The Management of the Soul

For who knows the things of a man except the spirit of that man, which is in him? So also no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.

How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb: One. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

I like lightbulb jokes. Occasionally, as in the example above, they contain wisdom as well as humor. There was once a famous ad that said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It’s also a really hard thing to fix. Even when someone really wants to be well, the path from neurotic illness (or worse) to something better can be difficult and slow. There is no “hood” (“bonnet” if you’re English) that can be lifted so that the nuts and bolts of a mechanism can be adjusted. The complex of chemicals, electrical signals, and things for which we have no words or science do not yield themselves to easy understanding, much less management. Those who work in mental health fields do their work based on similarities between cases. But, since every human being is unique, this process never reaches the level of a “refined” science. Sometimes it works. Sometimes one therapist can do a good job while another cannot, even when they agree on the diagnosis. It’s hard work.

The spiritual life carries even greater difficulties. That which takes place in our lives is, in its greatest part, a work of grace. The smallest part is the “yes” we offer to God. But even this tends to over simplify the mystery of salvation. Frequently, we look at our spiritual lives as if we knew what was “supposed” to be going on. When (or if) it fails to appear, we assume we have done something wrong, or that God is not cooperating, etc. We imagine theosis to be observable and measurable. Perhaps so, but often not.

In the lives of saints (depending on who writes them), we can of miracles and dramatic signs of grace. Frequently, such things are extrapolated to our own lives – and we despair. For fifteen years, St. Silouan endured an emptiness and torment of soul that would make a deep depression seem but a minor thing. There are interviews with monks who lived in the same monastery and thought there to be nothing special about him. One boasted of drinking with him from time to time (not a sin). Seen from the outside, St. Silouan was just an average monk. And, if seen from St. Silouan’s own point of view, he could have been judged a psychological mess. But, we understand in the reality of hindsight and all that has made known since, he was among the greater saints of the 20th century.

The ”hidden work” that God accomplishes in the lives of many saints is not some secret which the saint keeps from the rest of us – it is a secret hidden from the saint as well. St. Silouan’s fifteen-year spiritual torment followed an unguarded statement by a confessor who marveled as his spiritual achievements! The least helpful thing in Silouan’s life was to be made aware of what was being done within him.

We are the culture of “selfies.” We not only want to see how we look, we want to know how we’re doing. We analyze ourselves, measure ourselves, compare ourselves, judge ourselves, in all of which we imagine ourselves to be doing something useful. Modernity is dominated by the image of progress. We have internalized this notion and made it the model and form of our self-awareness.

In 1922, the Frenchman, Émile Coué, proposed the phrase, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” (“Tous les jours, à tous points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”). It remains a popular mantra for self-help gurus. It may or may not be true. The notion is that auto-suggestion can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is modernity as prayer.

This same mantra could be taken as a parody of how some view the work of theosis. We do well to take warning from St. Silouan’s single experience of praise for his spiritual life. I do not mean that we do not need encouragement – we do. But awareness of our “progress” is likely to be worse than deadly. The spiritual life, and particularly that which we call theosis, cannot and must not be measured or compared. It is Peter walking on the water. Everything is fine until you notice that you’re walking on water!

How would we measure theosis, were we to undertake something so foolhardy? Would it be by noting that we “sin less?” Strangely, I can think of no saint whose self-awareness is described as “sinning less.” It’s always quite the opposite. I could imagine the suggestion that theosis be measured by whether we know God more. But, given that the knowledge of God is infinite, “more,” is an almost meaningless concept. In truth, there are no measures in these matters. The notion of “progress” in theosis is simply the wrong question.

There is, of course, St. Paul’s image:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor. 3:18)

This is easily pulled out of context and placed in an imaginary progressive setting. Instead, we should read the whole passage and see St. Paul’s complete meditation.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2Cor. 4:6-12)

The “treasure” of this glory is found in “jars of clay.” Indeed, “Death is at work in us.” Paul describes something that can only be seen when the “veil” is removed. That veil remains in place for those who see and judge according to an outward standard. To a large extent, we ourselves are often more aware of the clay jars than the treasure they contain.

In my experience as a confessor over the years, I have seen no good come from trying to judge or measure progress in our lives. In a culture that is enthralled to the “self” (a false construct if ever there was one), it is almost certain that the attention we give to perceiving progress is nothing more than feeding an inner delusion. In blunt terms, “Who cares?”

The proper attention of the spiritual life is God as we know Him in the face of Jesus Christ. On a primary level, this attention is expressed as we keep the commandments given to us by Christ.

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Jn 14:21

This is not an approach to God through “the law.” The commandments of Christ are a true icon of Christ. All that He asks of us – love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy – are images of His own character and face. He can be seen “in the least of these my brothers.” But the question, “I am loving my neighbor/enemy more?” is beside the point, a nurturing of a false consciousness. Love them now. Everything else is vanity.

Our culture forms and shapes in each of us the heart of a “manager.” We want to control, to shape, to predict, to compare, to direct, etc. Such a heart has a habit of reducing its world to the things that can be controlled, shaped, predicted, compared and directed. It diminishes human beings as well as the world in which we live. It has no place in the life of the soul.





About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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72 responses to “The Management of the Soul”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Such a heart has a habit of reducing its world to the things that can be controlled, shaped, predicted, compared and directed. It diminishes human beings as well as the world in which we live.

    Thank you, Father. Would it be correct to say that in this way we diminish our brothers to only those which we can control via immediacy? Is it correct to say that this reflects the importance of our prayers? That we must pray for those we cannot reach (in immediacy), knowing they are out of our control so we must give them to God?

  2. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I know that the work of God is hidden within us. I certainly can see no progress in my soul. I realize that sin still rears its ugly head in me. Knowing what you wrote, what does St. Paul mean when he writes, “What we pray for is your improvement”? 2Cor.13:9 Do we pray for another’s sanctification, improvement, though we may never actually see it, even though we rub shoulders with that person every day?

  3. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Love your example of the dire results of mapping our progress, “It is Peter walking on the water”. A picture worth a thousand words!
    It is as futile as cowboys trying to herd a great many cats. Another picture worth a thousand words!

    Thanks Father for this theme on the soul.

  4. Elias Avatar

    The Human Potential Movement comes to mind, along with the Self Actualizing New Age Spiritual Boom of the 70s here in California. Mix in a bit of Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand and the unfettered fervor of creative self supporting autonomy and you can begin to see the origins of the new Religion of Scalability born in the West. Somewhere in the last 30 years the Athanasius vision of “For the Son of God became man so that we might become god (little G).” Has been over shadowed by the Stewart Brand message of “We are as Gods (capital G) and might as well get good at it.” It has taken me years of repentance, failure and Gods mercy to find the real grace in the limitations. Thank you Father for continuing to chip away in love and truth.

  5. nancy Avatar

    I thought we were just supposed to get up every morning and pray that God’s will be done in our lives that day, then shut up and listen.

  6. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    good one, nancy 🙂

  7. John Avatar

    I’ll second that Paula , very pithy on Nancy’s part😊

    Yes, “…give us this day our daily bread…”

  8. Nes Avatar

    This is a helpful meditation, thank you Father.

    What do you make of verses such as:

    “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
    devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
    Compete well for the faith. ” (1 Tim 6:11)

    “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?
    Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24)

    “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1)

    In all of these verses we are admonished to think of the faith as a kind of competition, which, by its very nature is something marked by progress. How can we better understand Saint Paul in light of what you are saying here?

  9. Byron Avatar


    St. Paul admonishes us not to think of our faith as a competition but as something that requires focus and effort. He uses the example of a race–and the preparation of the athlete beforehand–to express that. It is not a marker of progress, or competition, but of preparing ourselves to receive God. We persevere, not in competing, but in self-emptying, in prayer, in love. In these things, we are “imitators of Christ, beloved children.”

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I would think so.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “improvement” is a problematic translation. “Maturation” would be my preferred rendering. Likely manifest in stability.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sounds about right.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, what is a useful and harmless metaphor in the 1st century, can be a very problematic image in the 21st. In a consumer culture of self-improvement, such imagery can be so easily abused…and, no doubt, has been. So, use with care.

  14. Chris Avatar

    Thank you again Father for another characteristically beautifully layered and precise article. And here’s the model encapsulated:

    “He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, how he does not know.” Mark 4:26-27

    I find the image, and particular that phrase ‘How he does not know’ immensely useful in many, many circumstances.

  15. Adam Avatar

    So, it sounds like there is a “maturity” towards one’s “true self” in Christ when one “grows” in the spiritual life. Can one be mindful of “non-reactivity” and “dispassion” as this “maturity” at all?

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we notice bits and pieces. What I recommend is just noting them in passing. Don’t focus on them, much less add them up. Give thanks for them. What might seem whole today may seem broken tomorrow. What we really do not see is the whole picture and the work that is being done within us. I have seen this in others, from time to time over the years. In general, it’s good to give thanks to God for it – but not follow the example of the confessor who brought such trouble on St. Silouan.

    What is going on inside us is a “hidden” work. Our lives are “apokalyptic” – something that will be revealed at the end.

    “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1Jn 3:2

    There are things “of the day” that we should attend to. This is not one of them.

  17. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Would you explain a bit on how one comment to St Silouan resulted in a fifteen-year spiritual torment? I mean, how did it affect him that this carried on for so long? Sounds pretty drastic.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was drastic. He arrived on Mt. Athos with the Jesus Prayer already settled in his heart (self-acting prayer). And with what would seem a very developed spiritual life – certainly, it was very deep in its experience.

    In his early years there, he was making confession to an elder who, without thinking, said, “If you are like this now, what will you be like in the years to come?” (or something to that effect). He was literally marveling at the young St. Silouan. It was shortly after this that he began to be plunged into a dark place – with his awareness of God being absent. He suffered terribly through it (though he remained faithful). Finally, after 15 years, he was attempting to do his prayers one night when a demon appeared in front of the icons. He called out to God in his frustration, wondering how he could possibly pray with such things happening. It was then that he heard God say, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not.”

    I strongly, without reservation, recommend the Elder Sophrony’s book, St. Silouan the Athonite. He is a saint given by God for this particular time.

  19. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh so that’s when he heard “Keep your mind in hell and despair not”. Must’ve created terrible torment. 15 years!
    Well Father, I purchased Elder Sophrony’s book long ago when I saw you recommended it. Ok then, I have now bumped it way up on the list ‘to be read’.
    Thanks Father.

  20. Bob Avatar

    What do you do with texts such as the 4 volumes of the Philokalia and St. john of the Ladder

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If you’re reading them as directions for the management of the soul, then you see them very differently than I do. I see them misused far more frequently than they’re understood. In short, I would say that those works, when rightly used, assist us in keeping the commandments of Christ. They do not teach a method for managing the soul. The sort of management I’ve described is a sort of narcissistic distraction from our proper path. I think that both of those works would support that observation.

  22. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Appreciate your comment and the reminder to treat others with care, understanding and support. Yes, for sure.

    And I have just got to say this… Pappa Stephen…now that’s the best! How endearing…

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Everyday in everyway…” sounds like Candide but Voltaire meant Candide to be sarcasm.

  24. Andrew Avatar

    This has been (and continues to be) a big struggle for me. I’m constantly questioning/worrying over my progress on the Way. What I have difficulty understanding is, If we aren’t to give these things thought, how do we know we’re on the path? How do we avoid living our entire lives thinking we’re ‘Christians’, only to end up hearing at the last “I never knew you”.

    I think this is all probably exacerbated by my experience of discovering and entering into the Church. So much I assumed and never questioned/evaluated for some 30 odd years of life was pulled out from under me. If I don’t question and evaluate my life, how do I avoid it happening again?

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    it’s interesting how our life experiences differ among us.

    I’m responding to your last question: “If I don’t question and evaluate my life, how do I avoid it happening again?” There is a difference between “question” and “evaluate” and again a difference between “evaluate” and “reflection”.

    This western culture that we have in America is very comparative. Generally we look for ways ‘to be better’, or smarter, better looking, better behavior, better spiritually. And we work to make it better and to evaluate our progress in this venture. Becoming ‘better spirituality’ was something I was introduced to and reacted against even as a young child under 10 years old. This likely happened because my mother was treated as something of an outcast in a protestant church (her background was Seminole Native American) . She subsequently stopped going and my father kept taking my brother and I until some point in my very early teens, I stopped too, after I had explored briefly various protestant denominations (they just happened to be the nearest in geography at that time) seeking something I could not find, in short, God. Much of the rhetoric in these churches was about comparing and measuring people and their spirituality, good vs bad. Although they did talk a lot about God. And certainly, I’m only describing the rhetoric of their core message, which seemed to be more of hubris than theology. But as a result of these early experiences in these churches, when I hear an Orthodox person doing this, that is, to compare ‘levels’ of progress in spirituality, it almost raises my hair on end.

    I have been taught in the Orthodox Church to reflect on my behavior and upon my heart to see whether I have sinned, and with God’s grace, repent. I’m completely inept to ‘be better’ although I try not to repeat sins I have confessed. And sometimes I do repeat sins. And that can be pretty depressing if I dwell on that. “Give us our daily bread”, in the Our Father prayer, is what I ask for daily, as Nancy says above.

    I also highly recommend St Silouan the Athonite, written by St Sophrony (as Fr Stephen mentions above).

    These are helpful words for me in Fr Stephen’s article above:

    In my experience as a confessor over the years, I have seen no good come from trying to judge or measure progress in our lives. In a culture that is enthralled to the “self” (a false construct if ever there was one), it is almost certain that the attention we give to perceiving progress is nothing more than feeding an inner delusion. In blunt terms, “Who cares?”

    Dear Fr Stephen, how does one herd cats on horseback?! What a great depiction of ‘managing the spiritual life’ (theosis)!

  26. Dino Avatar

    Thank you for this article Father. Its impossible not to think that the Holy Spirit spoke through the great and vastly influential legacy of St Silouan explaining that if you want to measure yourself (as many comments seem to ask) , [not to be the one who does the saving (which God does) but the one who does the humbling] , you cannot compare.
    I think however, that what you can gauge is the degree to which you forgive enemies, you retain joy in hardship, you respect another’s freedom and refuse to intervene and manage, you fathom that anything good you have is from grace, that if you hear of any evil in others it is what you yourself have in you already, ready to be activated the moment grace abandons you, and if the others were given even half your grace they would possibly be just as liberated of evil’s sway as you might be right now.
    That sort of stuff.
    In other words his focus on the acquisition of genuine humility in everything, his discernment against all the subtle forms that pride might shapeshift into, is a foundational theme, elevated to the position of the only reliable basis for our spiritual outlook.
    A progressive maturity & stability in joy, peace, humility, would be manifest as a ‘re-centering’… from the self to God.
    From once having said, ‘I love, I see, I feel’, (with the instability that entails) to ‘God loves, sees, feels'(with the stability that has) . A radical reorientation brought about from years of ‘training’ by God’s grace itself.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, (and Andrew)
    Yes. I recall St. Silouan essentially saying that we know God only to the extent that we love our enemies.

    I suspect we could not live without goals and such. What we are given are the commandments. Give without expecting in return. Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Etc. The “progress” we make is in humility (which is a paradox). Learning to “bear a little shame” is the image given by Silouan’s disciple, the Elder Sophrony.

    If I examine myself closely, I feel certain that I am lost and will not be saved. If I examine God closely, I feel certain that His mercy will find a way. I am certain only of God’s love and mercy.

    So, Andrew – always turn your attention to Christ Himself rather than to how you’re doing. Call on His Name. Even the thief on the Cross found paradise in a single moment. Such is the mercy of God.

  28. Beverly stinson Avatar
    Beverly stinson

    Thank you, Sir….I just happened to see this and it blessed and encouraged my heart.

  29. John Avatar

    “If I examine myself closely, I feel certain that I am lost and will not be saved. If I examine God closely, I feel certain that His mercy will find a way. I am certain only of God’s love and mercy. ”

    So true. God is the only constant we have , and else in this temporal realm is ever changing , fleeting, and degrading.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Some observations:
    In general even in the Church I am not sure salvation has any sense of immediacy or reality to it. Many people therefore ignore it even when talking about it. Two storey thinking?
    There is a tendency to make salvation either too complex or too simple. Easy to do when the reality is not recognized. Ideologies and causes replace repentance. If we do “the right thing” all will be well.
    We do not appreciate that we are contingent beings.
    The myth of progress.
    I think sometimes our thoughts on salvation follow Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. When we isolate one factor, we are unable to know other factors precisely. Yet we can know only in part and even that requires that it be revealed in our own hearts.

  31. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “If I examine myself closely, I feel certain that I am lost and will not be saved. If I examine God closely, I feel certain that His mercy will find a way. I am certain only of God’s love and mercy.”
    These words are so true Father. Repentance involves reflection, (as Dee alluded to), standing before Christ and looking at Him. This is different than examining oneself closely, as if in the mirror we see only our own reflection, apart from Him.

    Dino, you mention an abandonment of grace. That grace abandons us the moment we point fingers at the “evil” in others, since we wouldn’t know about that “evil” if it were not in our own heart. But I don’t think grace (God Himself) ever abandons us but that we “quench” His reception by turning our focus away from Him. But He doesn’t leave us there. We even pray for God to grant us repentance. Upon our “refocus” and confession, and yes, bearing a little shame and humiliation, “He gives more grace”. I know St Silouan experienced an “abandonment”, but I’d like to clarify as you have said before, it is a ‘felt’ abandonment. And pretty terrifying at that. But obviously God was still with Him. Otherwise he’d have perished. Same with us.

  32. Timothy Anderson Avatar
    Timothy Anderson

    I am uncertain about this sentence, is there a word missing? “In the lives of saints (depending on who writes them), we can of miracles and dramatic signs of grace.”

  33. Dino Avatar

    Yes I find it’s better to clarify that we are talking of a ‘felt’-grace ‘abandonement’. I know Elder Sophrony rarely makes that explicit clarification but it is fairly clear when we read the whole of his writings that he invariably implies it that way.
    Elder Joseph the Hesychast is another voice that has spoken most profoundly of this “chase of Grace” that St Silouan has.
    Both of them distinguish between the abandonment of felt-grace that is brought about through human action/inaction/misdirection etc. and the extremely rare abandonement that is permitted (again pedagogically) for no reason that came from man’s action. Of course if we could see into our future potential actions this inexplicable withdrawal might suddenly make complete and utter sense and we would actually be thankful for it. Elder Sophrony had a profound experience of this blessing in (painful) disguise in his maturer years and once his experience of God’s unsearchable providence had become a part of his being.

  34. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks Dino.
    We are thankful for the Elders to share their stories with us. They are a great help to remind us of God’s steadfast love, no matter ‘how great the darkness’. In our changeableness He is changeless. He is our solid Rock, our strength and our only hope.
    Now another thing I see in these Elders is that maturity in the faith comes about by some ‘severe’ testing, as tried by fire. So what do we say? watch what you pray for 🙂 . Yeah, I mean, it is a two-edged sword!

  35. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    John, @ 8:14 a.m.
    I didn’t see before I posted a bit later that you quoted quoted the same verse from Father’s comment! It was not an over-ride, but a unseen confirmation!
    Father…your words sure do resound with us!

  36. Andrew Avatar

    Father and Dee, thank you both for your comments. I’m without question still steeped in the mindset of “progress” even though I’ve been Orthodox for 6 years now. Lord have mercy.

  37. John Avatar

    More thoughts the merrier in the ‘agora’! I like reading another ones take on subject matter at hand. Be blest.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
  39. juliania Avatar

    This is really helpful, Father Stephen, thank you! I have always felt that even the most confirmed atheist doesn’t even ‘evaluate’ his own inner self truthfully, and to simply turn that concept on its head and say, if I can’t measure my own soul’s progress (and I can’t) how can another measure himself to me?
    ‘Always turn your attention to Christ rather than how you are doing.’ To know that you don’t know – that is very freeing!

  40. juliania Avatar

    I do have a question about Saint John Climacus though. I’d found his gradation of spiritual ascent very difficult to contemplate. However, I do remember one of the Philokalians to say that if something doesn’t speak to you, let it be and move on. And I know for myself that I certainly didn’t come into Orthodoxy having already plumbed the depths so to speak, but with one part of it leading to another (which is obviously still going on.)
    Much to learn.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m sure that some out there would argue with me about this, however…

    St. John uses this image of a ladder for the title of a book – but the book does not describe its chapters as rungs or steps going up. Gosh, the Step on Prayer doesn’t come up until the last few chapters! It is a work written by a monk for monks – urging them to strive (which is a good thing). It is, by no means, a step-by-step desert how-to towards theosis.

    It is a harmless metaphor – until put into the hands of progress-minded moderns who think everything works by progress, etc. As Elder Sophrony says, “The way up is the way down.”

    There is, doubtless, change, even improvement over the course of a Christian life. However, what we see (or can see) is infinitessimally small in comparison to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (St. Paul’s phrase). As St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “Man is mud who has been commanded to become a god.”

    We may indeed notice changes – or that certain struggles have grown easier. But the path is infinite. If one struggle is easier, then a greater one has come along. As one father said, “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath.”

    I discourage these fantasies about growth and progress primarily because, in my life as confessor and correspondent, I see so many people who wrestle with despair and frustration with false expectations driven by modernity on the one hand, and the untempered nonsense that passes for internet Orthodoxy on the other. Everybody out there’s an elder or something – at least they all seem to have lots of opinions on the spiritual life without actual experience to back it up.

    I once saw it written that we should read no more in a day than we pray. The same source reacted with alarm and despair when he learned that a new convert was reading St. Maximus. “How can you be saved?” he said.

    We read so much, understand so little, and practice even less than that. We should begin with the simple commandments of Christ. Without them, everything else is useless. All good things flow from their practice.

  42. Ivan Avatar

    I try to read Fr. Thomas Hopko’s booklet If We Confess Our Sins to review my thoughts, words, and deeds before confession. This can be done regularly, and I think the book is worth reading at least once. It’s uniquely challenging, about examining whether we follow Christ’s commandments in our lives or not. It’s not moralistic, but it does cover many ‘moral’ bases anyway. My parish priest has told the story of how reading this booklet has helped bring some long-lapsed Orthodox people back to confession and church life. I like how it includes the pre- and post- Communion prayers at the end. I think it’s resourceful enough to refer to as a simplified guide on Orthodox ethics. People do need some ethical guidance as a map of what sins matter before God.

    The irony of excess progress-measuring is that it tends to hide some sins that would be obvious to people if they were not distracted by progress. Progress can be an idol, and I noticed just this year that I forget how God’s love cannot be earned due to a difficult transactional confusion. I think people like me (I am actively working on healing from this problem, and feel ok at this point) seek to measure up to God’s standards because they are stuck in a financialistic mindset where God’s love is bought with good behavior. I suppose that in theory there must be some heresy underlying each flawed behavior, and so I wonder which heresy causes excess progress-measuring. It can be like moral bookkeeping to track merit and demerit as if God is an accountant. But Fr. Stephen has written that God is like a defense attorney, not a prosecutor, so a key idea that can help to see beyond soul management is that God is not accusing us, rather protecting us. That removes the fearful desire to keep track of one’s guilts and virtues as if one is preparing character evidence for a legal brief.

    And more deeply, God already sees everything so we do not need to duplicate His perfect observations with neurotic hypervigilance. Generosity from God means that there is no way to ‘buy a ticket to Heaven.’ Earlier today I watched a 60 Minutes video on YouTube about Mount Athos, and one of the monks said that they are earning tickets to Paradise. That seems true in the sense of acquiring God’s grace in theosis, but it mustn’t be taken in a spirituality as a business direction.

    This post’s focus on humility seems to refer back to one Paula mentioned recently (I forget when) – The Church and the Cross:

    In that post, this quote is appropriate:

    Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

    I think kenosis is ascetically social and transcends striving for acceptance or praise, while soul management is indulgently individualistic, intertwined with codependent people-pleasing (and trying to please God together with polite society as if they are one whole system). Indulging the neurotic passion of worldly fear of God, rather than loving, God-given fear of God, is a way to stay away from others. Ultimately forgiveness of sins in a group, such as in therapy, is very helpful to see that we are not saved alone. And gaining the magnanimity of soul, through humility, to not take other people’s sins too seriously helps to cheerfully forgive oneself. Self-forgiveness is crucial to healthy self-love, as Abbot Tryphon has written in his book and Ancient Faith blog, The Morning Offering.

    On the other hand, not paying attention to changes in one’s character and behavior over time would be neglecting valuable information. Spiritual warfare requires vigilance, with a balanced level of attention to personal history. Journaling briefly but regularly can be healthy. I have noticed changes in what I write in my gratitude lists over time, and it’s funny to look back on past entries.

    Maybe grace ebbs and flows in part because people’s concepts of what grace and righteousness are need practical experience to develop. Humility affects the ideas people have, so growing more humble over time means learning about spiritual life in general. As a teenager, I struggled with “anfechtung,” the term famously describing Martin Luther’s despair that he could not be forgiven by God, because I had a very pessimistic view of justice and God. I did not know forgiveness was possible until I experienced it in communion with friendly people, especially Christians. It is a holy irony that suffering trespasses and learning to forgive them has taught me to trust in God’s love’s infinite power to forgive me. This life-encompassing irony helps me to let go of the narrow-mindedness that soul management involves. I feel very grateful for God’s forgiveness, because it allows me to live and serve Him. In a sense, the continued wonderful existence of humanity despite considerable sin is “proof” of a loving, patient God, rather than a neglectful Creator or no God at all.

  43. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “…progress-measuring…can be like moral bookkeeping to track merit and demerit as if God is an accountant. But Fr. Stephen has written that God is like a defense attorney, not a prosecutor, so a key idea that can help to see beyond soul management is that God is not accusing us, rather protecting us”
    And we all know who our accuser is.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Ivan. Very helpful and clarifying.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paula, et al
    Another aspect of not measuring… Noetic perception, specifically, does not measure, compare, weigh, count, etc. Those functions belong to what I think of as the “berry-picking” part of the brain. Our culture has overdeveloped this aspect of our existence and completely neglected the noetic life. We should stop picking berries and simply concentrate on perceiving God (everywhere filling all things).

  45. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Measure, compare, weigh, count, categorize, and then manage. So true, Father, that this is the overriding mindset in our culture. The noetic so neglected that we had to be taught what that word even means, nonetheless to ‘renew the mind’ to such a way of perceiving.
    Not to be dismal about it, but I think in order to simply concentrate on perceiving God, we need recognize when we begin to over-analyse and reorient ourselves back to God. This may seem like it would be needless to say, except for the very point that excessive analysis has overridden our noetic sensibility, and so it may be difficult to recognize in the moment.
    Here we go…you said it earlier….” All good things flow from their practice.” Orient, reorient, orient, reorient…

    Thank you Father Stephen!

  46. Elisabeth Avatar

    So grateful for the conversation in this place.

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God,
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
    The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
    -Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  47. DaveS Avatar

    Father, thank you for your article. I sat down to read after prayer with St Silouan, the Panagia and Bridegroom icon. My lust for progress is the enemy of my neighbor, always throwing a wedge between us at work and church.

    I’ve noticed that progress will shut down a concert with my spiritual Father faster than anything – as soon as I say “oh I’m going to get better at this..” I can be honest or vulnerable anymore. There’s no place to go from a hypothetical hope, you are stuck there until it plays out and fizzles out.

  48. Chris Avatar

    Father, thank you for those responses to Andrew and Juliana. They are helpful (as were Andrew and Juliana’s questions and posts). Alas, seemingly as per normal they (along with your original article, and some of the other comments) have set off another chain of thoughts. I have been thinking about whether to put some of these down though in light of your very sobering comments about people who “have lots of opinions on the spiritual life without actual experience to back it up” . But a couple of them actually contain real questions, so I’ll have a go. I’ll enumerate as they tend to move around a bit. Warning – long post alert so if anyone gets fed up with these long Chris rambles please feel free to stop now!

    1. An immediate reaction to your comment to Juliana was simply to think (and then go back and reread): ‘‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matt 6:25-34)

    2. From that came the idea that all this progress and measuring business is perhaps a just a species of anxiety, a kind of nervous twitch if you will. While it probably has a number of sources, cultural conditioning is part of it, but so is that concern that Andrew expressed (and which I have also had on and off) that I might do all this striving, but it might just be misguided and at the end I might still just have missed the boat or worse, betrayed the truth. It is probably not as explicit as that normally, but it’s there. So “do not worry” IS part of all of this, surely?

    3. On the idea that at the end I might be betraying the truth, or that all my doings might be pointless, led me to thinking of St Peter. He really did, in his own bumbling way, try to do the Right Thing all along (your example is but one), only to find out that towards the end, none of it stopped him from betraying his Lord, despite his no doubt heartfelt wish not to. And the fact that this could happen pretty much destroyed him (those hauntingly over-determined two “I am nots”, his only words in St John’s version of the Passion story are SO telling). But then comes the scene in John 21 where the lonely shadows of disciples (who have all betrayed him to a greater or lesser extent when the chips were down) are out fishing, for what that was worth, only to have the risen Lord appear at dawn from the shore. While they all recognise him, none of them are willing to acknowledge that, except that Peter takes off his clothes and jumps in the water (ah, shame – and another baptism). Then, after feeding them, Jesus just asks him those three questions directed at the core of who he is (full name and all that) which are simply about love. Nothing else really matters. None of the strivings, none of the betrayals come up. They both know what has happened. And it is only because of all that that the love deepens, and then broadens. Then comes the haunting “follow me” at the end, on to the next stage of the, as you say, infinite journey. Yes, measuring ‘progress’ really does seem pretty pointless, at so many Peter-like levels, because the story can, and almost certainly will, twist and turn and even things that seem utterly devastating for us (and our notions of who we are) may turn out to be critical to our salvation. AND we never really know where the end of the story is, even if ideas about “theosis” have interim usefulness.

    4. Another thought coming from 2 above was that the whole measuring twitch thing is perhaps just the ego doing its thing. My ‘self’ sense seems increasingly to be this vaguely vampiric entity that comes into being circumstantially and contingently. While it is probably weakly there in the background most of the time, it only really fires up when stimulated. That can happen when some external stimulus occursthat requires a ‘separate being’ response. It can happen autonomously as for example when I think about “my” progress and “my salvation”. If I am just managing to pray with full attention (oh if only ‘I’ could do that more often!) then that sense of self is pretty much not there. Attention is all that matters. The sense of self is a bit of a hungry ghost though, as it is always looking to feed and will use whatever is at hand. Measuring things is wonderful food. Because measurement leads to comparison (even if it is of my former state to my current state, or to my future desired state), comparison leads to judging (indeed what is the point of measuring something it it’s not to make a judgement of some kind, unless it is simply a purely neurotic behaviour). As any form of judging takes place, a judge climbs – seen or not – up into the judging box. Guess what psychic formation thinks it’s doing judging …. ? So maybe part of the anxiety that is driving the urge to measure is just the hungry ghost of ego looking to feed?

    In saying that I liked Dino’s second comment St Siloun and in particular “his focus on the acquisition of genuine humility in everything, his discernment against all the subtle forms that pride might shapeshift into”. I think the solution that Dino outlined has to be pretty much the only way out of this conundrum “From once having said, ‘I love, I see, I feel’, (with the instability that entails) to ‘God loves, sees, feels'(with the stability that has) . A radical reorientation brought about from years of ‘training’ by God’s grace itself.” So thank you again Dino, and St Silouan.

    5. The next linked thought was that this is in fact the way that our Scriptures are structured are all pointing to that method of radical recentring. They are messy stories, and pictures not ideologies and programs (with implicit measurement systems). Those are pretty much all human constructs. All the stories and teachings in the Scriptures have that icon-like element of inviting engagement at ever deeper personal levels. One (pointed) example is the parable of the sower which starts off looking like a straightfoward analagy to different kinds of people. But as we (or at least ‘I’) take it seriously, it turns out that my heart has (is?) the four types of ground, certainly at different times, but probably all the time (not so sure about the bearing thirtyfold soil though!). It is an icon to be entered into. No measurement as such involved. From there the whole of Scripture becomes a way of reconfiguring my sense of me. I am Peter. I am the beloved disciple. I am Caiphas. I am Mary encountering Gabriel. Oh if only I was capable of entering into the reality of Jesus on the Cross and then Risen into marvellous transfigured and glorious light. What a total TRAVESTY it is to see all of that as being just a (weird) human system for avoiding going to hell. To hell (pun intended) with measuring. Into the story I go!

    6. Next thought was that this measurement business is a key issue going back to Eve and the snake. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (Gen 3:4-5) So the serpent’s way of making Eve discontent (per the old acedia discussion) is to tell her that she lacks the ability to compare and contrast – and judge, which belongs to God, but which she can have access to. And it looks … ‘good for food’ and was ‘desired to make one wise’. It always does.

    7. The idea that we have to strive is interesting though. Per 1 above Jesus said we should strive for the Kingdom of Heaven while in the middle of a long teaching about not worrying about the future. So just how do we do both? Taken seriously striving does required effort and focus and will lead to worries about failure, and always runs the risk, surely, of the hungry ghost of little self trying to come to the party. Any thoughts appreciated.

    8. One idea re 7 is prayer. If one has a prayer rule practice then that is something that one just tries to do come what may. But while one might try to keep one’s prayer attentive and super simple, the inevitable ups and downs and ins and outs – and even gaps and fallings over – inevitably teach one patience and those experience are in fact part of the journey. So much so that trying to measure progress – particularly at the time of prayer, but even over a limited period of time – is both silly and often counterproductive. I once heard prayer in this way described as being “all in the attitude”. If one could be both relaxed and serious about it, then that would become the way we approach everything else in life. And that the way we pray will become the way we live. Any measurement of its progress is all in the fruits then. BUT then there also seem to be all those writings of the fathers (Philokalia par excellence) that do seem to talk about – and seem mainly to be about – progress in the prayer life. So I am wondering how all that squares up?

    There were some other points. But I’ll stop there! 🙂

  49. Ioana Avatar

    Two questions, Father. First about Silouan. Is it possible that God allowed that “mistake” (the monk being praised) precisely because pride was maybe the one passion the Saint had to fight against in order to become a Saint? Is it possible that the years of torment were indeed a gift and Saint Silouan would have not been Saint Silouan without them?
    And 2.
    About the Ladder of Saint John. As I was reading it, I noticed that quite a few times, he would describe a certain passion or a sin and say: “there is no way you can fight against it. Nothing you can do.” And I would ask him: “OK then. So what now?” A few paragraphs later he would answer: “Just get down on your knees and recognise the weakness of your being. ” I remember precisely the moment when I suddenly thought: “Wait a minute. It is a ladder, but you don’t go up, you go down. All you do is you see the passions and the darkness in you and you give them to God. It’s a descend towards humility.” And it takes such effort to go down. And sometimes even to stay where you are at least. Did I get it wrong? Now one has to be careful with this also, not to turn it into yet another competition. Who goes down first! I guess Huxley’s words are wise words: “It is dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly, child, lightly.” Keep it simple and trust Him. Give thanks always. It is all I know. Everything else is uncertain right now.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You got it right – and said it very well!

  51. Ivan Avatar

    Paula, you are welcome for my comment. But I must say, I do not have many original ideas – I mostly synthesize things I have heard and read from Orthodox teachers with some of my own perspective. It seems like having an Orthodox worldview means trusting the dogmas and teachings and making sense of them in one’s own life. So much of what I say comes from this very blog, and sometimes I interpret it.


    To try to answer one of your enumerated points/questions, I agree that progress measuring is a nervous (or neurotic) activity. However, I also think that it acts as a barrier to communion and courage about the risks of living by the Gospel – if I choose to manage my soul, then I do not have the submission to God to do anything whatsoever for Him and love’s sake. Managing one’s soul and spirituality means defiance, and frankly avoidance of danger. Dr. Wesley Hill wrote in his book Washed and Waiting (which is about the context of the passions in general, not only same-sex attraction) that God is dangerous, and can lovingly do things to us that we do not like – this is what soul management avoids, by making an idol of “being and doing good” for a sense of security and confidence in one’s salvation (by pretending that God must approve of one’s progress because it is so great and decent, while avoiding actually connecting with God which would cause continual repentance, not stagnation or premature victory). While Fr. Stephen describes how frustrating and distracting it is for people he pastors to measure their progress with unrealistic goals, the other problem with soul management is false satisfaction and pride in one’s accomplishments (which probably never lasts very long, but is still sin).

    Setting one’s own benchmarks means rejecting the Gospel’s benchmarks, such as the Beatitudes – we already have commandments for Christian life, which can function as accurate measurements of how to behave, as Fr. Stephen said in his comments above. And frankly our spiritual parents and elders can tell us how we are doing, rather than us evaluating ourselves. We can trust their evaluation because they have much more pastoral experience. Also the human conscience is a natural barometer with little need for additional tracking – journaling and sharing thoughts and feelings with trusted people regularly is plenty of support for the conscience.

    I felt contrite about my acedia and shallow efforts in an immediate way last night while doing homework, reading an article about a program successfully fighting malnutrition in South Sudan:

    Adut Akuei used to go every evening to the hospital to visit little Akol Akot, her three-year old granddaughter, who was seriously malnourished. Adut and her daughter Angong could often only feed her with asida, a dish made out of ground sorghum. She wasn’t getting all the nutrients she needed from her food, and the way the food was washed also left her susceptible to food-borne illnesses that stopped absorption of nutrients and further weakened her body.

    “When I held her in my arms, she was so thin that I thought she could not make it. I always prayed for her to survive,” Adut recalls with tears in her eyes.

    I felt a wave of contrition after reading this passage, and told God I would do anything to repent of my sins that cause such starvation. It’s not natural, as described further:

    Agricultural production used to be high and vegetables were exported from the region to the rest of South Sudan. Years of conflict, however, made this area a dangerous place to harvest the land; many people left their homes and lost their livelihoods. Insecurity and violence had turned this place into a deeply food insecure area, reliant on humanitarian aid. Like many other women in South Sudan, Adut and Angong lost their husbands and brothers to the conflict. They never returned to Marial Ajith.

    I don’t know how I can change to respond to world hunger, but I trust that God will guide me, while if I tried to do so myself I would fail in a moralistic crusade. The key difference is between following God’s lead and inventing my own (inevitably less demanding or effective) program for how to be a good person, live comfortably, and “earn salvation.” Compassion requires faith and courage – kindness is not free to do, as we have unseen enemies. All kindness is part of a spiritual war, so the Gospel is only possible by God’s grace, under His protection. I think referring to compassion is a simple way to let people know that their soul management campaign is not so helpful for others.

    Finally, it might sound like my words are critical, but I mean to distinguish between Churchianity and Christianity, not to blame anyone. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote a book about Churchianity and Christianity that I hope to read someday – he knew very well as an archpastor how people defer faith with moralism. Moralism tends to be intertwined with attachment to worldly comforts – the Gospel is both more authentic and more ascetic.

  52. Byron Avatar


    I think your thoughts about “entering a story” as opposed to “progressing” are very good and bear pondering at length (I won’t do so here).

    I would add that we speak in terms of “progress” here but our society is about competition. Everything in it is set up to compete. One of the issues we have with progress is that we’re wired for social conflict. This is true at almost every level of society, not just politics and sports, etc. I read once that our legal system is built on this; the process of creating laws is about it as well. We expect the benefit to come from the win. Justice will come from perseverance and victory. It’s the American Way. Entering a story is too passive for us. I think this is why, as we get older, we are able to draw close to God in ways we simply cannot when we are young. But I’m just thinking out loud here.

    And frankly our spiritual parents and elders can tell us how we are doing, rather than us evaluating ourselves.

    This speaks to me of the importance of confession. Not in a “how we are doing” manner, but in acknowledgement of our communion with one another and God’s love for us. It’s not evaluation, it’s communion and acceptance. Forgiveness of ourselves, and the healing it brings, is needed for us to forgive others.

  53. Dino Avatar

    Father Stephen & Ioanna,

    Elder Sophrony’s ‘the way up is the way down’, reaffirms what has been the tradition from the beginning:

    “Consciously look on yourself as an ant or a worm, so that you can become a man formed by God. If you fail to do the first, the second cannot happen. The lower you descend, the higher you ascend; and when, like the psalmist, you regard yourself as nothing before the Lord (cf Ps. 39:5), then imperceptibly you will grow great. And when you begin to realize that you have nothing and know nothing, then you will become rich in the Lord through practice of the virtues and spiritual knowledge.”

    (Philokalia, St Theognostos – on the practice of Virtues, verse 3)

  54. Dean Avatar

    You’re right Ivan about leading a moralistic crusade…it would not work. Yet your heart is in the right place. Only because of technology do we see hunger in the other side of the world. I read recently that there are now more obese persons in the world now than starving. Ironic. It sounds like you may be a student. Most students have little money. Yet the little you have can be multiplied by the Lord. Give your “two mites”, just pennies for us, if that’s all you have. God is much more concerned for your heart, which sounds tender, than with any great thing you may do.

  55. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you for your words. Your personal insights are very helpful for me as well.

  56. Ivan Avatar


    Confession is different than general pastoral counseling so how we are doing can be addressed separately as needed (and it’s probably needed less than confession is). Our communion involves the unique gifts and weaknesses each person has. Forgiveness sharpens awareness of personal dignity and boundaries so people can have more loving relationships, and sometimes this involves evaluation (sometimes clinically) of what exactly needs to be forgiven or healed. But overall I agree that confession is about love and healing, not evaluation.



    When I was at a Greek Orthodox women’s monastery in August, I asked the abbess what to do about my spiritual pride problem. She said with conviction that while pride is natural for descendants of Adam and Eve, “we are nothing before God.” This seemed to be the most edifying thing she told me and I remember it often.



    Thank you for your suggestion. We see hunger because of war and violence as well, as described in the article I quoted from eaerlier. The whole article is a great story. During times of war it is difficult or impossible to plant, grow, and harvest crops or raise livestock. Technology can amplify oppression, inequality and war, but it can also alleviate poverty, as the article briefly described. My parish priest says he is troubled by anti-technology thinking, I guess because technology can be used for good or evil and it depends on the user’s intentions.

    As for obesity, I don’t mean to argue, but I learned last year in Nutrition class that it is technically not the opposite of starvation – people who cannot afford healthy food (because fruits and vegetables are expensive compared to junk food) are much more likely to be obese and suffer from diabetes, hypertension, and what is called “metabolic syndrome” in general. The opposite of starvation is not as simple as a caloric surplus causing obesity – nutrition is more complex than that. Obesity can, oddly or not, be considered a form of malnutrition.

    Yes, I am a college student, and I really appreciate your reminder that money “can be multiplied by the Lord.” It’s difficult to remember that scale of charity is not what God has concern for when there is so much pressure from fundraising. I guess the pressure is a response to market pressures. I am learning to save money by spending it less on things I don’t need in part to donate more, but also to save it for the future. Frugality with generosity aids happiness.

    I like knowing that God is concerned for my heart, and I probably should meditate on this fact more to understand God’s priorities. I remember that when I had a focus on doing great things (which was often vain, as in video games or sports), I ironically did not make much time for prayer. My emotional ambition for greatness has gradually shifted towards simply praying better and praying more. It’s much more comfortable to rest in God’s love rather than the world’s promises.

  57. Matthew W. Avatar

    I read you comment at September 24, 2019 at 12:23 am, and Father’s response at September 24, 2019 at 7:31 am.

    I was perplexed when I told my wife that I thought I was getting better, and she said, “Bull S__t!” I’m still not sure what she meant by that, it’s certainly humbling. But I don’t think we were talking about the same thing.

    You said, “I think this is all probably exacerbated by my experience of discovering and entering into the Church. So much I assumed and never questioned/evaluated for some 30 odd years of life was pulled out from under me. If I don’t question and evaluate my life, how do I avoid it happening again?”

    The thing was, I was constantly evaluating my life, and I was always found wanting. How could I as a professed Christian, be such a loser, and still hope for salvation? Think on the Ten Commandments, and forget Sabbatarianism for a moment – lust (just a look, per Christ), envy (ever want the latest gizmo, like the one your neighbor has?), theft (Who hasn’t taken an extra pencil from the office after a mass layoff…) How could I be saved?

    First, I do not believe in a limited atonement, I rejected penal substitution theory before I discovered Orthodoxy, and it almost drove me to Atheism. Read Reconsidering Tulip by Alexander J. Renault, and especially the River of Fire by Kalomiros. Based on the second reading, I have no fear of God. Here’s the thing – he is working for my Salvation, in some ways more than I am, he understands the implications and the consequences of my actions more than I do, Every day he is doing what he can to bring all things together for good for me and for those with whom I interact.

    So as to the question, do I fear hell? Yes and no. Yes, it is a great unknown, and it is not supposed to be pleasant. On the other hand, I trust God, and I trust his love for me. I trust that he will do what he does for my benefit, and if that means hell? Then so be it, I will trust in him.

    Lord have mercy.

    (Now to the rest of the comments… Sorry for this interruption.)


  58. Chris Avatar


    Thanks. You are of course right about the competition thing. But I wonder whether part of the reason for that is in fact stories. It seems to me that there are embedded narratives everywhere and that ‘contest’ is a key feature of them all. Perhaps most obviously in the plots and subplots of tv show where the drama typically gets generated by conflict (with revenge fantasies becoming the ever more noticeable sub-species). That is partly because it is the easiest (and cheapest, in every sense) way of mainlining engagement. But as you say that narrative substructure is embedded and underpins some many of our (not just U.S.) institutions and everything. Maybe some of that is understandable though, as it’s a way society has evolved to channel the negative energies caused by ego stuff and frustrated desires. It is become toxic because so many of the traditional supports are being eliminated and the competition thing is being turned into a full blown hero worship idol thing.

    And I think you are also right that the culture finds entering into the gospel story really hard these days partly for that reason. The reason why I see looks of just dull incomprehension, or glazed subject changing I think is partly because the gospel stories just find it really hard to get traction in a culture where the narratives are so different and we have not been able to find a way through. Early Christians almost certainly must have faced a similar problem in the early days of the Roman Empire, but we face the additional problem that some Christians think that the solution is to turn the gospel story into another ‘culturally appropriate’ success ideology and just select bits of the text (sometimes story memes, sometimes just bleeding ends of fingers) that suit whatever idea they have. Golden calves and all that.

    Finding a way of getting re-engagement with the REAL narrative has to be a big part of our project doesn’t it? I remember that perhaps the first time I truly realised that the story was about me was when I was reflecting on the Nativity scene (thanks be to St Francis forever if only just for popularising that!) when I realised that it, and the nativity stories, taken together formed a sort of a collective icon. The whole scene was became in a real sense a picture of my inner state when Christ was being born within me (which of course is always happening – so the scene remains quite alive for me). There are the formative influences of my mother and father, and the animals of my animal nature, and the shunned shepherds of bits of my soul I have not wanted to acknowledge (but who received the astonishing news first), and the wiser parts of my past and the past I have had handed down to me. They are all standing aroundand gazing with rapt attention at the new, perfect wonderful centre of my soul who has been born out of sight because the busy inn of my mind was too full. And above it all was a perfect, serene transcendent point of light = a star that was both in this world blessing all of this, but also far above it and pointing beyond in the depths of the heavens. The while scene is one of utter, profound tranquility and perfect beauty.

    Now there’s a narrative that has NOTHING to do with competition or ego or anything like that.

    All of that was only given to me, I think, because I had been prepared for many years just by all of these stories and have them seep into me, by hearing and rehearing them, and probably through prayer and the other aspects of practice. But at the end epiphanies are just odd, and as Dino keeps on saying, very graced things. But once an image like that has taken hold, it does not really leave. And having it there to turn to underneath the busy pace of weird life in the so called ‘real world’ is just so helpful.

    I just find it SO SAD that we don’t seem to be able to connect with the culture to share the wonderful good news that we have been given. There are many, many other stories that have had a similar effect and the overall effect is indeed transformative. There is a very good reason why in the Pantocrator icon Christ is pointing towards the book – If you want to know me …

    Thank you for your observations too about confession. “It’s not evaluation, it’s communion and acceptance. Forgiveness of ourselves, and the healing it brings, is needed for us to forgive others”. That has both epigrammatic elegance and really helpful.

  59. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Ivan…just a little aside and a minor correction. It really is not expensive to eat healthy! If portions are kept normal, and food purchased fresh (as it is said, shop around the far sides of the grocery store…for those who don’t ‘grow their own’) it is actually less expensive than the processed foods. Less packaging too.
    That said, I have been enjoying your comments! It is nice to hear from our younger generation. And it is a blessing to witness their love for God, like yourself.

  60. Chris Avatar


    Thank you for your post. I did not take anything you said as being critical of anyone, actually, other than hard heartedness and lack of a proper enthusiasm – and if I am not particularly on point or ‘Orthodox’ enough, then that is simply the truth.

    I find you to be a genuinely inspiring example of true courage at work. You give me hope for the future.

    That’s even more the case after reading about the response that you were given to the plight of those people in South Sudan. We had an afternoon congregation of Dinka people at our church for a few years (they have now moved on to larger premises) so everything you quoted rang true from what I heard from them, albeit via patchy English.

    I find stories and situations like this very confronting. There is absolutely no doubt that I am materially very comfortable in the overall scheme of things, and that I am far too deeply attached to my comfort. I always react with shocked recognition to that line from the Rich Young Man to Jesus “Good Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life”. It’s just true that unfortunately I, like most well off people, have an underlying mindset of inheritance, as though it’s our due. To which Jesus’ (underlined as loving) response of (after having said keep the commandments) is “sell it all and give it to the poor” come as such a profound and troubling – almost existential – shock. Even more troubling for me is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-31) especially the idea that I don’t even see the poor man at my door. Actually, this is probably the story in the gospels that troubles me more than any other.

    Just what to do about it, is the problem. I am just not a St Antony (ha!) (pity). I know that I am being called to do more, but I’m not sure what and all the things I think of I pretty much think won’t help much. But I can feel that it runs much deeper than that. As you say “The key difference is between following God’s lead and inventing my own (inevitably less demanding or effective) program for how to be a good person, live comfortably, and “earn salvation.” I think one of my worries is, a bit as I think you are saying, that if I try to help because I think it’s something I “should” be doing, rather than directly in the moment our of compassion and wisdom, then not only will it fail, it will be counterproductive and managerial and all sort of dead. I am also aware that built into all of that is a posture of excuse and not wanting my comfortable life disturbed too much, thank you.

    I suppose that I wait in hope that God will in fact find a way of making use of me on His terms (assuming that this is not already happening – not obvious to me, but what would I know). You say that “God is dangerous, and can lovingly do things to us that we do not like.” Indeed. I find it interesting that St Luke starts of his account of the Good News not with Jesus, or John the Baptist nor even with an account of the divine logos, but with that little story of old Elizabeth and the old priest Zacarias. They are barren (surely a symbol for unproductive). But then old Zacarias goes into the temple by himself at the hour of incense one evening, presumably as he had done for years, and has a totally unexpected and unlooked for encounter with the divine. An angel appears who tells him he is to father John the Baptist. He is terrified by this real encounter (presumably having been a priest all his long life he understands the implications, even if he has never had the direct experience to date). So, cautious old man that he is (and wise in managerialism?) he asks “how can I be sure of this?”. Now he finds out that it is not any old angel, but the archangel Gabriel no less – who then strikes him dumb. He then is unable to talk until his son’s circumcision ceremony. This sounds mean (dangerous God!), particularly in contrast with Gabriel’s encounter with Mary (who similarly asks “but how can this be?”). Maybe though Mary’s question was not as calculated and, well, managerial as Zacarias’. But maybe it was indeed a loving response. Maybe this is just what that old priest needed : to spend 9 months unable to talk, left to mull over the profound experience about what happened to him and its implications and what he was now seeing in life. (I sort of had that same resonance when I was reading Father’s summary of the story of St Silouan’s 15 year drought.) Certainly it does not seem to have done him any lasting harm, as his first words after he is able to talk is what the Western Church calls the Benedictus or song of Zacarias, which is to my mind one of the most beautiful and theologically nuanced of all the songs in the Bible. So, yes, the gospel of Luke kicks off with a story that demonstrates as clearly as one might want that God is both dangerous and loving, and manages to interweave that into the Annunciation story in what is a tight weave indeed. I LOVE those stories. God can, and will, do anything, particularly with those he loves. I have this image in my mind of old Zacarias cradling his son and looking at him as he says those hauntingly beautiful words:

    “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
    to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
    By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
    to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk 1:76-79)
    And interestingly, the (ok maybe somewhat apocryphal) protoevangelium of James suggests that Zacarias may have ended up as the first martyr of the church :

    “23. And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where hast thou hid thy son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit,because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.

    24. But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom. And the priests stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most High. And he still delaying, they were all afraid. But one of them ventured to go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying: Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his avenger come. And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it to the priests. And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from the top even to the bottom. And they found not his body, but they found his blood turned into stone. And they were afraid, andwent out and reported to the people that Zacharias had been murdered. And all the tribes of the people heard, and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights. And after the three days, the priests consulted as to whom they should put in his place; and the lot fell upon Simeon. For it was he who had been warned by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh.”

    So yes, God is indeed dangerous. But ending up as the father of John the Baptist and first martyr for the truth. Quite an ending for the barren old man …

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for your thoughts. Forgive me, but I need to request that you condense your comments (make them shorter). As moderator, I have to read everything. The length can make the work a bit tedious. It is an advantage for comments to be shorter – more people read them – and, if the content is condensed, they are better able to engage them and respond. When they run long, there are often too many points to remember and the content gets lost. Thanks.

  62. Chris Avatar

    Father Stephen, I am very sorry if I have caused you work or distress.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not a problem. Just a nudge towards something I can more easily manage. I dip in and out of the blog over the day to check on things – sometimes to join the conversation – sometimes to remove something troubling, etc. It’s a joy, all in all.

    Someone once asked me, “What blogs do you read?” My answer is – almost none, except mine – primarily because of time. I read lots of other stuff – books mostly. Thanks for understanding.

  64. Agata Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen and Chris,
    I smiled reading your last few comments, indeed some of them have been too long lately to keep up (especially for those of us who are not retired 😉 ).
    But I did read one of Chris’s latest comments and wanted to point out a great gem that he buried in it:

    “Frugality with generosity aids happiness.”

    Amen to that! 🙂

    P.S. I must be particularly tuned to the subject of “generosity” since yesterday there was a unexpected donation from the reader of this blog to my Athens Orphanage (to which a few of you donated in the past). Thank you for that again!

  65. Dean Avatar

    You’re a blessing to the orphans and nuns!
    Father Stephen,
    I often wonder how you and other priests do all that you do. You write articles here, comment and moderate; you have a wife, children and grandchildren to love and spend time with; you have your church ministry of teaching, preaching, catechism classes, helping addicts, funerals, weddings, baptisms; you travel and speak around the country; you are writing another book; you counsel and do confessions…whew!! Did I leave anything out? (Oh yeah, you walk your dog!)😎

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When you put it like that…it sounds busier than it really is. I’m often asked how do I find time to do what I do. I think it’s one of the super powers of having ADHD. God wastes nothing! Sadly…I still find time to sin.

  67. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I love your honesty Father Stephen. You put on no airs. Despite your detractors, people respect that kind of character.
    And you’re right, God wastes nothing! He gives such grace!

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, I pray that they may be few. I’m terrible when it comes to controversies and arguments.

  69. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Well, welcome to the club, Father. I think to some degree we’re all like that. We are still in need direction. I think we always will be in need. I can say this for sure, being 64 years old!
    If you didn’t enforce the posted rules of the blog, it’d be a free for all…and when it comes down to it, a disgrace, because of our weaknesses (passions) that flare in the controversies and ensuing arguments we face day in and day out…the Church included. You’d have to be a recluse to not be effected. Then only to have your heart to deal with!
    So we appreciate your honesty. There is a camaraderie, as a brother, knowing you do not set yourself above us, and at the same time we respect (very much) your vocation as a priest and a pastor. This is no small thing, to be given the responsibility of people’s souls. And to do what you do at the altar.
    Just saying Father…don’t mean to put you on the spot…but we very much appreciate your, and all our trustworthy priests, good example. Actions count and words do too!

  70. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Ditto for me too, Father

  71. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “Our culture forms and shapes in each of us the heart of a “manager.” We want to control, to shape, to predict, to compare, to direct, etc. Such a heart has a habit of reducing its world to the things that can be controlled, shaped, predicted, compared and directed. It diminishes human beings as well as the world in which we live. It has no place in the life of the soul.”

    I read this homily by St Basil this morning and thought how his instruction on “Give Heed to Thyself” shows the difference between ‘managing’ and proper reflection. Instead of diminishing human beings and the world, it points to and lifts us up toward our intended purpose.
    For myself, I pray it allows me to properly reflect upon my own shortcomings, to appreciate the uniqueness of each one of us, and because of God’s forgiveness of my own sins, that I may have compassion and forgiveness toward all.
    May the Lord have mercy.
    Love never fails.

  72. Alan Avatar

    Father, thank you so very much for yet another, homerun post. This is great stuff. I’m grateful that you continue to drive home the main point of this post. It’s something that I need to keep hearing.

    Also, thanks to Nancy and Ioana. Your comments were very helpful to me.

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