What To Do With What You Know

In a world driven by information, it is more than a little easy to mistake knowing something as important and good in and of itself. As such, the acquisition of spiritual information is something of a going industry. In a Russian novel written back in the 90’s, a woman intellectual encounters a monk who is restoring an ancient monastery in Georgia. During a conversation, she brings up a quote from St. Maximus. The monk is startled and says, “You’ve read St. Maximos? How will you ever be saved?” He went on to tell her that she should never read more hours in a day than she prayed.

It is scandalous in our time, particularly where information is seen as an essential element of democracy (and we imagine the spiritual life to be as rightly democratic as the political life), to be told that there is knowledge that is bad for you or knowledge for which you are not yet suited. It is the case.

Years ago, I was told that I should only speak about what I know (this came as advice to me from a senior priest who was speaking on the topic of preaching). “You always have a right to tell your own story,” he said and advised that my preaching should stay within the bounds of my experience. It was a hard word because I was young and had very little experience. It remains good advice to this day.

I have extended this rule to my writing, which is one of the reasons that you will not see me holding forth on some topics. I come dangerously close to breaking this rule whenever I think out loud about science – though it seems unavoidable.

There is a reason why the word “elder” carries such weight in Orthodoxy: theology and wisdom are not the province of the young. I have met very brilliant young minds in theological settings, but they are generally minds that do not know what to do with what they know. One way of thinking about this has to do with questions. The same older priest who told me only to speak about what I knew, also told me not to answer questions people weren’t asking. And that advice continues to guide me.

You cannot know something for which you have no question. You can gather and retain information, but you will never know it until it actually becomes your own, something that can only happen because of questions. Information that is not an answer to a question is useless. Why would you want to bother with it?

I suppose we could speak of applied knowledge versus mere information. We had a family conversation about trigonometry recently (my oldest daughter is a mathematician). I confessed to having no idea whatsoever about the topic, though I had a class in it in high school and apparently got a ‘B.’ My observation was that no one ever bothered to tell me what trigonometry was an answer to. I learned from my daughter that it had something to do with triangles. Most of what she said was beyond my ken.

It is this same reality that tends to make theology a work of the elderly. It is said that the best math and physics are done before age 30. The best theology is done after age 60. The nature of the questions in theology are often not the burden of the young. Of course, some of the questions of the young no longer matter after age 60.

This reflection suggests a path for the knowledge of God: pay attention to your questions. The result of this path is that you become far more aware of what you don’t know than of the things you think you know. Mere information fades.

I had a series of conversations last year with a troubled young man who was accusing me of various heresies. Throughout our exchanges, my concern was to turn his attention away from his ill-digested information (certain so-called Orthodox websites do more harm than good) and towards his own soul. His delusion was to see dangers where there were none and to ignore the danger that was immediately present within. I failed. He has not fared well.

Orthodox Christianity is not a topic to be mastered. If it is rightly understood, the Orthodox faith is an account of “everything.” It is not a subset of religious knowledge or a compendium of doctrines. It is the whole of existence, created and uncreated. Most of the faith cannot be spoken. The less of the unspoken that surrounds any given statement, the more likely that statement is to be wrong or distorted.

St. Ignatius of Antioch observed: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” He also noted: “The more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him.”

All this, of course, comes as a stern rebuke to someone who has written over 2,000 articles. I will say, however, that my greatest accomplishment is in what I have not written. It is perhaps only there that I shall find salvation.


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.






77 responses to “What To Do With What You Know”

  1. Brandon Avatar

    Thank you, Father

  2. Robert Avatar

    “…“You’ve read St. Maximos? How will you ever be saved?” He went on to tell her that she should never read more hours in a day than she prayed.”

    I’d never heard that before. Lord have mercy this is news I can use in my life today!

  3. Byron Avatar

    Such a good word, Father! Many thanks.

    I recall the monastery where the nuns will not discuss some subjects, simply saying “I don’t know about that”, when asked. It is a good practice but requires a great deal of humility. There is something about admitting that we do not know about something, that is humbling.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Even more, I think, should be the drive that says, “I want to know that.” This, I think, is how we should approach the writings of the Fathers. They should not be used so much as information but as a doorway and a signpost that points us towards something.

    For example, when St. Maximos says, “He who understands mystery of the Cross understands everything.” That is an invitation, not an answer. The answer, the thing we want to know in that instance, is fearful beyond measure.

  5. Cliff Avatar

    When I look back at my life, it feels as if God must have put me on the fast track to 60. Even as a young man I would see a popular bumper sticker that said, “Christ is the answer.” From what little I knew of the bible I would think, “No He isn’t, He is more of a question.” It was this pursuit of questions concerning the Word that eventually lead me to become Orthodox. I began to look at scripture and Christ’s life not as a period but as a question mark. When He said to His disciples before His ascension, “I have many more things to tell you, but you are not ready to hear them.” I thought, “Talk about leaving people hanging.!” Then I remembered the verse that says, “Do not let many of you become teachers, and thereby incur a stricter judgement.” This verse always confused me, for as a Protestant as I saw a tremendous push to get the message out. But here is scripture saying the exact opposite. I began to see Christ not as the answer, but as the question. I began to see faith as a mystery.

  6. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    A most beautiful reflection, Father, thank you.

  7. Paul Hughes Avatar

    This might fall under not being able to say what we don’t mean by something we say but for all the wonder — new questions! — this is generating, a few of them involve, e.g., knowledge as not just intellectual apprehension but interactive relationship … how close friends tell each other things without ever being asked and how when we share our depths it’s often not in ‘answer’ to a ‘question’, except the barest of ‘How’ya doin’ today?’ types … how some questions are ‘being asked’ without being said so how d’ya know? … etc.
    Still, it’s great stuff and good counsel … good general rules for conversing … tho I didn’t literally ask for it [and, indeed, you asked no questions of each of we who’ve commented here.].
    And it *is* difficult and immediately ironic among other things to write something about not writing stuff.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’d be surprised how much I don’t write!

  9. Athanasios Avatar

    This reminds me, Father, of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims. There was one, I believe, in which he advised us to read slowly and thoughtfully, or even to read the same book 3 or more times in a row, to really learn it.

    I confess, when I heard him say that, I was taken aback a bit. I have a tendency to want to read and learn quickly. But you are right – all this does is become information in my head, not anything applied to my life or changing for my heart.

    Slowing down is hard, though. Maybe it always was, I’m not sure, but it feels especially difficult for me in our current age.

    I cannot even imagine what it would be like to read a few good books deeply, and spend more time praying than reading.

  10. Matvey Avatar

    Father, thank for this post! You have mentioned this quote about reading Saint Maximos before, and I keep meaning to ask — Do you know the novel’s title and/or author?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Interestingly, the book is called, Pilgrimage to Dzhvari, and was written by Valeria Alfeyeva, Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s mother. It seems to be somewhat autobiographical. An interesting read.

  12. Zach Boston Avatar
    Zach Boston

    Thank you for writing this blog post, Fr. Freeman. It was very insightful and a joy to read. This post is especially relevant for me, given that I am young (only 27), and that, throughout my life, I’ve been told how “gifted” I am. I am also a voracious reader and so, for a layman, I feel I have a better grasp on many topics than most, except the experts of course. Consequently, I have had a tendency to want to expound and pontificate on what I “know” even if I’ve never really asked questions that such knowledge is meant to answer and even if I have no experience or knowledge beyond a few sentences in a book. I am in the process of learning the humility that such an upbringing and dispostion tends to disregard. It is not always pleasant, but it is helpful, and this post is part of that learning. That line about praying more than you read is especially convicting for me. So thank you.

