The Erotic Language of Prayer


The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation, almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role. For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






38 responses to “The Erotic Language of Prayer”

  1. Daphne Mary Avatar
    Daphne Mary

    I love you and your boots. Give Matuska a kiss from us.

  2. James Scott Shipman Avatar
    James Scott Shipman

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Many thanks! I’m reading The Ethics of Beauty on your recommendation. The themes you express above, along with Dr. Patitsas’ work have opened yet another door of insight in our Orthodox journey.

    With love in Christ,
    James Scott

  3. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Profound and so uncoincidentally timely…this post draws together so, so well what God has been ecstatically impressing on this poor yet beautiful soul. Many thanks!

  4. Joy Burge Avatar

    24 years ago I was in Atlanta , Ga for a Saturday Braves game. On Sunday afternoon I visited a local church.
    The message was on “ Being intimate with God”. From that point on I have been on a journey of discovering just what being intimate with God means.
    Your message here is both Powerful and deep, and transforms ones walk with God

  5. Erik A. Osterberg Avatar
    Erik A. Osterberg

    Eros is
    a kinesis
    of kenosis

  6. Seraphima Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this beautiful writing! The love of beauty, the good, and truth, not to mention music, I guess a subset of beauty, has been the most sure path to seek God for me, and I feel supported in this by what you wrote. Theology is a wonderful thing, but it does not help me with the eros part of the search for or movement towards God and life so much. So often, our culture does not value the most beautiful, the most good, or the truest things, and those of us who treasure these can feel like outsiders, or at least, I often do. I find community with other musicians and artists, but so much of the musical and art world is secular in quality that it is hard to find communion for one’s soul in these worlds. The beauty of Orthodox churches was a significant aspect of my feeling at home in this tradition. I loved the austerity and simplicity of Protestant churches when I was growing up, a different kind of beauty, but especially relate to the more elaborate beauty found in the Orthodox tradition. I think it reflects the multiplicity of ways that Beauty is expressed around us. So, thank you very much for this.

  7. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Everything about the Orthodox Church is beautiful: the prayers, the hymnography, the structure of the services, the iconography, the music, the incense, the vestments, the ornate Gospel cover, the candles, the architecture, etc. i can only imagine what it must have been like for Saint Vladimir’s envoys to enter Hagia Sophia if I feel all this from my small local Church. I had read about the Church for 4 years before finally attending a service and the thing that ultimately captivated me was not the intellectual understanding of the teachings, but the beauty of the entire experience. It really is a conversion that must take place in the heart where the “poetry” of Christ’s love can be felt. Thank you for such a rich offering Father! I will be reading and pondering your words here many, many times.

  8. Ziton Avatar

    Thank you again, Father. Three comments. Due to length, and possibly relevance, I am dividing these into three topics. The first two are light.

    1. Stasis

    As I was reflecting on your talking again about ecstasy and ex-stasis my mind started thinking further about how that root word “stasis” seems to keep on cropping up in different ways. God is three hypostases (but one ousia), and indeed we are hypostases ourselves. Indeed, in light of Father’s article, I was wondering whether ek-stasis might almost function as a kind opposite to hypostasis? We may be taken to ekstasis by gazing at an iconostasis. And so on. I was thinking that maybe this was just a function of ‘theological’ Greek, until I realized that, interestingly (at least to me) English over-hammers this word too, perhaps even more. Or at least that’s my understanding (do I really stand under something to comprehend it? Maybe.). I do not intend to take a stand on this, nor stand up for it, or even stand out on it, but it is interesting. Standards must be maintained! Maybe I’ll just be a bystander, or at least stop grandstanding. All other things notwithstanding … Time to stand down. Sorry about that.

    It is maybe ironic that in English the particular word “stasis” has come to mean that nothing changes.

  9. Ziton Avatar

    2. Eros, Aphrodite and Psyche

    In pagan Greek mythology Eros is the child of Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the goddess of both love and beauty (in all its forms, not just the human body). Eros was the one god that all the other gods feared the most, because of that arrow that could send them all insane if they were pricked by it – no god or mortal could withstand its power. And the particular story of Eros and Psyche is as interesting as the title suggests … I find those myths interesting and enriching on this. They feel kind of psychologically largely in the right ball park to me in terms of the symbolic relationships between the ideas and forces.

