Thanksgiving as Mystical Communion

“This is good. This is bad.” In one form or another, we divide the world into light and dark. It might take the form, “I like this. I do not like that.” What we find easy are the things we see as good and the things we like. If a day is filled with such things, we are likely to be happy. If the day is marked by things we do not like, then we are unhappy. We find it easy to be thankful for the good things. Everybody is grateful for things they like. Indeed, it is something of a tautology to be thankful for things we like – even the gentiles do the same.

Of course, our days are not filled with good things that we like. Our days are often a mix – good and bad – liked and unliked. This reality defines the path of modern persons: we seek to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Ronald Reagan, an icon of modern America, liked to quote a song from the 40’s:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
No room for Mister In-Between.

This is modernity in its prime. The modern myth is bound up with the “better world,” the notion that through proper management and applications of science and technology (and all of the so-called “sciences”), we can make the world a better place – meaning that we will be able to eliminate the negative and maximize our pleasure. Pleasure is equated with the good, while suffering is seen as inherently bad. Modernity seeks to turn the world into a candy store (without diabetes).

The most bizarre outcomes of modernity’s false philosophy can be seen in today’s campus cults who demand “safe places” – defined as a world without discomfort or contradiction. “You must not say this, think that, wear this, eat that, drink this, and on and on, because these things are bad, because these things create pain (my imagined pain), and you are evil.” It’s a brave new world that is being “bettered,” but I suspect very few will want to live in it.

My continuing critique of modernity has nothing to do with technology, medicine, science, etc. None of those things are “modern” in and of themselves. Modernity is a set of ideas, not a time in history. One of its most subtle bits of propaganda is to pass itself off as a historical period, and, even, as the inevitable outcome of everything that has gone before. To be “unmodern,” is therefore, to be “out-of-date,” “backward,” “Neanderthal,” “positively Medieval,” or some such descriptive. Modernity is propaganda parading as history.

It is also ungrateful.

There is a classic Orthodox prayer set for the morning:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility.
Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day,
teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions.
In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

When I first encountered this prayer, I found it impossible to say it. Instead, its un-prayed presence, for me, constituted wrestling with God.

Is God at work in all things and are all things being brought to a good conclusion? Are the terrible things that happen to me or to another devoid of God or, are they, somehow the work of the Cross within history? This last question proved to be an open door for me. God does not stand outside of history manipulating, controlling one thing or another, aloof and judging. The Cross of Christ is not a single event of three hours duration, a mere payment for sin. The Cross is the revelation of a mystery-at-work that has been hidden from the ages but has always been true. Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundations.”

Christ reveals to us that He not only loves those who suffer, but He becomes those who suffer (Matt. 25:40).1 Christ becomes what we are, uniting us to Himself, that we might become what He is. On the Cross, we see, not only the suffering of God, but the suffering of the whole world, everywhere and through all time.2 Like Joseph the Patriarch, we are able to say of suffering, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” (Gen. 50:20)

With this in mind, we are able to give thanks always and for things, not because we think suffering itself is good, but because the One who alone is good has Himself become our suffering. By the same token, when we ourselves do good to those who are in need, and unite ourselves to them, we also unite ourselves to God whose providence cares for all at all times and all places.3

Thanksgiving, particularly with this understanding in mind, is a continual act of offering and sacrifice, the very heart of a Eucharistic life. “Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”

No doubt, Christians will continue in doing good. However, in spite of every modern mythology, the world will not be a “better” place. Evil things will continue to happen (many of them done in the name of a better world). Modernity, however, cannot bear suffering, which is truly tragic in that suffering is an inevitable part of every life. The modern world’s absence of a meaningful narrative with regard to suffering – other than to eradicate it – perpetuates and cultivates a heart that is frequently unable to be grateful. Of course, if sufficient steps are taken to shield someone from the reality of suffering, a make-believe “better” world can be maintained for a space of time. This, in large part, is the origin of the cult of prosperity (in its many guises).

The Christian heart, on the other hand, is manifest most prominently in the giving of thanks. The central act of worship is itself the giving of thanks (Eucharist is from the Greek for “giving thanks”). In the very first paragraph of St. John Chrysostom’s anaphora, we hear:

For all these things we give thanks to You, and to Your only-begotten Son, and to Your Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not whether manifest or unseen,

The central act of Christian worship gives thanks for all things, to which the people say, “Amen.”

The mystery of our salvation is found within the Cross of Christ, His suffering, death and resurrection. The fullness of that salvation reveals itself to us as we come to know that all things, known and unknown, those we see as good and those we see as bad, have been gathered together by God into Himself. It is there in that union (and there alone) that “all things work together for good.” And there we give thanks.

Footnotes for this article

  1. This particular understanding is emphasized by St. Maximus in his Mystagogy, 24.
  2. Mystagogy, 24, op cit.
  3. This same point is also emphasized by St. Maximus, op cit.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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84 responses to “Thanksgiving as Mystical Communion”

  1. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    I am Canadian and our Thanksgiving was last month. Nevertheless appreciate what you say here. Something I have been learning over the past few years is to be grateful for things I don’t find pleasant in the moment. It isn’t easy but something I’ve realized as I get older is that I am grateful for nearly everything that has happened to me in my life, regardless of how I felt about it at the time. It all has a part to play in the story and it seems increasingly foolish to wish away any time or experience. Also thank you for your blog; I can’t remember when exactly I started reading it or even why but it has been over a year I think and I look forward to every entry.

  2. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father! This is perfect for me today :-). Have a blessed Thanksgiving

  3. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen for taking thanksgiving into the deeper places of Orthodox spirituality at this secular time of Thanksgiving in American observance. I wonder if these, in more stable times seeming obviously separate, might now be drawing closer together rather than further apart. The darkness is hard to dismiss even for the more worldly among us, which might be as providential as was Alyosha’s retreat from the monastery briefly out into the world at large with Rakitin at his side licking his chops at the chance to be present as our hero fell from grace. But he didn’t fall. And for Alyosha the impossible became possible, graspable, radiantly fulfilling — as it hadn’t done for him before.
    Sorry not to say it well – as Dostoievski says, it doesn’t need a miracle to happen, but goodness to appear when we are not looking for it, have even given up looking. As for the thief on the cross — there! Christ himself right next to him!
    Thanks very much for this post.

  4. Diana Christina Avatar
    Diana Christina

    Have a blessed Thanksgiving Father.

  5. Chris Diamondidis Avatar
    Chris Diamondidis

    Thank you for all you do Father. We do appreciate your work. Have a very blessed and Happy Thanksgiving

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    May Thanksgiving and mercy be in all our hearts. Especially in sorrow and difficulty.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it would seem that giving thanks for all things as you suggest is a way to fulfill Jesus command to “Be in the world, not of it”. Is that correct?

  8. Clarence Hal Freeman Avatar
    Clarence Hal Freeman

    Thank for Fr. Stephen. I’m trying to sort out what the “holiday season” will be like without Oksana physically present. This article was very helpful.

  9. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Thank you for this today, and for that lovely prayer. I have lived long enough to see the tapestry of my life being created from the good, the bad,and even the tragic times I have lived thru. God has a plan, and even the pain has a place in the rich colors of His creation. How sad if in the aspiration to feel only good and pleasure we neglect to experience the joy that comes only after pain is resolved.
    Blessed Thanksgiving Father, to your and yours

  10. Essie Avatar

    Father, I am suffering and ashamed today because yesterday I had an encounter with someone who succeeded in hooking me. I am a catechumen and lack the knowledge to counter arguments that I absolutely know are false, and she is a lawyer, ’nuff said. She personified the stance of what you describe here – the need for “safe spaces”, the avoidance of suffering, the insistence that the world will become “a better place” once we get rid of vigilantes and racism. I knew I should just keep my mouth shut but as I say I got hooked and it was very unpleasant. For years I have been reading and studying (including your writings) and though I still have stumbling blocks I know I’m on the right path, but after an encounter like yesterday’s I am in turmoil. Please, do you have any advice for me? And Happy Thanksgiving.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sometimes turmoil serves to underline what we do not want. As such, it is a reminder of the peace of Christ. We’re not usually so cheeky as to say to someone, “Thank you for reminding me why I am an Orthodox catechumen…” but that is clearly the case. Tragically, cultures will not erase racism through safe places, etc. Only the change of hearts actually heals such sinful things. Instead of changing hearts, we most often engage in shaming, blaming, scapegoating, etc., in which the result is simply more damaged hearts that will manifest in some other darkened manner.

    As a Christian – I am convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all things. That gospel is rooted in the fullness of the faith. All political solutions yield the same fruit – man-made attempts at various make-believe utopias, masking injustice and oppression and the sin of our lives. Of course, getting caught up in political causes helps people avoid dealing with their own sin. It’s easier to make loud complaining noises than it is to bear the difficult shame entailed in forgiveness and sacrifice.

    If we would simply follow the commandments of Christ the world would “be better” – but not in the political sense. In the face of Pontius Pilate, when given the chance to speak to the political powers that be, Christ simply offered the gospel. As time goes on, I become yet more convinced of the futility of political beliefs. They are a religious cult of sorts, disguised as “politics,” with the accompanying lie that “because it’s not religion,” we can somehow hold to these political beliefs without compromising our Christian faith.

    Essie, may God preserve you in your faith and protect you for well-meaning souls.

  12. Essie Avatar

    Thank you so much, Father. I will remember this statement as future armor: “thank you for reminding me why I am an Orthodox catechumen.” Blessings to you and your family.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, just one quibble: It is not politics that is the fundamental problem but the modern immersion in ideology. Ideology which, as you note, turns into a type of idolatry. The fallen human tendency toward self-worship, particularly, the products of our imagination(as you have mention in other posts) has no internal safeguards against darkness, evil and depravity. The only effective antidote is giving thanks to our Incarnate Lord as I acknowledge my own sins. His mercy heals all as Psalm 50 declares.

    Glory to God for all things.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Re: Your quibble. I do not think I have identified politics as the fundamental problem. However, “politics,” as it exists at present, is completely interwoven in the narrative of modernity and is a chief purveyor and beneficiary of its false messages. The State, from earliest times (including monarchies which have been the dominant form throughout human history), has ever been problematic. In that it wields power and violence, it has the potential for great evil. If it is minded towards justice and goodness, it can, at best, be a benevolent presence. Many of the things that are done by the government are salutary and necessary – particularly those things that seek to serve. The larger political projects, married to the various versions of a “better world,” are, strangely, the most likely to do great harm.

    I write in the critical manner that I included in my comment in response to the mythology of a better world – and all of the nonsense that makes the modern government idolatrous. I don’t think I would rephrase any of it.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, not asking you to rephrase anything. It is just in the course of my own battle, I find the word ‘ideology’ more expressive of what I have encountered although most of the time there is little real difference between the two. Forgive me, I was not trying to be argumentative.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Michael,
    It seems to me in the current state of modernity, that one person’s “politics” is “just another person’s ideology”. I don’t think by definition they are the same thing however in this article we are discussing the various facets and ‘covers’ used by the engine modernity. With the divisive talk engaged as politics that pervades this culture, it seems to me that it works to call it politics. No one in such a quagmire is cut any slack.—Of course this is just my perspective, but I think the word politics holds well in this article and discourse.

  18. Dino Avatar

    Whether it is perceived as ideological or perhaps becomes political, the problem is the demand for all to conform, the ambition of an ultimate scale/scope,… modernity, therefore, despite invoking diversity, desires religious fundamentalist monophony. The large/globalist political projects/agendas, (which we here increasingly more of) towards a “better world,” are, as Father noted, the most nefarious in practice.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, There is also a great deal of shaming going on to get people to conform and submit. My dear wife typically ignores most of it and talks to folks as just other people in a warm and often humorous way. Including me all while relying on and praising God.

    In any case, I have been remiss — not publicaly giving thanks to Fr. Stephen and for the community and people here.

  20. Dino Avatar

    indeed, that is even calculated at times, according to behavioural psychologist governmental departments dealing with ‘public opinion shaping’. Eliminates the need for police-ing who conforms and who doesn’t to a degree.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Am I right in thinking that Judas, perhaps, was the first “modern”?

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I wouldn’t want to label him as such. “Judas” is sort of like dropping “Hitler” in an argument. 🙂

    It’s important, I think, to understand that what can rightly be described as “modernity” is simply a development of a particular strain derived from Protestant Christian thought. I think it could not have developed in China or India, for example. It would not have developed in an Orthodox country, and was slower to be adopted in Catholic countries. However, in England (first and foremost) and then in parts of Germany, it caught on like wildfire – and in the American experiment, it was like a wildfire fed by creosote bushes.

    It’s important to think of it in these terms, I think, because its important to see why its ideas seem both familiar, and, even “correct” to a certain extent. Modernity is inherently “Christian” – though Christian in the same way that various Christian heresies are Christian.

    People at all times have sought to control the outcome of history. Judas certainly belongs to that category. That can be as relatively benign as a controlling boss or spouse. Its bothersome, but doesn’t destroy civilization. It becomes problematic when, as a philosophy of history, it becomes the guiding thought of our public life – how to build a better world.

    Of course, who doesn’t want the world to be a better place? Take a simple thing like justice. Who doesn’t want the world to be more just? But modernity will find some large scheme by which it imagines that its legislations and management rules will produce justice – without ever understanding that until and unless actual human beings become just, there will be no real justice.

    On the laws governing the trial of murder, as an example. Even in the worst days of the Jim Crow South, the laws for the prosecution of murder would have been adequate for justice. But if, in a trial, 12 men are seated as a jury but are themselves unjust men, then they will likely reach an unjust decision.

    If we start asking questions about how we nurture virtue in a culture – then we have moved past the philosophy of modernity and returned to a more classical model. It is such reasoning that is largely absent from our modern conversation.

    Here is St. James’ teaching that touches on this:

    “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:1–2)

    The conflicts of the past few years have not revealed that we are a bad society (structural, etc.). I think that it has revealed that we are a society of unjust people. And we have directed our attention away from ourselves, blaming others, instead of repenting and recognizing that we ourselves are the problem. Modernity has essentially come to believe that economic growth can fix or eliminate all troubles.

    Just some thoughts.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you. I wee your point on Judas specifically. The reason I brought him up is as I contemplate the misogyny of the modern in myself, I trace it back to a subtle, or not so subtle, movement away from acknowledging the Incarnate Lord (fully man and fully God), The Cross, the grave, The Glorious Ressurection AND exalting my sinful and human will above all else. Along with that comes the temptation to think I can manage and control anything I want, including history— and I am RIGHT!

    There seems to be an historical, macro version as well as the personal version in my own heart. Both seem to focus on power and control which has a tendency to wipe out virtue.

    For me to recover virtue seems to require asceticism: repentance, fasting and service to others. God, in His mercy is providing me with ample opportunities for each.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What you describe in your efforts is what Christ has set for us. It seems to me that part of our faith in Christ is to believe that His Kingdom is something He is doing – first and foremost within us. Sadly, modernity presumes that the Kingdom is a name for a Christian version of the modern project, something that, once we’ve declared what it’s blueprint is to be, we then set about trying to accomplish through efforts that are, in fact, just as secular as anyone else’s modern project.

    The Church (as in our local parishes) is the primary means given to us by Christ. The “conversion” of the political order during Constantine’s time did nothing to further the Kingdom of God, nor would the “conversion” of our present political powers. Either we become holy or the Kingdom lies elsewhere. We can never institute the Kingdom as a moral project. It is never anything other than the supernatural life in Christ, manifest in holy lives and the transfiguration of creation itself.

    It is deeply tragic, in my mind, that such a vision is declared to be “Quietism” by some. God give us all grace to pursue the life of virtue.

  25. Patricia Avatar

    I started saying The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina a few years back. Including it into my daily prayers was life changing. I have found my internal prayer life to yield more fruit than anything that comes out of my mouth. May God continue to grant mercy & forgiveness in my life.

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I have a lack of interest in but sometimes annoyed by the current trends to delve into ‘apocalyptic’ thinking (which often describes itself as ‘Christian’ politics). It seems to express the desire to use the Bible as a form of propaganda, as “God-given” prophecy for the express purpose to feed and elevate the modern project. This is the sort of temptation that was used against Christ in the desert.

    I believe Fr Hopko’s 55 maximums a helpful, healthy reminder to let go of such distractions.

  27. Kenneth Avatar

    What exactly is the relationship between modernism and secularism?

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, in the midst of confusion concerning how we are to respond to God among other people and what is our hope, I was contemplating St. Paul’s words in 1 Cor 2:2 “For I was determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.”
    Contemplating the icon of Christ Crucified and reading St. Paul’s admonitions to the Church in Corinth began to put into perspective the nature of our hope more clearly for me.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Excellent question. I do not use the term “modernism” very much, because it is often used to describe a school of art and could be confusing. Instead, I use the term “modernity,” which is a common term in academic writing for the set of ideas and practices that describe much of the dominant culture that has arisen over the past several centuries.

    “Secularism” is one of the hallmarks of modernity. Secularism is not atheism. Rather, as used by Fr. Alexander Schmemann (who described it as a heresy and the greatest danger of our time), secularism describes a view of the world in which the world is seen as operating independent of God. It is simply the “world without God.” God may very well “exist,” but is largely removed from our lives (except when we think about Him, etc.). This is the central thesis in my book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. You might find this collection of articles of use:

    Modernity, though, is more than secularism. It adds to that a number of notions about what it means to be human, what the human role is in history, as well as a sort of narrative about history itself. As such, it provides a way of understanding ourselves and the world in general. It is derived from fragments of Christian thought, but has constructed its own system of meaning. It is so dominant that it passes for “common sense” among a lot of people. It would be better described as a “cultural lens.” It “makes sense” only because it is repeated endlessly. This article might be of use:

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    With today’s Gospel of Luke which is a parable of the difficulty of living in the world our priest talked about how much more difficult it has become because of the culture of modernity which he dated to the Renaissance. The defining sin: pride in our own human abilities and accomplishments unrelated to God at all much less as God Incarnate.
    Humility being the better path.

  31. George Avatar

    Xronia Polla Father Stephen!!!

  32. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Secularism and modernity, as much as I can understand it simply, have similarities; man replaces God as the centre of focus. The renaissance as mentioned by Michael is a key component of this, with the rise of humanism and a resurgence of Classical Greek and Roman thought and art.

    Deism, has also contributed in its own way. A distant unknowable God who has created and moved on to more important matters. Einstein is oft quoted as proof of science supporting belief in God; ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe’ (cf).

    There is much more to it than that; the enlightenment for example. It would seem basically, that after the schism between East and West, that the West gave birth to what is now termed modernity and secularism.

    Western Christianity is more concerned with the Reformation (another key factor) and is little concerned with the schism between East and West.

    To put it in a nutshell, many people are Protestants nowadays, to a certain degree, whether they believe in God or not?

  33. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    After further reflection, who I think I am is more a product of, renaissance, reformation Protestant and enlightenment thinking, than that of actual Christianity. Quite disconcerting, but nonetheless interesting. Who am I?

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The connection between Protestantism and Secularism is, I think, accidental, a case of “untended consequences.” The gradual abolition of realism from the sacraments (they become “merely” symbolic, effective only in a juridical manner) has a way of “exiling” the divine from daily life (except in the minds (“faith”) of believers). It is then a slow and gradual process whereby the faith becomes ever more abstracted. At the same time, with the growth of the industrial revolution, the “magic” of technological and capital investment increase the “near-magical” fascination with the present world and technology. It can make you wealthy, healthy, powerful – pretty much everything a pagan ever asked for from his god.

    I’m sort of torn these days about whether there was ever any actual or necessary connection between Protestant ideology and the rise of the industrial revolution. I’m increasingly leaning to a more “accidental” treatment of such things in which certain ideas may create a good seed bed for certain developments rather than directly cause them.

    I’m also being ever more deeply committed to the work of God’s providence. Thus, whatever things that I might judge as something I wish had happened differently, I, instead, give thanks for it and trust that God knows what He’s doing providentially. It doesn’t make everything that happens “ok” in particular, but everything becomes “ok” in general – because the goodness of God is at work in and through all things for His good purposes for our salvation. Being sad, much less angry, about history is just about the biggest waste of time ever indulged in by a Christian.

    Secularist are “practical atheists” even when they believe in God. Check out this 2007 post:

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What, Father, is the connection between the Providence of God and The Cross. It seems as if there is one, I just cannot articulate it.

  36. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    getting sad or angry about history is a waste of time, as you say. I have, I must admit indulged in sadness and anger about history when I was younger and caught up in a false idealistic view of things.
    After having studied some aspects of Church History and Philosophy, in an RC context, I was enabled to get a different perspective. This or that event, or thinker had some effect on where we are today and how we think.
    We are products of what preceded us. It is interesting to discover how unoriginal we can be in our thinking, which we thought was our own, only to discover how little freedom of though we have.

  37. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    Practical Atheism, as you have mentioned before, I think? Has much to do with the moral project and what I would think is how religion has been is used in certain circles to get people to behave according to and to uphold whatever status quo is dominant at any given time.

    What you had to say about sacraments is very interesting and needs more reflection, on my part. One thing I will mention for now is your quote of the prayer that says the Spirit of Truth is, ‘everywhere present and filling all things.’ When I first read that prayer, pantheism came straight to my mind. I hadn’t then learned about the distinction in Orthodoxy, between God in His essence and His energies. I can’t say for definite if this is not in any aspects of RC thought, but if it is I hadn’t come across it.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Orthodox understanding of the Divine Energies (which is certainly strongly discussed in St. Dionysius the Areopagite and earlier Fathers) does allow a way to speak of the presence of God without the need to resort to pantheism (or several other areas). Indeed, the Orthodox understanding of salvation and the whole of our life with God is one of union/communion, which I would have a hard time accounting for without the doctrine of the Divine Energies, though, I realized as I read your comment that I haven’t thought much about it – only in the sense that, as a doctrine, it so permeates the Orthodox understanding that it often “goes without saying.”

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isn’t it so, Father, that “The Divine Energies” in Orthodox teaching are personal, i.e. coming through and from one of the Divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. That is what I have always thought. That alone distinguishes it from any kind of pantheism or monoenergism does it not?

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Energies come from God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are not three energies but one (just as there is but One Divine Essence). I think that much confusion regarding the Energies is created by our use, in English, of the term “Energies.” It’s an image that is misleading. In Greek, the term has the simple meaning of “Doings” or “Activities.” When you read it in St. Dionysius, it is much more that meaning than anything else. It is, of course, described as the “Uncreated Light” by St. Gregory Palamas – but this is still a “Doing” or “Activity” of God. What is important of the Divine Energies (Activities) is the Orthodox dogma that they are one with the Divine Essence. That God in His energies and God in His essence are one. Thus to participate in the Divine Energies is a true participation in God. The classical Catholic attack on this dogma was that the Divine energies (activities) were considered to be “created effects” but not God Himself. On this, officially, Orthodox and Catholic doctrine disagree.

    The Divine Energies are the manner in which we know the Persons of the Trinity, in the manner that they make themselves known: We know the Father in the Son by the Spirit. Again, the term “personal” has often become misleading in that we use it for so many other meanings in English. Personhood is a much, much longer conversation.

    But, when I encounter God, I do not think to myself, “This is the Divine Energies.” That’s like interrupting a conversation with someone by thinking, “I am hearing them because the vibration of their voice is moving the air in a particular manner that is striking my eardrums,” etc. The same is true when it comes to thinking too much on these things. We wind up missing the point.

    St. Dionysius spends most of his time on the Divine Energies as they are manifest to us as Providence, the Goodness that permeates all things, works in all things, makes all things to be, to be good, and to be eternally good. This, at least, is the case when he writes about “Natural contemplation” (theoria physike). It’s sort of foundational for moving beyond that – where we begin to contemplate yet higher things.

    What is interesting in this understanding of Energies as Activities – is understanding that God not only is what He IS – but is also what He DOES. Thus, His love can be said to be God: “God is love.” Orthodoxy also understands the word “grace” to be a synonymn of the Divine Energies – thus, it is termed, “Uncreated grace.” So, when we say, “We are saved by grace,” it is the same thing as saying, “We are saved by God, or the actions of God.” God is at work in us, saving us, etc.

    It is a wondrous teaching.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you that helps. All I know for sure is there was a profound difference in what I experienced during my first Divine Liturgy. It seemed to me that Jesus was in the Liturgy in a specific identifiable manner. A particular energy. I had been to a number of Christian worship gatherings several times before and ‘nothing’. That is what I mean by personal.
    The experiential part of Orthodox worship is understandably downplayed because there are a lot of ways it can be manipulated and twisted but there is a reality there that is substantial Maybe Greek has enough nuance to talk about it intelligbly but English may not. Certainly not my command of it.
    All of the doings described in our Theology are substantial and interpenetrate the seen at times and places even if we are largely unaware. Intelligent interpenetration. Otherwise Communion would not be real. That is what I mean by “personal”. The Incarnation is also essential to the doings.
    Somehow, I see all of the mystery reflected in the icon of The Hospitality of Abraham that is in my parish that I was standing in front of today during the service.
    The Mystery is amazing and the only way I can really approach it, it seems is the awe of repentance and the transcendent joy that follows. I cannot explain it but I can try to be thankful.

  42. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  43. Justin Avatar

    Father: I’m a bit confused at your statement that Secularism is an unintended consequence of Protestantism. Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that the Reformation depended upon Secularism (albeit not fully recognized or sharply defined at the time) for its very existence. What I mean is this: The Reformers obviously still held the belief that there exists only “One True Church.” But in a one-storey universe, that leaves no room for creating human organizations (Denominations) outside of that One True Church (which are then claimed to be part of it). On the contrary – that One True Church has to not exist here – an “upstairs” has to be created into which the One True Church is exiled (the “Invisible Church”). This leaves the “downstairs” free to create human organizations which all mystically participate in the One True Upstairs Church (except the Roman Catholics, of course; the Pope is the Antichrist and all that). Am I missing something here?

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ah, that clarifies what you meant by “personal.” Because God is tri-personal, there is no authentic experience of Him that is not personal. Even His goodness that upholds all things, etc., has a “hypostatic” (personal) quality – that is specifically reflective of the Crucified Christ. God’s goodness is not just “personal” in that sense – it is cruciform.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If I can be a bit “tongue-in-cheek” in answering the question, “Am I missing something here?” the answer would be, “Yes, about 200 years.” The Reformers did, indeed, initially hold to a notion of One True Church, after a fashion, but quickly began to run into problems with that. There was a crisis of sorts in Anglicanism in the 17th century over what to do with Continental Protestants who were ordained. These Calvinists presbyters had fled persecutions in various places and came to England. What to do with them? Some held that they had not been ordained in Apostolic Succession (those Anglicans who were “High Church” held that the historical episcopacy was necessary in this) and should be re-ordained. Others (Low Churchmen) held that they should just be received into the Church and allowed to function as priests. At that time, as I recall, the High Churchmen won.

    But, the truly “one-storey solution” began to manifest itself primarily in America where the various denominations were suddenly next door to each other in the same town. The Anglican liturgy had referred to the Church as “the blessed company of all faithful people,” which can be read as a very two-storey thing. But the explanations and ecumenism of the “invisible church” approach has its flowering in 19th century America.

    Of course, all of that is to say that early Protestantism was filled with contradictions. In truth, there has never been a single thing that was Protestantism. Instead, there have always been “Protestantisms.”

    I’ve just finished reading a tome on the 14th century (A Distant Mirror). The depths of corruption in society and Church made me a bit more sympathetic, or at least understanding of the rise of Protestant movements. Something had to change – it was inevitable.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father your statement “God’s goodness is not just ‘personal’ in that sense it is Cruciform.” clarifies a great deal. That reality removes it from the often sentimental statement of many: ” I have a personal relationship with Jesus”. I do not mean that at all. Forgive me if I implied that to anyone.
    What I was trying to say is that unlike pantheism or even Deism, God is not an amorphous gas or isolated Intelligence. His revelation to us is a particular Grace. Although Risen, He is still present and approachable through the Sacraments.
    That particularity is essential. “Everywhere present and filling all things” Even we sinners.

    Before coming to the Church, I had developed, in a non-traditional way, a sacramental understanding. That was shown to me when I attended a Friends Sunday meeting. Their gift of sitting in silence reaching for God is beyond anything else I have experienced in many ways…. Yet it made me long for the gift of His Body and Blood. So, when I walked through the doors of the Orthodox Church, even without being able to fully partake, that longing began to be filled. Even in the midst of a community, I found out later, was not all that thrilled that I was there. Even that, however, reveals the Cruciform reality and I am beginning to thank God even for the lack of welcome. The Shame of the Cross heals and covers my shame. So, an earlier question of mine is also answered — the connection between God’s Providence and The Cross.

    Thank you.

  47. Justin Avatar

    Father, thank you that helps clear things up a bit.

  48. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    “At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.”

    The problem I have with this prayer, and any like it, is this: “all” being subject to Thy holy Will logically includes everything I do. So, to use an extreme example, it is equally the will of God whether I treat a local farmer selling his wares with kindness and pay fairly for his vegetables or stick him up for all he has and then shoot him anyway. Why bother trying? Everything I happen to do at any given moment is the will of God.

    I couldn’t live thinking that there isn’t some fundamental disconnect between the way things are and the way God wants things to be. If he wants the world as it is, he’s a monster and by no means worthy of worship or communion.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that your instinct of “some fundamental disconnect between the way things are and the way God wants things to be” is correct. I would not want to give the impression of subscribing to a monstrous doctrine of a God who wills evil.

    That said, what I think the prayer affirms is that nothing takes place that is “outside” of God’s will, in the sense that He has no involvement with it. The classic case in the Scriptures is given in Joseph’s response to his brothers (who had perpretrated a terrible evil against him). “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” In the same manner, St. Paul’s statement that “all things work together for good for those who love God” does not declare all things to “be good” but to “work together for good.” In that reading, good is not absent, but present, and is correcting, redirecting, and working in a manner that “subverts” evil and brings forth good despite evil intentions.

    My experience in observing, thinking and praying through this for many years has been that the “good purpose” is often deeply hidden and only revealed at a later point (as in Joseph’s case). Up close, it can be next to impossible. Up close, I cannot see the “good” that is at work. Instead, I can see the goodness of God as it is revealed in Christ, and on that basis, be patient until the time that the good I cannot see is made manifest. It is that fundamental goodness at work in, through, and despite all things, that I confess in such prayers.

    But, the “disconnect” remains. It’s there in Joseph’s statement. The brothers clearly meant evil towards him. But his brothers were not in charge of history. To confess God’s goodness is, in a manner of speaking, a defiance against evil and a rebuke. It says, “You cannot win. God will bring about good, even through this. He will trample down death by death.”

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, inherent in what you say is also the hope of my own repentance, healing and transformation. If all is not subject to God and His mercy, who would be saved? Certainly not me.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    St Luke, the Blessed Surgeon lived a life witnessing to the reality that all things are subject to God’s will. Even the Soviet state that persecuted him.

  52. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    Michael Bauman,

    So, apparently it either was God’s will that millions upon millions of people, including tiny babies, starve to death in the artificial famines or perish in slave labor camps, or at least he didn’t find that fact important enough to do anything about it. This is what I find so faith-destroying – in one parable Jesus indicates that he considers not feeding a hungry neighbor worthy of damnation, then he turns around and does the exact same thing. How am I to regard this as anything but the monstrous, soul-destroying hypocrisy? How could one ever trust someone so apparently untrustworthy? I look at this, what am I to say, or to think?

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I would say that your premise is incorrect. My will, as with all people, is diseased and therefore I can easily have a murderous heart full of all sorts of evil.
    We are not, nor were we ever meant to be, God’s automatons.

    There has always been the tension between God’s Righteousness and man’s evil.

    We are fallen and since we are all interrelated, the evil in my heart infects everybody else. Only repentance heals my evil. That requires that I bear The Cross, just a bit by facing the extent and depth of my own darkness. When I perceive evil anywhere, I know it is in my own heart too. But I am deeply convinced by both theology and experience that Mt 4:17 is deeply true. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    So, I am learning to pray ” Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” in response to any evil.
    God’s Will for each of us is mercy. That is the premise on which I am trying to make the foundation. I am not far along.
    So, my brother, forgive me. Especially if I have added to your burden. May the blessed Theotokos take you in her arms and comfort you.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think anyone is saying what you are suggesting. God is not the author of evil. He does not will evil. If that’s what you’re hearing then there’s a disconnect, either in how it has been said or in how it has been heard.

  55. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    I know it’s not what you’re intending to say, but it’s what I’m hearing. I’m not meaning to accuse you or anyone else of anything, I’ve just been reminded of it. Honestly, some days it just seems to me like I’d be happier as an atheist. Better that no one is running things than that someone I have a hard time not seeing as a cruel hypocrite.

  56. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    I’m sorry, I shouldn’t use this comments section to vent my troubles on you guys. My apologies, I ought to have thought more before posting.

  57. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    You bring up a reaction I had when I witnessed videos of the Tsunami of Japan about 10 years ago. And some of my students were in the military and had to go to their nuclear plant that was failing because of the flooding.

    I told God at that time “I don’t believe You exist”. It was a surprise to me that God responded to my statement, a response which was something like “who are you talking to?”

    It is difficult indeed to hear or to perceive the providence of God in the midst of catastrophe and vile destruction, the source for such is not God. But God can and does penetrate such monstruous conditions. I’ve been in such conditions. Torn up and burned up physically and lying beneath a car when I regained consciousness. It is hard using logic to believe God can be present and penetrate such a situation. But it is my witness, God was indeed there. His presence in the midst of such horrific and unimaginable pain and grief brings peace, to a heart torn yet open to it.

    I lost my mother and father in that accident. Later I lost my daughter–seemingly ‘out of the blue’. Yet I see His providence in all of this. He is not the author of evil, but He penetrates it and rescues my mind and heart from the quagmire. And through this grace, thanks be to God, my love endures.

  58. Dino Avatar

    I concur with what Father, Michael and Dee just said,
    profound comments!
    I think that the most succinct reminder that would re-orient anyone who thinks that atheism is ‘better’ because of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, is Christ’s Cross.
    In other words, I cannot turn to God complaining about the suffering of the billions (all, in fact, will suffer at some point in their earthly lives), or even of my self, when I deeply realise I am speaking to Someone Who is on the Cross, suffering, not just the torture of the Cross, but all the suffering of all.
    I might like Him to eliminate all suffering now, but He has unassailable reasons, (especially considering His knowledge of our latent but relentless self-worshipping potential), to offer us something else instead: the transcendence of all suffering – in Him.
    It is why we sing, He has trampled death “by death”, suffering “by suffering”,
    He does not now eliminate it, instead, He transforms it, He uses it for our benefit even though we might cause it ourselves for all sorts of other reasons. The saints were primarily sanctified most through this conversion of suffering, they made the unintentional, intentional – in a shatterproof union with the Crucified Lord.
    The mystery of the Cross is at the heart of comprehending even an inkling of all this.
    The spiritual vision of the “other side”, is what we lack, making us shortsighted in these matters.
    It is almost impossible to maintain such a spiritual vision of our own accord in the midst of unbearable suffering, but, God invariably provides grace to suffering souls at those times, He is closest to their tiniest whisper at those times.
    …however, when we philosophise against Him in our other times, then we inevitably open ourselves up to the cunning wiles and whispers of our adversary, it is, and always has been from the start, his number one argument against God. The devil viscerally hates God’s omniscient ‘combination’ of respect for freedom and mercy, providentially leading man to salvation, he libels and slanders it at all cost, based primarily on the shortsightedness mentioned earlier, our lack of the vision of the “other side” of our eternal existence.
    He would even complain about the necessity of such a “roundabout way” for innocent people to be eternally saved (through temporary tribulations, or to be made into great saints through it. This is all materialism that forgets eternity however, it is the interpretation of the martyr as a victim when Christianity sees a victor. Christ’s Cross covers the whole universe and His Cross is the victory but we need spiritual eyes, which take great effort, to maintain such an otherworldly interpretative vision.
    These are my own thoughts blurted out on the keyboard. Forgive me.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I want to say this loud and clear: that you are troubled by the notion of God as the source of evil and suffering (even outraged and repulsed) is good and healthy. I have stood at that very place (on a number of very important occasions and even turning points in my life). Nothing is sadder to me than an easy comfort with suffering. As St. Paul says, “Death is the last enemy.” It is not our friend.

    Having said that, and on the other side of my rage and rejection of false ideas, I find that I am standing in a world in which the suffering of the innocent remains. If all I had were theories and thoughts, various “theologies,” I think I would have long ago despaired and possibly ceased to believe in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance.

    But somehow, Jesus on the Cross has held me transfixed. In all the evils of the world, that moment stands as a point of infinite goodness, infinite love, infinite compassion (co-suffering). It holds me at a place in my heart that is stronger and louder than anything I could say against it. It overides my protests and whispers to me of a different place to stand.

    Sometimes within that place, I encounter a suffering love that takes my breath away (for days at a time). I have a sense that a non-suffering love would be meaningless and empty. Sometimes I sense that my own love, when it refuses to suffer, is empty as well.

    I have an intuition that the suffering character of Christ’s love (as seen on the Cross) is deeply tied to the suffering in the world – though I have no words to explain that. I simply sense it. At the same time, I sense that the Cross belongs eternally to the life of the Trinity – and I am breathless in the face of it.

    I make feeble efforts to give words to these things and, no doubt, fail. Some of those words go amiss and provoke the rage. I would that I had better words. But when all my words disappear, I see Jesus on the Cross. That is the eloquence of love that my words fail.

    God give us grace. You are not alone.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you for the teaching. One of the reasons I began to approach Christianity in the first place because of its approach to suffering. That realization has grown over the years. Unlike many other faiths which ignore it or trivialize suffering, Christianity, rightly practiced embraces suffering in a unique manner.
    Sometimes suffering is lessened or healed by that embrace more often, it seems, it is shared and transformed by Grace.
    Sacramentally we partake of the broken and wounded body and blood of God Incarnate.
    Saints who suffer are frequently intercessors for others who suffer in similar ways.
    St. Luke, the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea who treated hundreds of people so they would not go blind went blind himself due to glaucoma in his later years. All living icons of the Cross.

    The list goes on for the ways that suffering is embraced. Still, I must not forget that suffering continues and I too am called to embrace it, in Christ and not ignore it because I am relatively comfortable.

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A friend sent me this note to share with you on the blog:

    I have walked many miles in the shoes you are describing. Frankly, I wouldn’t do anything to lift the burden you are carrying. I have known many atheists in my time. You are not an atheist. You are caught between your longing for God and the soul’s “My God, my God…” It’s not the worst place to be in. Your longing will take you where you need to go. As the Scripture says, “Let endurance make its work complete.”
    I can tell you that there is no explanation that will soothe the burn of suffering. There is nothing that anyone can tell you that will “make it better.” And if that were the case something will have gone horribly wrong—with you.
    I can tell you from my own experience that if you let your longing direct your step you will discover beauty. For what little it is worth, I know that the grass is green, the sky is blue, and the beauty that will one day be revealed as God’s masterpiece will be so splendid that we would all agree to suffer it all again a thousand times just to stand before the grandeur of it.
    Here is a saying that only makes sense to someone with an Orthodox mind. “Christ is in hell and he is waiting for his friends to meet him there.”
    If you hear that and your heart responds. Then follow that response wherever it takes you. You may find that you are already in the right place.

  62. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin


    “In other words, I cannot turn to God complaining about the suffering of the billions (all, in fact, will suffer at some point in their earthly lives), or even of my self, when I deeply realise I am speaking to Someone Who is on the Cross, suffering, not just the torture of the Cross, but all the suffering of all.”

    Begging your pardon, but why not? If I am, for example, drowning, it is of precious little use to me if someone else happens to be drowning next to me. Still less would the knowledge that they decided to jump in and start drowning in order to embrace the suffering of the oxygen bleeding from my lungs as the water flows in be of any comfort. Or, if I am starving and my neighbor has food, which is more helpful to me? That he burn all the food in order to embrace the pain of starvation at my side, or that he give me food so that I am not starving any longer?

    “I might like Him to eliminate all suffering now, but He has unassailable reasons, (especially considering His knowledge of our latent but relentless self-worshipping potential), to offer us something else instead: the transcendence of all suffering – in Him.
    It is why we sing, He has trampled death “by death”, suffering “by suffering”,”

    I’m sorry, but I cannot do otherwise than side with Ivan Karamazov on this point:

    “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that child beating its breast with its fist, for instance… Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

    If God is what the creed says he is, then all conditions are reducible to his single, knowing decision to start the whole ball of creation rolling, fully informed of what the results of doing so would be. In the other words, he is the sort of being who provably would consent to be the architect, however indirectly, of Ivan’s conditions. I don’t know how to deal with that. Forgive my moping, I know it must seem a bit repetitive, but I just don’t know what else to do.

    Father Freeman,

    Thank you and your friend for your kind words.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re welcome. Hang in there. Your questions are legitimate. Forgive our fumbling efforts to answer them. Some are more helpful than others.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One of the things that interests me about Ivan Karamazov is that he makes his case by reciting stories of the sufferings of others, particularly children. My circle of acquaintance over the years included a woman who lost her family in the Holocaust, though she survived. She was the director of education in our local synagogue. She believed in God. She did lots of work in the community educating about the Holocaust. It always struck me that Ivan K. seemed more troubled about such suffering than she did. It’s a puzzle. It’s not an argument, but an observation. It’s far from being the only case that I have known of individuals who endured terrible suffering and yet believed. It’s curious.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A further note from my friend:

    God is not indignant at your fist shaking. Job’s comforters thought that Job’s fist shaking was irreverent. He was told by Eliphaz, “You do away with reverence and hinder prayer before God.” But God said to them, “You have not spoken rightly about me as has my servant Job.” Job’s irreverence was spoken from the goodness of his heart. God isn’t offended by that.

    At the heart of your longing is a tormenting “Why?” From our point of view, “why” has no answer, brother. One of the reasons “Why?” is such a tormenting question it is a question that does not have an answer. There is no purpose to suffering. There is no answer that will resolve the conflict in your heart. The “Why?” assumes that if we only knew the purpose or mechanism or reason that would make sense of it all, then we could have faith. However, in your heart of hearts, brother, would you really want an answer that would make sense of the tragedies that befall children? Do you really think that there is anything that can be said that can “make sense of it all”? This “Why?” is demanding a resolution where none exists or should exist. We should never be at ease with suffering.

    For what it’s worth, Jesus’ resurrected body bore the scars of his suffering: Suffering is real!

    What happens to our children is tragic. If there ever comes a time that doesn’t take a pound of flesh from each of us, then we have grown cold and insensitive. Then shame on us.

    If there is any consolation I could offer you it would be this: Trust that God has the final word.

  66. Dino Avatar

    You make worthy points that I have often contended with.
    Perhaps it is worth noting the plain simplicity that, Ivan Karamazov’s argumentation, tries to basically discredit the classic Christian saying, (heard from the mouths of countless of the Holy Martyrs while being tortured): “we consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
    He has a problem with any suffering, no matter how good the outcome, perhaps because he is portrayed as tending to think like a little god who would do things otherwise had he godlike powers to create another world.
    We could say that, Ivan essentially claims that, to use your example, even if the one (Christ) who jumps in the water to drown with you (rather than take you out of the water as you said in your perfectly descriptive example) makes it clearly known to you that the point is not to escape drowning, but to actually drown “into” the eternal Kingdom – as death is inescapable at some point, but this death (with Christ holding your hand drowning), leads Heavenwards – even then, Ivan complains of the need for this method (it is actually ever so human to do this in the midst of suffering). Why should it involve this pain?
    As was said before by others, I too, have no answer to that ‘why’ that makes it all well in the midst of suffering. I don’t think any words, anything ‘of the mind’ can help at that time.
    The answers given, generally involve a philosophical/psychological sounding justification, predominantly regarding man’s prowling tendency to never be able to remain humble and Christ-like without a cross: our inability to be truly freed from the hell of our self-absorption unless we taste of hell ourselves. It sounds ever so harsh but we have seen it to be true time and again.
    The knowledge of meeting Christ in Heavenly bliss, transformative and inconceivably invigorating though it may be, never compares to the knowledge of meeting Christ in Hell, while being crucified myself. Both linger on for the duration of one’s life, but the second ‘meeting’ imparts a spiritual maturity and wisdom unlike the first, one that does not depend on external factors for its survival in one’s heart. It is closer to immutability.
    The first can linger on for the rest of one’s life too, but, does not teach how to deal with difficulty and forsakenness as securely; the second does just that. The second somehow teaches our inner heart to know that there is no forsakenness even in forsakenness; it, therefore, makes one taste of divine unassailability and immutability as far as is possible before the transformation of death.
    In Greek we call it «σταυροαναστάσιμο» – literally meaning «of the Cross and of the Resurrection, both» in one!
    There is a deep mystery in the Cross and its ontological connection to Christ, a centrality we cannot comprehend, it is the only thing that, when St Peter himself asks that it may be taken from our Lord, Christ calls Peter a Satan! (Matthew 16:23) for uttering such a thing.
    May God comfort and bless you in everything!
    How difficult it is when we humans are under that dark cloud! Truly… That cloud, when it clouds my heart, it easily convinces me that it will last forever even when I know that the sun has always come out afterwards in the past… I am unable to remember the usefulness of the clouds in such a situation. But the Sun is there and will eventually disperse the clouds that have watered the freezing earth of my soul.

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As I have read history it has struck me that those who vow to eliminate suffering have often done great evil. Even on a personal level the attempts to stop pain create more complications. That says to me that the mystery of human suffering is not simply binary. Neither is justice. Job 12 has long been a meditation of mine in regard to the mystery of being human. A lot there.

    I am also blessed to have known Fr. Moses Berry for almost 50 years. He has opened my heart to the mystery of human suffering–not to eliminate it but to enter it with Christ and seek reconciliation.
    “Christ is in hell waiting for His friends to meet Him there.” makes a lot of sense.

    Forgive me, O lord, for my sins.

  68. Fr. Marty Watt Avatar
    Fr. Marty Watt

    I tend to think that in and of themselves, in isolation, nothing is “good” or “bad” – they may be painful, or comforting, or tragic, or some other adjective. But it is what we do with the “stuff” of our days that make those things good or bad. If they drive us to seek God, they are good. If they do not drive us to seek God, they are bad. If they drive us toward self-reliance instead of reliance on God, they are very, very bad (perhaps even demonic).

  69. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    Father Freeman,

    It’s not that I distrust who will have the final word, it’s what, based on what he’s apparently willing to do or not do now, that final word will be.


    “The knowledge of meeting Christ in Heavenly bliss, transformative and inconceivably invigorating though it may be, never compares to the knowledge of meeting Christ in Hell, while being crucified myself. Both linger on for the duration of one’s life, but the second ‘meeting’ imparts a spiritual maturity and wisdom unlike the first, one that does not depend on external factors for its survival in one’s heart. It is closer to immutability.”

    I’m sorry but that is, not to put too fine a point on it, bunk. If goodness is insufficient in and of itself to reveal itself completely on its own terms (including its immutability) without the slightest supplement of evil or suffering, then goodness is deficient. If it is deficient, then evil possesses a real existence over and against the good, and dualism is the truth of the universe. If it is sufficient, then evil and suffering can only be superfluous to it. I know it’s tempting to think this way, I have myself before, but it makes nonsense out of other core Christian claims.

    Father Watt,

    All reliance is self-reliance at the bottom of it. You have to rely on yourself in order to even be aware of the existence of any external world, much less a God one could rely on. I think attempting to separate it out is useless, as you can only relate to anything else through the prism of yourself.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bill, a last note from my friend:

    I hate to trifurcate the problem because it seems like taking a blunt force object to something that requires more subtlety. But here it is…

    Assume that there are no gods, goddesses, major or minor deities, and no afterlife to speak of. Then the question of God is pointless. Many of my truly atheist friends just find the question of God boring and don’t want to be bothered with it. That is NOT you.

    Assume there is a God, but he is a prick and he only creates good things just so he can take them away. This is a non-starter. We need not concern ourselves with this option.

    Assume there is a God and God is good. Now we have something to think about. But we ONLY have something to think about if…IF…we allow for the possibility that God is Good. And if God is Good, then we have hope.

    If we assume that God is Good, then we are positioned to torture ourselves with many awkward and uncomfortable discussions about “Why God permits suffering?” What you really need is not soul crushing systematic theology or trite anecdotes from comfortable people tap-tap-tappity on the keyboard. Brother…you need a confessor. You need a teacher who can get to know you and suffer with you through this burden. Brother…you need a confessor.

    You are like a guy looking for a fight with the master of a dojo and you’re beating up on all his pupils trying to get him to come out and face you. That’s okay. Many of us here have had more than our fair share of beatings. We have been around the block.

    You are like Job. You think your fight is with God. But it’s not.

    How do you fight with someone hung upon a tree?

  71. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    Thank your friend for me, Father. And thank you as well, for taking the time to answer.

  72. juliania Avatar

    Bill, forgive me for adding to what has been said — on the question of how we bear the enormous suffering that is so apparent and has been down through the ages if we can not accept an unhypocritical God, feeling it is better to ‘go it alone’, as exemplified by Ivan and the tales he has collected — there is an answer even within Ivan’s own story. He discovers his own responsibility in the conversations he has with Smerdyakov — and he cannot bear it. In this, he is not demonic; he is loveable, even as he loses his mind and is at death’s door. We can and do love him as he is in such anguish there at our last sight of him — he is part of us, he is our neighbor. And he is not a hypocrite, but he is also not God, who cannot but be greater than His creation, Who succeeds where we fail. As we fail here, and as Job became, at last, speechless.
    And then, God came.

  73. Dino Avatar

    That is nothing to do with goodness but with humanity…
    We can’t therefore claim:
    “If goodness is insufficient in and of itself to reveal itself completely on its own terms (including its immutability) without the slightest supplement of evil or suffering, then goodness is deficient.”
    The quagmire is that if God is good beyond our conception by His magnanimousness of creating sentient beings capable of free (godlike) eternal self determination towards Him despite our dependance on Him, (depending on our self determination) we can interpret His goodness as evil, especially His providence in time carefully helping us in our freedom(and fully partaking in and transforming our suffering).

  74. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I have no answer either, to suffering and evil, all intellectual constructs fail in the face of these.

    For the Christian, the Cross is unavoidable. We me may not have to shed our blood in martyrdom, but we do have to go through an inner Crucifixion.; painful, confusing and beyond our intellectual understanding.

    It’s hard to stand at the Cross, when all our instincts are telling us to run away.

    May the good Lord give you the grace hang on in there with Him.

  75. Dino Avatar

    Cs Lewis wisely described: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world….No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. it removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”

  76. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Whether we feel anger, compassion, coldness, indifference, or whatever else towards evil and suffering, they will persist; a mystery beyond our understanding. At the end of the day, we can only deal with the evil within ourselves and by God’s good grace, be converted and stop causing suffering to others and ourselves.

  77. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    You made an interesting observation, which brought into focus something in my own response. I reflect upon your observation:

    It’s far from being the only case that I have known of individuals who endured terrible suffering and yet believed. It’s curious.

    The car accident I referred to and the suffering involved took place when I was 17 years old. I mentioned in my response that I received peace from my perception of God’s presence. Such peace did not end my suffering. In fact, God’s presence highlighted the farce that was the Protestant Christian religion I had been exposed to at that time. I will not mince words about it. It seemed for me as a child that the story of Santa Clause and the Protestant Christ went down the same tube and into the gutter long before the accident. However, the events of the accident, and here I do not refer to my personal physical suffering but what I witnessed in my father’s condition in those circumstances, was beyond what I can speak. My own suffering I could tolerate but for decades I heard cries of one I loved, what I cannot speak. This combined with the fantasy Christ, ensured I would not step into a Church for decades. And this is because I had met God. The real One. The One capable of bringing peace into the midst of chaos.

    Then within a short 10 years later, I nearly lost my son through a misdiagnosis and did lose my daughter to another tragedy. Shortly after her death I was divorced from a person whom I should not have married. I wanted to change my life dramatically, and then aspired to run a business on a steel hulled schooner (don’t ask what precipitated that idea but I will say that I was a capable sailor). But I sailed the boat into a storm (bad idea) and it ended up in a heap and I nearly lost my life in the process. The irony also is that my survival was a miracle.

    I was still angry with God, and loved God, but the whole idea about the boat I had was to find Him. Why? All that I knew was that whatever I had done to find Him up to that point wasn’t it.

    He was with me the whole time. In the darkest hours He was there and still saved me in the storm, when I was the feckless one who put myself there. I felt that I was cursed, ‘God cursed’. And I was trying to prove to Him (and perhaps to myself) that I loved Him, and to appease Him. “Please no more suffering”.

    I was fighting the Protestant god the whole time. Not the real One.

    It is fine to contend with the real God. He abides and loves and will save your soul. But do not contend with a false god.

    Indeed Father, after I said to God, “I don’t believe You exist”, it was the second time I heard God speak– the real One, about four decades after the accident. These words were spoken when I saw others’ sufferings and death. Indeed, it was harder to bear the sight of others’ suffering than my own. And I don’t have an explanation for it.

  78. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Psalm 21: 25-27(Orthodox Study Bible)

    “For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication, nor has He turned away His face from me; My praise is from You in the great church; I will pay my vows before those who fear Him. The poor shall eat and be well-filled, and those who seek Him will praise the Lord: Their hearts will live unto ages of ages.”

  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    These are matters of the deep heart, which makes it difficult to speak about them, much less explain them. I thought last night about the sentiment: “If God saw all that was going to happen with its suffering, why did He create us?” I then thought of myself as a parent. I knew full well that my children would inevitably suffer. Someday they will die. I did not know the form it would take for each of them. Nevertheless, with joy I was glad to bring them into the world, and would do it over again. This, I think is the experience of most parents. None of us want to see our children suffer, and yet it is only rarely that someone says, “I wish they had never been born.”

    Though suffering in the world can be very great – there is something in being itself that carries goodness, wonder, beauty, and joy. The mystery of suffering is, I am certain, bound up in the mystery of the Cross which predates the creation of all things. Christ went to the Cross for the “joy that was before Him.” I cannot explain it in a sufficient manner – but I know it.

    I have seen others come to that realization – I think it’s a gift from God. I stand in awe.

  80. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    ‘But the enemy changes the wrong into a sense of self-righteousness and builds it up into such a mountain that it seems as though the whole world would go to pieces if our indignation is not satisfied.’
    -St. Theophan the Recluse.

  81. Dino Avatar

    I often marvel how effortless it is to receive irrefutable answers to many atheist arguments simply through the experience of parenthood. Thank you

  82. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your beautiful response. It brought tears of joy and thanksgiving to Christ our Lord.

  83. Byron Avatar

    Dino, it also reveals the hatred our current world has for parenthood. More and more it is treated with derision primarily, I think, because of what you and Father have pointed out. It’s beauty is an eloquent refutation of so many arguments against God.

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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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