The Space Between

Is there a God “out there”? God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” we say in our Orthodox prayers, but is He “out there?” For what it’s worth, I want to suggest for a moment that He is not. Largely, what I am describing is what takes place in our imagination – that is, what we picture when we pray and how we think of God as we seek Him.

There are, to my mind, two primary ways of thinking and speaking about God. One is “juridical,” the other “ontological.” Juridical relationships are largely how we imagine relationships in our modern culture. We think of ourselves as individuals with rights and obligations, with a series of demands made on us by others and on others by us. The rules and laws of our society govern these forces. For us – everybody and everything is “out there.” Thomas Hobbes, writing during the years of the English Civil War, described this as the “war of all against all.” He opined that only a strong government could manage such a state of nature.

“Ontological” means “having to do with being.” My relationship with myself is ontological. I am not “out there” from myself. In the modern imagination, that is where ontology stops. There is my existence (“in here”) and everything else and everyone else is “out there.” The war goes on.

This is a deeply inadequate view of life. Consider the relationship we have with our parents. We are, quite literally, “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” We share a biological reality that is itself our existence. This can be extended towards other human beings. We never(!) exist alone. We can be “considered” alone for the purposes of study and the like, but we are no more alone than any of the cells within our bodies. We are social beings, but social in a manner that has to do with our very being and not merely with juridical arrangements.

The story of Joseph Stalin’s death is an interesting case in point. His exercise of brutal force on all those around him (including members of his own family) was a triumph of juridical ideology. As he lay dying (so the story goes), no one goes to his aid. There is too much fear. In the end, relationships that are shaped along purely juridical lines fail to give life. Indeed, they foster death.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” Nothing better states the ontological character of our existence. If my brother is my life, however, what is this space between us? An image that comes to mind is leaves on a tree. The life of every leaf depends on the life of every other leaf, just as all leaves depend on the life of the tree. The “space” between the leaves exists only in an imaginary manner. They are connected in a single life. The life of one is the life of all.

The space between is part of our modern imagination. The language of rights, for example, seeks to assert connectedness by juridical means, but only increases the emptiness of the space between. It is little wonder that this juridical imagery, when turned towards God, fails to nurture the soul. What we know of “out there” is always surrounded with uncertainty and anxiety. The juridical depends, ultimately, on violence. We can only “make” (“force”) things to bridge the empty space between us. And, of course, the space remains empty, regardless.

The modern paradigm, composed of juridical relationships, is the mother of loneliness, teaching our hearts that they exist in a fragmented world of temporary, negotiated cease-fires in an otherwise war-of-all-with-all. The language of rights, rooted primarily in older warrior cultures of Northern Europe, have given us our world of contracts, but never a world of true being.

God is not “out there” in the sense imagined by the juridical mind. At its very heart, “everywhere present and filling all things” means that there can be no “out there” with regard to God. God is only “here.” The Scriptures commonly describe God as dwelling “in us.” St. Paul describes our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The language of Holy Baptism is not one of establishing a juridical relationship. It is the language of union, as is the language of the Holy Eucharist.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. Jn 6:56

All of this can easily remain little more than an intellectual distinction. My conversations over the years, however, tell me that our juridical imagination dominates how we see God. We long for a relationship with One who is “out there,” while remaining oblivious to the God who dwells in us. In a recent conversation with a young convert who was struggling with a sense of God’s absence, I said, “But you breathe Him!”

Life (and existence in all forms) has been reduced to science-facts, objects or properties of objects. In truth, all things have their existence in God (not in themselves). We live in a creation that was brought into being out of nothing – it has no being in and of itself. From an Orthodox perspective, the existence of anything is proof of the existence of God.

We recognize, however, an even greater union within human beings. Of us alone, it is said that God breathed into us and we became living souls. To know God is also to know oneself – and, we may say, we cannot know ourselves apart from God, for there is no such self.

Of all the writers in Scripture, the one who says the most about problems of being, existence, connectedness and such, is St. John. And, for St. John, the key within all of these things is love. Consider this classic statement:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

“…if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” This is the language of mutual indwelling that has no place within a juridical model of relationships. God is love. Indeed, in this passage there is a consistent blending of action and being. God not only does (He loves us) but He is what He does (God is love).

This manner of being is the image according to which we are created. Love constitutes our true being. “My brother is my life.” This is more than a moral statement: it is a reflection on the very nature of true existence. For this reason, the “space between,” must be seen as a delusional artifact of the juridical imagination. We are created to exist as love – love of God, love of the other, love of self. When we withdraw from the love of God and the love of other, then the love of self collapses into a solipsistic loneliness. Sadly, we have frequently structured the modern world to accommodate and promote the lonely self. Our neighborhoods, our cities, our mode of transportation, our world of entertainment and consumption thrive on the lonely self and seek to fill the space between. However, you cannot fill emptiness with emptiness.

“Out there” is “in here.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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57 responses to “The Space Between”

  1. Christina Chase Avatar

    I love the way that you can explain things I’ve experienced throughout my life, Fr. Stephen. I think I turned away from Christianity because of the emphasis on Heaven, on “over there,” at the expense of life here. Here is only suffering and there is only bliss? I thought, surely, if God is love then God did not create fallible Creation to know only pain, only exile and banishment while we are in the flesh. Did not God look upon all that He created and see that it was good? Isn’t God in all that He has created? And didn’t God in the flesh say that whenever we feed the hungry or visit the imprisoned that we feed and visit Him, here and now?

