The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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79 responses to “The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement”

  1. Fr. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Father, I haven’t quite “drank the Kool-aid” on this perspective yet, since I am still convinced excellence is a byproduct of humility.

    But I am convinced that this is the “medicine” this society needs to escape the poison of the twin effects of the Reformation and the Enlightenment influence on society.

    Thank you for this good word to contemplate and to embrace.

  2. Michael Mack Avatar
    Michael Mack

    Father, is there a work around St. John’s Ladder you have found particularly helpful for your parishioners? Thank you, Michael

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, I have not.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Father, I think that excellence is not something to be particularly desired. As far as I can see, the concept as it is used in our culture is alien to the faith. If it happens, it’s a by-product of something else. But, as a desire of the heart, I think it is a red herring. It is also something our culture uses to torture the many among us who will always fail at excellence. Christ is enough. He alone is our excellence. Those whom our culture would see as excellent, the Scriptures would generally see as wicked. Humility consists in bearing a little shame. The desire for excellence would seem to often be driven by the desire to avoid shame.

  5. victoria Avatar

    You have not given us kool-aid but rather the wine of your own struggle – which is indeed all of our struggle

    The monastics teach us that what do they do in the monastery is fall down and get back up every day – over and over again. There is shame in falling and perhaps the humility is in getting up again and again. The perfection we seek is love – and it ais a love that requires humility. Mathew 5:43-48 says to love our enemies do good to those who hate you a d pray for those who spitefully hurt you and in this way we will be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. That does not translate into modern success. – as you say.

  6. Byron Avatar

    I am reminded of your (regular) reminder that, “we are saved in our weakness”, Father. Thank you for this writing.

  7. Chris Avatar

    I am curious about the relationship between excellence and humility. For me, the moment when a single thought of self-excellence enters my mind, grace and humility abandon me . Excellence may be attained through humility; but (it seems to me) not for one second can we, through self-examination or the praises of people, take heed of thoughts of our own excellence.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My sense of things is that the desire for excellence (self-excellence) is a fairly strong, cultural thing, born of our individualism and our competitive economic system. It’s hammered into us one way or another all of our lives. It reminds me of the frequent theme in the confessional, “I think I’m doing better…” which is pretty useless as far as repentance goes.

    My point would be to work on setting our minds on something other than such culturally-driven desires. Christ is our excellence. If we desire Christ, then our hearts will be rightly directed. I might also add that I think “excellence” is pretty much a bourgeoise thing – a token of the fact that American Orthodoxy is largely a middle-class phenomenon. I cannot imagine preaching about excellence in a Russian village full of peasants (once upon a time).

    American religion is shot through with excellence preachers. I do not care to join their ranks. I have been sent to the not so excellent (probably the basis of my readership).

  9. Mike Mack Avatar
    Mike Mack

    Thank you Father. I have Fr. John Mack’s “ascending the Heights,” but wondered whether you had something else to recommend. Alas , no luck.

  10. Rand Avatar

    My grandfather died roughly 50 yards from where he was born. Not penniless, but closer to that than wealthy.

    One of his children has, “made something of himself.” He lives about as far from his birthplace in the mountains of North Carolina as it is possible to get and still be on the US mainland (both geographically and culturally). He lives in an honest to goodness mansion and is the pinnacle of achievement and personal power.

    When I was young, I dreamed of a life like my uncle’s. It is not as if he is a bad man.

    Now, as I begin the second act of my life, I dream of a life (and death) like that of my grandfather. To die surrounded by family, to leave a legacy chiseled into a grandson’s heart (whose hardness is his own foolishness) – these things are excellence.

  11. Adam Avatar

    So, on the ascetic path weareto struggle to be like Christ. What you are saying here seems to say that to do this one has to voluntarily bear a little shame.

    Humility, as it has been told to me, is “seeing the truth of things,” seeing all of the good within oneself and attributing it to God in thanksgiving and seeingthe sin within oneself and attributing it all to oneself.

    How should one view “improvement” in this way downward that leads to joy and peace rather than despair?

  12. Alan Avatar

    Thank you Father for continuing to bring this point home. We desperately need it. It seems to me that your perspective on this is of course backed up by the Scriptures. Our modern world and current day Churches would love the Pharisee and the rich, young ruler (just imagine all that those movers and shakers could accomplish when placed on the parish council!) and would turn up their noses at “losers” such as the publican, the harlot, the woman at the well, the woman with the issue of blood, the thief on the Cross, etc.

    Indeed, as you so often say, the way down is the way up.

  13. Maggie Avatar

    I’m 57 years old was raised in Pentecostal churches where “being a witness” was preached over and over. As Father Stephen says this only breeds pride and arrogance and sadly judgement, which I didn’t realize until now as I study Orthodoxy. I write this with many tears as I have spent my life trying to be better and not let anyone see my sin. Bearing shame was too painful for me as I was supposed to have it all together.
    In this past year of growing in Orthodoxy by reading books and blogs and sometimes attending liturgy on Saturday’s, my eyes have been unveiled and I now see my sin of pride. I’m bearing the shame of it and Christ is there with me every step of the way guiding me through it. I’m feeling more freedom and I’m understanding where I went wrong. My heart hurts for all my arrogance against people and not seeing them as icons of Christ, and for thinking I knew it all and even for not caring for the earth as I should. Please forgive me and Lord continue to pour his mercy upon me.
    Father Stephen and Father Barnabas, among others, have truly helped me to see the Truth on my road to transformation.
    I thank you and ask for your prayers.

  14. Cliff Avatar

    Father it is this goal towards perfection that I find the most troubling and problematic in our society. The inability to acknowledge failure is one of the hallmarks of narcacism. We can only learn empathy through the acknowledgment of our own mistakes. I know that capitalism is flawed, but lately I think it’s flawed because of the narcissism that is encouraged in our society. As a matter of fact I don’t think any form of government within a narcissistic society will be able to function properly, because narcissism itself is an anti-social personality disorder. Even the media recently used a sociopathic technique known as “gaslighting” in describing the Washington DC protest incident between the Native American and the Catholic high school.

  15. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Excellent Father, thank you.

    Michael Mack – I am currently reading “Thirty Steps to Heaven” by Archimandrite Vasilios Papavassiliou and am really enjoying it.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that “improvement” is a useful thought. We labor for Christ, to know Him. Any kind of improvement would be dust in comparison to Him. It’s a word that is born of our culture of competition and individualism. Who needs improvement? We need Christ. I do not mean to be playing semantic games – it’s just that when we learn to ask certain questions (such as “improvement”) we are being led astray. Those who insist that there is a place for improvement in our vocabulary are simply refusing to surrender the vocabulary of modernity. Our tongue needs a new master.

  17. Mike Mack Avatar
    Mike Mack

    Thank you Esmee!

