Crushed Into Recognition

This is a reprint from 2019. I was looking for something where I quoted George Herbert’s “The Agony,” my favorite poem. So, here’s one of several such posts.

This morning I was crushed beneath a flood of memories – not the memories of good things, but of sad and shameful things, petty things, wasted lives and ignorant passions. There is often a veil of fantasy that covers much of the sad detritus of our world, a narrative that seems plausible enough to allow us to stop there and avoid the crush of darkness. When I think of St. Silouan’s sojourn in hell, or the Elder Sophrony’s reflections on the abyss, it is the naked ugliness of human existence that first comes to mind.

There’s nothing sinister to a dark crushing flood. Sometimes you wake up and it is there staring you in the face. Other times, two thoughts encounter one another and explode into a cascade of shame. Regardless, it’s misery of the worst sort. The deepest lie and the unspoken fear is that this is all there is.

But this little corner of hell, as repulsive as it is, represents a true icon of what Christ enters in His descent. That God became man, if it goes no further, can be downright noble, as comforting as a Christmas card. The more pressing image, however, is that God-as-man descended into hell and brought about our salvation precisely at that point.

This is at the heart of the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel. The icon of Nativity is written in a manner that intentionally echoes the icon of Christ’s descent into hell. The same is true of the icon of Christ’s Baptism. Each of these presentations boldly asserts that human life is already a living hell to a certain extent. Nothing that crushes us, particularly that darkness with which we are complicit, or, worse still, which we ourselves have initiated, is ignored or brushed over in God’s becoming man.

On any given day of the year, I prefer that the darkness be portrayed in the abstract: a cave, a space, a suggestion on an icon. The abyss of human brokenness is bone-crushing when seen directly. There is a reason that shame’s first instinct is to look away. I do not understand a love that can look without flinching at things we dare not so much as whisper.

But this is the truth of God’s love. We are not alone, even in our hell. The weight of ugliness that seems to crush, cannot push us beyond that love. Indeed, it can only press us deeper within it. There is nowhere in the darkness of the abyss that is not filled with Christ: “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8).

My morning’s unbidden visit to the abyss did not last. A poem chased it away. Sweet words.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

George Herbert (1593-1633)


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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102 responses to “Crushed Into Recognition”

  1. Katy Barrett Avatar
    Katy Barrett

    Yes, Christ’s love for us, in spite of our deepest and darkest sins, which He sees, amazes me. In our physical world, I sometimes see a dim reflection of that love in the eyes of a mother whose child has committed a heinous crime, yet loves still. (I’d see this from time to time when I was in law enforcement.)

  2. Robert Attaway Avatar
    Robert Attaway

    Thanks for the article, Fr Freeman. It is apt as I’m starting to see more of the Hell inside me. Thankful for the love of Christ.

  3. Erica Barnes Avatar
    Erica Barnes

    Thank you so much fro this today. I lost my 2 year old daughter to a horrific disease a few years ago. I am involved in advocacy, but for some reason today all the guilt of not being able to save her, the horror of how ugly the disease is, and the guilt of not being smart enough/disciplined enough to change the system was so crushing. I am so often weighed down by my own unbelief and spiritual laziness. Thank you for pointing me to Jesus.


    Beautiful final two lines to that poem…

  5. Mark Feliciano Avatar
    Mark Feliciano

    You have no idea how much I needed to read this today Fr. Thank you!

  6. Ivan Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. This poem made me feel better too. I had a mentally difficult weekend, because I have been writing a speech about somewhat forgotten, painful childhood experiences (including 9/11). I feel purified, however, by catharsis and hope. In other words, Sunday Liturgy, especially Communion, are the most therapeutic experience there is. So I am okay, and facing my shame, a little at a time, is easier with your encouragement.

    There must be a good reason God gave you this painful experience this morning. It’s not all bad, Fr. Stephen – you’re learning about life and humanity in a time of mass denial and ignorance. I appreciate your courage in posting so immediately and vulnerably about it.

  7. Sophia Avatar

    What Mark Feliciano said.

    Thank you so much, Father.

  8. Karen Avatar

    Father, this post reminds me of the news report I read years ago about a Mormon neighbor whose wife was stabbed to death in their kitchen by his mentally ill adolescent son, who was delusional at the time. My daughter was in elementary school with this man’s granddaughter just a couple years after this tragic event and was invited in first grade over to play at the house where this had happened. I remember seeing figures of the Holy Family lovingly displayed in their living room in a place of honor. The local news account reported this man said no, he would not hold this crime against his son, that his faith compelled him to forgive him.

    I can picture such a broken-hearted husband and father faithfully visiting his son in prison and mental hospital or wherever he finally ended up for the rest of his days.

  9. Julia Marks Avatar

    Perhaps the most timely article I have ever read. Perfect down to each word. Thank you.

  10. Maria Avatar

    Good afternoon! Unconditional love is something we are all striving to receive, but also need to give. By the grace of God and being faithful to our Sacramental life and prayers, this may come to be ours!

    Thankyou and God Bless!

  11. Debra L Anderson Avatar
    Debra L Anderson

    ‘I do not understand a love that can look without flinching at things we dare not so much as whisper. But this is the truth of God’s love. We are not alone, even in our hell…
    This is at the heart of the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel. The icon of Nativity is written in a manner that intentionally echoes the icon of Christ’s descent into hell…’

    Thank Father Stephen for sharing your journey this morning. I am becoming more grateful, inch by inch, for my shame that presses me closer to our Christ. Thank you.

  12. Christine Jones Avatar
    Christine Jones

    Julia Marks and Mark Feliciano have said the words blazing in me upon reading this. Thank you Fr Stephen.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is of interest to me that within about an hour of writing and posting this article, I was thinking to myself, “Surely, that is too dark. You better go delete it.” And then, again from Psalm 139:

    If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
    even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

  14. Eric Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen
    I for one am most grateful you did not delete it, having gone through something very similar just yesterday.
    thank you

  15. Karen Avatar

    No place is too dark when Christ is there.

  16. Brad Avatar

    Thank you so much. Balm to my own hades.

  17. Dino Avatar

    St Silouan’s, Elder Sophrony’s and also Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s teachings are very explicit that it’s emphatically imperative for the “felt sentience” (the “taste”) of God’s Grace to leave an individual, once they’ve known it, (and acquired its taste). It is so that they may be ‘tested’ and become suitably versed, practiced in spiritual warfare, as well as established in the security of humility. The person then might often live that “deepest lie – the unspoken fear that this is all there is.” These experiences can go way beyond a mere requirement to patiently put up with the difficulties of life and of our passions, sometimes far beyond the desperate edges of what we thought we could ever bear.

