodoxy, there is a remembrance of the noetic and the possibility of growing little by little in that awareness. I should add that neither reason nor emotion do very much to create peace of mind. They lack stillness.

    Orthodoxy has a long tradition regarding the dangers of delusion (prelest in Russian). It comes up a lot. I think that in a certain measure, there is a willingness to accept certain things, even though our experience of it falls short. More or less in the mode of “I’ll take your word for it.” For a number of years I read about noetic experience but very much felt on the outside of it. In hindsight, I can see that it has always been a part of my experience but was generally ignored because I didn’t know what to pay attention to. And it is a bit difficult to simply say, “Here it is!” because of its wordless character.

    In “taking the word for it” – I don’t mean to overdo that – only to say that there is an element of trust that allows us to move forward. Not without questions or doubts, etc.

    I go back to the example of the walk in nature – forest, ocean. We walk with a stillness, not thinking particularly about anything, and yet, deeply aware of what is there. I think we likely experience a sense of communion.

    Now, that experience can quickly be turned into subjectivity by trying to look to close at it – or to make it happen again – or analyze it, etc. I would differentiate noetic experience from subjectivity by its character. Fr. Meletios Webber gives this description (under the name of “heart” which is generally synonymous with “nous”):

    The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding.

    “Imagination” involves an action on my part. “Perception” is receptive rather than active. It does not force or try to make. It sees.

    Of course, it is possible to say that anything going on in our head is “subjective” and even go so far as to say there is only subjectivity because all of our experience is in our head. I think everyone knows that this is false, even when we can’t think of how to say it. By subjective, I mean, “only in my head” – i.e. imagination. When I look at the tree out my window it is not “in my head.” It is not imaginary. That the Cross is present with the tree, or the tree participates in the Cross is not an act of imagination – but, it can be perceived – but not by trying to perceive it.

    I think the Fathers would suggest that our first attention needs to be towards stilling the passions somewhat. So much easier said than done.

  24. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Many thanks for this wonderful essay. What is a good definition of sacrament (e.g., anything that mediates the presence of God)? Do the Orthodox believe that everything is ultimately sacramental, but especially certain practices within the Church?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In Orthodoxy, the formal word for a sacrament is “mystery.” Sacrament is the Latin term. The word sacrament means “a thing that is made holy.” “Mystery” on the other hand, refers to something being made present that yet remains hidden (that’s my best stab at a definition). The whole of creation reveals the mystery of God – His Divine Providence in all its fullness can be encountered at every moment in everything. But it is also true that He has appointed certain specific mysteries in the life of the Church that convey and reveal His grace in very specific ways. The West often says there are 7 sacraments. The East never codified that. You’ll usually see the same list of seven, but I’ve also seen a list of nine (tonsuring of a monk and burial being added to the seven).

    It is the same Lord made known in each. Perhaps the very best thing to read on Orthodoxy and the sacraments is Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Indeed, I think of it as one of the best reads in all of English-speaking Orthodoxy. It’s short, too!

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve sent a note to our administrator. Be sure and check with your email program to see if it is routing the blog to your spam filter (or something like that).

  27. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, that’s really helpful! As I read your response, I actually have Schmemann’s book right beside me and had just started it. I look forward to learning more.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, I do not know how to classify my experience other than to say it is like meeting someone of being with someone who loves me overwhelmingly. He is just there. I recognize His presence. There are many times I struggle in the Divine Liturgy to stay awake or to pay attention. Most of my feelings are negative.

  29. Simon Avatar

    When I walk into the woods most of my experience is nonreflective. I experience no dissonance, no discontinuities, no confusion. Everthing is immediate and unmediated. In many ways I encounter a world without sin. I only encounter sin and dissonance in the context of the church. A walk in the woods is one experience, liturgy is another.

  30. Byron Avatar

    When I originally “became Orthodox”, I was told it would take 10 years (or so) to develop an Orthodox mind. I’ve found myself yo-yoing between perceiving the world sacramentally and wondering where God is! It is a huge struggle to change perception, especially in a world that demands we limit ours to flat, shallow view of materialism. True humility is the best way I have found to pursue this; to stop trying so hard and accept God’s revealing in His time. In some ways it is like a relationship where you just look back one day and cannot really figure out exactly how you ended up where you ended up…. And yet, in spite of that, you cannot think of any way you could not be where you are right then.