  18. Maria Avatar

    I like to think of excellence or better yet, perfection in our love – love for one another which includes forgiveness. I also like to think of us as picking up our Cross and following Christ – that means in all His ways not just the ones that make us “feel” good or “feel” perfect as He is, but moreso in His humility and suffering.

    Thanks for the inspiring article! God bless…..

  19. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father Stephen, again, for reminding us of the modern version of “excellence” and the ladder of success.
    I want to believe, or I assume, that when Father Powell spoke of excellence, he well understands that Christ is our excellence. Though I am not sure what exactly it is you said that he does not ‘drink from’. For, Father Powell admits of a distortion that stems from the Reformation and Enlightenment.
    I wonder, does it get down to semantics? Because I know you have said many times that words matter. They matter because we have taken the meaning of certain words and applied them to the modern American lifestyle. So, a virtuous word such as excellence can not be safely uttered anymore because it tends to be misapplied to the self (individualistic endeavor in success, progress, change ‘for the better’) rather than to Christ and in Christ. But what if that had not happened. Would it then be safe to say that excellence is a derivative of humility? Yet, if words matter, and I believe very much they do, I think for our own good, in our journey as Christians who swim in the sea of modernity, that we realize it is no small thing to be mindful of words that are now loaded with vanity instead of humility…not necessarily by the one who uses a certain word, but because of its implications.

    I am grateful for Fr Powell’s comment. I remembered a while back I commented about how to properly look upon our life in Christ over time. Yes, He sees both the beginning and the end. We do not. But we know “when we see Him we will be like Him” [now, to a certain extent; fully in the age to come].

    I have a question but am not sure how to ask without using certain buzz words! So I’ll just use them…forgive me! How do I give thanks to God for bringing me from a place of utter darkness and despair, years upon years, and giving me life again? Father, in that very thing there was a change. But there are still so many broken pieces, shards, as we say. God knows to what extent He will heal before my death. Have you ever thought in those terms, Father Stephen…looking back, I mean? If so how do you describe the “change”? Is it mostly a matter of the numerous life experiences over 60-70 years and learning the hard way?
    If anything, for me, the longer the journey, the more I realize the depth of my sins rather than any modicum of excellence. If I excel in anything it is deceiving myself in thinking I act profitably, when much of the time it is actually vanity. But I know there was a time many years ago where He showed me a better way.

  20. Ken Seigneurie Avatar
    Ken Seigneurie

    I recall a character in one of Tarkovsky’s films — not _Andrei Roublev_, maybe _Stalker_ — says something along the lines of: “Shame: the feeling that will save humanity.” I understand this comment better now and agree that Christ meets us at the bottom, in our shame.
    At the same time, I bridle at the wholesale condemnation or celebration of any concept, “excellence” and “modernity” included. I would go along with the idea that “excellent” as a description of a person is not only silly but, like “loser,” a denial of the mystery of humanity. On the other hand, as an evaluation of a human activity, e.g. an “excellent surgeon,” the term makes sense to me.
    Likewise, “modernity” was arguably initiated, in its intellectual phase anyway, by well meaning Christians like Erasmus and other early humanists. Much more to be said about this, of course…

  21. KevinZ Avatar

    This is beautiful and hits very close to home with my own conversion experience (to be realized next week via baptism. I am nervous and excited). I could only see and feel a way to Christ after I had been consumed by shame of my own action and devices. Reaching my own hell, I was met and offered a hand to stand back up. I realize I will fall again and again. The beauty in this is having the humility born of total shame to accept help back to my feet.

    As always. Thank you for your work.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Modernity” as a term for a particular philosophical project is pretty much only as old as the 19th century in English. That an intellectual historian might trace its antecedents is beside the point for my use of the word, which is consistent with its usage in intellectual and cultural criticism for nearly a century. The term could be given a different meaning – and often is in the popular press – but I have its more restricted academic sense in mind.

    “Excellent,” like the word “good,” obviously has many possible and proper uses. But, again, in a culture dominated by consumerist individualism, it carries a meaning that is problematic – if applied to the moral life. The model of the moral life that imagines progress to be a normative movement, from good, to better to excellent is, I think, a distortion of the spiritual tradition of the faith and deeply misleading for Orthodox souls. Not that it isn’t very common. Modernity, as a set of ideas, is alive and well even within Orthodoxy itself.

  23. Martin Zip Avatar
    Martin Zip

    Thank you Father Stephen for your musings on a difficult subject. I am one of those souls who keeps falling off the first rung of St. John Climacus’ ladder. I am ashamed to admit that I am stuck trying to renounce the world, the 1st step. My trust is in the Holy Spirit to lead me to renounce the world and all its “excellence” and “moral improvement”, but somehow I feel as if the Holy Spirit has not led me “upward”. For who am I to judge if I am moving upward on the ladder? The Lord Jesus Christ is the one to judge. If I start thinking I am making progress, then it leads to pride. And pride is a sin. My solution is to keep trusting the Lord and together with the Publican, with eyes cast down, cry out to God to have mercy on me, the sinner. For what other hope for a wretched sinner like me is there, but His mercy?

  24. shannon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:
    always look forward to your blog entries. Thank you for another good one.
    My only observations are: 1) many different things are called ‘shame’, and it might be helpful to distinguish them. Just like there is good guilt and there is bad guilt, healthy fear and unhealthy fear, different uses of “love”, etc.
    2) perennial caution and circumspection re: judging the Reformers by us who were not there when the Latin church was in dire need of reforming. I’m no fan of the Enlightenment, scholasticism, etc. But a movement producing the Puritans cannot be overly responsible for the curse of Modernity. IMO, FWIW.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our adversary loves to keep score and will always be glad to let us know how we’re doing. It is among his favorite topics. It’s why I do not think it useful – we always lose – regardless.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Viz. Shame. I’ve written substantially on the topic and cannot repeat all of that in each post, sadly. Shame is indeed complex.

    As to historical analysis – the forces that produced the Puritans, as well as the Scottish Enlightenment (the Continental Enlightenment was only modestly involved in the creation of modern American culture), are very much the forces that produced modernity. Those various religious movements were themselves early outliers of what would become modernity. If you’d like me to recommend some sources, I’d be glad. My historical points are not pulled out of thin air or mere opinion. Charles Taylor would be a place to start.

  27. Bruce Avatar

    Father Stephen … beautiful and powerful post

    Your post sent me to one of the Six Psalms, Psalm 62, and the picture it paints of our utter reliance and dependence …. our universal need to ‘cleave’ to God. Whatever we have (including our shame) that gets us into this state can be transformed into a bridge and great blessing.

    If we accept your definition of modernity , which I find very helpful below , it confirms very clearly that as you say ‘the air we breath’ is this lie and delusion of:

    In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization (from your Jan 10th, 2014 Modern Project blogpost)

    So, it seems to me that your post really is pointing us very clearly to the experiential reality that ‘i am’ only when ‘i am’ cleaving and attached to the Great ‘I am’. And in this simple relationship of me experiencing all that i am (and hide from) and all that He is … I can have a ‘knowing’ of what I need and really wanted, yet ironically continually ignore and throw away.

    My shame seems largely about me not accepting who i am without God. Facing my shame has this amazing possibility of waking me up to my delusional belief that I can somehow be my own god without Him … and perhaps in a childlike state accepting my reliance and dependence … and in my ‘thirst’ for my True Home and Father.

    Psalm 62
    O God, my God, unto Thee I rise early at dawn. My soul hath thirsted for Thee; how often hath my flesh longed after Thee in a land barren and untrodden and unwatered. So in the sanctuary have I appeared before Thee to see Thy power and Thy glory. For Thy mercy is better than lives; my lips shall praise Thee. So shall I bless Thee in my life, and in Thy name will I lift up my hands. As with marrow and fatness let my soul be filled, and with lips of rejoicing shall my mouth praise Thee. If I remembered Thee on my bed, at the dawn I meditated on Thee. For Thou art become my helper; in the shelter of Thy wings will I rejoice. My soul hath cleaved after Thee, Thy right hand hath been quick to help me. But as for these, in vain have they sought after my soul; they shall go into the nethermost parts of the earth, they shall be surrendered unto the edge of the sword; portions for foxes shall they be. But the king shall be glad in God, everyone shall be praised that sweareth by Him; for the mouth of them is stopped that speak unjust things.

    At the dawn I meditated on Thee. For Thou art become my helper; in the shelter of Thy wings will I rejoice. My soul hath cleaved after Thee, Thy right hand hath been quick to help me.

  28. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    “Christ is enough. He alone is our excellence.“ I have heard statements like that many times, Father. But, today, I think I am beginning to understand a little of what you mean. Thank you , Father., for your kind patience with us.

  29. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Rand – I share in your experience and your new life plan. Thanks for sharing.

  30. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Bruce – Thank you the reference to Psalm 62. There are times I think that the only thing to do is pray the Psalms continually. I always find Christ there. Thanks be to God for the wisdom of the Psalms.

  31. Adam Avatar


    There’s an elementary school near me with a sign out front that says, “Excellence is our expectation”. There’s nothing wrong with an excellent surgeon (I certainly would want one if I were undergoing surgery). The problem is when it is the expectation and goal for ourselves; the problem is the modernist soteriology (both the Christian and non-Christian varieties) wherein we are saved by and in our excellence.

    What Father Stephen is saying is that precisely the opposite is true. Christ meets is at our lowest point, and we are saved in our weakness. This is a good thing, since 99+% of us will never be excellent in anything, but who of us doesn’t know weakness and failure? Even the most excellent surgeon will not be saved by his knowledge and skills in surgery.

  32. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father – I frequently offer prayers of repentance, asking for God’s forgiveness and His assistance in helping me to sin no more. How is that not seeking self-improvement?

  33. Dean Avatar

    By seeking God’s forgiveness through repentance you are looking for “soul-improvement” which Christ alone can impart. I think St. Paul says he can’t judge himself. How much less can we see self-betterment in our own life. I know I am spiritually myopic.

  34. Rev. Boyd Evans Avatar
    Rev. Boyd Evans

    How do transformation and sanctification fit into this perspective? Divination? I assume that you aren’t discounting them, but saying we do not accomplish transformation on our own only through the Spirit? One of my favorite passages is 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” I certainly feel like I have sensed the Spirit’s work in my life, and through my exposure to those in recovery, I have seen transformation that could only be the work of God.

  35. Timmy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    When you say, “He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself”, I know what you are talking about based on an experience I had roughly 15 years ago.

    I had been struggling with a lack of interest / motivation / effort in my prayers, and after I spent a week at St. Tikhon’s Monastery attending the services with the monks & fulfilling a few obediences that were given to me I went to confession with then-Bishop now-Metropolitan Tikhon who was staying there at the time. I confessed this simply & honestly without attempting to justify or rationalize it as I reflexively tend to do in life & confession. The bishop gave me a simple word of advice / encouragement to “press on & ask God to help me with it”, and then he prayed the prayers of forgiveness. Plain & simple.

    After confession we went immediately into the liturgy, and within a few moments of attentive participation in the service I was overwhelmed by the deepest & most intense awareness of palpable shame imaginable! I was mortified by it because it was as if the lid on a can of moldy & putrified food had been removed, and I could see all my sinfulness & passions as they really are – not covered with the facade of “excellence” or the lies I tell myself. The reality of myself was truly revealed to me, and there was nowhere to hide & no where to look away. Pure shame.

    This would have been unbearable had it not been for the fact that simultaneously I literally felt the presence of Christ – His unconditional love / forgiveness/ embrace / mercy – all around me & inside of myself. It was completely unexpected & the most amazing experience of comfort & loving acceptance that I’ve ever had.

    I stood in this state & quietly / peacefully wept for over an hour because I was acutely aware of two things at once: my wretched sinfulness that God had allowed me to see and Christ’s unconditional love / forgiveness / acceptance despite the reality of sinful/passionate condition. I was painfully aware that didn’t deserve His intense love & forgiveness, but I was experiencing it & it broke my heart (and still does whenever I think about it.).

    I’ve never had an experience like that before or since, and it was so real that when I compare anything else in my life to it everything else seems fake.

    Life is filled with crosses & I am not “excellent”. I am a sinner, and it makes me weep to reflect on this experience because I know that I am forgiven & loved despite my sinfulness, and this is profoundly humbling & encouraging as I struggle (and so often fail) in carrying my cross. The Jesus pray took on a new meaning for me after that experience & continues to do so.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog. Remember me in your prayers.

  36. Dino Avatar

    What you described has an official ‘technical’ term in some patristic writings: ‘dual knowledge’. It is always as you say, perfectly balanced, because of two opposites simultaneously extending towards greater extremes. Standing before our Lord in continuously deepening knowledge of my minuteness and His greatness (in the broadest sense of these words) is the ontologically most true mode of being for a human.

  37. Basem Avatar

    Father: Beautiful reflection. I had not been much a fan of modernism and post-modernism either!
    However, most mainstream Christianity, with the exception of radical Calvinism, put a lot of emphasis on the so-called “free will” which is closely tied to self-affirmation; and shame as a natural by-product of failure of such self-affirmation. I am really thoroughly confused here. Do we have “free will” or we don’t? or is it another “mystery” that we have to accept and not question? I kind of feel that “mystery” is the politically-correct defense for Orthodoxy when we are faced with a paradox that we can’t resolve! And, if we are supposed to accept shame as conduit to humility and theosis, how much of such “shame” are we truly accountable for? I am the product of my genes, my upbringing, my community growing up, and so forth! How much of that “shame” is actually mine and how much isn’t? Who is entrusted to keep fair score of what is and what isn’t? I understand that some of these seemingly existentialistic questions are utterly ridiculous but that doesn’t keep them from tormenting me!

