The Truth of the Soul

“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving, forever?”

In the classic film, The Third Man, Harry Lime, a racketeer in post-World War II Vienna, quizzes his old friend, Holly Martins, about the value of an individual life. They are standing in the carriage of a Ferris wheel, looking down on the city scape. From Lime’s perspective, the distance provides a detachment that makes morality obsolete. “Have you ever seen one of your victims?” Martins asks him. His own experience has carried him through a children’s ward in a hospital where the victims of Lime’s scams are on view. He has also fallen in love with Lime’s girlfriend who has been callously betrayed to the Soviets. It is a deep conflict regarding the nature of human life.

Who I am cannot be separated from what I am. If I am nothing more than a tiny “dot” in the distance, who I am is of little or no significance. It is also true, however, that the meaning of who I am asks questions of “what I am.” What is it about any of us that belongs to the category of “who I am?”

The same question is presented in graphic form in CS Lewis’ novel, The Great Divorce. There, a bus-load of people make a journey from the shadows of hell (the “grey town”) to the edge of heaven. They are allowed to stay, but every case involves some matter of change, or “loss.” Most of the changes involve strangely cherished habits or matters of identity. An Anglican bishop finds that his “theological” work will be of no use and balks. A mother whose identity seems bound to a child actually demands to have her son (now in heaven) returned to her so she can take him back with her. The injury (murder) of another person has established a grievance. However, the grievance needs to be given up. It has no place within heaven itself. Some things seem rather trivial – a woman’s grumbling, another woman’s sense of embarrassment. But every case poses the question of the truth of a person’s identity. What is it about us that continues into eternity?

A man enjoys a great academic career. Will it matter or be remembered? A woman struggles with a mental handicap. Will it follow her beyond the grave? What can we identify as the truth of our being?

The traditional word for this identity is the soul.

Parsing through the patristic definitions of the soul, its relationship to the body, the functioning of the nous and such things, we easily lose sight of the simple fact of the soul’s existence and its reality as the truth of our being. The soul is an answer to the “what” of my being, and we rightly ask, “What of me belongs to that answer?”

I find an intriguing suggestion in Lewis’ Great Divorce. He offers a character who is enthralled to a besetting sin. In the story, the sin is portrayed as a small lizard that sits on the man’s shoulder. To every suggestion offered by an angel to destroy the lizard, the lizard protests and whispers fearful pleas into the man’s ear. Anyone who has ever known the power of an addiction can relate to the pitiful scene Lewis describes. In the end, in exasperation, the man cries out that the angel can do what it wants. The lizard is seized and killed. And this is where the genius of Lewis comes in. The lizard collapses in a heap of ashes on the ground. However, within moments, something comes forth from the ground. What was once a hideous lizard is now a mighty steed. The newly liberated man mounts on its back and gallops into the greater, deeper realms of heaven. It is the only image of a completed transformation in Lewis’ collection of vignettes. It contains something important in the question of our identity.

Lewis does not treat the sin, or at least some aspect of the sin, as utterly external and extraneous to the soul of this man. He could have let the story end with the destruction of the lizard. I suspect that most of us would like our relationship with sins, particularly those that are most familiar and repeated, to end in such a manner. I frequently hear it said in confession, “I keep doing the same things.” I usually reply, “It’s what it means to have a personality.” Our “besetting sins” are very likely what they are because they belong to us in some particular way. But they are not whole or complete. They are distortions of the self, or, are rooted in distortions of the self.

Sin, like evil, is never a thing-in-itself. It is always a misuse, or disfigurement of something good. Everything created by God is good, only its misdirection and distortion makes it evil. Evil never creates anything. We generally do not and cannot see this about our own sin. The shame that it engenders blinds us to its deeper reality.

I think of the difference between person and personality. “Person” is a theological term that belongs to our completeness, “who we shall be in the fullness of all things.” “Personality” describes that set of tendencies, behaviors, quirks, habits and reactions that shadow us throughout our days. Personalities are largely a collection of neuroses, that set of things we often hope that others do not notice or remember. We long to be persons, only to find ourselves as personalities.

Of course, if everything we think of as personality were removed, many think (perhaps rightly) that what would remain would be unrecognizable – nothing short of a new identity. Lewis’ image is therefore very suggestive. He looks at a personality, complete with the struggle that marks its besetting sin. It has perhaps been dogged and shaped by that sin for years. Its resurrection (for that is how we must understand what takes place) represents not the destruction and loss of personality, but its glorified and radiant new existence. Weakness has become strength – perfected.

In the resurrected Christ the prints of the nails do not disappear: they are marks of His glory. The agony is gone, but He is forever united with those wounds. Christ is forever hailed in heaven as the “Lamb that was slain.”

This, I think, is one of the great difficulties of knowing the true self. St. Paul says that our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). The daily struggle that marks our lives – the battle with the dogged details of personality – is accomplishing something within us that remains hidden. St. Paul offers this: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17) That glory is revealed in the fullness of personhood, conformed to the image of Christ.

The “dots” that we see at a distance were created to become gods. Viewing them from a distance creates a delusional vision. By the same token, the weakness and shame that marks our sin, that burdens us with all the baggage of personality is also delusional to a degree. It bears within itself a struggle working an eternal weight of glory waiting to be revealed.

It is in such a light that we are frequently told in Scripture not to lose heart. Be patient – with others as well as with yourself.


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.






