Museums, Churches, and My Back Yard

A great cry went up from Orthodox throats across the globe earlier this year when the Turkish government repurposed Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque. The cry was an echo of May 29, 1453, when the city of Constantinople fell to the forces of Sultan Mehmed II. That day, and its pain, have remained an iconic tragedy of a lost world and an abiding sadness. No one dared ask that the Church be returned to use as a Church – better a museum than a mosque. In truth, even as a museum, the loss remains intense. What is lost is not real estate, a building. It is the right place of beauty in the Christian experience. That loss is repeated in museums across the Western world.

Years ago, as a young Anglican priest, I visited the art museum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC (my home town). With me was an Anglican monk. Together we made our way through a surprising collection of Italian Church art, and, at the time, one of the largest collections of Russian icons outside of the Soviet Union. Guards followed us carefully through the museum – not that we were perceived as potential thieves. Rather, I think, we were perceived as potential idolaters. That “Christian” museum was, in many ways, a parallel of Hagia Sophia.

Indeed, across the modern world, museums have become secularized shrines for “art,” itself an unwitting attack on beauty and its proper place in the human life. This point will likely be difficult for some to understand. It can be found in the phrase, “Ars gratia artis” – “art for art’s sake.”

Imagine for a moment that you are in a museum. Rather than works of art on the wall, there are numbers. Here is Mondrian’s “22314,” and Van Gogh’s “55.” Just numbers posted here and there on the wall. We stare at them, and try hard to think deeply and appreciatively. Perhaps a number will remind you of something else. But the numbers have no context. “Numbers for numbers’ sake,” is something of an exercise in the absurd.

Beauty, like numbers, has a purpose beyond itself. It does not exist for “art.”

We tend to take beauty for granted (like numbers), and even reduce it to a function of the human psyche. But, like numbers, beauty is real. What is striking about human beings is our ability to perceive these realities (including numbers). Our ability to perceive the numerical structure of things, of the universe in general, is a key to our ability to practice technology. You do not put a man on the moon simply by aiming. It is a calculation, and the calculation works because numbers are real and true. By the same token, we perceive beauty because it is real and true, and discover in it, a gateway into the mystery of the universe, that which lies beneath and within. Beauty may be compared to the meaning in a text. The letters and words are the surface – our ability to perceive their meaning is something yet more. It is surprising that we tend not to be astonished by this fact.

We have retained our awareness of the functionality of numbers, as well as looking for a meaning within a text (though its practice in modern times is often greatly diminished). However, any number of things have conspired to remove beauty from its functionality and left it hovering in a precarious position, often dangling by the thread we imagine to be the “beholder’s eye.”

That loss of proper functionality can be seen by returning to the museum. The Russian icons at Bob Jones were originally created not just as exemplars of an abstract beauty, but as objects of veneration. They were (and are) “windows into heaven.” The Fathers said of icons that they “make present that which they represent.” They are a means of communion. In the museum-world of modernity, what is contemplated is our own feelings and thoughts. Beauty becomes “art,” serving only our self-gratification.

That which is made present in an icon is perceived only in the act of veneration. In that action, the one who sees also participates through the extension of the self towards that which is made present. It is not worship, but an act of communion. We have become enamored of ourselves as collectors of information. This serves our imagination of ourselves as the managers of the world. We particularly like numbers in that they give us the ability to manipulate things in a predictable manner. We have made beauty into an equally utilitarian event that serves our desire for pleasure. The human as the image of God becomes the human as pornographic object.

The veneration of icons is one of the last practices in which we interact with beauty in a manner that moves us towards communion. Beauty has not disappeared from the world. It is our loss of preception’s purpose that has changed. The perception of beauty is, at its best, a function of the nous, that organ whose primary purpose is our communion with God. Of course, it is not just icons that offer the opportunity for such perception – beauty is all around us. However, our perception must be combined with our active participation (which is the nature of veneration) in order to rise to the level of communion. Unfortunately, as we have lost our understanding of communion, so the beauty of the world loses its purpose. We imagine that it only has value because we “like that sort of thing.”

My back yard is rather prosaic and small. In autumn, it is overshadowed by large oaks, leaving my South-facing windows suffused with a golden light. It is into this wonder that I walk each morning when I get up. It is not the “uncreated light” of the divine energies. It is, however, something beautiful, and offers the opportunity for perception and communion. My back yard is only a tiny fraction of the beautiful world in which we live. St. Paul reminds us:

“For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead,” (Romans 1:20)

This is not an intellectual observation – but one that is noetic. We should not let this fall into disuse. It is then that we become like brute beasts, captive only to our desires, and driven to various forms of madness. The whole world and its beauty are a living expression of God’s unfailing providence. To perceive that beauty is a window into heaven. To rightly venerate what we see is for the window to become a door.

O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all.

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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81 responses to “Museums, Churches, and My Back Yard”

  1. Travis Wade Zinn Avatar

    Excellent post Father. I would like to get over to Oak Ridge and visit again soon.

  2. Helen Avatar

    Good morning Fr. Stephen,
    Your writing is full of this beauty.
    Years ago, I saw something beautiful and it got me thinking about beauty – what is it? If I were blind, I would not have been able to see; would I have experienced beauty? What happens within me when I say I’ve seen or heard or experienced beauty? I realized the physical senses can serve to deliver the experience, but it is within us that true beauty is experienced and swells the heart.

  3. Michael Angelo Avatar
    Michael Angelo

    “Modern” western art has resulted from art critics derelection of duty, failture to reinforce high brow standards that originally developed and were reinforced in western art.
    “Art for arts sake” is the product of condoning and passing off low brow “artwork” as if it’s high brow = no standard, no expertise, especially not that of Plato “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.”
    The following pretty much says it all regarding the lack of any real, artistic “genius” when it comes to modern abstract art, which exposes the pretentiousness (as in “pretend”) of the world’s modern art scene that prattles on and on about what it “sees” in such art abstractions.
    Nothing to it (no meaning); even kids and dogs can do it! –

  4. Randall Avatar

    Wonderful, and though-provoking. Thank you!

  5. Kristin Avatar

    I’m practically jumping up and down! This is so wonderful. I resonate with so many of your words here I cannot pin them down yet to talk about them! God is everywhere present and fills all things, and as He is beauty itself beauty also permeates all things (I hope permeate is the right word here). Art for art’s sake…it always intersects with the human soul making the current climate of self expression as motive so dangerous. I have too many thoughts jumbled together. I joyfully look forward to more cogent responses!

  6. O Vavaros Avatar
    O Vavaros

    See –
    The Secular Transformation of Western Art by Fr. John Strickland

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Kristin your comment made me smile. Thank you for your loving enthusiasm for God’s beauty revealed in this world.

  8. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    We light candles and lampadas before our icons that we venerate. But it is Christ Who illumines the nous. I’m learning harp but among the most famous of folk harp whose music is still played, was a blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan.

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    It’s probably not necessary but I’ll add for clarity that Turlough O’Carolan‘s music is perceived to be beautiful. And I believe that Beaty that transcends time has something to do with how the music came to him. He heard it in his heart.

  10. gretchenjoanna Avatar

    More than a year ago I began to collect a few books to help me in a study of beauty, or the philosophy of beauty as it relates to everything else; because of course, it’s all connected. At least one of the books I started reading I think because of your recommendation, The Ethics of Beauty by Patitsas, which is probably the most well-rounded of them.

    But your short post I’m pretty sure sums up much of what I will probably conclude, at whatever point I feel I’ve spent too much time thinking about beauty and not just immersing myself in it and praying with it, which is the faster track for sure. I am going to print your article and stick it between the pages of one of the fat books to help me refocus if I start to get lost in the intellectual realm. Thank you, Father!

  11. Jordan Avatar

    I get tired of art museums pretty quickly, I guess because I’m trying to “get something” out of the paintings.
    I suspect that many of the masters whose work we go to look out would be quite surprised by our wide-spread interest in collecting and gawking, while neglecting any of the practices of art.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I always wanted to be able to draw, or paint, etc. My baby daughter is a professional artist and does a number of creative things (including having done illustrations for at least 3 children’s books for Ancient Faith). I took her with me to an icon workshop with the late Ksenia Pokrovsky. She looked at my miserable work and said, “It is too late for you – you’re too old. But give me your daughter. I’ll make her an iconographer!” My daughter went pale (she was probably about 15 and feared that I would make some sort of Orthodox deal in which she would have to go live with this stranger). I love music, and am passable on a couple of instruments, having been a folk-singer back in my pre-college days (I think everybody was a folk singer then). I have had the joy, however, of playing with musicians who were much better than I, with whom I was good enough to at least “keep up.” The wonderful experience in jazz/blues of improvisation – when the guys you’re playing with are engaging in pure creativity is a nearly unmatched experience of beauty. I’m glad that I had that. It has largely passed me by at this point in life.

    Watching people dance (as in the various circle dances of Orthodox cultures) fills my heart with joy, as though they were uniting themselves with the movement of all creation. These are experiences that have been replaced, oftentimes, by people becoming audience rather than participant. Plato insisted on musical instruction for the young “for the development of the soul.”

    If, as St. Porphyrios said, we must become poets in order to be Christians, music and drawing, painting, etc., could also fall into that category. These all have within them the experience of perception that allows us to nurture noetic experience (not always and in every case). These things have been reduced to “pleasures” which anyone who plays an instrument or draws an image should reject.

    Fr. Pavel Florensky held that St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity (the 3 angels) was proof of the existence of God. When my oldest daughter saw it in Moscow, she sent me a postcard of the icon. On the back she wrote: “I saw it. It’s true.”

  13. Ziton Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    First, Happy Birthday! May you have many, many more, for our sake if nothing else. Your ministry here is such a gift, and from what I have gleaned from listening to you talk about your life it has been a work of art in itself. even if you were the one on the Potter’s Wheel. And here’s to your fellow traveller St John the Dwarf too while we’re at it!

    There are far too many things to say about this article, so I will mainly shut up.

    I did want to point out that of course (as you were no doubt aware) ars gratia artis has made it into common consciousness via, of all people, Sam Goldwyn who made it MGM’s logo. The whole commercialization thing didn’t stop some great, and many very ordinary, movies being made. The motto (and latin airs) is an extreme irony, that no doubt Goldwyn himself would have found amusing. While everything you say about art is true, the actual processes that go into the creation of artistic works are incredibly messy, and often quite ugly. (Artistic egos and self absorbtion can be quite something!). Which has me thinking again about the curious workings of Providence …

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve often had the image of providence as someone standing in the Sistine Chapel with God as the painter. In which case He simple hurls all this paint at the ceiling. What you see is utter and complete chaos as colors go flying through the air. It is only when they have finally landed that we see the art of the ceiling.

    Imagine: God said, “Let there be light”…and some 13 billion years later we see it as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or some other such work). And, if we know anything about providence – that’s exactly how it works…

    Thanks for the birthday wishes. It’s being a quiet day. Last week, my son’s wife gave birth to their second son – so that’s been the magic of the year for me. I was thinking yet again today about how slowly my book writing goes, and how far behind I am on recording podcasts. The blog stays front and center and the other things are “spare time” events. Still, in all…

  15. Byron Avatar

    I did want to point out that of course (as you were no doubt aware) ars gratia artis has made it into common consciousness via, of all people, Sam Goldwyn who made it MGM’s logo…. The motto (and latin airs) is an extreme irony, that no doubt Goldwyn himself would have found amusing.


    As terrible and off-topic as this may be, your comment reminded me of an episode of Better Off Ted where Ted’s manager made this remark:

    “Money before people,” that’s the company motto. Engraved on the lobby floor. It just looks more heroic in Latin.

    I’ve always found it darkly comical that a corporation might make its motto something completely disdainful of humanity and yet no one notices because they wrote it out in Latin to make it sound good!

  16. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    None of my children is interested in Christianity of any sort right now (all have been to Liturgy with me). I think they’re rejecting the shallow form of Christianity in which they grew up, as you have described several times. My son – whose wedding was the reason we were close enough to have lunch with you those years ago – tells me he is an atheist because of the Hume/Epicurean argument and a very positivist view of things. However, I’m greatly comforted because he is a pianist, presently working on his Doctorate, engaging in the beauty of music all the time. I’ve long believed this is a providential guarding of his soul.

    Let me add birthday wishes, also with thanksgiving, and congratulations on the blessing of a new grandchild. Many years to all!


  17. Jeff Avatar

    “ Of course, it is not just icons that offer the opportunity for such perception – beauty is all around us. However, our perception must be combined with our active participation (which is the nature of veneration) in order to rise to the level of communion.“

    May I ask what you have in mind when you speak of active participation in the beauty that is around us?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Fathers (cf. Dionysius the Areopagite in particular) speak about “natural contemplation” by which they mean the perception and meditation on the logoi of created things. One of the doors into that perception is beauty. With an icon – we not only see the image – but, in veneration, we look into the image and beyond to that which it represents. In that looking (through veneration, which includes love, fidelity, honor, etc) we enter into communion with the saint, or Christ, that is depicted.

    With nature, it is something of the same action, though what we see, in beauty, are the reflections of the Logos (Christ) who is Beauty itself. It is part of the splendor of God. We should not just see the world, but see God’s splendor in the world, and love it, venerate it, enter into communion with God through it.

    We read in saints lives special relationships with animals and plants, for example. This other practice precedes such things long before.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    For me beauty will always rest in the Flint Hills of Kansas early Spring morning. They are an icon of the Creation and the uncreated Light. Peace reigns.

    Virgin prarie.

  20. Michelle Garrison Avatar
    Michelle Garrison

    Not having an Orthodox background, do you mean to say “veneration” is similar to connecting in relationship? I still often associate it to a step below “worship.” Your comment about plants and animals resonated with me however. I once had a spider who built a web on my porch. When I was going through a very traumatic time, I would sit on my porch, pray to God, and dare say, “commune” with that spider for comfort. I felt God put that spider there just for me. And through that spider, I felt God reaching out in love to me. However, I have often felt that way towards animals of all kinds and even trees to a degree.
    As a Baptist, icons are difficult for me. We do have a picture of Christ (the kind you often see in Protestant Sunday Schools), and though my husband wondered aloud if it was idolatry, my Orthodox influence came through as I reminded him of the Incarnation. Don’t think he’d ever feel comfortable with icons, but the concept of communion seems to clarify your meaning of them a little more for me.
    And also, I have had the same thoughts about Hagia Sophia, wondering whether having it as a museum is just as sad as having it as a mosque seeing that secularism appears to be the new dominant western “religion,” one that denies God’s existence in so many ways? I feel a greater call away from our secular mindset, one that has permeated our society.

  21. Reid Avatar

    It grieves me that my field, mathematics, has played a central role in promoting the myth of modernity. This is especially unjust in that those who study it deeply often do so out of appreciation for its beauty. G.H. Hardy, a prominent mathematician of roughly a century ago, said, “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”

    Some years ago, in applying for promotion at a teaching college, I had to describe my philosophy of teaching. As it happened, I had been working out my approach to mathematics as a specifically Christian subject during roughly the same years I had been (largely under Fr. Stephen’s instruction) approaching Orthodoxy. Thus, my application included the following passage:

    “I have come to view my own teaching as a minor act of communion with my students. I have had the privilege of studying mathematics deeply—of learning the traditions of my field—and I have delighted in the beauties and pleasures I have encountered in that study. I have also sought over many years to understand mathematics and its beauty as the handiwork of the Lord who made it (the college has been very good to encourage me to do this). I have sought, and I continue to seek, explanations, examples, diagrams, word pictures, jokes, sound effects, and hand motions by which I can help my students see what I have seen—to see as I have seen—so that they can appreciate the beauties, share in the pleasures, and participate in the traditions of the field with me, seeing it as God’s handiwork and honoring Him for it. As I continue to teach year after year, I strive to deepen my own understanding of the topics I teach, and I strive one phrase, one example, one illustration at a time to make my presentation of each topic clearer and fuller than the time before. It is almost like learning a foreign language, learning to ‘speak math’ both simply enough that my students will understand it and eloquently enough that they will want to learn more.”

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, veneration is similar to a deep relationship. The connection is personal and specific, a bit different for each saint and God is involved. Always. The saints do nothing without He is wonderous in His saints. Idolatry is worshipping someone or thing who is not God as if it were God and expecting a degree of control . Idolatry is all about what I get out of it.

    Venerating the saints is never about that.

  23. ook Avatar

    Fernand Braudel, in his book *Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century* points out that the concept of museums, and art as “Art”, is a fairly recent invention of western Europeans. The concept would have been met with baffled incomprehension a thousand years ago. Now, we have turned 180 degrees.
    I found it amusing to hear the guards followed you around to make sure you didn’t try anything funny, like venerating icons. Many years back I visited Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev as a museum, and decided this would be a good place to pray. Got a few glances from guards, but nobody interceded, and a few others looked at me and decided it was OK for them to pray as well.
    By the way, tangential, but one of the most beautiful voices in Orthodox music, Nektaria Karantzi, has a Greek Traditional Lamentation for the Fall of Constantinople on Youtube that never fails to move me.

  24. Andrew Avatar

    I believe it was John Ruskin who said, ‘all true art is praise.’ Thank you, Father Stephen. May your birthday be a blessed one!

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Wow very beautiful comments here thank you all!

    Father Stephen happy birthday!

  26. Simon Avatar

    Hello all, as an Englishman who’s been living in France for the last 25 years I have certainly noticed living churches becoming museums. The last summer solstice I went to Vézelay’s Basilica to participate in the path of light projected down the central aisle of the nave. Lots of people where there to take photos and talk about the mechanics of the path, it seemed evident to me to walk down and pray in the path. Too much talk and not enough action. Glory to God, bless you all, Simon.

  27. Anonymo Avatar

    Reid, from one aspiring mathematician to another, is there anything quite like the beauty of mathematics? I like the quote by Bertrand Russell: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.” When I was planning to become a math teacher, I had a similar vision to yourself, by my passion for it to show the beauty, simplicity and grandeur beneath the surface of mathematics. Some people in my life had considered my aspiration to be a math teacher to be a ‘waste’ of intellect, but I profoundly disagree, as I am sure you would too! Unfortunately most come away after school with little appreciation for the beauty or the creativity involved in mathematics. It is a shame, but that is why there are now mathematics youtubers like 3Blue1Brown, Eddie Woo, Tibees etc who are so popular.

  28. Diana Christina Avatar
    Diana Christina

    I remember walking into El Prado Mueum in Madrid, with works by Velasquez, Goya and El Greco, and being moved to tears. The building is magnificent as well. Thank God my mother was an artist, and she forced me and my brother to go to art museums. She also loved Chekhov! Memory Eternal!

  29. Priya Avatar

    It is early that I am reading your beautiful blog so I want to make sure I understand. Do you mean grasping the fullness of the connection in art, rather than reducing it to intellectual dissection? I am someone who loves art and music and am moved deeply by it. I do like to think intellectually about the meanings, sometimes to understand why it is that I am so moved, to connect further with the artists sometimes, or even to prove why it is that I am so moved. As I write this, i wonder if doing so is pulling the experience as a whole from the heart to the head…Is the point you are making saying that this is an objectifying way of approaching this communion (and ergo is it missing the mark to think of art intellectually as well as communion? Or is missing the mark reducing it as a whole to intellectual dissection?) On the one hand I enjoy art in a way that really helps me, in that Van Gogh’s paintings of fields gives me a feeling of hope and connection to this person who surely had good, beautiful days as well as rough, hurtful ones. And it calms me down and settles my head. On the other, I am also a counselor who studied psychology and a lover of literature and a part of me likes to analyze things to also understand the pieces that make up the whole. Is this other hand a problem to perceiving and taking part of good art? (I admittedly get anxiety when it comes to respecting the things I love…)

  30. Byron Avatar


    Coming from a Southern Baptist background made icons a bit difficult for me, although I understood they were not idolatrous. When I came to the point of veneration, I very much embraced them. However, of late, I find that I lack the focus of the earlier relationship–at times it is like being in a crowd of people and not noticing them, just shutting them out. I think my challenge at this time is to reorient myself and be attentive to the Saints around me. I think of the man who, when asked why he sat in front of the icon of the Mother of God, replied “She talks to me, I talk to her.”

    I can see where I’ve spent time shutting myself off from parts of the world around me and I think, while it can be helpful to isolate oneself at times, it is a mistake–at least in the way I’ve done it. Monastics isolate in order to embrace the world; I’ve been isolating in order to protect myself from it.

    Veneration of icons is a proper path to recognizing the beauty of Creation and embracing it in love. There have been times that I have walked through the woods and suddenly been struck by a single tree in a manner I cannot clearly identify, but which is comforting and beautiful. But I have never called out “Glory to God for all things!” when considering it. Even the rocks and trees cry out. I would like to join that song when I am offered a place in the chorus. This has been an enlightening conversation to follow. Many thanks to all.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Veneration is somewhat similar to connecting in a relationship. It is a relationship of honor and esteem – a right way of approaching that which is holy and closer to God. The relationship to saints is one of the harder things to discuss outside of Orthodoxy. The saints are “friends” – but greater than that. Some are common to everyone – such as the Mother of God. We should all honor her and “get to know her” through prayer and such. Other saints really vary. I have gotten to “know” certain ones usually out of circumstances – reading their lives and being particularly drawn to them – or (on a couple of occasions) having been given an icon and an “introduction” by someone else. That is how I first “met” St. Xenia of Petersburg. I was looking for a job (secular employment) so that I could convert to Orthodoxy. A nun sent me a small icon of St. Xenia with a note: “She helps people find jobs.” We began to ask her assistance. The job I got was a miracle. It took time…but she clearly prayed for us.

    But, that’s a bit of a stray from the topic of the icon itself. I think of the icon as sort of a means given to us for “connection.” We could obviously live without such things – but human beings do better with very concrete connections – and not just stuff in our heads.

    Imagine that your “connection” with your husband for a few months was only by email. Then imagine it by telephone. Then imagine it on Facetime (where we can see each other’s faces). None of those is truly “face-to-face” but each step towards the more concrete, with more sensory input, is more satisfying a fulfilling. The Orthodox experience of prayer has all of the same things that a Protestant would have in prayer (mental thoughts and words, etc.), but it also has a prayer rope, icons, incense, etc. All of those things do not distract – they enhance. I’ve lived it both ways. I prefer more and more contact.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To expand my thoughts a bit: I think that what we call “art” originated as a religious thing. For example, the cave paintings of prehistoric times are not art galleries. We do not know what their religious practices were, but we can be sure that the paintings played an important part in it. Indeed, what we call “art” was almost exclusively religious until about the time of the Renaissance. One reason I can say that with confidence is that the notion of “secular” is a very modern thing – first beginning to come into existence during that period.

    With that, we had to invent new meanings for artistic creations. The best we could come up with was, pretty much, “decoration.” To a degree, the more secularized art has become – the greater the danger of losing its meaning has been. But that’s a danger for all purely secular things. What we call the “secular” world is living off the inheritance of the world created by the religion that went before it. Secular people, whether they know it or not, in our modern democracies, live and often think in a manner that would have been impossible had there been no Christianity. Secularism is like a really lousy Christian denomination.

    But, back to great art. I think that when we encounter beauty in artistic creations, it is an essentially religious experience – but our understanding has been damaged in a manner that we often don’t realize it.

    If you look at art in Japan, as an example, it differs from art in the West. It is more rooted in Zen and Shinto – in a manner that is wonderful – but somewhat alien to the West. Their art, I think, has retained far more religious connection than ours. There has (to my understanding) never been a drive to secularize Japan.

    In point of fact, secularization is just a lousy form of Protestantism, and nothing more. It is intellectually and emotinally bankrupt, by and large, a very dishonest way of seeing the world because it must(!) keep religion at bay. It’s like looking at erotic photos while trying not to think about sex. (please forgive that example)

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I would have to double check but I think you may find that after WWII the victorious powers did impose (or try to) a secular (western mindset) seriously undermining the religious approach because of its contribution to the war. I do not know how much that has been accepted in Japanese culture though. Legally they were forced to denounce the divine power of the Emperor.
    Some of Kurosawa’s early films especially Ikuru(To Live) have a deep subtext of that conflict. The story seems simple and straight forward but it is not. I saw the film in college (a bad print with sub-titles) and some of the moments of it still linger in my mind and heart. It was done in 1958.

    Even his last film Ran (King Lear in medieval Japan) similar themes are evoked.
    You raise an interesting point.

    I doubt that professional western film critics and historians would investigate such themes.

  34. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    ” Secularism is like a really lousy Christian denomination. ”

    Father, when I read this, at first I chuckled (you can be a pretty droll fellow at times 🙂 But almost instantly thereafter I realized the truth of it, and almost instantly after that, a whole chain of realizations were catalyzed. Things that have been vaguely dancing around the edge of my apprehension became clear, fell into place.

    I have a lot of things to think about, but at the same time, I feel like I need to move more heart-ward at this point in my life. Thank you for your work and words! Glory to God!

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    In point of fact, secularization is just a lousy form of Protestantism, and nothing more. It is intellectually and emotinally bankrupt, by and large, a very dishonest way of seeing the world because it must(!) keep religion at bay. It’s like looking at erotic photos while trying not to think about sex. (please forgive that example)

    I agree wholeheartedly on this Father. It is unfortunate how we have been inculcated by the culture to consider Protestantism (and its children) as if it were a norm or watermark of wisdom or knowledge. That sort of prejudice, perpetuated through modernity, is so deeply ingrained in us that people who hold on to it fastidiously appear to be completely unaware of it. They believe it is reality rather than a filter they hold through which they see reality, however so darkly.

    There is a book, “The Mind of Christ”, written by Archimandrite Sergius Bowyer (and Abbot of St Tikhon’s Monastery) that I have encouraged inquirers or catechumens to read. It’s not a huge tome, but it does succinctly touch on pertinent topics, including a chapter on Beauty: “Beauty that Saves the World: Beauty, Liturgy and Liturgical Art”.

    He also has a chapter on St Augustine, who is indeed venerated in the Orthodox Church as a holy saint, but his theology had significant errors that heavily influenced western Christianity. Fr Sergius discusses this topic in light of Orthodox writers such as what St Photius the Great wrote about St Augustine’s theology.

    One last thought, I think it is a bit unfortunate that we think wisdom is something we can acquire from our schools or universities or even books. I’ll sound like a hypocrite because I’m an academic in a university. And perhaps it is possible such education might broaden our horizons a little. But generally, whatever effect it might have as ‘seeds’ is completely dependent on the ground upon which it falls. And that ground isn’t shaped so much by what one learns in a classroom or in books, but in life experience itself. And in this culture, that life experience is typically shaped by shades, shadows and children of Protestantism.

    I don’t want to end my comment on such a negative note.

    So I’ll end with this: I’m ever grateful for St Herman, his work, life and prayers here in America.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, I have heard stories from people who, after venerating the icon of a saint for awhile (sort of like saying hello and acknowledging the Life in them) will occasionally perceive those saints standing with them in prayers assisting them as they pray or even suggesting some one to intercede for. It is an example of the inter-related, multifaceted life in Christ.

    The folks sharing those stories are just ordinary Orthodox believers BTW who love God and His saints.

    At my parish we have icons of two stylite saints on the pillars that define the entry from the Narthex into the Temple. (They are the pillars of our community). I make it a point to say hello to them in Christ frequently: St Symeon and St Daniel asking their blessing much as I would an Orthodox Bishop or priest.

    Somehow with all the photos of our icons on the web, neither got included. But if you want to see the rest go to You will encounter beauty.

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry, one last thought. Since I’ve done a little disparagement on Protestantism, generally, I do also want to say Father, that the poor you described and ministered to in Appalachia, seem to me to be indeed flesh and blood icons of Christ. They might have considered themselves Protestant, perhaps. But more likely if you asked them, they might have likely said that they loved Jesus.

    I have known a man who was an exemplar of the faith, who was not Orthodox but Protestant, a Quaker. My grandfather. In his temperament and ways he was my own flesh and blood version of St Siluoan and St Herman combined. Because of his faith he was a conscientious objector of war, nevertheless, he was an ambulance driver in WWI. Sometimes I have wondered whether that war experience and the farm that he came from, made him into the Christian that he became.

  38. Reid Avatar

    Anonymo, it is nice to hear from a kindred spirit. Thank you for the quote from Russell and the names of the popular YouTube math personalities. I had not heard of them, but now I hope to make their acquaintance.

    Russell, of course, despite his appreciation for the beauty of math, reinforces the stereotype that math leads men to atheism (sadly, other prominent mathematicians of the past couple centuries also reinforce it—Chesterton observes that it is mathematicians, rather than poets, who go mad). Nevertheless over many years I found that my students seemed to appreciate my approach to the subject, and occasionally one would tell me how pleasantly surprised he was to find a mathematician who took the Christian faith seriously—as though mathematicians were the academics least likely to be Christians (perhaps you’ve had a similar experience).

    Given the long and venerable history of the Liberal Arts, of which mathematics is the core, an approach to education conceived by the pagans but baptized by the Church, I still believe the nature of mathematics is to reveal its Creator, not to explain why we can dispense with Him (the latter view appearing succinctly in LaPlace’s perhaps apocryphal “I have no need of that hypothesis” [i.e., the hypothesis of a Creator]). I appreciate Fr. Stephen’s using numbers to illustrate how we tend to approach beauty wrongly. Perhaps, in God’s mercy, beauty can reveal how we approach numbers wrongly as well.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Reid, et al
    I’m working (in my head) on a possible follow-up article later this week to look at Scripture, and why I think it is important to get past a kind of literalism that some imagine to the sine qua non of true Orthodoxy (at least some of my internet trolls hold that position). I do not argue or think that it is wrong to take a text “literally” (though I think we misuse that term), but, like a number of the Fathers, think what lies “beneath the letter” to be as important and not to be neglected. It is not a Gnostic reading (ignoring the literal, historical aspects of the faith), but recognizing that what is noetically perceived is actually true and real and not a literary technique or aspect of imagination.

    In my book, when I think about the “Shape of the Universe,” I am puzzling about (to use a common example) if the Ark of the Covenant is a type of the Theotokos, and we can say that she is truly and really “beneath” that word in the Scriptures – then, what must it mean for how the universe is, how reality is. That, in a nutshell, is the heart of the “one-storey universe.” The notion, held by many of the most important Fathers of the East, that these “inner” things are real and true. They are “Realists” in philosophical terms.

    Taking that to numbers – the question is classically stated, “Are numbers real or are they a function of our minds.” I think it is obvious that they are real. The universe conforms to mathematical formulae. Numbers, in a manner of speaking, are “proof” of “Realism” when dealing with these “transcendentals.” In modernity, we have become crazy people in which we wonder whether numbers exist, whether beauty exists, whether we ourselves exist. These are such silly questions. Denying these realities would, in classical terms, have been dubbed as “sophistry.”

    So, just a preview…

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I was once upbraided by a mathematician friend when I referenced their colleague, a statistician as a mathematician. I’ve been careful to maintain the distinction ever since. Another mathematician friend in the same institution is also a deeply religious Christian. He was surprised and quite supportive when he learned of my conversion. He was a little mystified however, how Orthodoxy became my Church. It was a story I didn’t have an opportunity to tell him in detail in our last conversation because we had just bumped into each other and exchanged a quick summary of how our lives developed since we had last talked. But when we parted company to get back to our respective work, he left me in the conversation with a big grin on his face because I had mentioned it all started with the Higgs field.

    The Mayans had a wonderful sense of the divine in their math. But I’m not sure how common that information is known.

    All of this is quite different to how math is presented and treated in the context of modernity.

    Father, I have always wondered, why all the detailed measurements of the New Temple in Ezekiel 40-43? I know that St Gregory describes some of this meaning, which includes the Theotokos, but it seems that there may be more allusions in the numbers themselves. I’m not versed in mysticism so there may be that element, which I’m not familiar. I’m curious about whether there is more of an Orthodox perspective on this beyond the surface? I apologize if this question is taking us off track.

  41. Michelle Garrison Avatar
    Michelle Garrison

    Thank you to everyone who answered me so graciously concerning icons. Although I still have reservations praying to saints directly and utilizing icons in my religious life, (and feel a need to respect my husband’s conscience in these matters for our family), I do feel a special kinship and connection in some respect to several saints. I have read works by several of them; St. Patrick, St. Joan of Arc, and St. Francis of Assisi are three of my favorites. I always enjoy walking past a garden statue of St. Mary and one of St. Francis on my walks each week as a reminder of their reality in God’s kingdom. Mary, the mother of Christ, appeared in a dream of mine with Christ for the first time ever a week ago. And though I may not utilize icons, I have a new appreciation of how God’s grace permeates all of creation and how matter is sanctified by Him as well through these discussions. I have to say that learning of Orthodoxy took my faith in Christ and made it “3-D” in so many ways.
    The posts relating secularism to a watered down Christianity reminded me that many of the modern secular liberals of today decended from the early Puritans. The modern secular way of thinking has become too empty and shallow and has infected too many churches. People are aching for a fuller picture of God. Anyway, this blog and the comments that go along with it gives me such joy and grace and help complete that picture for me. Thanks to all of you!

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, your joy and enthusiasm come through. May God continue to bless you and your husband.

  43. Helen Avatar

    I love the “3-D” comment!

  44. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    As there are good comments and beautiful presences on this blog ! It’s very good for the soul !
    I often think of Saint Silouane who said that the beauty of creation, to which he was sensitive and which he honored, is only a pale reflection of the beauty of the Grace he received and knew. And that Grace made him forget everything else, like passing clouds…
    The experiences of grasping beauty in creation led me to faith, and I remember feeling such an intensity of beauty in nature that it became painful, as if something else was veiled and not accessible to me. It is a painful joy.
    One day as I was walking along a path, one Sunday, after the Divine Liturgy, I passed by a bunch of umbrella pines, and suddenly, looking at them in the very soft light of that day, they came towards me and I went towards them, as if in an embrace ! My body was overflowing with myself and it was as if we were hugging each other.
    It lasted five seconds… it was very good and unspeakable joy. I continued on my way as if suspended at that moment and then slowly faded away…. but the memory is vivid .

  45. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    My most similar experience was with the stars, when I was in the mountains standing alone in the cold night. I had read years before C.S. Lewis’s idea that “space” might better be called “Deep Heaven.” Maybe that made me receptive when the stars seemed to press near to me like angels, bringing the presence of God. I could hardly bear it.

    Your description of your experience is compelling. Thank you!

  46. Ziton Avatar

    Father Stephen

    That image you gave of Providence in your comment at November 9, 2020 at 4:31 pm as God hurling paint at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has kept on coming up for me over the last couple of days. Yes, it is VERY helpful.

    If I am a paint droplet in the act of being thrown I am mainly going to be aware of the other droplets around me, and maybe dimly of the other lines of paint and maybe of the idea that it is in motion. Really, I have absolutely no idea of what the final picture will look like, nor my final position on the ceiling (but the fact that I have a role on the ceiling that is the final work of ‘art’ is helpful to know). Even if I do at one level for now ‘get’ that my life is but a droplet in a paint hurling thing my speculating from that to the nature of the final picture is really rather ridiculous, although it is understandable that I would want to know that (I have always had a lot of sympathy with St Philip “show us the Father and we will be satisfied”. Ha!). But there is the assurance to this little droplet that you will be in awe of the astonishing final result. Which is in all a really nice and reassuring way of thinking about the relaxing into Providence without going down double predestination rabbit holes and the like.

    I have also been thinking that the metaphor also underlines the central place of perspective when coming at spiritual matters, and maybe particularly Providence, and that maybe goes to some of the broader themes in your article. To see an art work – or object of devotion, or whatever – properly requires one to be looking at it from the right distance and vantage point. If I stand at an icon with my nose pressed up against it (let’s put kissing to one side for now! :-)) I will probably just see some paint smudges and dirt. If I stand too far back, it will just be an image or maybe a visual smudge in my field of vision. I need to be standing in the right place (and crucially at the right distance), and in the right relationship, to see it properly. That’s like anything really. If I put my hand in front of my eyes, it will just block my vision. The proper place for my hand is by my side where it is obviously a hand. And so on. And re the paint throwing metaphor, while I am being thrown the only available perspective is towards my surrounding paint drops etc per the above. That does not mean that it is the correct perspective. Re the paint, its true meaning only comes from the painter, and those who are able with Him to stand back and look at the result once it has done what it was meant to do – a telos which I rather suspect is nothing as mundane as a mere painting on a ceiling, however spectacular to our worldly eyes the Sistine Chapel may be.

    Thank you yet again for a really helpful thought.

  47. Anonymo Avatar

    Reid, I think the observation you mentioned is a summary of the alleged quote by Chesterton:”“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” My three consecutive areas of great interest so far in my life have been, mathematics then philosophy and then theology. Guess I am moving to be more of a poet then a logician.

    My favourite mathematician is Blaise Pascal. It doesn’t have anything to with his mathematics though. The guy was a child prodigy and polymath type, an inventor, physicist, philosopher, theologian, apologist. I read his book Pensees which was a collection of notes for books that he was planning to write before his abrupt death. I would describe it as part spiritual and partly an apologetic treatise. His mathematical mind to me seems evident in the rigour and logicality of some his thoughts. I highly recommend the book, as well as some of his quotes on the spiritual life, despite being a mathematician he understood that faith is of the heart not the mind (don’t be fooled by his wager). How about this for a quip:”The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” If you want to enjoy the writing of a another kindred spirit again I recommend his book if you haven’t already read it.

  48. Kristin Avatar

    Thank you to all who wrote about mathematics. As a musician, I am fascinated by the classical education ideas behind the quadrivium which focuses on number (the trivium focuses on language; this is an oversimplification btw). Depending who you read, music shows relations between quantity, or number in time (as opposed to space, ie geometry and astronomy).

    My home school experience teaching math humbles me to my core. It turns out I never really understood any of it growing up despite high grades through college calculus. My children felt the weight of math early on and rebelled. In the end I ditched textbooks, my expectations of grade levels, and turned toward seeing the beauty in math. Now I am beginning to see it and stand in awe! Calculation is an important skill, and by patience, contemplation, and practice I hope to reverse their distaste. I think it’s working. My teen doesn’t cry in anger anymore and even has started playing with numbers of her own volition. I shifted away from drill and kill methods and turned to a story telling approach, trying to see what’s happening through observation and play. I am eager to go back through the conversation and takes notes. You have all helped me so much. Thanks to all of you for this enlarging conversation.

  49. Kristin Avatar

    One more thing…there continue to be far too many delightful comments that move me from this post. Yes, I still feel like jumping up and down during this conversation!

    One of my most poignant memories in my life happened when I stopped the chores for a moment and sat next to my dog in the grass to just be. We enjoyed the calm breeze and warmth of the sun. Her coat glistened and I just laid my arm gently on her back. I deliberately soaked in that moment so it would leave an deep impression on my soul. It was full of peace, beauty, joy, communion. It reminds me of Martin Buber’s I-Thou. I have gone back to that moment many times, especially in the years since my old dog died. There’s no sorrow in this particular memory for some reason. It is a sacred, holy memory. I don’t share it often because there’s something in it I cannot seem to communicate. Maybe it was a touching of the infinite, a glimpse of heaven, that drives all sorrow away.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Math and music a pair of beauties. My mother frequently mentioned several talented musicians she knew in the 40’s in NY who got recruited to work on the Manhattan Project because they could solve certain equations without knowing what they meant.
    From the Pythagorians forward the link has been known. Beat math popularizing “Donald in Mathmagicland”

  51. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    You do not put a man on the moon simply by aiming. It is a calculation, and the calculation works because numbers are real and true. By the same token, we perceive beauty because it is real and true, and discover in it, a gateway into the mystery of the universe, that which lies beneath and within. Beauty may be compared to the meaning in a text. The letters and words are the surface – our ability to perceive their meaning is something yet more. It is surprising that we tend not to be astonished by this fact.

    What we do seem to do is attend to the surface, despite our best efforts otherwise. I’m in an institution, and more often than not I’m teaching chemistry as if we do science for science sake or for capitalism.

    When I do go ‘off track’ in my lecture to describe the unexpected behavior of an atom ‘as a gateway’ to the mystery of the universe (a good and Orthodox way to describe this—thank you Father) my students are indeed astonished.

    I believe whether we know it or not, that is, whether we let ourselves know it or not, our souls yearn for this. Our Lord’s voice, heard in our hearts, echoing in nature, calls to us.

  52. Drewster2000 Avatar


    My wife just finished getting through our daughter through the cryfest (to many) that is math. It is wonderful to hear that you found a way of guiding those through that don’t have the gene. I’m incredulous. I hope you share it with all who will listen.

    I was also touched by your dog story. I have those memories too but have to admit they’re tinged with sadness. I am General Maximus in Gladiator longing for golden grain fields that lead to home and a place of true rest where I am at ease to have nothing but those kinds of moments. I know the practice of such begins in this life, but I’m a long way from there yet. Thanks for sharing your precious moment with us.

  53. Anonymous Avatar

    As an artist in college, I became fascinated when I learned about the importance of the Fibonacci sequence in art. It also plays out repeatedly in nature as well. Connection points in beauty….

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Anonymous, my mother based her dances on the Fibonacci Sequence. Indeed a history of the arts. The Golden Mean

  55. Anonymo Avatar

    Dee, I agree that our souls yearn for that depth of experience. Modern education is so flat and 2-dimensional, we are impoverished from missing a robust classical Orthodox education. If I ever had kids I would look into homeschooling or search hard for an appropriate school.

    Indeed Anonymous; Da Vinci used the sequence in his most famous painting to great effect. Also similar spirals are very common in flowers.

  56. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed your description of a flat/2-dimensional perception in modern education is apt. Father describes the secular and literalist world as a flat world, which is inculcated in our schools and most everywhere else in this culture.

    I find it interesting to have happened upon a movie trailer on you tube. Curious, I took a look to see what it was about. It was fantasy-oriented and the narrator, speaking as one of the characters in the film, describes their experience as having a dimension that reaches across the universe.

    The irony is that this is indeed our reality–no fantasy. But the inculcation of the perception of a flat world, casts such experience as whimsy, and harms our capacity to see with the eyes our nous.

    That said, it isn’t so easy to see with our nous, generally. I admire those who can see the saints. But the fears in my mind of such a visual experience prevent it.

  57. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    BTW there are psychological studies on inattentional blindness which correlate to the phenomenon of literal/flat/2D perception I’m describing in my previous comment. Interestingly, inattentional blindness increases if the attention is purposefully focused on a task while observing. And there are indications that some people who have ADHD, enjoy a side benefit from that affliction in that they are not so affected by inattentional blindness.

    And it looks like inattentional blindness might increase with age–a bummer for this old gal.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The conversation has led me to look up and begin to read The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot.
    Having arrived near the age that modern utilitarians claim is the end of useful life I can hypothesize that inattentional blindness might come from a couple of sources one a flattening as the acuteness of my physical senses diminish; the other a deepening as my internal sense tends to prefer the inward dimensions of being. Perhaps there is a Fibonacci Sequence of prayer and repentance too. That would indeed be a wonder.
    Nevertheless, God still keeps giving me things to do like caring for my wife as she recovers from major shoulder surgery (going well thank God). And …
    If I may be so bold: to pursue the work of racial reconcilliation articulated by the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black which is founded on a perception of humanity as a bunch of different, multi-colored flowers God planted in His garden that Fr. Moses Berry’s grandmother always talked about. 2

  59. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans


    the other a deepening as my internal sense tends to prefer the inward dimensions of being. Perhaps there is a Fibonacci Sequence of prayer and repentance too. That would indeed be a wonder.

    Indeed that would be a blessing if true for an aging person.

    After a little bit more reading of the phenomenon, and closer to the idea of how our culture inculcates us not to perceive beyond the literal, it seems that expectation, that is what we expect to see or experience, plays into our capacity to perceive the unexpected. Secularism robs us of so much that nature can reveal to us.

  60. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    My prayers for your wife’s continued healing, God willing, Michael.

  61. Byron Avatar

    Having been through two shoulder surgeries (one on each shoulder) that were, thankfully, not “major”, I too will keep you and your wonderful wife in my prayers as well, Michael. May God bless Merry with healing!

  62. juliania Avatar

    Michael Bauman, have you read The Four Quartets? I don’t know The Wasteland other than its sad ending, but I do love the Quartets because the underlying poetry is musical and also they fit together in a long stream of actual time. I don’t pretend to understand them, as much in them I think must be personal to Eliot, but parts are profound, I think, particularly in the final quartet, Little Gidding. That one caused me to research online what was (and is) Little Gidding. Much, much more than just to have read the history of the place, I am so glad I encountered the poem first. And somewhere, probably in Saint Paul’s letters, the Greek says we are God’s poema, His making, as also it is in Genesis.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Juliana, I have not read the Quartets. My major experience with Eliot was acting in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, at a time in my life when Jesus was taking hold of me. The play was part of that. I have read snatches of The Waste Land and some commentaries. I will give The Quartets a try, thank you.

    Dee and Byron, thank you so much for your kindness and prayers. I read your notes to Merry and she is touched. She is recovering well, thank God

  64. Dean Avatar

    “A merry heart does good like a medicine.”
    Your comments through the years have brought merriment to many hearts!
    And, our prayers are for your good and speedy recovery.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dean, one of Merry’s favorite sayings is “A merry heart doeth good!” Thank you.

  66. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Dean and Byron, Thank you for prayers and your kind comments I am recovering slower this time but doing well, Michael is taking great care of me and even cooking often You are alll a blessing! My sense of humor is boundless and I do get great joy from bringing happiness or laughter God is all about love, joy, and caring for each other, Being like I have these last 5 weeks has taught me humility and how much I need others,

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

    It would be easy not to rejoice: Both my wife and I are struggling with our bodies, the weather and the fact that we cannot attend and parrticipate in the Divine Liturgy today as we are limited to 25% capacity and the sign up maxed out in about an hour early this week. We are both struggling with pain and neither of us slept well last night. The political situation in the US is not good.
    Socially, politically and governmentally our country seems to be falling apart. It is tough to discern the truth about what is going on and how to respond yet we are commanded to rejoice in the Lord, for He is Risen-trampling down death by death.

    In the US our 215 year old polity may be coming to an end. Yet we are commanded to rejoice in the Lord. Think about that. We are COMMANDED to rejoice in the Lord. Even to the smallest jot and tittle.
    This is the day thr Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

    May His blessings and joy reign in each of our hearts this day as we struggle to meet earthly challenges.

    Thank you all especially Father Stephen.
    Bless Father!

  68. Reid Avatar

    Anonymo, it is lovely that you have made the acquaintance of Blaise Pascal. He is my favorite mathematician as well, and I am especially fond of Pensees. I suppose I have been influenced quite a bit by his ability simultaneously to apply reason to produce beautiful mathematics (e.g., laying the foundation of probability theory) while recognizing its limitations (another favorite pair of quotes: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” “Atheism shows strength of mind, but only to a certain degree.”). He also seems to have seen the darkness lurking in some of his contemporary Descartes’s philosophy that has been so influential in succeeding centuries.

    By the way, my comment on mathematicians, not poets, going mad, is roughly a quote from Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy.” I cannot find my copy at the moment, but I think it is available online in the public domain.

    Dee, roughly thirty years ago folks like I who were teaching freshman statistics in math departments were faced with a “statistics reform movement,” largely imposed on us by the textbook companies. The central theme of this movement seemed to be a shift from regarding statistics as a branch of mathematics to seeing it as the science of data. A statistician acquaintance of mine suggests that some sense of this distinction may well go back a century. I still approach statistics as a mathematician (there is a topic in math called Mathematical Statistics), but I recognize that the root “state” in “statistics” indicates its origins as a tool of government rather than as a means of pursuing abstract truth. I also become aware of this every time I look at government job postings, which list many positions for statisticians and none for mathematicians!

  69. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, you will perhaps know the quote from the German mathematician Leopold Kronecker (1823–1891) “Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk,” which translates as “God made the integers [i.e., the counting numbers together with their negatives and zero]. Everything else is the work of man.”

  70. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, you write, “…if the Ark of the Covenant is a type of the Theotokos, and we can say that she is truly and really “beneath” that word in the Scriptures – then, what must it mean for how the universe is, how reality is.” I have been thinking lately about “fulfillment.” Christ does not abolish the Law but fulfills it. The Lord takes the patriarch Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers and fulfills it by making it the means of making Joseph ruler of Egypt, thereby saving his own brothers from famine. Later Christ fulfills the life of Joseph by being mistreated by His brothers, being found in the form of a servant, being thrown into the deepest pit (of Hades), and by this means receiving the name above every name and saving His brothers. David’s work as a shepherd caring for his sheep is fulfilled in his battle with staff and sling against the giant Goliath caring for his people Israel. Later Christ fulfills the life of David taking up His staff (the cross) and being Himself the Rock flung at that great giant Death and trampling him down. Esther and Mordecai cannot negate the law of extermination of the Jews, sealed with the king’s signet by the enemy Haman; but they fulfill that law by giving the Jews the king’s permission to assemble and defend themselves, thus making it the instrument by which they take vengeance on their enemies. The grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies and is fulfilled in growing up as a fruitful stalk of wheat. Fr. Schmemann (as I recall) says that every meal aspires to be the Eucharist. Christ fulfills the Law of Moses rather than abolishing it, giving us the Gospel whose glorious light outshines that of the Law (which was also a kind of light) as the sunrise outshines a torch (taking an image from St. Irenaeus).

    I keep wondering, though, whether in some sense all of these fulfillments reflect Christ’s incarnation, that our Lord Jesus is both God and man. Every aspect of His life can be seen from two points of view, the human and the Divine. Both are real and form only one life, and yet the weakness, failure, shame, and death of that man from a human standpoint are fulfilled in the strength, victory, glory, and lifegiving resurrection of that same Son of God from a Divine standpoint (2 Cor 5:16). In this regard I have been especially intrigued by our Lord’s words from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” I have heard two explanations of these words. One is that they reflect the grief of Christ, as man, suffering and facing terrible death on the cross. The other is that at this time in history the Jews referred to the Psalms not by number but by their first lines. Thus our Lord’s words, the first line of Psalm 21/22, were as though He was calling out, “Psalm 21/22” to the onlookers, pointing them to salvation by showing them the psalm that describes not only His sufferings (in brutal detail) but also His emerging victorious and offering life to the nations. I long wondered which was the right interpretation, but now I’ve come to believe that both are true at once and that this is a striking expression of the Incarnation: His words are at once and without division the words of a Man suffering grief, shame, and sorrow and of the Son of God in His glory (John 12:23, 32) seeking the salvation of His lost people.

    And so I have come to suspect that everything in Creation, though perfectly good and real as it is, awaits a Divine fulfillment.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think this is undoubtedly so.

  72. Anonymo Avatar

    Reid, that is a joy to hear. To be truthful I particularly like him as a mathematician because he ‘created’ Pascal’s triangle and the many patterns within it and with it. Created is the wrong word, it seems to me mathematicians as a group are among those who most understand that truth is discovered not created.

    Reid that is in interesting point about statistics, “Regarding statistics as a branch of mathematics to seeing it as the science of data.” To me it seems like a political or social move, designed to serve those in power in our post-modern age. One need only think of climate science, with the pre-ponderous of erroneous uses of statistics in support of the ideologues premises. Or the complete and utter unreliability of the latest psychological study because those scientists lack a necessary understanding of statistics or decide to manipulate it. I think it is part of every mathematician to have a respect for the truth, because that after all is what they constantly pursue, regularly having to admit to another flawed hypothesis until they discover something of worth.

    What I have written next is off-topic, but overflowing from my heart.

    I have been listening to a Orthodoxy live by Fr. Evan Armatas, and found it very beneficial as I am new to Orthodoxy; wondering if anyone (particularly Fr. Freeman) would like to suggest another podcast that would be educational and enlightening for a newcomer to Orthodoxy. I have a lot of time to spend listening to podcasts, as I am currently working a menial job. I want to add that I am touched by Fr Evan Armatas loving pastoral heart. The two virtues present in Orthodox people that have most stood out and drawn me to Orthodoxy is love and humility. It truly is healing. They are careful physicians and doctors of the soul and understand the gravity of their task. Forgetting all the apologetics, it might have been enough for me to choose Orthodoxy based on the Christians witness of its followers, though I do recognise that their are good and bad Christians everywhere. Protestants tend to have a low-view of our progress in sanctification. Meanwhile, I found many experienced Orthodox to be profoundly Christlike. Forgive the generalisation, it is only my fallible and biased experience.

    I just listened to an episode where a college girl asked how it is that Orthodoxy understands the verses Calvinists quote to support their ideas of election and predestination. Fr. Evan Armatas gave a wonderful answer. Pointed away from parsing the texts and instead to why God created the world. God did not create the world for his own glory as the Calvinist would say but instead he did it because he is a God of love who want to share his love. We are created by Love, for love and to love is a great phrase I have heard from Orthodox and Catholics alike. We need freedom or free will to love. If God controls us then it is not truly love. Drawing on the analogy of parents with their family he illustrated the foolishness and wretchedness of the Calvinist lie. Good parents don’t choose to love some of their children. Good parents are aware of the suffering of the world they bring their child to but they choose to take the risk and so raise them with love and for love. Good parents have an unconditional love for their children; conditional love is no love at all. The gospel is not a mere transaction but a transformation and a life lived in Christ. He concluded that he would rather be an atheist than believe in the God of Calvinism. I humbly agree. Also I heard a touching story from another Calvinist about how he finally realised that God really loves him (without qualification) when coming to Orthodoxy. When one reads the gospels at face value without the superimposed lense of Calvinism there continually shines through God’s love for all human kind. Jesus is the great philanthropist. As an empath it broke my heart when I considered that I had a been chosen, why others had been elected to eternal suffering. That victims of great suffering on this earth or those who have been aborted would then be thrown into an eternal lake of fire was hard to bear. I wager that Calvinism both attracts and fosters narcissism. There is a reason atheists call that kind of God a narcissist. The Devil is crafty, what better way to destroy Christ work then to promulgate an false, evil and ugly distortion of the gospel to the world. Everywhere I have found that the truth is never popular, as Mark Twain has said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Fortunately God works amid the weakness of man, and Christ can save any who look to him in faith. Many I would say who are less intelligent or educated with discernment discard the lies and accepts Jesus and the core parts of the gospel at face value more or less unconsciously and in some ways I see that as a more fortunate path. I consider myself blessed to live in a time with the internet where one can hear from millions of others who have similar experiences to yourself. One learns that they are not alone, even when that has been your experience in your immediate vicinity irl. Glory to God for all things!

    I realise now that I have revealed so much personal information on this blog that anyone who knows me irl would recognise who I am, but I think it to be unlikely that many if any will find my comments. In any case I fear God not man. Brene brown’s book Daring greatly and When People Are Big and God Is Small have been the most helpful in allowing me to be vulnerable without shame or fear. I recommend them both if your struggle with fear and shame. Most of my life I have been a chronic under-sharer so if I am over-sharing inappropriately then do let me know.

  73. Anonymo Avatar

    I want to thank Robin Philips, who I believe frequents this blog, for his work; what little I have read from him has been invaluable to me. For those interested he just posted an article on the sacramental imagination which ties in with some of the latest blog posts by Fr. Stephen Freeman. Here is the link if I may share it,

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Anonymo, may the Grace of our Lord keep your perception pure and whole. You have reminded me of so much that is easy to forget in the midst of the world. Thank you.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

  76. Kristin Avatar


    I am a bit younger than you but have entered the long decline , experiencing beginnings of an aging body. A dear friend is struggling with kidney failure and had two surgeries this week. I helped another move from her house to an apartment signaling the end of a marriage spanning 3 1/2 decades. Another friend came to my door the other day despairing that the curtain is falling on our culture and the abdication of the church from living up to her responsibilities (she is Protestant, I don’t know if that is relevant except she means something different by ‘the church ‘). For the first time I am the hopeful one and she is the despairing one.

    I am reading about the saints and martyrs more attentively. Our priest preaches that we needn’t fear, Christ has trampled down death by death. We are called to live in a different reality than the voices of the age would have us. Michael and Merry, with the struggles you live with in a daily basis, you summed it all up: the command to rejoice. And our rejoicing is it in vain, that’s why it makes sense, Christ crucified and risen, and His return one day.

    Ma we be ready when our King comes back and, in the meantime, see Him working here and now. Blessings on you!

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kristen, one of the key differences between what I have seen of Protestant “joy” and the joy in the Church is that, in the Church, we also mourn, and mourn deeply. The deepest joy I have ever experienced was the Pascha about 40 days after my wife of 24 years had reposed. The Ressurection was so incredibly real, vibrant and alive. No longer conceptual. God brought me a new wife who had also had a spouse die and had a deep experience of God’s grace in that. I do not think that most Protestant approaches look at mourning deeply enough. But I may be wrong.
    We even mourn for our own sinfulness in Confession and experience the joy of repentance.

    We recognize the reality, even if temporary, of the separation from God and the daily grace He makes available that allows us to suffer “the slings and arrows” that we meet.

  78. Kristin Avatar

    Yes, Michael, the joy does not cancel or negate our suffering and sorrow. Rather, the embrace of the Man of Sorrows feels all the rusher for our suffering and mourning. After all, He wept with Mary and Martha. He collects our tears. There’s a new freedom to grieve as an Orthodox Christian that I never felt before. How can we rejoice concurrently with deep grief? Can that be a work if the Holy Spirit? I cannot understand it in any other way.

    Thank you for your beautiful words. My father remarried after my mother died, to a lovey woman who also lost her first husband. Their wedding was quite painful for me. One of her children told me that my dad put a smile on Margaret’s face for the first time since her husband died. I made it my mission to be as happy as possible for them and allow my grief to become private. I am so glad for you and Merry.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    How can we rejoice concurrently with deep grief?

    Indeed, it is a work of Divine Grace. I was a the Pascha celebration more out of duty than anything else. My grief was still deep. Nevertheless, as we started to sing “Christ is Risen From the Dead” He was and my wife along with Him. I came out of the service with a broad smile of joy—yet I still grieved for my loss. Some days, despite my wonderful wife, the grief is still there, BUT we are able to share that grief and the grief she still has for her husband in a special way.
    Her daughter now looks on me as ‘daddy’ and my son has benefited from having a loving mother in his life as well.
    God is good.

  80. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Like you I too find reading the saints’ lives vital for living the Orthodox Way, in these times and indeed for all times. Sometimes reading their lives before going to sleep helps to put aside the troubles we encounter during the day. This is something that my confessors have encouraged. Not only are their lives edifying but reveal that you are not alone in your struggles. And they do live with us, abiding with us in this sojourn of our lives.

    Thank you, Kristin and Michael, for this conversation in this thread.

  81. Anonymo Avatar

    Michael I am grateful to be of service to you. I write my thoughts out like one throws paint at a wall; it splatters everywhere but sometimes hits the mark? God bless you as you work through your grief. I also have found your comments to be of value, even if I haven’t responded to one.

    I think sorrow is more appreciated in part because Orthodoxy most puts into practice Jesus words: “come take up your cross and follow me.” Meanwhile in Protestantism there is this overt or covert prosperity gospel that seeps in amid the lack of focus on spiritual life. I think you might be right Michael that grief is not looked at deep enough in Protestant circles, it might be mainly addressed in a therapeutic way and lack the spiritual perspective? I once mentioned in front of Protestants that we can unite with Christ in our sufferings because he also came to earth to suffer with us and then someone said: “But we cannot compare our suffering to the infinite punishment Christ received from the Father”, at which I cringed.

    I myself have found that the deepest joy comes with or from the deepest sorrows. Happiness is such a nebulous word in our culture which frustrates me but we must instead come to understand and participate in the real joy of Christ.

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