  38. neal Avatar

    Two good old boys walking train tracks.
    One says something about them stairs not really climbing much either way.
    Other says the handrails seem pretty low down too.

  39. Byron Avatar


    We are undoubtedly the product of many things but our salvation is the product of God’s love. Those many things that wrongly build us up in ourselves are as nothing to His Grace. When we speak of “fair score” or “accountability”, we are speaking the legal language of modernity; it is a false language and focus that can only cast us as failures.

    Our acceptance of shame “as a conduit to humility and theosis” is our acceptance of not only ourselves but of those around us. Our salvation is communal in that sense; accepting our own shame must lead us to love of the Other, and others. We stand humbly before God and man. In this sense, our lives are not a matter of accountability but of self-emptying. The language and focus become very different and liberation becomes a true reality in Christ.

  40. Zoe Avatar

    Many times I am too blind to see my own weaknesses, so I take the shortcut to Christ by calling onto his Mother, The Theotokos.
    She makes my unworthy prayer worthy, and she helps me see. When She cleans my heart, He enters.
    It’s always peace with Him. And lots of weeping.
    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for opening the eyes of our hearts! Pray for us!

  41. Basem Avatar

    In essence I agree, but what is then the difference between Calvin’s “total depravity” and patristic concept of “synergia”? If I understand correctly, if we do have a role, is that role as miniscule as to just admit our own brokenness?

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would say we’re “sort of” free. But, as you say, we’re a product of many things and they impact our freedom. But shame is just as big a problem for things that are not our fault in the least – very often, things we’re born with or inherited.

    Shame is not about accountability. I sort of think of shame as the emotional counterpart of hell. The point is to get out and that Christ has entered the midst of it in order to get us out. It’s not so much that we’re “supposed” to use shame as a conduit to humility and theosis. It’s just that God is so good that He has entered into that rather unavoidable place and made it a place where we can meet Him.

  43. Byron Avatar

    I think it has more to it than just an admission of our own brokenness. I think self-emptying is quite a life’s work and requires the grace of God to see through.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m working on an article that will address the questions you state here.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The goodness of God!

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s a world of difference from Calvin. Our nature, the truth of our being, remains intact. In that sense, you and I, all of us, are fundamentally good. And yet, we find ourselves often unable to live in accord with our nature. We’re broken – but we’re not depraved. God is healing us. We cooperate with that, in whatever ways we can, to whatever extent we can, and it varies from person to person, and from time to time. Sometimes it feels like God is doing all the work, and sometimes it can feel just the opposite. What I know to be true is that God is always good and always wills my salvation and healing. Always.

  47. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Rand, Paula AZ and Timmy, thank you for your comments.

    Basem, a quick note, sorry to jump in–Orthodoxy does not have any sense of total depravity. The newborn child is pure with no depravity or mark on the soul. Fully in the image of God, yet entering a world where people for centuries have ‘missed the mark.’ In the course of our lives we all fail at some point to trust and love God, making the same mistake as Adam and Eve. Having separated ourselves from God we have separated ourselves from Life and are vulnerable to death. We must imitate St. Peter in this, rather than Judas, and turn to Christ as we become aware of our sin. Christ is the true Physician of our souls. We must know that we need Him and know He wants us rather than believing we have earned our way into Heaven or that or sin has made us a hopeless case.

    A few years ago I said in Confession “I just assumed I was going to hell.” My priest was shocked and said “Who do you think God Is?”

    I am grateful that God has helped me see some of my mistakes, my embeded thinking of judicial constructs rather than love from begining to now to always.

  48. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Regarding the theme of excellence, just a few thoughts

    I have shared before but will again, a keynote at our local community college said (paraphrase) The worst kind of inference we can make is that if we were poor we would have behaved differently.

    Recently I learned why some people drink—-it makes you feel warm. If I was homeless I would do the exact same thing!

    St. Maximus’ theme on humility, that everything we have is on loan from God, is so wonderful.

    I have noticed that some great Saints were phenomenal at their jobs. This is how you have soldiers who are magnificently fearless, like St. George and St. Demetrius. They were amazing at their jobs. St James the Russian was also amazingly good at his job, being a slave for a Muslim man.

    The problem though, and the seduction, is when we think this type of competence, along with tithing and monogamy, are sufficient.

    Where we have skills it is an awareness of God as source. I saw in The Theology of Wonder the phrase ‘seemingly natural.’ They seem to be a natural characteristic, but they are a gift from God and on loan.

  49. Vasilia Avatar

    When I am on the verge of losing hope, I hear some version of this in my thoughts: “We’re broken – but we’re not depraved. God is healing us” and when it happens I often sigh in relief. These discussions are always so enlightening and often put into plain language things I cannot. Thank you!

  50. Josh Avatar

    Fr bless,
    This discussion has been on my mind as relates to a series you did years ago on healing the heart. It seems like the modern project and my thoughts on improvement are simply logismoi (busy thoughts distracting me from the present moment). Judging myself and others, comparing myself to others or myself, planning a better version of myself, creating a narrative of my past, present and future, are all logismoi.
    If Christ is my story, then my past is faith in pascha. The good story of Christ finding this lost man and becoming my home. My future is hope in His goodness to come. But in this present moment, with whatever capacity I have, in this moment, am I turning my soul/nous to Christ in love? In this present moment, am I seeking communion with him?
    Is this an accurate view?

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well put and on point! Our competitive drive and attention to measure and compare are cultural artifacts, rather than true representations of the faith. It’s not that there are no references to measure, or to striving, and the like, within the Tradition. But those statements (St. Paul’s “striving for the mark of the upward call in Christ Jesus”, for example) are made in a different cultural context and should not be given the baggage that our culture brings to them.

    It is much more proper to think in terms of lovers. The desire for the beloved draws us ever forward with longing and aching, etc. It is that sort of striving that is appropriate in our lives. Measuring love is a waste of time, a distraction from our desire for the beloved.

    St. Paul cries out, “That I may know Him! The power of His resurrection and the communion of His sufferings! (Phil 3:10)

  52. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…you say “it is more proper to think in terms of lovers”.
    I speak for myself here. I have not known love…true, pure, unconditional love…until I experienced the love of Christ. I really do not know what it is like to think in terms of lovers. I never had that. The love I have experienced turned into punishment and rejection when my response was other than what was expected of me. It was as if I was an object of their desire to make me into something that satisfied their ego.