53 responses to “The Truth of the Soul”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Aha, Orson Wells, aka Harry Lime et. al. His personal and creative history is a bit of an example of what you wrote Father. A massive talent in several ways but also bedevilled. A perfect example in real life of the theme of the post.
    Contemplating the Holy Scripture on the original Christian Pentecost, I see a similar theme with the Apostles.
    Then too, I know an Orthodox man who’s wife was transformed as she lay dying and he was blessed to see a bit of that and the continuing of God’s mercy in the Ressurection not long after.
    That same Holy Spirit is alive in each of us and collectively still.
    May the Joy of the Lord be with each and all.

  2. Randall Avatar

    So thought-provoking! Thank you, Father. I’ve been reading your work since 2010 and look forward every week to your guidance. Blessings on your continued ministry.

  3. Eric Avatar


  4. Katie Andraski Avatar

    Thank you for the grace of this.

  5. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar
    Síochána Arandomhan

    Heh. I used the word “soul” in my own blog entry today, and then tried, in parentheses, to define it. I wrote a few different descriptions, found them somehow lacking, deleted them, and finally decided to not bother with a definition. Then a few hours later here is your incredibly thought provoking definition. I feel kind of silly for even using the word “soul” now. But on the other hand I suppose my awkward attempt has made me more open to what you are trying to explain here. I will have to come back and think more about it. Thank you!

  6. Byron Avatar

    Father. forgive me for rambling a little with a parallel line of thought. Remove if it is too far off-base! Lately I’ve been pondering the distinction of the world and the Church (or Christianity) in regard to the truth of our personhood/humanity. It seems to me that most people do not see this distinction, or acknowledge it.

    The world claims that our humanity is defined by the individual (or group of individuals) and the desires/passions they carry. We are bombarded with such marketing as “find your own truth” and “be whomever you want to be” as Mankind is held up as the measure of all things; each person the measure of their “own” humanity.

    This is the polar opposite of Christianity, which states that we are incomplete and the truth (and completion) or our humanity is only found in Christ, who is “fully human”, as we are not (yet?). It is Christ who is the true measure of all things–and most certainly the measure of what it means to be truly human (and Sons and Daughters of God). It is only in the holiness of our salvation, our union with Him, that we become what we were created to become.

    I’ve come to realize that, when we hold up only Christ as the measure of our humanity, all the social issues that plague the world (and that so many churches spend so much effort fighting for/against) disappear. The differentiation they require simply dissolves in Him.

    That we are “mud, created to become gods” is lost in the humanist world–and, sadly, much of what currently passes for the Christian world. But when we embrace our repentance (for being, and desiring to be, incomplete), we can never become detached to the other, as Harry Lime does. We cannot hover above them. Instead, our patience (and love) can only grow for those around us as we seek the fullness of our humanity in Christ, in communion with those around us.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud. Love that movie and this post! Glory be to God!

  7. Kathryn Avatar

    Dear Father,
    Two things
    1. Byron, I relate to your post insofar as I am still often surprised at how being a citizen of -in particular- America is in stark contrast to being a person of Faith. Here it seems the motto is ‘Get more; do more; be more”, yet everything I encounter with Orthodoxy is about working out your salvation daily.
    2. Father, Thank you for writing another fabulous article. If you have an opinion on the book ‘The Science of Spiritual Medicine’ by Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  8. Aaron Avatar

    Interestingly, a large array of “dots” (like pixels on a screen), when viewed far enough from a distance, can “connect” and create a beautiful, living picture (life’s movie). Perhaps part of our struggle is getting too caught up in our self-focused, short-sightedness and losing touch with the fact that we’re all part of a grand, connected tapestry. We seem to get bogged down in our egoistic personalities, mistaking the pixel for the picture, when in fact the reality of who I am is revealed from the wider view of what I am.

  9. Dino Avatar

    That image of CS Lewis is condensed theological genius! Especially the way you present it in relation to “the truth of a person’s identity”.
    It is a pity that there isn’t a word with the richness of the Greek ‘Prosopon’ in English. The Greek can be used both as a more profound notion of ‘hypostasis’ (eg Christ is the second person of the three hypostases/persons of the Holy Trinity) as well as a more profound notion of ‘face’ (eg. Christ is the eternal face of God and the eternal face of humanity).

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think quite the opposite is true. The nature of personhood is found very much in the “who” … unrepeatable, unique. The “long-distance” view, certain obscures many things that trouble us, blurring emotionally into a “what.” It can soothe, much like the forgetfulness and numbness in various anesthetics.

    When contemplating divine providence, in our efforts to see the “big picture,” we can find a sort of solace that “all things are working together for good,” and practice a sort of meditation in which we blend in with the good. Many anxieties seem trivial from that point of view.

    But the great mystery of God’s love is not just in a big picture, the grand scheme. It is intensely personal, transcendently personal. The ministry of Christ is laser-focused on persons. There are crowds surrounding a pool of water, all of them sick. He picks out a paralytic and engages him. It is that story that we know…and many others like it.

    St. Sophrony is perhaps the greatest teacher of our time regarding the nature of personhood. In his early years, before becoming a monk, he was drawn to far Eastern philosophy and thought. There, persons disappear into a greater whole (however defined). He reputiated it after his return to Orthodoxy and became very much focused on personhood. There is an allure in the easy reconciliation and “smoothness” of far eastern thought. But, I think it holds a very deep error and temptation.

    The attention to person, to the “who,” will bring us face to face with shame to start with. Shame is all about the question of “who I am” (or at least about “how I feel about who I am”). This brings us back to the Cross. Our salvation is not found in the elimination of all that is difficult or painful. It is reconciliation – (katallage). It is the healing and true transformation of the person – never(!) it’s disappearing, blending, or diminution. It is quite the opposite.

