To Know What We Don’t Know

Two corollaries: We will not know God until we know ourselves; we will not know ourselves until we know God.

I believe that both of these are true, even though, taken together, they seem to preclude knowledge altogether. In truth, what they preclude is doing one without the other. We can only do both, and simultaneously, at that.

St. Paul tells us that we “know in part,” and that we “will know, even as we are known.” St. John says that what we shall be does not yet appear, but that it will appear when we see Christ “as He is.” Both of these statements turn on “last things.” They are at the end of our journey, or the close of the age. In whatever manner it is that we reach our telos, it is there that we know and are known.

This could easily be misunderstood as a simple product of historical life-progression: we are working towards something that won’t be finished until the very end of things. If this were true, then our proper path would be the typical work of cause-and-effect. What do I want? What do I have to do to make it happen? Choose wisely…etc.

But this is not at all the character of the Christian life. We are not building a Christian identity. “Working out your salvation from day-to-day” is not a path of improvement. In order to build something, we have to know what we are building. However, we do not yet see what/who we shall be. How could we know “what we need to work on?” The impossibility of this approach demonstrates the chasm that separates the Christian spiritual tradition from all the many efforts of modern self-improvement.

If we do not yet see the end, and we cannot make improvements towards that goal, how do we live the Christian life?

The Christian life is apocalyptic, that is, it is a revelation. It is specifically a revelation in this time of what shall be. That is its heart and its very nature. We cannot build the Kingdom because it is already complete. We cannot make ourselves into something that is already present. What we shall be is already present within us. Indeed, it is given to us in Holy Baptism. Consider this:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor. 5:17)

And this:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:20-24)

In these passages, St. Paul is describing that which shall be as though it were already here. The “new man,” is the self, conformed to the image of Christ. It is not a new beginning, but the whole new creation. Our life consists not in becoming what we are not, but in seeing what we are (in Christ) revealed within us as the truth of our being.

The dynamic surrounding this is quite striking, and matters greatly. St. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that we not only learn God, but that we suffer God (ou monon mathein, alla kai pathein ta theia). “Suffer” (pathein)is a difficult word to translate. It could be rendered “experience,” but the import is that we not only learn God in an active way, but that God “happens” to us  – He acts upon us. I would expand this to say that who/what we shall be, already present within us, is something that we learn to receive, to allow. The act of receiving places us in the position of a eucharistic life – we give thanks because who/what we are is coming to us as a gift. We are not our own creators or fashioners. Our true life is “traditioned” to us.

This is a fundamental shift away from a modern mindset. Modernity sets itself against tradition, against what it has received. Our givenness is treated as something to be fixed and overcome. We view ourselves as creating a new self, a new world, sometimes out of whole cloth. This nurtures the passions within us as we are dominated by a maelstrom of desires.

There is a parallel between this mode of existence and our participation in the Liturgy. There is nothing that we can do that makes the Eucharist a better Eucharist. The choir can be inadequate and off-key, the sermon miserable and beside the point. Our attention can wander and entertain the worst sort of thoughts. And yet, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. No doubt, various aspects of the Liturgy might help us attend better to what is being given to us. But it is not at all unlikely that the most “effective” reception of the Eucharist could come in the most miserable of circumstances.

Quite striking is the fact that the New Testament really never suggests the reformation of an individual. St. Paul, who has more to say than anyone on the topic of Christian living, consistently uses the image of “putting to death” the “old man,” and the “putting on the new.” Apparently, Christianity is not about making bad people better. The solution is clearly that of being put to death and raised to new life.

All of this has the significant reality that what/who we are to become is already present. We do not have to construct it, or to reform the life that is being put to death. Living more fully into that which has been given to us consists largely in learning how to receive the gift of new life. To live as one who receives a gift is to live a life of thanksgiving. This sounds to us like a simplistic approach. It is, indeed, simple, but its depth and true complexity are not revealed until it is practiced.

It is also the case that this “new man” is largely hidden, and frequently remains that way. An aspect of the Kingdom of God, of which the “new man” is an instance, is its hiddenness. It is a theme within the parables of Christ. There is a coin that is lost, a treasure buried in a field, a pearl that one must seek. Christ speaks in parables, words that are hidden from the crowds. The Kingdom is found by those who ask, seek, and knock. In St. Paul’s language, all of this is described as the “mystery hidden from all the ages.” This reality is not hidden in order to make it scarce or impossible. Rather, it belongs to the character of God’s gift that it is revealed. The purpose of God’s hiding is that we may know by revelation. The coin that was lost is found as a surprise. A treasure buried in a field is only discovered by accident. The pearl of great price is not found in the pearl store – it must be sought.

Many years ago, I had a mentor who said, “Don’t answer questions that people are not asking.” His lesson came in the context of a preaching class. It changed how I preached. I began to ask two questions: “What are people asking?” and “How can I help them find their questions?” Over the years, the first group have needed very little. The one who asks gets an answer. It seems to come. It is the second group that has always captured my attention.

What are the questions that set us on the road towards what is hidden? The nature of modern, secular existence is its attention to that which seems most obvious. Of course, history reveals that what is most obvious is often nothing more than the shimmering delusions of an ephemeral culture. Most people do not seek what is hidden – they hide themselves from it.

Those things that are given to us in the normal course of the Orthodox Christian life – prayer, fasting, keeping the commandments, repentance, confession – are the arena where the questions are forged. Those who live in such a manner are setting themselves on a path where pearls are found, treasures revealed, coins discovered, the old crucified and the new made known. St. Paul offers this summary:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Any questions?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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45 responses to “To Know What We Don’t Know”

  1. Adam Avatar

    Hi Father,

    Great post. However, it seems that the only “creation of a new self” is to be done in repentance to dig towards that “new self”. I thought that we were supposed to work in synergy with Christ to get to the “new self” within us. Essentially, it seems that “bearing a little shame” is equal to “thanksgiving” in your post (correct me if I’m misunderstanding that). But, where is repentance in all of this? I ask because I have a high self-critic and am wondering how one should view repentance if one has a high self-critic from the past.

  2. Dimitri Christo Avatar
    Dimitri Christo

    Father Stephen, Yes, a question: Where is the role of the Holy Spirit? The essay seems to point to following the Tradition in Church life and the “new man” will result, ipso facto. We are told in the Bible by St. Paul to actively “renew our minds”, be “imitators” of Paul who imitates Christ Himself, and that the Holy Spirit will always point us towards Christ (not to Himself), the “new Adam”. In other words, the active role of the Christian is to allow the Holy Spirit to transform him/her into Christ-likeness. Perhaps you’re meaning for the best way to participate with the Holy Spirit in this ongoing transformation is to be an active participant in Tradition and life of the Church? Am I off base here? Thank you.

  3. Jonas Avatar

    How do you help them find their questions in your preaching? What is it that you do that your preaching may reach the hearts of the congregation? And hopefully that through your preaching, the people will ask more questions and seek answers to get that pearl?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed, giving thanks is frequently equivalent to “bearing a little shame.” Repentance is deeply misunderstood, I think. Bearing a little shame is also an important part of it as well. It is very important, I would think, to distinguish between repentance and our inner self-critic. Our inner self-critic is mostly a manifestation of our brokenness – a kind of neurosis – often rooted in shame and sometimes aided by disorders like OCD and such. Repentance is not about fixing ourselves or promising yet one more time to try harder. It certainly is not about self-loathing.

    Repentance is a renewing of our openness to God – turning our attention back to Him. It is saying, “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” It is letting God be greater than your inner critic.

    I’ve mentioned before that I have ADHD (by the way, those who say there is no such thing should come spend some time in my head!). Sometimes it can get very bad for various reasons. I’ve stood at the doors of the altar, making my entrance prayers, and my brain be so distracted that prayer is almost impossible. I also know that the service will likely be a battle that day. The least helpful thing I could do would be to berate myself over my lack of attention – as if there were something I could do about it. Instead, I have learned to pray that God fight for me – that He stand between me and the cascade of distractions. That He accept the sacrifice of my standing in His presence at the altar even if my mind will not behave that day. It’s a way of minimizing the noise – of treating it like something that resembles a toothache or a leg cramp. The least valuable thing to do with an inner critic is to have a conversation with it.

  5. Ilya Sterie Avatar
    Ilya Sterie

    Questions? No, not really. Just annoyance at modernity and people’s resistance to truth. Oh well . 🙂

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The “mechanics” of all of this can be described in a number of ways. It is also frequently distorted by popular images in the modern world that have come to have a very strong place in our minds. We think in “psychological” terms with various overlays (including things like progress and such). Much of the imagery in popular psychology is a terrible distortion of how things actually work. All that is to say that it’s difficult to speak of these things in a manner that is simple.

    The Holy Spirit is active within us creating, preserving, nurturing that “eternal weight of glory” that St. Paul references. Just about the least helpful thing, however, is to spend much time thinking about the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself, Jesus says. He works, but is quite anonymous in that work. One of the problems in Pentecostalism has been its thought about the Holy Spirit. In the worst cases they have imagined it like some kind of force-field or other oddities. With it comes some very bizarre things.

    The Holy Spirit always points us to Jesus. As we practice the life given to us in the Tradition – with our attention directed towards Jesus – we can be assured that the Spirit is doing what is necessary for our salvation. And this will quite likely be hidden for the most part.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We should rejoice that God has placed us in such a time as this. The “fiery trial” of life in modernity is given to us for our salvation. Modernity is Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham prayed for their salvation. That is our task. Be blessed! It is also annoying…I agree.

  8. Christopher Avatar

    Those who have been concerned with an Origenistic problematic (hell, universalism, etc.) in your writing Father (which includes myself) should read this essay carefully. This is the clearest explication in your writing of the apocalyptic in relation to itself (as a telos considered in itself) and our life now (telos as related to time, process, will, etc.) that I can remember.

  9. Adam Avatar

    Thanks Father,

    That was enlightening. It seems that repentance is more about turning the nous towards God in a mindset of “Apart form You I can do nothing” and realizing that we are not yet as we will truly be yet at our telos alongside saying the Jesus Prayer and staying in the present moment.

    Thank you for the vulnerability and sharing of your experience with ADHD and the advice to “pray that God fight for me – that He stand between me and the cascade of distractions. That He accept the sacrifice of my standing in His presence at the altar even if my mind will not behave that day. It’s a way of minimizing the noise – of treating it like something that resembles a toothache or a leg cramp. The least valuable thing to do with an inner critic is to have a conversation with it.” Maybe giving thanks to God for the inner critic could be a way to bear the shame of it in a beneficial way.

    Do you ever give thanks to God for the ADHD as a way to overcome it? Or do you think staying in the present moment saying the Jesus Prayer is better? (Or both)?

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I try to give thanks for the ADHD. As much as it can be a source of embarrassment and frustration for me, it is also a gift. Oddly, I do not think I could do this ministry with my blog without it. St. Paul said that he would “boast in his weakness (infirmity)”. With the Jesus Prayer, it is sometimes helpful. It also sometimes becomes so meaningless that it just becomes one more part of the noise. When that happens, I change the prayer, substituting a Psalm, a Scripture verse, or other short prayers. Sometimes, you just have to lay in the floor in front of the icons and say, “Mercy!”

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This makes me sound ever so much more sophisticated than I am. 🙂

  12. Jordan Avatar

    It’s strange but also strangely uplifting to think of myself as the object as well as the subject of revelation. I’m always trying to understand myself, and it frees me from that weight to consider myself as being revealed through the on-going path of life. Thank you for writing this!
    It’s also strange to think about the democracy of time. I mean, that for us and for humans living in any other time and place, we have the same work of becoming human. We have centuries of “progress” and an accumulation of knowledge, but that doesn’t seem to give us a leg-up.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An observation I would offer if I were pushing back on those who might be concerned with an Origenistic problematic in my writing, is that their notions of heaven, hell, salvation, the whole process, is deeply infected with the modern imagination. We are all “managers” and want to work out the big picture so that we can then get on with managing our lives (and everyone else’s as well). Modern people want to know too much and are uncomfortable with ignorance.

    The best approach in this is to give thanks and trust that God in His Providence is doing all things well. Frankly, we worry a lot about each other, afraid that if we somehow get something wrong, bad things that could have been prevented will happen. I plead repeatedly that I do not know how the salvation of all will turn out. I am intrigued by some hints, here and there, that it might be more wonderful than we dare imagine. But my approach to it – if people would read me rather than worry – is to trust the Providence of the good God who loves mankind. Learning to live that way – not just speak that way – is fundamental to our life in Christ.

  14. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Once when I was having a discussion with a deacon about prayer (I had mentioned some specifics) he said, “It sounds like you are worrying before God more than praying.” That was (is) true. I sometimes attempt to manage even while praying. ” Lord have mercy on and save so-and-so” might yet be the best prayer for another. It’s just that when I pray for our grandchildren I especially want to micromanage…as if I truly knew what they need for their salvation. Lord, have mercy on them and me!

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If we actually knew what someone needed for their salvation, we would be afraid to ask for it.

  16. Dimitri Christo Avatar
    Dimitri Christo

    Father Stephen, thank you for your response, and thank you for reiterating the Holy Spirit is not a force, but , as the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, should be respectfully referred to as He/Himself. For your readers considering Orthodoxy, the fact alone that in a plethora of “Christian” denominations out there today, Orthodoxy seems to be the only one on the block (so to speak) that has maintained an accurate reverence of each Person of our Triune God.
    If I may, Father, by way of clarifying my initial question, and in relation to your essay and some of you follow-up comments, I do not hold that our given walk can be managed, as if it were another self-help endeavor. And, I would like to add the following for clarification: We know from the Book of Acts that the followers of Christ were referred to by those outside of The Way as “Christian” (gr. “Christianos”=”little Christ”). We have obviously accepted this term throughout the centuries, for we call ourselves this without debate. To be a “little Christ” is to be more than a follower (for Christ was more than any teacher or guru), but to humbly submit (an action on our part) to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in showing us all things of our Lord, and by way of submitting to the Church and to the Holy Spirit-inspired Tradition within that Church (see link below). Beyond that, words do not suffice….but I would add, I am a firm believer in the “abundant life” (John 10:10) beginning on this side of eternity. Christ-likeness starts in the now, for “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and “within” us in the now., by God’s grace. The fullness of becoming Christ like obviously would occur in the next life, for we see “through a glass dimly” now.

    Thank you.

  17. Adam Avatar

    Thanks again Father,

    Do you mind explaining what you mean by “boast in his weakness (infirmity)”?

    I’m not sure what this means in its fullness. Does it have to do with trusting in His Providence and that His allowance of that infirmity is for the good of our end/telos for our salvation in bringing us into closer communion with Christ all while thanking Him in the present moment for that infirmity and knowing He is there with us in the present moment co-suffering with us and abiding in us when we focus our nous on that praise of Him and watchfulness of His presence with us?

  18. Albert Avatar

    Very helpful comments/responses as well as the post itself. I’m am grateful to be able to visit. The praying for others theme (Dean, as I recall, on grandchildren – and your surprising but enlightening statement) really got my attention.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I have three questions. Is it correct to approach Confession as an opportunity to experience the revelation, by the Holy Spirit, of who I actually am?

    …”a contrite and humble heart God will not despise.”. Is it not possible to be so proud in our sins, even as we despise them and regret the consequences of them that we miss the humble part?

    Why do I(we) cling so hard to the leprosy filled carapice of the old man experiencing continued pain even as the new man (or the possibility of him) is seen, revealed enough to know it’s real?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our modern culture imagines that we achieve good things by our gifts and talents – and that we simply have to tolerate or overcome our handicaps. This makes us a culture that is often quite ashamed of our infirmities. Just think – when someone goes in for their “annual review” with their employer – it’s deeply painful to be told about our deficiencies. It’s awful.

    But, we are not saved by our strengths and talents. We are saved through our weakness and infirmity. It is only in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect (complete). In a healthy marriage, husband and wife can relax when they come home, remove the mask of competency, and perhaps say out loud how bad their day really was, what they were afraid of, etc. And then, hopefully, received some comfort from someone who loves them and does not need them to be competent all the time. Such safe relationships allow us to be vulnerable. That makes love possible.

    This is also the heart of humility. Humility is not being modest about your excellence. Anybody can do that without any cost whatsoever. It is bearing a little shame that constitutes humility. It is the foundation of humility. We all have enough weakness and infirmity as well as garbage of all sorts from which to learn humility – we don’t have to look for more. But, we can also give thanks for those things because, through them, we are finding God.

    If we were finding God through our strength, then only the strong would be holy and the Kingdom of God would look just like the kingdoms of this world where the strong lord it over the weak. But in the Kingdom of God it is those who are losing their lives that are saving them. It is the poor, the meek, those who mourn, etc., who find the Kingdom. The strong are sent away empty. The good news is that, if weakness is the criterion of the Kingdom of God, everyone qualifies. But only if we are able to embrace that weakness in humility.

    No one’s strength ever made them cry out, “O God, help me! Apart from you I can do nothing!”

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dean, I call the attempt to micromanage during prayer “praying at someone”.

    I find it quite easy to do when praying for my “enemies”. Thus the injunction from my confessor that I just ask for God’s mercy for those people.

    My wife and I petion for God’s “mercy, grace, peace and healing that they might come into the Kingdom” for those we enumerate each day.

    Among other things that approach helped me to come to a level of forgiveness and even thanksgiving for a man who injured me, my late wife and son quite severely early in our life in the Church. That was revealed to me in my heart as I prayed over many years at times gritting my teeth.

    In my previous attempts of praying at him, my heart just became harder and the wound deeper.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that revelation is possible in the face of Christ. It is not by looking at ourselves. It’s also (second question) possible to be perverse in this stuff and have an inappropriate pride in our brokenness. Generally, it’s one of the strange functions of shame that produces it. As to the third – I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just familiar.

  23. Cliff Avatar

    Father, we are on the same page when it comes to helping people find the questions. I remember, as a child, a popular Protestant bumper sticker that said, “Christ is the answer.” There was something about this that I found deeply unsettling, so I would silently respond, “Then why did He ask so many questions?” Years later I noticed that Simon Peter found his question while the rest of the Apostles were still looking for answers. Jesus wasn’t really interested in knowing what the crowds were saying about Him, even though that is what He asked them. When Peter answered and said, “You are Christ the son of the living God.” That is what He wanted to hear. He wanted to hear one of them answer from a conviction that was not given by other men, but a conviction that was given by God Himself. He even acknowledged this by saying, “Blessed are you Simon-Bar-Jonah because FLESH AND BLOOD didn’t reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” It was only after this event that He began to tell them about His death and resurrection.

  24. Kevin z Avatar
    Kevin z

    Much to consider. I’m always struck by the impossibility of ‘describing’ my experiences that set me on this path. One simply cannot. It’s reverse engineering the modern mind set: instead of starting from a rational argument and logically eliminating data to get to an experience, one has the experience and then reads and prays to find the words to possibly describe it. Thank you.

  25. Dean Avatar

    The petition that you and Merry make for others as you pray is really good. It is simple, direct, and all-encompassing. I’ll begin using it in my prayers and share it with my wife as well.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Years ago my parish held a weekend seminar on monasticism and were blessed with the presence of Elder Zacharias. At the end their was a panel of clergy answering questions. One young man asked a question. Each of the clergy in turn attempted to answer what they thought the question was but none seemed quite right somehow. Then Elder Zacharias answered the question the young man had actually asked and the truth was revealed. The young man sat in rapt attention as he heard the answer.

    That young man is now a priest with a mission parish not far from my parish where he was raised. It is a wonderful place to worship.

  27. Jacob Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What resource could I look to in order to read the passage you referenced from St. Dionysius the Aereopogite?

  28. Esmée La Fleur Avatar
    Esmée La Fleur

    Dean – one way that I pray for others is by chanting an Akathist or Canon on their behalf either to the Theotokos or to that person’s baptismal Saint (if one is available). I often preface it with something like, “Holy Mother of God (or the Saint’s name), please accept these hymns of praise on behalf of so-and-so and pray that God have mercy upon them and save them.” I figure that both the Theotokos (or Saint) and God know much better what that oerson needs than I do and so I leave any specifics entirely in their much more competent hands.

  29. Jonathan Avatar

    “Apparently, Christianity is not about making bad people better. The solution is clearly that of being put to death and raised to new life.”

    As you said in a recent post: It does not make bad men good. It makes dead men live.

    I am guilty of reacting to the things in front of me; the obvious situations and difficulties that occur day-to-day. I often forget about the things that I *don’t* see but know are there if I stop to think about it.

  30. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    “Two corollaries: We will not know God until we know ourselves; we will not know ourselves until we know God.”

    Forgive me, for I am deeply narcissistic and have an annoying tendency towards meglomania; so if my story below comes across in any way along those lines, please pray for God’s continued mercy and healing upon my soul. Nevertheless, I feel that perhaps through sharing my recent struggles and blessings in the forum of this blog, some reader(s) may be blessed and glorify our wondrous God.

    To preface things, of late I have had the great blessing of coming to understand and accept with gladness (just a LITTLE bit more, although it feels like a ‘punctilinear jump’) my weakness and brokenness. This wonderful post and comments is the latest thing God has used to confirm what He has been showing me, for which I am deeply thankful.

    The other day, I was struck by a particular translation of one of the typical Orthodox morning prayers: “Having risen from sleep, I thank thee, O Holy Trinity….for while I lay in heedlessness, you raised me up to keep the morning watch and glorify THY power.” It is not that I am or should be proud of the fact, but since my second marriage ended and I moved back to the Toronto area after 20 years away, I became very heedless of God in my sense of shame and desire to escape it. I knew better, but I again embraced smoking marijuana (it became legal here in Canada recently as you will no doubt be aware), and began struggling to pray, attend liturgy, fast, etc. It became so bad that all I would do when I would get home from work would be smoke a joint and laze around on the couch, not even feeding myself other than maybe some junk food after waking up at 9 pm (having passed out). Laze around, fantasizing about this girl or that girl and didn’t she look at me this way or that way and…yeah. And that inner critic mentioned above…liked to come out and berate me for being slothful, lustful and sinful, for not putting into practice all the “Orthodox efforts” and all my own plans of how to fix myself (ok, how to work hard so God could fix me, as though He needed my efforts) so I could find a new, healthy wife and marriage, “get my life together”, etc. Which of course drove me back into the addiction, which of course drove the inner critic / toxic shame, which drove the addiction, which drove the shame….

    Indeed, I see now how impossible healing from shame and vice is by our own efforts. For when the time was right in God’s mind, somehow He made me really aware how sleepy I had become, how captive to the adversaries, etc. It was horrifying, but I became very aware of evil presence in my apartment (felt like I was in one of those B-list horror movies waiting for ‘them’ to come)…I couldn’t sleep unless holding my icon of the Good Shepherd. I felt my mind was being pulled apart at the seams. I felt the cold of Tartarus (in small part, to be sure – but truly I now understand much better than I would ever have liked to what lies beyond the grave for those refusing to repent), and this deep sense of cancer infecting me – my need to achieve, my need to be “better”, my need to be seen as attractive, etc. and the despair over my sense of utter failure in all these respects. The cancer which masks itself as shame, but is actually pride.

    And yet I will boast in God, for once He enabled me to not only acknowledge (intellectually) my deep, irreparable inner brokenness, but actually EMBRACE it – when through this fiery trial that had been building through the years of emotional infidelity to God and my second wife I came not merely to acknowledge what the inner critic had been telling me about my weakness to shame me, but actually to give thanks for my weakness for women and the ego-stroking I have wrongly needed from them – when I became able to do this and practice doing this, then the evil began and continued to recede. Then the power of the spell was broken – or rather, through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, and other glorious saints such as St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Valentine, Sts. Paul and John the Apostles, and many others along with my faithful, longsuffering guardian angel – God broke the spell first, enabling me to then embrace and give thanks for my weakness and insecurity as the very means by which He intends to make me strong IN HIM.

    Why He chooses to bring such deep awareness and healing to me now (though indeed many layers surely remain overall) when I have struggled with issues of addiction, mental/emotional instability, and lust for so long, or why He even chooses to do so at all – these are deep mysteries of His providence and unfailing love, for which all any of us can do when confronted with is give thanks with awe and wonder.

    Needless to say, I pitched all the twisted weed I had acquired, began praying and attending liturgy regularly again (only with a real hunger to, and less of a legalistic, self-berating sense of needing to). God continues to show Himself faithful as I continue to (rather imperfectly of course) embrace my weakness in whatever form I become aware of it (e.g. I’ve come to see how horrifically impatient I am as well), make no excuse for it nor wallow in quiet despair over it, and yield to Him and His healing power as best as I can. (And not coincidentally, there’s a special someone He is making manifest in my life despite me being nowhere near ‘ready’ in my own thoughts or estimation…glory to Him who works wonders for the faithless and unprofitable servants as well as for the faithful and profitable…)

    Thank you for reading, and I hope and trust this recent ‘testimony’ of sorts is illustrative of some of the core themes Father and others touch on in the post and comments above. Truly, truly, apart from our God we can do nothing…apart from our God we ARE nothing…but we are in Him, and He in us, and He can and will not cease to do ALL THINGS until He has brought us to heaven and endowed us – GIFTED us – with the Kingdom which is and is to come!!

    I see now the profound mystery and paradox that truly, though make spiritual effort we must, it is not by our efforts we are healed and saved, but by grace received through faith; this is not of ourselves, but is a gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should miss the point and boast in anything other than the precious and life-giving Cross of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. For within the Cross itself is the hidden seed of the Resurrection – and nowhere else can this buried treasure be found. Let’s [make effort to!] thank God for our struggles with our weaknesses, for our burdens and afflictions…for surely these are the very means by which we are saved and are to be saved. He is faithful, and He Himself will do it!

  31. hélène D. Avatar
    hélène D.

    The night gives on the Light, but of this crossing I risk not to keep much thing in my hands, because my heart so quickly resumes his stone dress and puts back his old hat … He picks up, distracted, his lost things … He suddenly seems to hold on to it more than anything ; he believes urgently that he must be another, a stronger, more generous, a less jealous, more courageous, etc. … The lie reticote his illusions … Here I am again asphyxiating the child-God from within, with my statutes in dead gold ; here I am again incapable of being helpless, helpless and fragile, I am still forced to prove my dignity, to seek fertility at the end of my falsified power ….
    It is not for us to turn away from ourselves, with our own strength, but is not our job to give ourselves entirely to the Lord, and He is taking us wherever He wants ?
    Father Stephen, I retain, among others, this phrase : “But it is not at all improbable that the most” effective “reception of the Eucharist can happen in the most miserable circumstances.” It really makes me happy and also asks me questions ! But only God knows and knows our reality ….

  32. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you for sharing those words, Helene…helps to curb the ‘I have arrived’ meglomania I’m struggling with in the wake of my experiences described above. I would also dare to suggest that we consider ourselves helpless to even embrace our helplessness (I know I have been and continue to be)…while knowing that it is the helpless who receive the true Help from on high…

  33. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    …in His way and time.

  34. Dino Avatar

    I feel for you my dear brother. Look after that spiritual joy that God has enabled you to glean into, doing this puts you in the terrain of spiritual healthiness.

  35. hélène D. Avatar
    hélène D.

    For James,
    I did not read your testimony before writing my text because it did not appear on the blog.
    So we wrote simultaneously… and I thank you for your testimony “in truth” …. Everything is possible, with our God of Love !

  36. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    So Helene and James Isaac hit the ‘post comment’ button at the same moment. God in Heaven! I sit in silence, amazed, with the thought that there is nothing that separates us from God, not land, not sea, not distance…nothing. And this:

    “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:
    “For Your sake we are killed all day long;
    We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
    Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  37. Esmée La Fleur Avatar
    Esmée La Fleur

    Thank you James Isaac. A beautiful and encouraging testimony.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Divine Names, 2,9. Or so I’ve seen it cited.

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I greatly appreciate the comments to Fr’s article.
    We all struggle.

    One important (and I believe healthy) aspect of Orthodox spirituality is the emphasis on the transfiguration of the passions rather than the repression of the passions that I associate with western-style spirituality. The transfiguration (transformation) is not our work but the Holy Spirit’s work. Our passions are transformed by God.

    In this culture we are encouraged to actively ‘quench’ them–which doesn’t work to the best of my knowledge– it just makes things worse, as far as I know.

    Fr Stephen, please correct me as needed: Our part (in Orthodox spirituality) in the purification process is more simple. It is giving thanks. The hard path might be to ‘keep one’s mind in hell and despair not’ but there is also an easy path to hold onto love, to forgive, or to hold mercy in one’s own heart for others as you ask for God’s mercy for yourself, when you fail. And then give thanks.

    Who wants to fail? Some of us set ourselves up for failure (whether we intend to or not). The easiest path to failure is to think you can manage yourself or others with an iron will. Perhaps for some of us, love is indeed not the easiest path. But it is the path that the Lord asks of us.

    Fr I like the ending of your article with a question. The first step to learn is to ask a question. Sincerely asking a question seems to be a kind of opening of the heart. Do you think this is so? It seems also that exploration, discovery, and revelation begins with a question, such as one that we might ask in our hearts: ” are you here, Lord?”

    With the cacophony of noice this culture makes, (and the corollary in the noise in our own heads) it might be difficult to hear the Lord’s word in response. I too experienced this stressful difficulty this morning in my prayers. But gratefully this community in this blog just so happened to be talking on the very subject I needed to hear. Indeed the Lord is here. And Glory to God for all things, including all the noise in my head. It’s just a reminder that I’m not actually ‘in the driver’s seat’ after all.

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    It is better that I add one more thing. Please for give my verbosity.

    Addictions appear to be rampant. Perhaps they always were. Our addictions and passions are deeply intertwined in our minds and bodies and darkens our hearts and indeed are hard to break. They are also our distractions… It is for good reason it is said that we cannot be “saved” alone. We need a community, in other words we need each other. We need the Church and her Liturgy and we need God and prayer.

    That was the lesson that my brothers and sisters taught me today in this blog. Thank you all.

  41. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thanks for the encouragement and patience with my verbosity too. I deeply resonate with your insight, Dee…the passions are to be transfigured/transformed/rightly directed, not repressed. I may be misremembering, but I believe I read somewhere that all the [evil] passions are rooted in what could be called holy passions – the deep yearning and desire of our hearts for the Good. The work of God is to untwist and redirect our hearts to find that ultimate Good in Him, the Ultimate and Everlasting Good. May He grant this to us!

  42. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Oh, and to (hopefully) respond appropriately to your comment, Dee, and bring things back to a key theme of the OP…it is highly probable that my continued reception of the Eucharist even and especially in such miserable, “unworthy” conditions as my soul was in during the months leading up to what I described was indeed most efficacious in my deliverance. Truly we cannot be saved alone…but then again, are we ever truly alone…?

    Glory to God in and for all things!

  43. Bud Graham Avatar
    Bud Graham

    Thank you father for sharing this and other post and to those who bear their own witness to the mystery of Christ love shared.
    I too struggle each day to find my center, my Faith, my peace, in a world gone mad with the image of Christ seeing his father’s house turned into one huge fire sale; would that all but the faithful be driven from the temple. Yet is was and now still is the same. The merchant’s stall is now Amazon, the death sold is multiplied 10,000 fold. In all this inner and outward noise I found a truth most rewarding.

    “There is a parallel between this mode of existence and our participation in the Liturgy. There is nothing that we can do that makes the Eucharist a better Eucharist. The choir can be inadequate and off-key, the sermon miserable and beside the point. Our attention can wander and entertain the worst sort of thoughts. And yet, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. No doubt, various aspects of the Liturgy might help us attend better to what is being given to us. But it is not at all unlikely that the most “effective” reception of the Eucharist could come in the most miserable of circumstances.”

    This journey is my fast, my surrender, and my daily prayer; dear Christ, bring me work for my hands and heart that I might better bear witness now of my struggle to find God in the present moment and be thankful. I am not unlike the child in his mother’s arms, more interested in her attention than all around in the service at hand, roiling thoughts abound, yet in the midst there is lo v e shared. It is in this shared experience I perceive the truth, where three or more are gathered, there I am. May God’s mercy abound for without it all is lost.

  44. Blagica Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    When you mentioned the ethimology of the word “Suffer” (pathein) I immediately connected it to the movie “Passion of the Christ”. This movie left a great impression especially some of the scenes, but the word passion used in the sense of suffering was a bit confusing. Through the years knowing that only suffering renders revelation and becoming of the person to Christ’s Image, I started to wonder if we can connect suffering as a Way to Divine Eros?( where comes the meaning of passion itself as a purified love in the act of suffering giving sense to the one that agrees to die for the new man in Christ). In the movie, the Mother of God tries to help her Son when He was on His knees while bearing the Cross and He just said to Her: MY MOTHER I MAKE ALL THINGS NEW and he didn ‘t have to bear that, but he wanted to show us that we need agreeing to suffer and in that way preparing the path for the one who God chose to be by His side. While I am asking this question I thought about guestion motivation.
    Most of the questions were born in the act of an initial capsule just as a search and then found in the immediate experience that has continuously tried to make a kind of impression into words, but for the sake of getting to know, to bring to light, closer. At the same time trying hard not to analyze or give hard concepts, but to check your own assurances whether they are in the right direction/ Christ’s Way. You put it neatly father, there is a notion that questions will be answered when the time comes, but I can really say that the togetherness of the Orthodoxy is crucial, we are all the Body of Christ and that joint sharing gives you joy. So, to make myself clear about the questions Father, the first one about the Passion and Suffering and this formal one about the word that describes one of the main atributes of the Orthodox church, as One, Holy and now comes the meaning of togetherness is really the word in English Catholic? If it is, is there any explanation because in our language comes as “soborna” meaning togetherness?
    Thank you Father Stephen for the inspiration and the knowledge that- yes, a part of us in Christ meets and it is such a promise as a pre- taste of the Fullness of Joy.

  45. Senait Avatar

    Bless father,
    A very enlightening teaching. Indeed the kingdom of God is within us. Indeed the pearl of great price is within us. May the Holy Spirit help us delve into the journey inwards. May the good Lord keep you.

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