    There’s a final line in a Beatle song that goes like this: “…and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. If the only love you have known is not the kind of love that gives life, but rather takes from it, then that is exactly the kind of love you will show forth to others. And you will do anything, and say anything, to gain approval, thinking approval is the same thing as love. It creates a cycle of ‘man-pleasing’. I tell you, I would have been dead in that death cycle if not for our Lord Jesus Christ tapping me on my shoulder and saying ‘you don’t have to do this, Paula. Come to Me…I am everything you need…you will then see that in time all will fall into its rightful place…’ . I am still learning, Father. But I can tell you, things are indeed falling into place, by His ever-loving grace. I have been redeemed from that death-cycle, glory to His Name.

    So again, to think in terms of lovers, my only reference would be His love as I have experienced it. There has never been a time when I sensed any harshness in His molding and shaping me. Never! My love for Him…yes, there is a burning desire…but it is nothing like His love for me.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are many wounds that make various things difficult. Christ is obviously healing many things in you. May He ever do so!

  54. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father Stephen…

  55. Beth Avatar

    I have a sense that the Ladder is a bit like running up a downward escalator – you keep moving, but you do not go up, you don’t go “higher” you don’t “improve”, however, as you move step by step, you draw God closer; as if every step on the ladder is a new calling out for Him. With every step you move closer to God, but is not you moving, instead God moves toward you through His mercy ,and you are changed by His grace and transformed by his Light and slowly but surely filled by his Fire and his Love.

  56. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Beautiful image, Beth.

  57. juliania Avatar

    So far in absorbing the Ladder’s teaching I haven’t been able to move beyond the first step, yet with it there is so much that I indeed thought it to be the entire teaching at first, and I am still working on that.
    We know God in His emptying of Himself into our flesh, which for us is corruptible and indeed willfully corrupted. Psalm 50 is the human icon of self-recognition, the awareness in humility that brings us closest to God.
    Thanks to Esmee La Fleur for her mention of Archimandrite Vasilios Papavassiliou. I searched and found his meditation on this Psalm in connection with its place in the Liturgy, which I had not realized is as the people sing the Cherubim hymn. The connection here is to your words, Father Stephen, about the vision of Isaiah, and I am much in wonder that as the priest is censing the people, and they are singing the hymn, he is reciting Psalm 50. We in our little church have had our own translation of the first line of the hymn thusly : “Here we become, in mystery, icons of the cherubim…” It is a bold translation but it does conform to the Greek. It still sends shivers up my spine, such a beautiful hymn. You could not but be Orthodox on hearing (and singing) it.
    A blessed Lent to everyone.

  58. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Juliania…a blessed reflection. Thank you.
    Father, I hope you don’t mind that I post the Archimandrite’s sermon in its entirety in addition to the link. I do so that it might be readily at hand to read. It is deep.
    Thanks to Esmee as well for the mention of his book.

    Psalm 50~ Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou

    The only psalm that is prescribed to be recited in its entirety at
    every Divine Liturgy is (in the Orthodox Old Testament) Psalm 50
    (Psalm 51 in the Hebrew text). During the Cherubic Hymn, just before
    the Great Entrance when the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the
    altar as the Church prepares for the Holy Oblation, the priest censes
    the altar, the sanctuary and the people, and quietly recites the psalm
    (and is expected to know it by heart): “Have mercy on me, O God, in
    accordance with your great mercy…” The priest recites the psalm up
    until verse 17: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a
    humbled heart God will not despise”, and concludes the psalm after the
    solemn procession with the holy gifts when he places the bread and
    wine upon the altar: “Do good to Zion, Lord, in your good pleasure;
    and let the walls of Jerusalem be rebuilt. Then you will be well
    pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, oblation and whole burnt
    offerings. Then they will offer calves upon your altar”.

    It is within this liturgical context that I should like to examine
    this remarkable prayer of repentance.

    Psalm 50 was written by the Prophet King David after he acknowledged
    and confessed his sin before the Prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12). David’s
    sin was a terrible two-fold sin. He committed adultery with Bathsheba,
    the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Bathsheba became pregnant and David
    sent for Uriah, who was with the Israelite army at the siege of
    Rabbah, so that he may lie with his wife and conceal the identity of
    the child’s father. Uriah refused to do so while his companions were
    in the field of battle and David sent him back to Joab, the commander,
    with a message instructing him to abandon Uriah on the battlefield,
    “that he may be struck down, and die.”

    It is therefore the prayer of a murderer and adulterer that the
    celebrant of the Liturgy recites (and makes his own in prayer) as he
    prepares for the Holy Oblation. For sin lies not only in our actions,
    but also in the corruption and evil desires of the heart. Indeed, if
    the priest has actually committed murder or adultery, he is, according
    to canon law, to be defrocked and cannot celebrate the Liturgy at all.
    And yet the priest is here expected to identify himself with a
    murderer and adulterer – murder and adultery being two of the most
    grievous sins against God and man. In His sermon on the mount, our
    Lord states: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit
    adultery”. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully
    has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Matt.
    5:27-28). In the case of murder, St Basil the Great and St John
    Chrysostom put it very strongly to the rich in regard to helping the
    poor, claiming that those who refuse to share with others in time of
    urgent need, when starvation and disease pose an immanent threat to
    human life, may be accounted guilty of murder. As St Basil writes in
    the homily, In Time of Famine and Drought, “Whoever has the ability to
    remedy the suffering of others, but chooses rather to withhold aid out
    of selfish motives, may properly be judged the equivalent of a
    murderer.” And St John Chrysostom, in his Homily on 1 Thessalonians,
    states that he who denies alms to the starving is as much his
    brother’s murderer as was Cain.

    Psalm 50
    Have mercy on me, O God, in accordance with your great mercy.
    According to the multitude of your compassion blot out my offence.
    Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For
    I acknowledge my wickedness, and my sin is ever before me. Against you
    alone I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight, that you may
    be justified in your words and win when you are judged. For see, in
    wickedness I was conceived and in sin my mother bore me. For see, you
    have loved truth; you have shown me the hidden and secret things of
    your wisdom. You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed.
    You will wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow. You will make
    me hear of joy and gladness; the bones which have been humbled will
    rejoice. Turn away your face from my sins and blot out all my
    iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right
    Spirit within me. Do not cast me out from your presence, and do not
    take your Holy Spirit from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation,
    and establish me with your sovereign Spirit. I will teach
    transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn to you again. O God,
    the God of my salvation, deliver me from bloodshed and my tongue will
    rejoice at your justice. Lord, you will open my lips, and my mouth
    will proclaim your praise. For if you had wanted a sacrifice, I would
    have given it. You will not take pleasure in burnt offerings. A
    sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a humbled heart God
    will not despise. Do good to Zion, Lord, in your good pleasure; and
    let the walls of Jerusalem be rebuilt. Then you will be well pleased
    with a sacrifice of righteousness, oblation and whole burnt offerings.
    Then they will offer calves upon your altar.

