Magic, Superstition, and the One-Storey Universe

Over the years, in thinking about the here-and-now presence of the Kingdom of God, I have pondered about what it actually looks like. Its nemesis, the modern version of secularity, is easy to picture (we unconsciously do it all the time). That picture is of an utterly material world, governed by material laws, with possible (and rare) interventions by God. Mostly, the things that belong to God dwell in the rarified atmosphere of the imagination (or so we suppose). God and His world are “ideas,” which, perhaps when this life is over, we may have some sort of share in as we go to heaven (or hell). But if this secularized account of the world is not, in fact, the case, what does life in a One-Storey Universe actually look like?

Two words immediately come to mind: magic and superstition. What I mean by that is that from a secularized perspective, the actions and thoughts of someone responding in a One-Storey Universe will, most likely, appear to be superstitious or shot-through with magical thinking. Of course, it is also likely that someone who is mired in a secularist mindset will simply lapse into some version of atheistic materialism. Navigating a life through these conflicts is never easy.

As a child, I would describe my life as marked by a secularized, cultural Christianity. I was a Southern Baptist (of sorts) which means a world without sacrament, symbol, or mystery. In almost every way, the world was seen and experienced as literal. There were conservative (or self-described fundamentalists), whose literalism insisted on a seven-day creation and a world-wide flood, but, by and large, the mainstream of my life was marked by the dominance of a secularized scientific narrative. The Bible was, on the whole, made to fit.

There were troubling exceptions to that world-view. For example, ghosts. You would hear stories (not the campfire ones), or, even have some sort of encounter. It was not uncommon to have such questions rebuffed with, “There are no such things as ghosts,” but you could tell that the speaker worried that there might be. We also had Appalachian roots. My mother’s mother could “talk fire out of a burn” and “stop blood.” These were small healing practices that involved some use of a Bible verse, whose origin probably predated Christianity and went back to our Celtic roots in Scotland and Ireland. We didn’t discuss how such things fit. My grandmother’s father could “remove warts” by an equally mysterious practice. It was in the family.

Many such things broadly came under a heading of “superstition” or “magic.” That my grandmother’s actions were exempted were simply signs of the inconsistency within my world. I later encountered Pentecostalism that seemed to mark the opposite end of the spectrum. Virtually everything was seen as a direct, divine action, begging for interpretation. The unseen and suspected actions of demons were far more likely to be given credit than a simple, secular analysis.

Between these extremes, I also encountered, as a teen, the sacramental thought of High Anglicanism. That sacramentality did not extend much further than Baptism and the Eucharist (perhaps because I didn’t ask further). But with that sacramentality came my first experiences of mystery and wonder, of the sense of symbol and sign. (It is of interest to me that my first personal story from Orthodoxy came from a friend who described a healing ritual practiced by his Yia-Yia that would have made my own grandmother blush.)

It is necessarily the case that anything outside of a strictly materialist behavior will appear magical or superstitious to a secular mentality. Of course, even love and beauty come in for criticism under that strict regime. Materialism simply fails to give a sufficient account of human experience.

Bearing that in mind, how does a life lived in the One-Storey Universe deal with the temptations of actual magic and superstition? Is there some way of drawing a line and making a distinction? A primary distinction centers in the purpose and use of the non-material world. This is the axiom: when we seek to use the unseen in a manner that controls or directs the world around us, we have left the path of true belief and entered the world of magic and superstition. It is, oddly, the opposite of the sacramental life. In the sacraments, material things are used for the purpose of communion with the immaterial with the sole intent of communion with God. In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.

Secular materialism is itself bound by a form of magic and superstition. Its entire object is the control, management, and manipulation of the material world for our own desired ends. That science and alchemy began in the same medieval laboratories should be noted. Science matured as its path of success yielded ever greater power and control (and began to despise its alchemical brother as a relic of religion). We seek to know the hidden “secrets” and workings of the universe in order to become its masters.

When this is understood, the mask of prosperity and “happiness,” that we tout as the flowers of our project, reveal the darker spiritual content of our magical pursuits. From time to time, we re-enact the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice when we unwittingly unleash a nature that cannot truly ever be managed. Worse still, our magical predisposition weighs against the simple task of living rightly. Imagine living in a household in which one of whose member’s sole interest is the control and management of everyone and everything around them. (This may not be an imaginary thing for some – my sympathies).

Living rightly means, above everything, living. Obviously, there are things with which we interact and control to some extent. But living rightly includes living “lightly,” in which we are as mindful of the nature of things around us as we are of our own needs. The further we go in the direction of shaping and controlling, the more our life tends to move towards inner dispositions that fail to nurture us. Living is an art, not a science.

So, how do we describe living in a One-Storey Universe? First and foremost, it is a life of communion. The nous is the God-given faculty of the soul whose purpose is the perception of God and divine things. A One-Storey Universe is the world in which the noetic faculty is restored to its proper place and role. We do not perceive the true nature of creation, for example, in order to control it. Rather, we perceive it in order to have communion with God through creation. And creation itself is only rightly seen when perceived in this manner. Things cease to be things-in-themselves: everything exists as a manifestation of the goodwill and providence of God.

There is, even in such a world, the temptation to magic and superstition, a human temptation to manipulate and control. This is idolatry, the placing of the self where God alone belongs (it is in this sense that the Scriptures describe witchcraft as “idolatry”). Of course, those whose minds are shaped in modern secular materialism will see almost everything in terms of its own efforts at control. Thus, the veneration of icons, the right regard of the sacraments, the reverence for all created things, will easily appear as some effort to control or force God’s hand. Instead, it is merely the desire to kiss His hand at work in all things.

Life in a One-Storey Universe (perceiving things as they truly are) begins in repentance, and continues in the same manner. We repent from the drive to control and manipulate, and extend ourselves towards all things (and people) in love and the desire to see God. In time, such a life will see the fog of delusion lift and the clarity of noetic experience begin to descend. It’s not magic: it’s just how things are.

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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77 responses to “Magic, Superstition, and the One-Storey Universe”

  1. abe Avatar

    maybe”the way things are” IS magical.
    Great post Fr.

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you so very much for this blog post, Fr. Stephen! I needed to read all of it and especially these sentences: “This is the axiom: when we seek to use the unseen in a manner that controls or directs the world around us, we have left the path of true belief and entered the world of magic and superstition. It is, oddly, the opposite of the sacramental life. In the sacraments, material things are used for the purpose of communion with the immaterial with the sole intent of communion with God. In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.”

    And also these sentences: “Living rightly means, above everything, living. Obviously, there are things with which we interact and control to some extent. But living rightly includes living “lightly,” in which we are as mindful of the nature of things around us as we are of our own needs. The further we go in the direction of shaping and controlling, the more our life tends to move towards inner dispositions that fail to nurture us. Living is an art, not a science.”

    God bless you in all ways and Glory to God for All Things!

  3. Lewis Avatar

    Beloved Father Stephen, you have at once made our right relationship in the Creation clear, simple and profound. I presume that you have sought God’s wisdom; it has come to you in a steady stream. Thank you for writing so faithfully over the decades.

  4. Grant Avatar

    Thank you again Father. Your posts are a lifeline to God for those mired in secularity.

  5. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    “We repent from the drive to control and manipulate, and extend ourselves towards all things (and people) in love and the desire to see God.”

    How can this be applied to the phenomenon of the pandemic we are currently experiencing?

  6. Rhoda Blaauw Avatar
    Rhoda Blaauw

    Enjoyed this article, Fr Stephen, and your expression:
    Imagine living in a household in which one of whose member’s sole interest is the control and management of everyone and everything around them. (This may not be an imaginary thing for some – my sympathies).
    We’ve seen manifestations of that in other spheres quite a lot in our experience. Thank the Lord for His aid & deliverance through those experiences which contributed to learning and growth, however painful.

