What Is Beneath the Universe?

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. John 1:1-3


Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The witness of St. John’s gospel, and the faith of the Church, is that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Logos of God, eternally begotten of the Father. Though St. John begins his gospel with this affirmation, it is not the place where our Christian faith, or theology begin. That place where what is hidden (like the chair) is revealed is in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, His Pascha. The proclamation, “Christ is risen,” is the affirmation of the mystery hidden from before the ages. It is the revealing of God’s good will and the definitive manifestation of His good will towards us.

When we turn from Christ’s resurrection towards creation in efforts to discern the Logos, it is Christ’s Pascha being manifest in all things that is the proper point of our attention. The Logos is not some inert principle, or property of physics, and we do wrong to examine things from that angle. If we were to pull back the blanket to see what is beneath, we would see only the risen Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

This “shape” of the universe, or the dynamic of its shape, is called the Providence of God in Christian theology. If we look more carefully at the tradition, we will see that Providence is understood to be the Divine Energies, the “doings” of God. When human beings act, we think of ourselves as one thing and our actions as another. Indeed, sometimes we act in a way that seems to contradict our identity. We wonder, “Why did I do that?” With God it is different.

It is the teaching of the Church that God’s Essence and His Energies are one. The God who makes Himself known in His energies, is the God who is beyond knowing in His very being (essence). The manner of knowing God in His energies (actions) is one of discernment. I can discern the shape of a chair, though I do not see the chair.

Now, it is also possible for others to suggest that what we see is not a chair at all. Perhaps it is a set of boxes stacked in a chair-like manner. Perhaps it is an evil robot that is sort of shaped like a chair. Perhaps the blanket has simply landed in a manner that suggests (accidentally) the shape of a chair. All of these would represent competing narratives. Some of the suggestions are more plausible than others. The narrative of modernity would likely favor the accidental blanket account.

What is clear, however, is that debating the narratives, based on the observation of shape alone, is a no-win exercise. We see the blanket. What’s beneath it can be argued any number of ways. We do well, then, to remember that we do not start with the Prologue of John’s gospel. Had Christ traveled around Israel proclaiming, “I am the Logos through whom all things were created!” He would likely have been ignored (or worse). He does say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” but that remains a rather opaque statement until after the resurrection. Indeed, apart from Christ’s Pascha, everything about God is opaque.

That the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is also the eternal Logos, is a matter of revelation. It is not a result of a logical process of deduction. It is an assertion, a declaration of the nature of God and the nature of all that He has created. I often think of it as the most outrageous proclamation of the gospel possible. It flies in the face of all absurdity and meaninglessness. The Christian argument is simple: “Christ is risen.” To every objection that can be raised, we respond, “Yes, but Christ is risen.”

We do not live our lives gazing out at the universe. We are tiny things, less aware of the blanket and more aware of tiny fibers. Many times we cannot even discern the weave. We argue about the material. It is little wonder that many cannot fathom the reality of the Logos, or even grasp that shape of things. That they deny the Christian narrative is not an example of perversity: it reflects their experience. I think that many have only ever encountered arguments about blankets and chairs. Christ seems just as abstract. This is a failure in our Christian proclamation.

Our life, and our proclamation need to mirror that of the Apostles. They bore witness to Christ’s Pascha. They not only bore witness to it as an event, but accepted His way of life as the consequence of that event. We love our enemies because Christ is risen from the dead. We forgive everyone for everything because Christ is risen from the dead. We share what we have with others because Christ is risen from the dead. If, in our leisure, we ponder the shape of the universe, we do so that we might know the risen Christ. That is the end of all things.

It is rare that I reprint an article in the same year that it was written. This one (February 2019), however, came up in conversation with my beloved wife. We’ve been on vacation this week, mostly driving as we dodge an impending hurricane. Time with her is my favorite time. I’m reprinting this article because it a conversation I want to have (with readers as well).


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.



, ,



141 responses to “What Is Beneath the Universe?”

  1. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father I didn’t see this article until after I sent in my last comment on the previous article. I wish to stay on this new topic as is your preference.

    I liked this article very much because it asks us to go deeper into our reality. I’m grateful to God for His providence to guide me into an area of science that attempts to delve into the invisible. Most of what happens before ‘our eyes’ is inferred. Because of that practice of ‘inference’ some will argue that the reality of God is ‘in our heads’, when the reality that speaks of God is all around us.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My wife and I were driving along with several days of conversation unfolding. I observed how comfortable we are with each other – I can’t think of anyone else I would want to spend that much “goofing off” time with. Part of that observation is that we “fit” – like two pieces of a puzzle. But, when you’re young (she was 18 when we met – I was 19), you cannot possibly see what the whole puzzle looks like – just “I found two pieces that fit!”

    It’s only after many years that you get much of a glimpse of the puzzle (and the, it’s really only the tiniest bit). What we are made to understand is that Christ is the “puzzle” of the all things.

    I would have added in the article – that the shape of the universe being Christ’s Pascha – the Cross is discernible many times. Fr. St. John to say that Jesus is the Logos incarnate – is the most profound statement in all of Scripture – certainly the boldest. I think to myself that John understood that he had spoken with the Logos, touched Him, “handled Him,” etc.

    We’ve been on a bit of a “nature” holiday. We went to the beach – spent about a day and a half – then were told to evacuate because of the hurricane. The ocean itself drives me towards large thoughts – like a night sky. Today we’re in NC and spent the afternoon hiking in a local arboretum, marveling at trees and plants.

    Christ is everywhere.

  3. William Wordsworth Avatar
    William Wordsworth

    I hope these lines excerpted from those Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 may be of some assistance as you enjoy your break and ponder such matters 🙂

    … As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
    But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
    Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
    In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
    Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
    And passing even into my purer mind
    With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
    Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
    As have no slight or trivial influence
    On that best portion of a good man’s life,
    His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
    Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
    To them I may have owed another gift,
    Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
    In which the burden of the mystery,
    In which the heavy and the weary weight
    Of all this unintelligible world,
    Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
    In which the affections gently lead us on,—
    Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
    And even the motion of our human blood
    Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
    In body, and become a living soul:
    While with an eye made quiet by the power
    Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
    We see into the life of things.

    For I have learned
    To look on nature, not as in the hour
    Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
    The still sad music of humanity,
    Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
    To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
    A lover of the meadows and the woods
    And mountains; and of all that we behold
    From this green earth; of all the mighty world
    Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
    And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
    In nature and the language of the sense
    The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
    The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
    Of all my moral being.

  4. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    If you had not mentioned that your were in the midst of an area threatened by a great storm, one would get the impression you and your wife were walking in paradise! But that is exactly your point here!
    Thanks Father for inviting us to join in your conversation. It is a blessing to here these words. We get so caught up in our own little world and miss the heavens declare God’s glory, the trees clap, and the birds sing Alleluia.
    Let us attend!

  5. David Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen:
    Father bless! First and foremost I pray that you and your wife are safe. Dorian has left unspeakable devastation in its wake. Lord have mercy!
    The Logos, in creation, bestowed logoi into the essence of everything created. We read that the logoi are the “reasons for being” in everything that has been created. We read that those whose nous is healed, are able to see, know and understand these reasons for being, in everything. I can’t see it. I can only intimate, sense intuitively, that there’s something there, Someone , at the very core of everything that is. My blindness is painful because I would like to know.
    Lord heal my blindness! Can you imagine what must be like, to look around us at everything created and to understand its relationship to the Creator and everything else, and by this vision, to be moved to worship the Creator? I wonder if without this vision, is it possible to truly love.

  6. Janine Avatar

    Father this is so beautiful, thank you for sharing it again (I hadn’t read it the first time). It sounds so nice, your relationship with your wife. My husband and I also spend time driving together; the last time we did, it was occasion to resolve a pretty bad argument, thankfully! I have been under a huge amount of stress, dealing with hard things (like just accepting betrayal by people I love), plus new responsibilities I’m not used to and not sure I’m doing well. I’m out on a limb, and prayed all the way through it to here — but so be it. And yet, I keep hearing this Bob Dylan song in my head, which includes these lyrics: “In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand, in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” (The song is called Every Grain of Sand.) And so I guess the shape of the Logos is that Master’s hand. So be it. Thank you again!

  7. Ken J. Avatar
    Ken J.

    Thank you so very much for this, Father.

    And may our Risen Christ bless you with many more thoughts to share (and many more conversations to enjoy with your wife).

  8. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “The narrative of modernity would likely favor the accidental blanket account.”
    Post-modernity would likely say you can decide for yourself whatever you think is under the blanket because we’ll never know for sure anyway.

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for posting this again as I missed it the first time around. As I was reading it, it brought to mind how my sense of what is real can shift. To continue your metaphor, sometimes I am sure it is a chair under the blanket while other times I feel like I could just be imagining that it is, despite consider reasons for believing otherwise. I tend to feel this latter sense when in the city, going about the mundane activities of my life. The office buildings, the freeways, the houses all appear to be the tangible realities of life. What I believe is under the blanket seems rather nebulous and questionable by comparison.

    However, I just returned from a couple of days at a hermitage and had quite the opposite experience. While there, I am mostly in solitude but Eucharist is within walking distance as are open fields, wetlands, forest and thick brush of weed and wildflower. Part of my retreat is contemplative walking with my camera. I talk to the growing things, marveling at how each is doing just what it is supposed to be doing to give glory to God.

    Every time I go, I am blessed with different images, despite the grounds not being all that extensive. Among my favorites this year were a pair of mating butterflies and a praying mantis that turned its head and looked right at me, both encountered while pushing through brush as tall or taller than me. It was sunny and just warm enough and The Prayer was singing in my heart.

    What I find fascinating is that when I am in this experience, it seems that there can be no question but that there is a chair under that blanket. It not just the individual objects I see but the magnificent working together of everything. I can just stand there and watch life be lived and know that there is a God. And, at Liturgy, it is equally obvious that the Word became flesh and gives Himself to me that I might share in His divine life.

    When I leave and return to the city, all of the man-made buildings and signs and objects tend to appear rather “fake” to me. I know that they are real in the one sense but it is such a pale reality compared to the one I have been drenched in while at the hermitage.

    I cannot help but make the connection. As industrialization and technology occupy more and more of what the average person experiences through most of their lives, it is not surprising that our sense of what is real is impacted to the point that we cease to even wonder what, if anything, lies beneath the blanket.

    May God have mercy on us. (Be careful Fr. Stephen and anyone else near the hurricane. Blessings on your time of rest.)

  9. William Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen
    Very glad to hear you are having a great time with your wife in The Carolinas. Like you, the ocean itself drives me towards large thoughts. Obviously, no so deep as yours; but, it is like feeling that God is in the air. God is the Universe, everywhere and always, regardless of our comprehension of space and time, it is just that we normally do not pay attention.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In the city, we are surrounded by “man-made” objects. It easily stands as a testament to our power to control and make. Outside the city, we see creation less controlled and can be more aware of how fragile and wonderful it is – and see the hand of God more clearly. Of course, the city is an illusion. People sit to eat food without awareness of where it came from – as well as everything else in their world. It can easily just be a great delusion. But urbanization feeds the secular myth.

    I think my favorite thing in a city is the sight of grass or a flower coming up through a crack – pushing back.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christ was betrayed by friends. It means that He can shape our experience of betrayal into His life. But it’s so hard at first.

  12. E. C. Scrubb Avatar
    E. C. Scrubb

    Father Stephen,
    Pray for me.
    Profound thoughts which have me thinking about the angels, who are bodiless, though still part of the creation. I know there is a Paschal hymn about their amazement in seeing human flesh now seated on the Throne. How could these things be, the Logos joins himself to His creation, flesh, joins himself to us, and now is, and will be forever incarnate? There will always be a fleshly body on the throne of heaven? And the hope we have, that we can be joined to Him? The profundity, the joy, the hope of all this simply blows Reformed theology out of the water, and leaves a wisp of smoke.

    Your writings have helped me immensely to integrate Orthodox thought into my life as an inquirer. I used to wake up at night and think, “God, why is there an icy wind blowing through my soul? Where are the rivers of living water?” Somewhere I read one of your off-hand comments about what an amazing thing it is if we can even pray one small prayer. That has always stuck in my mind. (As a synthesis of all your writings about the nature of our existence). Now I wake up at night and pray, “God, thank you for making me. I used to not exist, and now I do. Heal me, so I can be with you forever.”

    Thank you for your ministry.

  13. Dino Avatar

    The secular, anti-sacramental worldview, is surely embedded in nearly all that confronts us in urban / city life. Contact with nature can be a much-needed remedy to the effects of such erosion.
    Man-nurtured nature (as in the husbandry of a garden) is also another fine antidote.
    But in all circumstances, whether in the stillness of the desert which deadens the external senses and enlivens the inner ones, or the commotion of the city which does the opposite, we can do very well by prompting ourselves, and encouraging our souls to desire nothing of this temporal realm, in our yearning for the life of the age to come.

  14. Matthew R Avatar
    Matthew R

    Thank you so much for writing about this.

    There is quite a bit of debating about this topic by YouTube theologians, this is not a pejorative but just a statement of fact. One strong debater is a Orthodox convert who likes to bludgeon others through reason. Although he agrees with the Orthodox faith and teachings I think that he does not see the presuppositions in Orthodoxy. In my opinion the analogy of seeing just the fibers and barely the weave of the cloth is quite poignant of how difficult this is. We can study and teach but without a proper attitude and prayer life we can be more damaging than healing to our soul and the soul’s of others.

    Orthodoxy uses reason but Christian Revelation also known as Catholic Consciousness are truths revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Church and is what underlies Orthodox theology and reason. God’s essence, energy, and will are written about throughout the Old and New Testament but each are (past, present, and future) revealed to the Church through Christ by grace. Reading about it is important, but experiencing it through the sacraments of the Church is the only way to know and understand it. The sacraments are The Way, and is illumination to those who believe, to obtain Glory and Perfection, and is what underlies the fabric.

  15. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    It is amazing that when you think of what’s underneath the Universe – the things that come to mind: atoms, code, quantum this or that – but like you said these are just fibers. Really underneath everything is the Providence of God. He is before all things and in Him all thing hold together.

  16. Dean Avatar

    I know you wrote that contact with nature can be a remedy for the aridity of our culture. And you noted that our souls should desire nothing of this temporal realm.
    Yet, can’t wanting, desiring to be in nature, be healthy for our souls as well, as Mary described? After all, all beauty comes from God as He is Beauty. If we look, we see God behind the shimmering mountains, or whatever other beauty draws our attention. It is said that president Reagan once quipped, “If you’ve seen one redwood you’ve seen them all!”
    Yet how you relate to nature, and say howJonathan Pageau relate to nature’s beauty, may be miles apart. Can’t an artistic yearning for beauty be soul-healthy as long as it doesn’t usurp our yearning for God?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew R,
    Having been “bludgeoned” by such a youtuber (I’ll not call them theologians), I can say that my regard for such is pretty low. Actually, I first began blogging back in ’06 because I thought the quality of things available on the internet was untrustworthy and abysmal. But it’s a very democratic medium. Every fool can post an opinion. If enough big words are used, they can pretend to be theologians. I might add, this underlines the reason why I have had “rules” for the blog ever since its inception.

    A useful way of thinking and sifting through these various “theologians” is to ask what living authority do they submit to? Who blesses their work? What is their authority?

    Orthodox is hierarchical. The “everyman’s got an opinion and can post” is just Protestantism with an Orthodox flavor. Many times, among the converts (of whom I am one), no inner change has occurred in their lives. They argued when they were Protestants, they are now as Orthodox. They are just arguments looking for a home.

    Orthodoxy is not an argument. It is alive. It’s authority is best encountered in a living setting. Nobody “needs” to blog or post. If I die tomorrow, and everything I’ve ever written were to disappear, the Kingdom of God abides and the Providence of God will have still been at work. Nothing depends on us. We live in a wonderful world of grace. The arguments are born out of pride (shame) that has not been addressed. That’s truly a pity.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think “nature,” in the sense we are using that word at the moment, is ubiquitous – necessarily. It’s just that in an urban setting we are easily distracted by our own stuff. If you learn to pay attention wherever you are, even the works of our hands yield revelation.

  19. Dino Avatar

    I would think that the Grace-filled contemplation of God through nature is certainly an exquisitely good thing. I would also think that the exclusive absorption in God alone is a much higher, a perfect state.
    The first is like reading a loosely rendered translation, the second is the original. When you see a childish drawing of the sun it can ‘warm your heart’ , but, seeing the real thing can warm all of you and even when it’s finished the second experience leaves a hugely more profound and indelible effect on you. Both are good though.

  20. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m not inclined to parse experiences of God in a hierarchal scheme, as you describe, Dino. Such yardsticks almost beg for judgement of one’s brothers and sisters and can lead to pretest. The process of theosis is worked through all things. There is no ‘end point’ of that process for us, other than Christ. We are creatures in his image yearning and striving for our Beloved. The earth’s natural world is imbued with His energy and that is how we experience Him. His essence is beyond us even as we seek and have communion with Him by His grace. And last, we have saints that are revealed by grace through God’s creation.

    Fr Stephen,
    Your ministry is crucial because of the presence of so much ‘non authoritative’ material expressed on the internet.

  21. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Prelest not pretest.

  22. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m sorry to have expressed my frustration. I suppose I’m being too protective of the catechumens I have reading this blog. They are adults who will see and read and digest what they can and cannot.

    Dear Fr Stephen your humility shines like a beacon. But I sincerely believe in the helpfulness of your blog. Indeed if it should be wiped away altogether, the merciful Lord would rise another beacon.

  23. Dino Avatar

    These ‘parsings’ have been provided by the Fathers of the Church from the early centuries (and continue so) in order to avoid prelest. They are given us so graphically so we do not become smug ourselves (and certainly not so that we judge our neighbour).

  24. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I don’t pretend to know the Patristic writings of the east. I am young in the faith have been taught only by my confessor and have read portions of John Climacus “Ladder’ and reading here of Fr Stephen’s ‘lessons’.

    But my experiences in teaching others of the invisible world is rather extensive and it too comes from a tradition of how to delve into unseen things. And there is a tacit knowledge which offers up the voice and icon of God in these ‘unseen’ places.

    These experiences combined allows me to recognize the appropriate ways to support learning the Way. And what manner of scaffolding is appropriate. I am not contending with the Father’s teachings in content, rather with the manner they are ‘dished’. “Hard” teachings is not the element of contention either. Manner is something else entirely. And that can contain the element of prelest where the originals do not.

    Forgive me we have had this ‘conversation’ before and I have doubts about the fruitfulness of engaging further. I will keep my mouth shut.

  25. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I rather prefer Father Stephen’s pastoral approach, which certainly includes the teachings of the early Church Fathers (of whom he was accused of not teaching!), but in a way those of us here who do not have the mileage, one…and two, need (like a parched throat) sound practical pastoral guidance, in plain, simple, forthright language to apply the Faith, yes, to live it organically. Pastoral guidance is well rounded in just that way.

  26. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much for your words to me about participation in the Cross/betrayal. I was speaking earlier with a priest about these matters (for confession). I told him I was being crucified. And he told me it was good to put it in those terms because after crucifixion comes Resurrection. So you have essentially echoed what he told me. It is the “shape” of the Cross. My ties to those I can no longer trust run very deep and long. It’s a long process to work through properly, seeing what is true, and I know that only prayer and being in the “right place” can guide me. Thank you so much for your help and guidance, and through your writing to help me stay in that place. It is good to have even remote “friends” who can help shore up that place of faith and well-placed trust. Maybe that is the best use of the internet.

  27. Dino Avatar

    What you say would be clearer if it conserned a hard teaching as John 6:60 but I’d like to know what is hard about the patristic description of two goods (natural contemplation of the logo and direct contemplation of God). Is it that the 2nd is higher than the first..? I can only assume that, that might cause one to be perhaps discouraged? I havent got any of them anyway…

  28. Dino Avatar

    *of the logoi (in nature)

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, et al
    The fathers are clear that the direct contemplation of God is the highest good. “Natural contemplation” (of the logoi in all things) is, in most writings that I’ve seen, treated as a proper (or easier) place to begin. Whether higher or lesser, God is sought.

    In my own experience what I’ve seen is that natural contemplation helps nurture the hunger for the higher, direct contemplation. I’ll take anything I can get!

  30. Dino Avatar

    Couldn’t agree more with you Father!

  31. Christopher Avatar

    It might help to keep in mind the interrelationship of humility, the passing away of all things – beautiful or not – in this world lest one get stuck as it were on beauty, nature, and the like as things in-of-themselves. Dino you point to this in your September 4, 2019 at 4:16 am post from the last thread.

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Father for your words. I believe that we might experience directly the Lord (direct contemplation) as we attempt to reach Him in nature. Whether that happens or not may well be dependent on the heart and God’s grace. But if I’m wrong in this, I ask for forgiveness.

  33. sgage Avatar

    Christopher (and Fr. Stephen),

    “It might help to keep in mind the interrelationship of humility, the passing away of all things – beautiful or not – in this world lest one get stuck as it were on beauty, nature, and the like as things in-of-themselves. ”

    I more-or-less live in ‘nature’, basically a hole punched in the woods in northern New England. I keep goats and sheep and chickens and have gardens and fruit trees and whatnot. I am a retired forester and ecologist, and contemplating nature is what I do much of the time.

    And if you do this, really do this, over many years and decades, the most obvious thing in the world is precisely the passing-away, the death and dying (why, a bobcat took one of my hens just yesterday), and the changing while remaining changeless. It’s so clearly not some abstraction to get stuck on, nor is it something to romanticize, or even worship (though I know that some, especially urban folk, do).

    The most obvious lesson from all this (at least for me) IS humility. Awe, and humility, and love – on a lot of levels, high and low.

  34. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Sgage.

    I’ll add an additional reading:

    Also humility should be the basis of the prayer as St. Ignatius says: “Today I read the declaration of St. Sisoes the Great, which I always particularly liked. A monk said to him: ‘I am in constant memory of God’. St. Sisoes responded to him: ‘That is not great; it will be great when you consider yourself to be worse than any creature.’ St. Sisoes continues: constant memory of God is a very elevated activity!! However, this height is very dangerous, when the ladder to it is not founded on the solid rock of humility” [70] (Holy Fathers use the words “memory of God” as a synonym for the Jesus prayer)[71].

    This is the link from which this is taken:

  35. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Just a little note … while at prayer during my visit to the hermitage, I became aware that I needed to be willing to give up all things for God, even the beauty He has created. Even BUTTERFLIES! (For those who know me, this is a huge concession on my part.)

    It is not that He doesn’t want me to love and enjoy the earthly beauties of His making but He knows my weaknesses. I can easily become overly fascinated by an earthly beauty to the point that it becomes an unhealthy passion, leading me to seek it more than I seek Him (while telling myself that it is Him that I seek).

    It was also an inner acknowledgement (very important for me) that God Himself is and always will be so much more beautiful and perfect than anything in His creation – such that I should never fear letting go of what I see for the sake of what I do not see. In a sense, this is a preparation for death – to be ready to let go of this life with full trust in the glorified Life He offers (which is, in actuality, the fulfillment of our human life through deification.)

  36. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    This may seem like a dumb question, but are there different levels of humility (sgage mentions levels)? Is there such a thing as being a little humble in one instance, then increasingly in another, only to become less…and on and on? (I laugh as I ask this. To me the question sounds absurd, but I must ask!)
    I mean, it seems you can be humble “sometimes”, but pride always seems to lurk underneath. So is it, either you are or you are not? Do you flow in and out? (considering our ascetic endeavors)
    To think of yourself as lower than the lowest of creatures…I don’t know! Maybe as low as them, but lower? These things baffle me when I am forced to stop and think about it.

  37. Byron Avatar


    I think that humility is not really a matter of levels but of simple effort in life. It is, so to speak, like (endlessly?) pulling ourselves along a rope up a slight incline in a fog. It’s not necessarily a sense of moving to another level as it is of simply moving.

    Boy, that’s probably clear as mud…. LoL!

  38. Dino Avatar

    Mary Benton,
    what you say is certainly true.

    Paula AZ,
    there are indeed levels of humility:
    e.g.: accepting a telling off when one is to blame is somewhat humble, but, when one is not to blame, it is humbler still; the perfect humility of the great saints is entirely bestowed by the Holy Spirit, as St Silouan explains, it is the likeness of Christ and is inconceivable to the natural human mind.
    The saints are generally (in practice) far more humble for their virtues (like a heavily blossoming – and therefore stooping from the weight – tree), than for their sins. And they are certainly aware of their sin! Not because of the virtual non-existence of their ‘sins’ compared to others (as one might think) or because of the eventual dispassion [freedom from their (extremely well known to them) ‘sinfulness’ (it is this sinful disposition of humanity in general that they are most aware of)], rather, because contemplation of the utterly pure God inevitably creates such an awestruck humility to the contemplator. Seeing the Cause and Provider of all good makes one realise that the good they are adorned with is not theirs at all.

  39. Dino Avatar

    the most natural consequence of love for God is desire for death; equally my desire to not die (and my attachment to the ‘beauty of this world for the sake of itself) is always a wake up ring that informs me of the falseness of my assumed love towards God.
    What a feeble creature man is!
    Grace comes and dwells within us and we glow and become liberated and fearless, yearning for God alone and to die and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23) and then we lose it and we default back to our own earthen being (albeit, maturing in humility through such continuous oscillations) and see we are but nought – like an eagle whose lost his wings, and soon we might even start thinking that petty things of this world are significant – like an eagle that has become a bud-worm.

  40. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Byron, Dino…
    🙂 Even though one says ‘no levels’ and one says ‘yes’, you both make sense to me!
    Byron, your description of the rope and the fog…but you just keep on moving on that incline, yep! That’s an apt description of my everyday life!
    Dino, you’ve answered my question too, in that the attainment of humility is not once for all. It seems that with continuing contemplation God, even through His creation, you almost secretly, that is without our own effort, become more and more humble. An d yes, it is surely a gift of the Holy Spirit.
    You mention the tree stooping from the weight of the Saints virtues. I’ve seen pictures of that with the saint in prayer.
    Thanks both of you…now I don’t feel so, um…foolish!

  41. Janine Avatar

    Paula, my two cents: from my experience humility is a learning curve. I may get to the point where I give up something to God and “bear a little shame” as Father might put it. But there’s always that next thing (or level) around the corner. I believe that it’s a process of becoming more and more dependent upon God FWIW. In my experience, this includes knowing myself better hopefully through time and prayer. There always seems to be in my life more things to visit and to give up for God’s guidance, even to revisit. I’m not the first to say that faith is a journey. When Jesus says, “I am the way…” that word in Greek is the same as the one for “road.”

  42. sgage Avatar


    ‘ When Jesus says, “I am the way…” that word in Greek is the same as the one for “road.”’

    I just thought that deserved to be repeated. 🙂

  43. Janine Avatar

    thank you sgage

  44. Dean Avatar

    “The most natural consequence of love for God is desire for death,” writes Dino. How would that statement go over held in a banner in a sports stadium, or for that matter in a church? It is stark yet I’m sure is the ethos of Mt. Athos and of the Fathers. Hebrews 2:15 notes that Christ came to free us from the power of the devil and to free all of us held in slavery by the fear of death. That has to be one of the reasons for our 24/7 entertainment/distraction…to not think of much of anything let alone of our own death. Yet perfect love casts out fear. I know this but am far from never being fearful. A friend, now deceased, told me that elder Ephraim said to him that after age 70 one must especially be mindful of death. He was around 80 when he told me this, and lived 5 more years being buried in the monastery cemetery. So, I think of my death and going to meet Christ.
    That will be the Second Coming for me.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, does the elimination of the fear of death cause us to long for it of rather simply to be able to embrace it when it comes no matter how?

  46. juliania Avatar

    I don’t think I had seen this post when you originally wrote it, Father Stephen, and I haven’t gone back to visit comments so I may be heading in the wrong direction, but your own present happening does remind me very much of Job, not Job in the beginning of the story, but Job at the end. For you were, have been, facing the whirlwind very directly, as none of us are presently doing, and yet, something wonderful is happening for you between you and your wife. It really is a wonderful moment, and very much deserved!

    I don’t know if we clearly can see, until we are ourselves in such a position, how we shall be. I think we shall, each of us, be speechless, as was Job. The elements of creation are truly awesome. What is beneath the universe? Job has said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” My goodness, where did he get that from?

    I don’t think I am very near to God. I do think, in moments, that He is very near to me. I do love trees, plants – the way they live and grow so quietly present, when I am such a noisy and selfish being that thoughtlessly crushes them and has helped destroy their world for my own comfort. I don’t like seeing programs about analyzing the habits of animals. Give them their privacy! We go too far in that; simple is best. Their beauty, that is truly amazing.
    I very much love that when we confess we say “…forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed knowingly and unknowingly, of knowledge and of ignorance…” Unknowingly! Of ignorance! We cannot know how great are each of those categories in our selves, but we do know they exist! And that a good God who lovest mankind will, as we forgive, forgive us when we ask it.

    Father Stephen says in this post: “I think that many have only ever encountered arguments about blankets and chairs. Christ seems just as abstract. This is a failure in our Christian proclamation.
    Our life, and our proclamation need to mirror that of the Apostles. They bore witness to Christ’s Pascha. They not only bore witness to it as an event, but accepted His way of life as the consequence of that event. ..”
    You will have to pardon me for being a woman and speaking publicly. Just think of it as like the Samaritan woman rushing back to her town to say that she has seen someone who knows everything about her – the apostles were learning who Jesus was all the way to his death on the cross and even afterwards. They were also learning about themselves. Father Stephen says we should mirror them! Even Thomas! And look how long it took Peter! Oh, remember what they say at the last supper – they say, “Is it I?” They don’t know! They are ignorant! We should mirror them, and not think we are on the final rung of that ladder yet or be dissatisfied because we haven’t reached it. Be patient! Keep asking!
    This is a lovely post.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Some thoughts on the desire for death: It is not death that we desire, but union with Christ, including with His death. I think it is useful to make this distinction. Most of what the world encounters in death is precisely the enemy (death is the last enemy). It is ugly, brutal, frequently laced with meaninglessness, etc.

    I think there is an unintentional “two-storey” account hidden in your phrasing. We want to die in order to be with Christ can too easily suggest that we cannot be with Him here. St. Paul says, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” The things of this world are not “petty” other than when they are consumed apart from God. You noted our attachment to the “beauty of this world for the sake of itself,” which I understand to be an acknowledgement of this distortion.

    We will all die, and our death has been transformed by Christ’s participation. It is right that we desire Christ in all things – including desire Him in our death. But, we should desire a “one-storey death,” not an “escape” from a lesser world, etc.

    When we are alienated from Christ in this world (to whatever degree) when we think of the next world, we are not perceiving Christ but a projected idea. Longing to be with an idea, regardless of how noble, misses the point. I think for most people, they remain at this point of an ideological life after death. It is only as we perceive Christ now and enter more deeply into union with Him, that we can begin to perceive Him beyond within and beyond death, and, so, long for Him, so that we can say with St. Paul, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

    Those are just a few of my thoughts occasioned by your comment – as I ruminated on them in the night. Many thanks for your words!

  48. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your latest comment helps me. We desire now and at our death, union with Christ. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die gain,” only because then we will have an unmediated, direct, eternal union with Christ. Yet even now we experience the first fruits of that union here on this earth. Blessings to you Father and for your most helpful words on our journey.
    Byron, thanks too for your illustration of the rope!

  49. Dino Avatar

    Based on Elder Aimilianos’ teaching I think it is the love of eventual ‘permanence’ in Christ (as opposed to the continuous fluctuations and mutability of our intimacy with Him that we inevitably encounter in this life) that causes us to “long for death”. The elimination of the fear of death (and the ability to embrace it when it comes no matter how), comes according to our experiential knowledge that death (in Christ) is life, and life (not in Christ) is death. I refer you to the letter of St Ignatius to Romans…

    It is very useful to make that discerning clarification you just made: “alienated from Christ in this world (to whatever degree) when we think of the next world, we are not perceiving Christ but a projected idea. Longing to be with an idea, regardless of how noble, misses the point.”
    Only our true union with Christ now, makes us repeat with St Paul, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” However, our awareness of the inconstancy of all things here, while not yet ‘cemented’ into the life given “to those in the tombs”, makes us utter with Paul: “If I live, it will be for Christ, but if I die, I will gain even more.”
    As an aside, I cannot imagine how the soul of a priest who longs for this ‘permanence’ with the One Whose flesh and blood he is consuming so much of at the end of the Liturgy must desire to remain in such a divine intimacy! But we have to step down into the hustle and bustle of the distractions of this life: we must always accept ‘Thy will be done’, whatever that is.

  50. Agata Avatar


    Thank you for this beautiful comment above:

    “When we are alienated from Christ in this world (to whatever degree) when we think of the next world, we are not perceiving Christ but a projected idea. Longing to be with an idea, regardless of how noble, misses the point. I think for most people, they remain at this point of an ideological life after death. It is only as we perceive Christ now and enter more deeply into union with Him, that we can begin to perceive Him beyond within and beyond death, and, so, long for Him, so that we can say with St. Paul, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.””

    You explained this better here than I have ever heard it explained…. so helpful and ‘instructional’ (for a lack of a better word). I struggle a lot with this, how not to perceive Christ as an idea, but a real person in my life. I always think that each Saint figured it out in their own life (and each a little differently). They all tell us that we can only meet Him in the mysteries and only within His Holy Church.

    Thank you all for the wonderful conversation.

  51. Dino Avatar

    Maybe it would be good to clarify that without the authentic ‘intimation’ of the Holy Spirit within me of my salvation.
    Merely through my own thoughts [that: I am baptised, I have confessed, “God will obviously see that I do this, that or the other” etc.] I don’t have such an intimation. I then cannot have such a delusion-free desire for death in Christ. I am just infected with thoughts, I then don’t even know what purification might be in such a case.
    But this does not mean I mustn’t strive to make a new start in this direction of purification at every moment.
    This knowledge is important in order to retain humility and avoid boldness when emboldened by ascesis, or tears or faith.

  52. Dino Avatar

    correction: *without the authentic ‘intimation’ of my salvation by the Holy Spirit within me , merely through my own thoughts […] I don’t have such an intimation. I then cannot have such a delusion-free desire for death in Christ.

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for the reference to the two story mindset. Indeed that plus the ‘denial’ of the relevance of this material world for our salvation, is what I find problematic. It suggests a dualism. We are saved body and soul .

  54. Dino Avatar

    There is no dualism in the spiritual knowledge of “our destination.” This knowledge is a craving for the Heaven of which we have an unerring foretaste of, here and now. By steadily keeping our mind on the things of heaven we become liberated of the cravings for transient things that drag us earth-wards. May we “count all things as dung” [Philipians 3:8] in our God-wards focus, because any attachment to earthly things obstructs our repentance, and taints spiritual knowledge, and keeps at bay the gift of dispassion – and these things provide us with the unerring foretaste of salvation which enables us to depart with courage and confidence from this world.

  55. Janine Avatar

    Father Stephen wrote:
    “Some thoughts on the desire for death: It is not death that we desire, but union with Christ, including with His death. I think it is useful to make this distinction. Most of what the world encounters in death is precisely the enemy (death is the last enemy). It is ugly, brutal, frequently laced with meaninglessness, etc. ”

    Strange but it seems to me that around death in this world so many evil things happen; it’s just an observation. Yes “the enemy” pops up. Thank you for making this distinction. And especially for “including with His death.” I think it might be the most important distinction we have. That sets me on a right path in some way.

    I wanted also to add about humility. We so often seem to get formulas regarding humility that have to do with humiliation, as if there is a general way to be subservient to all people. But I don’t think this is the case. I understand about monastic life, but for laypeople I don’t think it can be the same case. I don’t see how humility works except as humility to God, first and last. Christ defended himself and His disciples with vigor many times in the Gospels. He was not simply always humble or subservient before corruption or abuse. But in all things, we know it was the Father’s will before His human will. And at the time of His death He knew what was asked of Him and why. This kind of humility is simply not possible without that ongoing living relationship to God here in this world and present to us, because it relies on it absolutely. We are not slaves to the corrupt but servants to Christ. Within that living relationship we may be directed to let all kinds of things go, to bear shame, but our suffering or humiliation is transfigured in it.

  56. Dean Avatar

    This quote by St. John of Damascus goes to the pith of what you are saying. “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.”
    The God-Man, Christ, sits at the right hand of the Father in His glorified body of flesh. All of the sacraments of the Church, by which we are joined to Christ, come through the instrument of Spirit infused matter. So, in my humble opinion, you can continue in your work in science, seeing Christ behind the matter you are working with. As St. John notes, we can venerate matter since Christ worked out our salvation through matter in His incarnation.
    (Please correct me Father if I’ve not understood this correctly).

  57. Dino Avatar

    There is also no duality in the craving for our destination of “things hoped for” [Hebres 11:1], nor in the knowledge that “here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come”.[Hebrew 13:14] because our entire being craves for it, spirit, as well as spirit-infused matter…
    Such an orientation does not result in a two-storey dualism and is always very present in authentic Christianity. It is present no matter how strong the ‘one storey universe sense’ a certain person might have, even for those extremely rare persons (even more so in fact) that have attained to immutable dispassion in its highest form through perfect love and humility, (lifted above sensory things through unceasing contemplation, and who have transcended the body through humility. [St Theognostos.v.29.Philokalia ],

  58. Dean Avatar

    I should have said that you can happily, with rejoicing continue in your work of science. It’s your God-given vocation, the way in which you were called to glorify Him!

  59. Agata Avatar

    Dee and Dino,
    Here is an article about Elder Sophrony’s (of Essex) teaching, which I think is related to what Dino is trying to explain.

  60. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Dean I’m very grateful for your response providing the quote from St John and for your reflections.

  61. Janine Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I would like to quote you [“It is not death that we desire, but union with Christ, including with His death. I think it is useful to make this distinction. Most of what the world encounters in death is precisely the enemy (death is the last enemy). It is ugly, brutal, frequently laced with meaninglessness, etc. “] on my blog. I hope this is okay. I can give you a link.

  62. Dino Avatar

    Some thoughts on the same subject:
    Just as there is potential for a deluded desire of death, sometimes as an escapism, other times as failure to realise that we are not perceiving Christ in death but a mere projected idea (an ‘ideological’ life after death, which misses the point) , there is also the opposite delusion too…
    This delusion is [again] founded upon the same basis, i.e.: “we do not perceive Christ now and we do not enter more deeply into union with Him”, because of the deep-seated and latent self-absorption we are subject to. Here it takes on a spiritual façade of elucidations that we are “desiring Christ and not death”. But Christ is to be permanently found in death, and it is only through the new and transfigured death (that Christ has inaugurated for each of us) that death is finally trampled.
    This second delusion is therefore that we want to belong to Christ without the cost, without suffering, without discomfort, without, illness, without hardship, without death – forgetting that the greatest of joys only springs out from the Cross, and we hide this self-love under our struggles to clarify and make the distinctions that it is not death we desire, but union with Christ. The undeniable ugliness, brutality, meaninglessness, etc of death then takes over our thought, to the expense of the heroic thought of St Ignatius of Antioch: “grant me nothing more than that I be poured out a libation to God, while there is still an altar ready; It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise unto Him.”
    We fall pray to spiritual anaemia, pleasure-seeking, cowardice and weakness in this case, just as we fall pray to ideology, impudence, conceit or escapism in the other.
    Elder Aimilianos once said that this is dedicated lifelong believers’ great failure: through the reverie of “desiring Christ”, (i.e.: going after spiritual pleasure), but (unlike the martyrs) shunning martyrdom and death, we end up losing Him and remain with no more than mortal life.
    I find it very wise that the appointed prayers before bedtime help us to remember that death is always at the door and we must continuously strive to lay our souls in the hands of God as we go to sleep as if the moment of our death/rebirth could be then.

  63. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks very much for your thoughts on humility. I agree it is a ‘process’ throughout our journey. Sometimes when we have conversations on the topic I get the impression that once you’ve got it you’ve got it. Well maybe for the saints. But for the bulk of the faithful it is as you say…a process of becoming fully human. It is a long journey. Lots of weaving going on. By the goodness of God.
    Your comments are ever so helpful. Along with the others, I thank you for your clarifications.
    Just a little thought here…you quoted of one of the elders who said we ‘must’ remember death by the time we reach 70. I realize ‘remembrance’ was meant in a Christian way, but it doesn’t take a ‘must’ for most of us to realize death is at the door even before the age of 70! You really begin to have a different perspective on the important and meaningful things in life here and now, a hope for a good end, and great anticipation of joy when God is all and in all!

  64. Laurie Wolpert Avatar
    Laurie Wolpert

    Respectfully, what is the alternative to “modernity”? I hear a lot of criticisms of modern life, but very rarely a meaningful alternative. I would be interested in hearing a more fully humane society fleshed out. Thank you,


  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, remember that “modernity” is a description of a philosophy, a set of ideas. It is not about the use of technology, medicine, science, etc. Modernity is committed to a number of ideas: progress, meaning change towards a ‘better world’ (the better world is often left undefined). Secularism, human beings as self-defining, autonomous, individuals. A phrase in modernity’s wikipedia article:

    ” “modernity” as a historical category is marked by developments such as a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress, rationalization and professionalization, a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy, industrialization, urbanization and secularisation, the development of the nation-state, representative democracy….”

    I use such a quote to underline the fact that this is not my idea or critique. It’s a standard, academic term for a particular set of ideas that dominate our present period.

    Some simple examples of a “non-modern” life would include greater attention to human existence as community. It would likely not reward economic schemes that separated extended families or redistributed people as individuals. It would pay care respect to stable local settings and economies. Consumer capitalism would likely change. Innovation for innovation’s sake would be curtailed. There would be change, though careful thought would be given to stability and being able to sustain a culture. It would not reward investment in flimsy, ephemeral architectures or unfettered exploitation of land and resources. It would protect traditional communities and allow for the practice of social norms (in education, etc.)

    I’m just naming stuff off the top of my head…

    Societies are inherently traditional and tend towards stability when they are not being manipulated by outside forces. Many things about our economic structure reward destruction of communities and traditions. If such “natural” things are destroyed, all that is left is the “purchase” of substitutes. Many of those substitutes represent government services that seek to make individuals functional without the need for natural forms of social existence (such as the family).

    Laws would protect families and promote their health (and I could go on and on about what that would look like). But, suffice it to say, many of those laws existed 75 years ago, but have been steadily dismantled in the rush of modernity that has picked up pace in these later decades.

    It does not mean, at all, a suppression of technology – though unfettered technology might be targeted. I would, for example, favor criminalizing the making and distribution of pornography – those laws existed 75 years ago and need to return.

    But – we don’t get the opportunity to undo modernity. We’re not in charge and we’re not going to be. We are likely having to live through this period until it comes to a very terrible end. So, the question becomes how do we live responsible “non-modern” lives in this culture.

    We do that with some care – how we raise our families. How we use technology. How we use our money. How we commit to stable community with others, etc.

    And we pray, a lot.

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I think this is true. For what it’s worth, how that gets expressed will vary with Orthodox cultures. In America, which only has some variations of transplanted Orthodox cultures, some do better than others.

    For example, I find that the “flavor” of some prayers are written in such a poetic extreme that they are off-putting and unhelpful. This is not argumentative, but I’ve noticed that many of our Greek-based prayers (various Greek saints) simply have a very “Greek” flavor. By that, I mean a penchant for the extreme. I think of it as a Byzantine trait. When I read a letter from the Phanar, it’s flowering language is almost enough to gag an Englishman. Prayers that come out of the same culture are also difficult in a culture like America where, for better or worse, an English sensibility has had the largest impact.

    Some of the Russian prayers (such as the Morning Prayer of the Elders of Optina) are an example of a more soberly-expressed surrender to the will of God. They are more easily digested.

    I often have to work with new converts to assemble a collection of prayers for morning or evening that are more suited to their needs. It’s sometimes as simple as finding prayers that they can say and have some hope of actually meaning. It’s not a “dumbing” down of the Tradition, but a recognition that the Tradition has a variety within its expression.

    I had a friend who became a Roman Catholic. He had a German/English background. He found himself being crushed beneath various aspects of canon law. His priest laughed when he told him about it and explained that Italians never approached rules in that way. The severe conscience of a Calvinist, for example, is not just a denominational thing – it’s also rooted in deeper aspects of culture that have to be taken account of.

    I’ve learned to read Byzantine thought – though I’m always translating into my own cultural understanding. I have to do much less translating with Russian thought – for whatever reasons. When reading someone like the Ven. Bede, 8th century Anglo-Saxon Orthodox writer, I find that I don’t have to translate much at all. Even 13 centuries ago, he had a sensibility that seems to have been sustained in English cultures. If Britain had remained Orthodox, there would be a lot more such stuff available. One reason CS Lewis is as beloved among English-language peoples isn’t just what he says – it’s how he says it. Interestingly, Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien are all considered very important in current Moscow Russian religious education.

    I say all this because we seem to be bumping into each other repeatedly on the topic of what can seem like “heroic thought” (your phrase) versus “non-heroic” thought – perhaps meaning by that a sober assessment that starts a lot lower and moves forward rather than reaching for the top and talking a lot about it. I do not deny the highest goals of the faith – but in an internet filled with extreme language on the part of people whose own experience is pretty much nothing (we converts do this a lot, apparently) I try to set a decidedly different tone. Readers out there are constantly assaulted with the highest language of the saints in the hands of neophytes who use it to bludgeon one another without discernment. Your own experience is, I know, rooted in the tradition and in reality. But, my efforts at toning stuff down have a context.

    Here in America, there are converts loudly proclaiming that the Orthodox are the “Marines” of Christianity. These are Christians who wouldn’t survive a single day in such a spiritual boot camp. They are “clouds without water.” They actually frighten people. I’ve had people leave the Church when exploring the faith because they read articles that made them think that Orthodoxy was an utterly unattainable life. It’s utter nonsense – and it’s rampant over here.

    We are set between Scylla and Charybdis. One the one hand is an ignorant zeal without substance, on the other hand is an actual liberal band (small but still there)who would suggest a modernization of the faith. Both will fail and fade away. But, in the meantime, there has to be a solid, faithful, sober presentation of the faith to provide something of an anchor against such abuses. The middle is such a difficult place to be. But I’m committed to it.

  67. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am sorry that my response will not be fleshed out, but maybe will encourage you to search the archives for Father’s posts on the Kingdom.
    The meaningful alternative you seek is life lived in the Kingdom of God. It is more or less implied, or I should say, taken for granted in these conversations. It is the acknowledgment that Christ ushered in the Kingdom of God in His first advent. And it is the ‘Way’ given us through the Gospel(s) of Jesus Christ, to follow Him.
    The Bible, the Saints, the martyrs, the Fathers give numerous examples of what life in the Kingdom looks like. And even in this age those among us in Church.
    So it is not really an alternative among alternatives, but the only true and meaningful life, as we were meant to live when God created mankind.
    Hope that helps somewhat.

  68. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father, I didn’t see your response to Laurie before I posted. You sensed what she needed and gave a very practical answer!

  69. Byron Avatar

    o, the question becomes how do we live responsible “non-modern” lives in this culture…. We do that with some care – how we raise our families. How we use technology. How we use our money. How we commit to stable community with others, etc.

    And we pray, a lot.

    I’ve always found the Amish response to modernity both interesting and enlightening. For example, they deny themselves TVs, not because they are “evil” in some manner, but because they are one-way communication devices and the messages they send can easily be very manipulative and destructive towards the family.

    I find their approach very attractive and very intelligent. We must guard our hearts and be wary of the things that shape them.

  70. Matthew W Avatar

    So many threads of thought here –

    Dualism between the physical and the spiritual – an artificial construct, I think, based upon systematized academic models that demand everything be defined in very concrete forms – when we are thinking with intellects that to this day defy flight-and-fight models, risk-reward game theory, and chemical hormonal predictions. People will love who they love, make emotional decisions based on inexplicable reasons – and generally completely mystify someone who wants to figure out how we tick.

    Also, Father spoke to my heart when he spoke to the fact that certain cultural sensibilities matter. I first started attending an Antiochian Church, whose worship and prayers spoke to my heart. When the priest left, and the new priest couldn’t even speak English, I started looking around. The other two predominantly English influenced churches in my are are both Greek and I was actually dismayed by the services. In one case the language was 40% Greek, and 60% colloquial English, and in the other case it was 100% Colloquial English with a few Kyrie Eleison’s. I spoke to one priest and said, “the heart of English worship is closer to the Book of Common Prayer than anything I’m hearing here.” He basically told me I had the wrong attitude. The heart wants what the heart wants though, and I missed the language of worship I had been introduced to in the Antiochian Church I had started in. I am still struggling with finding an Orthodox community for this reason, and my wife once again, has turned cold to Orthodox faith.

    Thank God for blogs such as this, and the writings of others that do speak to me. I may remain Protestant, but my soul continues to be enriched.

    Lord Have Mercy.

  71. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Byron I know what you mean. My father’s family and my brother have lived in and/or near ‘Amish’ country for generations. And at least from the outside looking in, there seems to be a kind of peace on their farms. I once walked up to a farm stand and bought vegetables and hand made items while talking to the children who ‘manned’ the stand. Their conversation was pleasant and the pace was slow.

  72. Dino Avatar

    *His priest laughed when he told him about it and explained that Italians never approached rules in that way. The severe conscience of a Calvinist, for example, is not just a denominational thing – it’s also rooted in deeper aspects of culture that have to be taken account of.”
    This is very pertinent indeed…!
    The ease with which a Mediterranean will talk of heroic stuff is of quite a different mode.
    Perhaps this is why a common occurrence in British or German families that have married Greek ones is that they take the Greek maximalism of expression or the shouting as if it was the same as a British maximalism or a German shouting – which they are not, and cannot understand the naturalness with which another Greek or Middle Eastern joins in with the maximalism or laughs off the shouting.
    Another thing is that the first ones cannot escape the letter of the law while the second ones are only concerned with the meaning of the law.

  73. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    There’s nothing I’d like more than ‘we all get along’.

    Generalities have their place. They are helpful in delineating similarities and differences. But if in pointing out these similarities and differences there is some hope that ‘we will all ‘just get along’ I think that person will forever be disappointed. When in the history of mankind has this ever happened?!

    There comes a time (quickly) when communication breaks down because no matter what we do, it is the differences that we can not get past. On the surface, maybe so. But to me that is a shallow existence. Yet for the sake of keeping peace we strive to just accept the differences. The “little” differences, with a semblance of ease. The “big” differences, far less easier.

    Cultural generalities quickly break down. And if the conversation is allowed to continue, words quickly become tit for tat, to prove points. Indeed, there are individual exceptions, but because the generalities are so very true and can not be changed, nor should we expect them to change, we are left with… what? Well, within the Church, we see what we are left with.

    Mankind has not quite been able to fully overcome cultural differences simply because when it comes down to it we can not understand what it is to live, breath, and be formed by another culture other than our own. We compare, but the comparison is largely one-sided.

    It is one thing live among various cultures and be influenced by them. It is another thing to live in their shoes where train of thought comes as natural as breathing. It seems that the best we can do is criticize kindly.

    So here we are in “the Church”. Can we deny that there is cultural division, and even contention, within the Body of Christ? Some say this is impossible, because there is no separation in Christ. Well, someone is going to have to explain why then is it so obvious that there is division. Is it that we are still in the process of becoming ‘fully human’, as Christ was? This seems to frequently be the answer to difficult questions. I think it is true. And I think we are just going to have to strive, as St Paul says, to live with each other as peaceably as possible.

    After repeated attempts to ‘get along’ with some people, it is best for me to stay at arms length rather than think I have the ability to overcome the division. I have not yet acquired that ability. It is a weakness that I would rather not have. I have intentionally separated myself (moving 2000 miles away) from crowds and city life. But that separation does in no way heal the division that runs through my heart. It just makes it easier to deal with. One less pain, only to be replaced by another…separation. It is crazy.

    The “NY” in me has experienced the divisions in the multitude of neighborhoods throughout the city. Ironically, it is in these divisions that some semblance of peace is maintained. I say semblance because the closeness in city life and the unavoidable mixing of cultures creates a tension that frequently flares into violence that smolders deep within the heart.

    Well…I don’t know…
    these are the thoughts that I muse over after reading Father’s and Dino’s comments. It goes much deeper than just saying one culture abides by the letter of the law and the other its meaning!
    I still pray for the healing of the schisms of the churches…the healing of our very hearts…God please!

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have a beautiful piece of polished rose quartz my wife gave me. It fits comfortably in my hand. When I hold it, I encounter the energies of God in and through the stone. The stone has a particular set of those energies made easier to experience by the polishing that are unique to it but they still come from God. Holding it makes it easier to pray and be at peace.

    True theology is founded on such encounters and they are indeed in and through every created thing. Ultimately we are led to an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ often only through our existential pain.

    Father, I would say that your statement that Jesus is opaque is not quite right. He is just so present that He overwhelms our capacity to discern Him. He who has eyes to see….

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I did not say that Jesus is opaque. I said that certain things about Him (and the universe) are opaque when not seen through His Pascha. Also, to say that something is “opaque” does not mean that it cannot be seen at all. But the “shape” of the universe is not discernible by itself – apart from Christ’s Pascha. That is the key, always.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not really all that bad. We are, after all, Orthodox Christians who are merely understanding how various cultures refract and reflect the gospel of Christ. Interestingly, it was not until I was plunged into the cultural diversity of Orthodoxy that I began to see just how “Anglo” I am, and to be able to understand how that impacts my life in Christ. These differences, interestingly, were at the heart of the first controversy of the Church when the Apostles appointed Deacons to be sure the widows of the Greek-speaking parts of the community were not being neglected. All of those first 7 deacons had Greek names. Pentecost is a miracle, and it is ongoing. The miracle, however, was not that everyone understood a new, common language. The miracle was that everyone heard the gospel being spoken in their own language.

    The miracle of Pentecost, for a writer, includes working to see that we understand one another. It’s possible – though difficult.

    My book has been translated into Russian and is to be published this October in Moscow. There were a few changes in the final chapter based not on words, but on a cultural experience with “lists” (the Russians are, I take it, becoming wary of them). Same book – but changes needed to be made in a sensitive way so that it would actually say what I actually meant. As it is, I’m eager to see a copy to find out what I said in Russian. 🙂

  77. Dino Avatar

    I really don’t see the conversation as a tit for tat but as a heart warming, courteous, constructive and fruitful exchange. I deeply appreciate it.
    I think Father Stephen has been clear before about the importance of the Greek
    /Eastern culture being the cradle of Christianity and I have also been unequivocal of a my deep interest in Father’s perspicuity and charisma regarding the considerate manner in which to approach all the other cultures.
    (inevitably we live iunder an English speaking global influence)
    Any more positive an exchange than ours would be a total echo-chamber!

  78. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Well Father, no sooner than reading your very first sentence, a much welcome smile and laugh came upon me! Sorry, I just get so distressed when the same issues are hashed and rehashed on the blog…oh I wish I had your patience! I think we’re going to be rehashing until Christ comes again!

    It is true, upon entering Orthodoxy, I did not know how western I was! And Italian…oh you have no idea how set apart we are from the English and Russians. Passion is our favorite pastime! Now the Greek…we have a lot in common with. I know that from my godmother! And that is exactly why we butted heads. Thank God we got over that…but there had to be a bit of distance in order for peace. Oh well….

    Very good point about the 7 deacons and later, Pentecost. What you say here put me heart at ease Father:
    “The miracle, however, was not that everyone understood a new, common language. The miracle was that everyone heard the gospel being spoken in their own language.”
    You got it! Exactly! And indeed this Pentecost is still ongoing…thank the Lord above it came to the United States of America…a miracle indeed it has taken hold! We’re not about to let go either!

    So glad to hear the “Russian version” of your book will finally be out next month. I am not sure what you mean by the “lists” they are wary of, but the adjustment that had to be made, I trust didn’t change the message of your book. As you said, you’ll see how the wording needed to change but the message still heard!

    Thank you Father…very kindly.

  79. Victoria Avatar

    Dino – this comment of yours

    Perhaps this is why a common occurrence in British or German families that have married Greek ones is that they take the Greek maximalism of expression or the shouting as if it was the same as a British maximalism or a German shouting – which they are not, and cannot understand the naturalness with which another Greek or Middle Eastern joins in with the maximalism or laughs off the shouting.
    Another thing is that the first ones cannot escape the letter of the law while the second ones are only concerned with the meaning of the law.

    As a child of German immigrants married to a man of Greek immigrants I laughed so hard at this .. because totally one hundred percent true. Though I can say now that after 22 years of marriage he is a bit more German and I am a bit more Greek ::: hopefully in only the best of ways.

    Also I have a friend who is native Greek who I have come to appreciate a lot – and he speaks in this hyperbolic language occasionally when discussing the Saints and other matters of Faith.

    What I’ve noticed is that even for second and third generation American Greek Orthodox it is a language that can give them a challenge and they may buck against it. I. Don’t really have an explanation for why it does not bother me (for the most part). I find the loftiness of it all a way of speaking I respond to – even if I fail at my pursuit of the goal. But I also understand how it can discourage others.

    And Father Stephen taking that holistic approach is quite Orthodox and very holistic – treating each in their individuality.

    I’ve enjoyed reading all these comment threads.

  80. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yes i did see the current exchange as courteous. But I have a memory. I remember the contention and the allegiances, and the monastics vs the ‘regular people’ and so forth. I have also noticed some commenters have since then gone. It would be incredulous if you said that you didn’t see these things. These memories, like a bad dream, was what steamrolled into my last comment.

    Not to mention, it is my understanding that Mediterranean cultures, those in the Levant along with influence of the Greeks, were the cradle of Christianity. Still, the Church of the East would argue against that statement, saying no! the cradle was them many centuries before. Meh….!

    Ok, deep breaths….and more laughs 🙂

  81. Dean Avatar

    “I’m just an Okie from Muskogee.” Well, not quite but my parents are from the Ozarks and we drove through most of Oklahoma this summer…beautiful people and state! I grew up with mostly people from the South, then with lots of midwestern Mennonites. Now, years later, at the monastery, we are with Greeks, Russians, Romanians, etc. It is spiritually refreshing for me! Oh, and we’ve lived in Mexico. I don’t want to see these cultural differences obliterated. They are like a smorgasbord of good foods, made tastier as the flavors play off one another. 🤗

  82. Dino Avatar

    I don’t see these things at all. Perhaps, despite occasional binges, I’m far, far less involved with what goes on here than appearances..
    Real life contentions and allegiances (of the head) are certainly more obvious on the other hand, and yet, still do not – or should not – perturb the heart.

  83. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Alright Dino….I am not surprised in the least in your response. Be that as it may, I will leave it at that.
    Moving right along…..

  84. Christopher Avatar

    “We are set between Scylla and Charybdis. One the one hand is an ignorant zeal without substance, on the other hand is an actual liberal band (small but still there)who would suggest a modernization of the faith. ”

    My experience/judgement is such that I put these two ontologies on the same side – two sides of the same coin. Both are the peculiar Orthodox instance and continuation of a very anglo and old dialectic, the either/or of “Christ with culture” or “Christ against culture”. On the other side I would put what Fr. Schemman explicated as ‘ethnic’ Orthodoxy, though I think this includes a kind of “church-culture of the east” – all the habits and even ecclesiology that simply “worked” in the traditional and organically Christian post-Constantine cultures of Byzantium and the Slavic lands for more than a millenium. This eastern church culture/habit/ecclesiology has simply been picked up (as if by a giant) and *plopped* right into the middle of NA anglo culture – onion domes and all – and we wonder why it feels so incongruent to the heart and soul, and why it largely has not “worked” in the sense of what a cult and culture is supposed to do organically: create and live a life that is passed on from one generation to the next.

    Of these two failure paths, the ethnic one tends to endure longer because in each parish there are 4 or 5 core families that manage to pass on a culture (which itself is a strange easter/western hybrid) despite the secular pressure around them. The other ends up being what one person described as a “revolving door middle age Orthodox convert book club”. Yet even here the ethnic path is always but one generation from annihilation, which is to say absorption into being fully “american” and secular in heart and mind.

    As we have talked about here before, Orthodoxy in America (not the jurisdiction) has yet to even truly grasp the outlines of its existential situation, let alone begun to live a real and lasting organic life ‘in’ it. As Matthew W above notes above, even our translation/liturgical efforts reflect this deeper and haphazard approach that reveals that we really don’t know quite what to do. If you stand in a Tradition that understands *and lives* the difference between a nominalist and realist account of language and meaning, what would possess you to pick up and use “colloquial” English? The answer appears to be this ambivalence and naivete towards the dominant culture.

    So, as I age and raise children in this nascent NA Orthodoxy, I admit that perhaps I am leaning towards a mediterranean sense of speaking and thinking about all this. I have seen the middle age convert book club members come and go, children rarely if ever to be seen. On the other hand both those from an ethnic or “evangelical” back story tend to endure, and their children are often Orthodox in adulthood (not that there are not failures). I am more and more weary of a “big tent” approach of so much of Orthodox intelligentsia and hierarchy – a reliance on a kind of eastern church culture/momentum that assumes an organic Christian village culture behind it and is quite obviously not there.

    In any case, all this is difficult to even frame correctly. I give thanks for all the not Orthodox yet Christian support my wife and I get in raising our children, such as the local RC school and our swim team mostly populated with home-schooled evangelical families. It takes a multi-denominational village 😉

  85. Sophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    You have repeatedly mentioned that the end of modernity will be marked by terrible times. What do you think the nature of those terrible times will be? I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I have a hard time conceiving of brutality worse than what occurred in the 20th century, or our current abortion holocaust. I will continue to pray for our repentance, but I’m afraid that as we grow increasingly beastly without God, the times will be too much to bear.

    Thank you for yet another wonderful post. Anyone who has thoughts, please chime in. I love reading everyone’s comments!

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that the Scriptural descriptions and images of the End Times are, I think, a pattern for how very “large” things end and collapse. As one old saw has it, “It’s not the end times, but it rhymes with it.” Some of that simply has to do when there is a fundamental breakdown of structures. There are a number of social structures that provide stability and resilience to a culture. Modernity is an inherently unstable model because it thinks nothing about assaulting and constantly changing the most fundamental things – such as the extended family. When those stabilizing structures are not present a culture has a difficult time responding to the sort of natural pressures that every culture eventually encounters – wars, natural disasters, economic collapse, etc.

    When the Soviet Union collapsed – there was a measure of chaos that ensued (in the early 90’s). Putin’s genius, if you will, was to put in place some stabilizing laws and turned to the Church for a cultural renaissance. They have a long way to go – and they have received no help from the Western powers (quite the contrary). But the society did not go into the free fall that threatened to occur.

    I cannot predict these things (I’m not a prophet). But I believe that you cannot violate certain natural principles without consequences eventually catching up. I would love to be wrong. I suspect that our collapse will start in the economic world – if it does, it’ll be far larger than the US. Of course, whenever it happens, it won’t look like what any of us were expecting. We must remember in all of these things, that God is at work in His Providence despite any sins on our part.

  87. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    It is interesting what you say about the Soviet Union, Putin and the Church. Very smart man. Looks like God spared them from the worst.
    It is terrible how the west turns their back on them. Always looks at them as the enemy. There, our brothers and sisters…to whom your book is being presented.
    It is true that when the foundation has crumbled there is nothing to hold fast in the storms. And as you say, it will be nothing like we would expect. That’s what Christ said would happen.
    Thanks also for the encouraging words about God’s Providence.

    Just want to say, God bless you. Hold tight to Him! Many times I have to tell myself that too!

  88. Chris Avatar

    Despite my genuine intention not to, I am back with another post.

    I am mainly doing this because I felt prompted to by some connections made between four things that linked up in an odd way, for me. I am mainly articulating those for myself here, including for future reference. But as several of them were prompted by things in this post and comments, I feel I should share them in case they are of any interest or use, and as a kind of courtesy if that makes sense. But if they aren’t or are mistaken, I hope it does not cause offence, or lead to further shaking of heads about my “presuppositions.” If so, I apologise in advance. I am hoping that you’ll take it in that spirit, and in case the Spirit has some hand here.

    The first prompt was Laurie’s really excellent question “what is the alternative to “modernity”? I hear a lot of criticisms of modern life, but very rarely a meaningful alternative.” That’s the trick isn’t it, to come up with a meandingful (in all senses) response? Per my previous posts, there are lots of things about modernity that have brought us blessings (medicine, material abundance to name but two), but yes the price has been high with much that happens increasingly feeling like so much just like chaff blowing on the wind.

    The second prompt was this article that appeared in my inbox this morning https://aeon.co/ideas/lets-bring-back-the-sabbath-as-a-radical-act-against-total-work . While perhaps a little light on, the article did remind of a few things about the Sabbath and got me thinking of a few more things about it (further to my musings a couple of articles ago – more below). It is indeed interesting to ponder on the broader economic and social impacts of the Sabbath and how when taken seriously it can, and did, help shape a culture. I had not considered how the commandment to observe it might have helped a culture that was trying to leave slavery reform itself (with perhaps the corollary that if we can’t observe it then we slip back into slavery?). This paragraph in particular resonated as showing what the opposite of Fr Stephen’s summary of modernity in an earlier comment might look like:

    “There was a reason the fourth commandment came where it did, bridging the commandments on how humans should relate to God with the commandments on how humans should relate to one another. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out in his book Sabbath as Resistance (2014), a pharaonic economy driven by anxiety begets violence, dishonesty, jealousy, theft, the commodification of sex and familial alienation. None of these had a place in the Torahic economy, which was driven not by anxiety but by wholeness, enoughness. In such a society, there was no need to murder, covet, lie, commit adultery or dishonour one’s parents.”

    And I had forgotten about the link between the Sabbath and those other odd-seeming rules about letting the fields rest every seventh year, and forgiving all debts every 50. As the author said, it is doubtful whether they were applied even in ancient Israel, but wow what a different culture and economy we would have if those rules did apply! And what a vision. I liked his conclusion too: “ It is time for us, whatever our religious beliefs, to see the Sabbatarian laws of old not as backward and pharisaical, but rather as the liberatory statements they were meant to be. It is time to ask what our society would look like if it made room for a new Sabbath – or, to put it a different way, what our society would need to look like for the Sabbath to be possible.”

    Which in turn led to my third prompt, which was to recall that passage from Isaiah (58:13-14) that I commented on in a previous post.:

    “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
    if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
    if you honour it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
    then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
    I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

    This has now started to speak to me even more strongly partly due to the previous two prompts. I now wonder whether it is perhaps telling us that our ability as a society to take delight in the Lord, and to enjoy our heritage (including the justice and righteousness elements referred to in Isaiah’s preceding section verses 9-12) is indeed linked very strongly to a having a rightly formed sabbaotical sensibility.

    The fourth prompt is simply to note that Fr Stephen and his wife’s own renewed musings on the shape and significance of nature (lower case n!) have happened while they were on vacation. Which suggests to me the rather joyous thing that can occur when we – in a good spirit – take time out from our normal routines, but do not forget the Lord and just start to look with real attention.

    Putting all of this together I am wondering whether maybe one of the responses I might make to modernity (in the spirit of thinking about Laurie’s question) is to try and re-establish a proper observance of the Sabbath. This paragraph from that Aeon article hit home personally: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.’ The commandment smacks of obsolete puritanism – the shuttered liquor store, the cheque sitting in a darkened post office. We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.” Yep, that’s been me. I did smile though remembering Dean’s observation from a couple of posts ago about his obviously still vivid recollection of his visit to Talladega Al. in the 1960s and how all the commercial lights were out by 9 and what a different world that was. From the article again: “The Sabbath was desacralised into the weekend, and this desacralisation paved the way for the disappearance of the weekend altogether”. The hollowing out pattern of modernity at work at work again …

    I am thinking that if I indeed had one day a week which I SERIOUSLY put aside from all things electronic (internet and TV at the top of the list), all vapid pursuits, and tried to make that a serious time of sustained attentiveness and quiet (in other words to try and sacramentalise this time) this might indeed have a transformative and cut-through-against-modernism-in-me effect. I have had a similar thought before but not acted on it, or at least for long or with much seriousness. But that’s the point of the commandment isn’t it – we are being asked to take it seriously? It is not a “thou shalt not” style of commandment, it is a rather open-ended and positively framed one (“keep the Sabbbath holy”) which is arguably harder to do than the “thou shalt nots” because we have to think about it and engage in what holy means in the context. Which maybe reinforces why in our post-Christ time this is one of those commandments that is clearly revealed to be for our benefit rather (and because it is part of true Nature) than as a rule that has to be observed.. It’s odd though that I rather suspect it is the one commandment that most Christians (or at least slack ones like me) would probably have the hardest time recalling if they were asked on a quiz show to list them …

    The transformative effect might not just be on me, but perhaps forms a key part of a conscious response to modernity without going full on Amish or Mennonite or monastic. Perhaps I could think about it as “Amish one day in seven”? And the broader transformative effect might come about as I put it into practice because (a bit like I find fasting does) it must bump up against people in the wider culture who are sometimes intrigued by what one is doing (“why aren’t you answering your emails today?”), and interesting conversations might then occur. In fact, I am pretty sure that if I said my household had a one day in seven electronics free day where everyone had to find wholesome things to do policy, there would be vigorous “Amen” responses from many non-religious parents that I know! So maybe a sabbaotical sensensibility might even have evangelical value. But even if that doesn’t happen, the benefit to us is still there.

    Another thing about developing a proper sabbaotical sensibility would be that to implement it healthily over time would inevitably require us to develop other aspects of ourselves. A bit like children forced to deal with a situation with no toys, (or ipads!) we would need to become more creative in finding appropriate and proper things to do with that time, in keeping with the true and sacramental spirit of the day. Healthy play and all that. And it must if done well also improve – like any kind of fasting – the other virtues including prudence, temperance, humility and modesty. On the last, I suspect one of the tricks with the Sabbath will be how to observe it oneself or as a family or community without it turning into yet more rules or as something which one can then puff oneself up about or use to bludgeon others. The misuse of the Sabbath after all was a recurrent theme in the gospel stories, and indeed must rank near the top of the list of the signs of perverted pharasaism.

    Finally. Fr Stephen’s post has helped me draw one further connection which is the value in taking time out to ponder deeply (which means not purely with the intellect) on nature and the shape of things, Now there’s a great and creative Sabbath activity. One of my current favourite OT stories is that one about Abram’s vision from Genesis 15:1-17. It starts with Abram completely inside his head, wrapped up in all of his “stuff” (about childlessness and so on) when (critical line) the Lord “brought him outside” and points him to the heavens. This sometimes gets read down as just being about the number of the descendents and so on, but I think the point is that we do need to get out of the tent and just experience the awe of creation and what it points beyond. That must be a great help in dealing with one’s own stuff and business.

    Here ends this mainly “to self” musing. Thank you to everyone who has directly or indirectly contributed. As I said at the start apologies for any incorrect (stated or inferred) presuppositions, and it’s just a one off.

  89. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I enjoyed reading your comment. Observing the Sabbath in the way you describe sounds like a good way for creating or setting a time for prayer and being with family and with the Lord. It sounds close to a daily practice I was taught.
    Among the things I was taught and encouraged to do as I was becoming a (Orthodox) Christian (and continued to do) is have a daily ‘prayer rule’. Forgive me for asking, are you familiar with this practice? For the morning prayer, one might light a candle or olive oil lamp. It is usually very early before there is much activity outside. The household is quiet. And the room is lit by that candle. The prayers are said to the Holy Spirit, to the Trinity and also ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. When I first did this and continue still, I have found an amazing peace with the Lord in this practice. I’m mentioning this only because of your musings about taking ‘time out’ for the Sabbath and considering the possibility that you might explore this practice as well, if you don’t already.

    Thank you for your musings. They are inspiring.
    And God Bless your sojourn.

  90. Dino Avatar

    Chris & Dee
    The sabaotic sense (of helping ourself through exclusive time out with God) as not a ‘dont’ (eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil) but as a ‘do’ (eat of the tree of life) has traditionally been applied to the daily rule of prayer and spiritual study. In fact I’ve heard it claimed that it should try to add up to just over 3 hours a day which is loosely a seventh of the 24 hours like the sabbath is of the 7 days.

  91. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Dino. I appreciate this saying and I’m inspired by it. Of course I’ve got a long way to go! But when I have spent such time on occasion it has been soul edifying experience in repentance and in the Lords peace.. I’m grateful for your reference to the portion of time being a seventh. I haven’t heard of it before.

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I want to underline this: “modernity” is not about technology. It is a set of ideas. It did not give us medicines, etc. It did not give us science. This common mistake is one of the errors and propaganda points of modernity itself – basically saying that unless you subscribe to its ideas you’ve betrayed science and medicine.

    I say this repeatedly, and yet it is not heard. I suspect people do not notice.

    Also, reshaping society, “fixing it,” is pretty much a modern idea. It is our drive to constantly fix things that is part of our problem. A sabbath life might include not trying to manage the world and instead trying to live.

  93. Nikolaos Avatar

    In celebrating the feast of birth of the Mother of God, we are also mindful of the religious modernity that attempts to “fix” what Tradition has offered us.

    From ideas like the Immaculate Conception, as if the Mother of all Christians was not borne of two mortals, to the extreme Jewish loving Protestantism of having no place for her at all, as if the Jewish nation was not chosen solely because it bore her into the world.

    Let’s remain steadfast in the balanced middle of the Orthodox veneration of the Birthgiver of God and all the Saints.

  94. Byron Avatar

    A bit like children forced to deal with a situation with no toys, (or ipads!) we would need to become more creative in finding appropriate and proper things to do with that time

    Chris, this is one of the hardest things to do in a culture that insists on constant entertainment, movement, and excitement. Filling the time gained when it suddenly becomes free is more than just difficult, it is despairing. We tend to think in terms of “doing” and having extra time becomes a burden. Father has written on the need to develop “stillness”; this goes hand in hand with your observation for the need to remember the Sabbath. The change to our culture would have to be immeasurably large for this to occur. It is good, however, to work for that change in our own hearts. It creates a noticeable difference in our lives.

    Dee, one of the things a group at our parish did during last Lent was to pray for an hour each night. It was surprisingly not as difficult as expected (it incorporated scripture reading and recitation of the Jesus Prayer) and I personally found it very uplifting in my heart.

  95. Ivan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your patience as many of us (as you noted) struggle to comprehend your critique of modernity. It’s something I work on by re-reading your writing and doing simple experiments (for example, what would it be like if I prayed with no modern-type worries in my mind?). It is probably much harder for younger generations of readers to understand your words about pre-modern times and the earlier era that you say ended about 70 years ago. I still struggle with the idea that modernity is somehow much better, savvier, and smarter [like a gadget 😉 ], even though your critique makes so much sense. A big part of this is the fear of loss of convenience and safety that is associated with modernity in its marketing. The modern promise, ironically, is of a happier, easier life, but really it sacrifices living things for worldly gain. It is difficult for me to disengage from the marketing of modernity because it is so existential and deeply rooted in my education (which is ongoing). Your competition, so to speak, has a huge advantage through the education system and popular culture.

    However, in my political science course studying globalization, my professor and some students are basically saying similar things as you and the commenters on this blog say. Those who care to study the modern and post-modern world are much more thoughtful about how we organize our society and aware of the possibility of a more traditional way of life. But this is a small course, with few students enrolled.

    Your mentioning of your book’s translation reminds me to re-read your book sometime, which is essential to understand what you say here. I hope the Russian translation will be available in the U.S. as well- is this the case? I mean that there are Russophone readers in America and around the world, not only in Russia itself, who would prefer to read your book in Russian.

    Finally, I am intrigued by your second book (the one in progress). Could you please share its topic or title?

  96. Ivan Avatar

    I have noticed that Orthodox teachings, such as on this blog, affect my inner person. It is difficult to describe, but I feel much better concentration and piety when I pray these days after studying theology a lot over the last two years. This learning was not easy, but I knew it was necessary to understand God’s Will and what my faith is about (I was baptized three years ago). Theology affects the heart, not only the mind, and right theology heals and disciplines a person. So I feel very grateful for how sweet God’s love feels when I pray the Jesus Prayer, especially tonight.

    The community of this blog has helped me to deepen my faith in Jesus Christ, and one metric of this is a gradual ability to pray for longer periods of time. I do not mean to boast, rather I know that God’s grace belongs to God and I am humbled by it. It’s just really satisfying and meaningful to pray better over time – I see this as evidence that my education is going well, and I hope everyone else here finds his/her own theological healing in Orthodox life.

  97. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The critique of modernity has been around, in one form or another, almost as long as modernity itself. It has increased in certain academic circles in the last half-century or so. I was first exposed to this when I was in grad school after seminary. I was studying theology, but there were many disciplines and Christians traditions present – a very lively debate and conversation in a relatively safe environment. We would study, write, argue, and then drink and start over!

    I was beginning a very serious study of Orthodox thought at the time and found that there was a strong resonance between essential Orthodox teaching and certain elements within the critique of modernity. In fact, I would say that, since Orthodoxy is just about the only “traditional” form of Christianity still in existence, it has a unique place and possible role to play in understanding the problems of modernity and how we might live in a different manner.

    Modernity, primarily because of its concentrated commercial success and its drive towards individualism and maximization of pleasure, is undoubtedly the strongest challenge that traditional Christianity has ever faced. Communism was a version of modernity, but deeply flawed. It could brutally suppress traditional Christianity, but its brutality was also its weakness. At the height of the Soviet Union, Church attendance there was about the same percentage of the population as you would have found in France. Capitalist modernity is far more effective at destroying the faith.

    That being the case, I would suggest that understanding all of this and thinking carefully about it, is an essential task for Orthodox thought in the present time. It’s happening here and there – not nearly on the level that it should. I sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness. When I read modernism disguised as Orthodoxy (for example in the work coming out of the Orthodox studies program at Fordham) I see the deadliest threat – with the most innocent of intentions. Modernity is death to Christianity (given time). It is, in some ways, the anti-Christ. The imagery of the Great Whore of Babylon in Revelations is highly commercial in its description. Christ has more to say in his warnings about wealth than about anything else. Sex is a child’s toy when compared to the dangers of wealth. But it is still the case that Orthodox Christians, including its authorities, will pay great respect to the “successful” and the “wealthy.” We should pray that none of our children ever become rich.

    But, there is so much to say, and I’ll keep saying it as God gives me years. I’m working on an article about modernity and technology that I hope to finish this week.


  98. Chris Avatar


    You have tempted me to comment again. Mainly that’s because you have helped me draw another link. So thank you. Here’s where I’m at.

    I remember reading somewhere that Evagrius said that acedia was the most difficult of all the passions to deal with. Certainly the noonday demon in full flight is a pretty scary beast, particularly when it is turning to full blown depression and giving upp-edness. But it is tendrils run deep: I also think I read somewhere that acedia can be seen as the source of, or at least heavily implicated in, all of the other passions. It is precisely because we can’t settle that we start going searching out other ways to scratch our psychic itches, which then opens the door to, and helps amplify the effect of all the other passions. “Oh, I’m bored, let’s go somewhere more interesting – maybe the shopping mall” “Oh that person is much more attractive than my current spouse”. “Oh the world is in a terrible mess, let’s go and get angry about it (thereby projecting the restlessness outwards, or seek power so we can do something about it”, or even “this spiritual path is not giving me the results I wanted in the way I anticipated so it must be the fault of my teachers or the discipline, let’s go elsewhere”. or just “where’s my iphone I need to check my emails or my social media status” Etc.

    It is deeply ironic that acedia is the one passion out of Evagrius’ original eight that pretty much no one outside Christianity (and indeed many inside as far as I can tell) has ever even heard of, let along pays much heed. And Catholicism seemed fairly early on to dumb it down to the more easily comprehended idea of sloth, which to my mind is something real and bad, but different.

    Which is very odd because surely it is acedia that is the besetting root passion behind much of modernity? Things are never good enough or right enough or settled enough. Or things would only be better if only … Consumerism mainly works I feel by feeding the demon of acedia first – make them dissatisfied with who they are and what they’ve got, then ping them with something that offers a ‘solution’. (Mind you, that does seem to have been the pitch of the serpent to Eve right at the start, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised!)

    It is hard to see acedia (or indeed any of those subtler – but IMO the most powerful – demons like shame or resentment) at work in one’s self unless one tries to be still (as Dee suggested). It only becomes obvious when symptoms develop like the form of a total inability to settle, and then later depression (the noonday demon in full flight) and the whole giving up thing. Which is maybe one reason Abba Moses said “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”? And because of the risks of that perhaps why doing stuff in community is so important?

    So yes, settling and stillness must indeed be a central reason why we were told to keep the Sabbath holy, and it must indeed be central to the whole aim of trying of keeping it holy.

    And Dee, yes I do have a prayer practice that aims to help with this. I try and say the Jesus Prayer (or sometimes just maranatha) for 30 minutes in the mornings and evenings and do this as a discipline. That said I am not very good at it. Acedia is certainly one of my my central besetting passions. (Although the full pantheon are very much alive and well, alas.) Your practice sounds better (especially the candle in the darkness), I have to say, so thank you for sharing it (but I hope that is not just acedia doing it’s “here’s a new bright shiny thing over here” kind of thing though). If only I could indeed get it up to Dino’s 3 hours a day, which is indeed a interesting and helpful thing to have learned.

    I also once remember hearing someone say (can’t remember where or when) something along the lines of “many religious people want to achieve union with God, but most of us can’t think of what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Hmmm.

    Again, mainly a musing to self which I’m sharing in case it’s of use, but mainly because I’m grateful.

  99. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father Stephen I’m grateful that you returned the discussion to modernity. There are so many aspects that are invisible to us. Among them is the relegation of the life of faith, living in communion with God as an imaginative, psychological state. And the life in God is an abstraction —an idea subject to argumentation. I have enjoyed your saying that one can’t argue ‘with gravity’. And yet ironically gravity also is subject to argument, at least in some circles.

    And Orthodox Christianity offers a very physical antidote. Worshipping God, and venerating the cross and the saints physically. Candles, bowing, prostrations, kissing the cross and icons, clergymen in beards and cossacks, women in head coverings, speaking aloud prayers with eyes upon the icon of Christ or the Theotokos, chanting, song, crossing oneself, fasts, feasts, the Church, the Altar, the Eucharist, the blessed bread and water, Liturgy and Bible readings—all flows in a current, a physical river of the Way. Christ is among us, He is and ever shall be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast