It Is Good to Be Here

A few days ago, after hearing a very distressing bit of social news, I found myself saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore.” It was a voice of despair and sadness. The occasion had been a public altercation in which a stranger spat at a woman. It was the sort of thing that belongs among the lowest of human actions. But it happened.

My topic is my own reaction. I found my mind tossed about, looking for comfort or escape. At the end of the day, I shared my thoughts with my wife and said aloud, “I don’t want to be here anymore.” I was taken aback by my own words. The goodness of creation had disappeared in a dark act of senseless anger.

My distress was also a cry for something better, to be free of the darkness. The truth is that the darkness was slowly drawing me down. Our social strain is manifesting itself in many ways, many of them revealing the profound disease that underlies our culture. And this is nothing new.

In 532 A.D., in Constantinople, over the course of a week, large parts of the city were destroyed by rioting and fires (including an earlier Church of Hagia Sophia). This was in the early years of Justinian the Great’s reign. To read the story of this event is to enter a part of Byzantine culture often overlooked or ignored (particularly by the Orthodox). The city had deep divisions between two semi-political sports-factions, the Blues and the Greens. Sports riots were quite common. The factions also had connections to various nobles and senators with designs on the empire. Justinian was at a low point in popularity.

The riots began in the Hippodrome, following the 22nd chariot race of the day. The palace was placed under siege, and the rioters set fires. Justinian thought to flee, but his wife, Theodora, talked him out of it and encouraged him to fight it out. I think Justinian was at a point of, “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

With a bit of intrigue and a massive show of brute force, Justinian brought the city under control. The massacre that ended the riots is said to have resulted in over 30,000 deaths. Later that same year, construction began on the present Church of Hagia Sophia. Five years later, with its completion, as well as numerous other projects, Justinian had transformed the city towards the glory that would make it renowned throughout the world.

This story could be matched repeatedly by various chapters in the history of the faith. Both Justinian and Theodora are saints of the Church. Justinian began as a peasant from the Balkans, Theodora as an actress and a prostitute. The riots of Constantinople (and elsewhere) were, as often as not, engendered by theological disputes as well as by politics and chariot races. The full account of Christian history is messy and marked as much by darkness as by light.

Nevertheless, “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” During the period of time of the Nika riots, Mary of Egypt was newly reposed; Benedict of Nursia was writing his Rule; Isaac of Syria was composing his hymns; Brendan the Navigator was crossing the Atlantic; Romanus the Melodist was composing his Akathist hymn; Sabbas the Sanctified was founding the monastery of the Lavra outside of Jerusalem; Columba of Iona was evangelizing Scotland, and, doubtless, thousands of other unknown souls sustained the universe with their prayers.

Our time is no different. The glories of Byzantium contained disgusting seasons of hatred, lust, and destruction. The darkness of our time contains the brightness of good souls whose deeds are known only to God and whose prayers keep modernity at bay and secretly fight the hidden Mystery of Iniquity. Despair comes when we look at the dark and forget the light.

This is the great battle that rages in our day. It is precisely the same battle that raged in the time of Justinian (one and the same battle). Whatever might seem of importance is but a shadow cast by the darkness. Then, it was  Blues versus Greens; now, it is Reds versus Blues. Their champions are forgotten as are their causes. Our champions will be swept away into the dustbin of history along with their urgencies. Justinian is not remembered for the riots but for a Church. And even so, many do not recall his name. Some do not know the Church. But Holy Wisdom, in whose honor the Church is named, continues to frame and sustain the universe, sweeping away the meaningless dust of the darkness while building on the foundation of light.

It is good to be here.

Four years after the completion of Hagia Sophia, a plague struck Constantinople and the Eastern Empire (believed to be Bubonic Plague), killing nearly half the population. The Byzantine Empire never truly recovered.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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Comments

129 responses to “It Is Good to Be Here”

  1. Maria Xiourouppa Avatar
    Maria Xiourouppa

    Christ is Risen. Like you Father I also felt the same two weeks ago. Then I realised after the crucifixion comes the resurrection. I said to myself. “Glory to God” and resumed to ascesis

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, it is questionable that the viral threat is waning. In any case the political will to use the virus as a tool of oppression is getting more active, IMO.

    So we all have to balance the actual threat of a real disease by the existential threat to the manner in which our political life is arranged. Our actual political choices have been dwindling for years almost to a choice of which wildly disfunctional belief is momentarily ascendent.