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Science can be conducted as an expression of love to others and to God, Esmee, as can any action whether or not it would be called ‘science’.

    We face our death always, whether we allow ourselves to be aware of that fact or not. Our call is to return to God, in fact our very nature yearns for God. He is our food and our medicine. He is what makes us whole. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek a physician when we need one. As Father mentioned in a previous post, where he cited several relevant verses in the Wisdom of

    Father, it seems that the noetic life certainly doesn’t come with an easy set of instructions. And I think sometimes we wish that it did. But perhaps if we consider Christ’s words “take up your cross and follow me” or simply following His commandments (as you have said “share your stuff”) we could begin that path into the noetic life.

    Perhaps it could be summed up with the words, love God with all your heart and mind and love thy neighbor as thy self. Lip service to these words comes rather easy. Living them is a different matter altogether. I find it quite hard if not impossible without God’s help.

  8. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Wisdom of Sirach

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry one more:
    Perhaps I should reconsider that ‘any’ action can be an expression of love, that is a stretch. Yet God makes all things to be for our salvation

  10. Dino Avatar

    I don’t know the answer to that, but I think the pandemic itself, perhaps pales into insignificance when compared to the “pandemic of fear”.
    The vulnerability to this fear, results from the secularised mentality that invariably places the (temporary) prolonging of life above the (eternal) saving of souls (which it ignores).
    Secularised Man’s fear (having quarantined even God himself) becomes quite excessive in the face of insurmountable trials, but still, does not make him repent –as was often the case in the distant past– but quite the opposite (Revelations 9:21), as his science has been authorised with a role that (not for all but for most) often expressly mocks faith (or the sacramental view of things) despite itself being mocked by those very things it sees as ‘to be manipulated’ rather than sacramentally /providentially, ‘coming down for the Father of Lights’.
    It all almost makes me (according to the spiritual law that usually trails the unrepentant –only in order to try to save us) expect some even worse things might have to come upon us once again, once this one is eventually over.
    Our drive to control and manipulate, (not with magic nowadays, but with our only recourse being that of the scientistic secular worldview) is steeped in godlessness rather than in faith. Of course with faith, it wouldn’t be called ‘control and manipulation’ but ‘repentance and gratitude’. These last two, are far more potent at changing the course of things (if such a change is deemed salvific and beneficial as in Nineveh) or to spiritually empower us to bear whatever befalls with trust in God and uttering: “blessed be the name of the Lord!”

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Perhaps our locations are affecting how we perceive the current crisis. I’m not very aware of fear as a pervasive thing. I can see a bit of fear-mongering on some of the media, but they do that all the time (nothing new). But, I’m primarily aware of a deep spirit of cooperation (not perfect) among people. We’re sheltering in place – with only essential businesses open. People are quite polite, cheerful and speak to strangers asking about well-being and such. Many essential workers, often among the poorest paid, are working long hours at great sacrifice. But I see people very appreciative of such things.

    Health workers are in the greatest danger and are not yet properly equipped here in the US. They have more to fear than the rest of us and are a bit stressed-out in my experience (one of my daughters is a nurse).

    But, I see many salutary benefits in the present crisis. First, financial matters have taken a secondary role. Our city has stopped evictions and is not turning off utilitites for lack of payment. One major ventilator company is sharing its patents to other companies so they can help with the shortage. That sort of thing can be multiplied many, many times over across the US. The are restaurants (curb side delivery) offering free-food on certain days to health workers, etc.

    Many conversations I’m having with people include their increased time with family – and a sort of “national sabbath” of sorts. The shared sacrifice is a very strong counter-stroke to the individualism that often dominates the culture.

    The inability to attend Church has increased the appreciation for how much it means and a longing to return.

    I could add much more to that list. We will, I suspect, be better for all of this when it’s done – even if only for a time.

    Modernity is married to the idea of management and control – but our failure as we’re overwhelmed by nature has also pointed out the limitations of our abilities. I do not expect the world to enter into some sort of deep repentance – not now or later. It’s not in my set of expectations (they’re ever so much smaller). Of course, America is such a diverse culture in so many ways, that we rarely do anything together as a single people.

    But, I’m deeply grateful for the sacrifice and deep kindness that I’m seeing.

  12. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dee…indeed the noetic life does not come easy! I have read that our nous needs awakening. It lies dormant, so to speak, but it is there. And I believe what you say is true, about simply following Christ’s commandments…saying yes, in faith, trusting He works all things for our well-being. Even more so, the nous can not be enlivened by pure head knowledge, nor by sheer will. There has to be a symphony of the soul and the Spirit…indeed, a beginning of transformation. The nous almost imperceptibly begins to waken. That’s why it is best for me to avoid calculating these things, and just let God do His work.

    Father, reading this piece, I thought of my fairly recent house blessing. I had to stop and think if I had it done in order to manipulate my environment, because in a sense I was. But it wasn’t the material world, but the for unseen, that I sought God’s protection.
    Something very strange happened after I had a ‘spirited’ conversation with my neighbor who was questioning the tenants of the Faith. Well, no – denying them was more like it. She went on to tell me of otherworldly experiences she has had. In short, she does not understand the God given ‘place’ of a man and a woman, which (I say to Father’s readers) I am not even going attempt to describe, but to say go read Dee’s comment towards the end of the previous post. My neighbor sought the domination of the role of the woman. And it was by the control of the material world as well as the unseen. She wanted it all. I rather quite forthrightly refuted her claims.
    The very next morning, one (of two) of my ducks was missing from my fenced and secured front yard. All that was on the ground was a pile of feathers…no head, no beak, no feet, no tracks, no blood, no nothing. I circled that yard several times and couldn’t find any evidence of an entering/exit of a predator. This is very odd. And I became very suspicious. I wanted my property blessed. I told my priest the story. Before I finished he asked if I wanted him to come and bless the place. Yes!, I said.
    So Father… did I want to manipulate my environment? What I wanted was God’s blessing and protection for my animals, my property and myself.
    We’ve been fine ever since.
    And I still have cordial contact with my neighbor. I pray for her. My priest said, in other words, something like ‘to show her Christ’. Well…I try…..

    Esmee…this is the story I told a while back and you recommended Elder Paisios’ book The Gurus, the Young Man and Elder Paisios. The book is on my shelf.

  13. Dino Avatar

    I very much enjoyed that very positive response!
    Things seem quite different here and it is very much an exception that even scandalises when one remains sanguinely peaceful.
    Having family and friends in Greece and Italy, both of which countries have most people continuously glued in front of a fear-mongering-TV set, (rather than “sabbath-ising”) I receive continuous accounts of ‘the fear’ (of the virus) from about half of them, and the frustration, as well as fear, at/of the draconian measures and their repercussions from the other half (who seem less concerned with the epidemic per se).
    And it’s very often the sort of situation, where “you’re damned when you do and damned when you don’t” try your utmost to pacify them.

  14. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I appreciate your uplifting response to Dino. Not only is it uplifting, but it is true! I see what you describe here in my small town as well. I am very grateful for the sacrifices people are making, and the warmth coming forth from all pretty much all in the community.

  15. Byron Avatar

    Things seem quite different here and it is very much an exception that even scandalises when one remains sanguinely peaceful.


    This is true of the most of the modern world. A conformity of fear is required; peace is not an option because the material world is not peaceful! It is much more prevalent now than it is during an election (“Everyone MUST vote or you are not TAKING PART!”) or a war (“Support the Nation or you are a traitor!”). It is just society acting as it does–the bigger the perceived threat, the more necessary the conformity to the modern paradigm.

