The Soul Is A Mirror

The soul is a difficult thing to speak (or write) about. First, the word is used so commonly and widely that its true meaning becomes obscured. Second, the soul is largely unknown to each of us, despite its primary importance. So, I will begin by giving its simple meaning: the soul is our life. When we hear the story of Adam’s creation we learn that he is fashioned out of the earth. Then, God breathes into him, “and he became a living soul.” The soul is the life (there are no dead souls), and the life is a gift from God, the “Lord and Giver of Life.”

There is, of course, what we could call the “bios” of our existence – the mere fact of our biological life. But this alone does not constitute what is meant by “soul.” The soul is not only our life – it is our true life – our authentic existence. It is this authentic existence that is largely hidden from us. It is covered by so much that shapes our experience: pain, suffering, shame, dark intentions, fear, etc. In fact, much that we describe as our “existence” is little more than the effects of these experiences, particularly as they shape and energize the passions (our various desires). Here is a short description of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s thought on this point:

The journey towards salvation is marked by a successive elimination of all that we “have,” in order to reach what we “are.” The safest path and surest refuge is not to be deluded and fail to recognize ourselves – who we truly are. We should not believe that we are seeing our Selves when we are only seeing something that surrounds us – our body, our senses, the idea that others have of us.

For anything unstable [that which changes] is not us.

The soul is purified in this way, as she lays aside garment after garment. So, the ideal [salvation] will appear as that supreme instant wherein the soul, having laid aside all of her “corporeal” veils, presents herself naked and pure in spirit to the vision of God in a divine vigil. (from Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 1995. Kindle 1469 ff.)

There is an unchanging (stable) reality that abides throughout the whole of our existence. Often, I think it is possible for someone to feel as though this reality has been misplaced or buried. Childhood, when it is innocent and largely undamaged, gives easy access to this reality – it is the soul.

Among the more interesting experiences for a priest is the confession of children. The one thing I am certain to avoid is trying to teach children about sin when it is not part of their conscious existence. Convincing a child that there is an external parent (God) watching and judging their every thought and action is almost certain to create a certain distance from the soul itself. The question, “Am I ok?” is the language of shame, of broken communion, even communion with the soul. But, having done this now for 40 years, I can say that I see a gradual awakening in each child, an awareness of broken communion. The role of a confessor is not to widen that gap, but to help a child learn how it is bridged in Christ. I tell parents, “The only thing I want a child to know at first is the absolute certainty of God’s unchanging and unconditional love.” It is only in the context of such safety that, in time, an older adolescent can find the forgiveness and healing that they will inevitably need.

If this is true of children, it is true for adults as well.

When Adam and Eve hide, it is the exposure of their nakedness that drives them away from God. This is shame. They are not hiding because they are afraid of God; they hide because they cannot bear their own nakedness. They have become alien to their own souls. And so, God, in His mercy, covers them. In confession we draw back the covering and dare to look towards our own soul. And (in Orthodox practice) we are then covered by the priest’s stole (epitrahelion) and drawn into communion with God as we hear the prayer of absolution.

What do we see when we look within? We usually see sin, embarrassment, failure, loneliness, the passions. These things are certainly there, but none of them constitute the soul. They obscure the soul. We come to know the soul (our own true self), and thus to see God, as we slowly clear away the detritus that covers the soul as mirror. This is asceticism in its many forms. Far more than simple fasting and prayer, it is primarily repentance, the refusal to call everything that encumbers the soul “my true self.”

There is a strange, inward paradox that accompanies this struggle. We naturally draw back from the things we see within ourselves that separate us from God. There can be an element of disgust (a form of shame). If we persist in identifying ourselves with that which disgusts us – then we discover that we stand in a position of alienation in which we have communion with nothing [non-being]. The struggle of a fastidious personality can be a path of abiding misery and loneliness. It is burdened by scrupulosity, driven to “clean things up.” It cannot bear the company of others (including God) unless the inner house is in order. The logismoi (thoughts and voices) that accompany this can be experienced as a terrible torment. Sometimes this is a pathology even requiring some form of medical intervention.

As a confessor, I listen carefully for this “voice” (the fastidiousness). Tragically, the normal prayers that are read as part of our devotions can be taken up by this voice as a reinforced version of this torment.

The paradox lies in the fact that the things that disgust us, that are truly made up of things we have thought, said, or done, are not actually the self – the soul. However, we instinctively withdraw from an experience of disgust (and related experiences). The effort to “bear a little shame” is contrary to these instincts. As such, looking past them is a deep ascesis. We instinctively want to eat, but we fast. We instinctively want to sleep, but we keep watch. Ascetical practices step over certain instincts for something greater. This is the virtue of courage.

It is with an element of courage that we sit with our shame in the presence of God and allow ourselves to move beyond it towards the true reality of the soul – that which is changeless and abiding. Nyssa says, “To contemplate God is the life of the soul.” De infantibus, III, 176 A.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the young man falls into terrible sins and a wasteful life. However, we are told that “he came to himself” (Lk 15:17). This phrase makes it clear that he himself (his soul) is not to be identified with the terrible sins and a wasteful life. They are alien to him. In truth, he was fleeing from himself when he left the Father’s house. When he “comes to himself,” he returns to his true home.

In the Father’s embrace, there is only the true life (soul) of the younger son. There is no recalling of his failings in the words of the Father. “This my son was dead” (alienated from his soul), “but now he is alive.” And as he stands in the Father’s embrace, he perhaps sees the Father truly for the first time, now reflected in the mirror of his own soul.