  31. Dean Avatar

    It’s said that people in a coma sometimes have had an awareness of a loved one being at their side (this said after the person has recovered), whether or not words were spoken at the bedside. Michael is right, it is not a knowledge knowledge. It is a perception, a being apprehended, an at-one-ness, a quiet, a rest. It is fleeting (at least for me). Yet, being in my heart, when it occurs, is the most real thing in my life. I love my wife and family dearly. However, sometimes I get glimmerings, in those moments, of what the Psalmist wrote…”Whom do I have in heaven but Thee, and being with you on earth, I desire nothing more.”
    Byron, after 23 years I am still a rank novice in all this. I’m sure that my own lack of humility often trips me up. Lord have mercy.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sin and dissonance in the liturgy. Interesting. Yours or others? In some ways, it’s a good goal to be in the liturgy as you are in the woods. I treat other kinds of thoughts as distractions. I encounter plenty of distractions, but I work at letting them go and being back in the woods.

  33. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for writing this. My confusion about the nous is being lifted.

  34. Dino Avatar

    Walking the woods or participating in the Liturgy alone or close to alone is clearly a different experience to doing either with many others around. However Christ implied to Peter walking (and then sinking in) the waters, that keeping our mind’s eye firmly upon our Creator alone is possible for us. It’s a key thing to work on….

  35. Agata Avatar

    Simon, Dino,
    Isn’t ‘alone with God, in our closet’ one thing, but ‘participation in the Liturgy with others’ another? We don’t go to the Liturgy to be alone with God, we go to unite with Him as one body with other members, don’t we? We have to be in the Liturgy together with others (two or three gathered together), otherwise it is not a Liturgy, is it?

    On such occasions, I am reminded of the saying: “We go to Heaven together, we go to hell alone”…. It makes me appreciate those who are always present in the church services even more… Especially our priests who are there to serve these services, whether 3 or 30 people are in the church. And not just serve. How wonderful that in English the word is actually “to celebrate the Divine Liturgy” (not just ‘serving’, as it is in Slavonic – does the Greek use similar word?)

  36. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I must disagree with you, Dino, I do not think keeping our eyes firmly upon God is a key thing to work on. I think it is the only thing to work on.

  37. Dino Avatar

    Indeed, keeping our mind’s eye firmly upon God alone is the only thing – Christ repeatedly demonstrates this singular focus when, in the midst of the most pressing crowds and difficulties he can still cry out ‘Father!’ The dissonance between the horizontal and the vertical love is eliminated in Him. The Father of the Son is the Father of the Son’s brothers and sisters.
    The fact that in the Liturgy we are one with all does not mean that we have some scatterbrained gathering of many people in our mind and ourselves together with God… (Although the Holy Spirit can impart such a thing without the scattering)
    It means that we pray face-to-face, (an exclusive ‘Thou and me’, where this ‘me’ is: ‘me the human’, in a manner that encompasses ALL humanity. I do not even need to change it to “us”. ‘Me’ can mean ‘us’ in ‘Lord have mercy on me’…
    Looking at the waves, the wind or the others, are all distractive ways to take our eyes off Christ and to consequently start sinking like Peter. Our exclusive focus Godwards – even when we have our arms outstretched upon a cross of horizontal love and pain of neighbour – is a ‘vertical’ movement of the mind’s eye. But it is deep inside that we find this infinite ‘height’ of “Godward-ness”..
    Our awareness of Him must also first be cultivated in stillness and at night for it to carry over in busy surroundings. It must also be a joyful awareness of His loving eyes upon me rather of my anguished cries towards Him. All these things are important.
    The Septuagint versions of the Psalms conventionally make this last point far clearer that the English translations.
    For example, in Psalm 5:3, compare:
    “In the morning will I present myself before thee, And you will look upon me” (Septuagint)
    “In the morning I will direct it [my voice] to You, And I will look up” (King James)

  38. Cherie Avatar

    Thank you for sharing so thoughtfully. This exchanged has caused me to think differently about the sacraments. In fact, there are many insights within this exchange which I wholeheartedly support! Personally, I believe the greatest flaw in anti-sacremental thinking is that it demonstrates the sin of pride.

    I would respectfully like to push back on conclusions that might be drawn from the remainder of the article. First, I would submit that those who practice the sacraments without understanding, while they may be without protest, are no less deleterious to the faith than the anti-sacramentalists. Those who practice solely in liturgical settings are likewise misinformed. While the concept of the nous was mentioned, isn’t our collective ignorance of its existence, let alone its import, the most concerning red flag that Fr. Stephen raised?

    Simply put, I do not believe that ours is a mediated faith. Yes, parts of it are mediated. The sacraments are concrete and tangible means to practice and to experience God’s presence. But there are other sacred spaces, like the nous, where we are alone in the presence of God. These “un-mediated” spaces are vitally important and sadly misunderstood, misused or forgotten.