    And so the description of our transformation is that of beholding Christ face-to-face. We cannot see the face of Christ by disappearing or blending. We see it only as we also see ourselves. The Trinity is Three Persons – and by this we understand that there is nothing “behind,” “beyond,” or transcendent of personhood.

    Many times this intensely personal can feel like an obstacle to union, to peace. The obstacle is that within us that needs to be healed. St. John writes:

    “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2)

    This healing of the person, as we gaze into the mirror of the face of Christ, is painful, oftentimes. But turning our gaze away, choosing to look at myself from such a distance that I no longer exist, for all intents and purposes, is simply avoidance, emptiness, the forgetfulness of the far east.

    The mystery of our salvation in Christ meets with the terrible paradox of the self – the contradictions of who I am versus who I shall be. But that is the hard path of the Cross – the direct confrontation with shame – and the long hard work of reconciliation.

    It’s easy to love people, and everything – from a distance. There was even a pop song a few years back that suggested God is seeing us from a distance. It was balderdash. The Incarnation is microscopically close – utterly personal.

    True love, the love of God, is utterly personal. In time we move beyond mere “personality” and become more truly “personal.” I have, on a couple of occasions, met someone who was well down that path. The encounter of the wholeness of the truly personal was breath-taking. There was a “largeness” in their being that I cannot describe. But it was absolutely the opposite of a distanced speck, a dot in the grand connected tapestry. There was not, however, any hint of the egotistical.

    Aaron, I’m sorry to take such an oppositional approach to what you are suggesting. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong path, a mistake. I strongly recommend reading the works of St. Sophrony.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The connection of prosopon (face) and prosopon (person) is often in my thoughts. This new book I’ve completed (set for early 2023 release) will be titled, Face-to-Face, (unless the publisher says otherwise). The connection between face and person is profound. Shame is “losing face” or being “shame-faced,” etc. We experience shame in the face (blushing, looking down and away). We want to hide (perhaps amidst the little dots in the distance). But Christ has come searching for us…and healing us such that we can bear to see Him face-to-face. That revelation of salvation is what we pray for – that we may stand before His judgement seat (which is the Cross) “without shame or fear.” That is to see Him as He is, just as then we will, at last, see ourselves for who we are.

    Glory to God.

  12. Dino Avatar

    I can’t wait for your book, these issues are very very close to my heart.
    St Makarios the Egyptian was fond of describing the state of standing before God without shame or fear as our transformation into “all light, all spirit, all joy, all love, all face, all eyes…”

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, does not Pentecost, Descent of the Holy Spirit and the overflowing joy of it as described in Acts a revelation of life without shame. Each persons reaction is unique to them, deeply personal yet unifying at the same tim abd healing too
    It struck me this morning that we do not seem to have a common greeting or proclamation for Pentecost as we do for Christ’s Birth, Death and Ressurection.
    Since yesterday I have tried out a few in my mind, but none work. And yet yesterday after service in my parish there was a marked, but subtle, expression of loving communion with one another.
    There is a seeming paradox of the utterly personal yet unifying at the same time. The world requires the separation. Tyranny is the the result. The tyranny of sin, passion and politics. Each fueled by and feeding shame.

  14. Susan Avatar

    Wow. What could be more relevant than this?! Thank you!

  15. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Just what the doctor ordered. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  16. Byron Avatar

    There is a seeming paradox of the utterly personal yet unifying at the same time. The world requires the separation. Tyranny is the the result.

    Michael, I agree. The world requires extremes: completely generic or completely compartmentalized. The paradox of both/and is the work of our salvation in Christ. The union that makes us ourselves is simply unknown to the world and its machinations.

  17. Aaron Avatar

    Father, I’m not suggesting that the path of healing is such that we look at ourself from a distance, avoid our immanent reality, and disappear as a drop of water into some vast, transcendental ocean of being. However, I do think that taking a look at the wider picture can reveal elements of what we are that aid in understanding who we are created to become. The what of who we are is our shared nature. The who is intimately personal. Likewise, in God the what is essential and the who is personal. I agree that the who cannot be separated from the what. You mentioned the soul as being the what of who we are. Do you think understanding this is helpful in our healing?

    Bound up in the what of who we are is the potential (i.e., like a seed) of the who we’re created to become. Therefore, I find it helpful to understand the what of who we are. The “what-ness” of our person is the sacramental means by which the “who-ness” of our person is made manifest. This becomes the intimately personal means of our communion with God, which brings about and is our healing. Our “what-ness” could be described as the image and the “who-ness” as likeness. It’s a dynamic process of becoming.

    One way to look at the what of our person is body-emotions-mind-soul-spirit. It’s easy to lose sight of what we are or simply never understand this. So often we are blinded and afflicted by our bodily desires, our physical ailments (many of which we have no choice in and may have to embrace for our entire life), our emotions, our habitual responses, our distracting thoughts and fantasies, etc. We can get stuck in and equate the body-emotions-mind as the totality of what we are. Our unhealed ego is happy to do just that. The un-healed ego creates this false self, which is a mask (or even many masks we switch between) that hides and obscures our true self. It can dis-integrate us from the rest of our what-ness (soul-spirit) and stunt the growth of our who-ness. What’s needed is the transformative healing and integration of the totality of what we are, so that we can become the fullness of who we were created to be.

    The path of healing is not one of outward movement, but first and foremost, inward. Then outward. It’s a resurrection and transformation of the entire what-ness of our being into the who-ness for which we were created. The what-ness acts as a ladder to the likeness of who we can become. In the depths of our person, we find the immanently personal God who brings about our healing. Here also is found the transcendent door which opens up the bigger picture of who we are, where the movement can go back out in a wider and wider loving embrace.