This is salvation.

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.



59 responses to “The Soul Is A Mirror”

  1. Byron Avatar

    I had a woman tell me (on a forum) once that her child’s surgery was done to reveal “her true self”. We live in difficult times, full of confusion.

    Many thanks for this, Father.

  2. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    It can be so difficult not to identify ourselves and others with the multitudinous ways is which we turn away from God and miss the mark. Thank you for this wonderful reminder.

  3. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father for this very thoughtful piece.
    The more vibrantly we consider that we are sojourners on earth, the more we appreciate that we are called to a salvation of eternal thanksgiving in the vision of God (one that is not of this world); this way we increasingly accept everything –whether considered good or bad by this world– in a fearless trust in His providence. This includes acceptance of whatever befalls us as well as of our very selves.
    If, as St. Gregory of Nyssa states that: “salvation is the presentation of ourself naked and pure in spirit to the vision of God in a divine vigil”, and, as he declares elsewhere [‘First Homily on The Lord’s Prayer’], “in endless thanksgiving without ceasing throughout our entire life”, then it follows that, as our Elder Aimilianos affirmed, ‘there doesn’t exist a single person who cannot become a Saint.’ This elder repeated many times that:“The reason we don’t become saints is because we do not want to accept what we are. We want to disguise ourself, to become something else”. We do not, primarily, accept our natural alignment towards gratefulness to the One who called us into being, but we’d rather self-determine (merely because we can) as self-made, self-governed (and hence deluded) beings/“gods”. But the trusting acceptance of God’s providence liberates us into a divine freedom unlike the self-entrapment of such mutinous and self-regarding separation from God’s love.
    The mystery of ‘man’s freedom’ is characteristically interweaved with the convolutions of our view of ourself.
    ‘Shame’, ‘humility’, ‘conceit/delusion’ and ‘honesty/courage’ [through hope] play enormous roles here.
    We see this mystery of ‘man’s freedom’ told in the initial chapters of Genesis.
    It is a freedom of how we position ourselves towards the One who brought us to such awe-inspiring self-determination.
    We promptly recognise the volatility of our own use of such a freedom [of self-determination] in those chapters.
    Another –extremely significant– element we also perceive in those chapters is that providential “limits” are indispensable for creatures such as ourselves (with the peculiar kind of freedom-of-choice in directing our inclination that we have) to mature and become established into greater stability (and also humble dignity).
    What is conveyed in the Genesis story is essentially this: (1) my Life-Giver saying to me, his beloved creature, ‘make sure you continuously eat from the Tree of Life (if you wish to partake of the Life for which I called you into being)’.
    This first part is also a description of a blessed and incorruptible life of thanksgiving and participation.
    At the same time, God says, (2) ‘ensure you do not eat from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, (unless you wish to reject the Life for which I have called you into being)’.
    This second part (the warning) also describes a potentially schizoid and suicidal ‘life’ of separation from God, one of usurping His creation, and of course of terminal complaining after that.
    God could not rigorously ban us from the eating of the second tree however (as some people protest He should have), for if He did this, His (freely self-determining) creature would inevitably rebel, become deeply irritated, upset and mutinous.
    So, this is our condition. This is also the reason why we have the kind of providential limits placed on us that we actually have, first and foremost of which (and most beneficial for us) is death – the greatest reminder that we are sojourners on earth called to an eternal permanence in union with our Life-Giver.
    So acceptance of all suffering and death, in thankfulness and in the knowledge that we “have we no continuing city here, but we seek one to come”, is something we can cultivate at every chance.

  4. Jacob Pederson Avatar
    Jacob Pederson

    Thank you for your words on scrupulosity and fastidiousness-here I was thinking that I was alone!

  5. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Dino – Your comments are so rich, thank you!

  6. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “It can be so difficult not to identify ourselves and others with the multitudinous ways is which we turn away from God and miss the mark.”
    Yes, Esmee. It is so very damaging.

    Father…this is another one of your deep articles. I am going to have to read and re-read it and digest and hope to better understand. I treasure your words in the past to “have patience, and the coins will drop”. Thanks so very much.

  7. Bob "Elias" Mims Avatar

    Father, I receive your blog updates by email subscription. They always inspire me, and deepen my understanding (at age 65) of my new, ancient faith. (I was baptized at Sts. Peter & Paul OC in Salt Lake City a little more than a year ago).
    I was raised an Evangelical/Pentecostal preacher’s kid, so Orthodoxy has been a mind-(soul) changing experience, to say the least.
    Thank you for taking the time to share such profound thoughts, expressed with clarity and love.

  8. William Avatar

    I felt like this was the struggle for holiness, but my father confessor tells me to stop being so hard on myself.
    It’s worse than my self-perceived sins… Anything you have to say on the matter would be most helpful.

    (re: There is a strange, inward paradox that accompanies this struggle. We naturally draw back from the things we see within ourselves that separate us from God. There can be an element of disgust (a form of shame). If we persist in identifying ourselves with that which disgusts us – then we discover that we stand in a position of alienation in which we have communion with nothing [non-being]. The struggle of a fastidious personality can be a path of abiding misery and loneliness. It is burdened by scrupulosity, driven to “clean things up.” It cannot bear the company of others (including God) unless the inner house is in order. The logismoi (thoughts and voices) that accompany this can be experienced as a terrible torment. Sometimes this is a pathology even requiring some form of medical intervention.

