Self-Emptying Prayer

We are told that Christ “emptied Himself” in His death on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). Further, we are told that this self-emptying is to be the “mind” that we ourselves have. It is possible to grasp that such self-emptying can be practiced in our dealings with others when we place them above ourselves – when the “other” is our greater concern. But how is this possible in prayer? How do we empty ourselves, when the largest component of our prayerful attention is unavoidably our very selves? Some might suggest that we should give our attention to God rather than to ourselves. And while this sounds salutary – just try it. Indeed, the problem deepens when we realize that giving our attention to God can easily mean nothing more than giving our attention to our idea of God. In which case, our prayer becomes well-intentioned delusion. What do we do?

In an earlier article, I described two types of prayer:

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

Acknowledging our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and weakness, is an exercise in confronting shame. It can be quite painful – something we either avoid or cover over with self-loathing. Shame is not self-loathing. Indeed, the energy behind our self-loathing is simply pride (ϕιλαυτία). Self-loathing is consumed with the self and driven by its unwillingness to be that person. Bearing our shame is the willingness to acknowledge the truth of ourselves and our lives as a simple fact, without protest or promise of reform. It is enduring the simple fact of our lives, how we live them, how we fail, how we really do not love God or others, etc. It is not an exercise in comparative failure – it does not matter whether our weakness is similar to anyone else’s. Such comparisons are merely another exercise in self-justification, an avoidance of the fact, the shame, of our lives.

It is in the awareness and presence of that simple shameful fact that we can pray in a manner of self-emptying. We should not imagine ourselves to be engaging in a noble action, a triumphant Christ-like self-emptying. Again, this is simply pride. We acknowledge the fact of our shame (in all its reality), and there we pray.

We do not need to imagine God (which is what most “thought” about God amounts to). We simply call on His name. The Jesus Prayer is used by some in this manner.

Do not imagine or promise that you will do better or try to improve (you were already doing that in one manner or another and it didn’t work). As your mind wanders (and it will), bring it back to the point of acknowledging your shame, and call on the name of God for mercy.

I have nothing against the written prayers of the Church. However, we often read them and don’t mean them. The meaning of those prayers, if you examine them, is precisely what I have described above. They proclaim our weakness and our failure and call on God for mercy. From that same point, they ask God’s mercy for others. But, since they are the Church’s prayers, they are often rather generic in form. They represent a model of prayer – but the content and meaning must be our own. The generic shame of humanity can be an all too easy shield from the reality of our own shame. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” rolls off of us like water from a duck’s back.

There is a tendency, I think, to conceive of our prayer life as an effort that somehow gains us something. Like so much in our lives, we imagine prayer to belong to the realm of cause and effect. “If I do this…then this will be the result.” There is no causation in the spiritual life, at least not in any manner we can imagine. God alone is the Cause, and He “causelessly” causes – we can never truly observe His causation: it remains out-of-sight. Self-emptying is an embracing and acknowledging of the complete futility of our efforts. We cannot cause anything in our spiritual life. We cannot add a “single cubit” to our span of life; we cannot make our hair white or dark. God is the cause of our existence and is alone the source of eternal life and blessing.

Someone might protest that this denies the notion of “synergy,” that we “cooperate” in the work of salvation. It does not. The self-emptying I have just described is what synergy looks like. Others might complain that this sounds like “passivity,” doing nothing. This can only be a complaint from someone who has yet to acknowledge and embrace the truth of their shame and failures in the presence of God. It is not passivity. Rather, it is extremely difficult. The Elder Sophrony characterized this self-emptying as “standing at the edge of the abyss.” He advised that we do so, until we could bear it no more, and then, “Have a cup of tea.”

I can recall years ago that in my very first confession as an Orthodox Christian, the priest told me to pray: “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” I did, but I misunderstood it for many years. My twist was quite subtle. When I prayed this I meant, “I can’t do anything without your help.” This is somehow not the same as “I can do nothing.” The first kept directing my attention to the “anything” I could do if God helped me. However, my attention needed to be on the “nothing.” It is our emptiness and failure that bring us face-to-face with our shame, and in that moment, face-to-face with the God who alone can truly cover our shame and comfort us.

In the history of the Jesus Prayer, it is generally acknowledged that the Prayer had a predecessor, drawn from the Psalms: “O God, help us!”  It is the cry of a drowning man. The Jesus Prayer, rightly understood, says the same thing.

Do not hide your face. This is the promise of God:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

God will do this.

Oh. And don’t forget the tea.

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.






51 responses to “Self-Emptying Prayer”

  1. eleftheria Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    As I read the end of this, all I could think was:
    Lord, have mercy, for all our faces are hidden and veiled (masked) these days! Thank God for the iconography in the churches, upon which there are no masks or veils, but only Truth!

    Thank you Fr. , for all your writing; it is the very best of mirrors to hold up to my own face/nous/heart!

  2. Annie Lockwood Avatar
    Annie Lockwood

    This is so wise. It is the Nothing without God that once acknowledged is the door to freedom and the divine life. It is the Spirit hovering over the deep, the tohu va bohu of the chaos without his breath of life. Thank you.

  3. Rev. Nicholas Finley Avatar
    Rev. Nicholas Finley

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you, as always, for your help in these words. I couldn’t help but notice in the one place you mentioned “pride” and especially “self-loathing”, and parenthetically revealed the greek (ϕιλαυτία). My greek is not very good, but if I have it right is not this same term ϕιλαυτία = self love or love of self. I imagine it to be so, and it make sense to me in the initial encounter of this post. I do find it somewhat paradoxical that the greek term is almost counter-intuitive from the english rendering self-loathing while being the same. It seems to me that much of the self-help genre focuses on self-loathing as a problem but for many reasons which are self-defeating. Instead of self-emptying prayer, they seek to indulge the passions. Please let me know if I’ve got this quite wrong. Thank you once again!

  4. Alina Vamanu Avatar
    Alina Vamanu

    So full of hope… thank you, Father!

  5. Aidan Avatar

    It becomes so very simple to see when you recognize φιλαυτία or self-loathing as the false humility so often displayed (even sometimes in confession) when we can’t simply “bear a little shame”. It’s self love in humility’s outer-garmets. Thank you Father

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Nicholas,
    You’ve got it right. Well said!

  7. Milos Dobić Avatar
    Milos Dobić

    St. Nikolaj of Žiča once described the spiritual life as if you were making a pond: you dig the hole and pray for rain.

    With your blessings, Father.


  8. Jason Seta Avatar
    Jason Seta

    thank you Father. I will be reading this a few times this weekend.

  9. Johnpaul Avatar

    This post is just what I needed, thank you! I think I need a little help understanding “pride” You say that pride is the energy behind our self-loathing. I see how self-loathing keeps our focus on ourselves and pride does the same thing, but I kind of thought pride was the opposite of self-loathing. I guess escaping pride is harder than I thought.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of late I have been battling fear because of significant health conditions that my wife has and I have. I have had to confront my own inability to pray. At the same time I have had a blessing of God’s mercy that I do not have the ability to describe.
    In all of it I seem to have the choice between fear and mercy.
    The Jesus Prayer has become my default. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”
    Despite my fear, mercy is much more solid. Like a warm blanket I can step into and wrap myself in but that also exits within. Substantial and real whereas the fear is like a windstorm. Stepping into the mercy quiets the wind and I can sit by the fire– but not alone. All those I love are somehow there too.

    The Orthodox Church is the only place where the outer experience of her Sacraments reflects the fundamental reality of mercy as the foundation of life. with
    The service of Great Compline at The Nativity sung loudly: “God is with us. Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!!!!”

    And so it is. Rejoice and be glad.

  11. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I know that 2 Timothy: 3.2 uses a form of φίλαυτος (only NT reference, I think), but thought of pride as ὑπερηφανία. Is the former term more common in certain Fathers, and is it ever more common than the latter? Is there any patristic work that compares and contrasts the 2 usages? Thanks.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve never seen a comparison made. The philautia is common in the Philokalia and other places. It was just the go-to word for me. I suspect it may roots in Stoic or Platonic philosophical/moral language rather than the NT.

  13. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for expressing so clearly and concisely something that I have been finding hard to describe.

    Though I haven’t necessarily thought to label it as shame, I have a sense of the falseness of the “holy” persona that I have tried to project most of my life, whether to others or myself. This sense of my false self often comes in glimpses, often when I am very tired or am aware that I have wasted time. It does not feel good at all but it is easy to write it off as “I am just tired. I will feel better in the morning.”

    There is some validity to this reassurance I give myself. I do typically feel better after getting some sleep. But I still know that there is truth in this glimpse – in fact, that it may be the predominant theme of my sinful life. My spiritual life becomes dull as I allow my said/read/listened-to prayers become my dominant prayer, somehow running out of time (another way of running from God) for the more contemplative presence with God that I know is my true longing.

    I do not think of my experience as self-emptying prayer, as in I am emptying myself, but more that God is emptying me. I don’t particularly like it because it brings to mind my awareness that I do not know God. Well, in a sense, I do know Him, but in another sense I cannot know that I know Him. All of my ideas of God, experiences of God, are they truly of God or are they just part of my self-created delusion? Sometimes this leads me to a wondering if God or what I have thought of as God actually exists…

    As distressing as such a thought can be, I know that it is only distressing because I believe. If I truly thought there was no God, I would give up the project and fill my life with distractions. I cannot do that. Indeed, I see my current experience as a gift from God. Every day, I pray to God to purify my heart. Did I think this would result in being satisfied with myself?

    It certainly does not. But it leaves me knowing that I have no acceptable option but to learn to completely entrust my life to God, as unknowable (yet made known) as God is. This is the gift: the tearing down of my delusion bit by bit so that someday I can stand before the living God, no longer blinded by my pride.

    (My love and prayers to all here. I only visit the blog periodically these days but this community remains close to my heart.)

  14. Dino Avatar

    In Greek, “Philalftia” certainly is understood (traditionally so) as a wider umbrella. Pride is only one of many of its subcategories.

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I needed to read this post today. Thank you Father.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, it is good to see you again. The dilemma you express is pretty common, I think. I was just talking to my wife today about the “rule of prayer” we have had for years. It has begun to feel canned. Without life or intimacy.

    She tends to favor a more ad hoc approach to keep things ‘fresh’ but that jas its drawbacks as well.

    When I was in plays even short runs, it was easy to fall into just reciting the lines rather than allowing them to live in you.
    There are ways to allow the lines to become fresh again. Most involve a kind of self-emptying: putting oneself in the situation of your character and forgetting one’s knowledge if the play, etc.
    With prayer I have cine of late to understand the necessity to go more deeply into repentance. Looking on my sins and ignoring the sins of others.
    There are times when, by doing that repentance, my heart will warm and I can say the prayers anew with thanksgiving and joy.
    “Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense” The charcoal on which immolates the incense has to be lighted first.

    May God bless you with abundant mercy.

  17. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Michael. It is good to see you again as well. My prayers for you and Merry as you move through this stage of your journey toward God.

  18. George Avatar

    Like planting seeds on a seemingly endless bed of sand; to feel this futility and to do it anyway.

  19. George Avatar

    Sowing seeds ( the word of God) over a multitude as numerous as the sands of the sea.
    On the sand to understand in humility ; ( The self-emptying I have just described is what synergy looks like.)

  20. George Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    *Thank you for the work you do through the grace afforded to you. The Holy Spirit convicts with love.
    And love is abundant in your ministry and pastoral care.

    -With warmest regards , love and gratitude in Christ!

  21. Nikolaos Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    I read in one of Metropolitan Nikolaos’ ( ) books, his encounter with Fr Herodion in Mt Athos. He seems to me someone who completely emptied himself in a way that is difficult to even grasp. I translated the passage below:

    The time was already passing and we had to go to Fr. Herodion; a Romanian who was either a fool for Christ or was not a man.

    In ten minutes we reached….his garbage dump. The sun had already set. In a ruin full of garbage we meet a new hero. Eighty-two years old, standing in the window frame of a door…without door. His legs were holding against one of her beams. His waist rested on the other. His hands rested on the first. He spent hours like this. Himself without cassock. A woolen shirt and ragged pants covered his sanctified body. His hut is full of garbage. You did not see a floor. A layer of cans, stones, bags, corks, bottle caps, peels, whatever one could imagine, thirty centimeters thick and over, was the precious carpet in his mysterious….palace and of course his mattress, if of course he slept horizontally. On its walls are the imprints of spilled coffee and the juice of discarded oranges and, instead of pets, all kinds of bugs, flies, cockroaches and mice.

    “Your blessing geronta,” said my simplistic companion happily.

    – The Lord, answers the heroic ascetic soberly, without seeming at all annoyed with his ecological environment.

    – We brought you a few blessings, something to eat, my monk friend continues without hesitation.

    – Oh! good fathers, thank you very much. Thank you. Good fathers. Thank you very much, he replies.

    And taking the bag of blessings and continuing to repeat these sentences, with special strength and expressiveness, he threw the tomatoes and peaches over our heads against the walls of his hut. Their spilled juices capture my own surprise that, whilst bent to not get shot, I tried to understand the logic of his gratitude and, completely startled, to capture the content of his peculiar monastic perspective.

    After breaking the spaghetti and pouring it from their packaging, scattering the cookies as far as he could, shouting “let the birds eat; let the birds eat”, he began to talk about the cross of Christ, the betrayal of Judas and in the middle of incoherent cries to glorify the name of God.

    It was already getting dark. In a little bit we would miss the spectacle. We would miss what Fr. Herodion was showing. But in the darkness of my own logic I had begun to suspect a little of what the rubbish hid, the incomprehensible words and of course the completely incomprehensible logic of a fool for the love of Christ. I remembered Abba Isaac who, referring to these heroic saints who live “in disorder, being orderly”, concludes; “let God make us worthy of such foolishness”. Is this the logic that Fr. Paisios was talking about?

    I turned back for one last sneak peek. His ugly by nature and wild by his way face shone transcendently by the grace of God. It was so much brilliance that it forced my clay eyes and my “non-seeing” heart into unusual visions of another kind and another world. His mysterious face is still deeply etched in my memory.

    I left and immersed myself again in my own rubbish. He was left stepping on the rubbish of the logic of this world. I thought of him and admired his endurance and heroism. To this day, while I realize the value and greatness of his logic, I can not grasp its structure. Certainly logic is a greater diversion than foolishness for Christ. But perhaps her cross is finally heavier than the cross of Fr. Herodion.

    At the University of garbage and foolishness, I dared to project the logic, glamor and finesse of my then fresh experience at Harvard and MIT. Then the garbage began to smell like flowers, the bugs transformed into birds, the torn bags into diplomas and publications; and Fr. Herodion, much “smarter”, much more successful than my Nobel Prize-winning teachers! Their logic was like a race car; the logic of foolishness in Christ like a rocket. The first runs up to 320 km per hour. The second from 29,000 km per hour and up. The first moves horizontally. The second vertically. In the first case if you exceed the limit, you crash. In the second, you reach escape velocity; you overcome the gravity of the earth; you escape; you are liberated. The first, the rational, no matter how much they run, they step on the ground. Fr. Herodion left this world without touching it. Without touching him …

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this with us! I believe that holy foolishness is a vision of the Christian life “written in large letters with crayon.” Although we live a life in which our foolishness would seem minute by comparison – we are still saved by foolishness, not by wisdom.

    Many thanks!

  23. shannon Avatar

    Father Stephen:
    I really appreciated this post.
    For me, the inclusion of shame was not necessary (though it may connect with some), for we are all ‘unprofitable servants’ (and me foremost). This bereft-ness of merit, the consciousness that our buckets contain only filthy rags, we share in common with contrite Calvinists, though we may not share a whole lot more.
    You are right that we must make established prayers “our own”. (Sometimes I insert my own phrases; a common practice, surely.) Yet sometimes they are nearly perfect for our current state. My go-to prayer of “emptiness” is the one of St. Philaret of Moscow which begins and ends, “My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee…..Do Thyself pray within me. Amen.” My wonderful priest shared that with his flock, and I am grateful.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, am I right in looking at Christian marriage as a species of foolishness for Christ? Especially in our world. Is it not, if entered into with faith and love, a self-emptying prayer?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there is a difference (as I’ve seen it) between this Orthodox understanding and that of Calvinism (contrite or otherwise). I was considering this after reading your comment and pondering it. I think Orthodoxy would want to hold, without any reserve, that we are of infinte value and worth, regardless of what we have or have not done. Without that knowledge, I think that emptiness can become something destructive and dark.

    This “emptying towards the other” is, to my mind, simply the heart of love. Christ Himself, who knew no sin, nevertheless would not allow others to call Him “good,” and said, “I only do those things which the I see the Father doing.” He is “emptying Himself” into the Father, just as the Father is emptying Himself into the Son. What I am describing is not something that we do because we are miserable, worthless sinners. This is something we do in order to be like God (who emptied Himself on the Cross, etc.).

    As such, it is also an emptiness that receives a “fullness” from God.

    This, I might add, is the basis of a healthy marriage. That husband and wife come to know themselves as they are revealed in the beloved. This is true, personal, hypostatic existence.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    See my answer to Shannon. Yes, I think this is the basis of marriage – it is the basis of love.

  27. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    If we can indeed, as you say, do nothing, then simply: why bother? If God must do everything, why does he not do so for everyone immediately ala Calvinism and why should we not just sit around and wait for him to do it? If what we do makes no difference there is no point exerting any effort.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You have misread me, I think. I have not said “we can do nothing” but (following the Scripture) “apart from Christ we can do nothing.” That is not at all the same thing as saying, “God does everything, we do nothing.” Pondering the nature of what it is we do “together with Him,” is the point of the article, with particular attention to the deep heart. I hope that clarifies.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bill, I can testify to the fact that life in Christ is a partnership. He does not impose Himself 9n anyone. The partnership seems to consist of me learning repentance, working to do sim more and Christ giving abundant mercy which I then share as best I can.

    Without my reaching out to Him. Sin tends to win.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bill, I must also say that I was pretty content just knowing He is real for about 54 years–honoring Him in worship, song and some service. Occasionally confessing. But then, by Grace, I actually began to pray and begin to take repentance seriously. As I have done that, two things have begun to happen: I have begun to see how much I need His mercy and the beauty that is all around me in other people–especially in my wife.
    Fr. Stephen’s writings and in person at seminars have been significant to my learning.
    Our Lord is patient, kind and loving. He gives enormously for any movement toward Him. That can make it seen as if He is doing it all. However, I must want to give up my heart of stone. That hurts sometimes but “God is with us!”
    I am not unusual or special. His Grace is available to each of us. I am just an ordinary guy in the pews like so many others.
    May our hearts be open to Him.
    Mt 4:17: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
    That is the literal and actual truth.
    God forgive me, a sinner

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The point of our life in Christ is union with Him. That we might “dwell in Him and He in us.” If we had, for example, a moral perfection separate from God, it would be of no importance. The real problem of sin is that it comes about through our being out of communion with God. So, my point is directed towards concentrating on the union/communion. Too often, there’s a concentration on moral achievement or “getting better.” What we want (or should want) is deeper communion with God. The perfection, or whatever we want to call it, flows from that. God alone is good, Jesus said, so our goodness must come from and in Him.

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    These thoughts and questions emerged for me in reference to Shannon’s sentence on shame. Is it possible to have humility without shame? I have the understanding that we all have it as a natural response concurrent with humility and perhaps shame is the cause of humility(?), although in this culture we are taught to block it. But I ask for your insight. In awe we stand before Christ, but do we also stand in shame–or should we avoid such thoughts? Do some “need shame”, and others not so much to be able to stand before the face of God?

    If my understanding is correct, in many respects what you have taught concerning shame is reminiscent of what my mother’s culture (Seminole) attempts to teach their young. It is quite different from what is taught the young in this culture. When I was young, I resisted the Seminole teaching as being “inferior” to the mainstream, largely Protestant culture that appears to be skewed toward elitisms, pride and power. The western culture seems to categorize all shame as unhealthy and hurtful (not distinguishing between healthy and toxic shame), and instead it promotes and elevates pride. I suspect there might be guilt under all the layers of pride, and accepting shame (the healthy sort) might reveal the guilt that is felt. Circling back to the beginning, as far as I understand it, it is through humility (and shame) that we are able to see our sins. Is it possible to see and accept the existence of our sins without shame? Is ‘self-emptying’ the same as the healthy sort of shame or is it an additional act upon that which we might call healthy shame?

    Can we love Christ without shame?

    I appreciate your distinctions you described between Calvinism and Orthodoxy at October 30, 2021 at 1:34 pm.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our culture, on the popular level, does not have a language for healthy shame. I will note, however, that any number of writers, clinicians, etc., do use that term. John Bradshaw, back in the 80’s, had a very popular book, Healing the Shame that Binds Us, and carefully distinguished between healthy shame and toxic shame. If I understand her, the current popular writer, Brene Brown, tends to talk about “vulnerability” rather than “healthy shame,” and only uses the word “shame” in a negative manner – which I find quite unhelpful and to be a break with the bulk of clinical treatments that I’ve seen.

    That said, in terms of the Tradition, I’m very dependent on St. Sophrony and his disciple Archimandrite Zacharias and their treatment of shame. They have given me confidence in my understanding and treatment of the topic (including private conversations with Fr. Zacharias).

    Humility is the willingness to bear the truth of our being in the presence of God, according to Fr. Zacharias. That experience necessarily carries an experience of shame – healthy shame. It is a sense of vulnerability, nakedness, exposure. It is also utterly required in the experience of awe and wonder. Shame is not the result of sin – at its core. It is a natural emotional response that is hard-wired in our bodies, and not a result of the fall.

    It is as essential as eyesight. It is the primary experience that tells us there is a “boundary.” It gets corrupted and tied up into negative, toxic effects – and that is a result of sin (ours or someone else’s). But the mechanism is the same.

    Because of its corruption through sin and woundedness, we avoid shame, which makes humility difficult. We protect ourselves through pride, the creation of identities (the false selves), various levels of narcissism, etc. Being healed in this requires a peeling away of these layers, slowly, patiently, bathed in the love of God and the safety of the sacraments.

    FWIW, I’m making wonderful progress on the book.

  34. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m delighted, Father! I look forward to reading it!!

  35. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for the update on your book writing progress!
    Whenever you speak of “peeling away “ I get the visual image of Eustice Scrubb in the dragon skin at the hot bath and Aslan peeling away the dragon body from Eustice’s human body. This is in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis—is this a “good “ visual for what you describe, Fr Stephen?

  36. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    Father Freeman,

    Then what am I supposed to make of statements like this:

    “However, my attention needed to be on the “nothing.” It is our emptiness and failure that bring us face-to-face with our shame, and in that moment, face-to-face with the God who alone can truly cover our shame and comfort us.”

    The very idea of doing anything presupposes that there is something that we can do. If we say that the statement that there is nothing we can do without God is to be taken literally, then logically it makes no difference whether one spends hours in prayer or in video games. God either will or will not act, and if he does then his actions will have the same result regardless of what we do. Otherwise one would have to admit that there are things even God cannot do without us, which would in turn suggest that we can at least do something that isn’t his doing.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you somewhere, but where?

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Your question is addressed to Father and what I write might not be helpful. If not, please forgive the intrusion and ignore what I write.

    It seems to me that in the quote you have provided, the words “emptyness” and “failure” provide the meaning of the “nothing”, intended. Your phrase “if you take the literal meaning…” is not aligned with what I believe Father is doing, as he mentions in the two comments addressed to you, namely, he intends to emphasize the deeper meaning for the need for our communion with Christ, to experience the fullness of the life God has given to us.

    We live in a “fix it and make it better” world. “Yes we can do it”” and “make it happen”. But our hubris is that we know what exactly what the world needs to make it better for us. And we might do whatever it takes to make it happen in the way we think best or more often than not what will make it happen in the most efficient way. And more often than not such concerted effort ends in bloodshed.

    Our actions need alignment with the will of Christ. The question remains, then, is our own heart aligned and in communion with Christ for our actions to hit the target–that is the will of Christ? How do we propose to fix the world if we, our hearts and our actions, are in a state of utter failure? From there, where our hearts are in our failure, we might look to Christ and in communion with Christ, do the “next best thing”. That is, according to His will and commandments, to love our enemies and our neighbors, something close to home for those nearest to us.

    As St Paul mentions in the Epistle from last Sunday (2 Corinthians 12:7-9):

    And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
    Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
    And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

    “My strength is made perfect in weakness”. This example and description of “weakness” is for me yet another elaboration of the “nothing” that Father writes about.

    I hope this is helpful. Again if not, please forgive and put this aside.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Where are you misunderstanding me? I suppose in pushing for a literal take on “we can do nothing,” and ignore everything else that is said around it and explicates it. I am not trying to state a Calvinist monergistic take on salvation. Instead, I’m sharing something on the dynamics of the inner life of prayer.

    Orthodox Christianity teaches “synergy,” that we act in union with God and that it is “together” that our salvation is worked out. I quoted from the statement of Christ “apart from me you can do nothing” and it is only in that sense that I have written “we can do nothing.” But, when Christ is acting, then we must act within Him (in union/communion with Him). And, in that “together with Him,” we are not doing nothing. That, I think is what creates the contradiction in what I’m writing. At least that’s how I understand it.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” There is obviously nothing that mud can do (by itself) to do such a thing. So, you could accurately say, “Mud can do nothing towards that.” But, together with God, who for our sake became the same mud that we are, we can indeed do just this impossible thing…but not apart from Him.”

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I find that image to be very helpful and poignant.

  40. Evan Avatar

    In response to, “Shame is not the result of sin – at its core. It is a natural emotional response that is hard-wired in our bodies, and not a result of the fall.”

    In Genesis 3, it says “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” In my understanding, this seems like they first experienced shame after they sinned; that is after the fall. Perhaps I am missing the point here. God bless.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When Jesus fasted for 40 days, “he was hungry.” That hunger is not the result of sin, it’s what a human body experiences when it doesn’t eat for 40 days (to say the least).

    In the same manner, shame is a natural emotional signal of the human body and is not inherently sinful. It doesn’t need sin in order to be triggered. For example, being accidentally seen naked by a stranger will trigger a shame response (embarassment is a mild form of shame), but there’s no sin involved in being accidentally seen without your clothes on.

    The story of Adam and Eve is not the story of the where shame comes from. It’s the first example of it that we read about in Scripture, but it’s not a result of sin. In fact, they felt shame because they were naked. Their nakedness was not sinful. That Adam and Eve’s eyes were not aware of their nakedness in that manner before they sinned is something that has been puzzled about by various Christian Fathers and thinkers. But, there is a clinical reality to shame, and the body’s shame response, that doesn’t require a theological explanation any more than hunger requires such an explanation.

    To understand shame requires much more information than simply reading Genesis 3. It’s more complex than that.

  42. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin


    Very well, I think I get it now. Thanks for the clarification.

  43. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I found your response in the comment stream very helpful:

    This “emptying towards the other” is, to my mind, simply the heart of love. Christ Himself, who knew no sin, nevertheless would not allow others to call Him “good,” and said, “I only do those things which the I see the Father doing.” He is “emptying Himself” into the Father, just as the Father is emptying Himself into the Son. What I am describing is not something that we do because we are miserable, worthless sinners. This is something we do in order to be like God (who emptied Himself on the Cross, etc.).

    As such, it is also an emptiness that receives a “fullness” from God.

    I believe such experience of emptiness can be intolerable for us because we push away to the best of our ability any reflection that might lead to an experience of shame. (Do you think this is so?–I appreciate your feedback on this thought) And rather than accept such emptiness that might lead to shame, we might do things to our hearts and minds, we might fill the emptiness with our self-loathing (what Rev. Finley described), or cultural or gustatory garbage (what Nikolaos described), and with philosophical argument/angst and/or political argument/discussion/angst).

    And I notice that I have a tendency to fill it with worry or fear. For this I ask for your prayers.

  44. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Actually, after re-reading your article, I believe the answer to my question is there. Again thank you Father!

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the answer is, indeed, in the article. We have the notion of ourselves as “self-existing” (radical individualism) deeply engrained in our culture, despite the fact that it is patently absurd. As St. Paul says,

    “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Romans 14:7-8

    We still tend to take even this, and think about merely as saying “we need each other.” But the truth is much, much stronger. My existence is a gift from others that exists because of others. This has to be pushed into an ontological status.

    There is no Father apart from the Son, nor Son apart from the Father, etc. God is one.

    By the same token, we are one (intended to be one with God and one with each other).

  46. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I sincerely appreciate this elaboration to bring out the ontological basis Father. I don’t think I considered that and how important it is indeed.

    This morning I read the passage of Christ saying, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. The context was “having no bread”–ie emptiness. Further down, further in.

  47. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen’s most recent podcast is a good companion to this article.

  48. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thanks for the info Andrew!

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have found I have to take out a lot of garbage before I can even hope to see myself. Garbage the is piles up daily. So I am forced into entreating God’s mercy almost constantly just to get through each day.

  50. Lupo Avatar

    Father, perhaps you will enjoy something I wrote on this subject:

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is profound – and deeply poetic. I thank you for such a blessing in my day and commend the article to other readers. Read it!

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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