    These saints describe three distinct stages as rather segregated in time –having mostly in mind the archetypal ‘all-or-nothing ascetics’ that have geographically renounced ‘the world’ – but for most people the cycle of: “(1)inviting light-(2)then darkness-(3)then returning light”, is far more varied and muddled-up, with these 3 stages continuously fluctuating and also being more toned-down.
    But what these saints also say is that when God’s grace withdraws it’s for very good reason: in order to turn us from infantile marching soldiers to veterans of war, and from unconfirmed, distant admirers of Christ to His steadfast disciples.
    That God allows us to be tempted in such a manner, (which is truly a great danger for us), is the only way for us to ever become consciously aware of the awesome worth (the worth of the Crucified and exalted Christ) which He wants to bestow on us as His genuine sons and daughters, despite our shamefulness, bequeathing it as rightfully ours – with our own small synergy.
    It also, eventually, fashions us into authentic devotees: seasoned and confirmed, who even know (have a proven track-record that) they are able to handle suffering, abandonment, persecution, death, for their devotion [Romans 8:35] (which admittedly is a far surer state than that of unconfirmed admirers who are merely ‘artificially’ shielded from suffering, abandonment, persecution, death.)

    Once voluntarily and persistently given over to God’s will through this difficult ‘stage’ -which is the longest stage of our life, (and is not without interjections of any small consolations, as Father says, “human life is already a living hell to a certain extent”) -, God’s grace starts returning to us (it’s “taste” that is, as it never ever leaves us even though we might feel utterly forsaken and abandoned at times). Then it starts possessing our entire being, imparting previously unbeknown stability. Now it is not as some unknown and wonderful outsider who once charmed us off of our feat and made us fall in love at first sight, (making us desire them as an object of our love), but forming an unbreakable mystical matrimony that re-births us into eternal union with Him who is now known-to-us as Subject: so this is not a union of a subject and an object, but of two subjects!
    It is as if this teaching describes the Christian as one who walks that long road in the dangerous wilderness (the overwhelming majority of our time on Earth), all because we once first encountered some Prince (whom we are now seeking) [an invitation for of unique form for each person], becoming astounded by His wonder (as well as by His interest in ‘the little nobody that is me’), and finally arrived in His mansion to be united with Him forever. The difficult road had some unbearably dark corners. But now we see that He had been with us all along all those years and was the one to have first opened and walked that difficult trail we were walking along (even into hell, “Thou art there” (Ps 139:8))
    Father, those last two verses are truly sublime:
    “Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
    Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine”

  18. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    I thank God you didn’t delete this.
    Indeed the Psalm is your answer.

    Many thanks and Glory be to God for this ministry!

  19. Karen Prisca Roselle Avatar
    Karen Prisca Roselle

    Hello Dear Gretchen!

    Thank you so much for keeping me in mind and sending me this. I want to read it again, as well as the comments, and reply. There is so much there!

    How are you doing?

    Love, Prisca

  20. Sandra Avatar

    Thank you. A dark day and then that poem. I can hardly contain my joy.

  21. Andrew Avatar

    I’m reminded of a quote from Corrie Ten Boom who survived life in a Nazi consecration camp:

    “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

  22. Denise Pfalzer Avatar
    Denise Pfalzer

    There is in Japan an artform known as Kintsugi ( where they mend a broken ceramic pot with seams of gold to highlight the beauty of the brokenness.

    ” The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” — Ernest Hemingway A Farewell To Arms.

    We are the soldiers doing battle in this often hellish creation. Our scars are our badges of honor. Just as Christ’s scars are his.

  23. Father Alban Avatar
    Father Alban

    Dear in Christ Father Stephen
    Christ is in our midst

    Thank you for having the faith and courage to put this latest entry on your blog.

    The last few weeks have been among the most difficult in my life for various reasons, and I have been pondering Our Lord’s words to St. Silouan a great deal in recent days.

    Reading you entry today, I experienced both a prayer and an answer to a prayer.

    Love and prayers

    In Christ

  24. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. Today a foolish mistake darkened my vision, and I came here seeking light. You have given it.

    A little while back I was reading about women of adventure analyzing the ocean’s complex breaking down of the enormous problem plastics pose on the environment. One of the scientists gave this answer to a reporter :

    “To be credible, we have to be humble.”

    Self-emptying, perhaps, wasn’t entirely meant, but it is how we touch the hem of His garment. And sometimes it feels like hell.

  25. juliania Avatar

    And one time our priest called our attention to the fact that the only ones smiling in the Nativity icon are the animals. That has always impressed me.

  26. Scott Avatar

    “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” -Corrie Ten Boom
    “It had been good for that man if he had not been born.” -Jesus

    “The deepest lie and the unspoken fear is that this is all there is.”

    There’s a deeper abyss, that of Judas, an unspoken hope that this is all there is, so all our faults and failures are dissolved at death. Maybe there’s a pit so deep the digger can’t climb clear and God just covers it with dirt. Even little Travis knew when to shoot that rabid reprobate Old Yeller.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As for such ultimate matters, I will leave them in the hands of the good God who loves mankind. How should we know such things?

  28. Dean Avatar

    We often think of an abyss as something horrible, deep and dark. Yet I recall this
    (speaking of the Theotokos)…” The unfathomable abyss of her ongoing miracles wrought for those who venerate her and honor her as the true mother of our God.” From some deep, dark holes cool, refreshing, life-giving waters are drawn. One draught can soothe the dry, parched soul.

  29. Albert Avatar

    Glad go hear that Herbert’s poem helped. Hopkins often does that for me. You do too,
    Father. I appreciate your work very much.

  30. Karen Avatar

    Fr. Alban,

    My family and I are in the midst of the worst crisis we have ever endured as are others of our acquaintance, extended family and friends.

    I have found myself praying “Though He slay me, yet shall I trust in Him.” That is only by His grace. I know there are things that if He would allow the enemy to touch in my life right now, I would be utterly destroyed along with everyone who depends on me. Right now there are others who need me so badly, I don’t have the luxury to indulge my anxious thoughts much. That, too, is a blessing. I am just taking the next step, and the next, and the next….and finding grace sufficient because in my time of extreme necessity, I have no other choice.

  31. Margaret Avatar

    I appreciate this post, these words the most:

    “But this is the truth of God’s love. We are not alone, even in our hell. The weight of ugliness that seems to crush, cannot push us beyond that love. Indeed, it can only press us deeper within it. There is nowhere in the darkness of the abyss that is not filled with Christ: “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8).”

    Glory to God for All Things!

  32. Scott Avatar

    “As for such ultimate matters, I will leave them in the hands of the good God who loves mankind. How should we know such things?”

    The Eternal Logos through whom Judas was made thought it important enough to say that He had repented of making Judas. “Better had he not been born”, but God made him anyway. Isn’t this the most fearsome thing imaginable? Judas was brought into being as a mere means in the economy of redemption, then repented of his betrayal to the point of plucking out his own life and casting it away, and now can’t escape being. Even a trapped fox can chew off its own leg. How can any creature feel safe?

  33. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father – I once read of a Desert Father who said we should only use music and poetry to speak of God. Your post reminded me of this. Am I just senile or was there such a Desert Father?

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If I may Father perhaps you were bearing and giving witness to the pain of many, not just your own. Very Priestly.

  35. Maria Avatar

    I agree – Fr is carrying the weight of the Cross! God bless….

  36. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    We are always given a choice when it comes to our salvation. Choosing God is life. Because of Christ’s Pascha, ‘death is slain’, and we don’t really know what the ‘next step’ is for those who refuse Christ. (Although it seems some of us think we know how God thinks)

    What we know from experience lived ‘in’ Christ, is Christ’s love in both His words and His actions. He laid down His life and yet He is God.

    To “not refuse” Christ is simply repentance. It is said of Judas that he was no less a sinner than Peter, but by not believing in who Christ is, entered into such despair that he ended his life. Peter believed, denied, and repented of his denial. He trusted in Christ’s deliverance of his soul.

    I understand sin as a kind of “vector” (please forgive this rough analogy) it as a direction toward non-existence. The Orthodox saying is that Christ came into the world so that dead men can live. Let us remember God’s Light. God’s uncreated Light is revealed to us in the depths of darkness. We ask God for God’s mercy and we encourage each other to not despair. Let us hold fast to the Lord.

  37. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Suffered a great loss today.
    Just so happens….tonight, this post.
    Thank you Father Stephen.
    Thank you.
    God is good…

  38. Elizabeth Avatar

    To dark you thought? I see this post as being full of light, as it shows that Christ is there. I was struggling last night esp with such things and I kept coming back to the Psalms, esp 49:15 which I read an old book of common prayer (I think a 1928 Canadian version) that said , the effect, ‘God has ransomed my soul from hell for He shall receive me’ which many years shown light in a great darkness for me. Thank you for this post, it is a great comfort.

  39. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    If you had deleted the post I’d have missed reading that poem, which I don’t recall reading before, though I have a whole volume of Herbert’s poems… Maybe it needed to be read as the response to your darkness for it to have an impact on me. It certainly did. Thank you, Father.

  40. Scott Avatar

    “It is said of Judas that he was no less a sinner than Peter, but by not believing in who Christ is, entered into such despair that he ended his life. Peter believed, denied, and repented of his denial. He trusted in Christ’s deliverance of his soul.”

    I think “it is said” because people focus on the suicide, not the betrayal. the Church deems suicide as a second Unforgivable Sin, so Peter is forgiven but not Judas. This is even though Peter’s regret was so paltry he just went back to fishing, whereas Judas knew the gravity of what he had done and blotted himself out. When Judas is raised, let’s hope the Lord has the decency to heal him of his despair, or at least unmake the child whom He said should not have been born.

    By treating despair as a sin, or a choice, the Church has created a black hole of sorts. Despair leads to self-condemnation, which leads to a deeper despair, and so on. The more despairing you are, the more sinful you are, so there’s a circling descent down the gravity well until you reach the event horizon of self-harm.

  41. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear me, Scott, there is no “unforgivable sin” as far as I know.

    Christ entered sin and St Paul says that Christ ‘became sin’, who knew no sin.

    What is sin? As far as I know it is a direction taken toward non-existence. This is an ontological reality not a legal case.

    Perhaps this is a subject for my spiritual elders rather than myself. I’m still very much an infant in the faith. There are many here who could speak of such great loss of which they will only infer. And I’m grateful for those among us who look across a wide and dark abyss, yet they do not lose faith, rather, they speak of God in words of gratitude.

  42. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I believe I should have said, “….of which we can only infer”,—last paragraph.

    I’m having a little uncertainty however with what seems to be a disparaging tone. Perhaps this is a tone expressing pain? Forgive me, sincerely, I’m not sure.

    May God grant you peace.

  43. Dino Avatar

    There is an element of free self-determination-towards-‘Being’, inside each individual, the most crucial manifestation of which is: self-determination-towards-God . This element of our existence, which enables us to sentiently partake of the Truth (of the Kingdom of Heaven), is also, unsurprisingly, the element that allows us to invent our own hell.
    We could think of it as the inner, accepted desire of the ‘what’ which we choose to have as ‘our truth’.
    So inevitably, when objectively there is only One Truth, [and we would rather subjectively go against it], we start to devise a hell for our being.
    We could say that we only remain there (despite the suffering involved) because we somehow ‘want that untrue ‘truth’ more than the actual Truth’. Not by accident but by intent. To use an example: only one who can interpret can also blameworthily misinterpret.
    And of course it is better that we wouldn’t have come to that…
    Now, the fact that God can “write straight with [our] crooked lines”, and that this might extend beyond our death, and how this might pan out [as St Isaac the Syrian or Nyssa or Origen have speculated] is something we can only conjecture on.
    What we know is that the Father of the prodigal eternally has open arms.

  44. Dino Avatar

    Also Peter’s repentance cannot be portrayed as paltry due to his return to fishing. It’s depth’s evidence is seen later… eg. when he was crucified. It is said that despite his complete restoration and transformation by the Spirit, the sound of the Cockerell always made him weep.

  45. hélène D. Avatar
    hélène D.

    This unexpected light that is already shining in the darkness, without our knowing it forever …
    Thank you father for sharing your experience humbly ; that rejoices and joins so many hearts ….
    I remember a text by P. Zacharias (of Maldon) about the three periods / states in the spiritual life. He said that when everything is in order in our life, that everything is fine and that we are happy, it is easy to say to God : “Glory to you, Lord, for everything !” But when our life is threatened with something, then we stand before God and say, “Yes, Lord, in all righteousness, all of this happens to me, but you are good. Glory to you Lord ! So we are truly blessed. He said that this faith is the faith of which the Apostle Paul says that he conquered the world ! When we are threatened with death and we give glory to God, it shows that our faith is stronger than the death that threatens us. “I was dead and behold, I live forever” (Rev.1: 18).
    It is sometimes very difficult to say that this period is a gift from God …. although of course it gives us the opportunity to ”convince” God that we belong to him forever. And when we ”convince” him that we belong to him forever, he will certainly say in our hearts the words He said to his only Son : “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. Wonderful !
    I also remember those words that are so difficult to put into practice (for me) and that are really the condition of our balance, inner resurrection, is that all the energies that come into us, no matter where they come from come, it is very important to turn them into a prayer, without ceasing ….
    Our God of goodness gives us all that is necessary to get us out of our quagmire … To us perseverance and patience …

  46. Cathy Avatar

    Thank You for sharing that poem. Thought I would share my go to prayer in times of darkness.
    Prayer Of Surrender

    Lord, Jesus Christ, I ask the grace to accept the sadness in my heart, as your will for me, in this moment. I offer it up, in union with your sufferings, for those who are in deepest need of your redeeming grace. I surrender myself to your Father’s will and I ask you to help me to move on to the next task that you have set for me.

    Spirit of Christ, help me to enter into a deeper union with you. Lead me away from dwelling on the hurt I feel:

    to thoughts of charity for those who need my love,
    to thoughts of compassion for those who need my care, and
    to thoughts of giving to those who need my help.

    As I give myself to you, help me to provide for the salvation of those who come to me in need.

    May I find my healing in this giving.
    May I always accept God’s will.
    May I find my true self by living for others in a spirit of sacrifice and suffering.
    May I die more fully to myself, and live more fully in you.

    As I seek to surrender to the Father’s will, may I come to trust that he will do everything for me.

    Walter Ciszek,S.J.

    God’s Choicest Blessings on you Fr. Stephen. You are a Godsend!

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are making assumptions that are incorrect. We do not know the ultimate disposition of Judas – and it is certainly not true that he was created in order to be damned. That is contrary to the Orthodox faith – and thus a wrong way of reading the Scriptures. Suicide is not an “unforgiveable” sin. In every case I have known, it has been the result of a mental disorder (pain, depression, etc.) and not “choice” in anything like the proper use of the term. My comment viz. what we cannot know is meant to say that this is not a thread of thought that should be followed. Look at Christ. If Judas died and was in hell, Christ found Him there. The rest of the story is not known to us and we shouldn’t feel free to make it up or imagine it. Christ loved Judas. Let it go.

    There is much in this train of thought that leads to despair. It’s false logic and not a path to continue to pursue. May God give you grace.

  48. Scott Avatar

    I hope Judas will end up healed, but the gospels leave it at “son of destruction”. The concept of “choice” as the root of ontological destiny is so dry and abstract it doesn’t really cut it. I don’t give my toddler a choice to grill his hand on the stove. The law demands a fence around back yard pools. The core of my despair is that we’re God’s children, but the cosmos is an attractive nuisance.

  49. Dino Avatar

    You might not give a toddler choice to grill his hand but you want him to stop being a toddler at some point. The image of God in us is that freedom (that a toddler does not yet have) to eventually self determine towards Him one way or another.
    It is me, myself that makes of the cosmos an attractive nuisance (away from the Creator) rather than a eucharistic opportunity (towards Him.) – not God.
    I do like Saint Porphyrios’ words to Elder Gavrelia before their falling asleep in the Lord. They mirror St Isaac the Syrian’s notion of God making use of a blessed ‘deception’ to save even the worst criminals eventually. In a nutshell, that idea is (that just as He threatened Adam and Eve with death – and yet eventually offered them resurrection) that, allthough Gehena threatens us, He offers a kind of repentance to the unrepented through Gehena’s suffering itself. Its not your standard tradition though.
    And, it is still “an offer” .
    Our rationalisations will never outsmart God though Scott – thank God!
    And the leeway of our individual freedoms is always within a predetermined (by our good-beyond-conception God) gamut, which we can trust is perfectly respectful of our freedom as well as desirous unto the end of our (free) salvation.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I fully agree that “choice” as the root of ontological destiny is not just dry, but inadequate. It easily creates a caricatured God and a caricatured theology. I think this is a circle of thought you both can and need to break free from. I’ll look through my articles. I’ve got some on the inadequacy of voluntarism. You can only get past this by going deeper. And, at the depths, is the uncompromising love of God. That is the proper place to begin and end all theological work.

  51. Maria Avatar

    Good morning! Unconditional Love is not something we can figure out or analyze or even create a system to acquire – it is wholly a gift from God – we have it or we don’t. Our only job is to be in the disposition to receive this grace when it comes, and that is by prayer, penance and the Sacramental Life…..God bless!

  52. Dean Avatar

    Praying for you and family, Karen. And you also Paula, AZ.

    My best friend’s son committed suicide some years back. He was such a lovely child early on. As a teen he was always in church, reading God’s word daily. But even as a young boy he was tormented by voices in his head, a terrible mental illness. His parents did all they knew for him, besides praying fervently. I was asked to share at the funeral since I had known him for the 26 years of his life. I shared these words from Isaiah of the Suffering Servant: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” If any one was a bruised reed in life, it was Mark. I know that tremendous, deep torment, anguish and pain drove him to take his own life. It was not a conscious choice by any stretch of the imagination. I firmly believe he will forever be enveloped in the Father’s loving arms. Glory to our good God in Christ.

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Fr Stephen for your response to Scott. I’m grateful for your focus on the word choice. Perhaps this was a mistake in my usage in an earlier comment. Indeed our reality in this, God’s creation, is far more than one of choice. And ending the description there would make Orthodox theology resemble a western theology. Again thank you.

  54. juliania Avatar

    A thought I have had this morning concerns the ‘self-emptying’ I mentioned earlier, which I felt was expressed in your post, Father Stephen, in connection with the proper translation of a line of Scripture which impressed me deeply when I came upon it. The line is the familiar one, “Greater love hath no man than this…” The next line is commonly translated “…that he lay down his life for his friend,” and is thereby often used when thinking of the sacrifice of a soldier on behalf of his buddy. But really, it is not only this. Rather, the second phrase translates as “…that he lay down his soul for his friend.” To me ‘soul’ is a more accurate term than ‘life’, (the Holy Spirit is the giver of life). We do have some control with respect to our soul – we can tell it ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’, for instance.

    The laying down of one’s soul is what I mean by ‘self-emptying’. We don’t do it very often, and then imperfectly, but I think we know it when we do. It isn’t a brief moment of heroism, but rather a revelation whereby the gift is more blessed to have given than to receive. That is the giving of one’s soul, the laying down of it, on behalf of another, in love. And since the perfect example of this is Christ Himself, in both life and death, the Resurrection becomes more radiantly present thereby, lifting us. And the Comforter comforts us.

    Lent approaches, but we are not alone.

  55. Bob Mims Avatar

    This really touched me, Father.
    I’ve found myself, too, in such thoughts of late, since my dad passed.
    Your blog today was a perfect contemplative companion to the “Akathist to Jesus for the Newly Departed” I’ve been saying during the 40-day mourning period.
    God bless you.

  56. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    In re-reading my earlier comment I also should have said that Judas was no *more* a sinner than Peter.

    Thank you Dean so much for your comment. Indeed the sad circumstances of that young man was not a choice.

    Dear Paula and Karen, dear sisters. I know you both are going through heavy trials. May God bless you both with His grace and peace.

    And Dino thank you for your explanation for what is meant by choice in an Orthodox context. This isn’t easy to describe to others outside the faith. There are such overtones from the culture that enter into this language. I’m grateful for your comment.

  57. Dino Avatar

    In Greek we’d never really use the word “choice” but something else: that translates into ‘disposition’ (though this is a free rather than preconditioned disposition) it is “πρόθεση”

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed!! Thank you Dino I’m grateful for that translation.

  59. Maria Avatar

    As a Catechumen coming into the Orthodox Church, thankyou for the “Greek” explanation for choice and disposition. God bless…

  60. juliania Avatar

    I’d like to just add that Our Lord saw Peter’s approaching shame even at the moment he was telling his disciples the new commandment, which was to love one another as he had loved them. How bitterly Peter wept, in recognition of that shame! It wasn’t an insignificant moment – see him then leaping from the boat (remember how once he began to sink) and hear his response to the question of Christ “Lord, you know that I love you!” We don’t need to follow him to his own crucifixion to see that he indeed loves his Lord, loved him even when he denied him, fearing for his own safety. Loves him in the recognition that his own falling short does not cancel out the mutual love between them, but has paradoxically enhanced it.

    I have the feeling that the mysterious Book of Revelation is Saint John’s similar experience of soul-emptying at the extreme. It is such a different writing from his letters, but that is all I can say about it: a soul emptying on behalf of his friends as the persecutions flame around them.

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The distinction between “disposition” and “choice” is quite helpful. “Choice” is a typical Western notion, very much tied in to our economic world-view. We are a culture of shoppers who make decisions and choices (or so we imagine). Disposition is ever so much more discerning.

    Imagine you adult child. You’ve known them all their life and you know their character. A single ill-considered decision brings their life to an end – and some in the community want to judge them. But, a parent understands that a single decision, though it can have terrible consequences of a sort, cannot make them into someone who they were not. It just means there was a bad decision and a terrible consequence. God is not some sort of mechanical lawyer with rules. I grew up with the thought: “As a tree falls, so it lies.” A weird way of thinking that made the single last decision the fulcrum of eternity. Such nonsense. Shakespeare has that sort of thing in Hamlet. It’s just wrong. And it is a terrible caricature of God and theology to think in this manner.

    As a priest and confessor, it is the disposition of the heart that concerns me, not individual actions and choices. That is a slow work worthy of a patient God.

  62. Maria Avatar

    Peace and thankyou for your detailed explanation. I agree about the difference with disposition and choice. True our society is far too caught up in choices – this is taught in the schools at an early age and I have seen it causes rebellion in some youngsters as well as keeping that frame of mind later on. Of course we have to make certain choices such as will I have steak or burger today – that sort of thing, but in terms of prayer and spiritual life, we are better to think disposition as you said, to receive the grace we need from God and this can only help and guide us into making good choices that are for Him and our souls into eternal life. Again, thankyou! I am enjoying my Catechism very much – actually it just came to an end and we will be discussing my conversion next. I ask for your prayers! God bless!

  63. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Yes, the disposition of the heart. King David did some terrible things, adultery, murder, etc. Yet God later calls him, “a man after my own heart.” His heart was one that truly longed for God, yet individual actions at times clouded/impeded this longing.
    Even David’s evil actions resulted in his great Psalm of repentance (50,51) which we recite in the compline service. As you say, a life-long inclination of the heart is not wiped away with one evil/stupid action on our part. May this old man’s heart always be inclined toward our loving God.

  64. Byron Avatar

    God bless and hold you, Maria! And Paula and Karen, my God draw you ever closer to Himself in your trials.

    Wonderful conversation, all. Many thanks for you comments throughout, Dino and Father.

  65. Dino Avatar

    It’s worth noting that we’ve all been given – it’s our ‘nature’ – a disposition towards communion with God (more innate than our pre-disposition towards sin).
    Grace’s withdrawal, tips the scale towards our weakened will, while its visitation does the opposite. Both directions are available to our disposition though: “He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whichever thou wilt” (Ecles. 15:16).
    Our life on Earth is traditionally considered as the period we have been granted for the ,upbringing of our soul: to enhance its disposition to accept communion with God creating in it a greater and more maturely conscious disposition that allows us communion with God.

  66. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Dee and Dean!

    Disposition vs. choice is a very helpful (and true to my experience) distinction. Rings true. Thanks, Dino.

  67. Maria Avatar

    Thankyou and Bless you for your prayers Byron!

  68. Karen Avatar

    And thanks, Byron.

  69. Father Alban Avatar
    Father Alban

    Dear in Christ Karen

    Thank you for sharing something of the circumstances of your own struggles at the moment. I am deeply grateful for the spiritual wisdom that you share, and for the example you give of simply getting on with life, and not giving in to despair. Thank you.

    Like you, I don’t have the luxuary of grinding to a halt, because I have others who depend on me. However, even in carrying on and getting things done, I carry a deep and heavy awareness of my own faults and failings, so that there is a double darkeness created by both having to watch those I love suffer (knowing that I cannot alleviate their suffering in any way) and by an acute awareness of, it seems, every sin I have ever committed. If hell is separation from God or the feeling that God cannot possibly love us because of our sinfulness, then I have felt something of this dreaded state. This is why St Silouan’s saying is so dear to me. And as Father Stephen highlights so well, this hell will also be the place of my salvation.

    Love and prayers in Christ

  70. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Alban. Yes, I know that burden well—and, of all the sufferings that can paralyze and pull us under, I have found that of our own failings and inadequacies is the heaviest of all. Fr. Stephen in his writing and St. Silouan are near and dear to me as well for this reason. We are fellow travelers, I see.

  71. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dee, Dean, Bryon …. deep thanks for your kind words and prayers. It means ever so much.

    Dean…the bruised reed. What a beautiful verse to read for that young boy. I’m with you and firmly believe he is with his Lord.
    I don’t know that it is possible to pick a favorite verse, but that one captured me a long time ago. There is a little book called The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, a 16-17th C Anglican theologian. That book blesses the soul.

    It gladdens me to no end to hear about our catachumens about to enter the Church. A very blessed journey, Maria.

    Thank you all for the wonderful comments.

  72. Scott Avatar

    “I sometimes see a dim reflection of that love in the eyes of a mother whose child has committed a heinous crime, yet loves still.”

    There used to be an online record of last meal requests for Texas Death Row inmates. If you Google “Delbert Teague Jr”, you’ll find he was not a nice young man. He at first refused his last meal, but what the state recorded was, “Last minute he decided to eat a hamburger at his Mother’s request”.

    I like to think his Mom licked a napkin and wiped the corners of his mouth one last time.

  73. Maria W Avatar
    Maria W

    I like the insight and definition of “choice and disposition”. I’ve never heard it stated like this before. It is a good one and I think it is a true one. Just need to be honest about my own life of making bad decisions. But then who knows everything about the world and life, or how to live in it without attentive parents or all on your own. We’re bound to make mistakes along the way. But they should never define us. It really requires to know yourself and know God with what little faith we have and experienced. He holds us for ever in his hands. I don’t think God ever loses you, but we perceive to have lost Him in our state of darkness. It is temporary thankfully. How would we know and appreciate light if we’ve never known and experienced darkness. It’s all good in becoming and knowing the process to coming “face to face”. God is Good in his Love for us. It has been my experience in all of it, light and darkness. It is all GOOD.

  74. Maria Avatar

    Good evening! I agree because in all of it – good and bad, God is polishing our souls – may not be pleasant at times, but we are tilling the soil, finding our way back home to Heaven. We are sojourners in this land – so it is quite temporary – just passing through and even though a short time really, we are learning so much as God polishes our souls to meet Him! God bless…..

  75. John H Avatar
    John H

    George Herbert is a great poet. Love the verse that you quoted in the article, Father. For me though nothing beats the pure emotion and desperation expressed in sad country songs. Consider the following lyrics from Hurt, Johnny Cash’s last great hit:

    I hurt myself today to see if I still feel
    I focused on the pain, the only thing that’s real;
    The needle tore a hole, the old familiar stain;
    Try to kill it once again, but I remember everything;

    Refrain: What have I become my sweetest friend
    Everyone I know goes away in the end;
    And you can have it all, my empire of dirt;
    I will let you down I will make you hurt

    I wear This crown of thorns upon my liar’s chair,
    Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair;
    Beneath the weight of time the feeling disappears;
    You are somewhere else, I am still right here


    No one could sing a sad country tune like the Man in Black. Of course he lived the hell of both depression and substance abuse.

  76. Maria Avatar

    …..and the Man in Black’s problems all stemmed from his childhood – a tragedy and father who did not give him comfort – only blame. Very sad, but he came out of it later with the support of good people who truly loved and cared for him. God bless…..

  77. juliania Avatar

    When Father Zossima speculates in Dostoievski’s last novel upon what hell in the afterlife might be, he doesn’t go into Dante’s inferno at all, but gives a transparent view of what it would feel like to him, that having squandered the opportunity to repent during the gift that was life, a soul might have all eternity to contemplate from the outside the joyful union of souls with God in heaven. And then he goes on to suppose that perhaps even as eternity endured, yet still there might become a time when even such a soul could have become refined enough. . . I think that is a very persuasive argument, even as it is so far removed from our modern ideas of justice (which are not so modern after all.) This goes along with Father Stephen’s last discourse here, and at least Shakespeare did give us something of that in a limited way : The quality of mercy is not strained…

    “As a priest and confessor, it is the disposition of the heart that concerns me, not individual actions and choices. That is a slow work worthy of a patient God.”

    I also think of Saint Paul: Hold fast to the good. A wise lady once told me: I pray, for when I can’t pray. Which is when the good holds fast to us.

  78. Scott Avatar

    “having squandered the opportunity to repent during the gift that was life, a soul might have all eternity to contemplate from the outside”

    Imagine waking in a rehab with no grasp of why or how you’re there. The doctor says you can’t walk, but He’s here to help. Like any rehab, you have to do your part or you won’t get well. One more thing. After an unknown span of time, a buzzer will sound and you’ll be assessed. If you can walk, you’ll be escorted to your new home, a luxury penthouse. If you’ve squandered your time in rehab and can’t yet walk, you’ll be dragged to the alley outside and dropped through a manhole, which will then be welded shut. From the sewer, you can ponder your lack of discipline by peeking from storm drains at those who bounced back because of a better disposition. No sense in asking why you’re in this jam, these are the rules. It’s up to you.

  79. Dino Avatar

    I am not entirely sure of your example but, forgive me for saying that it sounds like you are constructing a misinterpretation through it.
    Hell is something we ourselves invent. We keep ourselves locked in from the inside ¬– despite Love’s unceasing call to come out of there.
    It is worth remembering that Hell is the self-centred misinterpretation of Heaven – and consequently of love. The perception of all that exists –Creator and creation– through such a lens of Self-centeredness births dissent and separation.
    The essential idea of hell is separation.

    “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

  80. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    My experience, in faith, has been short, but I have lived long years in hell. Such despair can muffle any voice in the darkness but your own. Wanting to get out of hell indicates an orientation, a disposition toward God, but such disposition may only be experienced as not wanting to suffer anymore. Anger and pride muffles the ears and darkens eyes making Gods presence difficult to perceive. At least that was my experience. Suffering of the kind Dean describes is a different matter altogether.

    Dino thank you for your description of Lewis’ metaphor for hell. These are helpful words.

    There are circumstances that are horrific such as the Nazi ovens that burned live children.

    Who is in hell? The burning child or the person whose hands put the child in the oven?

    We empathize with the child in such circumstances and are horrified by such terror. The child suffers terrible agony before death. And in our despair we may ask God why such suffering?

    Fr Stephen and Dino has had many conversations in this blog about suffering. And I’m grateful for them. I’m amazed at the strength of faith of those who have had such protracted experience of pain and suffering and yet remain faithful to God. I wasn’t always faithful myself. I struggled a lot.

    I’m grateful again for this community who write supportively for each other.

  81. Maria Avatar

    Good morning! It’s becoming more apparent to me each day that those who are living in hell, body or mind and accepting it by happily being part of it, seem to enjoy bringing others to this hellish state with them! They are without God and have let evil take over. Jesus told us to pick up our Cross and follow Him and the way would be narrow – the road to perdition is wide – the road to Heaven is like a camel getting through the eye of a needle! Those who are stuck in this hell wanting out, need to pray and fast each day and God will pull them out. We must endure and persevere. God bless…..

  82. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Note Helene’s next sentence following the quote…”And then he goes on to suppose that perhaps even as eternity endured, yet still there might become a time when even such a soul could have become refined enough. . .”

    Our “fate” is not sealed once we die. The lid is not “welded shut”. And it is certainly not entirely up to us, as if we are left alone and God just sits back and watches. He is at work in all people. He always has been. With you too…right now. Why else would you be so torn? Why else would you be drawn to reach out through this blog? I thank God you did.

    Your image of God is a misrepresentation. Perhaps, like every human being, you are suffering from grievous sins of men (your own and others) that have caused a great deal of shame. Unbearable, it goes unrecognized, is buried, and the mind (reason) becomes darkened with misguided emotion. Rejection of love, anger, divisiveness, is the depth of the heart crying out in pain, groping in the dark, in reaction to the resultant shame. But the reaction itself is not the last word, nor is it reality. It is actually a movement away from reality. Just as darkness is the absence of light, and light signifies Life (Reality, “being”), Christ has overcome, has conquered darkness (death, non being) and therefore the darkness *is* a false reality. We enter into Life – Christ – not alone, but through *community* with all things: we live it out through the Church… in Christ, in His Mother, in the Saints, the Angels, and all the faithful on earth. It is all about union and communion with all people, with all creation. This is Life. This is Purpose, This is Community. This is Love. And we all…you, me, everyone…are in a movement, as Christ is drawing all things, all creation unto Himself. All things, events, whatever, are for our salvation. You may not see it…but that’s the way it is!

    Christ is the last word. And that Word is eternal. He is Reality…not the darkness, not the pain. That is not the final word. The final word is self-emptying Love that brings us into His Kingdom…Reality.
    Christ enters into your anger and pain, Scott. He knows shame. He knows pain. He knows rejection. And it is overcome by the power of Real Love. By the power of Humility. This is the decency of Christ. He accepts the shame, bears it, and through Love overcomes it.

    In Father Stephen’s last post he asks if we have any questions. He reminds us that God reveals to those who ask seek and knock. No doubt you have some questions…

  83. Dino Avatar

    CS Lewis describes this in “The Great Divorce” peculiarly yet effectively:

    “The Dwarf was now so small that I could not distinguish him from the chain to which he was clinging. And now for the first time I could not be certain whether the Lady [bright spirit] was addressing him or the Tragedian.

    Quick,” she said. “There is still time. Stop it. Stop it at once.”

    “Stop what?”

    “Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see, I know now. Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic . . . because vou knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, ‘I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.’ You used your pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end. And afterwards, when we were married . . . oh, it doesn’t matter, if only you will stop it.”

    “And that,” said the Tragedian, “that is all you have understood of me, after all these years.” I don’t know what had become of the Dwarf Ghost by now. Perhaps it was climbing up the chain like an insect: perhaps it was somehow absorbed into the chain.

    “No, Frank, not here,” said the Lady. “Listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?”

    “Love? How dare you use that sacred word?” said the Tragedian. At the same moment he gathered up the chain which had now for some time been swinging uselessly at his side, and somehow disposed of it. I am not quite sure, but I think he swallowed it. Then for the first time it became clear that the Lady saw and addressed him only.

    “Where is Frank?” she said. “And who are you, Sir? I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”

    “You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

    “I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

    There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished.

  84. Scott Avatar

    “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

    I like that book, but the Scottish Gentleman was an homage to George MacDonald, who thought the idea of God leaving His children in Hell was a calumny against the Father, even if Hell is locked from the inside. Lewis erred in having a fictional MacDonald excuse the endlessness of Hell. MacDonald believed the Father would purify His children no matter what. What you should fear was not the glow of the torturer’s iron, even if that torturer is yourself, but the heat of the refiner’s forge. You will come out clean. Purify yourself now.

    The narrative of that book assumed the endlessness of Hell as an axiom, then tried to soften the blow. An eternal Hell is the core of all awful theologies. So many have built vast monuments of abstract thought to justify the idea and the imagined people who deserve it, chosen or unchosen. It’s an Aztec temple where worshipers roll souls down the steps like severed heads as a sacrifice to their presumption.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The problems of hell imagined as eternal and unending are obvious (at least to me). I take it as axiomatic that God is good and that His mercy endures forever. I have written repeatedly that it is wrong to use hell as the starting point of constructing a theology of anything. So, I utterly agree with that. I believe that when all is said and done (whatever that may mean) the goodness of God and His mercy will be utterly manifest.

    It is possible to take these axioms and press them to a logical conclusion and build a model of hell or not-hell, etc. However, I do not think that we have been given license to go that far – at least – I have not. Thus, I think such discussions are moot. I find most accounts of hell to be inadequate and unsatisfying (given what I take to be axiomatic). So, I leave it alone.

    What I do know about hell is that it certainly describes something rather than nothing and that no account of human existence (even in this life) is complete without reference to hell. But that is very much a present-tense thing and gains nothing by being extended into some imagined future.

    Your observation on Lewis is correct, too, I think, not giving MacDonald his due as though his position was not an integral part of who he was. It cost him dearly. He should have been allowed to speak for himself.

    For what it’s worth, I think “endlessness” is a pretty useless category no matter what it is applied to. I do not use it. The Scriptures and the Fathers write about “age” and “ages.” It’s a very different thing. Mostly, I think too much is said on this topic and that it is a terrible distraction. Thinking about hell is a waste of time when we could be thinking of Christ. So, I don’t bother with it very much. I recommend that to everyone.

  86. Scott Avatar

    “Mostly, I think too much is said on this topic and that it is a terrible distraction.”

    The way you present the gospel is truly Good News. Hell is hard to shake off if you were steeped in it. I grew up in a “Bible Church”, which was a full-blown Protestant forensic model. I say “model” because the doctrinal edifice was more important than people. If you didn’t jump through the doctrinal hoops you were hell-bound. Worship consisted of a few hymns, then the rest was a historical-grammatical discourse on today’s section of scripture. Outline transparencies on an overhead projector like we were in a junior college lecture. The map was more important than the territory.

    I stopped believing because of their loathsome idea of Hell. I was agnostic for a while, but rather than becoming an atheist, I read George MacDonald and hoped that he was right. There is still a small part of me that that suspects the cosmos may be a Stephen King novel writ large and the Bible Church was right, regardless of how I feel about it.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I appreciate your sharing your background. It helps in understanding what you are saying and the nature of your concerns.

    The dark world of hell-centric theology haunts like a child’s nightmare. I well understand how it creates atheists. I rejected the faith from age 13-15 for that very reason.

    Though Orthodoxy certainly has its apologists for hell (in a hell-centric manner), I do not find such things compelling or, even, dominant. What I see in the narrative of the faith that does dominate is the language of Pascha. That language is wonderfully extreme – whether it is St. John Chrysostom’s triumphant Paschal homily. It concludes:

    Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

    O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

    His language is embarrassing for some – but I love it for that very reason. For one, it means that we are allowed to be just that outlandish in our speech about God without apology. It is also why St. Isaac of Syria of St. Gregory of Nyssa are not condemned. They are criticized by some, but they remain. If they remain, so does their hope.
    I am unapologetically Orthodox, and rest in a holy hope. At least at Pascha, it is shouted in the Church to a raucous reception. I choose to rest in Pascha.

  88. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    “Thinking about hell is a waste of time when we could be thinking of Christ. So, I don’t bother with it very much. I recommend that to everyone.”

    Fr Stephen, I agree wholeheartedly, better to focus on Christ.

  89. Scott Avatar

    I’m sorry if I insulted anyone. By fending off Hell from the ideas of others, I fend it off from my own head.

  90. Maria Avatar

    No, not at all for me! The conversation drew out a lot of good points and articles which made us all think a little more deeply. God bless….

  91. hélène D. Avatar
    hélène D.

    Echoing Dee,
    the Great Remedy came to hand just now, reading, and I trust the humble Ephrem of Katounakia who says, not without humor :
    “The prayer of Jesus
    gives you so much sweetness,
    so much joy.
    She is short,
    but she has so much power …
    So much so that you say :
    “Even if I go to hell,
    I am not afraid.
    I’m just going to say the prayer
    there too !”

    I am happily overwhelmed by so much humility and self-abandonment for the sake of the Lord!
    I have the desire of only one thing, it is to call tenderly …. Lord Jesus Christ, our God, give us mercy ….
    Thank you for these stimulating comments and with sincerity ….

  92. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    No offense taken, Scott. I heard the pain in your words and hoped you would open up a bit in another direction. Very glad you did.
    I was in one of those Bible churches…Calvinist leaning. Actually believed God created some people for destruction. I was over-the-top angry when I left. So I understand your rejection and frustration.
    That which Father says about “holy hope”…I think many of us stand on that as well.
    Yes…St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily…from the Golden Mouth himself!

    Thanks Scott and all of you for this conversation.

  93. Dean Avatar

    I grew up in pentecostalism. I would hear a fire and brimstone message on occasion. Yet for me, loving people in the church and Sunday school songs such as “Jesus loves me this I know” trumped any fear of God not loving me and caring deeply for me. Why I fell away from church in my later teen years was that I could no longer believe that anyone with any intellectual integrity could believe in the Bible. Rationalism and its cousin secularism drew their net around me quite strongly. To make a long story short, prayers of a faithful wife and my mother eventually caused scales to fall from my spiritual eyes. Jesus gently drew me to Himself overwhelming me with His love and mercy. Because of the glorious message of Pascha and the reality of Christ in the Eucharist (among many other things), I do not dwell on hell. The love I felt from Christ at seven still draws me at seventy two. To be touched by Christ is to be touched by Love. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

  94. Maria Avatar

    You are blessed to be surrounded by so much love and care all your life – care for you and for your soul! Pray for those who are not…..thankyou!
    God bless…

  95. Byron Avatar

    I’m amazed at the strength of faith of those who have had such protracted experience of pain and suffering and yet remain faithful to God.

    Dee, one of the things I gleaned from reading about Fr. Calciu’s experiences in Soviet prisons was that we all break and can be broken–we can all cry out against God with all our hearts, but there is still Grace and forgiveness waiting for us when we collapse and cry out to God.

    As Father states often, He is a good God who loves us and does not leave us.

  96. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Just so that there is no misunderstanding, I wrote and sent my last comment at 1:07pm in this ‘blog time zone’. But at that point I had not seen nor read Fr Stephen’s comment at 1:05pm. Reading the two in sequence might lead one to project an intention in my comment that I didn’t have.

    As far as I know there is no one here is attempting to ram down anyone’s throat their particular theology on hell. At the same time, argument about hell doesn’t seem productive (at least to me). I’m just not into arguments at all and try to avoid them, in general.

    I’m always grateful for Fr Stephen’s articles and comments because they are always instructive. In particular I appreciate the Orthodox theology that he eloquently presents at 1:05pm. .

  97. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Also, forgive me Byron. I sincerely appreciate your comment to me!!

  98. Dn. Jerome Atherholt Avatar
    Dn. Jerome Atherholt

    Thank you, Father. A moving reflection.

  99. Jeremiah Avatar

    This brought me to tears. Thank you for this article, Father.

  100. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,
    You brought out for me that when I think of the Incarnation, often I think so in functionality – Christ came…to save sinners….to destroy the work of the Devil…etc… But I often fail to think about the hell that already existed on this earth that Christ came into, into the experience of it for Himself and in His ability to feel and know the experience of those in this hell already. Christ was not calloused to humanity as we are, he felt it, and He knew He would come into feeling it, knowing it, empirically for Himself and for others. He would empirically know the hell of other people. This is why He is the True High Priest.

    Thanks, I need to think on this for a while and let it set it.

    Matthew Lyon

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