    As a confessor, I listen carefully for this “voice” (the fastidiousness). Tragically, the normal prayers that are read as part of our devotions can be taken up by this voice as a reinforced version of this torment.

    Yes the voice is in full force. It’s hard to say the end of the Jesus Prayer “on me a sinner’…because I know my own sin and it gets worse and worse (the feeling of despair etc)..

    Kyrie, Jesus Christ Elieson!

    “keep your mind in hell and despair not” – I’m working on it!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is quite difficult. The “voice” sometimes has a genuine medical condition behind it (often a form of OCD) and can be very difficult to deal with, much less to see improved. To a degree, it is important not to identify oneself with the “voice.” It’s not you, in the same way that a pain signal from a smashed thumb to your brain is not you – it’s an artifact of a smashed thumb. The insistent character of the “voice” as well as its pretty consistent “dark” character are signs of the medical sort of thing. I’m no expert on this stuff – and I think everyone has some degree of this – it’s a normal function of shame (which has a physical/neurological component as well).

    Sometimes the “bearing a little shame” means not giving it power – but enduring its dark accusations and clinging instead to the light of God’s truth – you are loved – you exist in the image of God – Christ is in you, etc.

    There are frequently prayers that rhyme so much with the darker aspects of the voice that its useful to change the prayer a bit. I almost never use the “me, a sinner” part of the Jesus Prayer. Sometimes, I simply switch to a Psalm verse – something that confesses the goodness of God. It’s good to append the name, “Lord, Jesus Christ” to the front of such a verse – there is power in the Name.

    Always, always, always, remember that Christ has entered hell and meets us there. We are not alone.

  10. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. I love the explanation you gave of a priest’s action with his stole. It made me wonder then at the confessional aspect of Adam’s and Eve’s responses. I had been supposing they each were ‘passing the buck’ – but that was not the case. They were telling the truth as they dimly saw it, the way we so often do in our own confessions. Inadequate as that may be, it is sufficient to engender the compassionate covering that is so restorative. They simply state what has happened, in a manner which I think is not overscrupulous or fastidious.

    I think better of them!

  11. William Avatar

    Thank you very much for the reply, it has a golden thread of the Spirit in it for me to pull on.
    I never considered the aspect of the medical/OCD part – I’ve always thought of myself as ‘laid back’ but those who know me might protest this. Mom’s got OCD with the cleaning pretty bad and I’ve never been neurotypical.

    Regardless of all of these things, the Victory in Christ is most assured and complete and I press onward to
    the goal that I may receive the prize.

    This is great armor/ammunition towards innoculating against meaningless self-derision.
    It’s great to have ‘permission’? to knock it off a little, to have a place to simply rest while the scars of my long journey home heal.. your insight and seeming familiarity with the situation is helpful and reassuring – I didn’t really understand the destructiveness or prevalence of this, confession is very helpful – and to be ‘under the veil’ as it were….

  12. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for the reminder of the power of/in Jesus’ name. We are saved in His name, healed in His name, baptized in His name, every knee shall bow before His powerful and majestic Name, confessing Him as Lord.
    When I hear the voice of shame within me, I go to the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. He is the loving and forgiving Father to whom I cling, returning His kiss and loving embrace.

  13. Brandon Avatar

    Father – as some people are born into certain undesirable circumstances, and as there are many hidden influences that surround us but depend on where we are and how we (our bios) responds to them, how can one see through this seemingly deterministic fact and recognize that we were actually born “differently” than all of that (soul/true life)?

    I suppose that in the context that life (temporal/spatial) is a gift from God, the gift includes particular surroundings, uniqueness/beauty and those need to be recognized as part of the gift, and not deterministic. I guess a rejection of it as “gift” is the only way one could view it as such.

    Thank you,

  14. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you so much, especially your teachings (or should I say those of St Gregory of Nyssa with your helpful language for us) on the true self.

    Regarding children, once upon a time a priest handed out a list of things children might confess to. I found this problematic enough by itself. Then I read, “Incorrectly making the sign if the cross.” I had a private fit wondering what he thought he was doing (especially as an Orthodox priest). Well, perhaps predictably, he later defrocked himself when certain personal scandals came to light ( thankfully not involving children). But he is still out there, now on the other end of the PC ladder, still publicly holding out precepts his personal behavior contradicted in private, per my own experience with him. So it goes with the soul!! Plus ca change, as the saying goes. It does indeed take courage to forgo image for real change. God help us all. Thank you again for your beautiful essay and your help.

  15. Jonathan Avatar

    “Tragically, the normal prayers that are read as part of our devotions can be taken up by this voice as a reinforced version of this torment.”

    Growing up Protestant, I realized that my experience with ‘mercy’ was what you have noted so much–the legal and punitive. It had nothing to do with God’s care or God entering into human suffering and baring it along side me. When I pray, have mercy on my a sinner, I am inviting myself to see and experience Jesus walking with me, holding me even. Stating that I am sinner was very hard for me because I grew up with the mantra that I am not a sinner, but a saint saved by grace–the old man is dead and I must by faith believe I am something saintly. It however did not square with my experience. It has come to me that, by saying I am sinner I am stating the obvious nothing more or less. I am stating something about reality and depowering the voices that say, “you are the worst, if people only knew.” or “you are exceptional, if only people knew.”