    It’s good to be here. The sacred wonder of being human is that we can knowingly (though not fully sensibly or fully intellectually) live in union with God here and now. As you told the recent convert about the truth of God’s presence: “But you breathe Him!” Whether we know it or not, God is here, infinitely, intimately here. Thank you!

  2. Deborah Hansen Avatar
    Deborah Hansen

    What goodness, truth, beauty, and life there are in this. Thank you, Father.

  3. Brandon Avatar

    Thank you, Father. This gets at the truth that encloses upon all else.

    Have you ever read or studied Gabriel Marcel or Martin Heidegger? It seems like their analysis of being could lean one to the understanding of God filling all things. For example, when we pose questions of epistemology, ontology, etc., we (ipso facto) already exist in the world to pose them. Sometimes we are so fragmented, that we forget the very source of our being!

  4. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen, every time I think you’ve written your best article, you write another that seems to top it. Wow. God is at work in you and I am grateful.

    You write: “…we are no more alone than any of the cells within our bodies”. This reminds me of things I have heard and read about how our very biological reality is constructed of love, though we may not tend to think of it in those terms. The cells in my body (and the all of the atomic and subatomic particles therein) existing in interdependent relationship with one another; we could not exist if they all insisted on being individual little selves apart from one another. At a very basic level, they “love” one another.

    This sounds odd to us because we think of love as an emotion, as something we do rather than something we are. Even in the single-cell organisms of our world, there are different parts of the cell working together – this is what life is. The more complex the organism, the more interdependence there is within its boundaries (cells, organs, etc.) but also the more interdependence there is with other organisms, of same and varying types. In other words, love as the basis of life becomes increasingly evident – difference is not a basis for separate “selves” but the basis for loving mutuality.

    It only follows that we as human organisms follow this pattern – but with a glitch. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are indeed love – but we are also freely able to choose non-love, i.e. to imagine the separateness you wrote of to the point that we do not recognize of what we are made. If only we could clear our minds of this delusion of separateness, we would indeed find God “in here” – and that my “in here” and your “in here” are one and the same.

    I’m afraid I’ve expressed this poorly. Does this make any sense?

  5. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

  6. Sunny Avatar

    Whoa, so Orthodoxy is basically quantum Christianity?…
    Why do I say that? Apparently, there is a new scienctific paradigm emerging (represented in quantum physics and the newer field of quantum biology) which is making the mechanistic Newtonian and mind-body dualistic Cartesian model–this concept of being “flesh robots on a dead rock floating in the middle of nowhere” as Alan Watts puts it–and its form of medicine and spirituality and engagement with the world utterly irrelevant. It is a science of the energetic, non-linear, unseen aspects of reality that demonstrate that we are far more meaningfully and truly connected to everything than we could ever understand from our modern, materialistic conciousness.
    It makes me think…
    Our culture has strict taboos around and trivializes those normal human acticities that entail altered states of conciousness, those exact states of consciousness that blow materialism and atheism out of the water, e. g. orgasmic sex, natural birth, natural death, and psychedelic plant medicines. As far back as we can tell, humans have used plant medicines to enter into altered states of conciousness that tap into this realm that quantum sciences are just now peaking into. I’d be interested in you exploring where Orthodoxy lands in this subject of altered states of conciousness as a way to have a felt experience of the meaninglesness of our separateness, and of ourselves and our lives as the microcosms that they are.
    C. S. Lewis said,
    “When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.
    If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.”
    One thing that we know about every pagan culture is that these higher states of conciousness informed their cultures and their spirituality to a great degree. Would love your thoughts on where this might fit into this discussion which can otherwise stay floating in the realm of the”out there” and never be experienced “in here,” unless “you happen to be a saint.”

  7. Paul Avatar

    Father, this is beautiful!

    I am a catechumen who struggles to articulate the goodness of this vision of reality to people who are very dear to me (specifically, my wife and my mother) in the face of their objections to the Orthodox Church’s “closed communion.” I can explain to them that the practice of giving the Eucharist to anyone who comes through the doors is actually a very recent and modernist practice, but this explanation fails to reach the heart of their very real grief over this matter. If it’s true that “my brother is my life,” how can I defend my Church’s practice of denying the Eucharist to my brothers and sisters—especially those who sincerely love Christ, even though they do not belong to the Church? What would you say to such a question when it comes out of a genuine anguish of the heart?

  8. Dean Avatar

    Your article brought me back a long way…to the first part of the seventies. I read the book by Martin Buber, I and Thou. I do not recall it well, but when I read your article a little bell tinkled in my mind. This wonderful book, with echoes of what you write here, was written by a Jew in Germany at the beginning of the horrors of the holocaust. If only his book had been taken to heart at the time! Well, it was by many around the world later. It touched a young man in his 20’s heart many years after. And your writing now, Father, makes more tender this same man’s heart half a century later.

  9. Dino Avatar

    I think, that unfortunately, (to use CS Lewis’ imagery that you used), the ‘seeking’ of altered states of consciousness cannot (ever) escape being akin to the seeking of self-gratifying sexual experience of “a divorcee”, even when such a seeker thinks himself akin to “a virgin” seeking her bridegroom for the blessed union of holy matrimony. Even more so when we are considering modern persons.
    Whenever we seek ‘experiences’, ‘ecstasies’, ‘altered-states’ etc. we are driven by our ego-god, and we do not have any authentic desire for the true God of Love. We might have a very true desire for God’s “gifts” (selfishly of course) but not for Him (His very Self). We are then but strangers to true love.
    Besides, without sobriety and humility we haven’t got the power -as humans- to not become ensnared by the demonic spirits of delusion.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m with Dino on this one. Our “altered states” of consciousness (drug-induced) are efforts to take short cuts when one is not needed. Medication is a different matter (not to confuse things).

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In the years that I visited Orthodox liturgies, before my conversion, I was an Episcopal priest, and, obviously unable to share in the Eucharist. However, I came to see my non-sharing as a kind of sharing. Instead of demanding that I get things my way – allowing God to say “No” (and for very good reasons) – was, in fact, a form of participation in the Orthodox life. That explanation will probably not suit your wife and mother.

    I have explained it using the image of sex in a marriage. Just because I like or love somebody doesn’t mean we can have sex. Marriage is required. Casual sex is wrong. What others want is “casual communion” – that is – communion without commitment to the other. It’s not just a matter of them being unable to partake with you – it’s everyone else involved for whom they are unwilling to make the commitment of love – unto death.

    I’ve also thought that the genuine anguish of the heart is a good response to something real. Broken communion is a tragedy and a deep sorrow. It’s also a recognition of a reality. Modernity refuses to bear suffering and is willing to change every rule in order to make the universe conform to our desires – the result being that we alienate ourselves from reality and end up alone.

  12. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    One of the best explications of our interconnectedness was something I heard or read from Fr Seraphim Aldea. He was thanking everyone whom he has met, for who he is today has been impacted by every person who entered his life- so really his “success” forming the celtic monastery is also the success of all those who have providentially been a part of his life.
    We really are members of one another.

  13. Sunny Avatar

    I don’t think it’s helpful to conflate the state of altered consciousness induced by drugs with altered states of consciousness brought about in natural birth and sex if it’s done it in a self-giving and conscious manner.

    Natural birth when it is honored and protected and unmedicalized, which I have experienced twice, naturally entails a powerful, altered state. So powerful that new life emerges from it in a co-creative process with God. This is why the woman may not come to Church for 40 days. She is too holy to be among “normal” people.

    As Dino pointed out, matrimony is blessed and holy. And if one isn’t seeking intimacy with their spouse in that holy bond of marriage…pretty sure the Church has anathematized such a anti-sex view of marriage. And if you’re doing it right, it’s going to involve an altered state of consciousness. And in contrast to the false dichotomy of either “holy marriage” or “sexual experiences,” such level of intimacy requires faithfulness and a pure bond of ultimate trust between two people to unfold. It cannot happen casually or flippantly. Good sex should be seen as an aid to chastity.

    Feeling disappointed that my question was met with what seem to be to be lame and dismissive answers. It is by such dismissiveness that we will lose the world, not to mention our young people. Are we as incarnational as we think? I’m done skirting around these topics. Something needs to be “in here” or not at all, and those are the experiences I’ve had that have actually spoken to me “in here” about the disembodied concepts we’re discussing.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I misunderstood the question not quite grasping what you were saying on natural altered states in situations such as childbirth and sex. There is a theological term for those states: ecstasy. It has a very honorable place in the vocabulary of the fathers. There is, indeed, something inherently ecstatic in our experience of love. Ecstasis means to “stand outside of oneself.” Though, in this context I would think of it not as “outside” but with being present with/in the other.

    Is that more helpful?

  15. Sunny Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    That makes much more sense! That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Could you recommend a couple things I could read from the Fathers about that?

  16. Sunny Avatar

    And Dino, when I spoke about “pagan” cultures experiencing these altered states as a normal part of their everyday life, I wasn’t referring primarily to endogenous drugs, but rather alluding to the fact that they didn’t relegate the experiences of birth and death to the periphery of society, close them up indoors for “experts” to take care of, and sterilize and medicate them into oblivion. These preternatural experiences were very much a part of their every day life, and it shaped the way they saw the world, just as the fact that *for us* birth and death are no longer community events and sex is widely and cheaply accessible online at the click of a button shapes OUR culture. I want to respect these cultures and not reflexively dismiss them just because of my own cultural prejudices and experiences. The way those peoples use psychedelic plant medicines is so unlike the typical way we cheaply use street drugs in this culture that we really should be careful before we just dismiss them. They honored these plants, and their uses of them have no analogy to the sheer hedonism or escapism you see with drug use today.

  17. Sunny Avatar

    In fact, I might even be so bold as to posit that the secular “lonely” life we are discussing here is, in fact, CAUSED by a profound lack of ecstacy. If you are not experiencing ecstacy on some level, then you will not be able to transcend this immature perception of others as separate from yourself, and of course the ecstacy of the marriage bed is but a reflection of the ecstacy of the great ascetics. That maybe ecstacy is a sacred, sacramental practice to be indeed cultivated for this very reason. Would love you to speak more to this in particular, Father. I think it gets at the heart of my original question.

  18. Sunny Avatar

    That, in fact, the very solution to the problem you’re discussing here might be ecstacy itself?