    Also, I was interested to read that your daughter is a mathematician. My brother is one as well, and I am about to finish up a Bachelors of Science in Physics and hopefully will move on to pursue graduate work. So I was intrigued by the question you posed to your daughter. As someone being trained as a physicist, I tend to think about math in how it can apply to the world we observe around us rather than what it is in itself, which is what your daughter will do. To my mind, though your daughter likely gave you a mathematically and historically correct explanation about the kinds of questions trigonometry answers, there’s another kind they answer, though they may not have originally been intended to answer them. Trigonometry shows up everywhere in physics. From the motion of planets to thrown projectiles, from the equations describing the microscopic world of quantum physics to the ones describing cosmology on the grandest scales, and everything that vibrates and oscillates, from springs, to light waves, to electrical signals, to the motion of strings on instruments and consequently their sound. So, my prespective anyway, the kinds of questions trigonometry helps answer are the ones about to understand and describe our world in precise ways that go deeper than naked-eye, qualitiave descriptions. I don’t know if you find that the least bit interesting or not, but that’s what popped into my mind when you posed the question.

    Again, thank you for an engaging, and formative (not just informative) read.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your meditation explains to me why I have never had a great hunger to “read the Fathers”. I have always felt that as holy as they are, I would not profit from reading them just to read them. Still, some of their works seem to come to me. Frankly I am still contemplating and digesting “On the Incarnation” which I was given to read many years ago. God brought it to me and, because I was charged with explicating it to others, revealed a whole universe through it. A universe which I am still working on appreciating. My questions from that one work alone are still numerous. Often the internal dialog goes something like this: “If that is so, then does that mean this, or this or WOW!. Really? Who’d of thunk it? Lord have mercy”

    Along the way I have become a tad less judgmental and have a tad more compassion as I have had my own head handed to me a time or two by the world and my heart crushed at times. Still, I keep coming back to two things: God became man that man might become God which inevitably leads to the Resurrection and the trampling down death by death which, by His grace, I have seen and experienced as well.

    Repentance is the key always. If I have spoken too much, Lord forgive me.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To be fair to my daughter, she doubtless gave a more complex answer – and I summarized what I remembered…triangles. She went on and did a masters in math. She once told me that the more abstract it became, the more she loved it. I have an aunt and an uncle who taught Math at the college level. I seem not to have caught that bug.

    There are questions that I believe we do not ask until we have “suffered” them – or, somehow, been very close to someone who has suffered them. I once told a group of college students who were have a big campus week called “Sex Week” with speakers covering all kinds of topics (quite scandalous, actually), that the most a college student could hope to know about sex was little more than copulation and other mundane things. That, in fact, to actually know anything about sex, I suggested that you’d need to have been married at least ten years and buried a child. That latter requirement, I suppose was shock value, but the suffering involved in having children underlines the reality – the necessary reality. The fact that America now thinks about sex as simply a matter of personal pleasure shows that we have lost our minds and that we have substituted pornography for what only wisdom gained through suffering can teach.

    In that manner, I suppose that I’m a “hard” teacher – or, at least – that I value that which has been learned the hard way. Modernity is filled with amateurs (and I’m devaluing that wonderful word to use it in that manner).

    God give us all grace!

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    In addition to reading Fr Stephen’s words, I’ve been reading two edifying books that my confessor suggested to me, which have been very edifying for my heart. These are not theological treatises but are helpful guides for me at this difficult time. Perhaps they might be helpful to others reading this blog. Here they are:

    “The Garden of the Holy Spirit: Elder Iakovos of Evia” by SG Papadopoulos
    “Way of the Ascetics” by Tito Colliander

  16. M E Avatar
    M E

    I do not know much about the lives of various Fathers and think that background would be essential to know which problems they were addressing in their meditations.
    My reading has been in St Athanasius account of St Anthony of the Desert which is very helpful and St Vincent of Lerin’s Commonitorium.
    The faith believed always and by all.
    I tried St John of the Ladder but I found it was addressed to monks ( I think)
    and some sermons of other luminaries are too rhetorical, in the fashion of their age. but opaque to anyone who is not of that cast of mind. Plain speaking is all I can cope with!

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good points and observations. I first came to the Father with a background in classical Greek and Latin authors – it was very helpful in getting the “flavor” of things. It was the literature of their world as well, and was, thus, a useful background. I feel lost when I pick up something from the Fathers and don’t know the larger background of the document. What’s the question? What’s the argument? What’s at stake? When is the author intentionally softening a rhetorical blow? When is he pressing his point for the kill? etc.

    I get these strings of quotes from time-to-time on the blog from someone wanting to argue a point. It means they’ve googled the question and come up with the string. Sometimes, when I’ve challenged them, what I get back is anger – particularly a kind of anger that is defensive about lack of reading and training. They’ll kick out at priests who’ve been to seminary, etc., “thinking they know everything!” We don’t – and we often disagree with each other. But that’s more than such folk will allow. It’s troublesome to not only not know something, but not know that you don’t know.

    And even education doesn’t always fix it. There are some highly educated folks out there who get things wrong from time to time. Happens to me.

  18. Fr. Nicholas Finley Avatar
    Fr. Nicholas Finley

    Fr. Stephen, I believe I hear a fair amount of your silence – the things you have not written – echoing in what you do write. It gives me plenty to think about and comfort and challenges all mixed together. God preserve you in your ministry, and may He save you!

  19. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you for this Father. I’ve been repeatedly guilty of this over the course of my 42 years and my conversion to Orthodoxy 7 years ago has been no different. Part of it is the way I’m wired, with a felt need to understand everything and to be “in the know”. I think it’s also exacerbated by the flood of information we’re subjected to (or rather subject ourselves to) via social media and the news. We’re made to feel as though we must be aware of every discovery, debate, crisis, tragedy etc. and that we must take a stand (or side) on each matter or we’re failing in our responsibilities as members of society. Lord have mercy.

  20. Matt B Avatar
    Matt B

    Thank you Father, as a young man myself (22) I have accumulated alot of knowledge from formal education but struggle to put it to use. I will try paying better attention to my questions, and hopefully they will lead me to Christ

    God Bless

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, an amateur is someone who has a passion for the work and seeks knowledge, what we have are con men and charlatans at best. Conscious servants of the darkness at worst. As P.T Barnum a true symbol and archetype of our age said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Including me from time to time. We have itching ears I think and puffed up heads.

  22. Ioana Avatar

    Dear father, why shouldn’t we read more than we pray? Being (sort of) young, of course I think I already have an answer. Being not very young, the answer I have comes from a bit of experience. Still, I am curious what the true answer is.

  23. Ioana Avatar

    Trying to get organised. Forgive me. Second question. Should we then read less than we pray and then speak and write less than we read?

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not mean to pass this advice on to others in a literal manner. It was a stinging rebuke given by a wise monk to a woman who was in danger of over-intellectualizing her faith. The intellect is a very good thing, but if it is not matched with a mature and well-nurtured heart, we fall into any number of spiritual dangers. I think it leads to things like anxiety and depression sometimes.