    To get stuck at any level of what-ness along way prevents the actualization of the who. If we’re stuck in bodily sins, we fall way short. If we’re bound up in our emotions and patterned reactions to life, we stop short. If we become obsessed and captivated with our mind and its thoughts, we remain isolated within ourself and cease to continue. Only at the level of the soul do we experience the connectedness which takes us beyond our egoistic self and become spiritually conscious. At the highest level of spirit, there is Oneness and Unity, yet the individual person remains. This is the wide vantage point of the living picture of reality from which each pixel is still uniquely visible and precious. It’s largely the un-healed ego which stands in our way and stunts our growth along the way.

  18. Simon Avatar

    I may be revealing my lack of background, but I am wondering if there has been any effort to synthesize the work of Sophrony with Zizioulas? I appreciate the distinction between “personality” and “personhood”. “Personality” can be understood as conditioned on time, heredity, upbringing and “personhood” is that which can only truly be understood as God understands it. Personality is shaped by the world. Personhood is not shaped but revealed. The fullness of that revelation occurs at the end when we stand ‘face-to-face’ and ‘know ourselves as we are known.’ In my understanding of prosopon and hypostasis. Prosopon was used as a name for the mask that actors wore on stage, and originally hypostasis had a meaning that was closer to ‘reality’, think Hebrews 11:1-3. So, I’m sure there is nothing new here, but it seems that ‘prosopon’ maps more to the personality than to personhood simply because personality doesn’t describe anything essential about the person. The personality, like the prosopon of greek actors, is more like a role one plays given the stage a person is acting upon. Whereas the hypostasis speaks more to the core reality which may in fact be hidden from sight the prosopon may be woefully visible. The work of the Church, the Holy Spirit, Grace is to reveal the hypostasis, the fundamental reality, the kernel of one’s personhood. Theosis being the fullness of that revelation.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. This clarifies a lot of stuff. Generally I agree. I might add a couple of thoughts later. I’m traveling this week and speaking at a conference which limits my internet time.

    This is a topic that interests me greatly.

    Also, I’m sorry that I misunderstood your original comment. This is quite helpful.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Over time, prosopon became interchangeable with hypostasis. To my knowledge, I’ve not seen anyone try to synthesize St Sophrony and Zizioulas. It would improve Z in my opinion…

  21. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    Wouldn’t “Christ has sent us the Holy Spirit” be a good greeting for Pentecost? It is a bit long I suppose.

  22. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Here, we use a similar rubric for all 3 of the “Trinitarian” Great Feats (although all are Trinitarian, ultimately). So, the response is always “Truly He Is…”, with the greetings being “Christ Is Risen!”, “The Holy Spirit Is Descended!”, and “The Trinity Is Revealed!”, for Pascha, Pentecost, and Theophany, respectively. Only at the Incarnation (ie, Annunciation, ranked at #4) do the responses become more specific, as one descends into the lower-ranked feasts (Nativity, Transfiguration, etc). That some greetings were lost or replaced is quite a long story of history and theology, which I won’t analyze here, but we can see further effects of this winding tale in, for one very brief example, how Nativity is treated today (its fast is a later Western development—and was not originally set at 40 days—but was later adopted and set at 40 in the East, which in turn created a conflict with Lent, which then led to a further domino effect liturgically and theologically, displacing higher-ranked feasts in the popular mind, moving Theophany out of the Paschal cycle, etc). In short, I think it is quite good to seek out, retain, and/or rediscover the specific traditions surrounding each feast and make it a point to use the festal greetings throughout the feasts and festal periods—it is another little part of our collective ministry of proclaiming the Gospel.

  23. Simon Avatar

    I would think the attempt to equate prosopon with hypostasis would subtract out of hypostasis it’s deeper connotations of substance which prosopon never had, unless of course the attempt is to import into prosopon connotations usually associated with prosopon.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, thank you, but the more I think about it, the more appropriate the absence of a specific greeting becomes. John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. ”
    We are given to name created things but not the uncreated?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As I think about it – it sort of depends on the nature of the conversation – its topic. But hypostasis, when referring to the Trinity, means the Person, or when referring to a human, it is the person (Prosopon). But it’s possible to use hypostatic more broadly including places where person or prosopon would be inappropriate. It’s interesting.

  26. Simon Avatar

    In my very limited understanding, when applied to the Trinity, prosopon alone lends itself to modalism, i. e. the one God ‘plays the part of the Father, the part of the son, the part of the Spirit. But, hypostasis alone is too abstract, like three axes of a mathematical system. My understanding is that the effort wasn’t too equate prosopon with hypostasis, but how to combine their descriptive strengths of both words to describe the person’s of the Trinity.

    The insight that falls out of that for humanity is that it offers a new model for anthropology explaining how each person is a full-expression of humanity while not being confused with other person’s.

    Z. contribution to the Father as the unifying element of the Godhead, in my mind, also provides a model for understanding how all things are unified but not confused in Christ.

  27. Dino Avatar

    Father, Simon,
    In Greek it feels fully natural –as is traditional ever since the Cappadocians– to define the term ‘Prosopon’ (mainly in Trinitarian Theology, and its anthropological repercussions), as that which gives hypostasis («τό ὑποστασιάζων») to a Nature. i.e: the specific “who-ness” carrying a “what-ness”. There must be less convoluted ways to say this in English but it has become rather straightforward to assume such understanding in Greek.
    St Sophrony has lately pushed the cosmic aspect of the term more explicitly, thanks to a particular emphasis on such [universal] aspects of any one hypostasis, being something like a ‘final objective for the full realization of the term, i.e.: any one person can potentially be a part representing the whole and interceding for the whole (of the nature it ‘hypostasises’).

