Tradition as Communion

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion (koinonia) with us; and truly our communion (koinonia) is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (1 John 1:1–4)

Typical of St. John’s writings, a vast reality is packed into a single sentence. In but a few phrases, he describes the full life of the Church and its place in the world. He does this under the heading of communion (koinonia). Later centuries would search for adequate language to express what St. John says here.

The Councils used the language of nature and person to express our union with Christ. Christ assumed our human nature in the Incarnation, uniting Himself to us, and us to Him. We say that “He became what we are that we might become what He is.”

But St. John’s language has a dynamic quality to it unmatched in later centuries. He begins by speaking of Christ as “the life which was with the Father.” He places that dynamic quality into a context that is extremely vivid: “that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…” What he expresses and declares to his readers is a completely “immersive” and “participatory” experience. It encompassed the whole being of those who were there.

The startling reality of this testimony of St. John is that he relates something beyond what “happened,” or what he “saw.” The “life” which was with the Father continues with him in what he describes as “communion” (koinonia). The life which was with the Father is now also with him. And, at the very heart of his message: this “life” of communion is available to all. It is this “life” itself that he declares to us.

There is yet another aspect of St. John’s words, utterly essential to their meaning and import: he writes in the plural. What he describes is not a private matter, but relates what “we” have experienced and known. Who is the “we”? Some scholars describe this as the “Johannine Community,” the Church surrounding the noted Apostle. It is clearly the Church, but, I think it describes that first Apostolic generation, the eyewitnesses who became “communicants” of eternal life in Christ. Additionally, I think we could and should identify this experience described by St. John as what Orthodoxy means when it says, “Tradition.”

For a variety of reasons, most people confuse “tradition” with the notion of “the way we have always done things.” This is neither its meaning nor does it express its importance. “Tradition” means that which has been “handed down,” or “delivered” to someone. It can refer to any number of things: beliefs, practices, authority, etc. However, here in St. John, we clearly have a reference to something being handed down which is itself “living.” What has been given is the “communion” with the Father and the Son, as well as a communion with the living community of the Church. And this communion is “life.”

Orthodoxy is often characterized as a “way of life.” I suspect that many imagine that phrase to describe a “way of doing things” exemplified by certain beliefs and practicies. Though there are beliefs and practices that are an intimate part of Orthodoxy, it should be rightly understood as a way of “life,” that is, of an abiding in the the living communion of the Godhead.

For example, though Orthodox Christians offer up morning and evening prayers (often as prescribed in various prayerbooks), the most prevalent teaching on prayer is that of the “unceasing remembrance of the Name of God.” This practice of the Jesus Prayer has its roots in the depths of the monastic life and unites the whole of Orthodox daily life, both monastics and non-monastics. It is said that monastics do not live a different life from those in the world, but a more intense form of the same life. This is fully in accord with the “tradition” of communion invoked by St. John.

I have had a rich experience in the work of nurturing the Orthodox way of life with converts. There are aspects that include teaching and nurturing a way of understanding and seeing – “traditioning” Orthodox doctrine. Of far greater and more lasting import, however, is something that only comes with time. I have seen this in myself as well as in others. I would best describe it as the movement of external forms into internal reality. St. Paul says this when speaking to a young Galatian community:

My little children, I labor in birth again until Christ be formed in you,” (Gal. 4:19).

He can write to them, repeating the arguments and teachings that they have heard before, but nothing is settled until that life (which is Christ) is actually formed within them. St. John, strikingly, describes this under the heading of love. For St. John, it is love (particularly the love of the brethren) that is the mark of true spiritual formation. It is in his epistle that he famously declares that “God is love.” From that, he says that anyone claiming to know God but who does not love is a “liar” and the “truth does not dwell in him.” 

The love of which St. John speaks is no mere moral action – it is nothing less than the actual life and love of God dwelling in us.

Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?(1 John 3:13–17)

This is the most fundamental form of the tradition – that which has been delivered to us. Just as the life of Christ is given in the sacrament of His Body and Blood (“As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.John 6:57), so His life is given as well in the fullness of the Church. This is the true “content” of all that we receive in the Church. It is not a particular activity or pattern, but the content (the life and love) that has been vouchsafed to us in the whole of our life together. However, we do not abstract that life from the activity and pattern of the Church. These patterns and actions are the vehicles that nurture the life within us. Nevertheless, if we do not see the love of the Father and the Son in the life that we are given, then we are missing the very heart of the faith.

This is our communion – the very life of God – the God who is love.

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.



47 responses to “Tradition as Communion”

  1. Lewis Avatar

    The visual is choice, Father Stephen! It is, at once, clear and complex.

    This explication is helpful to those of us who did not grow up in the Orthodox Tradition. I guess that includes you. I wonder what your phases of understanding were and what kind of time that took.

  2. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for these profound teachings and helping us understand the life of communion. When I look up 1 John 1 in various translations, it’s difficult to find a good translation of koinonia. For example, the KJV, New KJV, RSV, New RSV, NIV, NASB, and ESV all translate this as “fellowship”. I wonder if there is a major translation that does a better job in conveying the true meaning.

  3. Karen Avatar


  4. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    The Orthodox Study Bible has a note to the verse 1 John 1:3 , which develops the meaning of the Greek word, “koinonia”, to include and mean the Eucharistic communion— a meaning that provides a more ‘3D’ perception of the intended word lost in translation to English.

    Tolkien provides us a mythological glimpse of the meaning of the ancient sense of the word “fellowship” in his famous trilogy. My recollection of his story was that each character in the fellowship was willing to lay down their lives for their brethren. This was and is a deep love.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure I could describe things in distinct phases. Nevertheless, I am especially aware of the dynamic of a movement from intellectual understanding of a concept to an internalization – and then – connections in which – over time – it seems that everything is “one” thing, and “one” thing is everything. I could go on and on…

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    English translations have been distinctly driven by theology throughout our modern history. Protestant translations dominate. But a clear problem is that of the “echo chamber” effect. Protestant theology has not and does not think in terms of communion, participation, etc. and therefore does not see it in the Greek when it’s staring them in the face. Thus, they characterize Orthodox thought as “mystical” (and often dismiss it with that label) when, in fact, Orthodoxy is simply saying what the faith (and the Scriptures) have always said. Truth told, I gave up on translations long ago.

    It is interesting that the word “fellowship” has itself undergone changes of meaning – such that today it is little more than a synonymn for “coffee hour” or “hanging out.”

    If I changed it to read: “fellow-ness” – it’s interesting how that would seem.

    But the word “koinonia” – has the word “koinos” as its root. That word means “common.” “Commonality” would be a possible translation. But it is a strong word, a mutual participation and sharing that “fellowship” pretty much excludes or doesn’t even suggest to a modern reader. But modern Protestantism is often devoid of such ideas – thus – it misunderstands the entire work of salvation, which is through participation, koiononia.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Tolkien’s imagery would be stronger if the “fellowship” of the Ring included being “blood brothers,” or some such commonality – or if each member of the fellowship shared in the “weight” of the Ring. As it is, they’re really just accompanying the one guy who is doing all the heavy lifting. Sam comes closest to true fellowship when he’s carrying Frodo at the end.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, the interconnectednedness of which you speak is the way creation is structured. Both of my parents taught that principle to me. Once I knew Jesus is real I followed that principle to the Church. She has the only theology that is built upon that reality and it is participatory. One does not simply “think” oneself into heaven or “feel” oneself there either. As you note the integration takes time and help.
    John 15 also tells us that the world hates us. So the integration also involved disentanglement. Only the Grace and mercy of Jesus Christ has allowed me to keep at it for the 73 years and counting that I have been at it.
    The first sign of a spiritual counterfeit is some one who promises something simple. The second is that you can do it by oneself. The third is that you have power. Growing up in the 60s I saw a lot of those.
    When full integration is achieved, the whole is elegant and “simple” in a sense but that is the fruit of complex labor.
    Thank you for your help.

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you for your thoughts on my reference to Tolkein, Father. Indeed, Sam was the closest example.

    I did a little more hunting on the googlater for the etymological history of the suffix “ship”. The Old English is “sciepe” which is related, in turn, to the word sinscipe, the Old English term for marriage. (If these online sources can be trusted) Assuming this is correct, there might have been nuances in meaning in Old English in the word “fellowship” that might have been lost in the history of translations as you describe.

    Your last words in the article summarize these thoughts beautifully for me:

    This is the true “content” of all that we receive in the Church. It is not a particular activity or pattern, but the content (the life and love) that has been vouchsafed to us in the whole of our life together. However, we do not abstract that life from the activity and pattern of the Church. These patterns and actions are the vehicles that nurture the life within us. Nevertheless, if we do not see the love of the Father and the Son in the life that we are given, then we are missing the very heart of the faith.

    This is our communion – the very life of God – the God who is love.

    (I emphasize an important thought within these words for my current circumstances.)

  10. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    After more searching, the KJV is early modern english, I understand, which suggests that by the time the translation was created, the word “fellowship” might have already lost any possible nuances of depth it might have once had in Old English.

  11. Kenneth Avatar

    Please forgive this question if it is simple from the Orthodox perspective, but is it correct to say that “keeping the commandments” helps unite us with God and thus plays a role in our salvation? When Jesus was asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, it’s interesting that he first said to keep the commandments, then to give everything to the poor and follow him. In many Protestant traditions, this answer is read as hyperbole or “setting an impossible standard” so the young man would realize his need for Christ, etc. Is there any reason to read it this way as opposed to more straightforwardly that these actions would help unite him with God? Also, when the young man said “I’ve kept the commandments from my youth”, is there any reason to assume that he was badly mistaken, or could it be more straightforwardly true?

  12. Kenneth Avatar

    Dee: Yes, I was a little surprised that the KJV translated koinonia as “fellowship”, a choice that other more modern English translations have also followed. But then I was further surprised to realize how “recent” the KJV actually is, compared to the much longer Orthodox tradition(!).

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s good to remember that the KJV is already a Protestant translation. The Douay-Rheims, Catholic translation, however, also has “fellowship.” I think that it’s a Western inability to hear “communion” and the language of participation. “Fellowship,” after a fashion, is a legal concept. It is the people with whom I belong. The juridical had already long triumphed in the West. Indeed, the notion of Holy Communion was quickly being reduced to a juridical remission of sins. Some of that lingers even in Orthodoxy.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In “keeping the commandments” (particularly as given to us by Christ), what we have is us “acting as God acts.” They are external to God, but are descriptive of the actions of God Himself. If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, then we will do what He does. Christ says, “I only do those things that I see my Father doing.” Likewise, we do those things which we see Christ doing – and the commandments are what those things look like.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To refresh myself I went tonight to a catachesis class on the history of the Church given by a man whose knowledge of that history is both deep and broad. I cannot say I learned anything new but I was reminded of many things as I hoped. Two things stood out: 1. The incredible continuity we have today with what was done in Apostolic times. The teacher read Justin Martyr’s description wtitten in AD 155 of the Euchrist and it is almost identical to what we practice today and 2. The sense of community, love, sharing and brotherhood was clearly evident. That koinonia we have been speaking of. A mutual understanding that was passed down to each person.

  16. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I admire your knowledge of history, especially of the Church. I haven’t done as much work in that area as I would like, and I believe it is indeed important.

    On reflection on the content of your article and the image you selected, it strikes me that when someone is new to Orthodoxy (actually speaking from personal experience), that they might not “see” all that there is to see and experience in the Divine Liturgy. One might have some sort of oblique sense or even a noetic glimpse without realizing what they are perceiving. And if they are desiring something of what they left behind (in this case not speaking from my experience), minus some specific “faults” of their former church, they will undoubted be disappointed. And, they will likely find faults in every very real Orthodox parish, if they look for them.

    The communion you speak of is within all that is in the image: with Christ, the Trinity, the Theotokos, the angels, and saints, the various people in the nave, represented in various postures and walks of life at the bottom of the image. Whether we realize it or not, we are all seeking communion with God and His creation. And this, no-doubt, is what some of us might call “home”.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I would best describe it as the movement of external forms into internal reality.

    These are good words to describe the process of change a catechumen undergoes as they continue to participate in the Divine Liturgy. It is physical and spiritual. Over a period of time the ‘heart’ begins to see. The words (physical/spiritual) ought not be separated in the way they are in English. Indeed it is Communion. Communion with God and His Church. And in my case, I also describe communion with God in nature. It is not the same as the Eucharist. Nevertheless, the Eucharist deepens that communion with God in nature, and I’m grateful for His revealing His presence in all things. May God grant us the eyes of the heart to see, that He is “Everywhere Present”.

  18. The Priest Nicholas Young Avatar
    The Priest Nicholas Young

    As Orthodox Christians we share a “mindset”, a way of looking at and living in the world. As an instance in fact, I can remember talking with a work colleague about his Orthodox neighbour, who was an elderly priest. My colleague mentioned that the priest was often in his garden. I asked if he had kept fruit trees and grew vegetables. The answer came back that he had lovely plum and cheery trees and did in fact grow some of his own vegetables. My reaction was ” I though he might”. I knew somehow that if an Orthodox Christian were keeping a home garden that it would be a lovely place bearing the fruits of the earth, witnessing God’s goodness. This may seem to be playing up a stereotype or sentimental, but for me it shows how in Orthodox culture we often participate in the life of the world. This of course does not mean that the heterodox won’t keep fruit trees at home, but I would be less inclined to take it for granted!

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    ok– last one:

    Actually, the process of the movement from external forms to internal reality is most likely a never-ending process toward our coming into our Communion with God. Nevertheless, it is God’s workings on the soul, the life of the heart and body, a life-loving process that is consummated in Divine Liturgy.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, history is fun for me. I was taught by my parents to look for the dynamic interconnections between people and throughout all life. Also that God is real and it was essential that I find Him. Put the two together and when Jesus consciously entered my life… The Orthodox Church was inevitable (messed up though we are at times). The leader of the class last night was Warren Farha, owner and proprietor of the best bookstore on the planet, Eighth Day Books. He knows Church history. On top of that a member of my parish is the late Anthony Gythiel, a former Benedictine monk, a history professor and translator for Jaroslav Pelikan of blessed memory. Prof. Gythiel saw his brother monks slaughtered by the May Mau in Kenya. He was led to the Church while reading some Greek manuscripts in a Benedictine Abbey here in Kansas. I am blessed to have great teachers in Church History and incredible resources.
    That being said, it was encountering Jesus that led me to study history not the other way around. Before that I was a chem major under a professor who taught chemistry from a quantum perspective. Jesus gives what we need but I am a rank amateur in Church History.
    Plus being in a Cathedral parish with a respected resident bishop, we have some well known folks who come personally, including His Grace Kallistos Ware, Father Thomas Hopko and our esteemed host and guide on this blog. I only know what I have been taught and seen demonstrated. I am greatly blessed unworthy though I am. On the other hand I am fascinated by your story. That too is full of a lot of history. Do not sell yourself short.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    That being said, one book of history that Warren quoted from last night , “The Church Is One” by Alexi Khomiakov could be an interesting resource. Khomiakov presented reality of the Church much like Fr. Stephen, as one storey. Part of it is unseen only because of our physical limitations. The three unseen parts being the Angels, the departed and those our Lord has not yet called into being.

    Such ideas are theological in nature but they also express the reality of history in the broadest sense of the term.
    Most people limit history to events that happened in the past or similar nonsense. As Orthodox Christians however are intimately connected, in koinonia, throughout time and space.
    It is all His Story.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Khomiakov’s The Church is One is an excellent read. He was one of the “Slavophiles,” of the mid 19th century and represents the awakening of Russian Orthodoxy to its own true self – the remembrance of who it is/was. It’s not very long at all. I’ve provided a link to it here in this comment.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it seems to me that the awareness of the Church as to who and what She and her people also involves the deeper recognition of what koinonia really is as well. The Church and Her people as Brides of Christ intimately bound together throughout time and beyond through and in His Body and Blood. Is that more of what you are getting at? Truth be told I have never quite looked at it that way–especially with people who irritate me. God forgive me, a sinner.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    For those of you who value actual bound books Eighth Day Press will be coming out with a properly bound with elegant fonts edition of some of Khomynikov’s works including The Church is One. As anyone who has spent anytime in the bookstore Eighth Day Books can attest, it has a special feel to it that is not unlike entering ad Orthodox chapel. Indeed a few folks have actually come to Wichita, Ks just for Eighth Day Books. It is a place of joy and a place out of time: in the world but not of it.

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Michael! I shall look for it!

    Meanwhile, I’ve made a print from Father’s link. It is indeed edifying!

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I have read a bit and it is a challenge for me already. As much as we are not called to judge those outside the Church it has always seemed important to know both within myself and in a larger sense where the boundaries are so I don’t go beyond them. Modernity, among many other things, says there are really no boundaries if any kind the possible exception of the greatest good for the greatest number. Using that as a guide has brought great devastation as has its opposite temptation of setting artificial boundaries and punishing anyone outside. Just ask the Martyrs of the Church ancient and modern.

    Much to consider and contemplate. May the Grace of God guide us

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, et al,
    It is exceedingly good for us to remember that the original boundary that separated us (rather than uniting us) to God, was the gate and the walls of paradise (however that may be understood). Christ has opened the gates to invite us in. Everyone we see is, or should be seen to have been, “born Orthodox,” there are no other kind of human beings. However, as of this moment, many of them don’t know it and have not been reconciled to the truth of their being. We are not trying to make people other than what they are, but are inviting to discover and learn who they truly are.

    Christ “came unto His own.” Admittedly, “His own received Him not.” But, of course, for all who receive Him, He makes them children of God.

    The boundary between Church and world is, in many ways, a false boundary. The world is God’s. I like to say that the Church was not founded in 33 a.d. as the bumper sticker says, but that it was founded when God said, “Let there be light.” Khomiakov would agree with that.

    The healthy boundaries of our lives are those that properly belong between persons – the boundary that is inherent in true love – the boundary that alone allows true freedom. If there were no boundaries in our personal union and communion, then the whole would be “one” in a numerical sense and all identity would cease. We would be lost in obliteration. The unity of the Church into which we are Baptized is a union in which our personhood is truly and perfectly revealed, even as the Son is revealed and is not the Father (though One God). This is true liberty, and is the very life of the Orthodox faith.

    It is why our Bishops are rightly in a synodal relation and not under a single authority (as a Pope or whatever). This, too, is in Khomiakov. Like a marriage, it is a union, but a union in which both are required and present. These recent innovations in marriage ideas with false notions of submission and such are distortions of the Scriptures and distort the canonical teaching of personhood. We belong to one another – in love – in mutual friendship and communion. This is our Orthodox faith.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    So, if I read you correctly Father the ways in the world that are trying to obliterate personhood are not really part of our falleness but foreign ideas entirely? Or am I over reading?

  29. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Just finished Khomiakov. Interesting example of the period—and perhaps how we are still largely in it. Many of his thoughts, though somewhat polemic, seem consonant with wider patristic teaching.

    I noticed he had to use multiple definitions of “Church” at various points, and was at least upfront about it; this seems to be the only way forward on that question, as we have attached so many different properties to the name which are not entirely resolvable otherwise (eg, Christ’s use of future tense in Matthew 16.18 vs Khomiakov’s “from the creation of the world”). But I was also intrigued on how he seemed to keep another distinction in place, one that I just started noticing a few weeks ago. This distinction, now that I realize it is there, seems to hold in the numerous pre-Nicene fathers I checked, through to writings like the Shepherd Of Hermas, the early canons, etc, and as far forward as I have had the time to look. That distinction is between Kingdom Of God/Heaven and Church. Is there any Orthodox writing on that distinction, and why Christ only spoke of Church on 2 occasions?

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Here is an article that explains in detail what happens when when , God is looked upon from a purely intellectual way. It is brilliant in its imncorect explanation of the nature and purpose of western Christianity… and he laments early in the article that discussion of, about and through this faux ‘Christianity” is not allowed any more. He even uses the words mystical and rational incorrectly completely misunderstanding both. It goes to show that if one begins with a false premise, in this case that western religion is only about different ideas and modes of thought, little else matters.
    It is stunning in its utter wrong understanding of what Christianity is and why it is important. From the title on, where he separates Catholicism and Christianity, he is stunningly wrong.

    Of course he omits entirely we Orthodox.

    God forgive us

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not aware of any particular writing on that distinction – though – there’s probably something out there – good or bad, right or wrong.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joseph, perhaps their are multiple definitions of Church because, although we are one, we are not one thing. As to the seeming dichotomy between Church and Kingdom of God/Heaven I can only say that in my personal experience the Church is the doorway and/or in our fallen state a boulder in the way sometimes. Even the boulder, by God’s grace acts as a doorway at times. Occasionally, our Lord comes all the way through the door and takes us home. I have seen this at funerals and on Pascha. I have to remind myself that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in (my) philosophy.” For that I can only give thanks for the mystery and the revelation, should it occur, and the ability given to perceive and behold His glory.

    God is wondrous. He became man! Wow! He lives and dwells in His community. Wow! He is even closer than hands and feet. All of this and more given to us and more. MORE! All I have to do is repent. Doesn’t sound like much — just a lifetime but what a small price to pay.
    Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. He has given me so much.

  33. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Tradition like being religious has negative connotations in a lot of peoples minds these days; something that is outdated and may have served its purpose for past generations, who didn’t know any better, but is of no use to us because we are modern and sophisticated.

    Thus has Fr. Stephen has stated there are many attempts at inventing new forms of Protestantism. The zeitgeist is taken up with gusto, even amongst the Christian denominations, to change and modernise everything. New forms of worship more akin to worldly entertainment and the need to get involved with the big utopian projects.

    Everything must change! But if I have understood Fr. Stephen properly, then the Orthodox tradition is not something dead and outdated, but a living tradition, that brings us into communion not only with the Church, the community of disciples, but with the source of this living tradition, Christ Himself, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This fullness of God’s self revelation, through partaking in the mysteries of grace and living according to the teaching of this tradition is transformative. It is us as individuals who need to be changed and only God can do this; we do however have to cooperate in this.

    Having read Fr. Stephen’s thesis, Icon As Theology what came to mind from this while reading this present article was; ‘ Christ didn’t come to make bad men good, He came to make dead men alive.’

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, for your teaching and passing on this living tradition through your blog. It reveals a pastoral care not only for your own flock, but for those elsewhere. A lived knowledge and experience is being handed down, which goes all the way back to Christ Himself and thus from those who were with Him; who saw, heard and touched the Lord of Life.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for the kind words. Among the greatest deceits of our modern age are those that claim to fix what it means to be human – as though our true humanity were something we were only just now discovering. Given that we are awash in a commercialized culture of human exploitation, we are probably the least able to think or recover anything other than whatever is being marketed to as at any given moment.

    I would suggest a small test (of a very trite sort). Go to a popular radio station and listen to its music. It will be dull, repetitive, pretty much banal in its sentiments, utterly nagging in its rhythms, and often sung by narcissistic people whose lives are a constant storm of over-consumption and relational disasters. And, it is possible to draw a line marking a steady decline in popular music from almost any measurable point. It is not poignant, revelatory, or typical of anything that was once noted of poetry. In short, it’s bad for the soul (when music should be quite the opposite).

    I was in physical therapy the other day, and the therapist was singing along with a song playing in the therapy center’s background.

    “I hate this song,” she said.
    “Who’s the artist,” I asked.
    “I don’t know she said.”
    “But you’re singing along with it,” I noted.
    “Yeah. It’s like an earword. I hate it,” she replied.

    It spoke volumes to me. It is also a model for much of so-called “praise music.” I say this while asserting that music had been among the high points of Protestant culture at certain points.

    This is all a bit of a silly-seeming analysis. But music should, and often does, represent the soul of a culture. As such, our culture is extremely sick. It is not only forgetting what it is to be human, but deforming some of the most essential elements of our humanity.

    At the same time, Orthodoxy is doing the opposite. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was interesting to see the slow recovery of the Church in Russia and elsewhere. When I first saw the film, The Island (Ostrov), I was deeply affected. It was not just that it was a good film (one of the best that I’ve seen), but that it was thoroughly Orthodox in a manner that assumed there was an Orthodox audience to watch it. It was not at all Hollywood – no need to simplify or explain. It gave a film that exemplified a holy fool and the nature of repentance.

    When Orthodoxy is allowed to – it can and will produce great art of the highest sort. I could cite any number of musicians (even during the Communist period) whose work is of the highest order. No doubt, there is also the kitsch and the merely commercial examples as well – but they tend to dry up and blow away.

    I think as well of literature. The novels of Vodalazkin (such as Laurus) are being compared to Dostoevsky. They certainly convey the truth of the Orthodox soul.

    I could multiply these examples – but they all point towards a nurturing and salutary effect of Orthodoxy, during a time when culture forces are moving in an opposite direction.

    Just thoughts of the morning…

  35. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    when it comes to food for thought, you do serve up some hearty fare. I tried your suggestion of listening to the radio. I listened to four variations of BBC Radio 1 that are on offer on the internet; all aimed at a young audience. I listened to a snippet of four different tracks, all of which proved your point to a T.

    Recently there was a furore in the media over a video that had surfaced on YouTube, of a famous young woman singer, singing a song when she was about 13. What caused all the fuss? A derogatory reference that was offensive to Asians. I looked up the lyrics for the song to see what all the fuss was about. There was one word which wasn’t offence to Asians per se. It was a reference to Chinese in particular. But what was really astounding was that the sexually explicit nature of the lyrics being sung by a 13 year old was not given a mention at all; there seems to be no problem there!

    The same could be said for what goes for art, literature and film too these days; not all of course. Dumbed down and highly sexualised and aimed at children. A few months ago my daughter was expressing her frustration at trying to find nice appropriate summer clothes for her seven year old daughter/my granddaughter. Most of what is on offer is too revealing and most definitely shouldn’t be worn by children (this is in the UK). All in the name of fashion, which turns a nice profit.

    Your mention of the high point of Protestant music, calls to mind J.S. Bach.

    I like stories and art, literature, music and film are all great conveyors of a story well told; that can feed not just the mind, but the soul too. To use a common expression ‘you are what you eat.’

    This commercial world we live in is extremely mercenary when it comes to making a profit and has no qualms about how it goes about it and the spiritual, psychological and even physical damage it may cause. There is no interest in truth and beauty.

    The flowering of Orthodoxy after Communist suppression and persecution in Russia and elsewhere is encouraging.

    ‘In Him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ Jn1:4-5.

  36. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    The long sustained tradition of the veneration and theology of icons in Orthodoxy is yet another feature that sets the Church apart. When I first “saw” resurrection in the Higgs Field data, I came to the realization that Christianity must have some “substance” after-all. Then I went on a hunt to find any Christian theology that would help and explain what I saw and how I saw it–then I discovered the theology of icons in Orthodoxy. That was when I began to study Orthodox theology and history—and here I am now, several years down the road, now an Orthodox Christian. I was not Christian when I began my studies of the Higgs Field, but the Lord knows how and where to find us! For me, the role and way of icons in Orthodoxy was and is fundamental to my salvation.

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    P.S. I too very much appreciate Father’s thesis of “Icons as Theology” as well as his book “Everywhere Present” These works and others like them by Orthodox authors (and especially the commentators here) help me to endure in science.

  38. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Dee,
    the whole world is alive with the glory of God. He speaks and calls to us in varied ways. It’s interesting and encouraging to read what you have to say. I am not very knowledgable when it comes to science, nor maths. My wife is a maths teacher and has tried to explain some mathematics to me, but I just don’t get it. I’m quite content to be able to count my change after buying something. Anything more is just confusion.

    I do find it quite a marvel when people like yourself can understand a subject that is incomprehensible to me.

    The theology of Icons, is yet another revelation of the riches and ways that Orthodoxy has of encountering God.

  39. Seraphima Avatar

    Father, I agree entirely with your points on popular music culture, and with the comments on other aspects of our culture at this time. I have not followed popular music or movies or fashion for decades now, mostly because I didn’t like what the effect was on my soul, emotions, and even physical life in the case of music. That leaves me at once completely out of touch with the dominant culture, and also completely in touch with what it represents, a weird balance to live in. I feel very alone most of the time, working on my four-part melodic and consonant church choral music and wondering whether anyone will ever hear it or get it or care about it if I ever get it out there. That forces me into becoming a musical hermit of sorts for lack of a musical culture to live in (classical and church music being interrupted by the pandemic). Being a hermit is not a bad thing, though, and lots of people have done it with good results in the spiritual realm.

    Dee, could you elaborate on the “resurrection” in the Higgs Field? I somehow missed that in my readings. I would love to know more.

  40. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    “Father, I agree entirely with your points on popular music culture, and with the comments on other aspects of our culture at this time. I have not followed popular music or movies or fashion for decades now, mostly because I didn’t like what the effect was on my soul, emotions, and even physical life in the case of music. That leaves me at once completely out of touch with the dominant culture, and also completely in touch with what it represents, a weird balance to live in.”

    I completely understand what you’ve written here – thanks for articulating it so succinctly! When I do come off of my mountain and visit friends and family, my ignorance of the popular culture affords them endless amusement! So I serve some purpose. 🙂

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Seraphima, you are not alone at all. In fact there is a great company around us. Did you read the short treatise by Khomyakov, The Church is One Father posted a link to?
    We are never alone. You will be in the prayers of my wife and me.
    The title of this blog is great to contemplate. At least it has been for me. His mercy endures forever even in the midst of seeming chaos.

    I am about as alone as one can be most days. I am a house husband. The house I live in with my wife (when she is here) is one of three on the section of land it is on. Most days I have my chores and our dog plus associated wild life from time to time.
    The music you love also connects you.

    Let those who hear….

  42. Seraphima Avatar

    Steve – Thanks for responding. Bless you for finding the humor in it — I will look for that, too, I’m way too serious most of the time. I can’t tell most of the time whether I’m on a mountain top or in the abyss, they start to look the same after a while. I also have no idea what my purpose here is, except to try to love, having tried on various ideas over the years and finding that the good things that came from my efforts were never the things I thought they were going to be, and were usually much better than the ones I was thinking about. Shows you what I know after living the examined life. Maybe one cannot have true humility unless one is dubious about the thoughts one has about one’s purpose, in case one doesn’t really know what the purpose actually is. Or maybe there is not one purpose, and one goes with the flow entertaining new possibilities when they arise and letting God worry about the rest. Entertaining other folks in this awful time is no small purpose in life, however, so may our cultural ignorance generate lots of laughter, pleasing irony, and joy! 🙂

  43. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    ‘You seek the Lord? Seek, but only within yourself. He is not far from anyone. The Lord is near all those who truly call on Him. Find a place in your heart and speak there with the Lord. It is the Lord’s reception room. Everyone who meets the Lord, meets Him there; He has fixed no other place for meeting souls.’
    St. Theophan the Recluse.

  44. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’
    St. Anthony the Great.

  45. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    Dear Seraphima,

    I completely and utterly believe that your purpose and my purpose here in this life is to love. I do enjoy lightening things up for people when I can, especially serious people 🙂 . For what it’s worth, I actually do live on a mountain. In fact, my street address is Mountain Road – no kidding!

    As for knowing whether or not one has accomplished any good/influence on the world, well, if you’ve ever done any teaching, you will know that the seeds may sprout many years later, and you may or may not ever know what your influence was. Just do your beautiful thing, and trust.

    A few years ago, a person came up to me in the street, he had been a sort of troubled boy that was in my cabin when I was a camp counselor in the 1970’s. I gave him a lot of time and attention, and he accosted me on the street to thank me for it 20 years later!

    Glory to God for All Things – we don’t know what the ripples from our deeds will accomplish, and we don’t need to know. Know that there are ripples, though…

  46. Seraphima Avatar

    Thank you all for your kind words, encouragement and prayers. So . . . standing at the edge of the pond near my Friend, I will keep skipping my pebbles out on the water and hope to see some ripples glistening in the Light . . .

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Psalm 104 keeps coming to mind.

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