The Collapse into Chaos – Where Only God Makes Sense

Nothing is more traumatic than the onset of chaos. Predictability breaks down, goodness seems to disappear, and the madness of sheer survival takes over. In chaos, everything seems plausible since reason itself has become unreachable.

A recent spate of reading took me down the rabbit hole into the madness of the 14th century. For all of the “structure” and stability of the Middle Ages, a society where everyone seemed to have a place and all of the places were arranged into a meaningful pattern, brutality and greed often bared their teeth with a rapacious grin. Wars and violence were common, as were famines and worse. The Catholic Church of that time (for all of the pageantry and beauty of its buildings) was frequently governed by a corruption that would make our modern scandals seem but a minor thing.

The early part of the century saw the strange phenomenon of the “Avignon Papacy,” where, under the domination of the French kings, the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, France. It was only one symptom of the turmoil and struggle that marked Church-State relations. Into the middle of a messy century, the Black Death struck, killing anywhere from one-third to one-half of the population of Europe over a period of eight years. To read detailed descriptions of that plague is a fearful gaze into the worst scenarios in human experience. We did not handle it well.

One of the most immediate victims of the plague was the reasonability of the world. The cause of the plague was unknown and unimaginable in a world without knowledge of bacteria and viruses. Everything that comprised the medical knowledge of the time was useless – nothing worked. At the same time, theories of how God managed history and interacted with the world seemed equally useless. Prayers, fasting, repentance, every suggested action left the contagion unfazed. The pious died as horribly as the sinful.

It has been suggested (and not without merit) that the seeds of modernity were sown in the years of the plague and their aftermath. If that is so, then it would be correct to say that among the victims of the Black Death was the so-called “enchantment” of that time. One reason for that early disenchantment was the simple fact that it did not work. Its failure left a fissure between the Medieval Church and the popular imagination. It was an empty space waiting to be filled.

With a distance of of nearly 700 years and a bit of science, it is possible to read about such events and such a chaotic time with both a sense of detachment as well as a sense of understanding. We know what caused the plague (Yersinia pestis), just as we can easily judge the failures of the society of that time. Time and distance create an illusion of omniscience. We bring that illusion into our own experience and expound to one another about the failures of our own age as well as what would count as a solution.

For some, the religious failures of the 14th century serve to bolster a general critique of religious belief itself. One of the blind spots of modernity is to imagine ourselves to be in a non-religious, secularized world. I describe it as a blind spot inasmuch as the modern mind-set is itself thoroughly religious in its make-up. No medieval theologian had a “theory of everything” anywhere as complete as the mind of modernity. The modern world is not “disenchanted” so much as it has a “modern enchantment.” We have faith in market forces, medicine, government, democracy, technology, algorithms, and the march of progress. We think we know the meaning of history. The human mind is not compatible with “disenchantment.” It is, and always has been, an enchanted space.

I have seen a microcosm of the 14th century. It happens all the time. However, in our days, it happens in an isolated family or community. Everything seems to going smoothly until it doesn’t. The loss of a job, the closing of a factory, the onset of disease in a family, an unexpected accident, and similar events, sometimes seem to cascade in the life of a family or a community, leaving its members in stunned silence and the chaos of meaninglessness. I have sat with such families as a pastor or counselor. There are no words to be spoken that will fill the emptiness that has become their world. You can pray, but the words are carefully chosen, dancing around the yawning maw of banality that threatens to swallow prayer itself.

Where is God?

It seems to me that God is either in the chaos or nowhere. That He seems nowhere for many people suggests to me that our explanations (whether Medieval or Modern) are simply inadequate – our religions are often too little and beside the point. The rationality of our own reasoning becomes a substitute for the rationality of the Logos, the only Reason that matters.

My years as a priest, particularly as they have forced me to sit any number of times in the midst of chaotic moments (including those of my own), have frequently pressed me towards the God-in-the-chaos just as they demolished my many idolatries. The Orthodox faith has championed “apophatic” theology since its earliest centuries. This is the confession that we stand “speechless” (“apo-phatic” = “apart from speech”) before the mystery that confronts us. We can see the beauty and the wonder of the world in which its well-ordering astounds us while just as easily being crushed under the senselessness of senseless evil. We confess that the Word (Logos, Reason, Meaning of All Things) became flesh and dwelt among us, even as we remain speechless about the fullness of what this means. We confess that He “died for our sins” even as we grapple with what that means (and argue endlessly about it).

It seems utterly critical to me that we understand that Christ (the Logos) is Christ Crucified. As St. Paul says, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) This is not just the Logos, the Lord of order and reason, but the Logos Crucified, the Lord of chaos and unmeaning. We confess that He “tramples down death by death” (smashes chaos by chaos). In doing so we refuse to exclude chaos from our faith and understanding. We confess that this chaos is that chaos. This death is that death. This suffering is that suffering. All suffering is His suffering and we proclaim Christ crucified so that nothing is excluded.

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” (1 Cor. 15:24–26)

Christ crucified sweeps away our false religions (both Medieval and Modern), our feeble efforts to enchant the universe with explanations and understanding. All the false religions are represented in St. Paul’s rebuke:

“…but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.(1 Cor 1:23–25)

I have come to the conclusion that all wars (even and especially our culture wars) are religious in nature. They are wars of opposing religions – or, more accurately, opposing idolatries. They seek to impose order in the face of chaos. Our actions, it would seem, despise the wounds of Christ, before which we should stand in awe and silence.

The Lord (of order and chaos) is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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178 responses to “The Collapse into Chaos – Where Only God Makes Sense”

  1. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    It’s all good here; a challenge at times, but the truth isn’t about comfort. Thank you Fr. Stephen and all who contribute.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/books/albert-j-raboteau-dead.html

    Dr. Raboteau was a treasure and his works speak eloquently of the Cross of Christ lived out in the Aftican American experience and how different that is from the approach to race today. He also inspired the work of The Fellowship of St Moses, the Black which was founded by my friend Fr. Moses Berry and currently led by another friend, Mother Katherine Weston.
    The Fellowship exists in the chaos. Mother Katherine recently told me that racial reconciliation would occur naturally if we lived out the Orthodox life of prayer and repentance in each of our parishes.
    I intuitively understand her to be correct even though I have no direct evidence.
    I suspect doing that would also heal many other false divisions.
    I keep coming back to Mt 3:2 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    Jesus is in our midst.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you said up stream on the 12th that chaos an be a disordered system. Something did not sit quite right so I have been contemplating that. A system can be managed, reordered, made better, etc. At least theoretically.

    If we are not to be managerial, thinking of chaos as at least the tendency toward nothingness because of sin. (There have been philosophical arguments about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics invalidates evolution and progress because of that observation) He formed us from nothing. To nothing we may return.

    So what I trying to say is that the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Death and Ressurection do not reorder but radically save us and all of Creation from that descent into nothing. If not that, it could be fixed.
    Puts a new perspective on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”

    When I look into the abyss of my own soul, there is nothing there without Christ and Him Crucified.

    That used to be a gloomy prospect for me…not so much any more. Because Christ is Risen.

  4. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Michael,
    that’s an interesting observation. After reading your previous post on this, I have been thinking along the lines of chaos as the word is mostly used these days, as being serious disorder. The effects of human sinfulness and the influence of the demonic. As you refer to above disorder could theoretically be managed and re-ordered. After the chaos/disorder of WW2, there has been a relative peace and economic progress in the UK and Europe, due to countries having to rebuild their infrastructures and economies; which began with the Marshall plan. In worldly terms it was managed quite well.
    In Biblical language, the sea is often used as a symbol for chaos/disorder. Jesus calms the stormy sea of chaos/disorder with a word; even the demons obey Him. Only Christ can bring peace and calm the chaos/disorder that is within us and save us from the ultimate chaos of nothingness.

  5. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Except for natural disasters and accidents due to human error or technological failures, all chaos/disorder is caused by us men and women. We often look at the world and see the disorder/chaos and think that something must be done to stop it; hence as Fr. Stephen often refers to, new crusades and managerial strategies are proposed and taken up with gusto.
    As Fr. Stephen has said quoting Solzhenitsyn, the battle between good and evil runs through each of our hearts. But we do not have to take Solzhenitsyn’s word for it (even though he is right in what he says.) However as Christians we do have to take Jesus’ word for it and He has told us that all wickedness; murder, adultery, lying, stealing, etc, comes from the heart of a man. We can neither manage it nor stop it.
    As I am learning Orthodoxy does not see sin in the legalistic crime and punishment manner that much of Western Christianity sees it. It is more a matter of seeing our own need of healing and forgiveness and only then by turning to Christ can the transformation of our hearts begin. When we are healed and forgiven then their is less chaos/disorder in the world.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Strictly speaking, the tendency towards nothingness is a good definition for chaos. Of course, nothing achieves the status of “nothingness.” It is a movement and a direction. Being (existence) is the gift of God and we cannot make it disappear. We can only take it in the wrong direction – towards non-being. That’s pretty much the thought of the Eastern Fathers on that.

    There’s been a lot of thought around the word “chaos” over the past generation or so, inasmuch as Genesis uses a word that reflects the Mesopotamian idea of a chaos monster (“tiamat” “the deep”). “Chaos” doesn’t appear as a term in Scripture – but it’s been popular for modern thought. God does not create the world out of chaos – but from nothing (utter non-existence). St. Athanasius raised this understanding to the point of settled doctrine in his writings and teachings.

    My own thoughts on “chaos” are simply in terms of our experience of things happening. When things are going as we generally expect (and give us the semblance of a pleasant and predictable order) versus when everything seems to be going wrong and we lose even the semblance of control.

    In this world, there is order, even when we don’t like it. God’s providence is at work in all things (for our good). Sin moves us against that and “disorders” our lives or the lives around us. But the Cross gathers the disorder (sin) into Christ, and, in Him, death tramples down death. Only the Cross “honors” the suffering of a disordered (sinful) world, on the one hand, while healing it, on the other.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I do understand that Father(through a glass, darkly), it is just helpful to me to understand chaos as a movement toward nothingness, affecting everyone and everything all because of sin. Confession and repentance make sense that way. Somehow the love and mercy of our Lord is more accessible and the temptation to manage less of a problem. Plus, it fits my experience over the years.

    I am sure God has order. It is likely sacramental in quality The Cross draws all men to participate in that Order. Even as I say that I sense that what that Sacrament is…way beyond me.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Then there is Handel’s Messiah. Singing portions if it in high school awakened me to His Glory: “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    There is a young person in one of my chemistry classes who has children, and a job as a security person working in a hospital and trying to take courses at the university. This person is available to conduct life saving work for people coming into ER and does this work even while they had not been officially hired for this work. The hospital needs the workers and will take whoever might be able to help. Perhaps this crest of cases will diminish soon. But the case loads are still high enough where I live to keep the student I have in my class involved in work that they are not fully trained to do.

    I ask myself what I can do to help them? I provide as much flexibility as I can to ease the pressure of due dates in school work. But I can’t help but also say publicly, here, that the main reason they come to school and likely to work, dog-tired, is because of the proliferation of misinformation.

    Perhaps I’m stretching the bounds here, and I ask Father for his forgiveness as I might be doing so. But when I hear such misinformation broadcast in this blog, I have a gut-wrenching reaction. The best I can do for my students is to let them know that I’m ‘here’, for them. To listen and to show I care for them because many if not most of them are in the health sciences and currently doing part-time work to ease the case load in the hospitals during this pandemic.

    I’ll say briefly, that while the science is still growing regarding learning how this virus is mutating and how to effectively help the population medically, that “prominent scientists” are not situated on “both sides” of the medical perceptions of the threats involved. But I do see very less prominent names in the medical field throwing their hats into the political arena and they help to confound the necessary information needed for the next best thing to do.

    My student who had intended to be a security person, is now seeing death at a level they never anticipated and comes to class in a fog unable to focus. All of this could have been handled differently. But simply stated, it was not handled differently and we have what we now have.

    I ask for your prayers for this student. I apologize for not giving names or gender, it would be inappropriate in my role as their professor.

    Dear James Isaac, you have a gentle voice in this comment stream. You have no need to ask for my forgiveness. If anything I should ask for yours since I frequently reveal my passions in this blog.

  10. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    It helps me to remember what I believe is the consensus of the Fathers, which I came to see very well expressed in St. Gregory Palamas’ clear teaching. The passions we have – the desiring, incensive faculties – are not themselves evil, but are good, just that they are misdirected such that chaos (little or large) results in our psychological-spiritual state of being. Our passions need to be redirected, put in proper order, which corresponds to healing from sin. In other words, properly speaking our passions are not the problem, merely their “chaotic” disorderment. (And it’s not something we ‘manage’ to do, but which God by grace, by His Spirit does in us.)

    The trouble I keep running into is the ‘dualistic’ mode of thinking/perception which corresponds to both the materialistic, secularist way of thinking AND Western Christianity is so embedded in me (in all of us, I reckon) that it takes much time and ascesis to overcome it – especially when all around us are subject to this delusion, yet their hearts know there is something more. Kyrie eleison!

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To all,
    A note of caution. I do not want to host a debate over covid/vaxx issues on the blog. Please refrain. I allowed a comment yesterday that touched on it, and I’ve allowed one today to expressed an opposition to what was said. I do not think any further comments could add anything of any use.

    Pray. Consider the Cross. The Cross alone redeems any of this.

  12. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    James,
    I was brought up without any religion and it was only later in life, that I realised how much influence Protestantism has had in the world; both secular and religious.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The culture we are in produces cults at every single possible opportunity. Every cult I have known or studied has a similar approach: “We are good, everyone else is bad and We have knowledge no one else has and that knowledge will bring the world into heaven.”

    The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are cultic in style and 19th Century US was an explosion of cults (all founded on pretty radical Christian heresy). Our politics have always been evangelical in nature with the eschaton always in sight. Always to our sorrow.

    The main casualty of cults is the truth. One of the main tactics of cults is to push fear of “the other” often as nebulous as possible. Anytime I see high emotion around “sides” along with absolute truth claims I suspect cultic behavior and distorted (at best) truth. Even though I know this, guarding my heart is difficult. I want to jump into the fray and proclaim righteousness. Which side depends on how my passions lead.

    The inevitable result is loss of faith, a hard heart and fear. It becomes more difficult to pray or practice any spiritual discipline with humility. Rather I seek God’s justification for my passions.

    The only activity that allows me to guard my heart and not be swayed to either “side” is repentance as close to the foot of the Cross as I can come. Their the passions pass away, at least for a moment and I can “lie down in green pastures” and have my soul restored. Even Mercutio’s “a pox on both your houses” is just more passion on the fire leading to more nothingness.

    Father Stephen has to be particularly careful because people actually listen to him as many posts in this thread attest and many other posts through out the years.

    God forgive me a sinner and Lord have mercy on us all. Strengthen our host and teacher, Fr. Stephen, in all righteousness and truth.

  14. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Dee, no need to apologize either! I’m still learning healthy, rightly ordered boundaries so sometimes I tend to take unhealthy ownership of things which aren’t really mine to own (even though there is a healthy, holy sense in which we can take others’ sins and shame upon ourselves as Christ and the Saints did and do).

    Last night, I came across a fascinating Wikipedia article summarizing an aptly-titled book from 1977 by a German-British (how’s that for a paradox in light of WW2) economist-turned-philosopher named E.F. Schumacher, “A Guide for the Perplexed”. He disentangles and deconstructs what he calls “materialistic scientism” which is still the dominant paradigm in academia, to my knowledge, and which has taken on an increasingly cultic force, it seems to me. His main critique rests on what he elucidates as the “hierarchy of being” which is analogous to a hierarchy of consciousness/perception. He argues that what is popularly known as “science” can only rightly concern itself with the lowest levels of being, i.e. material things (which we know as Orthodox are also truly alive in some sense!) and yet considers itself a superior (and in the cultic expression, only) means of determining truth. Which of course leads things like religion to be seen as separate and scornable, and Christians who subscribe to this implicitly (due to over-exposure in the culture) have the whole “two-storey universe” as the only recourse. It over-extends itself into fields such as psychiatry and medicine, viewing the human being (including consciousness) as a product of strictly materialistic processes which then necessitate strictly materialistic interventions (which happen to make a lot of money for pharmaceutical companies in the case of psychotropic medications, for example).

    What I felt really pertained to the initial thread and core of this blog, and indeed of life, was his distinction between “convergent and divergent problems”…the proper domain of materialistic science deals with convergent problems where there is one basically-ideal solution (e.g. human-powered vehicle –> bicycle). Whereas divergent problems – such as most if not all of our interpersonal, intersocial ones – have multiple possible solutions/resolutions. (I think one of my main failings has been tending to misapply the convergent, scientific methodology to divergent problems such as relationship issues, including with God…just gotta find the “right thing” to think, believe, or do right? No, wrong question.) An example given is the classical dichotomy in education/parenting: does the child need freedom or discipline to learn best? Crucially, he argues that the only way to resolve divergent problems is to actually transcend the problem; in the education example “the” answer is neither one or the other; what the child really needs is love (which of course incorporates and subsumes both).

    Obviously this is but a metaphor or philosophical lens through which to view things, and God (nor ourselves as His image-bearers) isn’t/aren’t constrained by any such thing, I just found it very interesting to view the hesychastic and “Crucifist” approach to our problems and those of the society we live in in this light. We are drawn into the debate of two forcibly opposing sides, each clamoring to be “the truth”, and forcibly cajoled into choosing one side or the other…when the real solution is to transcend the problem with inner silence/stillness and self-emptying love.

    So in other words, what Father Stephen said and keeps saying. 🙂

  15. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I haven’t really read the thread deeply or well, but I comment here to tell Dee that I am praying for her student. Thank you for asking for prayers, Dee.

    I would like to add, apropos of nothing, that while our faith is in the Cross and its work in us, let us not forget that it also includes Resurrection. Either one without the other is not the truth. (In my not so humble opinion! Forgive me)

  16. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Alleluia! Thank you Janine for your comment about ‘Christ’s Glorious Resurrection.’ If were not careful and keep the balance of the Cross and Resurrection, we can become like the flagellants during the time of the plague.

  17. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Correction of my mistake; If were not careful and do not keep the balance of the Cross and Resurrection.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine and Andrew,
    There is no “balance” between the Cross and the Resurrection. They belong together, ultimately as a single thing. Indeed, they were originally a single feast. Nonetheless, St. Paul said to the Corinthians (2:2) that “I have determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

    St. Sophrony said that when standing “at the edge of the abyss” to stay there until you cannot take it anymore, then step back and have a cup of tea. Taking a long, unflinching look at the depth of the Cross does not constitute forgetting the resurrection. If you need to take a break, have a cup of tea, but I think it is inappropriate to suggest that we not look unflinchingly at the fulness of the Cross, or that in so doing, we are somehow forgetting the resurrection, much less bordering on flaggelentes.

  19. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for that😀. A cup of tea would be nice. Perhaps I have taken things out of context and imposed my own idiosyncrasies into this. I was having poke at the sort of, oh woe is me, I’m so wicked I’ll punish myself ascetism
    Inappropriate as you say. I apologise for that.
    I’m off to make a cuppa now.

  20. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    A welcome and helpful aspect to the discussion. It’s tempting (and often lately I have given in to the self-flagellation too, which is a false spirituality)…important to realize the Cross is never something we “go out and find” of our own will, but that which comes to us by God’s gracious will as we struggle towards Him. And joyful is the reminder that as we partake voluntarily in whatever way the Cross comes to us, we certainly shall share willingly and gladly in the Resurrection in whatever way it becomes manifest in us now and in the age to come.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    With my wife’s surgery, her slow recovery and the death this week of her 17 month old grand-niece of SIDS, making amends with a woman who felt I had broken her heart 48 years ago and my own struggles, I am seeing the Cross at least from a distance. Then there is the grave within made initially deeper by awareness of my own sins. If I allow myself to go deeper yet in repentance, the Joy of Ressurection.. Not a linear process exactly. Somehow God’s mercy is there in and through each “step”
    This is the day the Lord has made. Let us Rejoice and be glad in it with all our friends and brothers and sisters among the saints and the Holy Angles.
    Christ is Risen!

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Angels know the angles.

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Janine,
    Thank you for your prayers.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James, et al,
    I have to confess that an initial impetus in writing this article was to draw our attention to the Cross as present in the various chaotic and suffering scenarios that confront us these days. What I have seen, largely, have been huge efforts to “manage” the situations (from one angle or another). That is the great temptation of modernity. I should say that “management” is pretty much a middle-class thing – the poor often can’t manage, don’t know how, or are deeply frustrated with everyone else out there that seems to want to manage them.

    All of that is to say that we pay lip-service to the Cross (often as a theological construct or an historical object) but do not embrace its incarnate reality. It has been very important for me in the past year to “embrace” the madness and insanity of our world (and the Church) not in order to fix it, explain it or even understand it – but embrace it within myself and from that position to pray.

    There is resurrection. There are moments of deep comfort in the prayers from within the Cross, in which God offers a small glimpse of the glory that is to be, as He reminds us not to despair. But I think we are called to true “sympathy” (co-suffering) with the world, inasmuch as Christ does that very thing. He does not stand outside of our chaos – but inside it. There is no resurrection from the outside. Even creation (rocks, trees, bugs, etc.) groan and travail, St. Paul says. I take that groaning and travail to be creation’s own “sympathy” with the Cross.

    We will be raised together. No doubt. And the glory will infinitely eclipse the suffering. But there is no understanding of the mystery of Divine Love without understanding and entering the mystery of the Cross. So, I’ll keep writing in this vein.

  25. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    It is one thing to enter into the depths of the Cross and to realise our sinfulness and to embrace whatever cross we may have to carry in this life, without which there is no resurrection; it is another thing to misunderstand the Cross and use it to beat ourselves into submission with. As you have pointed out James to engage in a false spirituality. The Cross is the source of the joy of the resurrection.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andrew,
    Western Christianity tends to associate the Cross with our sinfulness (so that we use it “against ourselves”). In Orthodox thought, sin is not nearly so much something I do, as it is something that oppresses me, attacks me, overwhelms me. There’s no Calvinistic sense of “badness” about being human. So the Cross is much more about Christ trampling down death by death, overcoming suffering by entering it, etc. I suspect that it takes a while to hear the Orthodox take in all of this.

    The services of the year have several major feast days that focus of the Cross (Third Sunday of Lent, August 1, September 14). We have a kind of “love affair” with the Cross. We sing to it. We kiss it at the end of every service. We make the sign of the Cross probably over a hundred times (or more) in every service. It has this place in our devotions in a manner that is not found in the West. In Russian tradition, the Hymn (Tropar) of the Cross is sung at the end of every service (usually with the tune made famous in the 1812 overture of Tchaikovsky):

    O Lord, save Thy people!
    And bless Thine inheritance!
    Grant victory to the Orthodox people,
    Over their adversaries.
    And by virtue of Thy Cross,
    Preserve Thy habitation.

    I have perhaps overlooked the fact that this devotional attachment to the Cross is missing in the experience of other Christians. It has a way of changing the conversations about the Cross.

  27. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for that 😊; Most helpful. Without the actual practice of Orthodox worship and life, it is difficult to really have a proper understanding. I do get my wires crossed at times and perhaps jump to the wrong conclusions all too easily. If I have caused any offence to anyone here by any of my comments; I do apologise.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have a cross that was given to my mother about 100 years ago by a Native American holy man named Adam. It is hand made of silver with an oval of turquoise at its center. My mother gave it to me when I went away to college.
    It is iconic in nature. I can sit quietly and contemplate it and it draws me into the mystery of my greater life, our interconnectedness and the power of the Cross itself. The longer I am Orthodox the more I sense a certain oneness with the Cross.
    If I want to be closer to God, I must enter into the mystery of the Cross. Not just theoretically or theologically but enter into and allow the Cross of my life embrace me..

  29. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Father,

    I recently contemplated these lines,

    And by virtue of Thy Cross,
    Preserve Thy habitation.

    and it occurred to me that to be “preserved” by the “virtue of Thy Cross” is to enter into our temptation and sin and transform it. It is God incarnate. The statement had never made sense to me before (the Cross being considered only as a symbol of suffering and defeat).

  30. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks for the discussion, and Father for further elucidation. What I meant by my comment is the sort of thing that Father and Michael Bauman alluded to. That is, we go “through” the Cross but we also come out the other side, to some new state. I think that is probably not too clear. But to put it simply when we go through things that try us, create change in us, in the times when we must die to something, *and* there is also on offer a new life in this process. It’s like the metaphor of the woman in birth pangs in John 16:21. There is the other side. It might be a continual process. Or possibly when we think we’ve worked through one thing, then some new challenge is coming up (that’s the way the Gospels work). I just think that is what discipleship is all about. But part of the story is Resurrection, that new thing we’re transfigured into. St. Paul also wrote about our hope. And I personally believe Resurrection is a kind of archetype, for want of a better word, that works in the here and now in our faith journey, if you will.

  31. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Gosh, I don’t mean Resurrection is *only* an archetype. I meant it is also a reality at work in our lives like the Cross is also and is a personal cross as well (Luke 9:23).

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed Byron, these words are beautiful and remind us of the peace and joy in the Cross that passes all understanding. Thank you for your comment and reflections.

  33. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I think also we cannot forget, when thinking about the quotation Byron mentioned, that the Cross is the ultimate weapon against evil. As the Easter Resurrection hymn goes, Christ “trampled down death by death.” It’s the only way, in the bigger picture of things.

  34. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thanks Janine for explicating what I was weakly attempting to say…as we incrementally more willingly accept the Cross in our lives and say from our heart and soul “Glory to God for all things” we manifest the peace and joy of the Resurrection. I think of the profoundly smiling and beautiful faces of those holy ones we have photographs of such as St John of Shanghai, Blessed Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovika, St Paisios, Archimandrite Aimilianos and so many others…that joy is the first fruits of the Life of the Age to come in our lives, and is possible no matter how “bad” things around us get, I am increasingly convinced. 🙂

  35. Abigail Hatch Avatar
    Abigail Hatch

    Fr. Stephen, are you familiar with Julian of Norwich? Your post reminded me of her story.

    The first thing I ever heard about Julian was her most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” From that, I dismissed her as a shallow, look-on-the-bright-side sort of person. That was far from the truth.

    Four years ago, I participated in a book club organized by a Protestant group called Renovare. (Though it was unintentional on their part, this group was a significant influence on my journey to Orthodoxy.) We read Julian’s book, Revelations of Divine Love, and one of the group’s leaders did an interview with an expert on Julian’s life. https://renovare.org/podcast/episode-95-mimi-dixon-julian-of-norwich

    Forgive me, I may be getting the details wrong, but these are some of the things I remember that stood out to me in relation to your post, Fr. Stephen.
    Norwich, where Julian lived, was a major port in the 1300s, so they were hit especially hard by the bubonic plague. 75% of the people in the city died. As if that weren’t bad enough, the plague came back 10 years later, when Julian was 19. This time, it killed almost a quarter of the population, mostly the elderly and infants who were too young to have been through it before. In fact, during her lifetime, Julian saw SIX different waves (roughly every 10 years). Each time it re-occurred, the plague took the lives of the most vulnerable.

    I can’t even imagine the devastation. Apparently, Christians came to believe that God was going to wipe out the human race through illness this time instead of a flood. Julian became seriously ill when she was 30, and she had several visions. The expert in the interview, Mimi Dixon, describes how she related to Julian because Julian had questions for Christ even as she lay on her deathbed. For example, Julian wanted to know why God even created humankind if He knew we were going to sin and die.

    As I remember it, Christ didn’t answer her questions the way we might have wanted. He didn’t explain Himself. Her first vision was of Christ on the Cross. She saw His suffering in gory detail. In fact, all her visions were of God’s love for us.

    When I think of it in the context of the extreme chaos of Julian’s life, that’s particularly powerful. God didn’t explain Himself, and the plague didn’t end in her lifetime. Christ reminded her of the Cross and the suffering He voluntarily took on for our sakes.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, am I right to link the Cross and Ressurection tightly together? No Ressurection without the Cross?

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Abigail,
    What I believe most profoundly, is that the Cross is a revelation of the love of God – that nothing else could have made it known. It’s not “Cross is the bad suffering stuff and resurrection is the happy ending.” The Cross is what the love of God looks like. To love another human being, for example, is a cruciform action, it is the loss of self and the gain of self. In a manner of speaking, the Cross reveals to us the love of the Trinity, of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The resurrection is itself a manifestation of the cruciform love of God as much as the Cross.

    There is much more to say in this. Julian is a very interesting character. She was misused, I think, by a lot of well-meaning Protestants for a variety of ill-thought-out reasons. It’s kept me away from paying much attention to her. But that’s another long story.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    No resurrection without the Cross – they are probably better thought of as 2 sides of the same thing.

  39. Seraphima Avatar
    Seraphima

    I love the idea of leaving the “edge of the a(A)byss” to go have a cup of tea. This reminds me of some non-Christian teachers, i.e., Buddhist, and the idea of upon enlightenment, still chop wood. Jesus’ life was characterized by this very down to earth quality while being totally in God — going to weddings, fishing, having beach picnics, healing leprous people, hanging out at the local well, really every interaction except the ones in the synagogue and at the end happened in this very every day reality, while bringing God into it. I aspire to that and have thought this is one of the qualities about Christianity I appreciate. The quotidian is exalted in every moment. I do wonder whether a cup of tea is sufficient, however, if one has really stood at the edge of the Abyss. I don’t know whether a cup of tea would have been sufficient for Job, but, of course, no one was offering even that to him. At the very least, we should be offering a cup of tea to others who are suffering. I love Julian for the same reasons – she appears to have been a gentle soul, feeling and acting out of great love for others even when trying to live in solitude, appreciating and loving the smallest things and events in life and finding God in them. Her reflections on a walnut, I believe it was, come to mind. I did not know about all the plague experiences she lived through, but that puts her gentleness of soul and unconditional love in much greater perspective for me. Her “all is well” comment appears in a new light, then, more like Job’s bowing down before the one God in humility at the end, and then all became well.

  40. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Lovely words, Seraphima! I agree, I think sometimes one needs a stiff draught of some single malt whisky after being at the edge of the abyss more than a cup of tea…

  41. Seraphima Avatar
    Seraphima

    James – Indeed! I like Glenmorangie myself, preferably imbibed in Scotland next to the moors. . . . I can’t indulge, unfortunately, so a smoky black tea is also good.

  42. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    All this talk of whisky and I don’t have a drop in the house. I’m making do with a British working class classic. What we call builders tea; strong black tea with plenty of milk.

  43. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    I’m reading St Maximus (Fr Maximos Constas trans) letters to Thalassios and recently read a paragraph (from the introduction providing a kind of synopsis of St Maximus) that seems to correspond to the notion of chaos, that you write about and points to how we might inadvertently self inflict such chaos on ourselves. I quote it here:

    The disordered movements of the passions, to the extent that they impel the mind to attach itself to the material surface of the world, create the conditions for a profound hermeneutical crisis. Fixed on surfaces now rendered opaque to the divine presence, the passions impede insight into the intelligible structure of phenomena and their inner unity.

    And later in the same paragraph:

    With respect to Scripture, the same passions limit the mind to the literal level of the text, concealing the deeper meaning inherent in the letter. Both result in a hermeneutical failure to understand the meaning of what is given in creation and revelation, a failure that inevitably leads to the abuse of both nature and Scripture.

    I bring up the passions because I believe we are experiencing conditions that would entice Christians to engage in them. The mindset of the US materialist culture has and is being inculcated both politically and economically throughout the world, although some cultures might resist. Very often I hear in the voices that call for political action (whether of state or church) express their opinions in a churlish tone of hatred (albeit not self-perceived).

    Such strident voices also maintain a rather literal interpretation of the Scripture, and especially of Revelations. The chaos that they attribute to the “world”, whether of state or church, is more of a reflection of the chaos created by the passions within their own hearts but they attribute their internal condition to causes outside themselves.

    While I do not deny the difficult conditions that we have, nevertheless, we seem to have a propensity not to look inward to check and mitigate (through opening our hearts to the grace of God) possible passionate reactions.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, you are right. Inner works better although it seems impractical and illogical or worse to the world. Which includes my own passions often.

    The main drive of the passions, it seems, is to create war both within oneself and with everyone else. Yet the inbuilt drive for communion leads the passionate man to form cults: religious, financial, political, hedonistic (sex and drugs) and violent . Some cults embrace all of the factors.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    I see it across the board. A monk once said that we need go no further than our own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.

  46. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I can’t remember who wrote this, it was included in the second reading of the Office of Readings in RC Liturgy of the Hours; you get angry with your brother and blame him for putting it there, when the anger is already inside of you. Those are not the exact words, but the gist of what is said.

  47. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    It is from the colloquies St. Dorotheus.

  48. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Andrew, I as well will have to make do without a fair draught, though methinks to have a nip of some gin tonight. England has given a few good things to the world…

    Dee, Father, et al, many thanks again for your wise words…they are immensely helpful to my passionate soul. May we always take the plank out of our own eyes before we dare assist our brother in removing the speck from his. Kyrie Eleison!

  49. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    James,
    once I got to a certain age and stopped disliking the English (being Welsh it’s a sort of default setting for many people) I came to appreciate much of what is English. A good gin and tonic is hard to beat. My favourite is Plymouth Navy Strength. Hendricks is rather nice too and if you substitute the lemon for cucumber, it’s a refreshing alternative.

  50. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Andrew, being both Canadian and of predominantly English descent I’ve had to overcome a sort of innate, traditioned cultural schizophrenia of English imperialism and Canadian “inferiorism”. But all these isms don’t really mean a thing, do they. (It helps that I’ve got a red beard so I can trace my more ultimate ancestry back to Irish Celtic roots.

    And for gin I heartily recommend Boodles Proper British…that’s how to properly maintain the stiff upper lip. 🙂

  51. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    James,
    I like the cut of your jib sir😀. Your quite right all of those isms really don’t mean much at all. I am proud of being Welsh and I love and miss my home country, just as anyone should, but without national superiority and all that that entails.
    I haven’t even heard of Boodles Proper British. My daughter is an avid gin buff I’ll ask if she has tried it. When I a can hopefully get home next I’ll definitely get a bottle. Keep the gin flag flying😀.
    Here in Nigeria there are some really dodgy gins on sale, but I can get Bombay gin.

  52. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    James,
    I have been thinking about what you said about having to deal ‘the schizophrenia of English Imperialism and Canadian Inferiorism,’ Which we both agree isms don’t amount to much.I wasn’t going to post this, I will and if Fr. Stephen wishes to delete it; I’ll take no offence.
    Not long after coming to Nigeria a friend of my wife’s stayed with us for a while. She has a brother who is an RC priest. He came to visit us during the stay of his sister with us.
    The conversation to that begin was in Hausa, which I can’t speak. So I just sat quietly next to my wife. When there was a lull in the conversation, the priest brother of my wife’s friend started to berate me in English for being English and about colonialism and slavery. That usually would have been a red rag to a bull. How I remained calm, God alone knows.
    I replied with, let’s get a few things straight. I am not English, I am Welsh. Nigeria got independence from the UK two years before I was born. As bad as colonialism and slavery are concerned I wasn’t born then either and I have never personally enslaved anyone. I don’t come from a wealthy or landed background, so it could be most probable that my ancestors didn’t make a fortune out of the slave trade. Now go and research what life was like for the common people in what was then Great Britain, during and after the Industrial revolution. He didn’t stay long and I have not seen him since. I apologise for going on a bit and if this has no relevance for you please ignore. But I refuse to feel guilt and shame for being white and for things I have not done.

  53. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thanks for sharing Andrew. The thing is here in Canada the new woke thing which catches a lot of Christians in its net is to drag up the past alleged abuses of the Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the residential school systems both groups were involved in running over a hundred years ago for Indigenous Canadians. While atrocities were no doubt committed, the only reason to drag this stuff up now – and the manner of it – seems to be to incite hatred against traditional Christianity and people of English or Western European ancestry- in fact several churches have been burned in the wake of “new revelations”. And the virtue-signalling and on and on…anyways my call is to pray for those who slander my ancestry and the spiritual heritage, however flawed, of this land…which is now almost completely deconstructed. More room for Orthodoxy to flourish in the long run though 🙂

  54. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you James,
    we do live in strange times. Very wise and charitable to pray for those who, slander your ancestry and beliefs. There are too many Christians traditional and liberal manning the barricades and indulging in the so called culture war and opposing each other over what the world does or does not dictate.
    In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in the UK I had many derogatory remarks from friends and other people because of the child abuse. When it turned out that the majority of the sexual misconduct of the clergy was either pederasty or consensual same sex with adults, people stopped talking about it and the media went very quiet, when once they were shouting about it at any given opportunity.
    People tended to go back to the old chestnuts of the Crusades and the burning of witches.
    All of this raking up the past and blaming people in the present is not helpful at all and is destructive.
    Some groups in the world get a free pass for what happened in the past. Janine has mentioned her Armenian heritage and the suffering of her forbears. I don’t know that much about it, but I think the Armenian’s have not had an easy time and there are still deniers of the Armenian genocide.
    Two other things from my previous post that I didn’t mention that I had said were; what about the collusion of Africans in the slave trade and what about the Arabic slave trade; no one will touch it, yet again a free pass is awarded.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James, Andrew,
    Sin is universal. There is an error (so many) in Modernity that imagines that the great sins are in the past, while they are universal and timeless. Strangely, for a world in which information is so immediately accessible, more and more people actually know less and less and are more subject to misinformation, prejudice, and bias in many forms. Ideas are only fashions and come and go.

    In the midst of this, we live. It’s very difficult to defend the faith against these fashions. It’s like boxing with figures made of smoke. It is, again, why I urge people to withdraw their attention from these things, as much as possible, and take up the small life of repentance and the keeping of Christ’s commandments.

    What we do not see – is that such a life has enormous power. The prayers of but a few righteous souls sustains the world.

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

    It is of note that Christianity has long sustained those under oppression and slavery. When it is studied, as Albert J. Raboteau (an Orthodox convert) did, a whole different understanding emerges. My dear friend of 50 years, Fr. Moses Berry founded the Fellowship of St. Moses, the Black to teach and encourage a different understanding of slavery and our Lord’s place in it and in the culture of the U.S. and the Church here.

    Unfortunately, prejudice of the specific variety still exists in our parishes, including mine. I have spent the last several years holding on, by the grace of God, to a dear friend in my parish who suffered from such thoughtlessness and deep sinfulness and has not yet been back to the Church, which he loves, because of it. The details are irrelevant but real nonetheless.

    It cannot be dismissed simply as a relic of the past. Would that it could.

  57. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    you are spot on as usual. Your insistence on the small life of repentance and keeping Christ’s commandments is beginning to sink in. Focusing on what we can do nothing about, just leads to frustration and anger and weakens prayer considerably; as you say ‘boxing with figures of smoke,’ which will wear a person out.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear James and Andrew,
    I personally know Native American people (I am generalizing their specific background) who suffered from being torn from their families and forced to attend such ‘church’ schools. In some places the history is more recent than what you might realize and is as sad and tragic as is reported. And the cultural and ‘religious’ antecedents that support such oppressions are still with us. I speak for what goes on in the US. Let us not be blind to them. The people I know are in their 60’s in age and have shared their stories with me.

  59. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Michael,
    prejudice of one form or another is ubiquitous. I was taken aback when I first came to Nigeria of tribal and state prejudice. My wife who teaches in an RC girls school, has had to struggle against some of her superiors for certain rights she was being denied because she was born in a different state to the one in which she has lived since her family moved here in 1972.
    Class prejudice in the UK although it’s much better than in the past still exists in some circles.
    As I mentioned in a previous post I was prejudiced against the English, until I realised the stupidity of it.

  60. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    On the lighter side of things dear James Isaac and Andrew, my favorite is either the most stout Guinness I can get my hands on or the American made “Irish Death”. Or a stiff cuppa (strong enough to hold a spoon upright) of Lyons tea.

    May God bless you dear brothers in Christ! I enjoy your comments here.

  61. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Dee,
    the same story in Australia and New Zealand in the past. By my refusal to not feel guilt and shame for what has happened to people in the past, I am in no now way trivialising the cruelty and suffering.
    I like draught Guinness; it’s not available here, but I can get bottled Guinness Foreign Extra. I too like a stiff cup of tea; my favourite is Yorkshire tea, but that’s not available here either.

  62. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Dee, I always enjoy your honesty and gracious comments too. I like to think of this blog and many regular commentators and though it’s unlikely we will meet up in this life, it will be a blessed “surprise” to meet each other in the coming Kingdom by the grace of God. What Father said and Andrew reflected on as far as us needing to choose the lesser-seen path is spot on like a stiff cup of London Fog. (Well, minus the fog that is…)

  63. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    When I was a catechumen, I desired very much to be “authentic”, that is to truly embrace Christ and His Way with all my mind, heart and soul. During this early year and a half –nearly two years as a catechumen, I had many struggles, internal wars of sides within myself, such as ‘between science and religion’ and ‘between Bible and Truth’ and between ‘spoken prayer’ and ‘real communion’ and ‘Seminole identity’ and ‘Orthodox Christian identity’. Sometimes my confessor priest was able to help. For example, he suggested that I read “Orthodox Alaska: A theology of Mission” and there was a part in the book, “The Suppression of Alaskan Orthodoxy”, which helped me to withdraw from the dichotomy I had constructed in my mind and heart.

    Near the end of my catechumenate, I had a struggle that troubled me. It was in the pre-communion prayer: “I believe, O Lord, and confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…” The truth was I certainly did not believe I was chief among sinners. By far, I said to myself, I’m not as bad nor committed such heinous crimes as the Nazis or Hitler in their camps. I do not hold their philosophy and I certainly wouldn’t have jailed let alone killed in the manner that they did. Therefore how can I say this prayer in truth? If this is the prayer that I must say before I receive communion in the Eucharist, how then can I accept the cup in such a lie?

    I prayed about this and had to admit, if my baptism was contingent on saying this prayer in truth, then perhaps I cannot be Orthodox. But then one night I had a dream. In the dream something took place that invoked such anger and hatred, that I allowed the death of others and didn’t care one wit that they died. In fact I was glad for it such was my glee for their death. Then I woke up. But even as I woke the residual feeling of these passions remained long enough for me to remember the dream and the state that my heart was in. It wasn’t only shame that I felt, but abject horror that such passions were buried deep within my heart. Of course I could have psychoanalyzed this dream and put it away and out of mind. I could have told myself that I would never commit such thought or behavior in my conscious life. Instead I remembered my prayer to God, to teach me what I needed to learn, to accept this pre-communion prayer as my own. Then I went to my icon corner and asked God to take these passions from my heart. But I could tell, being honest with myself, the ‘stuff’ in my heart remained.

    Later, when my priest asked me what fruit of faith do I see in my preparations to receive the Eucharist, I told him about this dream, and I said to him now I can say this prayer authentically and in truth.

    Among sinners, I am the first, the chief. Glory to God for His mercy and love. In arena of the struggle against sin that falters and fails, is repentance. And in repentance comes sincere gratitude for His life that abides in me.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Wonderful story. It is also the case, that our confession to be the “chief of sinners” is a willingness to pray “as the Whole Adam.” What we do not understand is that what is in the heart of any is in the heart of all.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, thank you for sharing your story and the manor in which God’s mercy was shown to you.
    The fact is that His mercy sometimes hurts. In its light, many things that were in the dark corners of my heart are shown to me and it hurts.
    Yet, at the same time His mercy heals.

    May God grant His mercy to all and heal our souls.

  66. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Dee,
    powerful, honest truth; thank you.

  67. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Dee, I also commend you for sharing something so honest and real…if we are all honest I bet we all have balked at that prayer in our hearts (I know I have). Father Stephen said it well, what is in the heart of any of us is in the heart of us all. Yet crucially, it is not us…we therefore can flee the horror of the sin and death inside us to Christ’s merciful bosom without fear and without shame, for we know that by His Cross and Resurrection he has trampled down death by death, and not one dead remains in the tomb!

  68. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Dee,
    You have inspired me oftentimes in my walk with Christ. Your sharing and heart continue to do so. Thank you dear sister.

  69. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I read the Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell some years ago. It put the cat amongst the pigeons in my little world at the time. What would I have found myself doing if I had lived in Nazi Germany? Would I have had the courage and faith of Franz Jagerstatter, or would I have been rushing off to join the SS, or would I have turned a blind eye and just worried about my own existence? There were other options.

  70. Abigail Hatch Avatar
    Abigail Hatch

    Father,
    Over the last few months, I’ve been dealing with an unexpected illness. It’s been difficult for me to bear, and I’ve been reading a lot about suffering. As a Protestant, I think I understood suffering to be “for Christ’s sake” if it occurred specifically because you were a Christian, i.e. martyrdom. Yet I’m getting the impression that’s far too limited. Is it appropriate to say that all suffering is for Christ’s sake in a mystical sense? And is that somehow true whether one is Christian or not?

  71. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    “What we do not understand is that what is in the heart of any is in the heart of all.”

    Indeed, Father, this is a key Orthodox thought, as I have learned in my catechumenate–thanks to the Fathers, and to the priests who taught me–which include you, dear Father Stephen.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Abigail,
    I’ll try to answer this in a fairly “complete” way. In becoming Man, Christ unites Himself with the whole of humanity. And, though He was without sin, He humbled Himself and was subject to suffering. On the Cross (and probably always before that), Christ unites Himself to our suffering, and unites our suffering to His. Remember how He said, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” That should be given as full an understanding as possible. He is not simply making a moral statement “it’s as if you did it unto me.” It’s a full ontological statement: “You did it unto me.”

    The Cross was not a simple momentary thing, either. Scripture says the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world.” There’s something eternal about the Cross. St. Paul says of his own suffering, “I am crucified with Christ…” and “I die daily.”

    All suffering and any suffering is united to the suffering of Christ (from the side of Christ – that is – He has made it His own). It remains for us (from our side) to unite our own suffering to His. This isn’t limited to the suffering we endure simply by being a Christian (i.e. persecution).

    So, in your question, you are right. It is appropriate to say that all suffering is Christ’s suffering (not just “for His sake”). But if my suffering is Christ’s suffering (I am crucified with Christ), then it also participates in the mystery of His sacrifice on the Cross. So, we rightly “offer” our suffering to God, in union with the suffering of Christ on the Cross, on behalf of all and for all.

    Make it a prayer.

  73. Salaam Avatar
    Salaam

    What a story, Dee! Glory to God! For me, I find that suffering and pain, then prayer, lead to a more contrite heart, which the Lord does not deny.

  74. Will Thomas Avatar
    Will Thomas

    Thank you for your blog, Father. In reading the original post and, especially, the discussion that followed I found myself at various points weeping – and praying. Thank you to all who have contributed.

  75. Abigail Hatch Avatar
    Abigail Hatch

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. That helps.

  76. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Dee, great story, thanks for sharing.
    Frederica MG wrote something about this prayer in one of her books (Sorry, but I can’t remember which one). She starts by saying, look this just isn’t true. I mean, we have the nazis, we have Jeffrey Dahmer, etc, etc. But she goes on to say that we don’t know the story of those people. However many people Dahmer killed, perhaps if I had been raised in the exact same circumstances as him, I might have killed twice as many people as he did.
    For someone like me, who was raised by devout Christians in a loving home, this story really hit home with me and helped me to see my own horrible sins in a totally different light.

    I believe Father Stephen shared the story on this blog of the monk on the Holy Mtn who scandalized pilgrims because he was an alcoholic. IIRC, the end of the story is that he was an alcoholic because of the way he was raised and he had fought hard against alcoholism his entire life. Yet the pilgrims who didn’t know any of his life story only judged what they could see.

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I think most folks require “a thorn in the flesh” to turn to God, really. My brother shared with me this story:
    In a mountain village there lived a simple holy priest. The village had to use a bus to go anywhere. The bus driver was notorious for his bad driving — so much so, people were terrified to get on the bus, but had no choice.
    Eventually, both the bus driver and the holy priest died. When the priest was brought by angels into The Kingdom, he saw the bus driver there too. The priest was aghast. He questioned the angel how that could be? The angel said, “Father, you led a simple, holy life. You preached the Gospels but most people fell asleep. When they got on the bus, they prayed with fervor and sincerity. The bus driver led many people to repentance who would not be here otherwise. ”
    I suspect that all the thorns we experience are somehow connected to the Crown our Savior wore.
    ” The mercy of God endures forever.” 1 Chronicles 16:34.

    Or as the character, Giles Cory said in the play, The Crucible: ” More weight”.

    That is a truly advanced prayer. One I am not ready to make. God’s mercy is here, nonetheless.

  78. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, thank you for that story, which of course I can relate to! (I mean the reluctance to call oneself the chief sinner.) But your full story and Father’s response remind me that so often, we have lost the communal thread our ancestors took for granted.
    It just seems built into our church that our prayer, even our confession, is a part of shared experience and shared prayer.

    Abigail, I personally see the Cross working through difficulties when we choose to give them up in prayer and seek guidance for how God asks us to bear that burden. So often, in my experience, the answers have been utterly counterintuitive. And yet I will follow “for Christ’s sake” and that following leads to redemptive meaning, even if a whole lot of people will never, ever understand it, or find value there.

    Father, you write:
    What we do not see – is that such a life has enormous power. The prayers of but a few righteous souls sustains the world.
    Amen and amen. If only I could always know that and live it!!! Please pray for me

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  1. Matthew, Christ said, “…For indeed the kingdom of God is within you”. (Luke 17:21 We don’t bring it on. We…

  2. Fr. Stephen … I want to better understand the kingdom of God … what exactly it is, has it already…


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