Mediocrity, Envy, and Grace

The 1984 film, Amadeus, tells the story of the child genius, Mozart. IMdB describes it in this manner:

The life, success and troubles of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who was insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claimed to have murdered him…

Mozart’s genius is so profound that it is little more than a toy in the hands of a very spoiled and immature boy/man. Salieri feels that, in Mozart’s existence, God is mocking him. He has dedicated his life to his work, even “to the glory of God,” and nothing he produces can be compared to the slightest trifle of Mozart’s irreverent gift. In the last scene of the film, Salieri, now confined to a mental institution (from where he is relating the tale) blesses the world:

“Mediocrities everywhere! I absolve you!”

Salieri implicates the whole of the world in his crime, describing himself as the “patron saint of mediocrities.” It is one of the most deeply affecting scenes I have ever encountered.

His crime is driven by envy. It is a story that brilliantly exposes the reality that envy is the product of shame and our inability, or unwillingness, to bear it. Salieri is the Emperor’s court musician, his favorite. He enjoys the applause and approval of the public – until the arrival of Mozart. The sheer brilliance of Mozart’s work reveals Salieri as a yeoman, one who labors hard but never succeeds in producing the beauty that flows so effortlessly from Mozart’s mind. The shame in that revelation is too much to bear. The result is envy – the evil eye that seeks the destruction of another. It is of note that the Scriptures tell us that Christ was delivered up for death out of envy.

Tragically, Salieri’s envy is directed towards grace itself. As such, his enemy is not Mozart, but God Himself. Mozart gets killed as the closest convenient target. Such envy eats away at the soul and draws it into a very dark place. We come to hate our own life while resenting the very grace that sustains it.

I was struck several years ago on my first visit to Greece, a country of striking beauty with abundant treasures of wonder everywhere you go. And, everywhere you go, grafitti is present. I can only imagine it as the frustrated expression of an embittered generation that cannot allow anything of beauty to remain untarnished. I do not have a broad enough experience to know if this phenomenon is common across Europe. It certainly has its presence in the US. It is a discordant note in the midst of a symphony, an expression of pain that inhabits our envy. We seek to murder beauty itself.

The shame of mediocrity is, I think, particularly strong in modern culture, driven by the strange lies of our cultural mythology. I saw a billboard on a recent trip. It proclaimed: “Goals + Passion = Change.” Well, I suppose it does. However, the hidden message in this is that “change is possible and desirable, but that it’s your personal responsibility. The reason your passions are frustrated is because you have a lack of goals. Great people are passionate people, etc.” It’s nothing more than new packaging for the old Horatio Alger story, the American myth that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It oversimplifies life and transfers the unspoken corporate guilt of our way of life onto the individual. “Mediocrity is failure and it is my fault.” This is cultural insanity.

We live in a sea of grace, in a world in which wonder and awe suffuse the whole universe. Often, the work of grace goes unnoticed, hidden both by its ordinariness and its lack of drama. Our culture is fond of singing, “Amazing grace,” with an expectation that what constitutes the work of God will always amaze and astound. It is the stuff of great “testimonies” and the various heroes of the faith. But most of the time throughout history, there is a slow and steadfast persistence of grace that, on the one hand, sustains us in our existence, and, on the other, constantly makes the fruit of our lives exceed the quality of our work. We offer him what is mediocre, at best, and He yields back to us thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred. Indeed, we fail to understand that what some might judge to be “mediocre” is itself a work of grace.

Such meditations have become more common for me as I age.  I have come to appreciate that which is steadfast more than that which is exciting. On the larger scale of culture and the grand issues of our time, I have little interest in conversations of how things might be changed for the better. It is little more than idle speculation, something that has become a national past time.

We are beloved mediocrities who have been commanded to become gods (by grace). The only pathway that makes any sense in such a journey is that of the Cross. That path is one of self-emptying and patient endurance. God has not established “achieved excellence” as the manner of our salvation. Indeed, the cult of excellence, in many ways, is one of the soul-crushing myths of our age. The Mozarts of the world are seldom, if ever, the result of applied effort (Salieri is the result of applied effort). They are unpredictable wonders whose presence mocks our faith in works.

We are told:

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29)

And, though this is true, we find ourselves chafing at being called “mediocre.” We cannot bear the shame of such a designation. Our failure to endure this properly easily leads to envy of those striking examples of grace that happen among us.

I marvel at the grace that marks our lives. It radiates and shines forth from every blade of grass and every “mundane” miracle of the day. Occasionally it “Mozarts” its way into the world where we are tempted to imagine it as a work of human genius. We fail to remember that “genius,” in its origins, meant a deity indwelling an individual. It was always some sort of grace.

When I write and say, “Do the next good thing,” I mean to remind us of our mediocrity and the importance we should attach to accepting that place in life. However, the “good thing” that comes next is always a gift of grace. In kindness, generosity, mercy, and love we each find a share in Mozart moments that radiate the very life of God. It is such grace that makes our mediocrity possible.

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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100 responses to “Mediocrity, Envy, and Grace”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Very beautiful, Father. Many thanks for this!

  2. Ziton Avatar

    It’s a variation on Cain and Abel. Cain’s problem was shame in simply not being chosen when Abel was, and a lack of self awareness to see his own responses (anger, sadness, intemperance) to which the Lord pointed him via those three questions that he ignored or could not hear. tuat brilliant and brilliantly told story is a deep master pattern of how shame, envy, resentment work and the result is always fratricidal madness.

  3. David Jackson Bolick Avatar
    David Jackson Bolick

    It’s encouraging to be reminded of this grace that “constantly makes the fruit of our lives exceed the quality of our work.” “What hast thou that thou didst not receive?” The blossom and the fruit on a plant is so different from the plain stalk and leaves, it hardly seems related, but it very truly and deeply is. How wonderful.

  4. Eliot Avatar

    One of your best yet Father, thank you!

    I vaguely remember years ago, a comment one individual left about the impossibility of experiencing the beauty of Gods creation within the banal, prosaic suburban sprawl in which he lived. Your response was “having eyes to see” God’s energies moving through all things, even the electricity traveling through ugly power lines that eclipsed the sky above you. It is allot of work as a “falling behind” plebeian, to have “eyes to see” the grace… relevant, shiny and faster things drive hard for my attention now. I can only imagine that through many crosses, deaths, and a nous that you now utilize more often, all things have become more enchanted, wonder abounds, grace abounds, and nothing is really mediocre or average? As I came home tonight from a long hesychasm walk through our suburban sprawl, battling the shame of my own unmet potential of the day, I noticed a small honey bee on our porch struggling to fly again. The complexity and beauty of this simple sighting held a different magnitude, I wondered if that feeling might be the beginning of what you now enjoy more fully in your older age.

  5. Ziton Avatar

    A further thought to my previous comment. The Cain and Abel story also has the theme that Cain murders Abel because it is Abel who is readily to hand and Cain is in no position to do anything about the actual source of his pain, his unprocessed shame/envy/resentment at having been not chosen by the Lord. Also, it is interesting how grace is indeed present throughout the story : in the posing of the self knowledge questions to Cain, in his giving Cain the opportunity to admit/repent of his deed and, most compellingly, of his placing of his mark on Cain even as Cain must bear (most of) the consequences of his actions. And maybe even in the initial choosing of the gift of Abel the second born over Cain’s the first, which gave Cain an opportunity for growth (although I do wonder where the grace was for Abel!). Anyway, thank you Father, both for the article in general and for this new insight into a meaning of the graced mark of Cain, which presumably we all carry in some way.

  6. Jp Esnouf Avatar
    Jp Esnouf

    Thank you Fr Stephen, this was beautiful!

    “Indeed, the cult of excellence, in many ways, is one of the soul-crushing myths of our age. The Mozarts of the world are seldom, if ever, the result of applied effort (Salieri is the result of applied effort). They are unpredictable wonders whose presence mocks our faith in works.”

    And thank you Ziton for the Cain and Able analogy – I have never seen that in the story before.

  7. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    a very thought provoking article. I can’t add much at the moment because my mind is hive of over activity and I want to say it all at once, which would end up being incoherent babble.
    It has opened up a plethora of memories and emotions. I was particularly interested by your reference to the graffiti you saw in Greece and have some thoughts on graffiti and mediocrity.

  8. Denise Avatar

    At the risk of being trivial (lol), this reminds me of the Alan Jackson song “Little Bitty”.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In my own life I have come to see the prevalent mercy that God has and continues to give me. The more I repent the more mercy is evident. Grace as a word has do much baggage and even lies attached to it that I have difficulty processing it. But I have experience mercy deeply–even in the death of my late wife. Her death 16 years ago was and is so filled with mercy that it never ceases to astound me. Alas, few others can see it. But the mercy of God transforming my grief and loss into joy and fullness is a miracle.
    Through her death, whom many thought shameful, I was brought into the reality of the Ressurection. I have told the story here before but:
    At the beginning of Lent, 2008, my wife died of an unintentional overdose of her prescription meds. Many medical folk thought the overdose was intentional and that she committed suicide. But I knew better. As she lay dying in the hospital my son, my priest and several of my fellow parishioners gathered and sang hymns and prayers. Our best friend at the time, who was not Orthodox, was there with us.
    As she finally died my son and I saw my wife’s angel come, stand at her head awhile and leave as she flat lined.
    My friend made the commitment that day to become Orthodox and she brought her whole family with her: three daughters, their subsequent husbands and children and her 2nd husband (a former Catholic priest).
    Several weeks later, I attended Pascha still deep in grief. Then, as the Paschal celebration reached its high point and we began to sing Christ is Risen, I “saw” my wife rise with Him. My grief lifted, replaced by Joy.

    One of the folks who had been with us as my wife died came up to me afterwards asking “How I was doing?” thinking I was still in grief. I confounded him with my joy.

    So the greatest mercy/grace of them all is deeply real: Christ is Risen! Trampling down death by death.

    His life sustains us in all things through all things no matter what.
    Still, the way of flesh drags us down into doubt and the belief in the power of evil.
    But I always try to remember His Mercy, even in the midst of my sinfulness, is incredible and endures forever.

    Glory to God!

  10. Michelle Avatar

    Father you have been official labeled “a disturber of the peace.” 🙂
    You have given me reason to break Silence. Again. I read. I was left desolate. Such a sad tale. The composer who had knowledge of many instruments but lacked understanding.
    I wondered how can anyone dare to lift God’s skirt and reveal such things? Are we nothing more than rabid dogs?
    How we have any peace and seek after the Kingdom??
    It must be by command, deep repentance, for penance’ sake, or by dispassion. That felt mediocre.
    I was left even more desolate with just those options. I do not wish for knowledge without understanding. So I prayed.
    And now I am resting on the knowledge of my ignorance! Diverse Ignorance.
    Marvelous Wonder! The Lord told Catherine we can not escape mutual charity.
    And David said Blessed the *people* whose strength is in you, whose *heart* is set on pilgrim ways.
    How can pilgrims be a people!? How can people have one heart!?
    The Lord willed diversity of ignorance! 🙂
    If I am the eye my ignorance is different from that of the hand. And the hand does not know what I as the eye does. It can never experience life as the eye.
    Do not mourn hands!! There, in this diverse ignorance, is a capacity for greater blessedness!
    **BUT by knowing the hand, the knowledge I have as the eye becomes more blessed. And so too the knowledge of the hand is blessed by knowing the eye. And on and on…
    Think of a Kiss. It is not just touching lips. It is also the scratch of the beard, the warm breath from the nose, and the heat of blood under the skin. And some many other diverse members! All of these come together by the One Heart through their diverse ignorance, humility, respect and trust for The Exertion of Love culminating in the Dewdrop of the Divine falling from Black Locks on the cheek of the beloved. Let the spiritual man understand. And that is how the Earth is watered. A symphony of members, one ecstasy of love.
    He makes love to us.
    He makes love through us..and with us.
    He makes us to love.
    It is a far far better reason.

  11. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father, this is a thought-provoking article indeed.

    I believe this article describes humility, that which we strive to be and have in our hearts, in terms of a characteristic that we do not really appreciate, mediocrity. We might secretly boast to ourselves for our humility and humbleness (as ridiculous as that might sound), a virtue we appreciate, but that isn’t the case with mediocrity, I believe.

    In this culture (USA), we are told that job raises are not based on mediocrity but on “excellence”. However, whenever we look closely at what is typically said, compared with what is typically done, what is said and done are two very different things. I’ve seen hires and promotions that appear to be based on other (and sometimes mysterious) criteria.

    Also, Father Thomas Hopko’s maxims come to mind once again. But you have pointed out how shame plays into our resistance to being and being seen as ‘mediocre’, which can prevent us from adopting Fr Thomas’ recommendations. Embracing the mundane in ourselves and in our work isn’t as easy as it sounds if one is inculcated in different values. I even use a computer named “Envy”, such is the ubiquity of the passion to induce envy in others in this culture.

    Thank you for this reflection and the important reminder of how shame factors in such circumstances as common as graffiti (and similar behaviors of ‘marking-mocking’) and the passions underlying it.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our culture’s cult of excellence (which is largely a lie and a deceit) nurtures a heart that can despise the mediocre. Little wonder that we give thanks with such difficulty.

  13. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed, Father, that is a good and helpful observation regarding our difficulty to give thanks to God. I don’t remember ever thanking God for my mediocrity. Now is as good a time as ever to begin!

    And you’ve helped me to see an interesting lesson in gratitude: we might say to ourselves, “I’ve been givenonly 10 talents (biblical currency) because I’m mediocre”. We’ve placed a value judgement on what (our life or our work, etc) we have been given by God– calling or thinking it ‘mediocre’, disparagingly. The lack of gratitude makes us blind to what we have been given and the fruit that God might make of it, which we might never see, let alone appreciate.

  14. Rev Nathan Thompson Avatar
    Rev Nathan Thompson

    Thank you again Father.

    The most comforting advice that I have received in my priesthood is that God has called us to be faithful, not successful.

  15. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Father, my own ADHD took me to a different place when I read your post. I was reminded of how our society’s idea of “excellent” when it comes to the way people look, dress, behave, and etc. is so unrealistic. Young girls envy models who starve themselves to be the image of “excellent”; clothing designers continually want newer and better clothing for people to envy someone else having too. People envy others with more money, more fame, more of what society says is “excellent”. But envy is a sin for a reason. It causes us to put things ahead of people, and judge people by what they look like; what they drive; what they do for a living; and etc. Instead, we should be looking at the beauty of their hearts; the generosity of their kindnesses and caring. If we could only see with the eyes of God, we would know that the person society discounted as being “too fat”, “too thin”, or “too poorly dressed”, is actually a kind, caring, and loving person who has given to others and kept less for themselves perhaps.
    I remember as a teenager, wanting SO badly to look like a certain movie star. I envied her and her life. Sadly, her life came to a very painful end, long before it should have. I thought back to that envy when she died, and thanked God that I was me – with all the problems and struggles that entailed – and all the blessings that she would never live to know. I have lived long enough to accept that God has a plan, and He truly does know best. We each have been gifted with so much in our lives. We can take it for granted, wish we had more or different, or we can thank God for all He has given us – each day.

  16. Mike S Avatar
    Mike S

    The movie Amadeus strikes me more as a parable about modernity in that, yes, it’s about envy, but envy of a public figure, of one celebrity by another celebrity in an age of celebrity worship. The movie is probably 99% fiction and only 1% historical, but I doubt that most people who see the movie even bother to do their Information Age due diligence, and end up thinking it’s actually true.
    The story could have just as easily (and perhaps better) been told more historically as the jealousy of Nancy Kerrigan by the more mediocre Tonya Harding. It would be even better if told as the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman, a non-celebrity and even greater mediocrity than Harding.
    The Chapman storyline could bring out mimetic desire per Rene Girard in which the mimesis becomes so strong that the imitator is no longer satisfied by identification with the object of their desire (passion) and must murder the object because there’s no room in Dodge for both. Girard derived the mimesis principle through analysis of myths in which twins were a recurring theme. He refers to it as the foundational murder on which all human civilization and religion are constructed. The stranger who is feared and on whom all kinds of threatening super powers are projected is murdered, then claimed to have been a god, and subsequently worshipped as one. So accordingly, all the gods are idols, demonic illusions.
    An obvious tie-in is the Biblical account of Cain’s murder of Abel, after which Cain proceeds together with his descendants to found cities and forge technologies, culminating in what here has come to be labelled the modern project – the godless attempt to become gods without grace. This godlessness evidences in a form of Darwinistic survival of the fittest, in which there is only competition and no sharing communalism, no one-ness of the Body Of Christ or Cosmos of all creation, only selfish, type A alpha, king of the hill individualism. No wonder then, that narcissists and socio-paths often rise to the top in the modern business oriented world.
    And it’s no wonder that in modernity, not only homosexuality has been purged from the modern psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), but so has narcissism. In Chapman’s case, the narcissistic self-love of mimetic celebrity worship leads to murder conviction, while millions of other moderns who are equally conditioned in modernism’s narcissism roam free to worship American Idols, strive to become one themselves, and ultimately prefer to play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and America’s Game, Wheel Of Fortune.
    The internet has given even greater free rein to such cultural narcissism, where every mediocrity can be someone, a big fish in some size pond or other, and have their self propped up by the reflection in the mirror of their blog, website, podcast, etc. There is no shame in knowing one is mediocre – a common person, and doubtless this has ever bothered anyone before modernism except celebrities at court as in Amadeus. History is full of common persons, the salt of the earth, and so is Heaven, the cloud of unnamed Saints for whom there are no icons. Only narcissists are shamed when their mediocrity breaks through and shatters the narcissistic illusion of their self-love.
    Yes, it’s obvious that the strivings of a godless world for material perfection are hubris compared to striving in God’s uncreated energies for spiritual perfection. But I shudder at the thought of creating an Orthodox gnostic version of the Reformed Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalist (RPEF) vague admonition to “just give your life to Jesus” as the answer to everything, a sacred, spiritual focus that gives a token nod of head to the matter of profane life.
    In a world where Life Calls For VISA, there is need for much more depth of Christian discernment and vision. The Body of Christ has always teeter-tottered between worldly isolation and embrace. The challenge for Christians has always been (but is even more so in a modern world) finding when and where isolation is best suited to the goal of theosis and how such isolation is best expressed, and how and what can be safely embraced in the world without becoming distracted from that goal, muddling the witness message, or deluding oneself.
    From Eden to New Creation: Rediscovering God’s Purpose for Planet Earth –
    Confessions of a Recovering Gnostic –
    John Milbank and the Life of Pi: Why ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is Neither Radical nor Orthodox –

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    “I vaguely remember years ago, a comment one individual left about the impossibility of experiencing the beauty of Gods creation within the banal, prosaic suburban sprawl in which he lived. Your response was “having eyes to see” God’s energies moving through all things, even the electricity traveling through ugly power lines that eclipsed the sky above you.”

    I suggest that one of our main tasks as Christians is to be faithful to the “mediocrity” we’re given. For it is from this state that our eyes can see the mundane miracles and continual acts of grace. And it is from this place that we can watch for others to ultimately fail in their “pursuit of excellence”. Because it is only then that they look up and ask for help. It is only then that they may finally be open seeing and hearing what have been there all along. And then finally, Heaven has arrived on Earth and the dreary worldviews of the blind become empty and ghostlike as the Truth Himself shines through them.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what it’s worth, I would never have taken the movie Amadeus as more than it is: a parable of sorts, fiction based on historical characters who are then highly fictionalized. It was brilliant.

    Nonetheless, my own use of the movie and the point I have made from it, viz. mediocrity, envy, grace, is not meant as a definitive treatment, but an interpretive use – nothing more.

    Viz. Girard: I have never found myself able to read very far in Girard. He’s interesting, no doubt, but, somewhat idiosyncratic in his treatment of various themes. As such, he rests among the many interpretive treatments and schemes of 20th century theology. His is, no doubt, way better than most. It does not have any strong echoes in Orthodox tradition – indeed – the scapegoat is barely touched on within Patristic material. It was a theme that became popular in Reformation theology and atonement theory. Indeed, the early Greek Fathers handled it in a variety of ways, some of them very contradictory. The noted scholar, Stanislaus Lyonnet holds that there is not a single clear allusion to the scapegoat in the entire New Testament. Interesting.

    I think my article would agree that mediocrity is our common lot – something modernity seeks to shame.

    Thanks for the links to Robin Phillip’s work. He’s posted as a commenter here before and has done some good work with Ancient Faith.

  19. shannon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    Rev Nathan above wrote this, “The most comforting advice that I have received in my priesthood is that God has called us to be faithful, not successful.”
    I understand what you’re trying to say in your post, I think, as well as Rev. Nathan’s comment. But the Parable of the Talents has always troubled me, unlike all the other parables of the Lord. It seems to imply a “success” orientation. I even have trouble NOT applying the parable to finances, even though I know it’s talking about spiritual “talents”. But either way, I read it and feel I’m “chief of the mediocrities”, so to speak. Can you comment?

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Even my sins are mediocre. Yet they are enough to separate me from God without repentance. Daily through the Jesus Prayer or I quickly sink into my own small insignificant quagmire.

  21. Mike S Avatar
    Mike S

    @Shannon –
    The absolute best exegesis of scripture I’ve found is “Homilies: A Commentary on the Gospel Readings for Sundays and Feast Days Throughout the Year” (2 vols), by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, translated by Mother Maria, Lazarica Press. I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere now, but here are links to some samples –
    St. Nikolai’s Prologue from Ochrid (4 vols) is also excellent for daily readings and short lessons. If you can find either, they’re both worth the $ even though each set used to sell for around $100 each. The Prologue was once published online, but it wasn’t Mother Maria’s translation, which I found to be better.
    Also see “Explanations…” by St. Theophylact of Ochrid available from St Herman Press, but unfortunately only for the Gospels and 2 Epistles. Search for theophylact in bookstore at
    Another link –
    I especially like the way both Ss. reveal the inner meaning of scripture in addition to the outer meaning. Talents are the outward part of the parable but are not indicative of money (a talent being a coin of high amount) or success as we know it, except as success in having made use of the grace (uncreated energies) or spiritual gifts given to us by God who doesn’t bestow the same amount of grace on everyone equally, but gives more to some than others. St. Nikolai has great commentary on such inequality in life.. Though unequally given, everyone, regardless of how much or little they have, are expected to return it to God with interest added, that is with good that has been done through the power (uncreated energies) of God.
    Unfortunately, my crude synopsis doesn’t do justice to either writings of these saints. Hopefully, you can ask around and find someone with copies of their works so you can read their commentaries for yourself.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand how easy it is to hear the “money” in that parable, even though it is not the point. The parable begins by saying: “The Kingdom of God is like a man who traveled…(and gave the talents to his servants).” This man himself is not like the Kingdom – indeed, the man is not even a good man. He is not an image of God. Instead, a servant describes him: ” ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” God is not a “hard man.”

    So, what is the point of the parable? Essentially, the Kingdom of God is about the abandonment to risk. The overly careful servant is the one who failed. The others risked with different degrees of “success.” There could have been a servant who invested the money and lost it all. But that’s something that the parable does not address.

    No one can ever know the “success” of their efforts – not until the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end of time. Those who say otherwise, I would suggest, pretend to know what they cannot know and have their own measures and standards that they call “success.” God alone is the judge of what is success. He might very well call someone to labor in the field, who, at the end of his life appears to have produced nothing. And yet, God, who in His providence works in a manner we cannot predict, absolutely had in mind that “failure” for His own reasons and designs. Who has known the mind of the Lord?

    This is why I consistently say (and repeat, here) that we are called to keep the commandments of Christ and to “do the next good thing.” The results are in the hand of God and He is able to do “abundantly above all we could ask or think.”

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I appreciate your suggestions viz. Scriptural commentary. It was, however, a question directed to me. Commentaries have strengths and weaknesses, and the Scriptures have, even within the Fathers, a variety of ways of being interpreted. All of the sources you mention are excellent – but might still not answer Shannon’s question…

    On your earlier comment, you said:

    The challenge for Christians has always been (but is even more so in a modern world) finding when and where isolation is best suited to the goal of theosis and how such isolation is best expressed, and how and what can be safely embraced in the world without becoming distracted from that goal, muddling the witness message, or deluding oneself.

    I think this is particularly the case in our modern world with its so-called “culture wars.” People in the modern world (all of us) have been nurtured with a mind that imagines it is somehow in charge of things and is a primary cause and shaper of history. To a great extent, I think this is delusional. We are not taught to shape history. We are taught to keep the commandments – God shapes history. As we keep the commandments and “do the next good thing” (which might vary greatly according to one’s position in life) it is God who shapes all of these varied obediences into His greater will. And the outcome of His will – will not be clear until the end of all things.

    Robin Phillips and I have had conversations here and in private about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Robin holds that we should “build the Kingdom,” and I hold that we cannot build the Kingdom – it is the gift of God. It comes (even now). But neither do I hold to some sort of gnostic salvation scheme. The Divine Life of the Church is quite present in this world even now. As we give ourselves over to the commandments of Christ (all of them) we taste of the Kingdom – we invite others to taste it with us. But the aggregate of all of that is simply beyond us.

    There is no point in all the history of the Church that we can point to and say, “This is what it should be like.” Though some idealize Byzantium, or Holy Russia, neither of those live up to their billing. Both were deeply marked by injustice and every sin. They are interesting examples – but God did not give them to us as things to be copied.

    I am critical of “projects” (including those that are aimed at building the Kingdom) and see in them the hidden hand of modernity’s imaginations. I believe God is at work in the world and is profoundly at work in us. That I honestly confess that I do not know how all of that adds up is not gnosticism – it’s just being honest. If I’m mistaken about that, I’ve yet to see the explanation that makes me see how. But I’m open.

    Many thanks!

  24. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Admittedly I am and was a little confused. Because I too had thought that the reference to agnosticism might be referring to my last comment about how we might not see the fruit of our lives or work. (My confusion may also be related to my ignorance about how we might identify modern agnosticism)

    On similar note, Father Thomas Hopko described St Herman as “a failure” by American standards. Yet, we venerate him as a saint.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You mean “gnosticism” rather than “agnosticism”, yes?

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    yes indeed! gnosticism. Sorry didn’t catch the spell check.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    And on further note, while I might not be comfortable with being mediocre and feeling shame for it, I’m not sure such feelings are a display of narcissism, as Mike describes. Attachment of some sort, perhaps. But the cultural divides in this country and its values engenders a toxic mix of shame. And because of that, I believe it is possible that shame might have more than one predicate besides that of narcissism.

  28. Seraphima Avatar

    Very helpful post! I view a gift from God as being given not just to the person who is the vehicle for the gift, but to the community/Body, including unbelievers. We’re all in this together, and gifts given are for all of us. Envy makes it impossible for the bearer of envy to receive the gift that radiates out its goodness to everyone, so the person doing the envying is greatly missing out on the healing and wonder that come out of the exercise of the gift. The main reason not to envy is that it hurts the person envying the most, not the person with the gift, although the gifted person’s life can be made much more difficult and that is a sin against that person.

    The theme of music is apt, because, once launched in the world, the gift is borne to all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances in all kinds of places and times who take from it what they need to receive in the moment, if they are open-hearted. The grace comes with the gift and each person hears it differently or uniquely to that person’s situation. . . .

    As far as “shaping history”, the story of the mustard seed comes to mind. I agree with you, Father, that looking to the next task and doing that small (or large as may be) task to the best of one’s abilities and with good intention, honesty, purity, and love is the critical thing. Once one is willing and able to do that, well, really, it’s like a mustard seed growing into a great tree out in the world — history is “shaped”, but one cannot know how one is “shaping history” at the moment one has focused on the next small task. I know this to be true in my own life – when I think something I have done is not very effective, not very important, or I am not even thinking about it, but just showing up and trying my best, often those things turn out to be the ones that live on in someone else’s life with grace imparted. The more I have my ego or self involved in it, the more the possible grace that could be carried out is diminished or restricted in its flow into the world.

    I think that’s the worst sin, sometimes, being given a gift and grace and diminishing it by one’s selfishness, negligence, shame, envy, inferiority complex, or whatever one’s limiting factor is, and not even realizing one is doing that because the fruits of grace are not there to be known in this life most often and can’t be seen at the time, and the presence or absence of fruits may not be obvious in the moment. I think my best attempts at the next task are the ones where I have forgotten myself and not had specific intentions as to results, and have just shown up with the right state of soul. (Not to say that I don’t intentionally do my best on daily tasks, because I do intend and try to end up with a good result for the task, rather than creating a mess, but so often one cannot know ahead of time what a good result is going to be.)

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen as often as I could wish, alas. It’s a moment of grace in itself if it happens, and certainly not something one can plan to have happen ahead of time. I think of housekeeping, not my best skill, and how much clearer my mind is when I have been scrubbing tiles or such without being distracted by other thoughts, in a meditative state and just giving myself to the task — I think God is to be found even in a good housekeeping whirl. I find the simplicity of Jesus’ approach to daily life touching and moving — so often, the stories about his interactions with people are around a simple moment of contact — at a well, at a bathing pool, on the road, at the beach, in a boat, at a dinner party. He shows up in the moment and is there for someone briefly, crossing paths, and amazing things happen. I have known a few people who have that ability – things happen around them, and they’re not really doing anything in particular, just showing up. This is a much less stressful way to live, than pursuing great achievements — but I do know for fact that great achievements can arise out of the most mundane toils and surprise everyone. Only God knows what is a great achievement and what is not. But one has to prepare to be the vehicle for grace, including developing one’s skills, so I guess that’s where intention comes in – one has to be ready for the moment in which grace flows, or one misses it entirely.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree. Narcissism gets invoked as the reason people take selfies, etc. Actually, clinical narcissism is real (should be DSM) is almost impossible to treat, and is deeply painful to those around them. Our culture can be described as “metaphorically narcissistic” which should not be confused with clinical narcissism (though sometimes the two certainly rhyme with each other).

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well said. We Americans (of all stripes) have a long, deeply engrained habit of discussing what is wrong with the world and how to fix it. It allows us to draw on history, and use almost everything we know in the process. For many, I think, now drawn to Orthodoxy, the Orthodox Church and faith have become yet one more point to draw into this narrative. I’ve had some very nasty emails and unposted comments over the last year or so relating to my refusal to endorse this or that project envisioned for the worldf. For reasons I’ve stated repeatedly, I refuse to go down that road. I think it largely draws people into sin (at some point), and leads us away from the heart that we are instructed to acquire.

    I not only “think” these things (as an opinion), but I have also observed these things as a confessor, responsible for souls. I’ve seen the damage done. This past year the Church has suffered terribly on many levels, mostly through false narratives, fear, and the spread of information that undermines the authority of the hierarchy of the Church. It’s not surprising – we are not really even “mediocre” in our spiritual life – so many of us being young in the faith, young in suffering, etc. I do not mean that hierarchs have not made mistakes.

    At the outbreak of the pandemic, I wrote, and video’d my opinion that our primary expectation for the near future should be that of incompetence – both within the Church and within governments and such. About that, I was not disappointed. And, I suppose that I should not be surprised that we handled it badly.

    We Americans, especially, have so many myths about competenece, excellence, etc., that we fail to consider ourselves as a “confederacy of dunces” (and we are). The true narrative isn’t really about our incompetence – it’s about the love and mercy of God who is saving us anyway, despite our foibles and failures. This is such hard medicine. It is, however, the gospel.

    Thank you for your so very cogent thoughts!

  31. Ook Avatar

    “I marvel at the grace that marks our lives. It radiates and shines forth from every blade of grass and every “mundane” miracle of the day.”
    This brought to mind Blake’s oft-quoted passage, popularized by Huxley: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite.” Of course, Huxley recommended mescaline to open these doors, which probably isn’t orthodox.

  32. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    your clarity is much appreciated. I read the comments and your replies and things that I seem to be grasping at but remain rather ‘through a glass darkly’ become clear.
    I don’t recall now whether you wrote this in one of your articles, or I read it elsewhere; ‘People are trying to fix the world, when they can’t fix themselves,’

  33. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    may I offer this short summary, not as a criticism of you but of Aldous Huxley’s advocating the use of psychedelics. From my life experience and observations of others and my reading on the subject, the use of mescaline and other psychedelic substances do not open the doors of true perception, but lead to delusion and for some people serious psychological and spiritual damage. I would even say they open the doors to the demonic.
    Many have been lead astray by reading Huxley and other such advocates of using psychedelic substances to gain spiritual knowledge and experience.
    Huxley thought that the Cross and what it represents as a symbol was mediocre and that shiva was more profound and intellectually appealing (those are my words recalling a YouTube video where he talks about this. I don’t have a link to it, but you should be able to find it if you have a look).
    Huxley was injected with LSD on his deathbed, if I remember correctly. There is no evidence of any repentance or conversion to ‘the way, the truth and the life.’

  34. Anonymo Avatar

    The second time I read the article, having read the related articles it struck me more profoundly. Father these writings are of aid in understanding what my ‘talents’ are and how I should use them.

  35. Anonymo Avatar

    Andrew here is a similar but ennobling quote from the book Lord and Master of my Life, “Great Lent invites us to become the change we want to see in the world. This is because the greatness of our heart will appear not so much in the capability that we have to change the world but in the attempt that we make to change ourselves.”

  36. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you for the quote. It’s so easy to find fault everywhere and see the need for change. To come up with supposed solutions to the problem(s) as we see it/then and to remain unchanged ourselves. Someone or something else is always to blame. This then leads to what Fr. Stephen refers to as the management mentality, which in its extreme forms becomes tyranny.

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    On the subject of management, I find managing myself is difficult. I frustrate myself (and worse) when I don’t listen to the inner voice of good advice.

    We are encouraged to lift up our hearts to the Lord. And may God grant to help us with our infirmities.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One good thing about growing old is that I MUST rely on others for even many simple things. There are many things I used to do easily that are no longer easy. I am slipping from mediocre into incompetent.

    Rely on God is moving from a choice to a necessity.

  39. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I find it difficult too, there’s a fine line between nepsis and self persecution.

  40. Seraphima Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Entirely agreed! One of the meaningful things about one’s elder years is that it is possible to go back and look at one’s “achievements” in life and see what the consequences were of pursuing various “achievements”. Often, one starts out on a course of action with the best of intentions, but at the end looking back, one can see how the choice limited one’s options later in life in some way. God can use anything, though, so even one’s passions and failures can turn to good in unexpected ways. Personally, I have and have had several professional careers in different areas, and have done a lot of good that I would not have been able to do otherwise, along with the failures. The choice to take those paths, however, precluded other things, and has often meant living in a particular professional “role” that is not expansive enough to allow for the movement of the Spirit in the freest way, and I am now wondering whether it was a sin to continue living that way so long. One has to make choices in life, part of being a human being, but one can, from the point of view of the Spirit, become imprisoned in one’s “achievements”, professional roles, and intentions to “shape history”. There is a price to be paid for quenching the Spirit, and, as you say, damage can be done. Being able to make change in the world, however, is also a wonderful privilege that some of us are granted, but that possibility comes with a lot of responsibility and obligation and accountability, and is so not for the faint of heart; one can only try to live in humility about whether the change one is making will lead to good or not. I don’t think we can really know the outcome ahead of time, even if it seems predictable at the start. I guess there’s a balance to be sought, a lifelong process to find it and humility is ever the best course of action/non-action. I see that for me, my elder years could be a time of living more freely and following the movements of grace more than I could do when living out of the confines of a particular professional calling or job. Not being retired, I can only dream on. I increasingly think, however, that nothing is more important than learning to love the ones you are with and doing for them in the ways that are available, especially children and the vulnerable and lonely, and following the next urging of grace to a new creative endeavor. I always thought of old age as being a diminishment and decline, but now that it’s close at hand I see the prospect of it as a time of new-found fertility and creativity, despite the balking of one’s body at new endeavors. I had a friend who wrote a cutting edge engineering book at age ninety-nine, and I was in awe of the ability to do such a thing. I desire to be that kind of person, creative to the very end. But I guess it is probably sufficient to aspire to being “mediocre” and loving it. One’s spirit is ever youthful. Anything that diminishes one’s spirit/soul is a hindrance. I am also very inspired by your continued service in creating your blog, as it is very helpful in so many ways. I wish I were better able to live with the “incompetence” in our institutions and ourselves, as you seem to be able to do — my first thought often, really all my life, is what can I do about this. But, looking back, not much. The real project is myself, alas. I cannot help thinking about various saints and holy people, some of them way out in the wilderness, like St. Antony, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and so many others, who have changed the world while not even being much in it as far as social participation is concerned, and yet who were intimately involved in the world’s doings, knowing from a distance the needs of the world. Again, a worthy life to which to aspire.

  41. juliania Avatar

    Thank you for this post, and particularly for the ‘aids’ you give beneath it. Since in the last of it, you go in depth to the story of Saint Mary of Egypt and have touched upon it also in recent posts, I was struck (not having seen more than snatches of the movie described herein) that in her story there are two saints, herself and Saint Zossima who discovers her on his Lenten journey. Just as for the movie you describe there are two real historical persons, Mozart (supremely gifted) and Salieri (less so). (I have a lot to say, so perhaps I will just make the contrast between the latter two and their movie equivalents first of all, as compared to their movie depiction.)
    As far as we know, from our abilities to hear what both men wrote, both were gifted, only Mozart more so, more famed for stirring our souls- he was a musical savant. But, though no doubt envy could well have stirred in his soul, Salieri was more than a good musician – we still do have his music (not quite so soul stirring, but not mediocre.) So, the movie version (I am guessing) takes the characters of each to an extreme to make a point about debilitating envy. Good enough.

  42. juliania Avatar

    Now to the other two persons, the two saints. Again, one could make a movie about extremes – Saint Zossima had, we suppose, a life completely different from that of Saint Mary. He was a monastic, performing the accustomed pilgrimage into the desert before which had been sung the Resurrection hymns in case some would not survive the ordeal. And he encounters the saint. What happens?
    After she has fled for some time, at last he catches up with her – and both prostrate themselves, each before the other, perceiving the holiness of each. That is the extended moment in the story which is most dramatic for me. A movie would miss it, I think. And here I’ll switch to your discussion about the parable of the talents:
    “So, what is the point of the parable? Essentially, the Kingdom of God is about the abandonment to risk. ” My take is different. And I do think the man in the parable ‘stands in’ for God. The apprehension of the servant who has hidden his talent is a misapprehension. The ‘talents are metaphorical talents.’ I think we are meant to make the most of our gifts, but to be aware that they are not our own achievements.
    Saint Mary has been gifted in ways not given to Saint Zossima to pursue. She has become, not ‘the harlot of the desert’ but ‘the child of the desert.’ Mozart was a child prodigy; he held onto that childness in relation to music. It was a gift coming down from above, and every gift, every perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights – it is not our ‘self’ it is what we have been given. Our self is merely a vessel.
    I really hope the real Salieri could banish envy; I hope he could know in his inner heart that Mozart’s gift, like his own, came down from on high. I hope the great gift of humility came to him, as to Saint Zossima.
    Two saints, with different gifts, bowing at length and for a long time to one another.

  43. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Good observation Andrew! I desire that it was more an example of nepsis. But in my frustration I tend to fall into the unhealthy self persecution camp. No doubt that’s related to the expectation that I should do/be better, and that in turn is related to what Father describes here: an inadvertent attachment to the ever distant goal of excellence and the associated shame of falling short.
    Thank you for your helpful comment!

    Michael, your comment made me smile. As I age, incompetency seems to be growing on me, whether I like it or not. : )

  44. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Dee. I read this quote by Elder Mikhail (Balaev) a while ago which shed light on what I was experiencing to a certain degree: ‘The most fearful thing is to ‘grip’ your soul in a vice. A monk or a secular person begins to labour ascetically and thus humbles himself, which squeezes him tighter and tighter and the soul is unable to breath – there is neither joy nor living prayer, from which he then falls into despondency or delusion.’

  45. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    You make an interesting case regarding the two saints who venerate each other.

    When I first heard their story my focus initially was on how Zosimas thought himself the perfect monk.

    Then he was disturbed by the thought that he had attained perfection, and needed no one to instruct him. “Is there a monk anywhere who can show me some form of asceticism that I have not attained? Is there anyone who has surpassed me in spiritual sobriety and deeds?”

    And thankfully he listened to an angel’s words and believed God when he was told otherwise. Even more, he desired to meet the person (St Mary) who ran from him in the desert, not out of envy but to ‘catch’ so to speak the grace of God from/through that person, which he expected the person to have. At that point he calls out to her:

    Why do you flee from me, a sinful old man? Wait for me, for the love of God.”

    For some reason the initial part of this story touched my heart: Zosimas’ transformation from the self satisfied (e.g. self-perceived gifted-perfection) monk in a monastery to the monk chasing after a holy elder in the desert. And as you say, he dropped to his knees to venerate her, who seemed by American standards, to be a vagabond woman. And yet the grace of God did touch him through her.

  46. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Again Thank you Andrew. This is an important lesson for me.

  47. Ook Avatar

    Andrew, thank you for your expansion on my observation. I’m afraid my comment was very unclear.
    Your experience matches mine: I wasn’t suggesting Huxley’s ideas were a shortcut to Salvation.

  48. Ziton Avatar

    Father forgive this further comment pls, but this article has gotten under my skin.

    You say “we find ourselves chafing at being called “mediocre.” We cannot bear the shame of such a designation.” But surely Salieri is not so much shamed by anyone else, but only by himself, and by his own response to encountering Real Art? I recall this article of yours : and it is interesting to re-read that one next to this one. Great art and a movement of the spirit truly can take us out of ourselves. But then we come back to the sordid reality. The main scene I remember from the movie is this one : where Salieri describes hearing for the first time the (wonderful) Gran Partita. He is gifted enough and spiritually alive enough to hear it and be transported, and enough of a craftsman to understand exactly how it works. But he comes crashing back to himself and feels inadequate. It is reinforced, by his feeling that Mozart did not deserve it but that’s not the source. The source surely is the pain of the erotic response and the sting of inadequacy in face of it.

    Maybe I’m sensitive to this because I often feel that reaction in response to truly great and beautiful things. I’m not being shamed by anyone else. Just me. I just feel useless and unworthy and ugly. I can see that this response is in part my ego trying to possess the feeling and appropriate the goodness, and then because it can’t it hates itself for its inadequacy. But seeing it does not help either. The fact that I can see it actually makes feel even more pathetic and inadequate and somewhat sordid. These lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 resonate:

    “… And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
    Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
    Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
    Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
    With what I most enjoy contented least”

    Thank goodness I haven’t really had much of Salieri’s (and Cain’s) response of turning it outwards onto others, but maybe that’s just because they haven’t been close to hand. I do see my response is toxic, but it’s deep seated and not easy to deal with.

    I think your remedy of the “next good thing” is good medicine. Not just for the reasons you give though. Surely the full Micah 6:8 deal frames it : do justice (and try to be fair, including to oneself), love kindness (not just be kind, but love kindness deeply, again including to oneself) and perhaps most telling of all walk humbly with your God – with the next best thing being the placing of one’s foot on the next step of the walk, despite feeling like a jerk and waste of space. But again that’s easier said than done, and it doesn’t feel like enough, at least for me, or maybe it’s just that I am not good at that either. I know I should repent, but yes I am a very, very mediocre repenter. I know that I should (and do try) to give it all to Christ and His cross and that is a, probably the, key to it all. But for all that I still seem to keep keeping on here in my comfortable middle class mediocrity slowly fading away it seems. Sigh. O Lord, have mercy on us. Oh how I need your saving grace.

    Now I’ll try to shut up again. If this comment is too long or inappropriate please just delete it.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there’s any number of ways of thinking about the theme and dynamic of mediocrity in the film. It’s also the case that the toxic shame that we internalize about ourselves takes a variety of forms. Envy, I think plays out more commonly than we think. When we take pleasure in another’s downfall, when we smile, seeing someone “gets what’s coming to them,” envy is in play. Popular culture loves the fall as much as it loves the rise.

    Shame is ever so much more ubiquitous than most people recognize. It is the dark secret of our lives, hidden, quite often, even from ourselves.

  50. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father I believe the association you draw between envy and shame is an important lesson. As you say envy plays out more commonly than what we are aware and it seems to be inculcated through this culture, making it practically invisible. For that reason it’s helpful to describe its characteristics, which you do well.

    Do you think it might also be expressed in deception and possibly delusion (a form of self deception)? When I have seen such behavior, I have considered the connection to shame, but I didn’t connect the dots to both envy and shame. Would you say envy and shame are usually or even necessarily connected? I note what you have said already: “envy is the product of shame and our inability, or unwillingness, to bear it”. On further reflection I suspect that envy and shame are invariably expressed together. Can one experience shame (the unhealthy sort) without envy? I’m not sure I can envision a separation, now. I appreciate additional thoughts and reflections you might have, and hope these questions are helpful to this discussion.

    Last, on the ‘evil eye’, I’m assuming that this is a reflection of the spiritual state of the person who holds envy, rather than some effect on the person or subject of envy? I’ve heard that in some cultures this is taken very seriously (not that I’m attempting to trivialize it, by any means). Since I have been so affected by secular culture, I might not appreciate the ramifications as well as one ought. (For example, seeking protection from the ‘evil eye’. ) If you have more thoughts on this topic, I’d like to hear it.

  51. Ziton Avatar

    I know your question is direct to Father and I’ll be interested too in his response. One immediate observation though is that I find the Cain and Abel story again interesting on exactly this point. The story does not actually give a word for Cain’s emotional state. But it’s a fair bet that shame in the way Father uses the term is at the center, and obviously envy too given what he ends up doing to poor Abel. But there’s a third member of the unwholesome litte trio : sneaky resentment. Full blown anger is an emotion that’s usually easy to see, but resentment is a kind of sneaky cousin working corrosively in the background and ego-fuelling the whole mess. Given Cain’s lack of self awareness I doubt there is one single emotion – all three are tied together, and usually are. The key to it is the Lord’s questions to Cain : “why are you angry? why are you sad?” They cut through with an invitation to examine his emotional state and root causes and wounds. In my experience they’re pretty much always great questions.

  52. Ziton Avatar

    And once shame/envy/resentment (intertwined snakes) take hold it becomes increasingly less possible to think or see clearly so yes, deception and delusion are an inevitable consequence and provide further fuel – it’s like a distortion field bending reality. (Thank you for that insight.) Which is maybe why the Lord goes on to say to Cain that he needs to exercise temperance come what may as evil is lurking outside the door. If he can’t actually perceive reality correctly and is being overcome, at that point he just needs to knuckle down and rely on external behavioral norms – aka following the commandments.

  53. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you for your clarification. I was a little unsure of what you were saying, hence my criticism of Huxley.
    I’ve said this before, but I find the tone of the comments section here to be very good and friendly. People seeking the truth and trying to understand. I have been on other Christian websites and the comments section can be partisan. Any comments that don’t fit into a preconceived narrative (usually political dressed up as religious), can often end up in vilification and personal insult.

  54. Brian Avatar

    Speaking of Cain’s envy and shame, I confess that I have sometimes wondered about the “how” when the Lord tells Cain,

    If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, BUT YOU SHOULD RULE OVER IT.”

  55. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you for your response. I find particularly helpful your description of a distortion field. That brings together several perceptions I haven’t synthesized until now.

    And Byron, your question of ‘how’ is also interesting. I’m inclined to think that to rule over it involves love. And if envy raises it’s ugly head, it too, functions as a red flag that love is not in the works.

  56. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I apologize Brian, I mentioned the wrong name. I was actually referring to your comment, and I’m thankful that you submitted it.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, et al
    Envy is probably not accurately described as an emotion – or, if it is, it’s a seriously distorted and deformed emotion. I think it is generated by shame and our inability to bear it. Thus we look for someone to blame, or someone to hurt, or to see someone hurt, etc. In my experience as a confessor, I’ve noted before, I think I’ve almost never heard anyone confess to envy, that is to say, it’s not very strong in our vocabulary and culture. But it’s rampant as a reality.

    Think of those whom you do not like, those who most quickly “make you angry.” Then imagine that, somehow, “they get what’s coming to them.” Maybe they actually “deserve” it. But the satisfaction we feel – and we’ll describe it in a manner that doesn’t sound so bad – but it’s envy. It is certainly part of Cain’s sin.

    Turn on a news program. As the news stations are all politically aligned, pretty much everything said about the opposing party will be driven by envy. Our present system has become caught-up, even trapped, in a cycle of shame/envy in which we will take the nation down to the dust.

    Those same emotions, as Andrew has noticed, seem to be playing into contemporary Christian behavior. Think of the rules I set for this blog some 15 years ago now. They are a small attempt to keep us (and myself) from binding our conversations with shame and envy. This is the true spiritual warfare – almost everything else is a distraction.

    On the evil eye. I once read a book by a priest that did a very good job in examining the link of the evil eye and envy. It has a lot of cultural expressions – and even Christ warns against “the eye of evil” (ophthalmos poneros). “If your eye be evil…how great is that darkness!”

    As an aside, for those who read these comments, I’m currently working on my chapter on toxic shame, a very key part of this book I’m doing. It is easily the most difficult part of the work. I’m making progress – but would greatly desire your prayers.

    It is necessarily the case in that work, that you have to share some of your own story. Too much, too little, etc.? And it requires that you “go there”.
    Thank you for your prayers.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed you have our prayers! Thank you so much for your response and your willingness to “go there”. Indeed it is difficult.

  59. Ziton Avatar

    Thank you again Father for your reply to Dee. I am wondering whether envy – at least from the perspective of its emotional energy anyway – really might be best though of as a sub-species of resentment : triggered by an (often unseen) shame wound, but resentfully smouldering away like hot coals that slowly burns through the fabric of the soul? Pretty much all forms of resentment are like a hard drug for the ego – nothing better to reinforce a fragile sense of self.

    Resentment in many forms, but particularly envy perhaps, does indeed seem to be the hallmark of the current political environment on all sides. Much of the time it seems mainly to be a battle over my resentment has greater credence than yours.

    But while many modern polticians may have decided – very irresponsibly – actually to tap into that easy but toxic source of popularity it’s not a modern phenomenon, or a secular one.

    One of favorite scenes from The Brothers Karamazov happened just after Elder Zossima dies. As his body is laid out for all the funeral rites it starts to smell of decomposition a bit earlier than average (but within the bounds of what is normal). This is the trigger for a wave of built up envious resentments to break, because if he had been truly holy his body would have lasted longer than average, wouldn’t it? So here, in Holy Russia, in a favous and very Orthodox monastery which had hosted the last of the great Elders (who is clearly portrayed by Dostoyevsky as a true saint), it turns out that a very large contingent of the monks had been living for a long time in a state of deep seated and unackonwledged envy/resntment. There were lots of nominal reasons given for why their dislike (the most amusing being that Elders were that most horrible of things for the Real Orthodox an “innovation” 🙂 ) but one is deliberately left wondering whether the real reason for all the animosity was just plain envy that Elder Zossima was more holy and more recognised as such than they were. He had been chosen (or had received greater gifts), they had not. Another brilliant Mozart and Salieri scenario.

    And of course this same dynamic was no doubt in play as the religious establishment decided to crucify our Lord, whose maybe biggest crime was actually to have real authority in a way they could never match. Which could not be tolerated. Lots of justifications for that, including for the good of the nation etc. But I rather think envy is a particularly malignant cancer in the religious heart too – perhaps it’s a particular danger for us because it’s so sneaky, and can feel so right?

    There is a very good reason why Cain and Abel is the second human story in the Bible!

    Can I second Dee’s prayers and benediction on your current project and wrestlings. No doubt you will be sharing the drafts with trusted friends and praying and whichever way you go the Lord will make good use of it and will be with you always, as you know. Great blessings on you, Father.

  60. byron Avatar

    I am wondering whether envy – at least from the perspective of its emotional energy anyway – really might be best though of as a sub-species of resentment

    Ziton, this made me recall a story of a priest who was being tortured to death in a Soviet prison. His interrogator mocked him during the torture, claiming he was god and controlled whether he lived or died. the priest, Brother Grecu, answered him saying, in part, “every caterpillar is in reality a butterfly, if it develops rightly….”

    Father has mentioned before that the passions are distortions of the virtues. They are wrongly developed, a spiritual delusion that wounds the wielder, as well as those they wield it against. I have read that the virtue of which envy is a distortion is Kindness, Love. I wonder at how that might reflect in your thoughts on “emotional energy”. I can think of nothing more emotionally draining than loving (or being truly kind to) those who abuse and hate us.

    It seems to me that one of the keys to leaving envy away is veneration. The humbling acknowledgement of the image of God in those we envy seems to me to take the legs out from under the passion (even as we ourselves prostrate?). So much to consider…. May God give comfort!

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron, Ziton,
    In short, resentment is simply one of the ways that shame presents itself. Most commonly, in the Fathers, it’s discussed as “the remembrance of wrongs.” Envy, as Byron notes, is a perversion of love. It is more than an emotion – in that it contains a “will.” It wants something (ultimately, that bad things will happen to the object of envy). By feelings did not crucify Christ – envy did.

  62. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    While listening to the Gospel during Divine Liturgy yesterday, I heard words as if for the first time:

    “The Lord said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-33 )

    When I asked about the “evil eye” in my comment before, and with Ziton’s description of a distortion field, it seemed I had a better understanding of “being” as a kind of verb, rather than noun. We are accustomed to the phenomenon of ocean waves. And we are aware how a storm can come in and disturb the waves to increase their potential for destruction. Sometimes when I think about matter at the subatomic level, I reflect on the wave-like character of matter and how that might be displayed even at the level of our interactions in our daily lives.

    It seems that the ‘mammon’ described later in this passage has a great deal of connection to our anxiety and in turn with envy (the eye of darkness). Envy, as you say, is a will to see someone’s fall. And it seems that our drive toward the “American Dream” is a vision to have material goods at the expense of whomever and whatever might be perceived to stand as an obstacle to that acquisition. As livable wage and jobs become more scarce in this country, there is an ever increasing pull (the engine of the media in all forms) toward envy of what it is perceived that others have (the power to get what they want). We frame their acquisition as something that they do not deserve. And we want their lot to be a complete failure. We couch such sentiment as ‘wanting justice’, and we smile (as your helpful description reveals) when we see the collapse of a despised person and/ or a corporate project, not realizing that what usually takes its place is more of the same (if not worse).

    The evil eye appears to me to be a cultural characteristic perpetuated and encouraged, maintaining a constant storm in the lives of those who unwittingly engage in it. Being is a verb and we apparently make the most of the distortions of our being by engaging in our society’s storms. The media’s engine has a lot going for it, fueled by its anxiety stoking rhetoric, yet the Lord says later in the same passage:

    “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.

    I’ll freely admit here, that I have such anxiety. It isn’t always so conscious, but it is there. And I wonder how much of this anxiety has been inculcated by the values and media of this culture. I age without the proverbial retirement funds that others have collected. And I know that I shall work for my wages until I die, and I will be “lucky” if I can work for wages as I continue to age. And that is not a situation I feel good about, and yet I know that my situation isn’t all that unique. Our society names this a failure. While it is very unusual for a woman of my age to be in a university position in the field that I’m in, one might think that might be a point of pride, but in fact it is the complete opposite. I wait anxiously for the “boom” to be lowered because by our society’s standards, I’m not supposed to be here. Corporate life of this type is not so fun because the competition (perceived or real) is usually quite heavy. I love science where it provides us a glimpse of the unseen, revealing the Lord’s hand in His creation. But what I do is provide a “resource” for a machine that has little interest beyond the money it makes. I’m saddened more often than not by my dependence on its workings. I bolster my heart by telling myself that I’m serving a need for the community (science education), but what my students are most interested in is the potential job that they might have at the end of the education experience. There is indeed a practical element in it, but of the love of God or creation, or people? I’m not so sure how far that goes in my line of work, although I attempt to convey my love to my students.

    Then last this from the Gospel reading:

    “For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, an all these things shall be yours as well.”

    I’m tempted to fall into the prosperity Gospel interpretation of these last words. But I know that this temptation arises because of my misplaced attraction to mammon. No doubt my eyes are darkened. And if the light in my eyes are darkened, how much worse is the darkness?

    For this reason, dear Father, I ask for your prayers, and thank God for your ministry, and pray also that our Lord strengthens you in your work.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was filling in for a priest on vacation this weekend. I preached on envy and the evil eye. Many similar thoughts.

  64. Dean Avatar

    These thoughts are not profound. With record breaking heat here in the West, a couple of things came to mind. Nat King Cole’s song…roll out those crazy, hazy, lazy days of summer, those days of soda, and pretzels and beer.
    And hot, languid summer days always bring out this message on some church marquees…you think it’s hot here! Of course most who read those lines don’t realize that hell is the envy, pride, delusion, etc., that consumes within.
    Very good reflections, Dee. Rest assured that your love for your work and for your students comes out. The light of love cannot be hidden.

  65. Ziton Avatar

    Father – another long comment. If you do not want to leave it posted I’ll certainly understand. But I’m hoping that there may be something here of interest.

    Dee, thank you for your last comment. It was interesting from a number of perspectives but mainly because it got me thinking again about the relationship between envy and covetousness. I think what you were worried about in your own case was a relatively mild form of covetousness, if that. Yes, covetousness is also a passion and exerts its own distortion field, But for it to become envy (in the proper, Fr Stephen sense) it does at least need to become married with shame and my sense is that you have too much self awareness (and good sense) for that to happen easily – and you have noticed what it has done to others.

    I have been thinking about quite a few literary cases of envy recently as a result of this annoyingly interesting article of Father’s. And as I have been thinking of them, they all do in fact have at least a streak of covetousness in them, in the sense that “he has something that I want”, but what makes it truly poisonous envy is the additional shame spur of “and I was not chosen/I was not good enough”) and when they are combined they become “he did not deserve it and deserves to be taken down”. And then cooked long enough over long slow simmering hot coals fire of growing resentment it turns from spite (a mental violence) to physical violence of some kind. So:

    Cain : wanted approval of the Lord for his gift of the fruits of his labor AND Abel got that THEN maybe a sense of “what did my younger (second) brother have to serve that I (the first born) did not? (BTW This is the first time that I have really noticed the birth order issue here. Salieri was there before Mozart the upstart too.)

    Othello and Iago: Possibly the most archetypally worked out of story the lot but far too rich and complex to tease out here. Same pattern though.

    Mozart and Salieri: Salieri’s particular gripe was how much Mozart did not deserve the gift he had been given but boy did Salieri covet it. Very strong sense of the slow burn of resentment piling on resentment in this one.

    The monks in the Abbey in Brothers Karamazov, who presumably had come there to live the holy life, but were almost certainly not as holy (or venerated …) as Elder Zossima (who indeed had had a chequered past), and who did not acknowledge that they were not as holy and perhaps could not. Instead, again, growing muttered-under-their-breath spite loaded up with all sorts of orthodox sounding justifications for it.

    Our Lord (not literary, obviously, but much more, and the archetype). Fair guess the Pharisees also wanted something: holiness maybe, but definitely respect for their authority and position as keepers of the law. But here comes an upstart nobody untrained carpenter from back country Galilee (of all places) and starts saying amazing things and doing amazing acts and having a natural authority and holiness (not acknowledged by them) and claiming to do all these things, including against all the ‘proper’ rules. To top it all, he calls us hypocrites, while winning people over. Again, resentment on resentment slow burn combined with and ‘we are the natural authority keepers’ (first son entitlement stuff). The upstart must die. No sense of irony here!

    But perhaps the most curious one that has popped up has been Smeagol / Gollum who as Gollum maybe even looks like personification of envy or its after effects on the soul. Smeagol obtained the ring by murdering his brother Deagol (Ding!) after Deagol had discovered that beautiful ring (of power) glittering in the stream and decided he wanted it. He spent the next few hundred years of his increasingly sordid life spitefully reverse justifying it, in the lower darkness of the caves. While no doubt aided by the evil exerted by the ring of power itself, his resentment against everything, including and maybe especially the light grows, as does his obsessiveness about his precious. The images and ideas there are indeed gold when thinking about envy – covetousness, power lust and corruption, resentment, lack of self awareness, spite, self justification. The works.

    So …

    In all cases there is an element of covetousness at work as a seed. But it transmutes to envy in the presence of a sense of entitlement or sense of superior ‘deserving’, which even if not there originally is generated by the sense of shame. It all needs to be slow cooked by resentments and pops out looking, well, like gollum!

    What to do about it? The Lord’s questions to Cain, obviously. Byron’s suggestion of praise is good. And the earlier discussion around mercy. But my most recent thought has been to look for the presence of spite. We all suffer from covetousness which is problematic. But a signal it is metastasizing into envy is whenever we feel a prick of spite towards someone, or we do something spiteful. Spite is always just ugly, but also perhaps signal to the soul we are in grave danger.

  66. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    We have needs and wants which are natural so to speak because of our nature and because we are mortal. And we seek to fulfill these needs. In the process of this life and work we need to be watchful that such behavior that leads to such work doesn’t tempt us to covetousness as you describe. As you say covetousness may indeed be a factor that can lead to envy. It seems covetousness also has a predicate as well and that is comparing oneself to another, a form of judgement. As we think about how we become ensnared into such sin, I try as you do, to consider what might be the antidote. Certainly it is following Christ and putting on Christ. And if we look closely at what behavior in Him that contrasts with covetousness, it might be that He “emptied Himself” in order to save us through our weakness.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Coveteousness can certainly play a role in envy – but it need not. I think it is possible to overthink all of this and make it unnecessarily complicated. Of course, in that we rarely think in terms of “envy” in our modern conversations, it is natural to want to bring something else into things – to re-interpret envy in familiar terms. “To take pleasure in the harm or misfortune of another,” or to “wish harm for another,” are pretty simple definitions.

  68. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I suspect we want to withdraw from believing that we are envious or mediocre (out of shame), and that makes coming to an understanding of it all that much more difficult.

    In this regard I know I don’t want to see in myself either conditions , and therein is the sign to be more willing to be corrected and repentant— to hold fast to the Lord.

  69. Byron Avatar

    I don’t know, Dee. To be honest, I’m not certain that shame is always recognized until we come into contact with righteousness. It was the presence of God, in the garden, that caused Adam to hide.

    Closer to home (so to speak), my company is in the midst of going full-on “woke” with the newly promoted CEO (or COO or something) all about it. One can see the steam-train barreling down the tracks as they go through the process. It’s caused some stress for myself and some envy (to “set them right” or “make them see how wrong they are”). But I didn’t recognize it as such until I began praying.

    There’s a certain, wrongly held, satisfaction desired in envy that is blinding to the envious and tends to hide the shame at the root of the passion. I wonder at the hidden aspect of it. How better to see that? Perhaps constant prayer, standing in the presence of God, is the only thing that can make us that aware?

  70. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Contact with righteousness of Christ, yes.
    I too have a couple of stories. In both cases I believe I came close to or ended up in the condition of envy. In the one case, I caught myself within seconds after noticing my reaction and prayed to God for His help. But in the second, I see myself hanging on to it, or at least I fear it might be envy as I ask for ‘God’s justice’ in prayer.

    In one case there was a man who was a menace to me, who publicly attempted to humiliate me by telling me how much I’m hated by a woman, who had incidentally also had an interest in my husband. And prior to this man’s behavior, she had told me she was waiting for our divorce (while there was no such friction between my husband and myself). It was clear by her incessant interest to capture my husband’s attention that she saw me an obstacle to her interests (whatever they might have been). Her male friend was her accomplice in this effort. Fortunately, when my husband got wind of it, he put an end to it all by speaking boldly and confronting the man as he continued to circle around where I was working. But this wasn’t all. This man continued to come into view at a distance just to show his face. Finally, it was observed that he was engaged in other bad behavior and he was forbidden to return nearby, by ‘authorities’. This month I heard that he had died and for a moment as I about to say myself, “thank God”, because I wouldn’t be harassed any longer, but then I knew that my heart should show him love. I am a sinner too. And so I asked God, instead to receive him. (All the while thanking God for His mercies for protecting my heart)

    Next another situation in my line of work: Another faculty person invites their (using a neutral pronoun intentionally here) students, who happen to have been also in my class, to complain about me to them, publicly while in their class. (This situation happened a while ago) And this person told me this quite openly. The attempt was to make it sound as if it was some sort of favor, to “get it out in the open”. But it became apparent that the main objective was to encourage complaints to the administration. Also incidentally around this time there had been talk in the administration to promote me into a position that I actually didn’t want (I have enough responsibility and didn’t want more). This is the one I continue to struggle with (regarding envy) and ask for your prayers dear Byron.

  71. Byron Avatar

    You are in my prayers, Dee! Keep me in yours, please. May God hold us close and have compassion and mercy on us all!

  72. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Dee and Byron,
    I have just been listening to – But we Have the Mind of Christ, on the Lord of the Spirits podcast, By Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen de Young, on Ancient Faith Radio.
    Nearing the end of it you both came to mind??

  73. Michelle Avatar

    I will give you the Treasures of Darkness
    and the Hoards in Secret Places,
    that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name. Isa 45:3

    Little Children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for He who is IN you is Greater than he who is in the world. 1 John 4:4

    For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
    But we have this Treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 2 Cor 4:6-7

    “Trinity!! Higher than any being
    any divinity, any goodness!
    Guide of Christians
    in the wisdom of heaven!
    Lead us up beyond unknowing and light
    up to the farthest, highest peak
    of mystic scripture
    where the mysteries of God’s Word
    lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
    in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
    Amid the deepest shadow
    they pour overwhelming light on what is most manifest.
    Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
    they completely fill our sightless minds
    with treasures beyond all beauty.

    God forgive me!
    (Where would Frodo be without Sam?)

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, your quote from 1 John resonates with me. It reminds me of Luke 17: 20-21 “And when He was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come He answered them and said: ‘The Kingdom of God does not come by observation; nor will they say: See here! or See there! for the Kingdom of God is within you. ”

    My sin is all that keeps me from it. His mercy is the key to entering. The Church has many avenues through which to partake of His mercy.

    No one in the movie recognized God within at all. Whether Mozart or Salieri do or not I cannot know. All I know is that our Lord’s mercy is sufficient and the Jesus Prayer a golden key to the inward Kingdom from which comes tears, blessings and joy. The evidence of healing from mediocrity, envy and murder.

  75. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Andrew thank you for the reference! I’ll listen to the podcast.

    Michelle, thank you for the beautiful quote. As for your last sentence about Frodo and Sam, the message seems most similar to the saying (although I don’t know who said it first, but I heard it first from Father Stephen) that “we are not saved alone”. This is why we need the Church, the true Church, Her clergy and laity, however bedraggled and bloodied She has become through history on this earth.

  76. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    And I’ll mention in addition to the clergy and laity, the saints.

  77. Michelle Avatar

    I am glad then that I posted.
    God is Light that is Darkness.
    He is un-circumscribed and He is IN us. Wonder!!!
    As such we are Treasures of Darkness to each other. Hoards (God) in Secret Places (souls). This is Gods gift so we can Know Him as the One. Why fear each other? Why feel diminished by it? Why envy?
    I can not circumscribe you because He is there in you. There is Freedom for us all in that Knowledge.
    Dust has been wed to a Dewdrop of Divine, His Little Children. We are nothing and we can not be diminished! Mystery!!
    I am Because He is a Rock Unmoved… IN me!
    Darkness is That Place where perfect Love casts out all fear. We can see Him there in each other. It is the Bridal Chamber not the death chamber. The place of Healing and the Ascent.
    Seeing Darkness is a Sign signifying divinity, a Part. Because we see him in part. And even Face to face is Part. Just a better part. Maybe in you I can see His Black (dark) Locks.
    Why envy? Why fear? Why vengeance?
    Love the Darkness, the Un-circumscribed Beloved in each other. In it we can become The Exertion of Love Consummated. Mystery.
    May God forgive his little one.

  78. Matt Redmond Avatar

    Thank you for this.

  79. juliania Avatar

    Ziton, you mention the corruption of Father Zossima’s body and the reaction of the monks – even Alyosha’s reaction at the time – it’s very reminiscent of Christ on the Cross and those who say if he’s the Son of God why doesn’t he come down ? And then follows the lovely scene with Grushenka, Rakitin leading him, Alyosha there. It’s a beautiful development of Father Stephen’s theme I think, to just see Rakitin thinking he has won by ‘corrupting’ Alyosha — when instead, it’s the miracle of the onion. Concluding with return to the monastery and the reading of the first miracle in Saint John, when the smell of corruption is no longer in the air. I love that sequence!
    I heard a lecture once that put that story of the wedding feast as the answer to Ivan’s strong use of Christ’s three temptations in the desert after baptism. (It was an Orthodox perspective – I wish I could find it somewhere; it was beautiful.)

  80. Susannah Avatar

    Dear In Christ Father, We sent this article to our very sick physically, very well spiritually friend, Barbara Roguemore. She doesn’t have a computer so I am transcribing her hand written reply. We thought you would like to see it. It brought tears to my eyes. We very much appreciate your articles and have enclosed them in our feast day cards. Thank you so much.
    “Please forgive me. Father Stephen writes from a different point of view and place in his life than I am. The thoughts he gives us encourage thinking and contemplation. It is after reading it a number of times that I am able to put my ideas together. I would never express them if you hadn’t asked. You may agree or not, but I ask you to form your own. That is all that matters.

    Antonio Salieri’s problem began much earlier in his life, long before Mozart entered the picture. He is correct to implicate the whole world in his crime. We are responsible for one another. St. Vladika Ioan of Shanghai visited troubled and insane persons in jails and hospitals and was able to quiet them. On the street, Vladika gave all the money in his pocket to the first beggar he saw. Everything given and donated to him was given away. The people he met, helped may have been thieves, criminals, abnormal, but he only saw the image of God in them and asked no questions. Therein is Salieri’s problem.

    He was a Christian and associated with a church, but never learned who he truly was, nor how to develop a spiritual life to balance his psychological weaknesses. His basic problem was not envy, but fear.

    The base and deepest level of himself was his ego, not the image of God in his soul. Perhaps he never knew about it. Making ego the most important aspect of self is building a poor foundation that falls victim to many of life’s storms and trials.

    The fragile self of surrounded by a layer of great fear. Fear of loss of self, of life, of whatever one has in the world and fear of pain. If all one has is self, any hurt, threat, danger is fatal because there is no source of help or support. This is the fate of the egotist, having no one and nowhere to turn. Who would love him as he does? Much time and effort is spent to find someone he can convince of his importance, value. He is in fear of losing everything. The fear must not be seen by anyone. They might attack. Fear is beneath all other layers above it.

    The armor and weapon used to protect the ego and its life destroying fears is anger. If great enough, it will drive away and threat and bring a feeling of power to the egotist. Not exposing the fear beneath is a matter of life or death. It burns (this anger) like a great fire.

    The surface of anger must also be disguised or people won’t like him and he won’t be able to get his way, so it is coated on top with a thin veneer of shiny pride. Unfortunately, it is easily chipped and flaked, so must be applied again and again as soon as it is hurt.

    The top layer is what he presents to the world for people to see – the role he has chosen for his life and that gives value to his life, his work or profession any talent and abilities.

    You can see how precariously these layers are balanced, but if all you have is ego, you must love it, protect it, nourish it and help it live and grow.

    This is the way I understand Salieri., he did not become this way after Mozart entered his life, his entire life prepared him. His problems showed up throughout his life. Where were his parents, his teachers, his priest or minister, any friends? There all failed him, and in the end he was too ill to recover. The layers slowly came apart until he had to use his only weapon – anger.

    He was not attacking God or goodness. He was attacking to preserve his life, his self, his ego. Everything else was gone. Why did no one get him help earlier in his life?

    It is a tragedy with a lesson. There is ego in all of us. We must learn to see it in ourselves, in case no one else tells us, as with all our weaknesses. Our spiritual life must direct us not our ego. We must never forget the image of God within us and learn to see it in everyone.

    There are no mediocre people. Each individual is unique with his own gifts to use in the world, weaknesses and good qualities. Each bears the image of God. We are meant to help, forgive, and pray for each other. Who knows how God will use each of us to do His will. Every person in our life holds a lesson for us. May God help us to see through our spiritual eyes and not our ego.

    If only someone had seen Salieri’s suffering when he was young, and had cared to help him.

    I beg God’s mercy for the people I was/am blind to in my life.

    It is a responsibility to recognize fear in children, friends, enemies and respect the image of God within them. Without requiring anything of them, slowly help them to understand balance themselves and eventually find the answer to overcome it. The answer that also lies within them, waiting.”

    Perhaps Sister Barbara’s understanding and Prayer for Antonio Salieri can help him even yet. We will be sending her “God and The Mystery of Self.” As Mother Maria* points out, it touches on many of Barbara’s points. Thank you, dear Father Stephen!
    *Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, S.F.

  81. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this. May God visit Sister Barbara and preserve her in His grace.

  82. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    The spiritual lessons you draw from the film are beautiful.

    But… what do you make of the research of people like Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice (further popularised by Geoff Colvin, Daniel Coyle, and Malcolm Gladwell) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow?

    According to this view, people like Mozart, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps reached the heights they did because they were pushed by their ambitious parents from a very young age. Since Mozart was pushed to start learning music from the age of 3 by his demanding father. Thus by the time he reached his twenties, he had already put in his 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Perhaps this deprivation of a natural childhood was a reason for the collapse of Mozart at a young age.

    Also, much of the writing on this subject seems to indicate that the image of “Salieri = mediocrity; Mozart = inexplicable genius” was largely a fabrication, though there was indeed some level of professional rivalry and friction between them. I know you are aware of this and you have said in a comment above that you don’t take the film as anything more than a fictional parable, but it makes me very uneasy when a fictionalisation of real world events takes what appears to be excessive liberties with the truth.

    All the same, I do think the lessons you draw from this film are very valuable and useful, since I have realised personally that I have to come to terms with the fact that I will likely not be anything more than a mediocrity in life. And I also recognise in myself the stirrings of envy towards the more fortunate, which I surely need to kill. So your lessons are very much important to me in spite of the uneasiness I have about the veracity of the film from which you draw these lessons.


  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No doubt, the film took its liberties. For me, it was merely a parable. That the “story” of the film “works” allows it to have that use as a parable. I think, though, that “flow” could only describe brilliance in performance, which is not the same as brilliance in composition. Even in performance – in the film Mozart’s drunken party tricks point towards a genius that is not a result of practice as such. Whether such was true historically, I do not know.

    I think, based on some the comments I’ve received that “mediocrity” is clearly a shame-word. My point is not to shame us – but to suggest that we live in a culture that shames normalcy, after a fashion. We are all internally driving ourselves towards an overperformace with false expectations – which is great when you want your workers to burn themselves out for your investments and increase profits. Our drives to perform, to profit, to progress, etc., are driven by the insane mythologies of our culture – many of which we have internalized.

    Learning the gospel, as it is in Christ, is a call to the truth of our being and the truth of the world around us. In Christ, we can learn the song of God that speaks to the soul – rather than the song of the age that speaks to our destruction.

    I am deeply grateful that you’ve found some helpful people. I pray that God will give you grace as you work with them!

  84. Ben Nye Avatar
    Ben Nye

    NSP –

    I’ve been thinking on this subject pretty steadily since Fr. Freeman wrote this post. As you are likely aware, the 10,000 hour theory is not without it’s detractors. It looks like there is very much a back-and-forth between Ericsson and detractors that has not been settled, i.e. whether “greatness” is innate or gained through freakish devotion.

    I thought this quote from a former world record holding weightlifter, and now trainer, was especially powerful:

    “My first day with a real weight set when I was 14, I hit numbers that some people work years for. In my first year of real (incredibly stupid) training, I hit bigger numbers than most people will in their entire life. The former didn’t have a … thing to do with how hard I’d worked on the weights, and the latter didn’t have a … thing to do with how much I knew about training.

    “The more I learned, the better I became at identifying weaknesses and staying healthy. That may be what pushed me over the edge from ‘really strong’ to ‘world records,’ but I promise you that it will not push you from ‘average’ to ‘world records.’”

    I think that is perhaps the error of the 10,000 hour principle: there is simply an upward limit that is almost certainly innate. I’d also question whether the ability/focus/desire to stick with something for 10,000 hours is also innate. A bit of a chicken/egg problem to be sure.

    And to your Phelps/Woods point: my observation is that they have lived deeply unhappy lives. Michael Jordan (who you did not mention but is quite similar) is famously sociopathic. Phelps reports to having considered suicide during the 2012 Olympics. Woods of course had that terribly awkward press conference after his horrific divorce, affair, and car crash. I don’t believe his demons have left him. These people only appear happy in the exceedingly rare (even for them) moments when they have truly triumphed over all rivals. Otherwise it seems to be unceasing toil. Eric Liddell points the right way: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have had occasion to see “genius” a few times in my life. I’m sure there are lots of 10,000 hour people – but they’re not the “genius” that I have seen. It can be nurtured and brought to a more perfect form – but I fall into the merely talented arena – and it’s not the same thing. It’s not wholly innate – but neither is it simply acquired. There is, however, in our culture, such a “cult” of excellence that it easily makes people miserable or crazy. We’re seeing some of that in the present Olympic games.

  86. NSP Avatar

    @Ben Nye & Fr. Freeman,

    Yes, I have read the detractors, but they don’t seem to have a very convincing case. I think Ericsson was able to answer his detractors convincingly a short while before his death. (However, I am watching with interest the ongoing row about the claimed failure to replicate the results that led to Roy Baumeister’s famous “will-power is a depletable resource” theory.)

    As to whether the ability to focus on something for 10000 hours is innate, that’s a good point. Geoff Colvin does spend a fair amount of space musing on that in his book “Talent is overrated.”

    Musings on the upward limit are complicated because any such limit can be explained by a combination of other factors like a head-start, a deeper impression created in a younger age resulting in greater motivation, the principle of compound effect, the distractability of the person, availability of a good coach, social environment, etc. I’m not sure theories about innate upward limits can escape unscathed from Occam’s Razor.

    Also, according to the popular books on the subject (Robert Hare, Martha Stout etc), psychopathy is now widely considered genetic, isn’t it? So if Jordan (or any other obnoxious high achiever like Steve Jobs) was a psychopath he likely already was so from the beginning. Being at the top of his game just gave him greater room to exercise it. And perhaps the genetics that caused the psychopathy also facilitated the ruthless focus? Interesting point to ponder.

    As for Eric Liddel, I have watched “Chariots of Fire” multiple times and that line always overwhelms me. However, I wonder, if Earl Woods had been a missionary like Liddel’s parents, perhaps he might have moulded Tiger Woods into another Eric Liddell… And perhaps Woods and Phelps were driven , at least occasionally and to some extent, on the merely natural level, by the purer satisfaction of craftsmanship and mastery, not just by the baser desire to dominate their rivals? Perhaps their tragedy is that they failed to “transpose” this to the supernatural “key” (to take a concept from CS Lewis and run with it) like Liddell and play their sport for the glory of God.

    (Having read how brutally Phelps’ mother and coach pushed him to achieve, I’m not at all surprised he considered suicide at some point. )

    I’ve seen a lot of 10,000 hour people in my life, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone who was an inexplicable genius. Perhaps one day I will meet one of these people. I would really like to meet someone like that. It would settle a lot of questions in my mind.


  87. Ben Nye Avatar
    Ben Nye

    NSP –

    A quite thoughtful response. I will confess that I do not understand the 10,000 hr debate beyond a popular level and, if you find the scholarly case for it compelling, I cannot answer further. I would add the same caveat for psychopathy/sociopathy: I have no real understanding beyond a popular level. My (perhaps incorrect) understanding is that there are those who are so-called “hard baked” psychopaths and then there are those who manifest those traits, but have learned them through traumatic life events, which allegedly is the “sociopath” distinction. Again, this may all be Internet ramblings rather than accuracy.

    I read Gladwell’s book in college and was initially quite attracted to the theory. As time has gone on, I’ve found it increasingly oppressive. Just one more way to measure myself against others and either glory in my own “accomplishments” or shame in my inability to stick with things. I suppose I’ve found it one more way that our meritocratic society separates winners from losers. While my life would, objectively, look like I “won” (as I approach my mid-30s), I increasingly find nothing interesting, joyful, or life-giving in the company of other so-called winners.

    I increasingly see everything in terms of the Prodigal Son. If the losers, back-row types, and sinners are the ones that come to Jesus–well, I’m with them.

  88. NSP Avatar

    Truth be told, I too am just an amateur, not a professional in this field, so it does not really mean much that I am convinced either way. Perhaps I am only convinced because I like the theory so much I want it to be true. And perhaps I only like the theory because I have absorbed the meritocratic mindset of society around me. Or maybe I like this theory because it allows me to fool myself into thinking that if I just try harder, I too can reach a place where I can be proud of my accomplishments.

    I too read Gladwell in college. I too am in my mid-30s, but my life doesn’t really look like I’ve won. Perhaps that is why I’m clutching at straws. I was very sure of many things when I was younger. Now I am not so confident about my ability to figure things out. Perhaps this is another area where my convictions of all these years will turn out to be insubstantiated. I suspect I intellecutalise things too much as an avoidance mechanism from tacking the things that really matter in life – like living in the present moment by the grace of God.

    If losers are the ones that come to Jesus, I just need to stay where I am. 🙂

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not to be contentious, but this kind of epistemology on either “side” is largely irrelevant as each is a distortion of the reality that we are made in the image and likeness of God.
    Sin distorts that image in unique ways for each person. That distortion can lead away from God in ways that look like excellence or failure and every place in between.
    I return to my earlier quote from Mark Twain: “God created man in His own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.”
    It is very easy to confuse the two.
    All I really know is God’s mercy and my insane willingness to reject His mercy, as real and alive as it is for my own creation that requires nothing of me except to continue to delude myself. I have spent far more than 10000 hours doing that.

  90. NSP Avatar

    Here is why the rejection of excellence makes me uneasy:

    In today’s world we all live in dependence on someone’s excellence. Take the Ancient Faith online platform, for example. Consider how many advancements of networking protocols, computer languages, microprocessor architecture, ecommerce, multimedia processing, web development frameworks, etc. had to happen before such a platform with an international reach could come into operation.

    You and I are able to communicate so seamlessly because somewhere, there are wizards staying up late, just as we are able to sleep soundly in our beds at night because somewhere there are soldiers patrolling our borders. (Of course, as per Fr. Freeman’s latest article “Frontiers of Personhood” this doesn’t literally apply to the USA – it’s not likely there are any serious hostile forces across the 49th parallel north, but you get the general idea – and it is more true in other countries, anyway.)

    So I guess it makes me feel guilty to subsist on the excellence of others without contributing back significantly to the pool of knowledge. Paying my dues, so to speak.

    After all, if we really rejected the world’s view of excellence, shouldn’t we all be living like the Amish? (I have never met one of them, I’ve just read about them, but if my understanding is correct, even they are unable to avoid making compromises. And I am not even sure that such groups can survive in today’s world without a surrounding more advanced culture to tolerate and protect them.)


  91. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think I have stated the “rejection of excellence” as a desired principle. I have, I think, been articulating a critique of its abuse.

    I am certainly grateful for the hard work of brilliant people – though I think we may overestimate how much of our world is a result of such. Ancient Faith Ministries, your example, I take to be a work of God’s providence. If it did not exist, the world would continue and God would provide other means for sharing His word. In the Church – the primary work is the parish – is now, and always has been.

    I think that what you’re doing in this comment is a sort of all-or-nothing form of reasoning. It presumes that the abuse of excellence is required to sustain our lives. I don’t think so. The argument can be made (and it has been) that the advance in modern technology is not the result of brilliant hard work primarily, but the result of its monetization. After all, brilliant people were working hard centuries before the industrial revolution.

    A lot of what passes for brilliance in our day is little more than applied science – much of which is carried out by people who are merely smart rather than brilliant. It is why our technology tends to move along incrementally rather than by huge leaps and bounds.

    There’s a fair amount of mythology in your comment. And it’s a story that makes people crazy rather than teaching them how to live.

  92. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    “Abuse of excellence.” That’s a useful term. Now I understand more clearly.

    Indeed, I have to accept you are right, I see I was indulging in an all-or-nothing kind of cognitive distortion. Thanks for pointing it out.

    I will try to understand more clearly what you have said about the monetisation of brilliant hard work. (I have ordered two books you mentioned recently, “The Enchantment of Mammon” and “The Rebirth of a Nation” and have just started on the first one. Perhaps they will help me understand your critiques better.)



  93. NSP Avatar

    P.S. Also, “In the Church – the primary work is the parish – is now, and always has been.” – that is really beautiful. I must keep it in mind.


  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Enchantment of Mammon is a wonderful book – really long – but even the early chapters are worth the effort.

    One thought that is a thread in his book has to do with continuous exploitation of workers in our system – which is not an argument for some sort of communism. But, the “genius” of modernity was the discovery of monetizing inventions. It seems obvious to us today (things like mass production – which he’ll describe as “Fordism”). Or, he’ll also discuss the work of Fred Taylor (Taylorism) who applied “scientific” studies to worker behavior to maximize productivity. So, what we get is human beings working like machines. It doesn’t take brilliance to work in that manner – just boring, repetitive tasks, broken down into small steps so that no brilliance is required. But the result is massive wealth. That wealth was shared somewhat with workers – the 8 hour day, for example. It marginally improved their standard of living.

    But it vastly improved the wealth of the few who owned the factory. Ford’s developments were “brilliant” after a fashion – but their result was built on an army of people doing very mundane things yet producing lots of wealth in which they had but a small share. This process is, to a great extent, the secret of modern wealth and technology.

    Who built my computer? Not some brilliant guy sitting up late at night. Rather, some Asian workers in a factory doing very simple repetitive tasks for low wages (probably).

    Work is work. It always has been. You’ll see in the Enchantment book an interesting set of arguments and movements in the 19th century. One of them, the Arts and Crafts Movement, was an effort to humanize work, to return dignity to the workers, to nurture craftmanship over and against mere factories, etc. I think it was one of the more interesting arguments of the time – and its applied examples are beautiful as well. Of course, money wins.

  95. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Also, I’m not writing in order to fix the world. I assume that the way things are will continue in some manner until they don’t. Instead, I write to us as we live and suggest how we might live in this world in an Orthodox manner. To be in the world but not of it. I admire certain things about the Amish, by the way. At least they think carefully about what they do and how best to live their faith (it has a lot of downsides as well).

    Thus, the mythology of excellence in our time, I take to be mostly be an advertising slogan constantly repeated by those who want to get the most out of their workers – whether it destroys the workers or not. Excellence is not the point of our life. The point of our life is Christ. If the pursuit of excellence gets in the way of loving Christ and our neighbor, or of following His commandments, then, I would say, we are free to say “no” to excellence – or the world’s version of it.

  96. NSP Avatar

    Once again, thank you for an illuminating response, Father!

    When I read your latest reply, I realised with a shock that I have been living my whole life as if excellence is the point of it. If I am to be brutally honest about myself, I can find within my heart a fear that perhaps Christ did not really mean it when he said “…and all these things shall be added unto you.”

    So I suppose I have tried to live a double life – on one hand trying to follow Christ, and on the other hand, thinking that I have to look out for myself because I suppose I am lacking in the practical hope in God actually giving me what I need on a day-to-day basis because perhaps he doesn’t really care about my improvement – what is one more person among billions? (I suppose this is just a re-wording of the Problem of Evil – I see people around me struggling with no apparent relief in sight, and I have my own struggles too, and I suppose it begins to become easy to think, “God isn’t going to help. I have to figure this out on my own.”)

    I don’t know how this toxic mindset got into my head. I need to expunge it. I need to build up the courage to actually start living as if Christ is the point of my life. I thought that is what I have been doing all these years, but now I’m not sure anymore. I think I was placing my excellence before Christ.


  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Two brief critiques of technology that are brilliant in their own ways: Henry Adams’ essay, “The Law of Phase as Applied to History” and Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times”. The latter has the famous scene in which Chaplin’s character The Little Tramp is working on an assembly line that continues to increase in speed. That is also just as Henry Adams predicted in his essay some fifty years prior.
    The solution is not of this world in protest. The solution lies in rendering (giving back) unto God the things in thanksgiving ,i.e., our very being in a continuos act of metanoia. The roots of that word literally mean “changing the nous”.

    It is difficult to submit every act, interaction, thought and feeling to God in thanksgiving and praise. Excruciating in fact when there is so much manifest evil in the world. Yet, as much as I do not like it and human logic seems to deny it, is that Jesus means when He says “resist not evil” and indeed the entire 5th chapter if Matthew if not read in a kind of spiritual sentimentalism.
    God forgive me a sinner.

  98. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Or as the character in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, did when charged with witchcraft. Either way he answered, Yea or Nay was deemed wrong by his accusers as they pressed him to death with heavy stones on his chest. His last words: “More weight!”

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As a history-buff, you would love the book, The Enchantment of Mammon. It’s about 800 pages – but a very good slog! He’s got some interesting stuff on Henry Adams’ critique.

  100. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    800 pages! Talk about more weight. My wife is having lower back surgery soon as she is in great pain. My time will be spent in “rendering the deeds of mercy” as primary caregiver and chauffer.

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