  10. Ziton Avatar

    3. The double edged sword of beauty and the unsustainability of eros

    While I completely get where this article is coming from – and it is beautifully and persuasively done – I also can’t help but think that it is not as simple as that. I have had many beautiful experiences some of which that have been completely transporting and that, yes, have been among the greatest (incontrovertible) evidence for God. They did indeed create, or worsen, a longing for the divine. The problem is, though, that I landed back with myself. Each time I have experiences something sublime it makes coming back to who I really am that much worse. Yes, I do appear broken and soiled with nothing to recommend me. But I don’t think it is just “appear”. The longer all this goes on, the more convinced I become of my own deep, deep rottenness. Personally, I I don’t just hear the fathers’ language as “extreme”, but it just sounds like a simple statement of fact (and that is kind of oddly soothing as a result). The difference, though, seems to be that for them it seems to have become a springboard for true repentance. In my case I just feel like I am a rat in a wheel going nowhere, and only becoming more and more each time the wheel goes around at the level of muckiness and the extent of the swamp that I am – and indeed dimly sensing that I am only seeing the smallest extent of the swamp. It is indeed a cause for morbid self-hatred. In any event, my “repentances” seem like a kind of caricature most of the time, and seem to go nowhere. My behaviours remain. My self remains, going down further each time. And even if miraculously I was able to “successfully” repent of something – were it to produce some small fruit – I feel it could not touch, even slightly the underlying core of rottenness. But underneath all of that is a growing deeper sense of dislike of my own existence : even if all the swampy things could be magically removed (let alone removed by endless repentance) then I still don’t think I should be here. I often think that God should not “save” me and that rescuing me is a kind of travesty all round. Whatever “save” means. I drain the swamp and turn it into something else?. That prayer of St Simeon sort of assumes that the sinner still thinks there is something in him worth saving. I am really not sure I do. I often think that if it meant my sense of me were to stop would it help, I think.. If that sounds “extreme”, it’s just the personal truth of it.

    Sorry for that long, contrarian, no doubt self-indulgent, and probably quite unhelpful rant. It’s just that I often find seeing even a glimpse of truth and beauty often up end up just as yet another hangover of self stuff. Eros may be a kinetic wind that sometimes take me soaring to places where kenosis reigns for a while, but I can’t stay there. I just can’t. They are not meant for me – or “I” am not meant for them. I fear it is the kinesis of gravity that will be my destiny. But then again it is a destiny I increasingly think I richly deserve. Splat. Beauty is for me a double edged sword that divides my soul and spirit and judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

  11. Anonymo Avatar

    Father I found this article to be truly profound, also as it answered questions I had been probing at. I think is my new favourite article of yours that I have read. I am tempted to go back and read more of your older posts.

    I have been listening to Father Stephen Damick’s Amon Sul podcast on LOTR and done some reflecting on the impact of stories on the human person. I am beginning to realise the centrality of the heart as you say: “First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense.” I think my early years spending many hours in imaginative fiction primarily of the fantasy genre as well as my delving into the works of C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and Peterson’s maps of meaning shaped my imagination and my appreciation for story, myth and narrative such that immersive story of Orthodoxy immediately appeared to me as a beautiful pearl of great price. I had previously held onto a disappointing story because I adored the main character, but now I am coming ever closer to appreciating the beautiful mystery of God’s work in all creation.

  12. Anonymo Avatar

    Just realised it was a repost, thanks for reposting it!

  13. Anonymo Avatar

    Father this comment brought a huge smile to my face,

    Fr. Stephen Freeman says:
    May 4, 2018 at 12:52 pm
    Imagine, a man has met the most wonderful woman. She is more than anything he might have dreamt. She seems a soul-mate, friend, someone to spend a life with – inherently making it a wonderful life. With a trembling heart and soul he breathes the words “I love you,” and waits to hear what might be said in return.

    That moment has all the meaning of fear, wonder and awe, within it. When the words are spoken in return, he is fulfilled.

    I can’t help but think of Psalm 139 verse 14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” The reality of God is almost too good to be true because he is beyond us existing in perfection while we can only ever reach towards his likeness.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect that the morbid self-hatred was something you experienced long before you saw the Beauty. It is a wound (and not of your own making). Only Beauty can heal the wound. That life of healing, which is His gift, begins at some point when we can see that, despite all that we loathe, He has placed that Beauty within us. We can only see the Beauty (and desire it) because it is our heart’s true home. That desire is itself the Beauty.