    The “nous” (that part of the soul that is also called the “heart”) is designed by God to govern the whole of who we are – but most people are not even aware that they have a nous. They read about it and it feels alien. It is this that, properly, can be trained in a healthy prayer life (along with some other good practices). The heart needs to be exercised. It needs to learn sacrificial love, compassion, empathy, and to gain the freedom for clear perceiving spiritual truth.

    The intellect is good – but people often read “way over their head.” For example, we read the delightful book, The Way of a Pilgrim. And the pilgrim has wonderful things to say about the Philokalia. So, we search about and buy a copy (there are 4 volumes in English – 12 in Romanian!), and start reading something that we really are not capable of understanding. Strangely, we read the book, and instead of do what the pilgrim did (repeating the Jesus Prayer), we want to read another book. I use this example because it’s exactly what I did, 40 years ago. 🙂

    Again, my own suggestion is that the intellect is best served when it is led by a real question – particularly if that question comes from the heart. The questions of the heart are revealed by experience, and, most often, the experience of suffering. Suffering is best if it is spread over time. At least, it’s more bearable like that.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s going to vary from person to person, and from one age group to another. Before everything else, we should have the single goal of knowing God. Not knowing about God, but knowing Him. That process also involves, slowly, coming to know ourselves. We have to dig down through the passions to get there. It takes time. But prayer, confession, a bit of reading, reflection, and the stuff of our daily lives, it all works together. But there is no book that will reveal God to us – nor ourself to ourself. They can only point the direction. And God gives grace in this. His grace is not the same for all – so the journey varies for each of us.

  26. Bradley Avatar

    Thank you Father, for your article and insightful comments. When I was a Reformed Christian I most certainly over intellectualised my faith. I fell into the spiritual dangers you mentioned. One thing I love most about Orthodoxy is the emphasis on knowing God instead of knowing about him.

    This article reminded me that it is far more important to have wise questions than intelligent answers. In school we are taught to be good at remembering answers, but in life it is more important to create good questions.

    There was I time where I learnt a lot from Jordan Peterson, here are some quotes relevant to your article here, the first one seems to refer to the nous.
    ‘That’s another hallmark of truth, is that it snaps things together. People write to me all the time and say it’s as if things were coming together in my mind. It’s like the Platonic idea that all learning was remembering. You have a nature, and when you feel that nature articulated, it’s it’s like the act of snapping the puzzle pieces together.’

    ‘It’s very hard to find your own words – and you don’t actually exist until you have your own words.’

    ‘The truth is something that burns. It burns off dead wood. And people don’t like having the dead wood burnt off, often because they’re 95 percent dead wood.’

  27. Dennis Avatar

    Don’t know if this is even relevant but just discovered this great quote:
    “Its easier to fool someone than to convince them that they have been fooled” Mark Twain
    I do find myself praying more and more and reading less, stuffing my head (and my pride!) with forgettable ideas or opinions! An Icon can many times mysteriously say volumes. As well as slowly praying, a repetitive prayer, meditating on a single phrase, or even one word at a time: “Oh Heavenly King, oh comforter…. Beautiful, and almost instantaneous solace! or “OUR” Father! OURS not MINE alone! Connected!
    I, also being over 68, see prayer bring much greater results than debating or as a previous comment so accurately stated “pontificating”, God does a much better job of that than me.
    “Protect me from VAIN thoughts, and evil memories” has been particularly helpful lately. Its like Ji Jitsu to negativity! It turns me away from sniveling and turns me back to prayer and gratitude!
    Most Holy Trinity, all glory, honor and Praise to You!
    Thank you Fr. !

  28. Ziton Avatar

    Thank you father for another gulp-worthily relevant article. I do wonder, though, whether the title should have been “what to do with what you think you know”. At least you know.

    As usual, a few thoughts triggered off, which maybe will just confirm all of your primary theses.

    I’ll break these ones up so you can snip if and as required.

    1. Won’t talking about stuff you do not understand sometimes be useful?

    One thought was actually related to snipping. For people like me, full of half baked ideas and too many opinions, the natural way of processing stuff is in fact to talk things out. This no doubt does result in me far too often talking about things I don’t understand, or don’t understand well enough to be expressing a view on, even when I think I do. (And therein lies a tale in itself surely – when indeed do we know that we really understand, so often there are layers?) No doubt I should exercise restraint more often than I do (although believe it or not, I do try.) I often find – and this blog is a good case in point – that sometimes talking about things is helpful both in clarifying a thought for myself and because it can generate useful feedback which in turn can help clarify my understanding. Sometimes the feedback will be a gentle corrective. Sometimes it will just be a snip. Sometimes it will be through a discussion in or around the topic which will shed new light. In all such cases the feedback is usually helpful. Maybe, even, it is through such a messy (!) process that actually can help us uncover what the real issues, and our real questions, are?

    All of which is maybe a roundabout way of wondering whether sometimes talking about things we don’t understand can be useful for us. Perhaps the real attitude is not just about the question, but in listening with humility to what follows. Being in transmit mode all the time is a problem, but as long as there is a good receive channel in play then maybe it’s not too bad?

  29. Ziton Avatar

    2. My favorite Buddhist story – the poisoned arrow

    The one Buddhist story that I really wish was part of our canon (sutably modified) was the Buddhist’s famous simile of the poisoned arrow.

    “The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

    The important thing is to get rid of the arrow, not to waste time speculating on its source.

    Which is maybe another way of reiterating Michael Bauman’s proposition that repentance is what matters. The problem is (through grace) defeating sin. Metaphysics can sometimes be helpful, but can also get in the way of the real work.

    I find that image of me dying of a poisoned arrow in me really, really helpful, especially when I start going too far down rabbit holes of distraction. OK, an enemy did this, So what – focus on getting that arrow out!

  30. Ziton Avatar

    3. Jesus’ questions

    I have said it before, but perhaps the single most profound part of the gospels for me are Jesus’ questions, which manage both the be disarmingly simple and amazingly deep. My favorites are :

    “What are you looking for?” (pointedly, his first words to anyone in John’s gospel)

    “Why are you afraid?” (on the boat after he has calmed the storm in Mark’s gospel)

    and the “who do other people say that I am?” and “Who who do you say that I am?” in all the synoptics.

    Plus there’s that conversation with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman by the well etc which are nested questions.

    Those are the redemptive questions that are useful. and while knowledge will be imparted as one engages with them at deeper levels, it will be useful knowledge, particularly as one’s answers change as one goes on the journey.

  31. Ziton Avatar

    His questions are actually much, much better questions than mine.

    (In saying this I realize that I have probably just tripped back into my comment under point 1 territory!)

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Conversations, including those about things we do not understand, can be helpful. Though it’s sometimes like a shotgun. Will the noise of a conversation hit the target? Probably. But will I notice it when it does. Not sure.

    Jesus’ conversations seem to be very short and to the point (but He’s not trying to find answers). The point is that they pierce everything and go to the heart.The heart (nous) isn’t very interested in information. “Who do you say that I am?” is trying to get someone to be quiet and enter the heart – so that they might perceive (noetically) the answer to the question.

    I am afflicted with ADHD – so I know a lot about the urge to talk. My writing helps. If I wrote in the same manner that my noisy brain worked – I think no one could bear to read it. When I write, I write about a paragraph or two at a time. Later I edit. It’s ok to limp along.

  33. Nikolaos Avatar

    Father Stephen

    Your thoughts are very much in the spirit of what we learnt from my late spiritual father, elder Grigorios, previous abbott of the Holy Monastery of Docheiariou in Mount Athos. He disliked the term “theologian” being used by University professors and he would even humble in public Stylianos Papadopoulos, who was also his spiritual child, for his title “professor of theology”. I hope Dee will enjoy prof Papadopoulos’ book on Saint Iakovos of Evoia island (known by his constant use of “forgive me” when he spoke), who interacted with St David of Evoia (1st Nov) and St John the Russian (27th May), the 2 local Evoia island saints, like they were his closest friends, resulting in countless miracles.

    I will try and translate the slang used by elder Grigorios, as best as I can:

    “ May Christ keep his Church, because if we lose faith in the one holy Church, then everything else is of no value. The Church is not a sphere that flows through time and clings to it every secular witticism, whether it is theological or moral, but it always remains free from impurities and hollow academic theology. We do not have academic theology, we have ascetic theology and martyrdom theology. Live ascetically first, confess, fast, watch, pray, so that I may believe that your word is true. Keep your proud opinions, like fake “coins” for yourself and those who think like you, and do not share them on your way to extinction. Amen.”

    I was elder Grigorios’ spriritual son for 19 years and I do not remember him ever teaching me anything theological or even commenting on aspects of our faith. His mere presence and life served as an example and over the years imbued me with the certainty of the truth of our faith. He placed everything in the care of Panagia and enabled us to get to know her in her attribute of “quick to hear” ( the famous icon of Gorgoypikoos and her supplicatory canon by St Nikodemos are what Docheiariou is known for).

    Docheiariou is quite different from the rest of Athos monasteries, in its very hard work ethic. Few monks could survive there. The elder’s conviction was that they will be saved through prayer and hard work, which keeps especially the younger monks safe from the adversary.

    Prof Papadopoulos wrote many books on patristics and I hope some will be translated to English. Three of them were written for the 3 hierarchs in the style of a novel. The first on St Basil, is so enthralling and able to transport the reader to that epoch, describing how St Basil took the huge load of the defence of Orthodoxy, whilst St Athanasios was in his old age and less able to still remain the pillar of the Church. Every book of Stylianos Papadopoulos is a fascinating read.

    In his old age he was tonsured monk Gerasimos in Docheiariou and was burried there. His son is one of the father confessors of Docheiariou and hopefully will continue some of his work.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for sharing these experiences!

    There is a place for academic “theology,” so long as it understands what it is actually doing and what its limitations are. By the same token, noetic theology (ascetic, martyrdom), is not the right tool for all questions. The rational mind is a gift from God and has proper functions. It weighs, measures, compares, etc. If I am picking mushrooms, it is essential that my rational mind know what it is doing and do it well. If not, I could die.

    The noetic faculty is one of perception – it “sees” rather than “thinks.” Ideally, it sees God. However, you should not pick mushrooms in a noetic manner – you’ll die. The rational mind is not sinful or evil. It is the gift of God given for our good. There are things within the Church and the world of theology that require rational consideration. Our rationality should, in a certain manner, be subject to the noetic faculty – that is, it should be sober, and as free from the passions as possible. Then we can think clearly.

    Christ came to save the whole of who we are –

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father I had a thought that your “affliction” allows you to not say things. My wife is also afflicted. She says it is like a bunch of unruly squirrels running around in her head. I have begun to learn to pay less and less attention to the noise and clutter and pay more attention to the goodness of her heart. It is a good discipline for me. It forces me to attend to her more, not just my own desires and thoughts. I have to listen.
    So, is it an affliction? I do wonder sometimes because there are times when it just leads to shared laughter. And as the poet said laughter is “surely the surest touch of genius in creation”.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The noisiness of the “squirrels” is actually the least of it. There are aspects of ADHD that are far more troublesome. It’s an affliction. But it’s quite common, and simply shapes the land on which you walk. So, you slowly learn to walk on its better paths and try not to fall into its many pits. And when you fall, learning not to condemn yourself and wallow in shame is essential. Messy – but, with grace, it’s far less difficult than many things I can imagine.

  37. Joan D Moulton Avatar
    Joan D Moulton

    You have given me much to ponder here.

  38. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG


    What do I do with the fact that iconography in the early church simply did not exist as we know it? The fact that even if you cite Dura Europos or the catacombs, this is not before 3rd century. The fact that no early church Father was very supportive of images in the worship space? Do these facts actually do violence to the witness of Orthodoxy, or is there a wisdom about this I (and critics from Protestantism) have yet to grasp? And don’t get me wrong, I love icons.

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Nikolaos,
    It is truly a blessing and edifying to read your comment!!

    Indeed Fr Grigorios wrote quite the whopper critique of our efforts to know about and read about God, didn’t he?! And yet it landed lovingly and softly on my burning heart, as thirst-quenching falling rain. Thank you so much for taking the time to translate it!

    Your comment provided many good lessons for my heart and mind and I’m deeply grateful.

  40. Alan Avatar

    Byron, that is a great line: “I don’t know anything about that.” Oh that I would ever learn to use that line.

    Reminds me of perhaps my all time favorite internet blog post:

  41. Alan Avatar

    Nikolas, thank you so very much for sharing your comments! I know they are a blessing to many!

    Dee, I too love the little book you mentioned by Tito Coliander.

  42. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father I also want to make note and express appreciation for your comment about the need for rationality and it’s use in the proper context.

    My noetic capacity has fallen off the wagon with the concerns I’ve had and shared to some extent here. My mind and its drive to understand and proceed has been on overdrive, wary and on guard. My prayer life exists but as I’ve noted before it seems like such weak tea…

    I ask for your prayers, too.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course, it is always a tricky thing to say categorically “it did not exist.” The Dura Europos find certainly pushed the date on iconography back past a time when some would have said it didn’t exist. The veneration of icons, are an integral part of the Christian faith, particularly as relates to the reality of the incarnation. Read St John of Damascus on the Holy Icons, or St. Theodore the Studite (St. Vlad’s Press has both) on the icons and it will be clear that they are integrally part of the dogma of the faith.

    Someone can argue in the same manner you’re suggesting against the Holy Trinity, because the term is not found in the New Testament, etc. Icons are a manner in which the faith is made manifest – they are not the faith itself – but an expression of that – like music, etc. Orthodox is the early Church. Protestants argue against Orthodox with a notion of the “early Church” as if it were something other than the Orthodox Church. That’s just make believe. They posit an early Church of their own imagination. We state the Church throughout all of the centuries with utter historical continuity. That is the fact.

    The image on the Shroud (which I personally believe to be genuine), seems to have been venerated throughout the history of the Church – though you have to know how to look through the historical record to see evidence of such.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a cultural storm of epic proportions going on. It’s surprising that anyone can think or do anything.

  45. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    Dear Father,
    “There is a cultural storm of epic proportions going on. It’s surprising that anyone can think or do anything.”

    This is what is happening, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen is so succinctly crystallized before in a couple of sentences. I know that I am being sorely buffeted by this storm, as are we all. I don’t know what to ‘do’, besides hunker down and pray. Lord have mercy on us all!

  46. Dave Kontur Avatar
    Dave Kontur

    Hello Father Freeman,
    As I was reading you post, I was immediately reminded of a quote from one of the German Poet, Rilke’s letters to a young poet I first read many years ago and has stuck with me ever since:

    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”


  47. Dean Avatar

    Thank you for Father’s blog link to 2014 on hesychia. I needed very much to reread it. Yes, so much cultural noise surrounding us! It is like a storm, a tsunami wanting to rip up, tear down, push aside everything in its path…much like the riveting scenes of devastation of the tsunami that hit Japan a few years back. Thank God for the ark of His Church, the sacraments and for prayer within the heart, all manifestations of His Kingdom among us. They, and they only, bring me peace.

  48. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG


    Thank you for your reply. Yes, I think a certain stridency is really necessary in my orthodoxy when it comes to talking about the “early church” and not giving into the Protestant assumption that it is something other than Orthodoxy, such a stridency is no less than the early Patristic spirit!

    What do you think of reading the works of late scholar Larry Hurtado and his theses on the early church? Is there a better scholar in that department?

  49. Bradley Avatar

    Father do you mind if I ask you if you take medication to help you deal with the affliction of ADHD? I recently discovered that I probably suffer with this affliction, but I have been reluctant to to get diagnosed and receive medication. I have found the most powerful thing to be educating myself and taking concrete action. Do you have any advice for me, as I assume you have been aware of your affliction significantly longer than me?

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, if I may I have begun to find some peace through devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. She has been quite generous.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andrew, I’m not familiar with Hurtado’s work, though I know who he is. There are numerous Orthodox scholars of the early Church.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not take medication for ADHD. I had a heart attack back in 2013 – making it contraindicated. I have family members who do and find it helpful. It really depends on your circumstances (work, family, health, etc.). There are pro’s and con’s as there are with most medications. It can also depend on how problematic your own case might be. It certainly affects a life – awareness and understanding can be tremendously helpful in non-medication strategies.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Did a little checking around. Archbishop Alexander Golitsyn (my Archbishop) is a noted Orthodox scholar who taught patristics for years at Marquette. He thinks highly of Hurtado’s work and recommends it.

  54. Ioana Avatar

    Dear father,
    A bit late. Thank you for the reply. I do believe what you say is true. In Romanian we would say: “I will put it in my heart”. Meaning, I’ll think about it for a bit. I’ll ponder. I’m not only very keen on reading a lot, I also have the tendency to do it very quickly. So I made sure I read your reply several times. 😊 Yes.12 volumes of the Philokalia in Romanian. Such a love story that has been. I only wish you had access to Father Staniloae’s translation. Truly beautiful. And then, in some of the footnotes, he engages in conversations with the saints and it is just breathtakingly beautiful. Worth learning Romanian just to witness that. A 20th century man that managed to escape Modernity and acquired the mind of the fathers.
    Thank you.

  55. kevin zalac Avatar
    kevin zalac

    Like most younger people who fancy themselves clever and existing outside the faith, I used to relish the chance to flex some intellectual gymnastics with anyone who’d engage. After conversion I sit quietly when I’m able to. And revisit myself from a few years ago. Proud and arrogant to an annoying degree. I say; ‘I do not think that way anymore’ to most of the old arguments or podcasts and blogs I used to frequent, and a thing is lifted.,,, I am happy.

    It is painful and humbling. To realize you let go of an attachment to idea without realizing it. In difficult growth towards Christ, constantly saying ‘I no longer am *this*’ is hard when it effects relationships to people. A lot is left behind I guess. Perhaps this is the nature of unlearning

  56. Fr. Steven Clark Avatar

    Yea verily
    The “Never read more than you pray” rule was given to me some 35 years ago as I began to read the Philokalia.

    What attracted me to the faith at the beginning was its recognition that the greater truths cannot be spoken.

  57. jacksson Avatar

    Dean, I read your response to Alan’s post and agreed; then I read your comment B., my wife, and she simply said, “that is what he is striving for.” She listens very well and knows you better than I do, she is more of a ‘heart’ person; she listens while I am thinking about what I am going to say next. I know you quite well, but I had to reread your comment to understand her comment to me and then I understood, I guess it entered into my nous; you are strivimg for what we all should be striving for, ‘peace.’ I have a very good friend whom you knoq quite well and he bothers me (although I love him very much) because I will be telling him something very important (from my knowledge bank) and he will turn to someone else, make a humorous remark (not related bo my ‘lecture’) and they will both laugjh; at that point (lately) I have begun to talk less and try to listen more (at 82, it is hard to do) because the other person is more important than the big I. Glory to God; which reminds me that one of my last priests said that we should always answer someone’s question with the statement, ‘Glory to God.’ Again, Glory to God.

  58. Anthony S. Avatar
    Anthony S.

    Fr. Stephen,
    Christ was killed in his early 30s. The majority of the apostles were not in their 60s and over. For quite a lot of history, the life expectancy was not up to 60s for a lot of people. What does this tell us about who theology comes from and whose questions it tries to answer?
    What good does it do to reserve the best of theology to those in their 60s? I’m not talking about academic theology here. I am referring to the type of lived theology that has to do with the questions that I’m so glad you emphasized. Great, important, impossible questions that involve the depths of shame and suffering occur to those in their teens onward. And people of that age are called to live their responses to them every day.
    People in their 60s are just as likely to live by their “default settings” as the young. Not everyone in their 60s has the same questions. They do not all give the same answers. The majority, I would hazard a guess, would give harmful answers. Those in their 60s do not have the experience of what it is like to be 20 years old at this cultural moment.
    Paying attentions to what questions we ask. Making sure that we have a question and are not seeking mere information. These things make sense to me. I’m not sure what good it does to demarcate lived theology into generational groupings.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I offered an observation as a man who has been all of the ages you mentioned, as well as currently 66. In large measure, I think the observation was accurate. The experience is there – but it often takes years for it to be understood. That Christ was in His early 30’s is not germane in that His wisdom was not humanly acquired. Interestingly, it is St. John, who alone lived to old age among the Apostles who is given the title, The Theologian.

    But, most of all, how I have characterized the matter is drawn from the tradition of the Church in which age (as in “elder”) is generally associated with wisdom. Only in the modern period have the young been thought wiser and smarter than the old. Of course, age alone is insufficient. Many of those who are old have abandoned the wisdom that could be theirs by desiring the foolishness of their long-past youth. There’s no fool like an old fool, they say.

    There are things that do make some of the young old and wise beyond their years. Death is one of them. I’ve have commented before, for example, that it is not likely that anyone truly understands sex and the relation between a man and a woman until they have been married for a number of years and possibly buried a child. Most people in America have never actually seen a person die, or seen one be born. This makes for a shallow world – in which “experience” is quite limited.

    One reason for reading old books by old people is that they likely suffered more than you – and that is the furnace of wisdom.

    Our present cultural moment presents many terrible problems for the young and those who must endure it much longer than I will. At present, it is a culture that is headed for a terrible crash – perhaps more than a lifetime away. But, we can pray that when the suffering it is presently creating finally demands its payment, there will be some who will have the wisdom to know how to answer.

    Each of us is given the grace to live our lives at the present moment. A young person as a young person. I would not expect them to know how to answer the questions of the old. That is beyond their experience. But, the old, strangely enough, are themselves living in the same cultural moment as the young – not as a young person – but at least as someone who has been young – and it never seems that long ago.

    Be that as it may – I cannot think of many works of good theology that have been the work of the young. At least, not young in the modern manner. To be 30 today is often still a matter of adolescence for some – while, for others, they may already have become old souls. If so, their experience will be somewhat unusual.

    But, I did not mean to “reserve” the best of theology for the old. However, I’ve rarely seen anyone in their younger years who yet understood what was good and what was not. Age alone, is not enough, of course.

  60. Anthony S. Avatar
    Anthony S.

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond. I want to get to the heart of what you’re saying.
    I’m disappointed that you did not address my main concern (perhaps that’s my fault, and I didn’t make it clear enough). My question is ultimately a pastoral one: what use could it serve to generalize so broadly about age groupings and their relation to the province of “theology and wisdom?” Doesn’t this mainly serve to create unnecessary divisions between people? Also, how does it come off–seeing as you are sexagenarian?

    Of course, the most wonderful people are wonderful and old. There is something inexplicable about how well they go together. It’s like pizza and beer. But honestly, it’s hard for me to think of many people above 60 that are that way. Many of them have managed to become more and more entrenched in the same bads and goods that we all have. Perhaps you and I run in different circles.

    My wife’s grandmother, someone dear to me, has gained just about as much experience through suffering that I could imagine. She was a teenager when she had to flee her family farm in Yugoslavia during WWII and live in Soviet-occupied Germany before coming to the US and starting life anew. She is now in her 90s, is a devout woman, and her response to my wife in regard to her (my wife’s) mental illness was: “well some people have weaker minds than others.”

    You say that you don’t understand sex until you have been married a few years and maybe lost a child. I have not lost a child, but I have heard grey-bearded Orthodox clergy admonish that performing certain sexual positions will make your child a homosexual.

    I wholly grant that by the time I am 60 (I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I’m at least slightly younger than that) I will have the potential to be much wiser than I am. But why not just state this as possibility for each individual? There is no direct correlation between age and wisdom and the generalization reinforces the contrary.

    I realize that the main thrust of your article was not about age but about the questions that we ask and how we go about answering them. But if “the best theology is done after age 60” and “some of the questions of the young no longer matter after age 60,” then we find ourselves in a bit of an exclusionary matrix. Questions that I have right now might not matter to me after 60, sure. But they do matter to me right now. And the questions that I have right now will inform who I will be when I’m 60.

    I understand that St. John is one of the few in the church venerated as “the Theologian,” but my statement about the majority of the apostles still stands. You bring up that only in Modernity do the young think themselves wiser and smarter than the old. I would supplement this by saying that only in modernity do most people live to beyond 60. We could quibble about prolonged adolescence of the modern age and examples/counter-examples from time immemorial, of course. You are writing for a modern audience, and so “60” just means “elderly.” I’m not trying to argue about numbers.

    As I tried to also make clear, in none of this am I talking about academic theology—but rather, the understanding (and living) of “what [is] good and what [is] not.” Fr. Schmemann published on Liturgical Theology when he was 40. Many of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies come from his 40s-50s. St. Gregory of Nyssa was made Bishop at around 37. St. Anthony gave away his inheritance and dedicated his life to the pursuit of virtue in his late teens/early 20s. As you know much (I cannot emphasize how much) better than I do, the lives of the saints show the holiness of youths as well.

    Of course, I don’t think you would disagree with any of that nor deny it, but why not encourage how those in their 60s could learn from those in their 20s about what is good as well? You probably do elsewhere, I don’t know. But I’ve been reading your blog for around six years now, and I see many of the same generalizations about Modernity and the elder/youth dichotomy. Does such talk encourage intergenerational listening? Really listening? Or could it more easily justify complacency among those who have lived and therefore “know what [is] good and what [is] not” and a one-way flow of moral understanding?

  61. Anonymo Avatar

    Good word Anthony. I agree that we should be careful about generalisations about Modernity and the elder/youth dichotomy. And that we should encourage intergenerational listening. As a young man myself, I have experienced ageism to be a destructive error. Orthodoxy stands better than most against the fracturing of the culture in this regard with the structure of spiritual fathers and the reverence for tradition and the understanding of prelest.

    I consider myself to be something of an old soul. Here is a quote from Edward Welch about wisdom and suffering, “Find a person who has weathered storms rather than avoided them and you will find someone who is wise.”

  62. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Glad to see some more young people trickling in; I think this blog attracts “old souls”, regardless of age.

    As a young person myself, I know there is an issue with looking at age vs wisdom. I’ve had it both ways: I’ve been blessed by clergy to teach at some points (even a multi-month, study-heavy course on marriage—and I’ve never even been on a date!) and been overlooked or disbelieved completely in other situations. Some of the best people I’ve talked theology with were children, but I also have some well-traveled older people I can go to. It just depends. And when we’re talking real theology—which always requires repentance—I’ve found very few of any age who want to deal with it because it *requires* a life-altering response.

    I am sure there are more points, but as I was thinking I came up with 3 reasons for the benefits of age: 1. more suffering, 2. more patience, and 3. more history. The first can be had by people at any point, by God’s grace. The second we can never have too much of. And the third is what I feel expressed here on the blog: it is easy to talk—and perhaps even to live—some level of Orthodoxy but decades of “proof” that you haven’t “gone off the deep end” go a long way towards assuaging concerns. This is also related to why we recognize saints—and almost universally after their death; indeed, I think it is hard to overvalue works by saints, which are really different—in content and spirit—from third-party authors’s syntheses and summaries of said saints which currently flood out the solid, time-tested books. Anyways, maybe that preference for “proof” could be expressed more carefully, but I feel this is a very safe place for young people.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What use could it serve pastorally to speak of age and wisdom?

    I think a primary concern, and one that was probably in my mind as I wrote is that of young converts. That describes a fairly large number within my readership and my pastoral life. It’s just something that is very common right now in the American Orthodox scene. Along with that is a tendency to climb too far, too fast, and, often, to fall. Thus – the pastoral concern is to slow down – do not be in a hurry. In terms of life, be patient and learn from growing old.

    That said, obviously “intergenerational listening” (forgive me, but that phrase rubs me the wrong way – it’s so “twenty-something”) is a good thing. Indeed, as a 66 year-old man, I’m engaged in the world of social media – in conversation with whatever pops up – doubtless lots of youth.

    I think JBT’s little summary is accurate in the matter: 1. more suffering 2. more patience 3. more history. Those are potential advantages that could be of use – and often are not. Wisdom is rare.

    I wrote about “good theology.” I was not referring to academic work – though there can be an element of that as well. “Good theology” was a way I was trying to express a fullness – a “whole picture” of our life in God. That said, I have no doubt that wonderful insights that are helpful, even astonishing can be found from persons at any age. In my experience, I think some of the wisest people I’ve met have been in the context of the recovery community (where I volunteer from time to time). It’s a “street-wise” sort of thing they exhibit gotten by learning from so many terrible mistakes.

    Your example of the stupidity of some monastic nonsense (viz. sex positions and orientation of a child) isn’t just monastic nonsense – it’s left-over superstitions from our collective past. Stupidity has never ceased. There’s lots of nonsense to be found, even in the monastic world. It doesn’t negate or even address my point.

    But, not everybody is doing theology or even seeking to understand the “whole of it.” If you are – however – then you will likely find that your best work and greatest understanding will come in your later years. I do not think I meant anything more than that.

    I’m glad you’ve been reading the blog for about 6 years. Apparently, whatever points you’ve discerned regarding Modernity, etc., are not what you had hoped. It is impossible for me to guage what effect my writing has. My only interest is that we know God – or that is what is daily in my mind. When I write in criticism of the philosophy that is described by “Modernity” it is to bring into the light something that often remains hidden (the “common sense of our age”) that prevents and distorts our knowledge of God. I write about other stuff, too. I am a flea on the butt of an elephant when I write. I do not suspect my work makes a difference in the world. If it’s of use – it’s probably to some other flea.

    As to moral understanding. I’m not sure what’s going on in this question. Are you suggesting that the young have a different understanding of what is moral and that they should be listened to? I think that what is right or wrong – it’s knowledge – comes from God and not other people. It is, ultimately, unchanging. I have a feeling in reading your comments that you’re having a conversation with somebody else and that my small comment seemed to have set you off. Perhaps I’m mistaken. It’s possible that you’re not quite understanding what I’ve written – I don’t know. Where is the energy of your critique coming from?

    Worth remembering: “Modernity” does not mean “youth culture” – but a set of beliefs that have been in dominance for about 200 years. We are all of us, moderns, regardless of our age.

    We all learn from God, if we learn the truth. And some have learned from Him at astonishingly early times in their lives. Be well.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In general, I believe that wisdom and the fullness of what it is to be human in the image of God, is something that is “traditioned” to us. Or, that is the best way to think about it. Modernity imagines and says that the good and the bright and the truly insightful are things that we must discover anew and that the leading edge (the youngest) is always the smartest, and it devalues the past as something that stands in the way of progress. But, in a traditioned existence, the past is a source of wealth (including all its many failures and mistakes). It is to be honored and mined. I think the current pattern of our culture is upside-down, and that we are moving in a direction that is destroying the truth of our humanity. I find great wisdom, for example, in CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, that describes something of that process – written, I think, before I was born.

    If someone in their 20’s comes to me and tells me “what is good,” my question immediately would be, “How long have you known this, and how has it played out over time?” It’s simply the case that there isn’t the experience needed to answer the question. If, however, someone in his 20’s comes to me and says “this is good” and I ask how has it played out over time – and he/she can cite the experience of the generations before them with that very thing – then they are informing me from our common, traditioned, existence. There is reason to trust that.

    In my late teens and early 20’s, I was part of a non-denominational house church/charismatic thing – lived in a commune for a couple of years, etc. When I left that, having seen lots of problems with it, I floundered a bit. It seemed impossible to judge based on my limited experience. All of that was the beginning of a journey into the larger Tradition of the faith – looking for the wisdom of the Fathers, etc. It took me first to Anglicanism, and eventually to Orthodoxy – but instinctively away from the many currents of the latest thing and the next thing, etc. Even within Orthodoxy there are currents and trends and troublesome forces. The world is not a safe place. But, listening to the wholeness of our human existence – from the deepest and best examples – is a stance that is to be preferred. It’s also pretty rare.

    I found the conversations with my father and father-in-law in their last years to be helpful. I do not think I could have added anything to their moral understanding.

  65. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father thank you for your response. Among young people some of the more wise I have encountered are those who have experienced active combat. That appears to be an experiential furnace that few survive unscathed. Few, but I’ve seen some, among them have felt tremendous shame and obtained counseling and through that pain and embracing that pain gained their wisdom. In effect seeing this, corroborates what you have said here.

    And I can’t agree more about the effects of burying one’s child.

  66. Anthony S. Avatar
    Anthony S.

    Fr. Stephen,

    You know your flock and readership best. I should and will defer to you in matters of what’s needed. It makes sense that one of your primary concerns is young converts. My concern was not quite the use of talking about age and wisdom but of drawing lines (perhaps unnecessarily). I can appreciate what you followed up with in your comment: “But, not everybody is doing theology or even seeking to understand the “whole of it.” If you are – however – then you will likely find that your best work and greatest understanding will come in your later years. I do not think I meant anything more than that.” I understand now that you do not mean anything more than that, but frankly, your article reads as if it says something other than (or more than) that.

    I don’t think I’m having a conversation with someone else, as you put it, but I do feel us talking past each other. So, let me try to be as direct to the point as possible. I was hurt by what you wrote. My energy comes from that hurt. I have felt and seen quite a lot of damage stemming from the supposed correlation of older = wiser. To me, it is not something to take lightly. My fear is that it shuts ears and feeds an unquestioned moral authority that one can feel solely on the basis of age. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a more effective trump card for shutting someone else down: “once you’re my age, you’ll see that that doesn’t matter.”

    You pointed out that I used the phrasing of a “twenty-something.” It’s possible, but it takes quite a lot of effort to read that aside as anything better than patronizing. I know you have read Barfield on the History of English. You’ve mentioned it numerous times over the years. You know that language inevitably changes and that it quite richly reveals the conceptual underpinnings of thought. So if you take issue to my phrase “intergenerational listening,” then please do so by illuminating why. Making the comment that it sounds “so twenty-something” only potentially leads to more hurt weirdly based on age. Maybe it is the product of my generation. So what? I’m sure some of the phrases from your (and our) everyday come from the era of your twenties.

  67. Dino Avatar

    Father & Anthony,

    Regarding the monastic nonsense concerning couples’ sexual lives’ impact on their offspring, there is a misconstruing occurring here…
    The original (and often misunderstood) saying came from Met. Neophytos of Morphou explaining what Saint Porphyrios’ ‘clairvoyant discernment’ (for lack of a better word) had related to him on this matter.
    It is far more correct to say that what the saint “saw”, was that a certain ingrained sexual deviance in a couple during pregnancy, could potentially have pre-natal psychosomatic effects on their offspring. Similarly he -and many others- spoke of how a deeply devotional life of prayer during those months can pre-natally effect a person positively. We see this in saints’ lives.
    This whole thing makes a little more sense explained this way – rather than the caricatured way it was stated earlier.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I apologize for my take on the phrase – I can see that it might feel hurtful. Unnecessary on my part. I have lived a life marked by so much jargon and such – various buzz words that came with the moral-shaming direction that I described in my latest article – it stings in me. We’ve all got our stings.

    But, I hear the hurt you’re describing. I certainly don’t want to shut somebody down – much less just because they’re young. Moral trump cards are played in a game where everyone loses, I fear. Older does not equal wiser. But wisdom and age have a correlation – though they do not always coincide.

    Language does indeed shift and change and threading our way through it – so that we hear what is timeless and true and what is merely passing is a difficult thing. We do need to be in conversation together – listening – so that we can all manage to hear what is true. There are canards in my own generation that are as false as anything from later generations. We helped create you!

    Just a note: I have trouble with the notion of “morally good” as being anything that changes. Evil is very old and the sins of societies, including Orthodox ones, are terrible. Wisdom has never been a widespread phenomenon. We live in a time in which certain mores (“morals”) are being challenged, and even labeled as “immoral.” Thus, when I hear someone suggesting that there might be something new to be said morally – I have red flags. I believe us to be living in a time in which civilization, for good or ill, is collapsing and it’s not at all clear what that will look like.

    I have heard confessions now for 40 years. Over that time, I have particularly seen a change in the confessions of adolescents and teens. They have an increasing moral confusion – particularly surrounding sex, gender, etc. – that never existed before. I quickly add that I’ve never pastored in a situation that did not include those who were wrestling with every sort of sexual issue – that stuff is timeless. What I see, however, is a shift in youth culture that is creating great damage and confusion in the souls of children – and that the same culture is being enacted in policies and procedures, etc. That is more than fashion – it is becoming the law. So, I have red flags in that area. Causing children to stumble is a big deal.

    What is there in the moral life that is not encompassed in the commandments of Christ? I can’t think of anything. The struggle isn’t to know what is good. The struggle is to do it. Most conversations that I have old/young/male/female/etc. – human – are about that topic.

    But, I am sorry to have been a stumbling block on this topic. I write imperfectly – just as I live. But I appreciate your taking the time to say so and engage me in this. It’ll help me when I write about it in the future. Blessings.

  69. William Avatar


    I–a young whipper-snapper myself–think I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve heard my fair share of “When you’re my age…” comments coming from older (if not wiser) people. Interestingly, I heard that from my own father when my wife and I joined the Orthodox Church.

    “When you’re older you’ll understand the foolishness of the claim to have found the ‘One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’.

    It felt like a bludgeon used against me, and it still hurts when I think about it. I could only respond that the claim is made in all humility and that I’m not claiming to be wiser than him, but that I’m trying to trust in a wisdom that is older (and younger, as it were) than us all.

    That said, I don’t get the sense that Fr. Freeman is using it in this way or trying to divide young vs. old. It makes sense to me that true wisdom is shaped by a lifetime of, to quote someone, “a long obedience in the same direction”, and there’s no rushing that kind of thing.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your clarification on this is helpful. That said, I am very wary of things said in secret being shouted from the rooftop. This is the sort of thing that is so easily distorted and misunderstand that I question the wisdom in it having been broadcast across the land.

    But, the most reliable studies on human sexuality seem to indicate, at most, a genetic predisposition (but not a “gay gene”), with the primary factors all coming to roost in the realm of the environment. That said, it is worth noting that we lived in a pornographic culture – in which what even passes for normal tv is still highly sexualized – including an increasing sexualization of children. The insanity is so widespread that it would be impossible to sort out all of the environmental aspects of what happens and becomes of each of us.

    We should seek to be chaste and respectful of each other and keep the commandments. Because we live in a crazy time, we should be especially respectful and kind towards those who are possibly victims, in one way or another. None of us created this mess – we inherited it. We are now its stewards and we need to do the best we can. But we have to be merciful and pray for mercy. St. Paul said, “Flee porneia,” usually translated “fornication” but, in fact, is just “sexual passions.” This, I think, is extremely difficult.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the vote of confidence…

    Our experiences viz. older folks is, like everything else, all over the map. I can understand someone warning against finding the “true Church” given the nonsense spouted in that direction by so many before. It’s a reason I like to remind people that, though the Orthodox Church is the “true” Church, it’s just as messy and screwed up as the New Testament Church. The first is a historical fact. The second is existential reality.

    When I announced my coming conversion, my parents (30 years my senior), actually gave me their blessing (each of them took me aside privately and respectfully to do this). Seven years later, they followed me and spent their last years as Orthodox Christians. I would say that we shared a lot with each other through the years – and had the kind of spiritual rapport that was marked with respect. That I was 45 when I made that decision probably made some difference. Had I been 25, they would have been more sceptical – understandably.

  72. Ziton Avatar

    Anthony S

    Maybe the distinction is just lived and engaged experience vs not – and something else at work. There is an old line (I think it might have been from a song (?) along the lines of older people that “some grew wiser, some just grew older”. And then there is the prophesy at Pentecost (Acts 2:17) “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”.

    On engaged experience, and given that a substantial theme of Father’s article was about questions, can I suggest that that might be a good lens to view some of this.

    You know you have a really good question, a redemptive question, when trying to answer it well (i.e. having really pondered it with integrity) is not only difficult but you start to notice that all your answers are provisional, and tend to change over time.

    So that question that I mentioned (Jesus’ first words in fact) which were (looking at two would be disciples (in the face to pick up on Father’s most recent article) “What are you looking for?”.

    I know that the way I might have tried to answer that question at different times of my life have been very different. Indeed I rather suspect that when the two would be disciples signed on for their discipling experience with Jesus, they did not know where it would take them. Peter in particular probably did not antipate his future roles as traitor and being crucified upside down in Rome … But no doubt his answers chaned as he walked the path with his Lord. Jesus’ final profound words to him – “follow me” – sort of take on even more depth in light of that first question. What indeed are you looking for, oh young man, oh older man, oh old man, oh whatever you really are. If we stick to Jesus’ questions to us, we can’t really go wrong – they will keep us humble as we age.

    If we truly engage with our Lord, then I rather suspect that age does help. Certainly I think some of Father Stephen’s wisdom is born of just having lived a long time, had many experiences (on which he seems to have reflected – a key attribute) and learned many things. I think it would be hard for someone in their twenties to write as he writes. But yes, there are, as that song, many who seem just to have grown older, and did not grow wiser … And old people can become quite unattractive, particularly as they start to lose their acuity but not their opionatedness (indeed those two things seem to be in inverse relation sometimes!) But then how much do we really know of what is going on inside the soul of another person? I try (usually unsuccessfully I have to admit) to leave judgements about that to God.

    Godspeed on your journey.

  73. Anthony S. Avatar
    Anthony S.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your care for me and all others.
    Thank you, others, for your time and responses.

    I should probably clarify that I never meant to say that there are new morals to be taught. The very fact that the infinite Good is timeless is the reason that young as well as old are able to know and do it. But the timeless and infinite Good expresses itself in all of the particulars of everyday life; and because each one of us only experiences the smallest fraction of these particulars, there is always something “new” to be seen or learned from others in that sense. And age is only one small factor in our wonderful particularity.

    Best wishes.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well said. Forgive me in my reactions. I get a lot of email traffic, both on and off the blog. If others could see what I do not share publicly, it might explain how I get a bit cautious or reactive from time to time, or concerned that some other agenda is at work. These are difficult days.

    But, your affirmation viz. the nature of the Good is on the mark – as well as the differences of the particulars. You’ve been very patient with me and I really appreciate it. Many blessings!

  75. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    If you’re still looking at comments this many posts back, (grin) I want to encourage you concerning saying so much, i.e. your 2000+ articles. I believe for the most part you have miraculously stayed within the realm of what you know most of the time. And you’ve been working out, pondering, thinking aloud about your questions, modernity being one of the main ones. I also believe the popularity of your blog – coupled with the stable and family-like community it has attracted – are a testimony to the fact that this public thought process has been very beneficial.

    While it is true that the increased volume of words also multiplies the the chances of making mistakes, you have a) taught us just how important and normative the need for such mistakes is, and b) demonstrated how to make mistakes, how to apologize for them, and how to learn from them. As you grow in wisdom, those around you grow just a little bit more, like flowers whose colors grow brighter as the sun rises. So please continue the conversation until God calls you home, where inevitably you will continue to grow in His glory.

    And one more thing. It is so true that you have probably blessed us even more by what you have left unsaid. As a parent who tries not to pass on the evil done to them, or as an object that receives all the colors of the spectrum but returns only one, you seem to give us of your best. And “if you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children …”

  76. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Taken the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. – AA aphorism

  77. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thanks to David’s comment, I’ve read in addition to his, Drewster’s. I must’ve missed your comment, Drewster, but as I read it, I realize how amazingly providential it is that I’m reading it now at this time. Christ is in our midst!

    Thank you David! Your words are those I heard my mother use (directed to me ~55 years ago!). They must have been in the cultural aphorisms for a while now. Needful words for us (meaning really myself).

    Many thanks for these gifts from Drewster and David!

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