    To be at peace and say the God’s Providence is at work regardless of the situation is to be insane by the standards of the modern world.

  16. Ian Avatar

    Father, your reflection comes at a difficult time for me, but I wanted to thank you for sharing. I feel compelled to share a bit of myself here, as well. Hopefully it is appropriate for me to do so and not too personal.

    My father passed away last Friday of heart failure. He had been living alone in an abandoned country church for about 8 years ever since my parents’ marriage dissolved. My father had refused to take care of his mental and physical health, and so was becoming abusive and uncontrollable, which is the primary reason why our family split – my father on one side, my mother, older brother, and myself on the other. We had previously put a restraining order on my father, but recently we (my family) had begun considering more seriously about reaching out again and breaking our no-contact rule that we had established about 5 years ago. In the end this wasn’t to be, as my father died having not told anyone that he was in the hospital for close to a month. Had we known, we would have traveled to be with him.

    With this in my mind, I’ll quote what makes me want to share all this:

    “In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.”

    My older brother and I wanted to see what the state of my father’s “church” was, so we drove over on Monday. We found some of my father’s family already there, which was a massive blessing, as they warned us of what we were about to witness. I won’t describe what we found inside, but for anyone still reading and interested, google Diogenes Syndrome, and it will give you an idea. My older brother, who is Buddhist, and myself who is interested in Orthodox Christianity, both agreed that day that my father was in some way possessed, or at the very least, fighting the demonic every second of every day for the last 8 years.

    It seems to me that the demonic, apart from being manipulative, separating, and destructive, always wants us to fall down the (not pleasant) rabbit hole of trying to manage and contain the material world. And in Diogenes Syndrome, my brother and I, who both were well aware of my father’s hoarding tendencies, were struck straight in the heart and mouth by the extent to which the demonic will go in dragging its human prey into the singularly material world of end-less suffering and death. I think that the demonic presence that gripped my father was cackling in its evil – that he had ensnared my father in a huge country church, away from everyone, including us, the church itself being across from a large (and beautiful cemetery), … At some point the materialist, secular world view, as you say, Father, “simply fails to give a sufficient account of human experience.”

    I walked into a (worse than) horror movie on Monday, yet in leaving that place, I think I found myself believing in God. It became quite clear to me then that there just isn’t enough of our love in the world to save the world, nor even enough of our love to save just one person who needs it the most, like my father. I felt distinctly out of my league when I walked into that place my father was living in. My family felt out of its league 8 years ago when things were, in comparison, a thousand – a million – times better. Ghosts? I don’t know. I don’t really care. But pervasive, demonic evil? I’m having to say yes. And, what’s more, the only way I can think to avoid some version of nihilistic materialism (which the demonic would have us buy into) is to believe that Christ conquers all, and in my father dying, my dad was finally able to wrench himself free of his demons, and is now being lit alight by God’s healing fire. Something, someone, must ultimately cleanse the church my father was living in, heal the pain in my mother’s heart, who has lost her husband for now a second time… To believe otherwise is to affirm that whatever was killing my father and refusing to allow him to live, is who ultimately wins and has the last word. I cannot believe that.

  17. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am glad Fr Stephen’s post came at the right time for you.
    How deeply sorrowful a situation.
    I think you are saying that God has the final word in all of this. I think so too.
    I can’t help but think it was not by chance that the place in which your father found shelter was a church…across from a “beautiful” cemetery.

    May God’s grace be upon you all.

  18. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you, Father, and everyone else, for your thoughtful comments.

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Ian, I’m very sorry to hear of your father’s condition. But I agree with Paula, that the fact that he sought the place of a church indicates so much. It must be very difficult however to have witnessed this sad tragedy. I pray God heals your heart and gives you peace.

  20. Allen Avatar

    Magic works works but as with Faust the price is your soul. Your comments remind me of an old hymn “Trust and obey for there is no other way”. We currently have a teaching moment where God is telling the world that it needs to come home. Pray, put a cross on your door and hope for deliverance. It will come , there are not yet enough souls in heaven to replace the fallen angels.

  21. Janine Avatar

    Thanks Father. It occurs to me that, among other things of course, there is nothing like iconography to exemplify what you are talking about. With icons we either understand that they are meant to help us with a person-to-person communion, or we think they’re some sort of magical painting people worship. We can’t look at them even as moral figures or ideals and really fully understand communion. Anyway thank for this, a good time to read it.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, with all the virus stuff and all the ranting and raving I have come suddenly upon the virtue of meekness. Quite new to me as it eschews both fear and the desire to control without a hint of subservience. I am not sure what to make of it but in light of this discussion, I suggest it as a possible key to being at home in a One Storey Universe.

    Both of my parents knew of and experienced and taught the numinous reality of God alive in His creation but both sought in their own ways to control it all the same they struggled to live peacefully and happily. Everything was a struggle for them.
    Now I begin to see, I think, how the desire for control skews so much but it is a wispy vision not yet rooted in me but seems substantial at the same time. Still, meekness seems to be the antidote.

    Of course as I say that something happens and my heart flares with emotion and self-righteousness. I am such a putz I have to laugh

  23. marcus Avatar

    something i was always pondered on was the place of “discovered science” and the source ( that is the scientists) of it. It seemed that many many many of the discoveries we have today came from scientists who were into alchemy , like a pretzel . There are extremes to the type of alchemy they were into of course , ranging from witchcraft to psychological processes as mentioned below. BUT YET , we do not discredit their discoveries and writings , just as we don’t discredit the work of the church fathers whose beliefs were considered heretical in the later years.

    I came back to Christ after reading Edward F. Edinger , Carl Jung and the other Jungian practioners . Odd right? Looking back , so much of the material in their intellectual universe was about Gnosticism,occultism and psychotherapy. Jung saw the psyche’s journey of individuation as similar to an alchemical process of burning and purification , immersion in water , solidification , death , resurrection etc.
    These led me to think that there were so many counterfeit messiahs in mythology when the real God was the one i was raised with in his church.

  24. Dino Avatar

    Of course the other huge issue is that of how to properly react to the fairly unprecedented occurrence of an ‘Easter at home’ . The gamut of reactions to this reaches opposite sides of the spectrum.
    From meek acceptance of this as a rule administered from God, trusting in His providence with patience, to protests that it is an absurdity (using Palamas, who says that if we are not chaste, no one will believe us that Christ was born of the Virgin and similarly that no one will believe us that Christ is Risen from the dead if we have a fear of death manifested through this Easter from home – despite the actual motives for this being something entirely different).

  25. H Avatar

    Thank you Fr Stephen, being temporarily excluded from the Eucharist raised the doubt in my mind that what I experienced there, every week was somehow all in the imagination, all symbolic and nothing more. With this article you have put my mind at rest, I cannot control how often I can access the Eucharist, but have no reason to doubt what I know happens there. Thank you so much.

  26. Chris S Avatar
    Chris S

    Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on the soul of Ian’s Father

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have a dear Orthodox friend who describes Orthodox who insist on gathering despite the government orders to do otherwise as “Covid-19 Snake Handlers.” It is essential that people understand that none of this is about not getting the virus oneself, a fear of sickness and death. It is about preventing its spread (particularly in an unwitting manner) so that others (the elderly and the vulnerable) do not get sick and die. I do not fear my death – but not causing the death of others is pretty high on my list of things not to do.

    In some measure, the whole matter surrounding Pascha, is in how the matter is framed. This year, it will be kept in a different manner. Indeed, I’ve noticed in Greece that the Holy Synod is appointing a later date (the Leave-taking) as a time for the services of Pascha. My diocese is doing something similar, though the date has not been set.

    2Chronicles 30:1-4 describes an occasion when the Passover was not able to be kept in its proper month. It was ordered to be kept the following month. There is actually a provision for this in the Torah.

    The trick in this is not to fall into a train of thought that makes any of this more difficult than it already is. The way out, of course, is to give thanks always and for all things. I was expecting to keep Pascha this year like every other year. However, God had something better in mind. It may take a while to figure out what was better about it – but it will come.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father yes, meekness again. Not the weak subservience I had subconsciously thought it was but a joyful prayerful waiting on God in the midst of hardship, disappointment and pain. What a gift.

  29. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    I have to share a funny story that happened to be yesterday. I was standing in line to enter Oliver’s (a local Health Food Store) and the woman behind me struck up a conversation. I told her I lived with my priest’s wife. She then asked me if I was a “Coven?” And I had no idea what she was talking about. Then she asked me if I was a witch (loud enough for the person in front of me to hear). Shocked by the question, I said “No!” She was confused because I had mentioned a priest and apparently her first association with the idea of priest was a witch! I had to actually explain to her that I was Orthodox Christian and that we had priests, Lol. Later, while inside the store shopping, the woman who was standing in front of me during this bizarre conversation saw me and came over to tell me that she was really glad to know I was not a witch, haha! What is the world coming to if the person standing next to me at the grocery store associates the word “priest” with witches rather than Christianity?! Oh my… well, this is Northern California after all, so maybe that explains it to some extent…

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You should have turned her into a newt. 🙂

  31. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father,
    that is a clear and succinct response which I can use!

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father thank you for your comment at 8:25am.

    Your message is a pertinent and truly Christian message for anyone who thinks about complaining about the decision to stay at home.

    I was going to use the phrase unChristian machismo to describe this behavior. Better yet, COVID snake handlers!

    Honestly I just don’t get the thinking. It seems even selfish. It’s an embarrassment to hear it among the Orthodox.

  33. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    You start your article by mentioning those who ignore the government orders to not gather. I think what follows in your article is right on. I have seen reports recently of pastors who are ignoring the government and having their congregations meet anyway. To me this is ludicrous especially noting such things as the Washington state church choir who met at the beginning of the outbreak. Despite social distancing and hand sanitizer 45 of 60 now have Covid-19 and 2 have died. In Acts 5 the Apostles state to the authorities that they must obey God and not men. Peter said this because the authorities had told them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name. But what our own authorities are insisting on is for our own benefit, safety. It is hardly an affront to our Christian faith.
    At one time I was a California Highway Patrolman. Among many other things we would give tickets to speeders. Why? For public safety, to save lives. “We did not bear the sword (ticket book) in vain!”
    You pointed out a couple of things I did not know, i.e., the Greek Holy Synod postponing Pascha services and noting that Passover was moved once to a later date in 2 Chron. Thank you for mentioning these.
    All of this is very important to me personally, not because of fearing my own death but because I do not want to see the virus passed by me to others. My wife and I are both in our 70’s. She has suffered from lymphoma twice and as a result her immune system is weakened. So, your comment especially struck a resonant chord with me.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is something “apocalyptic” about the present crisis. I do not mean “end times,” but “revealing,” which is the actual meaning of the word “apocalyptic.” What is being revealed are many of our passions. I have been noticing how different people respond and what they post in response on social media. I’ve noticed many alarmist, or suspicioning (and worse) sorts of posts. What I notice, is that those same people tend to post similar things even during normal times. I think to myself that they are in no way telling me information that I need but are rather telling me about their passions.

    There are, no doubt, lots of “conspiracies” out there. There are bad actors and always have been. But, there’s mentality about all of this that is nothing more than a passion. It cannot be merely labeled “fear” because it has more complexity than that. In the Evangelical world, there is a fundamental conspiracy theory that is preached from the rooftops, all centered around various versions of the end times. I might add that these sorts of notions have been written deep into American culture and probably color more of our thought than we know.

    An Orthodox “troll” attacked me the other day on Facebook for not warning everyone about the coming of the Antichrist. Silly man. St. John told us that there are many antichrists already about in the world.

    But we have some clear words in Scripture about these things. In St. John’s Revelation, a book that has long been used to fuel the modernist conspiracy passions, the most consistent word and teaching is about Christ’s reward for those who obey His word on “patient endurance.”

    “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
    “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.
    “ ‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”
    (Revelation 1:9; 2:2, 19; 3:10 ESVi)

    What I notice is that the passions revealed in our present trial are also revealed more subtly at other times. And, they are frequently masked behind a pretense of piety. It sounds pious to be complaining about not being able to attend services, etc., but, in fact, it’s largely the voice of our neuroses. I’ve repeatedly tried to tell people not to mistake their neuroses for piety.

    So, our apocalyptic Lenten season is revealing our sins to us. That is a gift from God. What remains is to repent of them and to obey Christ’s word of patient endurance.

  35. Dino Avatar

    Father, Dee
    Although the motives for protesting quarantine can be selfish, they can also be an expression of the same love for others as what was explained.
    E.g. I might worry that the provider of a large family who has lost his job and rapidly despairs of all hope…
    Things are not that simplified..

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course. We have a number of health-care workers in my congregation, and I have a daughter who is a nurse on the front-lines. Their struggles and frustrations are very real, and proper. I think they are a different topic.

  37. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Again Father, thank you!

    I laughed a good one at your comment to Esmee!
    I wish things could roll off my back that easily.
    Laughing helps…
    it puts things in perspective…if I didn’t laugh at the perspective sometimes (like when I read your comment), my outlook would be very skewed. Way too introspective. Way too serious. Way too analytical.
    Oh that balance!

    You are so right about the fake piety. Even that, I wish would roll off my back. Instead I let it bother me.

    A thought that occurred to me at the start of all this, when people did panic and bought out just about everything in the grocery stores – that it revealed what lies right under the surface. I wondered what we would see if there was a worse catastrophe. Pandemonium? But then people settled down and are now acting more like a community. Yep…God knows how to use these things!
    My frustrations and lack of patience most certainly came to the fore when this all started. Thanks to the good example of the people I trust, I am beginning to see things differently. At least I think so…I hope…I try….
    You are right about God using this pandemic as a ‘test’. Few get a 100% grade. It is not meant for the ‘perfect’, but those who accept and learn from our failures.

    The verses from Revelation, Father…right on! Patient endurance. Please, God!!

    Dee, I’m with you. I do not understand this reaction from some, who complain about not being able to attend the services. It is an embarrassment. Again, fake piety.

    Michael…meekness? I don’t know what that is. Not in the least am I meek. But I look to the meek for help. Christ is #1.

    Father, this blog is indeed one of God’s anchors. I greatly appreciate your sound advice and outlook. I helps a lot.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, me either. Just kind of hit me the other day. Entirely different than I thought. Far stronger, if that is the word

  39. William Avatar

    Father bless,

    Regarding the fear and passions involved in the hiatus, for lack of a better word, of the sacraments for many in various regions of the country and world, what would you say to those of us who are worried about our salvation or the salvation of their unbaptized babies?

    For some context: I’ve read stories or parables from various saints that give me the idea that dying after having committed a serious sin (and without having gone to confession) is a sure ticket for eternal hell. I’ve also heard from cradle Orthodox from the Old Countries that there is no hope for the unbaptized–even children. Stories like this coupled with the current sacramental hiatus (from Eucharist, Confession, Baptism, etc.), necessary as it may be, seem to be driving a lot of the current fear and passionate thinking in a lot of us.

    Thank you for your word on patient endurance. I wonder though if people are worried that without access to the sacraments all their patient endurance is in vain. God help us to cling to the multitude of His compassions in this fearful time.

  40. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Michael…it’s a good sign when these virtues are realized in their absence. I say it is good, because we see God’s lovingkindness as He shows us what we don’t have. He does not cast us away, but helps us endure the ‘little bit of shame’ to make it possible to ‘settle down” some.
    For myself, I pray…I hope…!
    This time which we are in…it really is an opportunity to align ourselves with God in His intention for using a difficult situation to be for our benefit.
    No – thing is wasted with our good God!

  41. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dino I was only referring to those who would disparage staying home vs going to services.

    I’m deeply concerned about those who have lost jobs and income. And if I were to voice a complaint myself it would be to ask why didn’t the government jump to start testing and to start making the antibody test to see who has had it? That would allow people back into the work force and to protect those who don’t have the antibodies.

    Such testing was not initiated by the demand of the government but some forward looking companies are working on it.

  42. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    William as far as I know there are many ‘sayings of the Fathers’ (others more knowledgable than I please offer help on this) that do not support such a view to say an unbaptized baby would go to hell.

    I am around cradle and converted Orthodox. I just don’t hear such things or beliefs.

    But I’ll let others be more specific, since I don’t know the references to corroborate what I’ve said.

  43. Byron Avatar

    I do not understand this reaction from some, who complain about not being able to attend the services. It is an embarrassment. Again, fake piety.

    While this is not an excuse for those who continue to be stiff-necked about it, my own initial response towards not attending the Liturgy was annoyance. I love it and I greatly dislike being cut off from it. I realized I could not continue that way, but it took a bit of stepping back and taking time to assess the situation. Father’s words on obedience also helped.

    I’ve read stories or parables from various saints that give me the idea that dying after having committed a serious sin (and without having gone to confession) is a sure ticket for eternal hell. I’ve also heard from cradle Orthodox from the Old Countries that there is no hope for the unbaptized–even children.

    We all fall into legalism for structure, from time to time. I think it is more important to trust God in these things. He is still alive and working in chaos.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but bad theology, even when it comes from so-called parables from various saints, is still bad theology. That there is no hope for the unbaptized is simple nonsense. What about the thief on the Cross? I could multiply examples. This that you described is indeed something of a “magical” view of the sacraments – one in which God Himself and His mercy are helpless, unable to do anything if something down here doesn’t work right. That kind of thinking, no matter who it is credited to, is simply not true, and it paints a rather ridiculous picture of God.

    Thus, don’t be troubled by such stories. Have the courage to trust in the goodness of God.

  45. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this treatment of magic and superstition. I’ve always been of two minds on this topic. Growing up Protestant it was one of those inconsistencies. We knew we wanted to stay away Ouija boards and seances but at the end of the day we really had no idea why. To go along with that there were always children stories where magic seemed quite natural and helpful.

    But now I have a new understanding that incorporates itself into the one-story universe. The problem for the Apprentice wasn’t that he could use a broom to sweep the floor, it was that he was using this ability to avoid the important lessons he needed to learn about hard work, menial tasks, obedience, etc.

    As cheesy as it is, I go back to Karate Kid and recognize that Mr. Miyagi didn’t make Ralph paint fences and wax cars for the purpose of free labor; it was for Ralph’s martial arts training – something he couldn’t see at the time.

    In the same way it seems that magic is generally discouraged because we broken humans would use it to command and control instead of to draw closer to God and do His will. In that view magic itself isn’t wrong; it simply isn’t something most of us can handle.

    Going off of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which references Merlin not being allowed to use his magic for the most part, I also believe that as the world has grown darker, magic has been something we are less and less capable of, that one day when the world is remade it will return to us – and yet not any longer be thought of as magic, but rather just another part of being in union with God.

    As the quote goes, magic is what we call the things we don’t understand. Thanks again for making these things clear for us mortals.

  46. William Avatar


    Thank you. I was hoping you’d say something like that! In my openness to have my theology reshaped by Orthodoxy, I’ve been troubled by certain stories (like the ones previously mentioned), and so I bring them up in order to have them interpreted and applied by someone with wisdom and experience. Your words comfort afflicted souls.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re welcome! When I was drawing near to being received into the Church, I worked some with my godfather-to-be (a respected priest). I had a number of smaller questions that touched on bits and pieces of what I’ll call “folk-Orthodoxy.” I needed to know what their status was. I remember saying to him that I was utterly committed to being Orthodox, but that if I had to teach “x,y,z” I could never be a priest. I could submit to any number of things – but to teach something authortitatively that I was merely submitting to would be quite harmful to my soul (of that I was certain). As it was, all of my questions were more than resolved satisfactorily.

    It’s very hard to learn how to sift within Orthodoxy – partly because we do not tend towards or nurtuture a critical mindset. It was a major concern for me – including after that time. Within 5 years of my conversion I was elevated to be Dean of my deanery, which put me in an authority position (from where could I always seek guidance from the Bishop). But acquiring an Orthodox mindset, and good, sound judgment was very important. After I began writing in ’06-’07, it became increasingly important. So, it is something I continue to pay close attention to.

    First, and foremost, is the “guarding of the heart.” A practice can be harmless, even if ill-informed, so long as it is not something that harms the heart. And even when correcting something harmful, it is important not to do something yet more harmful in the process. I have been blessed with wise guides who are a great help to me (including the wisdom of my wife).

    Those guides are now headed by my present Archbishop, Alexander Golitzin. Athonite monk, Oxford Scholar, scion of Russian royalty. Sort of a complete package!

  48. Dean Avatar

    Something that has stuck with me these many years is this quote from Fr. Thomas Hopko…”Orthodoxy will never ask you to believe something that is not true.” These words were healing balm for me, as I began my Orthodox journey. And his words have proven true!

  49. Ziton Avatar

    Paula’s post about her supermarket experience interestingly used the words “pandemonium” and “pandemic” which got me thinking. The origin of the word pandemonium is “pan” all, “daemon” (evil in its late latin form anyway) spirits. Interestingly visible in supermarket and seemingly much online behavior. Also, Milton made Pandaemonium the high capital of Satan and all his peers in Paradise Lost. Pandemic comes from “pan” all and “demos” people – something that is happening to everyone. This, with some of the other comments, had me thinking that the real risk to avoid is the pandemonium entering into the pandemic … (both words writ large).

    Ian, your father’s tale is very sobering and real. Every blessing on him, and on you and your family as you work through all of this. I can’t help but feeling that your growing intuitions on the deeper matters are headed in the right direction though, towards that sense of a love that is larger than life itself. Again, blessings.

  50. Ziton Avatar

    Some thoughts re science vs magic drawing on this and Father’s last article. I think of GOOD science – to use Michael Bauman’s thought – as a genuinely meek (or at least humble, not the same thing) activity. It applies a fairly ruthless methodology that assumes that focuses on particular issues in the natural world, then tries to get rid of assumptions and then tests (usually initially inductively generated) hypotheses using falsifiability as the key weeding out mechanism. It has an underlying (humble) assumption that we do not know the answers to things, and that all explanatory systems are provisional, and subject to replacement if better (using the same methodology) come along. This has the great virtue when done properly of rigor, and that when ego and authority issues arise, there is a pathway for those to be just dealt with. (That said, ‘hero scientist’ stories overstate the ability for the establishment to slow down real progress in practice though.)

    So science done well really is a marvelous project about uncovering how things work – and in that sense of revealing the truth of Nature (again a word writ large). As long as it sticks within its proper limits, and avoids the temptation to use it for other goals. The problem with the alchemists that their project was always tied in with other objectives. Unfortunately, given that is what humans always do, science as a big picture activity also, as Father’s article says, gets sucked into the same trap. And “scientism” then tends to flow from it, which is a kind of ideological tendency to sloppily apply some of the findings of science, and aspects of the methodology, and general high regard for ‘Science’ to a range of things it is not well suited to. Thus we end up with Dawkins et al. David Bentley Hart has magnificently and fairly systematically pointed out the many sad problems with all of this, and is someone to whom Dawkins has never as far as I can see responded (DBH’s “The Experience of God” book is highly recommended, for many reasons).

    So things have kind of come full circle in a kind of hollowed out way. The early alchemists were problematic, but at least they had a kind of integrated view about the physical and ‘ethereal’ (for want of a better word) aspects of existence, even if they were trying mainly to use the latter to achieve results in the former – although maybe they regarded the whole thing as being of a piece. The early scientists were right to regard alchemy with a great deal of suspicion in its mixing together of pseudoscience and mystical thinking, and as just being methodologically problematic. Science is best treated as a separate activity and only very carefully, cautiously and conscientiously brought together with religious thinking where that is appropriate – I usually cringe when I read religious people using pseudo science to help ‘explain’ or justify religious ideas (quantum physics is sadly especially vulnerable to that, for scientists evolutionary psychology tends to be the most egregious example). We just end up with bad versions of both.

    In terms of my “coming back full circle hollowed out” idea though, modernism now also seems happy to pseudoscience to ‘explain’ spiritual or other issues, but in a manner that just tries to clear them out as having any content. It’s kind of the inverse of alchemy. It’s a travesty of both science and religion. And yes, it’s motivated by control, but also the other ego problems such as status and vanity and the nihilistic vortex feeling that maybe I don’t matter – while ironically growing that void by it’s activity.

  51. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Check this out:

    Kelley is an Orthodox Christian. All about alchemy and theology, very interesting stuff!

  52. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    I grew up in a home that had ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ and ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ on the shelves of its library. It is the use of language as a spell that so deeply disturbs me. I have never been able to get my parents to understand that I actually love them, and up until recently would endlessly take the bait. They have often spoken to me as though they are trying to cast spell, or try to get me to describe the future so they can feel more confident it will be so

    I have been learning about Marsha Linehan and the incorporation of flexibility into thinking, improving our descriptions. It is like looking at reality and saying, yes things can be profoundly difficult and yes, also God can be good.

    In HS my campaign slogan was ‘nothing grey’s and I am so glad I have evidence of the cognitive distortion of black and white thinking that I was immersed in. The profound misuse of language as a spell in how we pray to God, interact with others, and attempt to manage our world is really America as salesman and our cult, our belief in practice as a society. I think it is evidenced in how we view infomercials and but those products, hoping, but then don’t return them because we let the salesman win.

    The current president grew up going to the gatherings hosted by Norman Vincent Peele at the marble college church. My friend the Old Testament Teacher read that name a few years ago and immediately said out loud, ‘this can’t be Christian.’

    Goulston has written on his Medium blog that the president may have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I think positive thinking would cultivate exactly that, think it different, say it opposite if you don’t like it, as they way to begin making it so.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicole, psychological diagnosis on political figures is the newest shell game, especially such vague ones as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Personally I think every single elected official could be reasonably diagnosed with some such thing. By the very nature of the job they are defying the opposition most of the time.

    We are all crazy in our own way. Mentally, spiritually and sometimes physically broken, every parent has done damage to their children — and yet Jesus incarnated; perhaps because of all that. We need not rage against the dying of the light we experience all around us because He has, is and will be risen. Nothing you are I can do can stop it.

    So, go boldly before the throne of grace in humility, meekness and a repentant heart.

    Now, I just have to do the same.

  54. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Thank you, Michael B. What an amazing mystery. I have noticed that Christ did not voluntarily take on the suffering of having rebellious or violent parents. I think it is why He is able to say ‘they don’t know what they are doing.’

    I have been reflecting and reading intensely about motherhood because I want to be better at it. I have struggled and made the mistake frequently of wanting to do something well for someone far away when there is someone right in front of me who really needs the same thing.

    I have been glad to begin the process of stopping that habit this year.

    It is interesting to see the word Yia-Yia in this article, as I have been thinking of a late 1990s sermon I heard at Saint Sophia in DC, the theme of which was ‘Where have all the Yia-Yias gone?’ It was concurrent with the pop music hit ‘Where have all the cowboys gone?’ and the priest felt so strongly about it he went on for 40 minutes. He came out at the end of Liturgy to apologize for having gone on so long, which was the first time I had ever seen a priest apologize. It is a wonderful memory, a role model type memory.

    I have been wanting to call over there and see if I can ask him about it. But my sense of it is that rather than a tender but firm guidance toward faithfulness and maturity in their grandchildren the tendency of the modern grandparent is to attempt to join the child in childhood.

    I noticed this in a family from one of the sports team my son was on a while ago. It was a family I could tell was already swamped and exhausted, yet also tasked with providing the benign entertainment for the grandparents (who always seemed so dissatisfied anyway, despite the genuine efforts of their respective son in law and daughter in law).

    What I have realized is that shaken baby syndrome could really occur two different ways: the crying child is shaken by the parent, or the child (frozen and dazed) is held by a parent who is screaming and crying that the world is wrong, that life is wrong, and shaking the baby symbolically in the process.

    I have realized the need to say ‘Amen. It is so and let it be so’ about life and situations with a rejoicing heart is the (perhaps) the primary task of the parent, and that it would help the child learn joy and rejoicing in every season of life. I take that quoted phrase from the Our Father lecture c.ds of Fr. Hopko, when he explains how his grandson explained correctly to him that Amen is the shortest of all prayers.

    Now I’ve got to go out and do that too.

    Your kind words are deeply appreciated. I need to keep learning.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicole, I am faced with a parental dilemma forward and backward. My father was an enormously creative public health pioneer as a local public health officer from 1950 to 1973 when he was forced to retire at his age 73. He was an abusive husband and parent much of the time. I have greatly harmed my own son. Yet my Dad truly loved my mother and me and made enormous sacrifices for us. I think the best thing that ever happened to him was when he fell off a ladder 10 feet up and landed on his back on the side walk. It would have killed a lot of men but it seemed to quite literally “knock the hell out of him”

    There is a line of a favorite play of mine which has to be acted with incredible honesty to carry well:

    There is a curious paradox which no one can explain. Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain or why Spring is born out of Winter’s labouring pain. or why we must all die a bit before we grow again. I do not know the answer, I merely know it’s true.

    Or John 12:24.

    There are great mysteries of living that seem to involve pain, sometimes a lot of it. Many saints have endured great pain and not just by the executioner’s hand.

    Somehow, someway, God can transform any pain we or our loved one’s suffer even as we cry out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Which BTW is the opening of Psalm 22.

    Scripture, Scripture everywhere and all is precious drink for we who thirst remembering also Jesus words: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”

    I certainly do not. I have to really believe that too or I cannot begin to approach the throne of grace.

  56. Nancy Ann Avatar
    Nancy Ann

    What is the proper use than for holy oil, holy water, wearing our crosses or even the priest coming to bless our home and using holy water to make a cross above our door? What is the difference between using those in a controlling manner and using them in a rightful way?Can we substitute the word hope for control? That we use holy oil in our homes that we received from a myrrh streaming icon in hope or participation, in other words we use the holy oil and holy water in our homes and on our bodies leaving the results up to God, but not demanding God produce a reaction. But right now our church has given us prayers to use during the coronavirus and some of the words are asking for protection. I pray for protection for my family and I have the icon of the Blessed Theotokas Holy Protection. Is that wrong, is that using those in wrong ways. I guess I am just confused because I don’t want to be misusing these wonderful icons, holy oil, holy water and such of the church.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nancy Ann,
    First and foremost, we use all of these things that we might have communion with God, in our health and in our sickness. But, it is never wrong to pray for health and healing, or that we be spared this plague. In the Garden, Christ prayed that the Father would “take this cup away from me if it be possible.” Not to say such a thing would not be properly human. We are not created for sickness and suffering, even though we still experience it and endure it.

    So, use what is given. Pray for others, for your family, and for yourself as well. We remember that in no way does this put us in control. It puts us in union (communion) with the good God into Whose hands we commit our spirit.

  58. Eric Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,

    this paragraph above “when we seek to use the unseen in a manner that controls or directs the world around us, we have left the path of true belief and entered the world of magic and superstition. It is, oddly, the opposite of the sacramental life. In the sacraments, material things are used for the purpose of communion with the immaterial with the sole intent of communion with God. In magic and superstition, we seek to manipulate the immaterial world for the sake of controlling and managing the material world. It is actually a form of secularism – one which presumes that the material world itself is the true and final place of our existence.” has just stopped me in my tracks these past days. For so many of us, prayer is about shifting the levers upstairs, to fix things downstairs, so to speak. In these days of COVID 19 that is so much of the prayer I am hearing is of this type.

    It has so much to do I think with control?? The situation reveals to us most clearly, as Michael Haldas pointed out in a recent podcast, that we are not in control, but prayer which seeks to move the levers of heaven to fix earth seems to me to be of that same genre – it’s about our control . . . of the Loving God! Lord have mercy on us

    In my heart, I kind of knew that this wasn’t The Faith, but what you wrote in this context . . . well, I’m not sure where o go from here. (Am also reading Fr Behr’s incredible work on John’s Paschal gospel – his chapter o the French phenomenologist philosopher, Michel Henry, has resonated with all of this . .) I’d appreciate your prayers

  59. Nancy Ann Avatar
    Nancy Ann

    I understand Father, thank you so much . Praying for you and your family and church.

  60. Dino Avatar

    I read this interesting comment from Greece, where many envy the more creative rules regarding Church attendance of Bulgaria, Serbia and Georgia. (It is clearly very different for those living in the more deeply secularised contexts of the West.)
    But how this current crisis is dealt with within those traditional lands -which are rapidly taking on the consumerist worldview of the secularised west- certainly highlights the deep corrosion of secularisation in a profound way.
    We see that even within the Church itself.
    I’ll relate the example which combines the ‘secularly sacrosanct’ place of the supermarket and the secularly ‘irrelevant’ place of the Church:
    In a hypothetical scenario (only for reflection), let’s ask a question, [ ask ourselves, as well as those in power and influence, especially, those who set the rules, set the limits, apply their ‘creativity’ to enable certain things deemed important to remain functioning, while apply less creative, more rigid rules on other things, because creative, nuanced, solutions are not deemed warranted for those other functions ]
    This is the -very hypothetical- question:
    If a priest could perform the Liturgy on a makeshift table in the supermarket, (as is done in camps or elsewhere where there is no Church), with believers who would attend the service and shop, would there be a ban or not?
    · If the answer to that is “no”, (i.e.: the Divine Liturgy would not be allowed), then any suspicion that God and the Church are the problem -not just the spreadability of a disease- is quite valid. If shopping is allowed, why not allow the exact same people to also take part in a service for a while, while present there anyway?
    · If the answer is “yes”, (i.e.: Divine Liturgy is allowed in the ‘permissible area’ of ​​a supermarket), this means that in the Church temple, the same number of people with the same distancing are forbidden while in another building they are not. But this then means God and the Church is not the problem, the problem is the ‘secular view’ of God and Church as something unnecessary (which under the umbrella of a supermarket could be housed and allowed to exist).
    In conclusion, it seems in deep and protracted crises, whatever these may be, we have a revelation of the true preferences and priorities of governments, societies, individuals and Hierarchy. Such events separate the wheat from the chaff.
    Of course all this can only be understood correctly from a perspective of a traditionally Orthodox land, meaning, a place where it is beyond unheard-of to be blanket-banned from Church during Pascha, whether there’s war, cholera or hurricane.
    I’ll provide a detail for some context of what this non-nuanced, blanket-ban actually means there:
    in some very small islands with less than 200 inhabitants and with over a month of no ins and outs at the port, and with everyone clear of any infections, you are still banned.

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m sorry, but I still do not read the situation in the manner you are describing, nor do I think that legitimate concerrns for public health are inherently secular. Most stores here, for example, are closed. A few essentials – grocery stores – remain open. And, though it is true that prayer is more important than food, we have not been forbidden to pray. There are, indeed, any number of examples of Church being cancelled or prohibited because of cholera and other such things – and it’s historically inaccurate to suggest that it has not been the case.

    An ill-advised ordination service in the Greek Archdiocese with about 20 in attendance – resulted in around half of them with the Covid virus – some seriously sick. It can be questioned whether the quarantine is necessary, if the virus and medical situation is as bad as its been described, whether governments are making the right decisions, etc. However, forgive me, but governments are ordained by God to manage such public-health situations.

    This is not a secularization issue. There were laws on the books for just such management in Tsarist Russia, for example.

    Frankly, I think we have a deep wound in our modern culture in which institutions are at a very low ebb in the level of public trust. We do not trust institutions and we do not trust one another. We do not trust the authority within the Church. I have described this as the “democratic spirit,” but it’s actually a rather anarchist spirit, with a heavy dose of libertarianism (in America).

    I am not at all happy about our present restrictions – but I am more than happy to have authorities who are making tough decisions and I do not think there is anything unique about the Church that should exempt us from that kind of health management. A bishop, and a number of the brethren at the Kiev Caves monastery are now quite sick. The bishop is said to have regretted his failure to take the public warnings seriously. It endangered lives.

    Among the first bishops in the US to take decisive action was my own Archbishop, a disciple of the Elder Aemelianos, a monk of Simonopetra, scholar, Russian royal, etc. I would argue vehemently with anyone who suggests that his actions were because of a secularized mind.

    It will be quite difficult, I think, for the State to figure out how to transition out of this. I pray that it will be wise. I’ll also say, that drawing circles and making exceptions (such as the 200 person island) is a great way for a policy to simply fall apart. Everybody and his brother thinks that their situation is exceptional. I respect the decision for blanket rules and think it is incorrect to label it secularist and misguided.

    Forgive me, again, but the Church of late has repeatedly shown many levels of incompetency in governing even spiritual matters. We are in a very broken state in which our ecclesiological house hangs by a thread over a sea of chaos. I’ll not say more about that giving heed to my own rules for the blog. But, for the moment, I think that States are doing a fairly decent job considering their own levels of incompetence.

  62. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you, Father, for that very thoughtful response to Dino.

  63. Dino Avatar

    Thank you for your response and the consolation that it carries with it. There is deep assurance entering my heart and that of others in your “arguing” with me. It really helps.
    Although it is true that historically it is the state that has often taken the reigns in saving the divisions of hierarchy regarding certain widespread actions – as are needed now. And although I would certainly rather side with obedience-no-matter-what – Saint Ephraim of Katounakia , a man of unceasing prayer, served elders he knew were in deep zealotic error without speaking a word to this error, crediting this obedience as a greater vehicle of Grace than prayer. (consider that he routinely beheld the uncreated Light when serving St Joseph, yet only saw but a single Ray while serving his semi-schismatic elders for 4 decades and still proclaimed such obedience instead of individual rightful protest…) However I still cannot but feel deeply for the many tearful voices I hear from my far away home (Greece), of traditional people who, some know it is possibly their last Pascha and are jealous of the neighbouring Orthodox countries (where they do not get arrested for entering Church) . Of others who worry what so many blatantly more dangerous permitted gatherings compared to the unprecedented ecclesiastical restrictions signify. And especially, the shock of an arrest of clergymen for communing some secretly that need it: in such lands this creaates quite a gutteral reaction and wakes up all sorts of old cultural memories…

  64. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Father Stephen. I’ll be more blunt to say I’m growing weary of the complaints about these decisions to protect lives as if they were some sort of failure as a Christian. Your resilience in which you are able to answer in the truly Christ-like manner that you have, is yet another testimony to your devotion to God.

    God bless you and your ministry, Father Stephen!

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not doubt that you’re right – there has been a long history of suffering for the Church. It has struck me as interesting, however, that Greece has done a much better job with all this than either Italy or Spain. The health-care system in Greece is far more precarious than in either of those lands and could quickly be overwhelmed into a great tragedy.

    It’s also been interesting to me in the Balkans. I suspect there was more fear there on the part of the authorities about not giving any leeway – and that they made a bit of a trade-off. Russia was somewhat late in all of this, but came around strongly in the end.

    It is difficult – and the history of a secularized State is, no doubt, a deep fear. In America, there have been any number of noisy complaints from various corners – including a few Orthodox. In most cases, however, it has been voiced as concerns about the Constitution, etc. America is not a sacramental culture. The Orthodox voices in the US where I’ve heard the most complaint – are largely voices from a sort of libertarian spirit that has been imported. Many of those same voices would probably speak positively about the idea of a monarch – ironically.

    What I suspect is that something very profound is taking place in our world and when this pandemic is passed, there will be lasting consequences. I don’t know what they will be. Interesting times.

  66. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    BTW any Pascha and any Liturgy can be our last. This is true for all of us whether we accept this truth or not. We should always pray as if it were our first and our last prayer, because it may well be that.

    Personally I do not like the parallel that Dino draws to sacrificial obedience to ‘semi-schismatic’ elders on this occasion. It’s implication is unfair and these circumstances certainly not comparable.

  67. Dino Avatar

    Indeed Father that is very much so. I think there will probably be a few more grand scale ‘pan-occurences’ as well as various lasting consequences from them all. Thank you again very much for your answers!

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think I have my parents and grandparents in mind as I work on managing my own thoughts on all of this. I have no doubt how they would have responded – and I suspect it would have been typical of their generation. They had endured national crises before and carried that memory with them. They were of a different time.

    Earlier today, I watched Boris Johnson, England’s PM, make a 5 minute statement upon his release from the hospital. It was Churchill-like, particularly in that it carried echoes of those earlier times and national resolve. Found it on Youtube. Worth a watch.

    As strong a critic of secularized culture as I am, I is important that I point out that secularism is a Christian heresy, but still “Christian” in that sense. That means, that even when it gets things wrong, it is often trying to do a Christian good but doing it in the wrong way. Chesterton wrote this analysis:

    The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

    I think he nailed it.

  69. Dino Avatar

    For the sake of brevity I didn’t go into Saint Ephraim Katounakiotis’obedience’s details.
    In a nutshell, his elders allowed him to serve Saint Joseph but, (a fairly common occurrence at those times in Athos for various objections they had) would not themselves allow the commemoration of the Patriarch.
    What is significant is that he trusted God’s providence so deeply that he knew that he could even obey them (utterly) because God is ultimately on the wheel.

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The trouble with government is that once they gain power, they do not give it up. The entire course of US history is a pattern of greater and greater centralization. I do not think the pattern can be reversed. I make no comment on it’s goodness. At some point a decision will come as to the on going restrictions of religious gatherings. According to the U S Constitution the practice of one’s faith is the most essential activity of a free people and indeed the Federal government is prohibited from making ANY law restricting it. That prohibition has been ignored for most of my life.

    The COVID fear may be sufficient to suspend such freedoms for a time but the temptation to all those in power will be to maintain those restrictions because they can.

  71. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father Stephen, thank you for mentioning Boris Johnson‘s statement upon his release from the hospital. I just finished watching it. Its rare that a politician speaks of love in their appreciation. Indeed it was Churchill-like, “particularly in that it carried echoes of those earlier times and national resolve”. —I agree.

    Love of one’s neighbor which includes those who are on the ‘frontline’ in the hospitals should be the key focus in this effort.

    And I should read Chesterton. I haven’t done that yet. Thank you for his quote. It points to a kind of ‘unmooring’ to Christ. And as a result, there is a peculiar (and very American-Christian) kind of ‘Christian blindness’ that results.

    And I know I need to be vigilant with myself to not fall into such blindness. May God help me to be careful and humble.

  72. Dino Avatar

    That same notion regarding secular restriction of the sacred, in places like Greece and Russia, (with the sort of history that America does not have) , takes on a distinctly different overtone.
    For very many decades there’s warnings from holy as well as not-so-holy voices framing this tension within the historically familiar ‘paranoia’ of psalm 74/75 – 8 : “They have said in their heart, even all their kindred together, Come, let us abolish the feasts of the Lord from the earth.”

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “prohibited from making ANY law restricting it.”
    That cannot be precisely the case. We have a First Amendment right under the Constitution. But no right is actually absolute (nor could it be). When one absolute right impinges on a different absolute right, then something has to give. Good governance is found in the practice of virtue – and that would include discretion and prudence. I’m simply at a loss to think of how the free exercise of religion has been ignored for most of your life. If we’re thinking of prayer in schools – it’s arguable – one right versus another.

    Many things that we imagined to be our “rights” were nothing more than the manifestation of a cultural consensus when the society was more publicly Christian (such as prayer in schools). That consensus has always been strained by heterogeneity in the culture – causing popular resistance to various immigrant groups across the centuries.

    The recent polarization driven by sexual politics and abortion has within it very dangerous seeds – in that it represents ideas and practices that are contradictions of the Christian faith (except for those versions that have abandoned tradition). The clash of values represented in that challenge are a menace to the faith – particularly if they become embedded in enumerated rights. We’re in for a long struggle, I suspect.

    No constitution can guarantee a society or culture. Virtue is the only safeguard. Of course, Chesterton is right. Modernity is awash in virtues – but they are misguided and ill-formed. Certain pockets in the country are as virtuous as Puritan New England – but they are virtues of a false religion. Under such delusion – very strange things can happen.

    But, in the lens of history, none of this should surprise us. In the lens of Christ, we should be fearless.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I think we must be vigilant but not fearful. It is not something that can be “fixed”. It is of note that the Attorney General of the US has issued a strongly worded caution against state and local governments going to far. He has promised action if he perceived that they have. I find that both comforting and scary too. I pray that this cup pass from us.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, of course. The prohibition is against the Federal law, not the state law. At the least it demonstrated that “freedom of worship” is essential. At the time each state had its own established church. As is happening, the states are relatively free to make their own laws in this regard and are doing so. AG Barr’s warning was simply saying “be careful”

    My brother, a sober man and a good priest, told me that the restrictions in NY seem to be quite draconian. His son-in-law and his daughter are in Jordonville.

    Prayerful vigilance is called for, not fear.

  76. Timmy Avatar

    This is such an insightful & inspiring essay that it is glorious. Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen.

  77. Ziton Avatar

    I realize that this thread is pretty much over. But I was just listening to this fairly short talk on the Harry Potter books and their relationship to religion and society by (the now sadly for us reposed) philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton, and thought that it had quite a few real insights on the article’s themes both directly and indirectly. A great section in the second half on the differences between spells and prayer …

    While I really liked it, I should note that he is maybe being a little unfair to Rowling though, as she does represent self-sacrifice, and has quite a few subtle but unmistakeable Christian references happening as Frederica Mathewes-Green pointed out in this review . That said, as a number of commentators on the talk pointed out, no Tolkien …

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