  15. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Death makes us, our motives, our bodies, the effect on the mind, the strategies to cope, the idols to give some manageability, all of these make us defiled. Self-deprecation in this way is right, but only with a view to Pascha. The lowness of death and sin in us is brought up with hope in Pascha and in our own Resurrection. Death is not beautiful if it is only met with mad strategy. Death then becomes only more of a downward spiral. The digging out of a whole. In this respect, and in the OT, death and uncleanness and sin are interwoven such that they almost lose any distinction. Death stinks literally. It offends us. It keeps us from participation in God because He is pure Life and we cannot bear Him. Our death/sin/uncleanness make our telos seem impossible. If not for the life granted Israel in the sacrifice, not a legal provision though put down in law, the sinner/the death-baring would have no access to the Divine Presence. Following Pascha though, the tables are turned on death such that though our mortal bodies are still wasting away, but the fragrance of new life, makes us smell like death to the dying. We seem like an accelerant to the dying, but wonderful fragrance to those coming to life. The usage of fragrance over and over there in 2 Cor. points to this beauty aspect. Nothing smells worse than death. I remember a Podcast on a prank product called Liquid A__ that the military used to prepare soldiers for the shock and possible dysphoria to be experienced on the battlefield. Death literally smells worse than anything. But here death being transformed, turns even those wasting away, into gardens. What is mortal about us now will be swallowed up by life. Christ’s sin offering transforms us into the righteousness of God. So much to be said on these themes in 2 Corinthians.

    Sharing in suffering > sharing in encouragement
    Swallowed up in despair > Granting real love and forgiveness overcomes this
    noxious fumes to the dying>Aroma of Christ to the living
    Ministry of death in the OT > Totally surpassed by ministry of righteousness
    Glory of the veiled > Surpassed and supplanted by unveiled reality
    Veiled faces > Unveiled faces > Beholding glory>Transformed by Glory>Transformed by the Glory of Christ’s face
    Darkness>Flooded with light
    Embracing suffering > Displaying the life of Jesus
    Outer man wasting away>Inner man renewed day by day
    Light affliction>Eternal Weight of Glory
    Earth tent groaning>Full hope of putting on Resurrection body
    One has died for all>All have died already
    Death>New Creations in Christ
    Death/Sin Offering of Christ>Righteousness

    Then in 2 Cor 6:6 he starts giving us these opposites again… in beatings…>purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, the Holy Spirit, etc.. Then in verse 9, he seems to interrupt the flow of thought …as dying…and look! We continue to live! The beauty from ashes theme is throughout the whole epistle.

    I’ve gone on too long.

  16. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Some additional words from St. Porphyrios on how the beauty of creation can lead us all to Christ…

    “Take delight in all things that surround us. All things teach us and lead us to God. All things around us are the droplets of God – both things animate and inanimate, the plants and the animals, the birds and the mountains, the sea and the sunset and the starry sky. They are little loves through which we attain to the great love that is Christ…

    Make the most of beautiful moments. Beautiful moments predispose the soul to prayer… wake up in the morning to see the sun rising from out of the sea as a king robed in regal purple. When a lovely landscape… or something beautiful inspires you, don’t leave things at that, but go beyond this to give glory for all beautiful things… All things are holy – the sea, swimming, eating. Take delight in them all. All things enrich us, all lead us to the great love, all lead us to Christ.”

    ~Saint Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 218.

  17. Janine Avatar

    Thank you once again, Fr. Stephen, for putting into words and clarifying deep subjects!

    I was brought up in the Armenian Apostolic (Oriental Orthodox ) church and married into the Greek Orthodox church. Recently I had occasion to ponder how I knew my culture and history and the one constant I could come up with was Beauty. I think this is because both peoples have been primarily shaped by their centuries of their respective Churches, and the expression of those Churches is Beauty. From illuminated manuscripts to church architecture to iconography to the sublime poetry of liturgy and Scripture and all of the theology and Tradition/tradition, the thread is Beauty. And I am toying with the idea of defining evil as that which obscures, assaults, or twists the Beauty – which of course is inseparable from Goodness and Truth, but also love.

    So, not sure where to go with that, but I will keep reading. Funny how it takes hindsight for me to understand it, too.

  18. Drewster2000 Avatar


    “Personally, I I don’t just hear the fathers’ language as “extreme”, but it just sounds like a simple statement of fact (and that is kind of oddly soothing as a result). The difference, though, seems to be that for them it seems to have become a springboard for true repentance. In my case I just feel like I am a rat in a wheel going nowhere, and only becoming more and more each time the wheel goes around at the level of muckiness and the extent of the swamp that I am – and indeed dimly sensing that I am only seeing the smallest extent of the swamp. It is indeed a cause for morbid self-hatred.”

    I hear you, my brother. I have been there several times. But please allow me to share with you a morsel of hope that was once given to me. I think it will go one step lower than your self-loathing, just as Aslan’s magic was even deeper than the witch’s.

    IF you truly believe you are nothing, and that there is nothing there worth saving, it is at this point which you must look for one more thing that’s possibly still left: your pride. If you have no pride left, then there is no judging voice condemning you to annihilation or some other heinous end. And if you have no pride left, then there is nothing to stop you from giving yourself totally into the hands of the living God. There is nothing left to argue about whether God should or should not love you and decide to keep you.

    In fact when pride is gone you will cease trying to navigate your existence with using any reason at all. Instead your heart will be drawn by the Eros spoken of in the article. The mad forgetting of self has done just that and no longer looks at value. True repentance is not ultimately not for the sake of degradation, but that the swollen, sinful self can be reduced to its normal, healthy size. And this is accomplished through forgetting, not debasing.

    So remember that to repent means to turn – away from yourself and toward Him. Our deeply deformed sense of legality and justice forbids us to get away without judgement. That would be correct, except…we know nothing of true mercy and justice. And the God who does is the One who is running towards us and is calling us to run towards Him. So we should put our petty thoughts aside and do as He bids us. It’s that easy – and that hard. But it IS the way.

  19. Ziton Avatar

    Father, thank you. You are no doubt right about the wound. There are no doubt toxic shame problems aplenty down there – I am so looking forward to your book. But even if they caused it, I am living with the consequences of being me, and I just don’t like it. No doubt part of that is, as Drewster suggests, a pride problem. But my bigger problem is that deep down I just don’t like me, and I’m not a person I particularly want to spend time with. I just find me unattractive and the more I become aware of the details the less attractive it all becomes.

    Drewster, thank you also. Hand up to pride. Ubiquitous and nasty swamp weed with deep roots running everywhere. Yes, it is partly pride that authorizes my ego to pass judgement on myself as being uninteresting, worthless, or worse. As you may well have noticed, I am highly opinionated generally. It is good to have the reminder about trying to notice pride at work though – although of course any active seeking out of that particular passion is likely to run into a self-referencing mirror problem as the ego looks for itself …. Although intellectually I acknowledge that judgements about me and my worth are not my call to make but God’s in the final analysis, in the meantime and in practice I can’t help it just happening, and it’s depressing. Actually, I don’t think my mode in doing so is judicial. As I just said to Father, it’s more that I just find me unattractive and someone I don’t want to be with, and a growing awareness of the range and depth of the swamp is sort of horrific. I am not sure what to do with that, other than to try and repent and pray – but as I said I view my efforts there as deeply flawed, and when they come from the ego self they are inevitably tainted. It is true that in those blessed times when grace takes my inner focus comes off me and onto God or my neighbor, or beauty, or whatever sometimes eros does draw me out and I can become temporarily unaware of me. But, as I said, the problem is that sooner or later little ugly ego me always seems to re-manifest like a wart that just will not go away. and then I’m stuck with me again. As my rant said, the problem is that the more blessed the escape, the worse the reaction to my return to ego prison with me as my cell mate.

    I remember those words of St Therese of Lisieux and Fr Hopko has them as one of his maxims about bearing the burden of oneself. They seem to think it was not a big thing. For them maybe it wasn’t.

    I really do appreciate those helpful thoughts from both of you. I realize this is my problem to wrestle with. I think was mainly pointing out that beauty can feel like a double edged sword to those in my state.

    Again, I apologize for length, and if that was all far too self-oriented. But that’s my problem! Yuck.

  20. Anonymo Avatar

    Hi Ziton I would like to offer my thoughts to your predicament. First on your latest comment it seems to me that you might be confusing your current experience of your ego with your true self. I have in the past had a morbid self-hatred, but a significant part of the problem was that I was disconnected from true self and obsessed with a false self reinforced by a ill-developed ego and strident inner critic. It is normal to value your unique self, if you don’t like yourself you are probably both out of touch with yourself and trapped in unhealthy ways of relating to yourself. I don’t know what kind of childhood trauma you have been through but I do think you might benefit from this article and site:

    It is not selfish to pay attention to yourself. In fact it often is the most loving thing you can do not only for yourself but for God and others. Also when you speak from your own personal experience what you say generally has more value. I must confess that I have been very self-oriented the last year, and I consider it a good thing because before that I was estranged from my self. I sense that God is pleased that I prioritised attending to, loving and healing myself. When you say “Personally, I don’t just hear the fathers’ language as “extreme”, but it just sounds like a simple statement of fact (and that is kind of oddly soothing as a result)” that raises a red flag to me. I have come to recognise that certain spiritual messages can be damaging particularly to those with psychological issues. If you lack self-worth, a healthy self-esteem and self-acceptance as understood of central importance in psychology then those spiritual messages can seem to point away from growing in that way. I accept what spiritual messages make sense to me, as well as psychological wisdom and do not seek to reconcile them rationally but accept the mystery of both as true. I came from a tradition that lacked the therapeutic tools of Orthodoxy so I turned to psychology to heal the problems of my mind and soul, and I might recommend the same to you. You say:”Father, it’s more that I just find me unattractive and someone I don’t want to be with, and a growing awareness of the range and depth of the swamp is sort of horrific. I am not sure what to do with that, other than to try and repent and pray”, and I would respond some issues are more psychological than spiritual at least in the sense of how they should be treated. One last thing is that in Orthodoxy man’s nature is not depraved but good and marred by sin. For me it was helpful to understand that I am made in God’s image and as such at the core of my being I am good, and God loves me just as I am. These simplifications are reassuring to me even if the are not entirely theologically accurate. Do indulge in another comment, I would like to hear your response. I apologise if I lacked clarity at points as I don’t think I said all I wanted to say.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ziton, your malady is altogether common these days. Me too until quite recently. Then I ran across Solzhenitsyn’s “radical responsibility”. Coupled with my parent’s teaching of the inter-connectedness of all things made it much easier to repent or begin to. The mercy of Jesus really does bring wholeness and joy. Many struggles remain daily, even by the minute, but what the Church teaches and experiences is real. Elementally simple but not easy.
    The world, the flesh and the devil entice me all the time. Win most of the time. Yet Jesus is always with me too. If a schmuck like me is welcome, you certainly are.
    John 16:33

    I will add my unworthy prayers to support you by God’s mercy

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand what you’re describing. Some wounds are indeed almost impossible to bear. In my work as a parish priest, I would not hesitate to recommend to someone that they get some therapeutic help – even medication. Locally, there are professionals whom I trust. Of course, blogging is something done at a distance, so it’s also an inappropriate place to suggest such steps. However, I would recommend that you speak with someone local and trustworthy and see if that is something they would recommend. There are reasons St. Sophrony spoke of “bearing a little shame.” The wounds of self-loathing and some of the baggage that comes with it, far exceed a “little shame.”

    I write this as someone who has never turned away from professional help. It has saved my life more than once.

  23. Ziton Avatar

    Thank you again Anonymo, Michael Bauman and Fr Stephen. There are many good ideas in your comments and I’ll be taking a few of them up. I won’t elaborate further as I fear that Father’s article has already been unintentionally hijacked as a Ziton therapy session.

    I will say, though, Anonymo that a while ago you posted a prayer of St Sophrony, and that is very, very pertinent and useful. I’ve set it out here again so you can see why, and it may also be apt to Father’s article:

    “Come, O Lord and perform Thy will in me. Thy commandments find no place in my cramped heart, and my poor mind cannot discern their content. For if Thou wilt not come and abide in me, I perish. I know that thou dost not coerce but I pray Thee, in power enter into my house and give me new life. Transform my benighted pride into Thy humble love. By Thy light transfigure my all perverted nature, that not a single passion posses me to prevent the coming of Thy Father and Thee, to make me a holy abode for the life which Thou Thyself has vouchsafed me to behold. Yeah O Lord, I beseech Thee, perform in me this token of Thy kindness.”


  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


  25. Anonymo Avatar

    Amen! It was someone else probably someone named Anonymous. Such a beautiful prayer though thanks for sharing.

  26. Joshua Wherley Avatar
    Joshua Wherley

    “I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church ‘that money should have been given to the poor.’ These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core).”

    Well said, Father. Thank you for including this bit. I used to hold the mentioned sentiment until I explored Orthodoxy and realized that a parish church can be thought of as an offering to God. It says, “God has created the world of beauty around us, and we take the best parts, infuse it with the wisdom of the ecclesia, and offer this building, itself an amalgam of what we know to be holy,” or something to that effect.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I find it interesting that I pretty much never hear anyone look at a typical suburban neighborhood, or a $50,000 car, and say, “That money could have been spent on the poor.” The grasp of beauty comes from the exact same place in the heart as generosity (indeed, I think beauty is largely imperceptible to a heart that is not generous – or it is certainly diminished). If we could truly see the beauty of God (and the beauty He gives to us everywhere), we would likely be ashamed of many of our Church structures – because of their lack of beauty. In point of fact, we seem to desire very little beauty in our lives – except for that which we use to distract us from our shame.

    It is also true, of course, that beauty and expensive are not always the same thing. Many things can be beautiful without being exotic or overbuilt. However, our culture tends to be driven far more by utility than beauty – and it shows.

  28. Kenny Scott Avatar
    Kenny Scott

    “The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense.”

    I don’t seem to understand this. Wouldn’t this be better understood as a both/and situation?

    For myself, I don’t think I was drawn to the faith by beauty, in fact , I don’t think I know many who have. My first impression on being invited to an Orthodox church was “superstitious nonsense”. It was only after hearing reasons and arguments that I became open to see the beauty of our faith.

    I do know of people who stepped into out church and felt immediately connected to the beauty they saw, but that doesnt seem to be the situation for many of the converts I know.

  29. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I don’t know, Kenny, perhaps I’m an outlier, but there is absolutely no argument that would convince me to voluntarily step up to the cross, save love itself.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Perhaps it is as you say. My experience is mostly a reflection of myself and as a confessor. The journey into God (rather than simply joining the Church) comes, I think, in the route of eros-to-beauty. Something has to move us past the ideas into that which is deeply existential to the soul.

  31. NSP Avatar

    @Kenny Scott,

    Your comment is interesting. I myself think about this often. I was largely motivated to start taking the life of faith seriously through coming across the writings of the Inklings and Chesterton. I did indeed find their writings well-reasoned, but I often wonder: was it not the beauty of the writings that drew me to choose to buy these books in the first place, when I was rooting around in second-hand-bookstores?

    Can one really separate the stark truth from beauty? After all, didn’t Plato and others like him say that the true, the good, and the beautiful are convertible and are basically the same thing?

    Isn’t a well-constructed apologetics argument a thing of beauty in itself? 🙂

    Even on the level of natural knowledge haven’t famous scientists and mathematicians, both ancient ones like Pythagoras, as well as moderns like Hardy, Erdos, Russel, Einstein, Dirac, etc. been motivated by the elegance and beauty of mathematics? Surely it is much more so when we deal with spiritual matters?

    If you will permit me to take the liberty of taking apart your personal account to examine it, you say your first impression of Orthodoxy was “superstitious nonsense” and not merely a detached Spock-like “highly illogical.” Superstition is not merely a lapse in logic, it is a perversion and decay of the logical process in the service of false beliefs.

    You were invited to attend an Orthodox church, you perhaps expected to find something elegantly truthful, but on seeing what you perceived as superstition, you were repelled by what you considered to be the un-fittingness (aka ugliness) of such things in a place which claims to have the truth. So it seems that you were searching, not for a detached truth, but for the truth which is beautiful.

    So I agree with your both-and, and I think it is really and truly a “both-and” in the sense that beauty sneaks in at least simultaneously with the truth though we might not have noticed it at the time.

    Regarding your last comment, as a Catholic living in today’s confused times, one often hears accounts of people attending a traditional liturgy for the first time and being drawn by the beauty there which they don’t find in the mainstream post-Vatican II liturgies. So I suspect the reaction of the envoys of Prince Vladimir is repeated even today much more often than we realise.


  32. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Your article touches a chord in my heart, but I have some questions. (I have been told I am somewhat lacking in social skills, and when I don’t understand something I tend to keep asking questions until I arrive at an answer, which somehow annoys many people for reasons I don’t quite get, and so I have learned to keep quiet in social contexts, but since I have read you write here somewhere that you “encourage people to talk to you about their messes” I am emboldened to keep asking you these questions. Please forgive me if it annoys you. I do find benefit from your kind answers but the coin hasn’t quite dropped for me yet, and so I have to keep asking more questions. For instance I found your earlier answer in the “Life Aquatic” article [regarding Death being as much a contradiction of God’s nature as sin is] most helpful ):

    How do we avoid self-hatred when we have seen that “we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us?”

    You say, “But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin.” but you have also repeatedly written in other articles that God acts “with a secret hand” and his action in our lives is often imperceptible to us on this side of death and eternity. Then how do we develop any sense of hope in any practical sense?

    For instance, if I know I am broken, and if I realise that God doesn’t really care about my accomplishments in this world because “even our righteousness is as filthy rags” how can I ever make bold to take on any professional or personal responsibilities? If I have something to do in a professional or academic or family context, and I know I am broken and even (as you said in a recent comment in the “Life Aquatic” article) impotent, how can I permit others to rely on me? In other words, why even bother to get out of bed when “we can expect nothing from ourselves, except stumblings and falls, which make us relinquish all hope of ourselves?”


  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. I think the straightforward, simple path to being able to move forward, despite our brokenness, comes in giving thanks and nurturing a heart of gratitude. I am thinking of something that is like a shift in the core of our being. Much of our lives we describe as “self-centered.” By that, we almost always mean either a pre-occupation with the messiness and incompetence of our lives, or a false sense of our excellence, etc. All of these sort of self-centered ways of living see shame as their nemesis – it threatens to undo them.

    When we begin to acquire gratitude (through the practice of giving thanks), slowly, the “axis” of our life can begin to shift. In that shift, we move from being self-centered to “gratitude-centered” (which is a eucharistic existence). Our giving of thanks becomes “who we are.” It is interesting in that the giving of thanks requires communion with an Other (the Giver). So, our existence is no longer centered in myself (which becomes a death spiral because none of us has life-in-himself). Our existence is centered in the Giver (Who is Life-in-Itself).

    I will be writing an article soon, I think, on the phrase, “the shame of gratitude,” which I recently learned in a talk by Fr. Zacharias of Essex. When we find that we are not self-sufficient, we experience it as “shame” (even if it’s a light form of it). People often blush when they express sincere thanks, a physical expression of mild shame. But, bearing the shame of gratitude is actually a way of life – it is “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Is. 61:3).

    The truth is that we are all incompetent and impotent, etc., as least in some degree or another. We are broken. We are not totally depraved or such – for we are God’s good creation. We are created for praise, for the giving of thanks. When we rise to that holy task, we begin to become what we were and are created to be.

    It’s interesting, I think, that there are a number of popular Christmas stories that champion meager gifts of thanksgiving. There’s the little drummer boy. There’s the story of the juggler, etc. They are stories of gifts that seem not to compare with gold, frankincense and myrhh. And yet, in each story, it is the little gift, given in thanks, that is most valued, that moves the heart of the Christ Child and His Mother.

    Ask Mary to help you learn the giving of thanks. Her Magnificat is such an example of self-less praise – that also recognizes that God exalts the humble and meek. Humility is nothing other than freely and voluntarily bearing a little shame (which is best expressed in the giving of thanks). And, Fr. Zacharias reminded, “humility draws down grace,” for it says, “He gives grace to the humble.”

    I hope that is of some use.

  34. Kenny Scott Avatar
    Kenny Scott

    I guess that is what I was missing.

    What led me to join the church, i think was reason. What causes me to make any attempt to journey on to God is beauty.

    Thank you.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    NSP really great questions thank you. As to why many folks get irritated when you adk questions: in my experience it is because they are experiencing much the same thing you describe themselves.

  36. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I too am grateful for your questions but admit I don’t always comment such, but I do appreciate them. I want to acknowledge this now and encourage you!

    I also I can’t help but express gratitude that you mentioned Dirac’s name. He’s often overlooked and he contributed so much!

  37. Matthew Avatar

    Whether penal, legal, or simply a movement toward non-being, isn´t all this talk about sin something that pushes us toward feelings of guilt which in the end are really not healthy at all?

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Sin is an essential element of the truth about our condition and needs to be rightly understood and rightly discussed. I would suggest that it’s not “guilt” that is at issue in our lives – but “shame.” There is a toxic form of shame that is destructive – and there is a healthy form of shame that is necessary for our well-being. Indeed, I wrote a book on the topic – and I recommend it. 🙂

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