    As you said the name of Jesus Christ is first in the prayer for a reason. Whispering the name of Jesus and inviting him, come Lord Jesus, is all we can really do.

    Thank you Father.

  16. Dino Avatar

    I was once led towards a treasured ‘adjustment’, regarding how we can change self-absorbed shame into the healthy God-trusting variety, when we pray for mercy as sinners.
    What we do is we stand as already infinitely “mercied”…
    Accordingly, through this core reorientation of our being, we stand not so much as desperate sinners in hell (which we often hear stout saints doing), but rather “despairing not” – focusing on the giveness of forgiveness.
    Even when marvelling at the enormity of how mind-bogglingly “forgiven” (“mercied”) we are, even when we have a vision of how unjustifiably we are being exonerated; we are now in a very different ‘camp’, one of assuredness and thanksgiving.
    It’s as if when Adam is asked ‘where are you’ by God, after his transgression, he does not separate himself from his Father by saying, ‘I heard you and hid’, but confesses, ‘I have transgressed and plead forgiveness’, or rather, ‘I see you love me and have come to me in utter forgiveness and do not know how to ever thank you fittingly’.
    Man does not become scattered and scrupulous studying himself and cursing his inability, but collected and thankful for God’s ability.

  17. Dino Avatar

    *correction: Man therefore does not become scattered and scrupulous studying himself and cursing his inability, but collected and thankful for God’s ability.

    As the septuagint of psalm 22 / 23 goes: “Your mercy oh Lord shall pursue me [literally: ‘hunt me down!’] all the days of my life”

  18. Victoria Avatar


    That is deeply profoundly beautiful what you wrote and how you tied it to the psalms – a window into what is repentance

  19. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    On the subject of the daily prayers reinforcing perhaps the wrong kind of self- accusatory tendencies…

    When I first came to the Orthodox Church, I literally could not read these kinds of prayers. They hit me as over-the-top melodramatic and nothing about them felt sincere. This is especially true of the ones offered in Russian Prayer Book published by the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. Granted, all the prayers comes from our holy Fathers, but those selected, included, and practiced within that Prayer Book seem to be a reflection of Russian and Eastern European culture in general. I have grown to like a number of them, but it took me over 10 years of going to Church and reading the holy Fathers to be able to appreciate where these prayers are coming from. But fortunately the Church has given us many, many prayers to choose from which allows us to fine some that resonate with us no matter where we are in our journey towards salvation. I actually prefer to read the Divine services much more than I do the traditional morning and evening prayers. This has been a recent discovery for me and was reinforced by one of your previous posts, Fr. Stephen, in which you said that words are also “icons,” and then (not coincidentally, I’m sure!) I immediately read an introduction to Elder Aimilianos’s book on The Psalms which explained that both individual Psalms – and especially The Psalter as a whole – were likewise “icons,” and from there I realized that the Divine services were also “icons.” This epiphany huge for me and helped me to understand the power of The Psalter (why so many early Christian monastics read it in its entirety as their all-night vigil) and the Divine services (both individually and as a complete daily cycle, and why I feel so much peace when I participate in them and actually “crave” them in my daily life). Now, if I only have 15 minutes to pray in the morning, I will settle for reading the Morning Prayers from the Greek prayer book published by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, but if I have more time, then I will skip those and go straight to chanting the profoundly beautiful service of Matins, including the appointed Kathismata from The Psalter and the canon for the saint of the day and any other hymns specially designated for that day (from the Triodion or Pentecostarion, etc.). I do the same in the evening, choosing Vespers over Small Compline. Do I do this every day? No, that’s impossible! But if I can do it a few times a week, I find it to very spiritually nourishing. I think it’s because the Divine services are more of an act of worship, than simply reading a collection prayers that vary according to the cultural tradition of a particular Orthodox country (Slavic, Greek, Antiochian, etc.). The Divine services are the same everywhere, regardless of language or nationality. I find that to embody a tremendous amount of “power,” for lack of a better word. I did this for the first time this year with the Triodion hymns during Great Lent and it was the first time that I felt I have ever fully entered into a feeling state of true compunction for my sins. I have never felt this from reading the morning or evening prayers in our prayer books. All I can say is that something very real and very deep happens to me on a soul-level when I chant the services, which does not occur for me when I only reading the morning or evening prayers.

  20. Andrea Avatar

    Thank you so much for this essay. I particularly appreciated your addressing the langue of some prayers. Over the 30+ years since my conversion to Orthodoxy I’ve learned to approach them with a degree of deference but some of the wording is still “cold comfort” when I’m particularly discouraged. In fact, there have been times when it’s only furthered a sense of hopelessness. The Roman Catholics have thoroughly addressed the issue of scrupulosity. I’d like to hear more from Orthodox writers on it, as it can become a detriment to one’s spiritual growth keeping the sufferer from partaking of the Eucharist.

  21. Byron Avatar

    Father – as some people are born into certain undesirable circumstances, and as there are many hidden influences that surround us but depend on where we are and how we (our bios) responds to them, how can one see through this seemingly deterministic fact and recognize that we were actually born “differently” than all of that (soul/true life)?

    Brandon, one consideration here is to remember that we are not defined by our circumstances, our desires, our feelings, our sins, etc…. We are, simply put, human and we are becoming human as God draws us to Him. If we can cease to define ourselves (and others) by these “…seemingly deterministic fact(s)…”, then we can begin to see ourselves–and others–as simply loved by God in the Life He gives.

    In a sense, we compartmentalize ourselves as [fill in the blank] while God simply looks upon us as His beloved creation and seeks to bring us to fullness in the gift of humanity He has given us. Just my thoughts.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When St. John writes, “It does not yet appear what we shall be,” and when St. John’s Revelation tells us that Christ will give us a new name, it would seem that we do not yet actually know ourselves (the soul), or, at best, are only mildly acquainted with it. The undesirable consequences and influences are not becoming part of who we are. They influence who we are, or who we shall be, but ultimately only as fire refines silver or gold. The fire does not become the silver or gold, nor are silver and gold defined and determined by their experience of fire.

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    I have come across this as well, particularly when the Psalms are chanted: that they give life and merciful healing to my soul on a deep level. St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom both held tightly to the Psalter, as so many many Saints. I came across a couple of important quotes on this from St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom:

    I enjoy listening to a CD of hymns chanted from the Psalter that I own and always find it soothing to my soul…the honey, that St. Basil describes.

  24. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    ” The fire does not become the silver or gold, nor are silver and gold defined and determined by their experience of fire.”
    There is so much packed into those words that I couldn’t even begin to say. The only thing that I could mutter right now is ‘do not judge’…myself or others. Because we don’t know the half of it, except God is working all things for our salvation.
    Thanks Father. That’s another keeper.

  25. Chris Schaelling Avatar
    Chris Schaelling

    He came to himself ……the life of the soul is to contemplate God……this is salvation. This strikes me as true, though I am not sure how to achieve it… it really possible in this life with all its baggage? I constantly doubt my salvation….I doubt I even truly understand what salavation is.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Gregory of Nyssa would probably answer that the point is to reach towards it – always, and ever.

  27. Nikola Lozanov Avatar
    Nikola Lozanov

    Thank you Father for profound words which touch my soul. Sometimes to truly feel the presence of God in myself I contemplate acts of mercy and love, and tears start streaming from me. As you point out, our soul or our true self become a mirror to God when we touch the love, mercy and grace of God in ourselves and others. We then lift up the veil over the soul and find what make us like God, his divine energy that removes all the obstacles in communion with him. “Unless you become like a child you cannot enter the heavenly kingdom”.
    Thank you again! Christ is Risen!

  28. Dino Avatar

    Chris Schaelling,
    I think that there is one good thing we can try to do with all the baggage of this life: Effectively, with one fell swoop, and with a bit of watchful internal self-distancing from these burdens’ immediacy, we can decode and interpret it all as what it really is: exactly what is needed for our salvation! Our rationalistic analysis to the contrary (i.e.: that it is a huge hindrance to salvation), despite its apparent accuracy, ought to be considered as totally erroneous…
    It is concerning this thing that St paul pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from him and the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” And subsequently he accepted all baggage, burdens and infirmities, with a newfound faith and trust in the inexplicably atypical workings of God’s providence in our lives.
    This leads us to the healthy foundation of spiritual life: of joy – as gratitude towards God –for his continuous gifts, “for all the things we know and do not know” (John Chrysosotom’s Anaphora).
    But the safeguarding of such joy requires courage and watchfulness; it is shattered by our ideologies, our aspirations, our involvement in foreign affairs, the disruption of our relationship with others, the resurgence of our unsettling passions. But [as Elder Aimilianos upholds] one may be still enslaved to passions, but have his passions submitted to God. Then he has no sadness; he has a hope!
    Mostly, joy is shattered when the ego gets back into our life and re-emerges when we ignore the ego.

  29. Vasilia Avatar

    I’ve only gotten part way through these comments (and like Paula will be reading and rereading) but the post and comments are wonderful. Thank you all and Dino for the thoughts on reorienting toward the “giveness” of forgiveness. Profound and beautiful.

  30. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Father, your words are timely and so was my reading of them. Yesterday, before I read this post this morning, I was caused to reflect on Love’s place in my existence.

    I had just recently had a couple of experiences with other people and I was thinking over how I responded to them. In large part we emerged to the other side of our exchanges relatively unchanged, or maybe, undamaged. However, I noticed some of my responses were based on their frame of reference rather than on Love. I “played their game,” rather than adhering to and responding purely from what the “rules of love” would demand. I did not necessarily enter into “an eye for an eye strategy,” but I noticed later that rather than presenting love I responded in a way that seemed to accept their apparent premise or place from which they were speaking; a place that did not have love as it’s rule, but a place of attack/defense, a place of fear/anger. Without thinking, I acknowledged and affirmed this place of being, participating in dialogue and naturally accepting the ground rules laid out. I did not necessarily respond in kind, but neither did I step out of this paradigm to offer a superceding way (something Jesus does).

    Upon later reflection I was mulling over the question of how does one maintain the integrity one is discovering in God? How does one, rather than mirroring those I encounter, be an untarnished, true expression of the reality of love that is God and that I am in Him?

    Your words have added some clarity to these ruminations. One conclusion I had drawn was that to be who I am I must intentionally dwell with He who makes me who I am, through prayer, reading of Scripture, etc. , much along the lines of the conversation elicited by your previous post. It is only through this bathing that I will become. I will then begin to naturally be who I am, no matter who I talk to or how they talk to me or how they act.

    Thanks once again for your help, Father. God is good.

  31. Karen Avatar

    “Thanks! I needed that!” (Not the Hawaiian punch, but your post!)

    Father, that punchline from a 70s commercial was what popped into my mind after I read this article. This is *very* useful material for me! I will come back and reread.

    Esmee, thank you for sharing your use of the services. Could you tell me which books you have from where you can read those services if there are any besides the two prayer books you mention?

    Anonymous, what CD of the Psalter do you have, if you don’t mind sharing? A link would be great if there’s an online source to purchase. Thanks for sharing!

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This word – “But [as Elder Aimilianos upholds] one may be still enslaved to passions, but have his passions submitted to God. Then he has no sadness; he has a hope!” rescued me this morning. Glory to God for all things!

  33. Dino Avatar

    That word of the Elder, with the peculiar authority he imparted on it, (as well as many demands from me to his successor for extra assurance) , has been proved a daily anchor for years…

  34. Maria Avatar

    Peace…..Speaking about souls can be complicated, however souls are also very beautiful in their pure and polished state, which we are striving to do. Sometimes when we are chastised, cut down, made to feel embarrassed or bear a crushed ego, it is God’s way of polishing our souls. During this polishing is when we see our real self. Thankyou for the article – a nice thought for the week!

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen isn’t the only one helped by your comment today. Your words of encouragement have helped me too. Thank you

  36. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Jeff Pauls,
    You are very keen in your perceptions.
    Your comment is a great help. Thank you.

  37. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Karen – I have The Great Horologion published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I prefer their translation over The Horologion by Holy Trinity Monastery. But the one from Holy Trinity Monastery is smaller and less expensive. I use The Psalter According to the Seventy by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I bought the complete 12-volume Menaion published by Saint John of Kronstadt Press and translated by Isaac Lambertson. That was a major investment, but worth every penny for me. This is considered to be a better translation than the Menaion published by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I use The Pentecostarion by Saint John of Kronstadt Press also. I use The Lenten Triodion and The Lenten Triodion Supplement and The Festal Menaion, all of which are published by Saint Tikhon’s Seminary Press. I lived as a guest at a monastery for a year when I was homeless, so I got to experience what it was like to do these services with all the appropriate hymns and psalms and I really missed it when I left. So I slowly saved my money and was able to gradually get each part. I still need The (5-volume set) from Saint John of Kronstadt Press, which I hope to get soon. This is pretty much everything you would need to do the services throughout the year if you wish to include all the “moving parts” so-to-speak. But The Horologion by itself will give you the basic services which can be done without all the extras. Holy Transfiguration Monastery also publishes a small pocket size version of both The Psalter and Book of Hours, which compliment their Prayerbook. That is a very affordable way to be able to do all the basic services if you want to get started and see how it goes before making a larger investment of your resources.

  38. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Karen – Accidentally omitted from my above comments…

    –>> the (5-volume set) of *The Octoechos*

  39. Anonymous Avatar

    The CD I was referencing was from the Sacred Monastery of St. Nina, chanted by the Sisters, but it was an older recording that had more Psalms on it–the newest recording still has “Blessed is the Man” (Psalm 1), but it has a greater variety of other hymns now chanted in Georgian, Greek, and English. I do have a link to their gift shop though. I also have the pocket sized Psalter and Book of Hours I purchased from their gift shop that are very nice to have that Esmee was referencing that were published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston. They are very nice books. Here is a link~

  40. victoria Avatar

    Hi Jonathan – earlier in the comments you wrote

    Growing up Protestant, I realized that my experience with ‘mercy’ was what you have noted so much–the legal and punitive. It had nothing to do with God’s care or God entering into human suffering and baring it along side me. When I pray, have mercy on my a sinner, I am inviting myself to see and experience Jesus walking with me, holding me even.

    It was a balm for me when our priest (Greek) explained mercy as healing. I went back into our newsletter to find our exactly what he wrote:

    “The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word “eleos.” This word has the same root as the old Greek word for olive oil—a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word is also translated as “eleos” and mercy is translated as “hesed” which means steadfast love. The Greek words for “Lord have mercy” are “Kyrie eleison” that is to say, “Lord, sooth me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.” Thus, mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal (a very Western interpretation), but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray “Lord, have mercy” with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.”

    an Orthodox understanding of mercy is an emollient rich balm for our parched souls – Christ’s embrace rather

    also my apologies in advance if the html code I tried does work!!

  41. Albert Avatar

    This, dear Father, is your best yet — essay and comments. (I think I say that to myself a lot, about your work here.)

    I am somewhat isolated in my family and among friends with regard to this kind of talk. Well, almost alone. I have found a few online persons whom I read. And in my family/friends group there are varying levels of interest, beliefs, and commitment. Not that mine is so great, but I recognize a need and your reflections , along with the commenters stories and suggestions, provide it. I am so grateful.

    I especially appreciated the talk about traditional prayers. And the references from Esmee and Anonymous. And your directing us to St. Gregory of Nyssa.

  42. Chris Schaelling Avatar
    Chris Schaelling

    Father and Dino,

    Thank you both for your encouraging words. Indeed I do keep getting up and keep reaching out for our Savior every time I fall. But so often it seems what I am reaching for is a mirage, a shadow. I am guessing that I am somewhat spiritually blind, can only partially see. Indeed I have hope even as I walk near that thin line of despair….that God is really not there. Fortunately I mostly walk in the hope of fully receiving that mercy, grace and love that has been promised to us by our good and great Lord.

    Christ is risen!
    Glory to God for ALL things!

  43. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Chris S. – This is a new post by Fr. Michael Gillis on our apparent inability to eliminate the chronic negative thoughts that seemingly control us and how not to allow ourselves to fall into despair as a result. You may find it helpful.

  44. Karen Avatar

    Esmee and Anonymous,
    Thank you so much!

  45. Scott Avatar


    “On my last visit to the monastery, one of the fathers said that despair is the unforgivable sin.”

    How cruel it is to turn despair and sin into a horrid loop. Abiding sin from your despair provokes despair of your abiding sin.

  46. Dino Avatar

    One unexpected deterrent to despair, which is certainly worth joining to our firm foundation of hope and trust in God’s unfailing goodness, mercy and providence, is sincerely meditating on the transitory character of this life, with all its shackles, its evanescent pleasures and intimidating pains.
    St Isaac the Syrian has a striking passage on the power hidden in this:

    “The first emotion that befalls a man by divine grace and draws the soul towards life, strikes the heart concerning the transitory character of this nature.
    This thought is naturally connected with contempt of the world. And then begin all the beautiful emotions, which educate unto life.
    That divine power which then accompanies man makes as it were a foundation in him, which desires to reveal life in him. As to this emotion which I mentioned, if a man does not extinguish it by clinging to the things of this world and to idle intercourse, and if he makes this deliberation increase in his soul by perpetual concentration and by gazing within himself, he will bring himself near to that which no tongue is able to tell.
    This thought is greatly hated by Satan and he strives with all his power to eradicate it from man. And if he were able to give him the kingdom of the whole earth in order to efface the thought of it from his mind, he would gladly do so. For Satan knows that if this recollection remains with the soul, his mind will no longer stay in this world of error, and his devious means will not reach man.
    This vision is clad with fiery emotions and he that has caught it will no longer contemplate the world nor remain with the body.
    Verily, my beloved, if God should grant this veracious sight unto the children of man for a short time, the course of the world would stand still. It is a bond before which nature cannot stand upright. And he unto whom this intercourse with his soul is given — verily, it is a gift from God, stronger than all other partial workings —, is the one who with an upright heart desires repentance. It is especially given to him of whom God knows that he is worthy of the real transition from this world unto profitable life, because He finds the will in him. It will especially increase and remain with a man through his solitary dwelling, alone by himself.”

    Another venerable mystic, St Maximus the Confessor, often returns to the notion that one can never attain to perfection in love until after one has been granted perfect dispassion; it is a compulsory presupposition: even the mere potential in a person, of becoming attached or affected by any thing of this world, will grossly contaminate what that person thinks might resemble the beginnings of love in them.
    We can now make the connection that the power hidden in the awareness of the transitory character of this world is a priceless thrust towards the aforementioned presupposition of perfect love: perfect dispassion. Not that we ourselves would ever achieve such a thing as perfect dispassion, but we can direct our being towards it through such contemplation, and then God, in due time, does whatever is best for us without us worrying about it one bit…
    So this “emotion concerning the transitory character of this nature” has an excessive significance.
    St Isaac later urges:

    “Let us ask this gift in prayer; and for the sake of this gift let us make long vigils. And as it is a gift without equal, let us keep watch with tears at the gate of our Lord, that He may give it us. Further we need not weary ourselves with the trouble of this world. This is the beginning of the impulse of true life, which will fully bring about in a man the perfection of righteousness.”

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your comment makes a false assumption: that the monk was thinking of sin as a legal problem. “Unforgiveable,” when used as a legal concept, is contrary to everything we know of God. It makes no sense. On the other hand, when forgiveness is rightly understood as healing – such statements do make sense. It is like saying that “this cancer is incurable.”

    Despair (the absence of hope) is pernicious in that it refuses to turn away from itself. Of course, some people use the word “despair” when they simply mean “depressed.” That’s another matter. Judas apparently despaired – whereas Peter maintained some grain of hope.’

    In my personal and pastoral experience – even the tiniest grain of hope can be the beginning of new life. But I have also seen a despair that refused hope of any sort. My experience with such despair is that it also has deeper elements, such as anger and bitterness, that darken it and give it power.

    It is said that a psychiatric patient needs one thing: the willingness to get better. If sin is rightly described in medical terms – the monastic’s observations were spot on.

  48. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you Scott for your comment and for eliciting this very helpful explanation on sin and despair from Father Stephen.

  49. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am so glad you addressed Scott in his comment. When I read it late last night, I was hoping very much that you would say something. I wanted to respond, but was not confident that both of our comments would be deleted. It was good that I didn’t.
    I very much understood why Scott would have that reaction. I am very familiar with it myself. I wish that I had known a long time ago what you just explained to Scott. What clinched it for me was this: ““Unforgiveable,” when used as a legal concept, is contrary to everything we know of God. It makes no sense.” Indeed! For that matter, by what we teach, unforgiveness would more be the unforgiveable sin!
    The despair the monk, and you, refer to must be the exception. In other words, like you said, we exhibit something more closer to depression, anger, and such. Nevertheless, we long for that healing. Sometimes that longing is expressed in sharp words, because of the very pain and anger of depression, shame, the whole nine yards…
    Scott, I am glad you continue to come to this blog site. We (all) have more in common with you than you know, and that we would like to admit. That may be too much of an assumption, but I believe it is true.
    Father, thank you. And Scott, you too. I needed to read this very much this morning.

  50. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    correction: *wouldn’t* be deleted…

  51. Byron Avatar

    It is a helpful word. I am realizing (again) of late how important it is to focus on, to cry out to, God. If we focus on our despair we never move towards God; it is a hole we just wallow in. We refuse healing thinking only of ourselves, but when we cry out to God we receive His Grace.

  52. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    I just read this quote, thought it appropriate to the discussion and worth sharing…

    “Discouragement is not from God, confess sin and be merry.”

    + St. Ignatius Brianchanonov

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Jeff your comment was also very helpful to me. I have found myself in similar circumstances and responded similarly. As you describe, there is Christ’s response which rises to a higher road. I pray that I might follow it as you describe. Thank you for your helpful reflection!

  54. Seth Avatar

    Wonderful article, I really appreciate your thoughts – particularly on children. I grew up in a Baptist church which relied heavily on a penal-substitution model of atonement.

    Who are we? We = Sinners.

    Who is God? God = Punisher.

    The result for so many of us who grew up there has been an abiding and deep-seated scrupulosity. One friend of mine was even diagnosed with OCD and I’ve often suspected that OCD would have been a fitting diagnosis for my younger self.

    Now that I’m a father of a little 1-year old, I find myself increasingly anxious and frustrated over the way children can be emotionally abused in churches. I often think of the Gospel passage where Jesus blesses the young children. Surely he wasn’t whispering to them scary messages about divine wrath or their “total depravity.” And yet, these are the starting points in so many Sunday schools. Jesus’ simple, loving (dare I say “relaxed”?), approach to children is not good enough for us. So, we project our fears onto our children and they grow up and project their fears onto their children…

    All that to say, I deeply appreciate your mention of scrupulosity, and also your constructive thoughts on raising children. I would love to hear more – I haven’t found many writers who address these issues so directly.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Part of the existential reality of despair is the giving precedence and power to falleness over the Ressurection. Despair is deeply selfish too. In my personal experience when I tend toward despair get into the feed back loop of thinking my will should be supreme and I am alone in creation. Anger, bitterness, isolation, etc follows. Not unlike the Dwarves in their dark, manure filled barn described in The Last Battle in the Chronicles of Narnia. It is unforgivable because forgiveness is an act of communion that requires interrelationship. Despair denies that possibility. Despair denies the God made interconnection between us and Him and through Jesus Christ, each and every other created being and thing.

    In it’s most destructive form, people start listening to the demonic temptation that tells us the world, our family and friends would be better off without our life. Shame and hopelessness becomes a great wave that can easily overwhelm us because we have made ourselves an isolated individual, without meaning or authority even in regards to our own soul. Giving over to the darkness and the false promise of oblivion can become quite easy.

  56. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    The first emotion that befalls a man by divine grace and draws the soul towards life, strikes the heart concerning the transitory character of this nature. This thought is naturally connected with contempt of the world. And then begin all the beautiful emotions, which educate unto life . . . if a man does not extinguish it by clinging to the things of this world and to idle intercourse . . . St. Issac the Syrian

    Thank you, Dino,

  57. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    But one might ask: How does one not cling to things of the world, and even more strongly stated, have contempt for it, and at the same time be at “one” with creation?!
    I think, basically, the implication in St Isaac’s words is that when we cling to Christ, it is only then where His “everywhere presence in all things” (the eternal Logos), combined with our existence “in Him” (thanks to His Incarnation), brings about a oneness with all created things, since all things in heaven and earth are being drawn unto Him. So, without being “in Christ”, we will necessarily cling to worldly things.

    Therefore, to not cling to “the world” does not mean to disengage from it. Without this understanding of oneness, I think there is danger in setting oneself aloof and forsake the communion that God wants for us, with Him, and with all things.

    (As our friends say here…just some thoughts 🙂 )

  58. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Paula AZ and Dee of St Hermans,
    Thank you both for your encouragement. I’m glad the content of my comments were helpful to you. God is indeed good.

    Interestingly enough, the morning that I commented, I only had enough time to read Father’s post and then comment. It is only now that I have had a chance to get back to everyone else’s comments. I sometimes hesitate to comment without first reading all the other comments for fear of saying something out of context or maybe just repeating someone else. However, there seemed to be a small, strong voice that said, “It is necessary that you not wait. There is a response in you to something I’ve said through my servant. Please speak.” So I did.

    And after reading everyone’s beauty, I am reassured that my participation has not been in vain. If words are icons then they are also Kyrie elision. It’s a comfort to read and write here in this forum. Glory to God.

  59. Agata Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen and Friends from this blog,
    I have been finally able to reach a reliable internet and read your comments on this thread. And again be blessed by the words and wisdom of Elder Aimilianos (which Dino shares).

    I had a great blessing this past week to visit his new tomb in Ormylia. Please know you were in my prayers.

    I also want to thank again those who contributed to the fundraiser for the monastery and orphanage in Mati near Athens (which was destroyed in a terrible fire last summer). I delivered more of your donations on this trip and want to relate a gratitude and love from the Abbess, who prays for us (now the donors include those from America, Europe and Australia!). She was so moved by the fact that people far away cared and wanted to help. And of course you have my prayers and gratitude.

    May we have the prayers of our holy Father Aimilianos who is now closer to the throne of God and can intercede for us!

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