Healing the Tragic Soul of the Modern West

Fr. Georges Florovsky did far more than forge a path back to the fathers for the Orthodox Church: he also mapped a route for the return of Western Christianity to its own Orthodox roots. Discussing the modern encounter of Orthodoxy with the churches of the West, he wrote:

A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new “polemical theology.” But this tragedy must be re-endured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fulness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition.

If you’re like me, then “historiosophical” is a new word. It is an analysis of history in terms of ideas, concepts, and movements. Florovsky is suggesting that the Western world cannot be approached or understood on the grounds of idea versus idea. Rather, the very process that gave rise to those ideas must also be examined – and that must be in the light of the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. Perhaps, even more to the point, this examination must be deeper than mere intellectual argument and curiosity. It must be “re-endured and relived, precisely as one’s own.” Conversion to Orthodoxy does not mark the winning of an argument or a way of making a point. It is the gathering of the whole of the West within oneself and plunging it into the depths of the Orthodox way of life. This is not a mental exercise – but the fullness of existence in the very roots of our being.

For example, to say that Christianity in our contemporary world is dominated by the ideas of modernity is part of such a historiosophical analysis. It is insufficient to argue that “making the world a better place” (a thoroughly modern notion) is wrong. Rather, we must see how such an idea came to be, how it came to dominate certain forms of Christianity, and, perhaps most important of all, how this has distorted the souls of believers. When I have observed the problems associated with the “soul of democracy,” it is not a suggestion that monarchy is to be preferred or to engage in any sort of political discussion. Rather, it is to ask how the rise of modern, democratic ideas has changed the souls of believers.

We cannot rightly engage the experience of the Church and patristic tradition with souls that have already been formed and shaped by the notions of modernity. At the very least, there is a need for self-awareness, an ability to examine how the filters and assumptions of modernity affect our perceptions. This is the problem with those who suggest the path of “dialog” with modernity. By-and-large, they speak from a thoroughly modernized soul (“dialog” itself is a modern suggestion), without an awareness of the tragedy that infects us all.

Our dominant culture is driven to “fix” things. Everything must improve; all problems must be resolved. We are particularly impatient with anything slow and organic. Florovsky suggests that we must “re-endure” and “relive” the tragic crisis of the West within the living context of the Church’s experience and patristic tradition. This re-endurance is a deep work within the soul, requiring patience, compassion, and sympathy.

I will turn to my own experience to offer some reflection. My earliest exposure to Orthodoxy was in the mid-1970’s. There were but a handful of books (in English) on the topic. There was enough for me to understand that the claims of Orthodoxy were serious and challenging. This was not a mere voice among the denominations. As a “High Church” Anglican, I had been taught a story of English Christianity in which the Church of England was, essentially, the Orthodox Church of the English people. Its argument with Rome was depicted as having long predated the Reformation. As such, reading the early Church and the fathers was, for me, as much a reading of who I thought I was as it is today as an Orthodox Christian. The tragedy of the English Reformation was, as yet, not something I saw and understood.

That understanding began to unfold slowly during the ‘90’s. My studies of Orthodoxy had deepened (I did a Masters’ thesis on the theology of icons). At the same time, my study of Anglican history deepened. As the Church around me was abandoning many important points of traditional teaching, I found my voice of protest to be an empty cry in an echo chamber. Sadly, though I had once been taught I was not a Protestant (High Church Anglicans always denied being Protestant), I began to come to the conclusion that I was, in fact, deeply in the backwash of the Reformation and modernity’s rush towards madness.

By God’s grace, I was introduced to Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, the first convert to become an Orthodox bishop in the Western Hemisphere. He was kind, gentle, never judging, and always understanding of my inner struggles and the subsequent practical difficulties that accompanied my efforts to convert. As a priest (I had never done anything else), finding new employment to support a wife and four children was a major obstacle. That obstacle was later removed by nothing less than a miracle.

The inner soul work of my conversion would not have been obvious to others. Coming to understand that you have been terribly wrong for years is a serious thing. If that was wrong, why should I now think I was right? Many converts wrestle with this paradox. How do we know? To make matters worse, there were terrible jurisdictional battles at the time. Several months before my reception into the Church, a nearby monastery entered schism and broke communion with Vladyka Dmitri. He was heart-broken (as was I).

If Orthodoxy was the ship of salvation, it was clear to me that the ship was leaking. Some wags warned me, “What is happening to the Episcopal Church will happen to Orthodoxy in 10 years.”

My soul had plenty of agony. A ray of peace began, however, when I saw that I had spent the whole of my ordained life trying to “save” the Anglican Church. I wrote, I spoke, I was deeply involved in Church politics. It consumed me. The peace came when I thought: “I do not need to save the Church. I need the Church to save me.” What I saw in Orthodoxy was the storm-tossed life of the very same Church that had sailed the waters of this world for 2,000 years, saving souls and yielding saints and martyrs. Safety could be found, but only in stormy waters.

My heart came to see that renouncing the modern project of “fixing” the Church (i.e. the Reformation) was not itself a way of solving my problems: what was needed was the path of “fixing” me.

Very little peace came with my reception into the Church. Florovsky wrote of re-enduring and reliving the tragedy of the West. There are far too many stories and experiences over the first years of my Orthodoxy to describe in this short article. In hindsight, however, I can see that my soul was enduring and reliving so much that had gone on for centuries before. Bringing all of that to peace (and myself with it) was difficult. I encountered many converts who suddenly imagined themselves to be different creatures – to have embraced a Byzantine purity that excused them from all participation in heresy, all guilt and shame, and provided them with a platform from which to judge the world with impunity. I can painfully recall hearing accusations thrown at me saying, “He’s still an Anglican.” Of course I was. Indeed, there are many things within me that still carry that experience, just as I continue to carry my Baptist childhood and the world of a charismatic commune from my late teens. Salvation does not provide erasure.

Oddly, among the most helpful words during that time came from my Archbishop who consistently said, “Never condemn where you came from. It is likely the place you first met Christ.” His generosity towards the non-Orthodox always called me back from the dark abyss of condemnation that beckons. What has taken place in the West, as well as all that is now taking place in our midst, is within the providence of God. I could not be who I am had I not been who I was. I do not credit God for the sins that are mine, but I recognize that “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God.” God is redeeming us, not condemning us.

We do not solve the mistakes of history. They are what they are. Wrong decisions were made, and they cannot be undone. The medieval synthesis that preceded the rise of modernity has all but disappeared. We live in a world of fragmentation and disintegration. But it is at just this time that a viable Orthodox presence has been placed in our midst. That is no accident.

These words of Father Alexander Elchaninov come to mind:

When a man finds in himself the power to acquiesce in the ordeal sent by God, he accomplishes great progress in his spiritual life. (From The Diary of a Priest)

Of course, I came to believe that the Orthodox faith was true. In fact, I think I had thought that for years. What was lacking was acquiescing to God in the ordeal that is the path of the Church. I had to acquiesce to the tragedy of the Christian West, as well as the sad little witness of immigrant Orthodoxy in our midst. There is the simple acquiescence that the first victim of the Reformation, as it had been at the Great Schism, was ecclesial.

I am no longer saving the Church. Among the rules on the blog is one that forbids discussions of Orthodox politics, or the criticism of clergy. There are times and places for such discussions – they are described in the canons. What is required of us, however, is the deep soul-work of acquiescing to the providence of God (including the whole of our past – in its past) learning to give thanks always and for all things, and the patient work of acquiring the Holy Spirit.

Thousands around us will be saved.

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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208 responses to “Healing the Tragic Soul of the Modern West”

  1. Rhoda Blaauw Avatar
    Rhoda Blaauw

    I am hesitant to share my thoughts and experiences or ask questions, as my Christian life of 40 years has been very painful and agonizing, yet I am thankful, for it is with much tribulation we enter into the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). I venture to comment here with hope of not being misunderstood. I am an Orthodox Christian now since Aug., 2019, and have found the Orthodox far more patient and “tolerant” than Protestants, tho’ I believe I have always been Orthodox, even since a child. My earnest question at the moment is why so much time and concern are given to world or societal matters that affect us, or even about the church’s struggle; how to think, what affects our thinking, what book this or that person has written about this and that topic, and seemingly little discussion is totally focused on the Word of God–the Scriptures? It is God’s Word that transforms us, not understanding “causes and effects,” as it were, philosophy, etc., since there is nothing new under the sun; what is has been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done, saith the Preacher (Eccl. 1:9). –I realise this is a blog, not a church service.–
    Since I’ve been Orthodox for such a “short time,” and having been baptized for the fourth time, I may appear as in infant in knowledge and understanding. Ntl, I have been reading the Scriptures non-stop for 40 years; memorizing large portions both in weal and in woe, in order to sustain & establish my earthly life with God and keep alive my starving soul. I have lived through tragedy, insecurity and constant change from childhood, am an orphan, and never have had a place to call home. The church has been my only home, yet I “have been sorely wounded in the house of my friends” (Zech. 13:6) every where I have gone. I even fear I excommunication from the Orthodox church for my zeal. (Tho’ I am not a big mouth and don’t push for things, don’t worry.) Christ called me out of darkness and saved me. He has watched over me all the days of my life, preserved me from many evils and dangers; He delivered my soul from death and has kept my feet from falling! My desire is to hear others speak of their inexpressible love for Him–as the sweet Psalmist often says, “Talk ye of all His wondrous works; glory ye in His holy Name; Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD. . . ,” etc. I know we do that in the Liturgy, but it seems few can talk of or know the Scriptures, but give more time reading and studying books, history, shifts in the world, etc. Do these give life and spiritual understanding?
    When I was first converted the greatest urge to write came over me, but it occurred to me that the world is already full of more than enough books by men, while the Bible is the book we need to read the most but is read the least (I hope not), though we have it in our hands. I copied over 1/2 the Bible by hand, since I still wanted to write (never finished this project as life moved on, I married and raised a family, and we moved many times). –I started keeping a journal which gives me writing opportunities ; I have tried writing my autobiography, but made little headway.–
    I definitely acknowledge that we do indeed need the help of the Fathers and others wiser than ourselves when it comes to Scriptures and godly living. I’ve also been an avid reader, but the Scriptures have first priority. I’ve also noticed when Church Fathers actually quote the Scriptures it is more like the Church Father “said it,” while Scriptural passages are not referenced. For me the Scriptures cannot be over emphasized. I don’t mind the quotes by any means, but that the Fathers are quoting Words of Holy Scriptures should be noted. (I’m not trying to be picky or fault finding.)
    I hope I am not out of my place, or out of line. Please forgive me if I am. I do think about how I think with hope it is conformed to God’s Word. The world and all its influences grieves me, and its influence in the lives of many Christians. I make a concerted effort shut it off out of my life so I have peace and quiet with the Lord. Maybe that’s what monasteries are for, but I believe the ordinary person can turn the world off, as we are instructed in I John 1:15-17 ~ mortifying the flesh and living above the world.
    I know by experience and agree that the Christian walk is one of great struggle of heart and mind, soul searching, with gradual growth in grace and knowledge of our Lord, which comes from daily Bible reading, faithful church attendance; the mysteries/sacraments; by constant sacrifice & self denial to gain the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, Who IS our [abundant] Life! Struggling along, I hope to endure to the end. Grace be with you all. Please forgive me if I have written anything disagreeable.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is good to love the Scriptures. As you will have noticed, I hope, Orthodox services are largely nothing but Scripture, woven together in such a way as to give us a Liturgy.

    The Scriptures also yield other things – including theology. Various writers and discussions serve various purposes. If you’re mostly interested in Scripture discussions, I would recommend Fr. Stephen Deyoung’s Blog – The Whole Counsel. My experience is that people need lots of instruction in many things before they are able to approach the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner. The Protestant mind has “owned” the Scriptures in our culture now for about 500 years – and have created many distortions.

    But, this little blog has its own purpose, and does not pretend to be doing everything needed. It’s just a small corner.

  3. Rhoda Blaauw Avatar
    Rhoda Blaauw

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for your answer.
    Yes, we definitely notice & enjoy the Scripture reading in Vespers, Orthros & Liturgy services. It is a wonderful blessing.
    I hope I didn’t sound critical of your message(s) or your blog. I have listened to some of your talks/homilies/lectures (not sure what Orthodox call them) on Youtube only recently, and really enjoyed them and shared them with others. However, I can’t help notice a lot of discussion among Orthodox everywhere is on many things other than the Scriptures. And many who have been Orthodox all their lives have never read the Bible. Some say they read only the NT a little. No one taught or forced me to read the Bible; I found I couldn’t live without it. ~Please don’t take me wrongly. I just don’t understand how Christians don’t thirst for God’s Word or that we must be taught how to approach it. Maybe I’m expecting too much. We are very familiar with how Zwingli-ism has badly affected Protestantism, among many other heresies, blinding many Protestants in false teaching.

    Luke 10:39 says how Mary sat at Jesus feet and heard His Word, while Martha was concerned about many other things. –I don’t mean that any other way than what it says.
    I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what “approaching the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner” may mean when Christ bids us come as children. I don’t mean to trouble you. I am troubled myself. I don’t know what to think sometimes. I try to remember “the simplicity that is in Christ” Paul writes, which “simplicity” is wonderful beyond comprehension. I don’t mean to complicate things with wondering too much! :O)
    Forgive me.
    I have been thinking about this, and you just happen to be the one I decided to asked about it.
    I will take a look at the blog you mentioned. Thank you for sharing it with me.

    God bless you, and feel free to delete my comments if you prefer. Sincerely, Rhoda

  4. Micahel Bauman Avatar
    Micahel Bauman

    Rhoda, you raise a legitimate concern. I need to read in private the Holy Scriptures more all of it. However, let me point out a few things:

    The Orthodox approach to such matters (when it is not simply laziness) is quite different that anyone else. Our tradition of worship and practice goes back to long before there was even a codified NT. Thus our services and practice developed in a way that emphasizes the hearing of the word rather than reading of the word, especially privately. Not only was there no codified New Testament for the first 300 years or so of the Church during which time we were under great persecution, there were no printing presses. Not to mention that even if there were, having printed books when meeting in the catacombs and other secret places would be cumbersome dangerous.

    When I walk into anyone of our services, especially the Divine Liturgy, I sometimes think I am walking into a living Bible. Not just the readings or the hymns, but the icons and the presence of the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy angels and the people in the icons themselves are all there. The Word made flesh and lived in the Spirit.

    Look at Romans 10 for a Scriptural approach, especially Romans 10: 16-18

    That is the best of it. The unfortunate ignorance of Scripture that I practice is due to, as I said, laziness, taking too much for granted, the deadening of my soul by the modern spirit and my own sinfulness.

    Historically, until the invention of the printing press, faith, culture and values was handed down by word of mouth from one’s parents and one’s elders–even anointed story tellers. That was true of the Hebrew people and the early Christians as well.

    The use of the printed word has, unfortunately, truncated our human capacity to listen, hear, retain and hand on. Our capacity to know goes far beyond reading. So just because someone does not seem to spend time in the Scriptures (as in reading the Bible) does not mean that other ways of learning and understanding are not going on.

    Then there is the necessity of “do”. Give alms, forgive, repent, visit the sick, those in prison and the fatherless. Each of these acts (when I do them) shows forth into my own soul the Holy Scripture and the person of the Word Himself–our Incarnate and Risen Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    Nothing I am saying her vitiates the need for actually reading and spending time in prayer and contemplation with the written form but there are many different paths to learning, knowing and doing.

    Thank you so much for reminding us of the necessity to read along with the other. It is another case of both/and rather than either/or.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Rhoda, the foundation for “approaching the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner” is to first realize that the Church birth the Scriptures, not the other way around. Such a realization goes hand in hand with experiencing the Scriptures in a way that is much more full (as I described above) than what usually passes for reading these days. AND, it will begin to wean us away from simply the personal interpretation that Protestantism emphasizes. We need to look at the Scriptures as the Ethiopian did in Acts 8: 26-37

  6. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Rhoda…Oh do I understand your concerns! I so do! Not only do I understand, but agree wholeheartedly.
    I am so glad Fr Stephen suggested for you read at Fr Stephen DeYoung’s The Whole Counsel of God blog. To put it plainly, I have never heard anyone teach Scripture as he does. He is most knowledgeable, and thank God that he speaks as an American, in an Orthodox Church in America (Antiochian Diocese), to mostly American ears. He teaches the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture and he points out where Scripture is misinterpreted by those of other confessions. He is not polemical, divisive, or unkind toward our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters. He simply tells it like it is.
    I have seen once in another place, where he called himself ‘a bible guy’!! Rhonda, he is! You’d be blessed by his knowledge, I am sure! And may I add, his podcasts are equally a blessing. There he is very very thorough, explaining in detail, many times giving a very helpful ‘mental picture’. The podcasts are recordings of his Bible studies, and the questions from the ‘audience’ are ever so helpful in bringing about in depth discussions.

    Thank you so much for coming forward to comment here. It is a pleasure to read your heartfelt words.

  7. Rhoda Blaauw Avatar
    Rhoda Blaauw

    Thank you, Michael for your very helpful comments. I realize that for most of history the common people did not have the written word and teaching was transmitted verbally. Thank you also for not thinking I’m out of line to ask about the importance of reading the Scriptures. They have saved and preserved my life both physically and spiritually, and kept me holding onto the Anchor of our souls through much suffering, persecution, and loss. Honestly I think I would have burned at the stake long ago if that were still the common practice. He has kept me from being overthrown through His Word, and I cannot thank Him enough.
    Now that I’m/we’re in the Orthodox Church, Antiochian, there is much more comfort, and we continue to grow.
    Ntl, I see much “ordinary living” around me, just as among Protestants who take the things of God for granted and live as they please while professing faith in Christ. That was the main error of Israel down through history: assuming they belonged to God while always going after the idols, the world, riches, etc.; living God lip service while their hearts were elsewhere. It’s not my intent to judge or condemn others. However, I greatly fear for the children being brought up today who are not trained to obey, they can’t pay attention or listen to parents, or be still in church; who are raised in daycare and all that society dictates as the way to live nowadays, & other things. Mothers work rather than living sacrificially to save their children, if that should even qualify as a sacrifice. Ungodly attire accepted in church is another topic. It is frightening to me. This behavior among Christians all but destroyed our family, because those we went to church with lived like the world outside of church, jumping into their “play clothes” just as soon as church was over, and the like and in worldly activities on Sundays. Our sons couldn’t see why we didn’t live like everyone else. God being merciful, they are joining us now in Orthodoxy at last. My husband and I did all we could to raise them to fear, trust & obey the Lord. –That’s just a personal note.–
    I greatly worry about my grandchildren and the little ones in the church. The young adults are encouraged to go to university and postpone marriage; child bearing is also “curbed” (or feared) for lack of a better word. I have longed to see unity in the church among believers concerning these matters; not just agreeing about what we believe, but also how we should live because we actually affect one another by our lives.
    I also realise this is beyond my control, of course.
    Since we do have the Word of God now, and its Power is so great, I am very hopeful more will pick it up and not let it remain unopened. It has pierced through my heart for 40 years, hearing God speaking–not relying on my own wisdom to interpret, but obeying the simple truths a child can grasp, and loving God for His great love toward me. God blesses walking in faith and simple obedience even where we can’t see and the path seem insurmountable (which is true faith), I’ve found. St Theophan the Recluse writes that the life of the cross consists of all sorts of inconveniences, burdens and sorrow, weighing heavily internally and externally. . . . He goes on to say the Christian is like a sick person in need of amputation or cauterization, and how can this be done without pain? . . . Abundant privilege and a life of pleasure do not suit a true Christian. Where there is a Christian, there is a cross. . .”, etc. That is what true Christianity has been for me. We must give up everything that takes us away from God. Since there is abundance in His Word, I just hope other will find abundant life there, too. –Not saying there aren’t other things to learn and study. But spiritually speaking, we need the Word.
    I am glad to hear of the Father who focuses on its teaching, and I do appreciate the work of the other Priests as well. I really enjoy Fr Stephens work–I didn’t mean to come across otherwise. I don’t despise other instruction, and have heard some very good lectures, but the Scriptures are my personal favorite!
    Thanks again for your comments. God bless you.

  8. Matthew Avatar

    I am a late comer to this article.

    It is beautiful. Thank you.

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