    While the priest recites the psalm, the choir chants the Cherubic
    Hymn: “We who in a mystery represent the cherubim and sing the
    thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us now lay aside
    every care of this life. For we are about to receive the King of
    all….” In laying aside our worldly concerns, we are also to lay down
    before God our sins, to ‘cast our troubles on the Lord’ (Psalm 54:22),
    and having thus unburdened our hearts we may offer the Holy Oblation
    in peace. This applies not only to the clergy but to the whole
    congregation. For it is the clergy and people together who are to
    offer the Holy Oblation, and not the clergy alone. But it is the
    priest’s particular cross to bear, his special calling and service to
    the Church, to take on the sins of the people as his own and to bring
    them before God and ask for His mercy. This is made clear in the
    prayers of the clergy at the Divine Liturgy: “…enable us to offer you
    gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and those committed in
    ignorance by the people…”

    At the Great Entrance, we are not far from hearing the hymn of the
    Seraphim, which the Prophet Isaiah and the beloved disciple John heard
    (Isaiah 6:1, Rev. 4:8): “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts; heaven and
    earth are full of your glory…” And our response to this holiness is
    that of Isaiah: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean
    lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen
    the King, the Lord Almighty”. Our sense of sinfulness does not come
    from measuring the distance between our conduct and some sort of
    morality or law; it is only in the presence of God Himself, the only
    Holy One, that we come to know how sinful we are. And, indeed, in that
    moment we feel like murderers and adulterers. For the deeper we enter
    into the infinite holiness and presence of God, the more sinful we
    feel by comparison. This is why we identify with a murderer and
    adulterer in Psalm 50.

    The psalm is not merely an expression of penitence and self-disgust.
    It is the overwhelming holiness of God that is the source of profound
    repentance, and it is particularly related to the coming of the Holy
    Spirit. The recitation of Psalm 50 is a preparation for the epiclesis,
    when we call on the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into
    Christ’s Body and Blood. And so in Psalm 50 the priest says, “Create a
    clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Do not
    cast me out from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from
    me.” In the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, the priest prays that God
    will not, because of his own sins, “withhold the grace of the Holy
    Spirit from the Gifts here spread forth”.
    It is because of this sense of being in the presence of holiness that
    Psalm 50 is far from being morbid and morose. We are reminded that
    repentance finds its fulfillment not in looking back on our sins in
    despair, but in looking forward with hope and faith; not in looking
    down into the pits of hell, but in looking up to God in heaven. We are
    called to become what God wants us to be: holy. God says to His
    people: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44). And St Peter
    writes, ‘just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do’,
    and goes on to quote Leviticus: ‘for it is written: “Be holy, because
    I am holy”.’ (1 Peter 1:15-16). St Paul calls the Christians ‘holy
    ones’ or ‘saints’ (ἅγιοι). We are reminded of this calling to be holy
    just before Communion when the priest elevates the Body of Christ and
    exclaims: “the Holy Things for the holy”.

    Psalm 50 is a prayer not of despair but of hope: “You will sprinkle me
    with hyssop and I shall be cleansed. You will wash me and I shall be
    made whiter than snow. You will make me hear of joy and gladness; the
    bones which have been humbled will rejoice… Give me back the joy of
    your salvation, and establish me with your sovereign Spirit. I will
    teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn to you again…”.
    And we are reminded that God hears the prayer and contrition of the
    heart: “if you had wanted a sacrifice, I would have given it. You will
    not take pleasure in burnt offerings. A sacrifice to God is a broken
    spirit; a broken and a humbled heart God will not despise”.

    Thus, as the Liturgy of the Faithful begins, we are to unburden our
    hearts in confession before God as we lay aside every care of this
    life, that we may “Stand with awe…stand with fear” and “pay heed to
    the Holy Oblation, that we may offer…. mercy and peace: a sacrifice of
    praise”. Apart from humility of heart, God desires mercy and peace
    from us. That is the sacrifice God asks of us. But to offer this, we
    must acknowledge first that we have fallen short of God’s mercy and
    peace. We must turn to God in repentance, put aside all hatred and
    animosity, all pride and injustice, and be reconciled with one
    another. For we cannot offer mercy and peace if we have none. Without
    love, peace and humility, our Liturgy is not acceptable to God. The
    Prophet Isaiah puts it very strongly: “What do I care for the number
    of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt
    rams and fat of fatlings. I take no pleasure in the blood of calves,
    lambs and goats. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things
    of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings;
    your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and Sabbath, calling of
    assemblies, octaves with wickedness: I cannot bear them. I detest your
    new moons and festivals; they weigh me down, I am tired of the load.
    When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you. Though you
    pray even more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash
    yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; stop
    doing evil; learn to do well. Make justice your aim: redress the
    wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11-17)

    This is why the celebrant of the Liturgy, identifying himself with the
    worst of sinners, prays for God’s mercy for himself and for the people
    as the Church begins to prepare for the Holy Oblation and to receive
    Christ in Holy Communion: “Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and
    cleanse me from my sin… Turn away your face from my sins and blot out
    all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a
    right Spirit within me”. For only when we are at peace – with God,
    with one another, and with ourselves – can we worthily offer our
    liturgy to God and, in so doing, be made worthy to receive the Body
    and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Then
    ‘we will hear of joy and gladness; the bones which have been humbled
    will rejoice’, and we can return to the world to ‘tell what great
    things God has done for us’ (Luke 8:38). And being thus filled with
    that divine joy and gladness, we can “teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will turn to you again”.

  59. Byron Avatar

    The connection here is to your words, Father Stephen, about the vision of Isaiah, and I am much in wonder that as the priest is censing the people, and they are singing the hymn, he is reciting Psalm 50.

    I have yet to find a good reference that explains what happens and why during the Liturgy. I’m not looking for a massive, technical tome, but something that makes these types of connections and briefly explains them. Does anyone know of a good reference of this type?

  60. Alan Avatar

    Wow….lots of gold in this post and in the comments as well. Thanks to all of you.

    Thank you Adam for your comment on 4/5 at 8:46. I found that very helpful.
    Timmy….thank you for sharing your story. Beautiful. Funny for me that you mentioned St. Tikhon’s. I would love to visit there someday.
    Father, thank you esp for your comment from 4/5 @ 4:11.

  61. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    And if one reads the entire daily cycle of services, Psalm 50 is in the Morning Prayers, Midnight Service, Matins, Third Hour, and Small Compline. If you also read the entire Psalter each week according to the traditional practice, Psalm 50 will be read again at Matins on Tuesdays, or (during Great Lent) at Third Hour on Mondays and at Matins on Thursdays. Clearly, the holy Fathers of the Church thought this was a VERY important Psalm for us to read!

  62. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Thanks so much for you little train track anecdote.

  63. Kevin Mortimer Avatar
    Kevin Mortimer

    So far your logic is that of the reformed Calvinists. I’ll reserve judgment until I hear what you have to say in answer to Boyd’s post. Otherwise I see you as an advocate for the Orthodox to convert to reformed Protestantism. What was your background before you came to Orthodoxy?

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is, doubtless, transformation that takes place in our lives – though it can often remain quite hidden. The holiness of some saints (maybe even most) is often not revealed until after their death. (wisdom 3:7) Our “synergy” with God in our salvation is also not as straightforward as many modern folks (including some among the Orthodox) tend to think. We are deeply mired in a cause and effect model of thought that distorts our understanding. We tend to imagine that “if I do this, that will happen.” Spiritual transformation is more mysterious, somehow. The Elder Sophrony taught, “The way up is the way down.” And so the work of transformation can be very counter-intuitive. Sophrony also taught that “bearing a little shame” was the path to humility (this is the common teaching of the spiritual fathers) and that humility was and is the foundation of the virtues. Bearing a little shame generally doesn’t feel like growth at all – it feels quite the opposite at first. It is the medicine of the Cross.

    We move from “glory to glory.” But, according to St. John, Christ is “glorified” when He was crucified. In Orthodoxy, the common depiction of Christ on the Cross as the title, “The Lord of Glory.” So, yes, we move from glory to glory – but that movement will not look very glorious to the world. It is kenosis – true self-emptying.

    I have seen very powerful examples of transformation among those in recovery as well. Some of that is the simple restoration to sanity, a movement towards normalcy, that, by comparison to their former state is truly glorious. But, even in recovery, the beginning is counter-intuitive. They admit that they are powerless. This is not giving themselves over to a Calvinist God and hoping He might do something. The very act of admitting that they are powerless is a first act of synergy – of self-emptying.

    In a culture of self-agrandizement and achievement that idolizes success and self-help, I find it important to deconstruct the cultural language and to press deeper into the counter-intuitive character of the Tradition. I hope that it is of use in explaning what I’m saying.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You obviously have not read much of my work. It is good that you are reserving judgment. I hope you’ll read my response to Boyd – I’ve been traveling across the country for the past two weeks speaking and have not been able to respond in a timely fashion. I apologize.

    For what it’s worth – I was an Anglican before being received into the Church. However, I do not think I have ever sought to do theology in anything other than an Orthodox manner. My godfather – the priest who received me – once said, “You were never an Anglican.” I suspect that most of my Anglican comrades would have quickly agreed. Most of them responded to my reception into Orthodoxy with, “At last.” In the whole of my life, the one thing I have never been drawn to, nor been accused of having sympathy for, is Reformed thought. I could show you the wounds to prove it. 🙂

    That said, I found it quite painful to hear someone suggest otherwise – and made me hasten to clarify in a response to Boyd.

  66. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father Stephen,
    Oh! I don’t know where to start.
    Your patience is a blessing. Several times in the past you have beckoned me to be patient. May God help me to be less impulsive!
    You are one of the people in Orthodoxy that I look to and learn “how to be Orthodox”. Forgive me for putting you on a pedestal…I know that makes you feel uncomfortable. Its not like I never question you though. It is not so much the answers you give but your manner of dealing with people. You lay hold of the opportunity to live the Standard of Pascha in all its meaning, and at the same time readily admit your failings.

    I need good examples. I need to be around people that know without a doubt that Orthodoxy is Truth, and that actually live and breathe it. Because it makes it real for me. I can not do this alone. It doesn’t work that way. That is the old way I came out of…sorry to say, in Protestantism. So, for someone to say you speak like a Calvinist is just beyond the pale. This is truly speaking in ignorance. Then to finish by almost demanding a response. And you humbly respond! Lord have mercy…thank you. I should be so patient….with kindness to boot….

    I can see how there can be a misunderstanding in the way Calvinists understand God’s dealing with mankind vs the Orthodox way. I’ve lived the Calvinist life in the past. You well explain synergy as we know it. But….
    I wonder, Father. How it is possible to really understand Orthodoxy without being Orthodox? It is good to ask questions with a desire to really want to know. There has to be something within that just does not set right in the heart and a willingness to step out in search for the full truth. But I think one can sense where the desire is instead to argue, which only leads to division and strife. There is too much of this in Christianity already for which we are all accountable.
    I should stop here…
    Thanks again, Father.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re too kind! My own mind went through it’s own passions. Essentially, to have one’s Orthodoxy questioned (at least for me), provokes a shame response and all its attendant passions. But, fortunately, there’s more control on my keyboard than in my brain!

    That said, we live in a very, very troubled time. It’s like the Wild West everywhere. We are all “quick on the draw” and everyone seems to be armed and dangerous. Social media of all sorts is a saloon in Deadwood. 🙂

    There’s no sheriff in town, so we are all tempted to patrol the streets ourselves…shooting the odd, suspected Calvinist (just as they gun us down as well). Goodwill is thin…partly because we’re all in this same strange town together. We’re frightened by everything and there’s no cavalry in sight riding to the rescue.

    I suspect that what we are experiencing is the conquest of the world by American culture – the reason the Wild West metaphor works so well. America’s Empire in teetering on disaster in what seems to be a fall in slow motion. The only safe place is in the bosom of the Church, under the Omophor of Christ. It is there that we find peace.

  68. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…I can just imagine your mind “going through the passions”….the shame response and all. I get that – completely! I should have your keyboard!
    Deadwood…had to look that up (I am not much of a movie/series watcher…). Wiki gives a pretty good description, so I see what you are saying about likening it to modern America. Plus, I live in the West. Arizona thrives on individualism. Literally, to each is own. But yes, it is crazy angry out there…you don’t have to go far to see it…it is in our own hearts. Lord have mercy. God help us.
    (Wiki also gave what I took as a warning, the use profanity in the series. I had to laugh…another shame response I suppose…)
    So…Amen Father…the only safe place is in the Church, in our precious and all powerful Champion, Lord, and Savior Jesus Christ. That is really the bottom line….

  69. Basem Avatar

    Father – thank you for helping pinpoint my same wound with precision: “to have one’s Orthodoxy questioned (at least for me), provokes a shame response and all its attendant passions”. That is something that I struggled with all my life and I still struggle with. I come for a unique background that may not be helpful to discuss here since this isn’t the topic of your post.

  70. Kevin Mortimer Avatar
    Kevin Mortimer

    Forgive me Father,
    I work in a culture where reformed Calvinism is a dominate belief. One of the characteristics of that belief is a monergistic view of the sovereignty of God that also holds to cessationiism. I’m drawn to the orthodox faith because of your view of the Trinity and the continued immediacy of God’s presence because of the Spirit of Pentecost.. The Orthodox rejection of the Filioque clause maintains the immanence as well as the transcendence; that one’s salvation is progressive coming out of relationship. This relationship is synergistic or two ways and always progressing or regressing (at least that’s what I’m picking up?)
    You put your response to Boyd in the context of those recovering from severe addiction. I’ve come to believe that Augustine’s original sin may have been in response to his Manichaeism and his enslaved addiction to sex. I surmise Calvinists pick up on this in their view of Total Depravity and God elects some to be saved and other not to be by predetermined decree, consequently the monergistic view of God’s sovereignty. Calvinists tend to love Augustine.
    Thanks for putting your response in the context of kenosis and theosis. Very helpful! Would you say that those severely enslaved to the captivity of sin need a monergistic view of God to feel that there is hope for recovery? Would you say that steps one and two of the AA program are the foundation of kenosis? What resource could you point me to that is a response to the total depravity and the sovereignty of God of Calvinism?
    Once again, thank you for your most helpful response to someone who has found the various responses in Protestantism incomplete. I need to spend more time with your points on shame.
    Very grateful for your real and clear answers. It’s why I’m reading your blog.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll start with AA. The essence of AA (and all recovery) is found in chapter 3 of the Big Book, which is entitled, “How It Works.” It grew out of experience rather than theory (and had to be revised in its beginnings as the early community of AA shared their experience). It freed the movement from ideology and dogmatism. In that sense (“how it works”) recovery often has a great affinity with Orthodoxy – because Orthodoxy is grounded in actual reality rather than theory. Without fear, Orthodoxy has always been committed to “experience.” To a degree, this is what the Palamite Controversies were about – the truth of spiritual experience versus scholasticism.

    The experience of recovery from addiction is very instructive for the spiritual life (since all sin often has an addictive quality). It says, “I can’t, God can, I’ll let Him.” The “I’ll let Him” (which is shorthand for Step 3) is where the monergism fails. We cannot do what we must, but we are able to let God do what we cannot.” The “letting” is the very heart of our synergism.

    Calvinism is enslaved to theory. It forces the Scriptures to fit its theories, even as it claims sola scriptura.

    God give you grace in your journey. I’m glad to be of help!

  72. Diana Christina Avatar
    Diana Christina

    AA folks also say, “God is either everything, or He is nothing. What is our choice to be?”

    Your line, “I have been sent to the not so excellent (probably the basis of my readership),” is certainly true in my case : )

    Great post for our times.

  73. Alan Avatar

    “I can’t, God can, I’ll let Him.” The “I’ll let Him” (which is shorthand for Step 3) is where the monergism fails. We cannot do what we must, but we are able to let God do what we cannot.” The “letting” is the very heart of our synergism.


    Thank you Father!

  74. Maria Avatar

    I have heard that many times – “Let go and let God!” We are so used to be told since we are small, that we can do it! We can take charge! We can be anything we want! Now we are trying to undo that and “Let go and let God!” Blessings this Lent and Pascha…..

  75. Andrew Tedford Avatar
    Andrew Tedford

    Fr. Stephen, a question. In context of the church ought we not strive for excellence? In the services, as a choir, is excellence not a noble aim? Or with the beautification of the church or of literature in our racks ought we not strive to make these as excellent as possible. Where is the line to be drawn? Or even in the precision in which we write about orthodoxy are we not to pursue excellence. Whatever is true, whatever is good, whatever is noble, whatever is excellent, meditate upon these things. Help me understand. Thank you.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but what you are suggestion is a very misleading line of thought. I would appear correct, when judged according to our culture. But, in practice, is very dangerous.

    We never follow beauty for beauty’s sake, nor excellence for excellence sake. What we do, we do for God, and its excellence can only be measured by love and mercy, kindness and generosity. “Excellence,” so-called, when separated from those things, is a form of decadence and a path towards death.

    I’m saying this out of many decades of experience as a priest. Just to use a choir as an example (or anything in the liturgy). I’ve seen tyrants whose liturgies are flawless and whose choirs are the best – but, in their wake, there is a stream of destruction. The problem, again is beauty (or excellence), considered apart from God. In God, in union with Him, I’ve heard choirs that were merely mediocre, whose heart transcends that of the best professionals. That sound is more pleasing to God.

    This is also true of everything else. Excellence belongs to God, not to human beings. St. Paul tells us to “think on” excellent things in Philippians, but does not instruct us to set them as the goals of our lives. I would point to 1Cor. 13 for instruction in true excellence. Only love makes something truly excellent.

    Our unwillingness to be weak, to bear the shame of our lack of excellence, makes us into people with darkened hearts, from which evil can proceed. I would venture to say that the desire for excellence (so-called) has been a source of great evil through the centuries. Politicians revel in such nonsense and sell it to others in a bonfire of national vanity that is a stench in the nostrils of God.

    To know the beauty in what is weak, what is fragile, what is needy (think of the words of the Beatitudes), these are the places where the true excellence of God is seen and known. The ugliness of the ancient world rested in the excellence of the leadership that conspired to kill Christ. They do it repeatedly to this day.

    The line is drawn by the love of God – which lays down its life for the other. The world has hijacked wonderful words (true, good, noble, excellent).

    I love beautiful things – but it is best to serve God above everything and let Him bring the beauty into our lives as His own gift. The world is already quite beautiful. It is generally the “excellence” of our cultures that destroy it.

    I hope that is of some help.

  77. Andrew Tedford Avatar
    Andrew Tedford

    Very helpful. Still it makes for a difficult dividing line. How do I judge whether me or a church as a whole is pursuing excellence for excellence sake, or in pursuit of Christ? Not that it is my role to judge. It is easy to focus on ensuring things are orderly and clean and well sung, but it seems like you suggest that every time we clean house and update we must be judging our motives…exhausting, no? Can we simply whistle while we work and enjoy God in the process without all the introspection?

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would not be too introspective. I would not worry about excellence at all, frankly. I would direct my attention to Christ.

  79. Efstratios Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I read you post about the Ladder and feel like I found the clarity I was seeking. You lost helps reconciliation how such an ancient text can apply to life in 2019 as if it were written by someone today. The text proves what a gift the monistic life is to all the world, and you sir are excellent (sorry)! I hope everyone well in their struggle to follow Christ our God.

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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

  3. Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist. Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms…

  4. Janine, Thank you for replying! I understand what you’re saying about unworthiness and I totally agree, it is absolutely by…

  5. Father Stephen, Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!

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