  28. Simon Avatar


    Pardon me but that order isn’t clear. You’re saying, or the Cappadocians, are saying that prosopon is what gives hypostases to an ousia, or nature. Is that correct? Is that standard theological understanding? Frankly, in my efforts at self-education on this topic I’m not seeing that as an academic consensus., at least not yet.

    Also, I’m not sure it is helpful or even clarifying to posit a metaphysical prosopon that acts towards a metaphysical ousia in such a way as to yield a more or less metaphysical hypostasis. What I like about Z. is the way his approach eliminates the need for positing all of these speculative categories. Plus it resonates with the Creed.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Zizioulas gives a priority to Person over Nature, and cites St. Basil in doing so. I think that it’s problematic to make any of the terms a priority. They are largely “placeholders” – words to help us think about what is actually inconceivable. I think it is fair to say that there is no “what” that is not a “who.” Even in inanimate things, we never deal with a naked nature – only hypostatic realities.

    A value in St. Sophrony is the eschatological thrust of “person” – that we are moving towards who/what we shall be – which shall be revealed. It’s even possible to say that we are “becoming” a hypostasis/person rather than just saying that we “are” (as though it were a finished matter).

    It’s also very easy to lose our way in these conversations. We speak of such great mysteries.

    For myself, I have found St. Sophrony to be the most helpful. He is less (much less) philosophical than Zizioulas, who is, after all, mostly an academic. St. Sophrony’s thoughts and teachings on personhood are deeply rooted in an inner life of true experience (in which the experience precedes the speaking of the words). First, as he found it in the life of St. Silouan, and then in his own life and community. Most strikingly, the community he founded continues to embody what he taught and bear witness to the authentic character of his teaching.

    What I want, when I think of this question, is an understanding (both present tense and moving forward) of who I am. I can see that whatever/whoever that means, it is seen only in the reflection of the Face of Christ. Some days it seems very dim and distant. Some days it seems possible and true.

    God give us grace.

  30. Simon Avatar

    The nature-necessity question is an interesting question. Does the Trinity exist by virtue of nature or by virtue of freedom? By grounding the Trinity in the will of the Father the Trinity then proceeds from the freedom of the Father rather than the necessity of God’s nature, as if the Father was bound to generate the Son. One of the implications of Z.’s system is that from the hypostasis of the Father comes the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit. It leaves me to wonder, when creating the distinction between hypostasis (personhood) and personality, is it best to think of the hypostasis of each person as ‘coming from’ the Son rather than something one just is. In other words, when we speak of theosis as becoming by grace what God is by nature, perhaps we should mean that we are becoming hypostases by Grace as God exists as hypostases by nature. I am not certain we shouldn’t think of hypostases as being uncreated.

  31. Simon Avatar

    Although this is somewhat speculative, this is why I think it should be permissible to think of the theosis as a revelation of what was given at baptism rather than change over time. It seems to me–in my humble estimation–that what was given at baptism was a seed or kernel which possesses the fulness of salvation. In other words, our hypostatic existence was fully given at baptism and the fullness of that existence awaits it’s final revelation in the end.

  32. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I agree with you that there can be great value to the long-distance view for insight and even healing. I think though that this is more the arena of specialists or people with a specific calling to this kind of work. Most of us would do well to look down at our own 2 feet to know which one to put forward first, at our own soul to see where to direct it, and so on.

    Currently the world seems to be in the grip of a distorted long-distance view, learning about everything that happens everywhere via the internet, thus encouraging judgement from some kind of 30,000 ft view. It is seductive and makes us feel like we have a level of control which we don’t and never did. And in the meantime our children and neighbors could use our help and connection to their lives – except that we’re too busy ruling the world to even notice.

    I know this is hyperbole of what you were referring to, but I also know the short view is more essential in a person’s life. We were made as a one which connects to other ones, not as an entity that connects to groups as a whole. We function best when we do what we were made to do. Otherwise you can end up with someone believing that his actions only affect “a few dots” and is therefore inconsequential.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you’re right about what is given at Baptism. It is an eschatological reality – that which will be being given to us now. As an “earnest” St. Paul says…

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon a wonderful way for me to view some realities unfolding in my life right now. Thank you

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    JBT, being a bit mentally challenged at the moment let me ask specifically: What do you suggest as an appropriate greeting at and around Pentecost?

    BTW lest anyone think I am being critical with my description of myself as mentally chalkenged–I not It is quite literal and an apt description of myself. Please forgive.

  36. Simon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I think it is fair to say that there is no “what” that is not a “who.”. I agree. think that this is the take home from the prosopon and hypostasis discussions of the fourth century. I think I would like to see someone more prepared than I am to think about what that means for our hypostatic existence. Btw…I’m still a fan of Z!!

  37. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    The greeting: “The Holy Spirit Is Descended!”. The response: “Truly He Is Descended!”. And, like Pascha, these are given in sets of 3s, at appropriate times.

  38. Aaron Avatar

    In the “arena” of the spiritual life, there are no experts – only those with experience. And we’re all “called” to enter into this living experience of HE WHO IS. No words, concepts, or ideas could ever adequately capture or describe the fullness of this reality. Some may help, but none will suffice. Participation in this living reality is a process of transforming the potential of our “what-ness” into the fullness of our “who-ness.”