    As I think about the most prevalent cry of believers, it is for the understanding of purpose. It is a hunger to understand how individuals can be effective contributors to the benefit of posterity. Can this question be answered through rite or ritual? Or is it a topic which must also be addressed within the nous?

    Will we sacrifice the many in favor of debating the importance of sacraments with the noisy few?

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for your thoughts. I do not think that being effective contributors to the benefit of posterity is the point or purpose of our life. We are not involved in a progressive, cumulative process. The Kingdom of God is complete. To touch the Kingdom, to enter the Kingdom, is the point. There is no particular debate within the Orthodox faith regarding the importance of the sacraments, so, I don’t know who the noisy few would mean. The sacramental life, with the fullness of prayer, repentance, confession, etc., is the primary means given to us by God for our life in Christ. It is, generally, that place in which noetic experience is the center. True noetic experience of God will draw someone to the “noetic altar” and the “bloodless sacrifice.”

    The “ritual” (as you call it) is itself a sacramental action, a noetic action. It’s not something else. I don’t have an idea of a noetic life apart from the sacramental life.

  40. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “The fact that in the Liturgy we are one with all…means that we pray face-to-face, (an exclusive ‘Thou and me’, where this ‘me’ is: ‘me the human’, in a manner that encompasses ALL humanity. I do not even need to change it to “us”. ‘Me’ can mean ‘us’ in ‘Lord have mercy on me’ ”
    Dino…thank you for expounding on this. Agata, I’m glad for your comment!
    The stillness is the most challenging thing for me. It begins by a discipline to set apart a time, you recommend night, for quiet prayer (Jesus prayer, psalms?) that would lead to a point of silence and contemplation? Perhaps starting with short periods, that will increase in length? I find it very hard to stop extraneous thoughts. I suppose in time it gets easier to brush them aside? You say this stillness and alone time with God should be a joyful experience of His love and not a time for our many petitions. Yet does it not also allow for a healing our wounds, and anxieties behind these petitions, as we commune in this special way with our God? You speak about our horizontal approach to God. And I see healing and peace bestowed in “His loving eyes”.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Agata, et al
    We are never “alone” with God. The God made known to us in the Scriptures is the Lord of “Hosts” – He is the God who is surrounded with the great crowd, of saints and angels. There is no communion with God that is not a communion with the Hosts (including those around us). And so we’re told that if we do not love our neighbor whom we do see, then we cannot love God whom we do not see.

    Christianity does not properly have the “flight of the alone to the Alone.” It’s foreign to us. The hermit only separates Himself from others that he might more effectively pray for others – it is nothing about himself. His self has become a “self-for-others” and it is this that is the core of his prayer. You see it particularly in the life of St. Silouan – the depth and breadth of his heart is all-encompassing. He prays for “the Whole Adam.”

  42. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Never thought of it that way Father. Thank you. I will put my thoughts about “stillness” to the side for now!

  43. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for those words, Father! I have often wondered about the idea of going off “alone” and how that may affect worship. Your words clear that up nicely.

  44. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    I watched an episode of the new
    Sherlock Holmes mysteries and there was a criminal who explained that his reason for committing murder was that a person is a person but a corpse is a thing. He derived satisfaction from turning ‘a person into a thing.’

    I apologize for that starling image but I think it is what we are constantly being tempted to do with creation, simply view it as a thing. I think a gift is always linked to the giver of the gift and that forgetting the giver is an impoverishment of what we recieved. Adam an Eve took the fruit as a thing, deceived into trying to be like God without God and convinced that God was withholding what they needed from them.

    In the Eucharist we receive the only gift that can be distributed without being divided. Where the weakness of our flesh and blood can return us only to dust we recieve the presence of Christ.

    There were some exceptionally good articles in the most recent Solia ‘The Herald’ which is a Romanian Orthodox publication. One was on St. Nicholas Kavasalas and the theme that within every step we take we can know that God exists and He loves us.

  45. Simon Avatar

    Dino, back when I lived in Illinois I lived in a little town of 400 people in a very rural setting. I used to take my dogs in the woods for 3-4 hour walks. Sometimes I would pray the entire time. I did this on a weekly basis. It wasn’t long before my preferred time to go out was at night 10:00pm…and then my preferred time became 10:00pm AND in the dead of winter. It was during those winter nights that the feeling of being utterly alone had a bodily sensation to it. But, those were the nights when I felt most open, most available. One night–and only one night–I slept out at the lake by myself under the stars with a sleeping bag and a tarp. The temperature dropped down into the 20s. (I built a campfire to stay warm, but the wind was so strong that I didn’t feel safe falling asleep with the fire going.) As I lay there under that crystal clear winter sky I felt like I was the only person within a hundred miles. I felt so alone, so utterly alone–NOT lonely, but alone AND ephemeral. I am not exaggerating to you, brother, when I say this…I have been alone ever since. That night I saw very clearly that I have always been alone. “I am a “something” that is almost a “nothing.” Despite ardent prayers and prostrations…I still feel utterly alone.

    Fr., I never find sin in the woods. Not mine, not anyone’s. One time in Illinois the lake froze over and me and the dogs were walking north of the tracks across the ice. And this day the ice was covered by snow so that in every direction you were surrounded by a flat white plane of undisturbed snow that receded in the distance. This induced a prayerful mood, as the walks would always do. As usual I began praying and meditating. As the dogs and I were walking I noticed something up ahead in the snow. As we approached it I could tell that it was a predatory kill: Seagull blood and feathers strewn about. Since there were no foot prints coming to or away from the kill site this lead me to believe that a hawk or Eagle caught the seagull, landed there, killed it and consumed it there on the ice. Sooo, here I was feeling very prayerful…reverential…seeking a connection with God being impressed by the natural beauty all around me, and in the midst of my prayer and sense of awe amidst all this beauty–out of nowhere I stumble onto an act of bloody violence. But I didn’t see any sin. And as I walked away I thought about human violence and brutality. I thought ‘What if I had to defend myself out here in this lonely place? There is no one to help me. What would I do?’ Well, as it turns out, I know exactly what I would do. In all those years I spent roaming those woods…the idea that there was sin in the natural order of things and that sin was a problem that requires a solution…that never occurred to me. Many other things did occur to me, but not sin. I learned about sin in the Church. It reminds me of a verse in Romans 7 “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” If I am being completely honest, knowledge of sin must be one of those things that comes with noetic understanding because I am not aware of sin. I confess it as a matter of obedience and trying to open the noetic faculty. I pray for forgiveness and there are things I have done for which I experience genuine regret. But I still have no idea what anyone means by sin. And when I return to the rivers and woods my soul comes alive…but I am alone…utterly alone.

  46. Dino Avatar

    The thing about waking up in the middle of the night (to stand before the loving gaze of God), is that it is both a sacrifice (of one’s sleep at the very least) and a consecration (a time put aside for nothing other than that).
    The exclusivity –as explained earlier– is peculiar: the person standing in silence, even when they are not so aware of it yet, is doing this as one ‘aspect’, one ‘side’, one ‘face’ (prosopon) of a multifaceted diamond (humanity/creation). Eyes cannot look at all sides simultaneously, but, one side represents the whole (as it is the ‘seen’ part of it) to the onlooking gaze…
    The sense of the entire heavenly world being present also comes to such a soul very quickly when immersed in Ecclesiastical practice.

    Those who practice continually and consistently the simple and yet so profound mystical ‘night-life’ go through an inconceivable to others range of experiences. Especially when they have access to truly complete ‘uninterruption’.
    As a rule, they will struggle with distraction, memories, imaginations, questions, angers, fears, terrors, while constantly being fortified with necessary aids from the Holy Spirit along the way. Plunging the depths of our hearts we encounter many things before we securely start to discover that under all of that is the only one Who truly loves us: Christ. [But we will walk this road in faith and joy and not in assumption, calculation or rebellion.]
    I seem to remember that there are some parts of the Philokalia (like Kalistos Katafygiotis, Makarius of Egypt, Isaac the Syrian) that are quite explicit on this.

  47. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dino…thank you kindly. This resonates with what I’ve been reading as of late. Your examples give a good “visual” that sometimes speak louder than words.

  48. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    May I recommend Fr. William Menninger, The Loving Search for God, as one way approach silent prayer.

  49. Simon Avatar

    Forgive me if this is a nuisance. Just a few last thoughts that occurred to me this morning. The time I have spent in the solitude of the woods “reflecting on” the world around me, life, God and what it means to be human the perception of my ephemerality saturated my awareness: “I” became little more than an awareness of a voice rattling around inside this skull. As my sense of self became more transparent I didn’t find underneath that a presence of any kind. No mystery. No presence. No depths. Just…nothing. My search for God became two things 1) a search to understand who we are, 2) an effort to make myself real…concrete, and 3) the desire to know what is truly Real. But it all felt like a contradiction. How can you make a shadow real? If you bring it into the light it disappears. Which brings me to the point about sin. How can a something that is on the verge of becoming a nothing bear either merit or guilt? You would think at this point that Buddhism or Daoism with be the perfect “ism” for someone who thinks this way. And you would be right. I say this with great pain in my heart. I have spent decades looking for God, for what is real. The cold dark vacuum of space is more like what I see and experience in my “self” than a lamp that has been lit and waiting so that all those that enter may have light.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My observation is that some of what you describe is likely unique to your experience and may have its own psychological roots. There’s so much to be explored on these things.

  51. Simon Avatar

    Im not sure how unique it is. When I started meeting with monks at the Thai Buddhist Center they seemed to think it was par for the course. This is the tyranny you spoke of. There is your subjective experience which is usually your go to source for understanding yourself and the world. In many ways your subjectivity is the world in which you live. But your subjectivity isnt a brute fact. It is up for interpretation.

  52. Dino Avatar

    The subjective experience of emptiness is a continuous threat for a very great number of us, especially when embarking on an earnest mystical path towards union with God.
    It is but an expression of the egoism that tyrannizes us. It, too, needs to be fought valiantly by paying it no heed as it exerts its powerful pull on our mind’s eye. We must slowly teach ourselves to trust that there is Another Whose goodness and mercy shall surely “follow me all the days of my life to make me dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
    This requires greater ascesis of the Jesus prayer – a true ascetic feat – without reflection and discursive philosophising. In fact, the watchfulness that needs to accompany it will be mainly against heeding the emptiness that will try to establish its ‘hefty substance’. It is not an uncommon devilish attack this one…
    May God illuminate us against such wiles.

  53. Simon Avatar

    The really unanswerable question is ‘How do I know whether its illumination one is experiencing as opposed to a self-induced manipulation and delusion?’ Unfortunately, Im completely aware that I can convince myself that anything is true.

  54. Simon Avatar

    The watchfulness that needs to accompany it will be mainly against heeding the emptiness that will try to establish its ‘hefty substance’.

    This emptiness is almost a permanent state of mind for me now.

  55. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for your beautiful reply to my comment. I find so much comfort and consolation in the fact that there is no “alone” in our standing before God. I don’t think I would be able to ever do it alone, without the support of others, teachers, friends, Saints that gave us an example how to. I personally am not creative enough to even attempt such ‘alone’ approach. I’d much rather imitate the good examples of others and follow in their steps, no matter how poorly.

    Dino, I appreciate your comments about egoism… I believe, from personal experiences, that there is much truth to it…

    Our ‘over indulgence’ about our ‘self’ is from the evil one, I’m convinced… Buddhism (Simon please don’t read this as a criticism, but I pray that God keeps you far from it, remember that Elder Sophrony said it is “a suicide on the plane of eternity” – he practiced it for several years before God returned him to the Holy Church, and he, a great Saint, repented over this mistake with great tears and for a long time) is just that, a creation and delusion for the humans from the evil spirits… I read lately that all the names of the devil (cannot quite remember which one corresponds to which definition) are: “the one who whispers in your ear”, “the author of lies”, “the king of the flies”, “prince of darkness” … If we spend too much time in that darkness, he will get the hold of us (just like you will pick up ticks and other undesirable bugs if you stay in the woods too long :-))…

    We need to run to Christ who is Light and Life, away from the deep darkness inside us… Not only that, but the Liturgy and Eucharist fills and feeds us with God’s life. Only great Saints may be able to find it in the woods, but even they serve the Liturgy in their monasteries (or are brought Holy Communion by others, even when they achieved great holiness, as St. Mary of Egypt). Everyone needs this Food and Medicine of Immortality, Saints and sinners alike…

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, I would steer away from making the subjective of too much importance, or even being much concerned about the noetic for the time being. I have described faith as being closer to “loyalty” than to our more popular notion of belief. I would begin by simply maintaining a loyalty to Christ as He has made Himself known. The anchor of the sacraments is also that they are there regardless of my experience.

    It grows more solid in time. There is so much that takes time –

  57. Simon Avatar

    Agata, Thank you for your concern, but I’m not interested in being Buddhist. My experience with the Thai Buddhists was 13 years ago.

  58. Dino Avatar

    The main thing that the ascesis of the Jesus prayer in stillness and without expectations bestows (as “ascesis”) is the liberation of the sway that the ‘subjective’ has on us.
    If, for instance, I am depressed, or empty, the practice of it will help me realise that these are not some permanent states that define me (which is what the devil would love to convince me off); there is Someone far greater that my subjectivity that I stand before, the God of my Holy Fathers. Eventually, of course, through continued practice, I will acquire the childlike state that will make me stand not before the “God of the Holy Fathers” –as a still unknown to me Lord – but before my Lord and God who fulfils my being and Whom I personally know.

  59. Dean Avatar

    One of my favorite phrases in the Great Doxology is…”and continue Your mercy unto them who know You.”
    In one of Father’s podcasts some years back he said. ” If you have Christ, you have everything. If you don’t have Him, then you have nothing.” Our antennae pick up on certain things. That phrase was captured by mine.

  60. Byron Avatar

    I would steer away from making the subjective of too much importance.

    Subjectivity is very difficult to steer away from, especially in this world. Our world hates nothing so much as it hates the reality of the objective. God is seen as a tyrannical reality that requires too much of us. That God Loves and is not the tyrant the world considers Him to be is very hard for many to embrace in this day and age.

  61. Karen Avatar

    Both Michael’s encounter with Christ and Simon’s encounters with his own nothingness/emptiness have analogs in my own experience.

    The analog with Michael’s encounter occurred when I was a child of about 7 or 8. It came in a context of having been immersed from babyhood in a pretty non-toxic Christian traditional environment where loving the Jesus I encountered in the Gospel stories read to me was as almost as easy and natural as breathing. I was a child in a loving home (not perfect, but secure and loving). I encountered the Lord in a dream that probably lasted only a few seconds, but it was enough for me to say with confidence to Simon, there is no possibility of a) manufacturing or b) mistaking this experience once you’ve had it. It does not have the character of delusion at all—it is unspeakably beyond anything we could “talk ourselves into.” The reality that we can’t manufacture these encounters is accentuated in
    my case by the facts that a) I was a child, b) had no reference points or expectations for such an
    encounter (other than Bible stories which I viewed as something unique to Bible times and not something entering my modern experience) and c) I was in a dream state sound asleep.

    The analog with Simon’s experience was the three-day “solo” I took on the UP shore of Lake Superior as the final phase of a three-week “outward bound” type wilderness training experience that I took as a course as an incoming freshman of my Christian college. Most of the course was like a boot camp wilderness excursion we went through in groups of about ten that stretched both our physical endurance and group dynamic and communication skills. By the end we were all exhausted, a little to a lot worse for wear and tear on body and soul, and the solo period was designed for solitary quiet rest, prayer, contemplation, and reflection on the whole experience. It also involved for most of us a 3-day (2 night) water fast (the first fast I ever undertook). We were to keep a journal of thoughts to be shared with our group leaders for a kind of debriefing at the end. This time I was at a stage in my Christian life where I had come to expect rather a lot of myself and had accumulated a lot of Bible knowledge and not a few preconceived ideas about how this intimacy with God thing was supposed to work. In the silence, in that wearied and sobered state, I discovered not the still small Voice of God, but rather a great empty gulf of inner space. It felt like I knew rationally God was there somewhere, but I was at a great distance from Him (or vice versus) and could neither see Him nor hear Him at all. It’s as though God was somewhere on the island of my heart, but I was very separated from my own heart and at a great distance from it with a wide expanse of water separating my observing “self” and that island! All that confronted me experientially was an empty and silent abyss. It was more than a little saddening and depressing. I felt alone.

  62. Dino Avatar

    The experience of our nothingness in stillness is of greater value to our eventual rooted stability in humility (that allows Grace permanence.) The exhilarating experiences of felt Grace – inspiring beyond imagination and encouraging though they may be – still remain fleeting (without the first.) A high tree needs deep roots.

  63. Dino Avatar

    But above all, such a high and yet well rooted tree never occurs in a day no matter how well cared for. It needs a long time.

  64. Karen Avatar

    Dino, indeed. I recognize both those aspects of my Christian experience as essential touchstones of a real and living experience of God. I have experienced the repeat of both types, but the second is by far the more prevalent and enduring. There is also a third kind of experience, which is that of a far more subtle and “everyday” sort of mediated Grace which we barely notice, but which imperceptibly keeps us stable and plugging away daily at our Christian walk in hope. If it were not for this third way, there would be nothing to anchor the first two and make them spiritually fruitful for us in the long term.

  65. Simon Avatar

    Perhaps the reason the Eastern religions can only get so far is that the veil is only something Christ can lift. The idea that deep meditation leads inexorably to an experience of nothingness is universal in all forms of mysticism. Only Christ can remove the veil that yields the perception of nothingness or vanity.

    Small tangent. Regardless, if we are aware of having an experience of any kind, then by definition that is “subjectivity”. And all experience is subject to interpretation. Subjectivity works best as a mind-to-world goodness-of-fit: I see a tiger, I identify it as a “tiger”, and elicits the appropriate flight response. Outside of that subjectivity becomes deeply suspect. Which leads me to the conclusion that although the mind may be transformed by God it cannot know God.

  66. Byron Avatar

    An older quote, that seems appropriate.

    Orthodoxy has a strong experiential base, and yet can be extremely critical about experiential claims. One of the best books on the nature of spiritual experience and problems surrounding it is St. Ignatius Brianchininov’s The Arena, written for monks.

    The Tradition is critical of experience because it can easily be delusional, and is almost always the basis for bogus claims by charlatans. Experience always has to be subjected to examination. I have experiences, but they’re not all that important to me. They come, they go, sometimes I have no idea why. God abides. True transformation is, strangely, deeper than what most people describe when they speak of experiences.

    We lived through the 60’s – everybody saw God in the 60’s.

    Ultimately it is true transformation that bears witness to the reality of the experience – transformation into the image of Christ. This is what is evidenced in the lives of the saints. And, interestingly, the saints rarely speak about their experiences in terms of how great it was, etc. Instead, we hear their profound humility and deep emptiness. It’s almost the most sure evidence of an encounter with God. In the presence of God, how can a human being not be aware of their own emptiness?

    And so, for example, we pray before communion saying that we are the “first of sinners.” Those are not words of self-condemnation. They are the words of a saint (St. Paul) who actually felt them to be true. Moses is called the “God Seer” on many of his icons. And Scripture says that he was the “meekest man on the face of the earth.”

    Many Eastern religions have a goal of a certain state of mind. Orthodoxy does not. The goal is God in Christ. Sometimes it can even make you miserable. Love is like that.

  67. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Simon…maybe I misunderstand your words, but the “mind” you speak of, that needs to be transformed, that is, what St. Paul speaks of, is actually translated as “nous”. This transformation of the “mind/nous” is what makes it possible to know God. So yes, only through Christ can this veil be removed…by the “changing/renewing of the mind”…repentance…turning towards Him. This is way beyond the thought of the knowledge of God being a result of subjectivity. You give an example of tigers…well, some of the Saints did not “naturally” flee from such wild animals, but the animals laid at their feet. Why the subdued response? It is the peace of God flowing out from within these Saints…surely of a transformation of their soul/mind/heart/nous. These Saints know God.
    God means for us to know Him and to be like Him…as His image! This is why we were created! He gives us every means to do this in and through the Church.
    Now, if by “knowing” God you mean knowing Him in essence…that’s another thing entirely. You know the teachings of the Church regarding that. But we can know Him as revealed in Christ, as He actually reveals Himself to us through Christ. Oh yes…we can know Him….in whatever measure is given…it is a knowing….

  68. Dino Avatar

    The homily “The Progression of the Soul” by Elder Aimilianos covers most of this ground very well.


  69. Tod Mixson Avatar
    Tod Mixson

    Father, Bless.
    Interwoven here without focused or conscious awareness is an etymological — a linguistic — difficulty. In its Latin origins as adapted to our English (as well as, surely, other languages) the “deep” sense of “Mediate” / “Mediator” expresses a “coming between”. And yet, for us Orthodox Christians, surely the best conveyor of the meaning intended would be “together”; and especially in communion, as in, “Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints [that is, all of us together] have mercy on us and save us”.
    After all, our Holy Orthodox faith is not a “. . . just me and Jesus” thing!

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Think of the meaning of the word “media.” It’s a means of communicating, i.e. making present. Much the same use, I think.

  71. Sue Avatar

    Simon, in my faith tradition what you have described has a name; it is called “the long dark night of the soul”. It was the experience of several of Cathaolicism’s most beloved saints. St. Teresa of Calcutta ( Mother Teresa) experienced a dark, pitiless silence (aloneness / nothingness) for more than fifty years, spanning nearly her entire mission, right up to her death. In 1974 she wrote to a priest who was suffering from his own spiritual blackness, “In you today, he (Christ) wants to relive his complete submission to his Father. It does not matter what you feel, but what he feels in you..You and I must let him live in us and through us in the world.”

    St. Therese of Lisieux “The Little Flower” also experienced the dark night of the soul. St. Teresa of Calcutta died “almost one hundred years to the day after her patron Thérèse, the Little Flower of Lisieux. And their lives form spiritual brackets around the twentieth century. Thérèse, too, experienced a “night of nothingness” — on her deathbed, she heard demonic voices telling her that heaven was just a figment of her imagination.

    “Following Thérèse into this night of nothingness, Mother Teresa too sought the Holy Face of the Crucified in the crushed and the dying, walked the path of spiritual childhood in the small, ordinary realities of her days, and lived her life one little act of love at a time.” (from this article: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/faith-and-character/faith-and-character/mother-teresas-long-dark-night.html

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your experience is shared by many saints.

  72. Jeff Avatar

    After reading the conversation, I will add my own questions. I wrote them in the form of a poem on 8 December 2016. Many of them still arise in different forms as my life continues. FWIW…

    Every person I meet I expect to be God.
    None of them are.
    This upsets me.
    The bane of existence.
    A banal existence of angry expectation.

    What does it mean to be saved?
    I want wholeness.
    How does it feel?
    When all you know is broken…

    What does God look like to a broken man?
    What does broken look like?
    Maybe I’m not.
    Maybe I am a whole person.
    Maybe I’m blind to the reality that is me.

    Is what is what was intended?
    Escape is appealing.
    To where?
    I escape to reality.
    I escape from what to wholeness?

    What does escape look and feel like?
    Does it hurt to escape?
    Who cares.
    Where does it hurt?
    Why does it hurt to escape from before?

    The past is not there, it’s a group of synapses.
    I fire them everyday.
    Path making.
    Reruns of everything.
    The dendrites go deeper, gouging my eyes.

    When we meet, will you tell me you are not God?
    In case I think that you are.
    Speak the truth.
    Why would I think you are?
    If you were God, do I know what that would mean?

    How would I feel if you were God?
    Do I want to meet God?
    Have I already?
    God made you to be you.
    Why would I want you to be God?

    Some of us are desperately clinging to death for dear life.
    We think it’s something it’s not.
    Seeing is wanting.
    A hole creates a pressing vacuum.
    My insides look into my soul as it cleverly chases its tail.

    So is God just an escape hatch?
    Are you a portal to better?
    I am.
    Yesterday, today, or tomorrow?
    I am now. Walk with me. You are.

  73. Tod Mixson Avatar
    Tod Mixson

    Yes, certainly, Father. I do indeed attend to the sense which (come to think of it) you seem mostly to have in mind, especially by including in my daily devotions a prayer that “. . . We (Thy faithful) may ever serve as Thy royalty and priesthood to all Thy creation, receiving its blessings at Thy hand with joy and gladness, and returning them to Thee in offerings of thanksgiving, all, according to Thy will, as the very way [or medium; or maybe even, “environment”] of our communion with Thee.”

    In my previous comment I’d more particularly had in mind what I take to be a Protestant “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” whereby any thought of asking for the intercession of the Theotokos and other saints is vigorously rejected as a supposed acceptance of Anselm of Canterbury’s soteriology according to which, on account of the filthy rags in which we’re clothed at conception, our God will not allow our approach, save by intermediaries who, according to their exceptionally meritorious works (or in the case of Mary, by her asserted immaculate conception) are able to serve as our intercessors.

  74. Yvette Cathers Avatar
    Yvette Cathers

    This is the most amazing blog post yet.

    I’d be confused by anyone suggesting they can go straight to God, when they also believe that Christ is the only mediator–so apparently, they can circumvent Christ altogether and go straight to God the Father.

    I tell them that there is nowhere in scripture that says there is only one mediator between Christ and man or who that mediator might be, and they quote 1 Timothy 2:5 to me, thereby confusing God the Father and Christ Jesus. That happened on an Orthodox page just a couple weeks ago.

    So there is nowhere in scripture forbidding any mediator between us and Christ. I believe that’s where priests function, and even us, when others ask us to pray to Jesus on their behalf.

  75. maria Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    One thing that isn’t addressed is being forgiven when we sincerely repent, whether or not we are in confession. What i mean is Christ forgave sins directly to various people throughout the gospels when they repented. I don’t understand the Orthodox thought (or concern) that if someone hasn’t gone to confession before they die, then perhaps their sins aren’t forgiven.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Church would not say that their sins are not forgiven. But forgiveness is not a legal matter, it is a matter of the healing of the soul. In Christ’s encounters with people, for example, forgiving their sins often results in physical healing as well. It’s not a legal matter, but a real, truly existing thing. As such, the sacrament of confession is a direct application of that healing/forgiving power. In Orthodoxy, not only is there the possibility for confession and forgiveness before death, but, in the prayers of the Church, we continue to pray for the forgiveness of those who have died even after their death. This is something of a process that transcends time.

  77. maria Avatar

    “not a legal matter” – Oh now I see!

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