    We vote, if we vote based on the passions. Simple as that. But as the party riots of yore tell us that is nothing new. Those who wish power will always find ways to exacerbate and manipulate . Reds vs Greens is not essentially different from Blue vs Red.

    Yet we must live and find a way in the midst of the passions (personal and corporate) to serve God, not just “believe” in Him. We must submit our passions to His live–some way. Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving combined with participation in our corporate life of worship is the course. The disease and panic over it which always leads to political manipulation and, eventually, unjust coercion must be countered with steadfast understanding the the political solutions are merely temporary and the actual existential threat will be manipulated and exacerbated for the expedience of those who hold and seek political power as a way to legitimitize their use of it simply to increase their own hold on it.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    NSP,
    The canonization process in Orthodoxy is less formal. On one level, it can begin on a popular level. Devotion to a saint often begins locally, and unofficially. There is a commission appoint by the Holy Synod in a given country that ultimately researches and recommends, with the Synod making the final call. But, in antiquity, this was certainly far less formal. I’ve seen people ask, “When was St. Mary of Egypt canonized?” And there is no answer, because that’s not really how things worked. Somewhere added her to the calendar, for example, and it simply spread from there.

    I have an icon of my late Archbishop in my icon corner at home. No doubt, he will not be canonized in my lifetime, if ever. Nonetheless, I venerate him and ask his intercessions. (His body is incorrupt and he has been seen in various places by some of the faithful). Like most things in Orthodoxy, the faith is more organic, less juridical.

  4. William Avatar
    William

    Fr. Stephen,

    I recently came across this article (https://www.oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/what-covid-19-means-for-singing-in-church) which calls for a suspension of congregational singing. I find the direction of this article deeply saddening. My child cannot be baptized, I can’t invite my family to church, and now (on the OCA website no less) I see the beginnings of all the things I thought I left in Protestant evangelicalism, with its totally passive audiences, its reduction of the Body of Christ to a mouth (preacher) and a bunch of ears (congregants). But at least we were allowed to sing along with the band.

    I know you have often written of the spiritual benefits of singing, and I wondered what your perspective is on this. It’s possible I’m overreacting, that this is all temporary, etc. I know Orthodoxy is slow to change–thank God. I only hoped it would have been slower to lockdown, slower to suggest we stop singing together–and not so slow to reinstate the administering of the Church’s mysteries.

    I know this perspective tries your patience, and I’m genuinely sorry for that. I only wonder if we can be cowed into submission and shamed away from singing to God together (even temporarily), what else can be taken from us so easily, so quickly? If it’s not good to be here in Church singing together, where is it good to be?

    Please forgive me.

  5. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    NSP, the Catholic Church does not require a person to be sinless or perfect in order to be canonized. Just as Fr. Stephen said about the Orthodox Church, devotion to saints in the Catholic Church often begin locally. The person’s case is then In the hands of the bishop who begins the examination process by interviewing people who knew the saint, as well as by collecting and examining any of the saint’s writings. The saint’s writings and teachings must be free from heresy, but he/she need not have lived a sinless life. It is the teaching of the Church that all Christians are called to be saints. “Saints are persons in heaven (officially canonized or not), who lived heroically virtuous lives, offered their life for others, or were martyred for the faith, and who are worthy of imitation.” You can learn more here: http://www.usccb.org/about/public-affairs/backgrounders/saints-backgrounder.cfm

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    William,
    I believe singing to be as essential as actually being present, and, therefore, find this piece you’ve referenced to be disheartening. But, I think it is already outdated. There are, in fact, many ways to battle through a viral epidemic that do not include such extreme practices. Were we facing a much longer-term struggle, I would think such strategies would be employed, for the simple fact that life must go on. Again, I’m actually quite encouraged and hopeful that things are winding down. Here in Tennessee, we are shortly to enter into “phase-2” of re-opening – where baptisms, weddings, etc., will resume.

    I suspect that part of the international learning of this round will be that we would prefer not to do this again. Economies are not just money – it’s what the world looks like as it goes about the business of just living.

    No doubt, governments will handle this badly in one way or another, and some will seek to take terrible advantage of it. But, I suspect that populations will, in the end, rebel in their own way – though not with great efficiency.

    But, we will sing. I note that the author lives and works in the New York area. (He is the choir master at St. Vladimir’s seminary). That easily skews the experience of this virus. What has been catastrophic for some has been but a tiny blip for others. The county in which I live has had exactly one death from the virus and currently only has six active cases. This varies across the country – but is becoming more the norm rather than the exception.

    I have wondered as well whether the centralization of the media centers in New York hasn’t created a bit of unreality in that echo-chamber of self-anointed authority.

  7. William Avatar
    William

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your comments. Your words ease my mind a bit.

    Sue,

    The bishops did not put a suspension on congregational singing–some woman with an opinion called for it. I was only troubled that such an opinion was posted on the OCA’s website; otherwise I would have ignored it, as it should be. And I’m not demanding anything, only expressing sadness that I can’t worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ–an appropriate response to a difficult situation. I haven’t met an Orthodox Christian who isn’t troubled by these things, bishops included.

    One thing I will take with me from this pandemic (and the response to it) is a healthy distrust of the edicts from self-proclaimed experts. Epidemiologists, virologists, and doctors have a variety of (sometimes contradictory, though informed) opinions on the appropriate response to Covid-19 should/should have been. Choose your expert, but don’t forget that you *are* making a choice.

  8. Kristin Avatar
    Kristin

    William-

    I am sympathetic to your sorrow and concerns. There is much about the response to the virus I find perplexing, especially with regard to the sacraments. And now singing.

    Someone alerted me to the article you mentioned because I am a choir director at our parish. (I have been thinking about the issues involved here for quite some time.) I am most concerned by what I see as the dehumanization of people in the name of love your neighbor, and the terror spread that this might last for the next year and a half per the article. Are we not going to baptize people that long? Are we not supposed to sing for that long?

    Fr Stephen was very gracious to me in his response to my note above when I expressed my distress as a fairly new convert from Protestantism. I was comforted because he saw my heart and distress about these things.

    I read Dr Bromage’s article as well. I don’t buy all of it, but this isn’t the place to debate such things.

    What is it that unites all of us here? Christ. Not our views on the way to handle Covid; not how we think politically; not how we educate or even communicate. The King, Christ Jesus, unites us. And now we are having trouble agreeing on how His Church can move forward with worship and the sacraments. I am confused and heartbroken. My own community is being torn apart right now. And I just don’t understand so much of our response.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    All,
    It is good, I think, to calmly follow the directives we’ve been given by our hierarchs – their own efforts to reasonably respond to government directives. I think it is good to make no more of them than they are nor any less.

    As to the division people are experiencing – this is, I think, demonic in origin. I shy away (rather studiously these days) from political comments and tend even to delete them. That is because I believe there is a demonically inspired exaggeration of the passions attached to political/social matters. Where human beings share a common concern – our common health – we are instead viewing each other as enemies – even to such a pitch that some would spit on others. What I see daily (in some segments of the culture) is not just extreme behavior, but extreme reporting and focusing on extreme behavior which only increases things.

    The devil literally cares nothing about any issue. One side is as good as another and he’s on both sides – believe me. What matters are the passions and our enslavement. I hope I don’t offend any when I remove a comment here and there. It’s not my judging whether something is right or wrong – but rather whether they serve to enflame.

    God is in charge of the outcome of history (I continue to beat the drum) God is in charge of the outcome of history . God is in charge of the outcome of history.

    Be of good cheer. He has overcome the world. Whatever you’re worried about…stop it.

  10. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    William,
    I hope you will forgive me. I did not realize that the article was merely an opinion piece or that Robin Freeman was a woman. I truly should not have commented! I am sorry.

    Of course, you are right, too, that we all make choices about who we listen to and believe. It may turn out that Dr. Bromage’s scientific interpretations are incorrect. Even the studies themselves may prove to be flawed. I think that living in the county with the highest number of Coronavirus cases and deaths in Massachusetts has made me hyper vigilant. It was inappropriate for me to share the article here. I am sorry!

    Sue

  11. Kristin Avatar
    Kristin

    Fr Stephen-

    You are right, of course. Christ has overcome the world. My two years in the Orthodox Church have dredged up all sorts of ways I do not follow Christ well, the tatters in my weak faith, and the division in my own heart. Yes, God is Lord over this time, and no, I mustn’t worry about anything. I lack courage and fear my own self. What will this time do to me? Maybe I will learn to follow Christ more closely, my faith will become stronger, and He will bring healing to my wounded heart. Lord have mercy on me!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Kristin,
    What I am certain of is that God’s love is steadfast regardless of circumstances. He hasn’t allowed any of this in order to destroy us. But, beyond anything, even if we fall, He is there. He will lift us up.

  13. Kristin Avatar
    Kristin

    Fr Stephen-

    Thank you!

  14. David W. Avatar
    David W.

    Hello! Long time reader, first time poster.

    The anguish about the virus and the state of the world and the Church is very real, and I have seen it here and everywhere else.

    “Thy Will be Done” is said by us all the time, but I think the vast majority of us (myself included) don’t really mean it. I see the Orthodox internet wring their hands about how morally debased American culture is and the West, etc etc….. What if this virus is the event that leads to the repentance that we have all prayed for? What if the United States (and the West) as we know it must be destroyed in order for that repentance to come about? I think we have to be willing to watch it all burn if that is the will of God, and get on with the business of our salvation. I think many people in America (including us Orthodox) are still clinging to the American dream and ideal of America as the City on the Hill, even if we deny it with our lips. We don’t want the powdered wigs and Minuteman fantasy to die, or on the flip side, the “revolution” to die. It is all idolatry. That is one reason why I am so edified by this blog, because Father Stephen has taken a hammer to the idols in our lives. Have our Traditions and Services themselves become an idol? Have I allowed my relationship with Christ to atrophy, and use the Services as a crutch, distorting their true purpose? I had to take a long hard look at that during our Long Lent. Many of those “angry Orthodox” on the internet and elsewhere bristled and railed against the St. Mary of Egypt comparisons, but why? What if our Churches were destroyed as in Soviet Russia? Would our faith endure? I think many people are afraid of that question. Me included. The restrictions have exposed our (and I sit in the dock most surely) lack of faith and weaknesses. Could I be like the Russian grandma who couldn’t commune for perhaps years, but yet stood before her secret Icon everyday and thanked the Living God for all things, going about her day with the Prayer under her breath. The answer is No. My arrogance is ripped from me and I am cast to the ground. What a Gift!

    It really is good to be here.

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yes, thank you Father for the encouragement. I believe what you say!

    Maybe we’d be more helpful toward each other if we could imagine us all face to face. Minus the masks!
    We need each other’s good company.
    We’d lift each other up. Even a seemingly small effort is sometimes all that is needed. Once it starts it begins to flow. Like goodness always does.

    Just thinking…

    May God grant us stillness in peace!

  16. William Avatar
    William

    Sue,

    I know someone who talked to her priest about a number conflicts she’d been getting into with people over the past couple of months. She was wondering why she had been finding it so difficult to get along with people–what was so wrong with her?

    “Pandemics are stressful,” her priest responded.

    I laughed out loud when she related the story to me. There’s so much wisdom in simplicity! I tend to over-complicate things and assign motives to people, etc., etc. But the simple fact is that this is a tough time for everyone.

    Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you’ll forgive me if me voicing my struggles caused you offense. God bless! Christ is risen!

  17. NSP Avatar
    NSP

    Fr. Freeman said on May 20, 2020 at 8:42 pm
    What I am certain of is that God’s love is steadfast regardless of circumstances. He hasn’t allowed any of this in order to destroy us. But, beyond anything, even if we fall, He is there. He will lift us up.

    Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Could you please write more on this topic (not specifically w.r.t. the current pandemic but regarding trust in Divine Providence in general in the face of our failures and the vale of tears that this earthly life is; and I’ve already read all your older articles on this topic)?

    Because, though I understand such a trust in God as a concept within my head, when the rubber hits the road in daily life, anxiety and fear seem to win almost every time.

    -NSP

  18. Ziton Avatar
    Ziton

    Dino, given that I seem to have a particularly convoluted and opinionated mind I would be the last person to argue against conversations about issues – even when I should just shut up. The key is, as you say, “civil and fruitful”, and that is what seems to have been going out the window at an accelerating pace. The whole spitting thing is a symbol of the opposite of civility, an underrated virtue. I can’t help but think that obedience – which is a matter of both in letter and spirit – is one of those gifts we have been given to help provide shape, and it is a key feature present in healthy community. For it to work both the authority must be recognized and respected, but also the authority itself it be well exercised and responsive, which does imply a dialogue. But in the end the one in authority decides, after listening – it’s not a democracy. One of my formative texts on all this, maybe surprisingly, is the chapter in the Rule of St Benedict on the Abbot which sets out with admirable clarity, simplicity and context how proper authority well exercised should work and why. Although it’s done in a monastic context, it has had a deeper relevance. I like that the word obedience has in its origins the latin ob-oedire – of “listening towards” which sort of works both ways rather than just the idea of compliance. “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart” and all that. I think we are on the same page.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, as you say “God is in charge of the outcome of history.” As a life long student of history and God I would say that God is history in a sense. The Incarnation allowed us to be truly ‘in God’ and He in us. “We live and move and have our being” in Him, through Him. By Him.

    My arrogance, pride, and sloth is all that separates me from actually knowing that and living in that reality.

    I hope that as this physical body of mine ages and decays I will get the **** kicked out of me enough to begin to humble me. Not much sign of it yet, but I can always hope.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My brother told me a story of a Romanian women he knew. A faithful Orthodox who lived in Romania during the worst of the Communist oppression. She had one icon which she could not display openly even in her own apartment which the secret police visited regularly when she was away at work. Still she prayed before it twice daily.
    Frequently, two large intimidating men would approach her on the street, place themselves one on each side of her quite close and walk with her in silence for a time. Then one of them would lean still closer and whisper in her ear: “We can kill you anytime we want.”. Her reply, “I know.”.

    This went on for years. Finally she was able to come to this country where she could worship freely but did not live for much longer. Stress related health conditions.

    I think of her often, especially when I start to think too highly of myself and my rights.

    God forgive me.

  21. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Ziton,
    Forgive me for taking a phrase you used and bringing it to a different level! I so so in order to make a point. I mean no offense.

    If a person is on the ‘same page’ with another, can the rest of the Body of Christ be on the same page as well?
    Prior to this pandemic were we not already in a sense distanced from each other, I mean, in the healing of the fragmentation of our own souls? We cry out for a healing when we seek the Lord and His mercy. How can we heal if we see even one other person ‘on a different page’?
    But we are one in Christ. We are all in the same boat.
    As witnesses of Christ in the world, that does not mean we need to hide our imperfections (weaknesses) in pretense of perfection – perhaps in fear of being ridiculed. Nor is there safety from such shame by making certain alliances. What to do, then, in the day they disappoint?
    Our witness is in and through our imperfections, and in spite of them. We *show* our unity, our love, one for another in the very presence of failure. It is the working out of our salvation.
    Now, this current pandemic is like someone attempting to take a final blow toward destruction…yes, like kicking a horse who just in case may not be dead yet. If there was ever a time to choose sides in a matter, it would be now, to choose a united front against such forces. We can help each other do this. I think many actually are doing this.
    In this time of uproar, and it is an uproar – for people who feel alone in their fears, given the opportunity to gather together at this blog, are able to reasonably let off some steam in what we know as a safe place – is it possible to put aside our defensiveness, our opinions, our taking sides, our judgments, and offer instead hope and consolation? I think we have seen that here!
    I am preaching to myself, because I have a thick wall of defense on all sides. Year after year I keep that wall repaired. I come across strongly. I need direction. I need to tone down considerably so I do not offend and shame. I need to learn from the good example of others…especially those who are quick to admit to their own personal setbacks. (Father…). First and foremost, I need God’s grace.
    But this isn’t about us as much as it is about the truth of the Body of Christ. Hell will not prevail, but we will have to go through it, and rise up again and again with Christ our God.
    I pray we remain united, forgiving all, in love.
    Such are our weaknesses, in which we are saved…

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, personally I think you are a gem. I like your challenges and your perspective on things.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Michael…thank you. Really…
    You must be looking through the eyes of Christ…as that’s how He sees all of us.
    But honestly, I do not see myself that way. Actually, it is more like a gem not yet mined. That which requires constant cleaning. A real good polish!

  24. Ioana Avatar
    Ioana

    Good morning, Father.
    I heard a monk talking about you yesterday in a remote monastery in Romania.
    I have no interesting thoughts about the pandemic and the way the Orthodox Church is handling it. But after I read the article and (some of) the comments, I remembered about this:
    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.”

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ioana,
    What a sweet note! I will say that if a monk in a remote monastery in Romania even knows my name, I deeply hope he remembers me in his holy prayers!

    And, I pray that the miles I go before I sleep carry my feet to such a holy place!

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, reminds me of the old Gospel song I’m Just An Ol’ Lump of Coal…but I’m gonna be a diamond some day.

  27. Mary-Patricia Williams Avatar
    Mary-Patricia Williams

    Father, bless! I am so grateful to read your words, Father. I, too, experienced much the same response to this story, indeed, to much of what is currently happening in this country. Thank you for reminding me of the Truth,

  28. A Avatar
    A

    Father,
    Thank you for this post. Despondency in this isolating virus situation seems to dog my steps daily. Thank you, as the proverb says, a burden shared is a burden halved.
    A

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