    Sorry for all the comments. Breaking new conceptual ground here.

  19. Christopher Avatar

    “In fact, I might even be so bold as to posit that the secular “lonely” life we are discussing here is, in fact, CAUSED by a profound lack of ecstacy….That, in fact, the very solution to the problem you’re discussing here might be ecstacy itself?”

    Interesting way to put it no doubt, and I think you are bringing up an important point. I hesitate to say it is a *simple* causal relationship, rather a lack of the ecstatic my correlate with a spiritual state/ontology that is itself complex but “broken”. As Dino mentions, the ecstatic without sobriety and discernment is…what, exactly? Perhaps the experience of the ecstatic is indicative (and not casual)?

  20. Sunny Avatar

    “We love Him because He first loved us.”
    The very thing that wakes us up and calls us to true life is the ecstatic love of God who gave Himself up for the life of the world. This is the love of which our every interaction is an echo and icon. When I am most awake to the “one-story” nature of life, I cannot look into the face of my children or my husband or see the beauty of nature or the smallest without feeling there is an esctatic reality all around that is more real than what my mere senses may suggest.

  21. Fr Paul Yerger Avatar

    All this is certainly true. But I find many people who have what the counsellors call ‘boundary issues’ such as a married person controlled by his mother. I think your phrase ‘no space between’ might be confused with this. How about writing another post to distinguish. We are told ‘a man shall leave father and mothher and cleave to his wife…’

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Paul,
    You’re right to point out the boundaries question. I would suggest my article, Beyond Narcissism, as a possible resource. But, even when we are not dealing with a bad relationship – let’s say a healthy marriage – or even our relation with God – there is still a boundary – not a space of emptiness – but a place where I can say – that is you (You) and not me.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father Stephen,
    Isn’t it true that young children do not have that “space” between them and the world? They seem to get ecstatic about many things, even the smallest of things. And as was mentioned in the previous post, children are very open to God. It seems as the mind develops in a culture that objectifies everything which is ‘outside the self’, the child who was once open and embraced the world, is bound to loose that sense connectedness to God and creation. But it was once consciously there. The only difference I see is that we have lost such a perception. Such a thought gives me hope that we can begin to see what has been there all along. I think if we are willing…if we want to see our connectedness…we can begin to do so.
    In your post on Soul Management you once again mention our spiritual life is a work of grace and our life is “hidden in Christ”. As such, I think a vision of ‘no space’ is going to take some time…and in this life we may only begin to see such unity. I mean really see it, not just talk about it.
    And yes, I believe this is what love really is. As Mary Benton said, it is not just an emotion. But do we really know this type of love? The love of God…to love like Him? Will we ever know? I’m just asking, Father.

  24. Sunny Avatar

    Wanted to add a couple quotes to the discussion:

    His fruits can be attained by following a disciplinary program, or that they can be seen or manifested sensually, for the fruits of the Holy Spirit are exactly like H is nature, invisible, audible (but no one knows where He comes from or where He goes), seen, and felt by faith alone, yet with such certainty that the witness of all five senses together could not be more sure.”
    Matthew the Poor, The Communion of Love

    “We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy it on many a fine morning if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more–something the books o aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled the earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves–that, though we cannot, yet there projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the West wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face, but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
    C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

    I wonder how Lewis might revise that passage in light of quantum science!


  25. Sunny Avatar

    Have no idea how that one quote got so botched. I’ll try again,

    “Let no one imagine that the Holy Spirit or His fruits can be attained by following a disciplinary program, or that they can be seen or manifested sensually, for the fruits of the Holy Spirit are exactly like His nature, invisible, inaudible (but no one knows where He comes from or where He goes), unseen, and felt by faith alone, yet with such certainty that the witness of all five senses together could not be more sure.”

  26. Andrew Avatar

    In one of Sigurd Olson’s books on the wilderness of southern Canada and the northern Midwest, he talks about a place named by an Indian tribe, Kawashaway or Kawashiwi, translated as No-place-between. It seems to fit for this post.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think Lewis would have made very much of quantum physics. It’s interesting, of course, but it tells us mostly what we don’t know rather than what we do know. In that sense, it changes some of the Newtonian certainties that reigned for so long. These days, Darwin is falling apart as well. The more we know about what’s actually involved in the changes – creation of proteins and such – the more clear it seems that Darwin’s mechanism is simply impossible. It won’t work. There are very solid scientific suggestions about intelligent design that seem as though they’re here to stay.

    But, I’m leery of the efforts of doing a spirituality with the speculative stuff coming out of quantum science – and I’ve read a bit of it. It’s just not how we go about doing theology.

    As to reaching the young (and such) – I have no idea how to go about doing any kind of evangelism – and pretty much never give it a thought. I do what I have been given to do and leave the results in God’s hands. Since we’re not in control of the outcome of our work – we start making real errors when we imagine that we are and start trying to fashion things so that they’ll work this way or that.

    What I know is that for 21 years I’ve been doing Orthodox work (ministry) – Church planting, serving as priest, writing, preaching, etc. Things happen. God happens. But I would be in error if I tried to draw a causative line between one thing and the other. That’s the mystery we’re not given to understand.

    What I trust is that the same God who brought me into being and has given me these tasks to do is the same God who will do the same with this one and that one as He makes His will manifest in this world.

    This, I think, is how we’re supposed to live. The modern temptation is that of management.

    On the ecstasy stuff – St. Dionysius the Areopagite has the most on the topic that I’ve seen. I’ll dig around to see if there’s something that could be of interest to us. You are very much on target in the role of ecstasy in children. I very much like that thought!

  28. Scott Avatar

    “My relationship with myself is ontological. I am not “out there” from myself. In the modern imagination, that is where ontology stops.”

    Would you say then, that unhealthy shame comes from relating to oneself in a juridical way?

    Let me tell a personal example. In my mid-twenties, one night I developed an acute lung infection that led to sepsis. I drove myself to the ER and was hospitalized for three weeks, during which time I came very close to death and survived only because of a modern last-resort antibiotic.

    Since then, as a thought experiment, I’ve often wondered if driving to the ER was the right thing to do depending on whether God is more juridical or ontological. On the one hand, if God is a judge, then going to bed and letting nature take its course prevents the commission of every spiritual crime from the age of twenty-five to three score and ten. It’s judging the rest of your life like the antediluvian world and drowning it in a sea of phlegm.

    On the other hand, God as a parent and physician would not want me to nip things in the bud. He would want the cycles of missing the mark and repentance to season me for a better relationship with Him. However, where’s the justice for those who cry out against me when my missing the mark hurts them?

    If I don’t judge myself, who will? Why bear only a little shame when I’ve hurt others in big ways? Does “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not” mean we understand God deals with us ontologically, but we ought to deal with ourselves juridically?

  29. Jacksson Avatar

    The words are so important, we can use words and completely miss the mark as far as the other persons understanding goes.

    you quoted St. John, “God . . . sent His Son to be the ‘propitiation’ for our sins.

    I ran into the word propitiation many years ago on my first trip through the bible and it stopped me in my tracks; so, I looked it up and didn’t like it, too legalistic for me. I wrestled with for a few years and then did a study of the word in the Old Testament and found that the Hebrew word translated as propitiation was also translated as ‘Mercy Seat.’ I liked it and fully internalized the meaning of the word for the Christian. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Mercy Seat for my sins. Glory to God.

    While I am on the subject of words, I was reminded of an incident in mu use of the word ‘syncophant’ in a conversation with her (even my computer is putting a squiggly line under the word, must not be in their dictionary). I tried to explain the word to her, but it wasn’t until I said something like a syncophant is a person that hangs out with persons in power.

    Oh, she exclaimed, ‘achichincles.’ Now it was my turn to question word; I said, achichicles, what kind of a word is that? she replied, it is an Aztec word meaning ‘lesser lords.’ Bingo.

    BTW, she is a blue-eyed blond who graduated from Berkley High (CA) and after high school took a trip to Acapulco with some other girls during the summer and fell in love with Mexico; she did her BA and Masters work in Mezo-American Anthropology and remained there for 23 years. Thus many of her adult words were learned in Spanish. Our 37+ years of marriage have been interesting. Again, Glory to God,

  30. Dino Avatar

    your comment of: October 2, 2019 at 5:26 pm explains things brilliantly and I would certainly agree with that wholeheartedly. The differentiation in the way we are doing the same things that other cultures (and other times) did, is a crucial clarification, and our view of birth and death certainly needs to be sacramental. What you say about the ‘ecstasy’ of kids is also quite valid I think. But the word ‘ecstasy’ is too loaded with peril…
    i.e.: The use of the word ‘ecstasy’ can be quite problematic due to its potential double-edged interpretative ambiguity.
    It would certainly be pedagogically very precarious to actually advise the “cultivation” of ecstasy in any given setup…
    What our discerning spiritual guides in Christ, actually advise is the “cultivation” of humility and sobriety (quite the opposite to ‘ecstasy’ in some sense).
    The ‘chase of ecstasy’ (almost indistinguishable from spiritual pleasure-seeking), inevitably cultivates the propensity towards delusion.

    I am here reminded of the fascinating paradox, that those holy ascetics that (ascetically) pursue and chase after what others shun, i.e.: after death, or after sobriety, or after humble debasement, are the ones that find their opposites, i.e.: true life, delusion-free ‘ecstasy’, or august majesty – they come chasing after them!
    Of course, if by ‘ecstatic’ we mean “to get out of our self-absorption in order to be in Christ”, that presupposes a very different interpretation of the word ecstasy, but even this, is, how shall we say…: “not outside of me”. For man, Christ is to be found deeper than his mind’s egotism, in his heart of hearts, as per the article of Father Stephen. This inner Kingdom is what enables the perception of the entire universe in Christ too. Vigilant introspective stillness is quite different to heedless external ravishment, the ‘ecstasy’ that might result in the first is very different from the second. More different than, to use Lewis again, the difference of a dove-like-innocent virgin from a divorcee, (as the ‘virgin’ here is more akin to a wise-as-a-serpant old sage).
    Please forgive my overtly sobering restraint on the matter, that’s how I see it.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Scott, the title of this blog is the answer to your question. The work of personal repentance is deeply ontological. Thanksgiving begats peace, peace begats joy, joy is the living water.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael is right – we give God thanks for all things. We “bear a little shame” – which does not mean walking around with a little shame. It means bringing our shame into the presence of God (“little” being however much we are able to bear) and allow God to heal it. This is primarily done by means of the sacrament of confession. If you have hurt others in big ways – you take it to confession as well. We will never “earn” being ok (that’s a juridical approach). Instead, we accept the merciful goodness of God who heals us and accepts us (like the Father with the Prodigal Son) and we give thanks.

    God wants us to live – to live in the fullness of true existence – and eternally. It seems to me, in your description of “every spiritual crime from the age of twenty-five to three score and ten” – you are inadvertently allowing whatever sin might occur to overwhelm everything else – every act of mercy and kindness, every prayer prayed, etc.

    The justice for those “who cry out against me” belongs to God. You nor I could possibly pay the price or make it right. God alone can. We have to leave it with Him and give Him thanks. It’s difficult.

    It is possible (and I am speculating out loud) that there is a touch of OCD in all of this. That rather dark (though necessary part of our brain) that handles some desires, fear, etc. (the so-called “lizard brain”) can be overactive in some persons and haunts us with dark, condemning thoughts and other such things. It is treatable – therapy and medication in some cases. I bring it up just in case its something that is an issue – or some other reader has such issues. These dark thoughts are insistent and drown other thoughts out. I’ve seen it nearly destroy people. If that’s the case – I encourage you to find good support and help with it. The “hell” of OCD-driven thoughts is not St. Silouan’s hell – though, no doubt, so days it rhymes with it.

  33. Byron Avatar

    Vigilant introspective stillness is quite different to heedless external ravishment, the ‘ecstasy’ that might result in the first is very different from the second.

    “Stillness” is such an important word in all of this. It seems to me that we often have to convince ourselves that stillness is okay; that it is good to practice as it brings so much foundation and stability. It seems to me that we run about in distraction so much of the time.

  34. Sunny Avatar

    Dino, your comment has the weight of the authentic spirit of Orthodoxy. Thank you so much for taking the time to genuinely engage my thoughts. It has helped me more than you may know. I do think this subject of ecstacy needs a finer tooth comb through it, and you are certainly correct about the peril of certain ways of interpreting what that word means. I appreciate being able to speak my thoughts and have help examining them in the light of Orthodoxy. They are real, present questions for me and not mere ethereal pontifications.

  35. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG

    As for the writings of Saint Dionysios, which seem to have a strong connection with today’s reflections, I definitely won’t consult them as long as I’m still just a catechumen. Last evening at Vespers it occurred to me as we commemorated the apostolic saint: if Saint Peter in his epistle already chastised the ‘unstable, lawless’ men who distort Saint Paul’s epistles to their destruction, and those who listen to their soothing, then you can take that and square it in terms of how problematic it is to go into deep, apophatic theology like that of Saint Dionysios, in unworthiness. It needs context. It’s easy to ‘think’ theology but impossible to have the ‘beingness’ of the true theologian, until I’m, at least, a canonically received Orthodox Christian who lives the life of the Church. Reading Elder Sophrony’s life of Saint Silouan has given me a refresher on how a saint, who is the rightful theologian, is far from rationalism and takes every pain in humility never to say things about God which their lack of God-Union precludes them from. It’s all humility, that is the first and the last thing…

    Maybe it’s proof of too much imagination in me, but when St Paul referred to ‘knowing a man in Christ’ who was caught up into heaven and saw things too wondrous to describe, it occurred to me: he may have been guilelessly referring not only to himself, but to the hierarch of Athens he catechized, Saint Dionysius, and it was that saint’s rightful labor to record much of what was seen and experienced in mystical treatises, about the Divine Name, and the Ranks of the Angels. Just a thought or imagining… I have no idea if the Church ever taught something like this.

  36. Matthew W. Avatar


    Thank-You for your comment regarding communion. I was disturbed when my church made communion open.

    I visited a a small Anglican house church once, and having been well steeped in my own experiences (including Orthodoxy by that time), declined the open communion. I had the feeling that the local congregation felt somewhat taken aback, possibly even offended that I chose not to participate. But it was clear to me – we were not the same. And, rather than pretending that we were, it seemed to me – right or wrong – to remain faithful to to the tradition I was already a part of, for the time being.

    Lord have mercy.

  37. Matthew W. Avatar

    Adding fuel to the ontological vs juridical salvation debate.

    I will use Sabbatarianism as an example because it was my motivator. However, Christ has compared hatred to murder, and said that adultery can be committed with a look. Covetousness is also fairly open ended.

    So for my thought experiment, I started asking, if I work on the Sabbath, do I only sin once as I’m working, or do I sin once for every second/minute/hour that I work? If I only sin once, does that mean for each time that I start and stop, or once I’ve done it, does that mean I’m branded for the entire day and should just keep working as much as I need to?

    See where this line of thinking is going? A juridical approach is artificial, inorganic, and of a human mind. It assumes tallies that can change depending upon the measurements used and rules applied, it gives us the illusion of being able to bargain with God. Now take my musings and apply it to things other Christians would agree with.

    How many people do you actively hate? What about intensely dislike? Awhile ago we had a discussion about forgiveness – do you avoid people because you are afraid they might hurt you? I do all the time, and ask myself, do I hate them?

    Add lust and covetousness to the above.

    I can probably sin multiple times over in a single thought. Sin is sin, and I’m engulfed by sin all the time, in many ways. Thinking of sabbath rest in terms of legalities isn’t helpful. Neither is questioning your avoidance of people who might hurt you. Don’t question your appreciation of a pretty girl that might walk by on the street. You are who you are, and if you are seeking redemption, you can be sanctified.

    Just my opinion.

    Lord have mercy.

  38. Emilie Avatar

    How beautiful! Thank you!

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father Stephen,
    On the ‘space’ between us:
    There was an elderly Russian lady whom I loved to greet. She spoke only Russian and I knew no Russian. We couldn’t hold a conversation together but we walked the short distance between the social hall to Church together. On one occasion I was grieving about a situation and went to her to hug her and in her motherly way she hugged me and stroked my head while saying ‘Slavo Bogu’. And the grace of God that filled her heart filled mine.

    Last Sunday would have been her 94th birthday. She died five days before that. I do miss her very much. I pray for God’s peace for her soul. Memory eternal Viktoria +

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May her memory be eternal! The space was filled with love!

  41. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Your heartwarming story of this dear Russian woman is truly an example of Father’s description of ecstasis, “extending ourselves toward the other”. It is God in us ‘going out of ourselves’. This is love in its true form, in its purity. So full of beauty, so full of grace. And words are not needed for this to emanate.
    I think this is a taste of how we will relate to each other, and all of creation, in the age to come, that is, when God will be all and in all. Still, God gives us the grace to experience this wonder right now, when we accept His gift of indwelling…and actually desire it…live it.

    I can see how you would miss Viktoria very much. Indeed, may her memory be eternal.

    Beautiful, Dee. Thank you for sharing this. Very encouraging.

  42. Margaret Avatar

    May Viktoria’s memory be eternal! Thank you for sharing this Dee.

  43. Joshua Avatar

    Father, you write:
    “Sadly, we have frequently structured the modern world to accommodate and promote the lonely self. Our neighborhoods, our cities, our mode of transportation, our world of entertainment and consumption thrive on the lonely self and seek to fill the space between. However, you cannot fill emptiness with emptiness.”

    I have often contemplated on this reality with a desperation verging on despair, but have identified no real consolations. Understanding the modern world as you say, filling the emptiness with emptiness, how are we to live? The great trial of secularism is that we cannot escape it. We are continually constrained by a way of living that has no real insight into the source of our being, and yet, we have no other option but to live this way.

    We cannot fully avoid driving cars, living in suburbs, buying goods that support the oppression of others, consuming entertainment, etc. Ironically, those that can avoid these things are often able to do so because they have greater means.

    How, then, shall we live?

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Joshua, I’ll write some tomorrow

  45. Byron Avatar


    May Viktoria’s memory be eternal!

  46. Dean Avatar

    I also await Father’s response to you. I hear your discouragement. I believe many Christians are in your position. At least you realize it. Many are oblivious to the very culture in which they live.
    This morning’s reading from St. Paul noted, “…we are treated as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” He places in juxtaposition at least 7 qualities, manners of living. This would be one way of seeing how we are to live. The times in which we live are given for our salvation. As Father says, we play with what we’ve been dealt. It has never been easy to be a Christian, in any era. If we think so we are looking back with our rose-colored glasses.
    We live in this post-modern world. That doesn’t mean we have to drink its kool-aide. You mention driving cars. Well, they’re a mixed blessing, but technology is not the enemy. We do not have to imbibe of the 24/7 entertainment. If we truly attempt to live out Christ’s commandments, to be kind and merciful, others will take note. You may not fit in. But from what you write, I think that is what you are struggling against, to not fit in. We can live simply, we can give to others,
    we can love, be can be grateful in all things. Do not forget, as St. Paul said, in Christ we possess everything. And I do know my own struggles against the world, the flesh and the devil. Yet, we persevere, with our Lord, His Church, the Panagia, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The One in us is greater than anyone, anything in this post-modern world. Don’t forget that Peter also saw his world as crooked and perverse. But we continue down Emmaus road with burning hearts.

  47. Dino Avatar

    The Letter to Diognetus (2nd Century AD) is illuminating on the mater discussed :

    Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life[…] With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
    And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. […] Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. […] They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. […] To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
    Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

  48. Joshua Avatar

    Many thanks to you both, Dean and Dino, for your thoughtful words of encouragement.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think a key in this is to make a distinction between technology and modernity. It is hard to do sometimes in that modernity constantly sells the idea that only modernity gives us the blessings of technology and that if you like vaccinations and handy gadgets, much less plumbing, etc., then you have to love modernity and be grateful to it.

    Technology is as old as human beings – it is just something that we like to do. Improving the plow, the water wheel, wheels, etc., all of those things. Medicine long predates modernity.

    But when you separate the two it becomes easier to live. It is possible to live a very traditioned existence even with technology around us. It depends on how we use them – or whether they are using us. It is important, for example, to recognize that technology is not design to fill the emptiness of our lives. There are lots of people, for example, who go shopping to help them cope with depression. It’s like taking more of the poison that’s killing you.

    We will not fit in – no doubt. However, someone who practices kindness and generosity, though being different from others, often comes like a cool drink of water and a welcome change from the civil war that surrounds us.

    Christ is in you – the more this becomes our life, the more we can live everywhere.

  50. Dino Avatar

    You reminded me (once again) of something in the brilliantly discerning classic, ‘Neurosis and Human Growth’, by Karen Hornsey. She makes a qualitative distinction between what is psychologically healthy and what is unhealthy in human psycho-spiritual growth, and, while doing so, often comes back to how one can be unhealthily driven by one’s internal and external circumstances or be the healthy driver [“how we use them – or whether they are using us”] which extends the idea beyond the mere “right or wrong” ‘use of the world’, to the right or wrong use of almost everything inside and outside.
    I don’t know if you’ve come across it…

  51. Jacksson Avatar

    Good question Joshua. It is tough living in a secular society with very little escape from societies’ expectations. I have been thinking about the progression towards the Mark of the Beast; I am relatively sure that it will be very gradual, perhaps over a long period of time and perhaps rather rapid. But, it will be very important to recognize the point where we as Christians have to be able to say no. Right now in California, USA and in other states, I believe, we are being forced to get a picture I.D. along with a picture driver’s license or another picture I.D. which I believe is a first step in forcing citizens to line up with the global initiative to get all of us into a global database; hopefully, I am wrong, but the marks are there. It is getting to the point that you have problems without one of these identifiers; I tried to open a bank account recently and was turned down because I did not have a current drivers license of another picture I.D.. I was planning on going to the V.A. and get a veterans picture I.D., but found out that even they require a picture I.D. above and beyond a DD 214 discharge document. Cash still works quite well, but even that might become problematic for all who think as I do.

  52. Dino Avatar

    It might sound downright unrelated, but, I reason that, regarding a person’s prospective capacity of resistance in the face of persecution (including of what you appear to be relating), fasting, is feasibly the one traditional weapon the Church arms us with that can resolutely strengthen us.

  53. Byron Avatar

    It is possible to live a very traditioned existence even with technology around us. It depends on how we use them – or whether they are using us.

    I have found that the more I “unplug” (remove TV, smart phone, even music, etc.), the more focused my Christian life becomes. The catch is: then I feel left out! I’m not seeing everything, I lose track of friends, I feel disconnected, etc. It’s not easy to do but I would add that cultivating face-to-face friendships makes it much more manageable. There’s more to be said there, but I think I’ll leave it at that.

  54. Piran Avatar

    First, I would like to thank Sunny for her honest and articulate comments. As a catechumen I have been dealing with a lot of these same topics as I make my journey into the Church.

    Here is a quote from Rod Dreher’s article at The American Conservative entitled “A Christian Approach to Psychedelics” (which, given that Dreher is Orthodox, is an article anyone here interested in this subject should take a look at).

    “Are these experiences less authentic when induced by a chemical, as opposed to by intense prayer, meditation, fasting, and the like? Not from a neurological point of view. It turns out that under observation with fMRI machines, the brains of experienced meditators and the brains of people on psilocybin (magic mushrooms) look a lot alike.”

    I personally credit both riding rollercoasters and psychedelic experiences with opening the door to Christianity for me. While the quote above speaks to the lack of a material distinction between chemical and ascetic states of consciousness, my own past blurs the experiential distinction for me as well. Choosing to marry, choosing to engage in sex, choosing to bear a child, choosing to climb into a rollercoaster or skydive, choosing to fast and pray, and choosing to ingest a psychedelic plant all can lead to ecstatic experiences. All are choices to alter one’s consciousness. All of them are also inherently dangerous activities and should be approached with sobriety and humility. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. Drawing a hard and fast distinction between any of these experiences has become nearly impossible for me. If God is everywhere present and filling all things yet is not to be found in the psychedelic experience, it seems as though this absence should elicit curiosity instead of dismissal.

    As for the relevance of quantum theory to Christianity (specifically Orthodoxy), I would agree with Fr. Stephen that quantum theory tells us mostly what we don’t know rather than what we do know. It both admits and attempts to model the unknowable. I would tentatively say it is apophatic physics. If this isn’t a potential bridging point between materialistic science and a traditional Christian worldview, I don’t know what is.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not sure of Dreher’s sources, but I’ll take them as you’ve shared them. This is the caveat: we never fast, pray, etc., as Orthodox Christians in order to gain an experience, ecstatic or otherwise. Such things are not to be sought. This, I think, separates them rather strikingly from psychedelic experiences – or things undertaken in order to alter one’s consciousness. This draws into question any such research. Where do they go to get Orthodox Christian (monks, I suppose) having altered conscious states in order to run an MRI. It simply cannot be done legitimately. These experiences are not to be induced.

    Thus, I do draw a hard and fast distinction. With a small background in the Charismatic Movement in my late-teens, early 20’s (over 40 years ago), I can say without hesitation that there are induced states of altered consciousness from those practices that I no longer engage in. I care too much not to be deceived. And that is Orthodox spirituality. If God grants something – so be it – but it is not inherent in my life or faith. There is a “noetic” awareness that is not an altered state of consciousness – it is simply learning how to pay attention in the right way – a great deal of which involves the purification of the “nous.” That is much more the Orthodox path.

    Just my observations.

  56. Dino Avatar

    I would also add to Father’s hugely edifying and illuminating comment, that in Orthodoxy, the extent to which we don’t seek or induce ‘visions’ is such, that we actually vehemently guard against them (due to the peril of delusion)–just as we would against psychedelic hallucinations.

  57. Piran Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you very much for your reply. I value your observations and you have certainly given me a few more things to consider.

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