    I agree about the significance of the “short view.” The work of healing is “up close and personal.” While the path is foremost a journey inward, it’s not something we do alone. In fact, our growth can be much faster and more effective if we do this inner work with the support and cooperation of others. Much of our correction (of the ego especially) comes through our connection with others. The one-on-one relationships with those God has given us are of immense value. My salvation depends on the other’s and the other’s on mine. We’re in this together. Each person’s transformation into likeness with God is infinitely precious and valuable. As St. Seraphim said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    JBT, thank you first time in 35 years in the Church I have heard it So I will sit with it awhile in heart.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    JBT, my initial response is that at the original Pascha the joy of seeing Our Lord, once the fear passed, elicited a universal response: “He is Risen!” At Pentecost, reading the description in Acts, there were a plethora of responses. So many and so varied that the observes thought the disciples had gone crazy. Joy, prophecy and compunction all mixed. Laughter, tears, at the same time breaking out of people’s hearts uncontrollably. Whoops of recognition at the wonder of God with us, personally and collectively. Seeming to be, but not, irrational in the extreme. The wonder of God with us permeating all of creation including our hearts overflowing into spontaneous outbursts. Quite a bit different that when Jesus appeared behind closed doors to His chosen.

    Perhaps that is one of the distinctions between Our Lord and the Holy Spirit? Certainly, when the Joy of the Holy Spirit is upon you and within you lifting you up into the Grace of God in a unique way, it is possible that each response will be unique, and a common response is, in a sense, not appropriate?

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what it’s worth: Terms such as “ego” are, to my mind, unhelpful. It’s not drawn from the vocabulary of the Church (and thus her experience) but from modern psychology being based on theories that are not always compatible. It can be a “placeholder” when we’re not sure what else to call it, but is less than useful in a conversation on the spiritual life. It sometimes seems to be equated with self-love (philautia), sometimes equated with the person itself. It tends to carry negative connotations in modern parlance.

    The term can be abused. If the “ego” disappears, for example, what is left? That would be an assault on our very personhood. It modern origin is in Freud who really seems to have had no belief in a soul anyway. I prefer to avoid its use because of the confusion that can go with it.

  42. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr Freeman,

    This was an excellent post. The reason I point out the whole Original Sin thing all of the time is that – it hides – please pause to think about this for a second – what has truly shaped the personality: death and Satan, and makes person, something different than what you’ve described. I’ve thought that when John says, “2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appear we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” – that part of the meaning of not knowing “what we will be” is that, we don’t know what it will be like not to be shaped by death and sin. We have no idea how – especially when death is not seen as the main conditioner/conditioning agent with Satan – and when Original Sin is there and later morphs into humanism because there is no real alternative imaginatively (at least in much of the West) – we have no idea, how to imagine ourselves except in the likeness of Christ, as He is. “Whoever does not love abides in death” and “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” This is why only faith, hope, and love have lasting value and everything else is chaff. Love remains, and we remain in this love, and the chaff of our personality is lost and the person who grieves this, the loss of the conditioning of death and Satan, abides in death, and if death was hidden from the consciousness all along, and instead, OS or some other false anthropology was there, then no light was shown on the cause of their personality and they identify essentially death with who they are, and this is our culture full blown now. Thanks Father.

    Matthew Lyon

  43. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I just wanted to add that, for much of the Protestant world, if I can speak for many, the “who we will be” is just a person who doesn’t sin, because sin and person is or was synonymous. And if they reject that, that you are your sin, or you are sin, it really doesn’t make much difference – which shows – they didn’t alter that much about the former Calvinistic mindset they inherited. You’re just you, minus your sin. The personality overall is unexamined, and the imperative to love, which the personality inhibits, goes unheard. Imagining yourself free from the conditioning of death or Satan is hidden, never thought of, and what we will be is just moral in paradise. And the Resurrection life we are meant to be engaging in now, gets substituted for morality and later when pleasure and morality collapse into one thing, people never asking how death and pleasure are related, and when there is no teleology anymore, all attempts to criticize personalities shaped by death are morphed into attacks on personhood. You have touched a nerve for me.

    We need to hear it preached, and we need in our explanations and apologetics, to bring forward this, what Person is, and what personality is, and how they are different.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, forgive me but you comments on Freud brought back to mind an old pseudo folk song I really liked: The Ballard of Dr. Sigmund Freud by the Chad Mitchell Trio. I have always felt as if it, in a sardonic way, exposed some of the flaws. Certainly not a sober critique but fun. At times joyful laughter reveals the truth of things in a way simple sobriety does not.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, great points. I would say that until the Holy Spirit is actually received not much else is possible.

    St. Seraphim of Sarov particularly made that point. The parable of the sowers serms to fit here as well.

    In this earth there is not one sinless person but in the Holy Spirit the sin is, initially seen for what it is and then we can proceed with healing by putting ourselves in the path of His Grace and mercy.

    The joy of the Lord be with you and in your heart.

  46. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I agree with you. The Reformers believed the Law exposed sin in the believer such that when accompanied with the preaching of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit could be expected to awaken/regenerate/make born again, the degenerate. And they were onto something. It’s just that because they believed the Law to show inherited depravity and not, death operating on the consciousness with exacerbation by Satan, becoming a Christian entailed realizing full dependency on Christ (with the whole package of election, predestination, Penal Substitution – these things became the Gospel) and full renunciation of works (which were nothing but pride) and this, was the born-again moment/regeneration moment and how this related to Baptism was never agreed upon. So, you get Lutherans with some baptismal regeneration, Calvinists with Covenantal Baptism, Baptists with symbols, etc. OS created the mess. Instead of Exodus, desert, loyalty, vindication, glorification you get Law, Gospel/Grace, regeneration for the Elect, and sinlessness in heaven (here or out there somewhere). And then you get the clean-up job for those who are offended which is basically modern Evangelicalism.

    If they had realized the Law was not a means to works but to acquiring love by faith/obedience things would have shaped up differently but OS necessitated that view of works and Law. It’s the only logical way to read it. If you’re evil, what are your works? Evil. Even if your works look to be good, they are just motivated by self-righteousness. Eventually this pessimism gets replaced (all within Christian groups by the way – all by heretics and not a bunch of atheists) with humanism. But they, the mutated today, make the same mistake (which shows their dependency on the previous false anthropology – and a common trait of all heresy) that nature determines person. What you are (which is either sin or if you redefine sin then your psychological fantasies) is determined by your nature (whether sin or psychology or neurology or neurobiology). This is all fatalistic, but it is celebrated as identity which is a complete contradiction. I am sin or I am bio-determined, or I am psychologically determined, and I’m proud of it. Original Sin takes teleology/future destined potentiality, and ruins it, making heaven happiness and you in that heaven, a happy sinless person or a happy “there is no sin” person. Atheism becomes nothing more than heresy because it is so dependent upon Christianity.

    When you return to the Orthodox view, you realize, it’s the only actual view that makes any sense of human experience, Scripture, continuity with the OT, free will and the bondage of the will, etc. Orthodoxy is true anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology is a necessary by product of soteriology.

    So, getting back, if the Law had been used to show the pathology of death, and if working the Law (which Jesus says is love) had been a therapy (they have no therapy but the Holy Spirit overpowering your depravity – or they just ditch depravity altogether), like almsgiving, fasting, prayer is part therapy, then the Holy Spirit would awaken the conscience and the consciousness of someone’s slavery to fear of death, how they cooperated with the Satanic, how Grace can set them free through the love of God and Pascha. But you can’t run a consumer economy preaching fear of death, Satan defeated, and Resurrection – because then we’d know, every time we were getting addicted, distracted, wasting our lives, that pleasure and security are illusions masking fear, and the marketers would have no jobs. When you realize that even toothpaste is marketed as a death consciousness distractor (and you still buy toothpaste of course but really that’s how they sell it as a beautification product masking the imperfections of death) you’ll think twice before working for bread that doesn’t satisfy.

    Went on a tad long, but the Holy Spirit combined with the preaching of death’s destruction (the Gospel) and calling us out of living in and “abiding in death” is effectual for the person willing to put to death the fear of death by the Spirit. I cannot state more boldly that a Gospel without death, without the devil, without fear of death is totally accursed by Paul’s standards, and the ramifications are so wide for our culture today.

  47. Aaron Avatar

    I agree. There is a lot of baggage associated with the word “ego,” as is the case with many words. Words can be a hindrance for sure. Sometimes new words and concepts are even needed. Contextual explanations at a minimum are required.

    I find it helpful to view our ego as a given part of the “what” of who we are. It acts as a sort of operating system, directing our desires and shaping our actions. The ego’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. We see this play out from day 1 of our birth. The pleasure-pain cycle repeats over and over. Ultimately, it’s purpose (if we actualize it) is to lead us to God. He’s the only one who can satisfy the deepest desire of the ego and bring about the true fulfillment and deep joy we’re constantly searching for. Unfortunately, if we remain unaware of this, we spend our lives trying to obtain pleasure in various forms, most of which are ultimately destructive to ourself and others and some of which even appear good but are actually rooted in selfishness.

    On an ontological level, this endless pleasure seeking is sinful in the deepest sense. Its focus is not on God, but on ourself. What’s required is repentance and transformation, not the destruction of our ego. If it’s part of what we are, it can’t be destroyed. Consciously turning back to God and prayerfully opening ourself to Him, He fills us more and more with His Light, which transforms our ego, heals us, and makes us whole. Our ego can then be used for good, making manifest God’s loving presence in the world. Instead of operating out of selfishness, we learn to use our ego as a means of unconditional love. This healing process transforms the potential “what” of our nature into the fullness of the “who” we were created to be. Image into likeness.

  48. Aaron Avatar

    Your post is extremely interesting to me for many reasons, especially regarding your view of Original Sin. It also raises other questions for me. If the fear of death is what drives people to sin (forgive me if this isn’t what you’re saying), what do you make of someone who truly confronts their mortality, accepts it, and then decides to “sin” boldly any way? They may even live a “good” life, but simply fill it with continuous, pleasure-seeking pursuits. This person doesn’t desire or try to work “evil” in the world, but rather desires only to live a life of pleasure, fully understanding and accepting their death and temporary bodily existence. Even the supposed fear of death hasn’t seemed to move them to heal and live a life of unconditional, God-like love.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but I remain troubled at your use of language. For one, it seems that most of what you say is expressed in very generic terms. If they work for you, fine. However, writing in the Orthodox tradition, I am cautious of language that is too generic. For example, when “God” is used, I’m not sure what is meant. When “love” is used, equally problematic. The tradition’s use of language, which is sometimes somewhat careful, is there to guard against false teaching. Thus, when I speak of God, I generally refer to Christ – as in there is no possible to path to God apart from Him. These days, as language is consistently abused – I again ask that we work to stay within the language of the Church. The same is true of avoiding private accounts of “how it works.” We ground what works within the Tradition. I’ve met lots of people who speak of love, but mean something else. Sorry to be bothersome about this.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, it will take some work on my part to catch all you are saying. I have never lived in the Protestant nor the RC worlds. Frankly, they tend to make my head hurt and my heart sad. Nevertheless I have an inkling because of my historical survey of the heresies that have arisen throughout time and persist somehow.

    My father believed in the interconnectedness of all life therefore actions had consequences for good or ill. We human beings had a responsibility to help each other.

    My mother taught my brother and me that there is a God working in people and through out time. Tacitly she knew God was of the Cross. Our job was to find Him.

    Put those two things together; add a large dose of Grace and Mercy and both my brother and I were led to the Orthodox Church and received about 30 years ago at slightly different times. We were both led by God to the Church so that He could safely and gradually reveal to us Who He Is and share Himself with us. We each had to discard man made images of Him along the way– a process that becomes refined but never ends.

    In my case the irreducible core is Jesus Himself and His command to , “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” I take those words quite literally and in the now. A constant challenge and living promise.

    The Sacraments bring the living reality–His Incarnate Grace interpenetrating all things in specific ways. The theology, served by faithful teachers like our host, is the way to see, experience and understand correctly without fear. Often apophatically saying: “That is not God.”

    “Submit yourselves all ye nations for God is with us!”

    May the Joy of the Lord lift you up into all life in love.

  51. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    “What do you make of someone who truly confronts their mortality, accepts it, and then decides to “sin” boldly anyway? ”

    That they are delusional. But you’re really describing two different people, I think. I once heard a pastor speak of Satan as suicidally insane. Nietzschean fantasies are exactly what you describe, but it’s a fantasy, and it’s blown the minute you end up in a wheelchair or broke by and large. Man’s attempt for self-determination are the most grand of all evasion maneuvers. It take the most “pretend” capacity. It really is like putting on a cape and jumping off a roof.

    From the Orthodox perspective, there is no Life where there is no union with Christ, and the person who accepts this with a real sense of awareness is basically giving the finger to God. It’s more the frustration that they are not God and are stuck so what can you do? Cry about it, and you may do so with a lot of cruelty. But the Epicurean and the Nietzschean, one will run of their stash of drugs (their fix, whatever it is), and the other breath and vitality. A bucket list that lets you go out of existence or a personal achievement that memorializes you, are results of fear of death. Without love we are nothing but parasites. Realizing how we fear death is overwhelming I think, and I wonder if this is sort of the job of the Priest in Confession to give us a cracked window on our problem that is tolerable and workable.

    Fatalism only gets worse. One insane “hero” ready to go down in a blaze of glory, in a self-determined extinction moment, is not someone I want next door. But the Epicurean or the hedonist and the Nietzschean have something in common. They all delight in something. The atheist who thinks they’ve arrived because they can swallow the bitter pill of the harshness of the world, takes pride often in this ability not realizing it makes life completely futile. Every philosophy is a fear of death maneuver or what I like to call, “A Job’s Wife” – a “Curse God and die”. And we’re over here saying, Christ is Risen. This is why for Paul, there was no synthesis of philosophy and Christ. There is Life and there is no life, if you choose the no life option, you are rejecting God, who you were designed to live in and for, in union/communion, and if we reject that, you don’t have a “neutral”, unbiased, Epicurean here doing his own thing, and the Nietzschean here doing their own thing and so on, you have rebels, who God is often quite patient with, but nonetheless rebels.

    Thanks for your comment.

  52. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I just wanted to add that fear of death competes with faith/faithfulness, fear itself is not bad, but fearing for survival more than fearing God, or fearing withdrawal from the coping mechanisms for death rather than in the Provision/Providence/Goodness of God, this is unbelief. This is why “fear” and “faith” are often interchanged in the Bible. We fear God in the sense that (yes, there’s the actual fear and trembling aspect) He’s our greatest “faith”, Christ is the greatest Object (don’t like using words like object but for sake of clarity), of trust. To trust in death – over Life – is upside down in the worst way. And Jesus tells us plainly that to save your life at the expense of your soul is a bad deal. These themes could not be more obvious in the Bible, yet add on some OS, and now, conceptually death and Satan will fade into a question of why they are even part of the Gospel, but they’re there so we believe it… How many presentations of the Gospel could just skip the Resurrection? A lot. The martyr, in full hope of Resurrection, is the person freed from fear but freed to faith (same goal as in ascetism of any kind for the Christian), same thing. The person supposedly freed from fear of death via “sucking it up” – the cruelty of the world is not freed to faith – but to futility. They don’t soar with the eagles; they jump off houses in capes.

    John 3:16’s – “will not perish” – means to not die. But it has culturally been understood as, “not go to hell”. I won’t get into any discussions on hell, but my point is, the “not die” part of John 3:16, is basically missing. John 3:16 goes with Hebrews 2, “14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Colossians 1:13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 1 John 3:8b, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

    I wish that people memorized John 3:16 with Hebrews 2:14.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, thank you for the Hebrews 2:14. As I read it a tickle of joy began in my heart welling up to full blown laugh as I re-read it then settling down to a steady stream at the moment.

    Speaking from experience those that think they have faced their mortality without Jesus and accepted it are living with a fragile crystalize lump in their heart that leaks acid into their souls.
    Soon they enter a state of despair either attempting to be inert or lash out at those around them through attempting to control the behavior of others or outright violence of some sort, i e. modernity in all its aspects. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

    “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” is the real way to face death unafraid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Father, reading the Gospel for today “John 17:18-26” got me thinking again on the question Dee asked. It seems to…

  2. Thank you, Father. Dee, I have personally seen and venerated a weeping icon that came to my parish many years…

  3. Good question Dee. The most common phenomena associated with Orthodox saints of which I am aware is the weeping of…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast