The Scandal of the Transfiguration


My Archbishop (Alexander Golitzin) shares the story of a young man whom he taught some years ago. He was Orthodox from Estonia. He grew up in the Soviet era and had come to hate all things Russian, including the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he saw an Orthodox procession in the streets of his city one year, a procession that included the Russian bishop (whom he also hated and believed to be a KGB agent). However, he saw the bishop surrounded by light. It was an experience that led him into the Orthodox faith. You might hate the man, and the Church as well. But the undeniable glory of God revealed what his hatred could not see.

My bishop’s point in sharing the story was not to exonerate the Russian Church from any wrong-doing, or cooperation with wrong-doing. Nor was it to exonerate the bishop involved and declare him holy. It was a story about the glory of God and its place and work despite our faults and failures. The 12 apostles cast out demons, healed the sick and cleansed lepers. We are nowhere told that Judas did none of those things. Doubtless, he did (which makes his betrayal all the greater).

There was a heresy in the early Church that denied the efficacy of the sacraments if they were performed by sinners. The debate was largely about those who, under the pressure of persecution, had in any way denied their faith or yielded to the requirements of the pagan state. It is an easy line of thought to maintain. If we are commanded to be holy, surely there are consequences for failure to observe the commandment. There are indeed consequences within the canons of the Church, but those consequences do not include an inefficacy of the sacraments.

The scandal of the Incarnation, God-becoming-man, is the seeming contradiction of the utterly transcendent God and the particularity and limits of human existence. It is a scandal whose errors  run in two directions.

First, there is an assumption that God is so displeased with sin that He can have nothing to do with it, or that sin somehow nullifies the work of God. Second, there is an equally odious belief that human beings, in their observance of the commandments, are ever righteous enough to actually be compatible with true holiness. The first is an error about God, the second an error about human beings.

I’m always troubled to hear “there is no grace outside the Church.” I can’t fathom what such a statement means. Since the entire universe is sustained by the grace of God, I can only assume a sort of heresy of secularism by such a statement – the notion that anything can exist apart from God’s grace. For His own mysterious reasons, God even sustains the fallen angels by His grace. If it were not so, they would cease to exist. Only God has existence in and of Himself.

I can say “there is no grace outside the Church” only if I also say that everything in all of creation is inside the Church. In fact, I believe this to be true. The Church came into existence when God said, “Let there be light.” The sacraments do not make us to be what we are not, but reveal us to be what we truly are. Baptism and Chrismation are indeed required of those coming to Holy Communion, for they are fundamental realities in the medicine of immortality and the path of life God has given us. But the person who is Baptized does not somehow become other than what they are. They become more fully human, more truly what they were created to be. “The Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking,” it is said in our prayers.

There are boundaries which we describe as “the Church,” but this meaning is being used to specify that which is identified with the fullness of life in Christ. “Church”, in this usage, is “that which is reconciled.” St. Paul says that the end of all things is that they be “gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.” This is the Church, in the end.

Too frequently we speak of the Church in denominational terms, in which we speak of people who are reconciled in the fullness of Orthodoxy as though their “membership” constituted the whole of the Church. But St. Paul extends the Church to “all things.” Thus, the grass and the trees (and certainly the flour and the wine) are being gathered together into Christ. The Eucharist is not a gathering meant to exclude everything else. It is a gathering that represents everything else. “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee.” What is there within all of creation that is not God’s own? Indeed, the members of the Church who gather, are themselves but the “first fruits” of the whole Adam.

And so we have the reality of glowing bishops who might be hated in Estonia (just as many other bishops might be hated elsewhere). The transfiguration (for such was the scene in that procession) of God’s creation is simply shocking to us. It is a manifestation of the love of God that ignores all scandal, except that which does not love. It is a transfiguration that gives light and that burns.

Many take a cold comfort in the fact that the transfiguring light of God burns some. However, it most often burns the eyes of those who judge the fitness of those transfigured. They become blind in this very manner.

The Transfiguration of Christ would generally be deemed to be free of scandal. He appeared on the Holy Mount with Moses and Elijah – how could the disciples not rejoice. But the text describes a scandal.

As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:29-31)

Christ, in turn, spoke to the disciples about His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, and Peter rebuked Him! The great scandal is always the scandal of the Cross. There is no path to true union with God that does not go through the Cross. This is true finally of all those who are transfigured as well as for all who hope to ever see a transfiguration.

It is of note that the Greek beneath this translation does not say that Christ was speaking with Moses and Elijah about His “decease.” The text calls it His “exodus.” It is not a casual word choice. His journey into death is the Great Exodus, the path through the Red Sea that drowns the mystical Pharaoh. It is the Lord’s Passover.

That Passover is the path to transfiguration. Moses himself, after the Passover, leads the people to a different holy mountain. There he received the Law written by the very finger of God. When he came down from the mountain his face was transfigured and the people were afraid to look at him – and asked him to please wear a veil.

In Christ the veil is removed, except for those who wear a veil covering their heart (2Cor. 3). But God is so merciful, He sometimes removes the veil so that angry young men on the streets of Estonia (which is everywhere) may see His glory and live.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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52 responses to “The Scandal of the Transfiguration”

  1. Byron Avatar

    I, just this weekend, became incredibly angry with another person who was exceptionally rude to me and denied me something I wanted. That I would have to wait for it drove me into a frenzy. I confessed my anger (which was still burning at that time of confession) and considered the advice of my priest. As I mulled all of this over, I had the thought of Christ saying to that person “well done, good and faithful servant” while I stood next in line to go before Him. My anger–along with my will for revenge–suddenly stood out in stark contrast to God’s will that I love my neighbor, and even my enemy. It was a terrible and sobering thought that shook me “back to myself”.

  2. Katy B. Avatar
    Katy B.

    Thank you Father. This is a good lesson to start my week.

  3. Niko Avatar

    The Scandal of the Incarnation, and of the Transfiguration. I love how God leads us into himself through these divine mysteries, these profound paradoxes… If one of them captures your heart, you’re never the same.

  4. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for what you have written about the Church and those who still don’t know its fulness. “He brought me to a spacious place….” Your words here do the same for me.
    The transfiguration of our Lord contains many points of interest. That the two OT figures are there with Christ is significant, especially when I consider speaking to evangelicals about prayer to saints. Of course Elijah did not see death. But Moses did, buried as he was by God. Yet here he is before the general resurrection speaking with our Lord, the God of the living and not the dead! If Christ could speak with saints who have died and are in heaven (here on earth) and no doubt received comfort from them, then surely I can call on them too.

  5. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    This post is so helpful regarding our passions in how we think of and respond to others and how God can and will transform them for the ‘unveiled’ heart. Our willingness to take off the veil takes trust, faith and humility.

    Do Christians other than Orthodox make any celebration of this feast? My guess is that the answer is no, because I don’t hear of it outside of Orthodox society. Perhaps this is because it reveals the sacramental character of our reality? And this would add to the scandal, which others avoid, perhaps.

    I am edified by your description of the veil being pulled back to see His glory. I will always give thanks to God for His mercy in helping me to do this for my unbelieving heart albeit in small “peaks” that would not completely overwhelm me. I think of that lattice in the window described in the Song of Songs.

    Byron your experience and vision are so powerful. Thank you for sharing these experiences. This is a good thought to help us with our passions too.

  6. Dee of Hermans Avatar
    Dee of Hermans

    By “them” I meant one’s own passions

  7. Maggie Avatar

    Good morning Father Stephen,
    “The sacraments do not make us to be what we are not, but reveal us to be what we truly are.” This encourages me greatly on my journey to Orthodoxy. Something to digest as I try to embrace all the riches of the faith. At times I’m overcome with the the beauty I find in a Truth that was hidden from me for so long.
    So, thank you for the revelation of truth you bring to us, Father Stephen.
    Thank you too, Dean, for your insight as I struggle with praying to saints myself.

  8. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks be to God for His “eternal remembrance” of His entire creation, as you say Father, when He spoke “Let there be Light”. He foresaw the Ecclesia everywhere present, in His Son. The Church, the ark of salvation in the midst of chaos, redeemed.
    How we long for the Day “when [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father” (1Cor 15). Where there will be no more tears and no more sorrow. May the tears we shed now be sanctified by humbly bearing the cross God has, with care, given us. He wants us to be like His Son. Indeed, we are hidden in Him. May God give us the grace to glimpse our transfiguration He has go graciously prepared for us. I think if and when that happens, we shall even get a glimpse of “all things” as they truly are…the works of His hands.
    Thank you Father Stephen, so very much.

  9. V. Rev. Michael Shanbour Avatar

    Dear Father, I think your comment referring to the statement that “there is no grace outside the Church” has to be qualified appropriately or it can be misleading. After all, if grace is “everywhere” why join the Church?

    These kinds of statements were made by Holy Fathers so we can’t just toss them aside. For instance, St. Basil the Great says that the Priesthood does not exist among heretics or those outside the Church. These same Fathers would never have said that grace does not exist outside the Church prodding people to truth, to Christ, and to the Church. I think it is fair to say that they meant the effectual indwelling sacramental grace of the Holy Spirit does not normatively exists but in the Church. St. Irenaeus: “But they have no share in this Spirit who do not join the activity of the Church…For where the Church is there is the Holy Spirit; and where the Spirt of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace.”

    St. Diadochos of Photini, in the Philokalia, speaks eloquently, and I think with the mind of the Church when he writes: “Before holy baptism, grace encourages the soul towards good from the outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the [nous’s] ways of approach to the divine. But from the moment that we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within. Thus, whereas before baptism error ruled the soul, after baptism truth rules it. Nevertheless, even after baptism Satan still acts on the soul, often, indeed, to a greater degree than before. This is not because he is present in the soul together with grace; on the contrary, it is because he uses the body’s humors to befog the [nous] with the delight of mindless pleasures. God allows him to do this, so that a man, after passing through a trial of storm and fire, may come in the end to the full enjoyment of divine blessings.”

    Perhaps I took your statement out of context or from a point of view you did not mean to speak about, but I think it is worth some clarification. Forgive me. I love and appreciate you and your blog. Please pray for me.

  10. Albert Avatar

    Good post, Father Stephen. The story about the shining bishop in Estonia is already helping me. I need to rethink my views of the Roman Church, none of whose buildings I have been able to enter during the past 20 years without an excuse (e.g., funeral) or gentle nudge from family members. We all were formed there when young, and my happy memories as well as my later commitment to Christianity are partly a result of that introduction to God. These days, however, it is often hard for me to think of those bishops as much more than managers– with a focus on legal, financial, and public relations matters. I’m hopeful, however. I won’t have a chance to observe any of them in person, but maybe future reports and photographs in the news will capture something. (I meant maybe God will allow me to see.)

    P.S., my priest and friend at St. Basil the Great Orthodox church has spent a few years helping me learn to look beyond today’s news reports about Orthodoxy and the scandels of history, and to not ignore or dismiss signs of the transfigured world. I am grateful to him and to you.

  11. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Dee of St Hermans – The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration.

    V. Rev. Michael A hangout – I am certainly no theologian, but how could any of ever hope to get into the Church if there were no grace outside it? Not everyone can see or accept the grace that is everywhere and in all things, but certainly God does not hold back or make it available only to a select few. His grace, like His mercy, is endlessly poured out for all, isn’t it? Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you.

    Fr. Stephen, could you explain to me what you mean when you use the word “scandal”? So often this word is used to mean an immoral or illegal action or the outrage it causes. I know it can sometimes mean shocking. But I found myself getting a bit confused. I have never thought of the Transfiguration as a scandal (though I have sometimes thought it scandalous that the first atomic bomb was dropped on this glorious feast.)

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Father Michael,
    I would be interested in seeing the context of the original use of “no grace outside the Church.” The history of its usage, and its frequent meaning when used these days, is, I think, a highly-Westernized and discredited view of grace (which is the very life of God – God Himself). There were attempts to describe the Church as the “dispenser of grace,” in the sense that grace could only be obtained through the Church, which tended to “thing-ify” (as in reification) the whole notion of grace – a practice that once marked Roman Catholic and some Reformed theology. I find it incompatible with Orthodoxy. I do see it used by some Orthodox from time to time, but suspect that they have obtained it from sources that are tainted in that same well – though they don’t realize it.

    The Church and her boundaries are a great mystery. Can anyone be saved if they were not Baptized Orthodox (etc.). Only the most extreme hyperdox tend to answer “no” to that question. That someone could be saved outside of the normative manner appointed by Christ is not a reason to despise or refuse what is normative. What is normative for God is His goodness – always. The Church, in its broadest sense, (much like that used by Asanafiev), is everything God is gathering together in one in Christ Jesus. Grace, in that sense, is working everywhere and always drawing us towards that ingathering. I cannot speak definitively about the workings of grace outside the Church – only that it is obviously working outside of what we discern as Church. But, since no one can say that “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit – then we cannot simply say that anyone who says “Jesus is Lord” has not done so by the Holy Spirit unless and until they say it within the canonical walls of Orthodoxy. However, that doesn’t make everywhere that such is spoken into the “Church.” There is a paradox.

    However, in their zeal to safeguard the Church, and to reject the errors of ecumenism, some have said things that are patently not true – and use “no grace outside the Church” in a manner that simply cannot be its proper meaning.

    Of course, many seem to see all of this with such clarity that they judge Bishops and Holy Synods who disagree with them.

    I hope that is clarifying. Take St. Irenaeus’ statement: “…where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace.” And we say of the Holy Spirit that He is “everywhere present and filling all things.” Both are true – and there’s lots of paradox in it. We shouldn’t try to oversimplify what is not so simple.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Scandal” is, in theological terms, taken from the Greek word “scandalon” which means “a stumbling block.” Immorality is a stumbling block – but so are many things that perfectly good. Anything that causes us to stumble.

  14. David Avatar


    In regards to your “no grace outside the Church” comments… are you therefore suggesting that heretical sacraments are valid and grace-filled? There are a plethora of Fathers, Canons and Councils that state they aren’t…

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No, I am not. That God might do something in many cases outside the canons is up to Him. But He has not given it to us to say that heterodox sacraments are “grace-filled” and “valid.”

    I’m only saying that we cannot declare that God only works within the canonical borders of the Church – when He obviously works wherever He wills.

    What God does or doesn’t do in such matters is simply beyond anything we could say, much less declare in a sacramental fashion. We have an understanding of what is true of the Church. There is no theology to describe heterodox actions. And yet, God works.

    What I’m saying is that we should avoid making blanket statements that contradict clear, theological understandings – such as the Holy Spirit being everywhere present and filling all things.

    The Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and in her is found true salvation. Absolutely true.

    But why people can’t let puzzling things be puzzles really puzzles me. I am absolutely not an ecumenist in any way, shape, or form. But I don’t wish to speak incorrectly about the work of the Holy Spirit.

    I suspect that some of the problem lies in the way the statement: “No grace outside the Church” can be taken. There is a sense in which it can be true, and a sense in which it is not.

  16. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for your reply. That makes perfect sense. I am wanting to learn ancient Greek but, for now, I am still stuck on the alphabet – so I need much help. 🙂

    Now I need a bit more help. The meaning of “heterodox” is different from “heretical”, isn’t it? (I ask this because David had stated his question regarding heretical sacraments and you responded with heterodox.) My understanding is that heterodox refers to something at odds with orthodox teaching. (I am purposely using a “small o” since the RC Church or others can also use the term regarding teachings considered at odds with primary tenets.)

    Not that I am an authority (far from it), but I feel quite certain that my RC sacraments and your Orthodox sacraments are both grace-filled. We are both experiencing in them the unmerited love and mercy of God. We both believe that in the Eucharist we receive the Body and Blood of Christ truly present. I must assume that there exists some “heterodoxy” that keeps us from being in communion with each other but these differences are not so extreme that either of us would call the other “heretical”.

    And, I suspect, a church that taught that the Eucharist was a mere symbol or metaphor would be considered heretical by both of us, i.e. the deviation from the orthodox teachings of our ancient Faith would be so marked that this term would apply. I am not suggesting that the people in such a church are not sincere people or that they don’t receive grace – I fully agree that it is not up to us to dictate how, when and to whom God bestows His grace.

    I am not trying to be argumentative or split hairs here – just wanting to make sure that I am understanding correctly. In embracing God, I embrace mystery and I rejoice in this.

  17. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I think one of the reasons ‘puzzles’ trouble us is because we are so inclined to solve them. We can loose sleep over not having an answer!

    I think of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus when he asked how can it be that a man be born-again, He did not explain how that ‘works’ but answered him that the Spirit is like wind/breathe that blows where it wishes, you hear it but do not see where it comes from or goes. This is what I think you are saying Father, about God’s grace.

  18. Chuck (Theodosius) Avatar

    On the Eve of this most blessed Feast when our Lord shines in all his Beauty and Glory, we have been given this extraordinary essay. I can only gush, it explicates the Glory of our Faith and our Church and its silences all the reservations and jeerings that those who have still not accepted the one true Faith present. I am stunned at the clarity of the words, the enchanting certainty in which they are articulated. I pray that I could speak half as cogently when friends ask about the Church. I suppose I could present them with a radiant Icon of the Transfiguration and a copy of this precious essay. Thank you Xhrist that Fr Freeman is in our midst. May you all have a Glorious Feast! Dear Jesus continue to guide and protect your most precious Church. GLORY TO GOD Indeed!!!

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    Dear Mary Benton,
    I am reading and enjoying a book called “The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monk’s Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground”. In the book, Basil Pennington, who was an Abbot of a Catholic Cistercian Monastery, stayed on Mount Athos longer than any other Catholic Monk had ever visited in history. He stayed primarily at Simonos Petras Monastery in the 1970’s, during the time when Elder Aimilianos was an Abbot there. This book gives his personal journal entry accounts of his stay there. I am finding it to be a very good read and brings up things that you have brought up.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I use the term “heterodox” because it is more general than the narrower term “heretic.” Heresy is a fairly narrowly defined thing. Heterodox simply means “not Orthodox” (with a capital “O”). At the most generous, the Orthodox would say of some of the heterodox that they are simply “in schism,” and I think that is an accurate, general description. Schism is, of course, a terrible thing and has dogged Christianity since our early days.

    Again, the Orthodox would not say that the sacraments of those in schism are “valid” or “efficacious” or other such things – mostly because those are not how the Orthodox speak of the sacraments. The sacraments are not somehow separate from the one life of the Church – such that they would be “things” that different groups have. If we did not have schism, we would have but one eucharist.

    In charity, since I do not expect that Roman Catholic readers (or Protestants for that matter) will necessarily become Orthodox – I still recognize that we have much in common and much that we can discuss and benefit by with each other. So, I don’t write about this stuff very often. Very little is gained by it.

    It is of note, among odd, paradoxical things, that it is not uncommon for a Catholic priest who converts to Orthodoxy, to be received simply by confession and a service in which he is “re-vested” by an Orthodox bishop as an Orthodox priest. No re-ordination, etc. As an Anglican, that was not the case. I was re-ordained. I say that (viz. R.C. priests) because it is among a number of anomalous practices that are sometimes ignored by those who speak in a manner that simplifies all of this.

    I affirm what the Church says. But I find it uninteresting to affirm more than the Church says. May God have mercy on us.

    If I have spoken amiss to any, including the Orthodox, then pray for me and forgive me.

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    I found this fascinating journal entry in the book, “The Monks of Mount Athos”, referencing the Holy Transfiguration:
    “After supper tonight Athos was clothed in clouds and a rainbow reached to the end of the peninsula, as a setting sun bathed all in warm light and a full moon shine above the clouds. There is a small chapel of the Transfiguration stop the Mountain. Fr. Dionysios tells me it must be rebuilt every year for the Feast because lightening destroys it. That is easy to believe. It is fascinating here to see a sky full of stars and yet flashes of lightening as the clouds from the West bump the high peaks. “Holy Transfiguration” is the right titular for such a chapel and for the heart of Monasticism. We, unlike Peter, have been allowed to build a shelter and are invited to dwell as fully as we can in the Divine Cloud. Praise the overwhelming beneficence of our God.” ~M. Basil Pennington, OSCO

  22. Basem Avatar

    Beautiful article Father! Left me in awe!

  23. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Michael, this brought a smile to my face:

    “…effectual indwelling sacramental grace of the Holy Spirit…”

    Four adjectives to delineate something of the Holy Spirit that is *unique* to the canonical “Spirit”…perhaps we should just speak of “the canonical Holy Spirit”! 😉 This tension – a Church that is “one” and “universal” in a world where Christianity is not one and the Church is not universal is unresolvable outside an Eschatological perspective it seems to me.

    Father Stephen, powerful twist on veil as used in 2 Cor 3 vis-a-vis the young man. The veil of his anger (sin), the veil of the Bishops and the Church’s real failings (sin). The young man could not see through the death (sin) – it covered the light it would seem. Paul’s “ministry of death” (i.e. the OT Law) and “those who are perishing” as the parrell condition we and the Church are in (along with the light of faith) until…death and resurrection.

  24. juliania Avatar

    Thank you so much, Father Stephen, for pointing out the difference in translation given for the Greek word that is “exodus”. I hadn’t remembered that the three holy ones spoke of anything specifically, and this took me in effect to Christ’s words to his disciples at the last supper and their first questioning him saying “we do not know where you are going.” Then finally they say “Ah, now we understand!” or words to that effect. And that the conversation leads to his saying “In my father’s house are many mansions; I go to prepare a place for you.”
    So often your words lead us back to Scripture, and here we are led back to transfiguration, which is an occurrence I think many of us may have witnessed in nature, or even in the faces of others, unexpectedly. Not as did the disciples perhaps, blindingly and in terror, but at least memorably.
    It is telling that Peter, of the three, is facing up to the sight and rather misinterpreting it. His own transfiguration will come about in different fashion – he and Paul have that in common. My, how perceptive were the iconographers!
    I’ve always wondered why Elijah was there. My thought is that in speaking of exodus or departure, it may be in part because his own departure involved passing on his robe to Elisha, his disciple, as we see in the icon of that event. And both his and that historical exodus of Moses are to have their fruit in the exodus of Christ.
    Thank you again.

  25. juliania Avatar

    I should also say that I’ve always wondered why Saint John, who was there, doesn’t mention the Transfiguration event. And now I see that he does, in the last teachings of Christ to the disciples, where they too are speaking of his departure or exodus, and indeed in the last words of Christ to Peter, which John explains do not mean that he himself is not to die. It’s all there.

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    In reference to grace outside the Orthodox Church: as far as I have learned what you have written doesn’t seem to conflict with what I have been taught. I take ‘grace’ to be God’s energies, and I hope to be corrected in my thoughts I describe, if needed.

    Also infants who are not baptized and die are not bereft of the Holy Spirit within them are they?

    I’m not knowledgeable in this subject in an academic way.. But given the ‘organic nature’ of Orthodox theology and life ways and in contrast to a scholastic and legalistic approach, your description in your article seems contiguous (for want of a better word) with the organic Orthodox life way that I have experienced and of what I have been taught. Again I emphasize I’m still and will forever be learning the Way.

    Nature, that is, our experience of creation and cosmos is puzzling—this isn’t a surprise to us. Should it not be that the ways of the Lord would be beyond our comprehension too? At one point in my catechism I had supposed that the Holy Spirit was involved in the conception of Christ. And I was encouraged not to try to reason out such details because they would lead to error. What happened is a Mystery.

    I’ll add one more thought as ‘witness’ regarding the Holy Spirit being everywhere present: that had not the Holy Spirit revealed to me the Resurrection through my exploration of creation in physics, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have become Christian. In this initial stage, not only was I not Orthodox but outside the Church with no interest to ‘get in’ . I can only see that walk, which took a few years, to be a walk led by God’s grace. How does one parse such grace from the Holy Spirit?

    Nevertheless something happened in my being after baptism. There is no denying the blessed entry of the Holy Spirit after the rite of Holy Baptism nor the reality of the Holy Mysteries in the Cup. My life is indeed a new life. Glory to God!!

    Doesn’t our ontological understanding of salvation refer to this reality?

    Btw I’m grateful for this conversation between Fr Stephen and Fr Michael. Such conversation is wonderful and draws us to reflect deeply. Thank you both!!

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If we say that grace is the divine energies and the divine energies are God, the sort of language used in the classical West (“effectual” etc.) can only be describing the person receiving, not grace itself. I’ve seen various treatments of grace in Reformed writings that will delineate between this kind of grace and that kind – something that only makes sense if grace is created. Orthodoxy says that grace is uncreated.

    The truth is that the Palamite doctrine on uncreated grace was overlooked in a number centuries and neglected. There were borrowings from Western manuals of theology that used the language of a created grace. It has hung around awhile, though it is a sign of Florovsky’s “Western Captivity” it seems to me.

    I don’t have a way to solve some of the conundrums posed by Christianity’s deeply disfigured life. Some of it is being solved by various groups moving away from mere schism into full-blown heresy. When there are Protestant clergy who describe abortion as a sacrament – they are so far down the road of blasphemy that describing their “church” as something other than church becomes rather simple.

    The reality of the Church is always eschatological – though I’m not sure how that solves any of the present matters in the conversation. Theology is “speaking of God.” That alone is a difficult thing. Mostly, my point is that when we say “grace,” it should be consistent with a full Palamite understanding of the word and nothing less.

  28. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…in your response to Christopher regarding “a full Palamite understanding” of grace, this piece I read this morning, although short in comparison to all that is written about created and uncreated grace, explains the difference well, I think.

    I had in mind while reading it Mary Benton’s comment about grace: “I feel quite certain that my RC sacraments and your Orthodox sacraments are both grace-filled”. Yes, you can say that Mary, but can you understand that the Orthodox understanding of what grace is is different? Yes, grace is everywhere present, but what grace *is* is where the difference lies. I am not talking about how you understand it, Mary, but rather the difference in perspective. It has led into a great deal of further speculation about the western understanding of the Trinity (this is where these readings get “muddy” for me, so I had to let that go for now).
    Father said it is not helpful to dwell on this point because it doesn’t solve the many reasons for our schism, and I agree. But Mary, your question does have an answer. And it is in the writings of St Gregory Palamas. Still, the schism remains….and I think it always will in this age. But that doesn’t mean we have to be contentious toward each other. You, I consider a sister in Christ. God help us. Father says it well, “may God have mercy on us”.

  29. Cleverson Avatar

    Dear Dee, when you said that the Holy Spirit revealed to you the Resurrection through your exploration of creation in physics, do you mean you have somehow discovered that Resurrection is not scientifically impossible or something like? I’m always interested in proofs or evidences of the historical physical Resurrection of Our Lord.

  30. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “Again, the Orthodox would not say that the sacraments of those in schism are “valid” or “efficacious” or other such things – mostly because those are not how the Orthodox speak of the sacraments. The sacraments are not somehow separate from the one life of the Church – such that they would be “things” that different groups have. If we did not have schism, we would have but one eucharist.”

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for stating this so beautifully. I am in complete agreement. There is but “one life of the Church”. The schism(s) and thus appearance of there being more than one Church is a result of human sinfulness. In Christ, there is no division. There is no east/west (north or south) – the only two directions are toward Him or away from Him. May the grace of this holy Feast keep all of us moving toward Him until we meet fully in the heart of His merciful love…

  31. Christopher Avatar

    Your right father in that my eschatological assertion is more of a ‘faith’ statement than theological one. The theological question of grace, particularly in the context of (and in a real sense captured by) other conundrums around unam sanctam and/or sacramental theology, is very difficult. I believe you are right to extricate grace from these and examine it on its own in light of the Palamate doctrine.

    If theology is the dialectical “grasping” of God through symbols (and I believe it is), then it is always going to leave us wanting (because a “grasping” by the discursive mind is not the same as *being*). Look at the quote by Fr. Michael of St Diadochos: the nexus of {the question he is addressing} is the soul and its relationship to grace. There is a boundary, a “moment” of repentance and rebirth, sacramentally signified/marked by baptism. On either side of this repentance grace/Spirit exists (of course), but its relationship to the soul is different, and St. Diadochos characterizes this relationship with the words “out” and “in”. Before repentance, grace and truth was “out”, and after repentance grace and truth is “in”. So an ontological distinction in the end even though the struggle against the devil and error remains…one is even tempted to accuse St. Diadochos of a distinction without a difference 😉

    No offense to Fr. Michael intended, but the context of St. Diadochos’s explication – the theological question he is addressing – is deeply ascetical and sacramental. I am not sure how it applies to questions around unam sanctam. It is certainly not in a “no grace outside the Church” sort of ecclesiastical theology. Why join the Church if grace is equally outside as well as in (Fr. Michael rightly asks)? Because by doing so you are not moving from “no grace” to “grace” physically or even metaphysically, or at least not primarily, rather you are changing your relationship to the truth and ‘becoming’ (living) truth. The question of “where is the Church” still remains, and the truth is the truth outside as well as inside any ecclesiastical and (relevant to our time and place) ‘personal’ ontic state (Rom 2, etc.)

    Beyond all that, is the main point of your essay around grace working to lift the veil of sin and breaking through to the heart…

  32. Marc Trolinger Avatar
    Marc Trolinger

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks for your thoughtful essay to consider on this blessed Feast of the Transfiguration. I wonder how the concept of “there is no salvation outside of the Church.” relates to this discussion? The Church’s teaching regarding the Harrowing of Hades, and our belief in a dynamic intermediate state that leads us to pray for the reposed seem to support the concept that the Grace of the Holy Spirit is active everywhere leading as many who will cooperate into eternal life in the Church.

  33. Lisa A Avatar

    Re the question of the existence of grace outside the church, I believe (of I’m recalling correctly) that Fr. Thomas Hopko said that “we can say where God is; we cannot say where He is not.” So we know that grace is present within the boundaries of the Church and the sacraments, and because we know this we cling to the Church and her teachings, but it really isn’t our place to know or to say that grace is nowhere else. It seems to me that it makes sense to stick with what we know (in other words let those of us who are aware of God’s grace within the Orthodox church stay within her bounds and not go searching elsewhere) while we can also thankfully acknowledge that we don’t know it all and that God’s grace can work in all sorts of ways that we might not understand or even be aware of.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Without a doubt, the topic of the “One Church” (Unam Ecclesiam) is probably the most difficult topic that ever comes up on the blog. I’ve written a number of articles on the subject of “One” and what it means. It’s got a lot more to it than simple the number one. But, in brief, the Church is One (and that is confessed in the Creed). It cannot be “two,” just as it cannot be non-apostolic or non-holy or non-Catholic (Universal). I think the reason is because of its Divine life – God only comes in “One.”

    This was easy (relatively) to speak about prior to the Great Schism (much less the many, many schisms in the Protestant movement). I saw a film the other evening about the beginnings of the Pentecostal Movement at the Church in Azuza St. in LA (early 1900’s). The narrator bragged that the movement had produced x-number of denominations – as if that were a good thing!

    Today, there is a heresy (generally acknowledged in Orthodoxy) that tries to make the unity of the Church a vague or generalized thing that encompasses all of these denominational things. The notion of the “invisible Church” – an idea invented by Protestants in the 19th century in America. The later ecumenical movement has tried various versions of this – most notably the BEM document produced by the World Council of Churches that suggested that we have unity in the “One Baptism.” This has never been accepted by the Orthodox – though the approach continues to be pushed by various groups and persons.

    What the Orthodox see as being at stake is the entire notion (as originally understood) of the One Church. Substituted for this is a modern American, “After all, aren’t we all really one?” No we are not.

    Schism is a terrible sin, as tragic as divorce (and similar). There can be no true marriage if we said of divorce, “After all, aren’t we really still married?”

    The Orthodox approach, which is ancient (surprise), insists on the pain involved in what has actually happened. Modernity is always driven to relieve pain and suffering, even if it means living a lie.

    I did not leave the Episcopal Church and become Orthodox because I “liked” Byzantine liturgies, etc. I allowed my life to be disrupted because of the truth – regardless of the cost. To speak of the Orthodox Church in terms other than its own understanding would make a mockery of such conversions. It would make of the Orthodox faith just another lifestyle choice.

    But, we are called to love one another and we should treat one another with respect. But there is no theology that can make of schism anything other than something terrible. My own solution was to leave the schism in which I lived and return to the Church.

    It would be utterly wrong, however, to speak of those who call on the name of Christ in a manner that says they are not Christians. But, then the problems begin – for which there are no good words.

  35. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh dear!
    Thank you Father. Once again, you explain such a very grievous situation, schism, with such firm conviction…and truth. We want so much to ‘smooth things out’ at the cost of insisting on a false reality.
    To ignore, or gloss over it (or worse, to deny it), is to ignore the ‘elephant in the room’. I can not ignore that anymore than I can ignore the pain and suffering of this present age, which includes our divisions.
    And who would disagree that we should treat one another with love and respect?!
    It would be enough that we would do so …. matter of fact, that is all that we can do.

  36. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    My (limited) understanding of the presence of Elijah at the Transfiguration is this: Moses represented the Law and Elijah the prophets. Both Moses and Elijah had experiences of theophany during their lifetimes and thus their presence at the Transfiguration makes sense as it too is a sort of theophany. However, others who know more may correct me.

  37. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Paula AZ,
    In response to your earlier comment regarding grace (or my comment on it)… Quite honestly, I never gave much thought as to whether grace is created or uncreated (or even both). Grace is a word we use when referring to the ineffable – to the loving movement of God in our lives, wondrously and totally undeserved by us. That is enough for me. And, as regards the Trinity, I do not claim to understand the Trinity – but I believe and I experience. How can my mind give words to the heart’s longing for union or its brief but joyful tastes of that which is to later be known more fully?

    One of the dilemmas for Christians is that explanation becomes necessary to prevent the spread of heresy. But the more we attempt to explain what humans cannot comprehend and words cannot describe, the more likely we are to have schism. I do not know the answer to this dilemma in general. But I personally feel called to refrain from examining such matters unless they are essential to the Faith. Most questions beyond the two greatest commandments and Creed are not essential for me. I would rather have a quiet mind and a full heart. (I mean no offense to theologians and teachers who guide others. I am just not call to be one of them.) When I share here, it is to draw nearer to you, my brothers and sisters – not to pretend that I understand anything.

  38. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Fair enough, Mary, thank you. I appreciate your response.
    It is true that efforts to explain the unexplainable can cause division. We saw this prior to the east/west schism with the Oriental Orthodox and the Persian Church of the East. It is a sad situation, but I do not see how it could be avoided when it comes to delineating matters of the faith.
    Glad we can come together here.
    Thank you Father Stephen…

  39. Dean Avatar

    Thank you Mary Benton. Since I have met you a couple of times I know you are speaking as a very sincere believer with a soft heart toward our Lord Jesus Christ and toward people in general. I do know that creeds and boundaries, lines of demarcation are necessary. A river runs clear and swift through cliff banks. Without the banks a swamp is formed, a stagnant quagmire. So creeds, etc., but as Paula states, charity towards all.

  40. Karen Avatar

    Blessed Feast! Beautiful post, Father. Thank you.

    Yes, speaking of Christendom post-Schism and schisms is hard. I live this in what can be a quite painful way sometimes, being in a mixed family situation where I was the first to become Orthodox, but where almost all are committed Christians of one stripe or another. (My daughter just noted and is eager to celebrate the first year anniversary of her baptism into the Church.)

  41. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    Even the adversary acknowledges Christ, and speaks to Him, doesn’t he?

    I know the saying that you mention in the last paragraph, in your comment at Aug 6th at 2:18pm. And it is ‘not Christian or Orthodox’ to judge others. Nevertheless is just that saying alone sufficient to assert they are Christian?

    I’m driven to speak of what is in their heart rather than the hearing some words from their lips.

    I also have family: Protestant, Catholic and agnostic. But after many conversations that end up making the waters muddy, I have gravitated toward descriptions that make ‘brighter lines’, ie ‘no there is no such thing as ‘one church— two lungs’; as far as I know, no Orthodox priest will share the Cup with a Protestant, Catholic or agnostic and not because they don’t have hierarchal approval, but sacramentally this would be false— that is, it would be a lie (as far as I know). But despite this, three RC people, all lovely people, from different parts of the world have mentioned to me their RC priests (each from very distant parishes geographically) say it’s ok to receive the Cup from an EO priest.

    To analogies such as the schism between Orthodox and Coptic is the same as the schism between RC and EO, I would say no they are not. Perhaps the first had to do with a ‘misunderstanding’ but the second is quite different. I make an analogy to 2+2 = 2×2—yes both resulted in schism but these circumstances were and are to this day completely different. And these differences in functionality, so to speak, have led to very different outcomes and problems.

    ‘Hierarchal’ schism is a schism that resides in all the members of the group of schism ‘makers’. Your comment regarding your own status before you converted is an example of what I mean. That is, you saw yourself in schism. And this is ontologically (physically/spiritually) true and not just a humble opinion, some sort of disparaging self concept about yourself at that time.

    Dear Cleaverson,
    I was indeed describing a physical reality or manifestation of the Resurrection at the subatomic level. (Higgs Field data and singularity concepts) That takes a substantial explanation, but I’m not given to call it a ‘proof’. Rather, I prefer to use the word ‘icon’. It was a substantive turning point in my life— almost a 180 turn 😊

  42. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen I should add that I find your comment very helpful and only desire to highlight your words and their meanings. If I am saying anything that conflicts with your meaning please forgive me and correct me. Because that is far from my intention.

  43. Anonymous Avatar

    I find I am truly appreciating the book “The Monks from Mount Athos” in light of this type of dialogue because I find such a dialogue for myself to be personally very important. I was raised Catholic, and so my parents are still Catholic. God brought myself and my husband into the Orthodox Church as converts a few years ago. We had been married in the Protestant Church, and so I have lived a large segment of my life in different parts of Western Christendom. Such experiences are quite common in America.

    I had to sort out much in my head and my heart to become Orthodox. This blog even had a part in that. As a convert, one thing I appreciated was when honest but loving respect was given. I find so much of this in this book. I know Basil Pennington voiced this very clearly in his journal. Our love goes a long way in helping those from outside of Orthodox boundaries “come and see that the Lord is good”. I feel like the love that Elder Aimilianos showed this man, whom greatly respected Elder Aimilianos in return, helps me to love my parents and family. Elder Aimilianos recognized that Basil Pennington loved God. He honored him as God’s living icon. Although Basil Pennington could not take Holy Communion with the other Monks on Mount Athos, God worked in His life in mysterious ways. He wanted to spend time on Mount Athos for Prayer and silence before God. I have not finished the book, but I believe Basil Pennington remained in the Catholic Church as I recognize my parents may remain also in the Catholic Church, or they may by God’s mercy become Orthodox someday. But I know I can lovingly follow Elder Aimilianos’ example of loving and honest respect.

  44. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Anonymous your thoughts are very helpful and timely . Thank you.

    I should add that my own motivation to write my comments to Fr Stephen was not to present clear distinction for the sake of contending with my family but for clarification for catechumens who might be reading this blog and comment stream. In particular I’ve encouraged the catechumens in my parish to read this blog.

  45. Anonymous Avatar

    That’s wonderful that you have encouraged catechumens in your parish to read Fr. Stephen’s blog. I have been very helped over the years in coming to the Orthodox Church myself, from the articles and the comments. It helped me find “home” and helped me transition from my time in Western Christianity. You are right, clarifications are important. Once I began realizing that the “Branch Theory” fails, as it is actual schism, and also the “invisible Church” of the Protestant thought in the 1900’s could not hold up to truth either, I realized I was in schism, it literally pained Christ that I was not reuniting myself to the one Church he formed from the beginning, that history of Church matters is important to understand, and that what is required to become a member of His Body was fully joining to the Church in all of the truth and tradition He had given to His Apostles, who passed on to Bishops, and so on. Now I am forever grateful. Now I understand so much more in my heart, I believe. The fullness is indeed in Orthodoxy. But I also recognize knowing God very much so since I was three. I recognize knowing God throughout my life in Western Christianity. I recognize feeling Him there too. I recognize answered prayers, I recognize being filled by His Word. I recognize “walking with Him in the Garden” there too…but then He showed me, if I really loved Him, I must follow Him to His One Apostolic Church against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.

  46. Cleverson Avatar

    OK Dee, thank you much.

  47. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Even through a blog I can sense the peaceful love of God in your spirit. It is wonderful and I am grateful for your participation here. You may not know it, but it helps me a lot. You say you recognize many things in hindsight. God works in us that way. For one, it shows us that He has always been with us, and will always be. He is continually forming us into His likeness. He never stops this pursuit. He does this with every single person on the face of this earth. How, I have no idea…but that is what He does. This is why I pray for the salvation of all. I think those of us who have tasted His love desires that every person place and thing be reconciled to Him. It is saying “yes” to God, to unite ourselves to Him, to say “yes” to His plan for salvation for the entire cosmos…everyone and everything in it. We pray “for the peace of the world and the salvation of our souls”.

    Mary is right in saying a focus on schism eventually leads to contempt. Our souls are not yet perfected where we are immune to the constant warfare that tries to separate us from the love of God. The need for unity through the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord can not be overstated.

    Dee, please let me clarify. I was not comparing the Oriental Orthodox and the RC as if the outcome of schism was the same. I go to the root cause. That is my line of thinking. I hope you understand. That is why I say division is division, a turning away from God, a separation from our Source, and the elevation of the self in His place. We have been divided in our heart from God and man. Now, reunited through the sacrament of Baptism and continued unity in and through His Body and Blood, the Cup. We unite ourselves to Christ *in* our disunity. Our entire person is *being* sanctified. It is no surprise then that we allow for the existence of division among ourselves, because since the Fall, our hearts are divided. This is the conundrum, the tension, the angst, we face when we finally say “yes” to God…that God shows us in retrospect through the events of our lives where we have gone astray and in retrospect we see His never ending “shepherding” us back to Unity. I think many catachumens have been led to the Church having experienced such tensions. This, by God’s grace, will be continually worked through, as souls in the midst of healing, We each come with our own “baggage”. I have learned that I do not even know my own heart, less the heart of another. We give support, and trust in the goodness of God.
    May God bless you and the catachumens He has put in your path. I have much hope for all of us, that it will work out for the good…for the sake of the Good! But please forgive me…because of my weaknesses I need to avoid a prolonged focus on the reality of schisms. It puts me in a dark place where I forget the goodness of God. Like with Job, He allows these things to happen for reasons we do not understand, only that our faith be strengthened.
    Lastly, I ask you once again to forgive me and to remember me in your prayers.

  48. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Thanks for your personal story about anger. Very helpful and insightful.

  49. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Paula, thank you for your kind words. Indeed you are in my prayers with love. And I ask for your prayers as well.

  50. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    You convinced me! I just bought a copy of The Monks from Mount Athos. Almost every book I’ve read that was endorsed here was a great help in my life and I could not resist adding one more to the collection. Thanks.

  51. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Mary Benton, for responding to my post – and you are correct of course! That is why I said ‘in part’ when I brought my thought about the presence of Elijah. It simply illustrates how full of speech is every word of Scripture, in that new aspects strike each of us as we are listening to or reading inspired conversation or even participating in a liturgical event, such as happens at the best of times.
    And while it is true that Protestants feel only Scripture is the basis for a Christian understanding, that understanding has to be lived, as we do overwhelmingly in our Orthodox gatherings. It is probably what impressed me the most, at first coming into my little church, that the services again and again lovingly present Scriptural texts in what is sung, and I think each time it is possible to find new parts of a living whole that speak to us personally, even if only in a very small way.

  52. Robert Johannes Avatar
    Robert Johannes

    Dear fathers and others

    I don’t know if this is of any help, but I certainly don’t hope, it brings more confusion … but with regards to “no salvation outside the Church” I’ve always thought of that dictum as having two sides: 1) God can save whomever He wants anyway and anywhere He wants and isn’t dependent on the Church; 2) We are wholly dependent on the Church, since it is the only place we can go, that has all the means God has given us for salvation/healing. What there might or might not be in other places, we can not know for sure.

    That probably sounds a lot like something f. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory could have said … I think.

    In Christ

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