The Communion of Tradition

Christ_PantocratorThat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3 NKJ)

There is an old saying in English, “He cannot see the forest for the trees.” The phrase often comes to mind when I am discussing the place and role of tradition in Orthodox Christian life. It is a reality that so surrounds and permeates our existence that we easily overlook it. We discuss tradition as though it were a tree, when, in fact, it is the forest. This is nowhere more true than in the Scriptures.

In some corners of the Reformation, tradition was accorded a place within the sources of authority. Classical Anglicanism (as expounded by Richard Hooker) described the so-called “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Hooker rightly recognized that tradition could not be discarded when thinking about the Christian faith. How the Church read the Scriptures evidenced in the Councils was not something he was prepared to jettison. A number of other reformers recognized this same dynamic and sought to find ways to give a more nuanced expression of sola scriptura. A weakness within Hooker, and similar approaches, was to reduce tradition to a manageable body of knowledge. They sought to turn the forest into a tree.

It is this contextual character of tradition that makes it so difficult for people to understand. Tradition is the context in which anything takes place. If the context changes, then no matter how carefully all else is preserved, its essence has shifted and its meaning has changed. But context can be very difficult to perceive.

The Scriptures are a primary example of this phenomenon. What was the context in which the Scriptures of the New Testament came to be written? For although they are clearly the primary text of Christianity, they are not simultaneously their own context. The quote from St. John’s first epistle points to the primitive, indeed, the primal context of the faith:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life…

St. John is not referencing the Scriptures. He is speaking of the living experience of the incarnate Son of God – “which we have heard – which we have seen with our eyes – which we have looked upon – and our hands have handled…” It is this living experience that “we declare to you.” And the purpose of this declaration is more than the relay of information. St. John tells his readers that these things have been declared to them “that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” [This is one of those sad verses where English translators have rendered koinonia (κοινωνία) as “fellowship” a meaning that is almost bizarre in its failure to render the Greek.]

The communion to which St. John refers is itself the tradition, the context without which his letter cannot be rightly read. And it is clear that St. John believes that this communion is something that can be given. His word for this transmission is rendered “to declare,” translating the Greek, apaggello (ἀπαγγέλλω – related to the word for gospel). St. John’s declaration is the equivalent of St. Paul’s favorite term, gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, evangel), which is itself frequently misunderstood in its meaning and import.

What does St. Paul mean when he says gospel, the good news? Our first instinct is to find a way to summarize his preaching. Thus the gospel is “Christ died for our sins,” or some such phrase. But St. Paul clearly has an almost global meaning for the word:

For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance,  (1Th 1:5 NKJ)

It is used to mean God’s revealed plan wrought in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the preaching of Christ. It is the content of the preaching. But like St. John’s communion, the gospel is not “word only” but also “power.” Thus it is not the proclamation of an idea or a set of ideas, nor the announcement only of an event in history. Gospel is the living power of the communion with the Father through His Son in the Spirit. That living communion is our participation in the crucified and risen Christ.

But St. Paul is also quite clear that this gospel is given by tradition.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)

Here the Apostle uses the technical word delivered, translating paradidomi (παραδίδωμι), the verb form of tradition, paradosis (παράδοσις). The gospel preached is what St. Paul understands as that which has traditioned to the Corinthians. And it is this tradition which saves (if we hold fast to it).

The written words of the New Testament are a form which the tradition came to take. Interestingly, the verses that mention the “Scriptures” in the New Testament do not mean the New Testament itself, but the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The New Testament is a written form of the tradition, the gospel, the preaching, the declaration, the communion given by the Apostles to the Church, the living communion of the one gospel of Christ. But the context of that writing was the living tradition (gospel, preaching, declaration, communion) of the Church.

How did the primitive Church recognize the authenticity of writings presented to it? The question is extremely important. There is evidence of the question within the New Testament texts themselves. In both Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, the text refers to St. Paul’s own signature. St. John’s gospel has a closing affirmation by a community that his gospel is by the beloved disciple. But to a large extent, such tokens are but tokens and not by any means proof of authorship (forgeries were abundant in the ancient world).

Ultimately the acceptance of writings as authoritative rests entirely on tradition (particularly tradition as context). The Church recognized the authentic voice of the Church in the writings – i.e. the writings agreed with the gospel as it had already been received. St. Paul specifically describes this manner of recognition:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9 NKJ)

Here again, St. Paul uses gospel in a manner synonymous to tradition (paradosis). And he again invokes the technical word for the reception of tradition, paralambano (παραλαμβάνω). No writing, even from St. Paul himself, is to be accepted if it is not in harmony with the tradition as it has been received. That tradition (gospel, declaration, communion) judges all things for it is the true life of Christ within the Church. Christ promises this as a specific work of the Spirit:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (Joh 16:13 NKJ)

St. John references the same thing in his first epistle:

But the anointing [chrism] which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing [chrism] teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27 NKJ)

This work of the Spirit is not the quasi-magical notion taught by many Pentecostals, nor is it the testimonium internum of Calvin. Both of these misinterpretations imagine an interior working or voice which warns the believer of error, etc. It certainly has an inner component, but it is not some unique charisma. Rather, it is the living witness, the abiding presence of the same Christ, the continuing, authentic voice of that which was once delivered within the Church. 

St. Ignatius of Antioch, immediate successor to the Apostles, writing in the early second century bears witness to the presence of this voice: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Ep. to the Eph. XV

All Christians have something of this authentic voice in their midst. Anyone who names Jesus as Lord with the full and true intent of those words affirms that authentic voice. But it is greatly diminished by the various ideologies and unexamined cultural assumptions that crowd contemporary Christianity. The ideologies of sola scriptura, in which the culture of the reformers or other latter-day leaders is substituted for that authentic voice create an alternative silence, a context in which the words of Scripture take on meanings foreign to gospel once delivered to the Church.

Many times we cannot see the forest for the trees. It is even more difficult if the trees have been transplanted into a strange land.

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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40 responses to “The Communion of Tradition”

  1. RC Avatar

    This is wonderful, Father, and very much in line with what my own thoughts have been occupied by lately.

    The Kingdom (that realm of communion described by St. John) is not limited, in scope or content, by what can be found in scripture. Thus, belief and practice are not limited to it either. Providing a verse in support of some aspect of tradition presumes Orthodox are playing the same game as Protestants, i.e. “we open the scroll and *then* arrive at belief and practice.” But that is not the order of events. Belief and practice (the tradition) are, as you’ve said, living realities that we are invited to experience directly. The truth of a belief or practice is confirmed by experience, whether there’s a verse that corresponds or not. Even when Orthodox *do* cite scripture, it isn’t to say, “See, this is why!” It’s to say, “Yes, this is like that. I recognize here what I experience as truth.”

    The living tradition precedes the opening of the scrolls and must be already in place if we are to “rightly divide” what we find there.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My first conscious contact with Tradition was the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Even there was a sense of otherworldliness and the Spirit being the source of its authority– not just rules. Despite the theme generally running against continuing Tradition.

    In this world it is difficult to recognize and live in.
    Living Tradition will always be criticized and maligned… Weather we live authentically or not.
    I have found simple proclamations helpful to me. The simple both proclaims the mystery and protects it too.
    “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

    Underlying that simple statement is the deeper mystery of all the prayers of The Theotokos, the Holy Angels and Saints that constantly surround us and inter-penetrate both our bodies and our souls. It is not just pious optimism.

    Contemplating such things brings both the joy of laughter and the tears of contrition and shared struggle.
    The Joy of the Lord be with all.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Irenaeus said, “Our doctrine agrees with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist agrees with our doctrine.” There are so many ways to say this – but the life of the Church is the teaching of the Church, etc.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As you note – the theme of that musical is actually anti-traditional (except in a romanticized version). It is a play about the inevitable triumph of modernity. Great songs, though.

  5. Brandon Avatar

    Father – have you read DBH’s Tradition and Apocalypse? If so, do you have any takeaways?

    He goes into much detail about some of the changes within the faith and how if you look at ‘Tradition’ historically, it is basically incoherent if just looking back at the past. His only solution to make it potentially coherent is to look back as well as to the future, to the final eschatological horizon, and view Tradition in that light. It was difficult to see so many of the historical inconsistencies within the Orthodox faith especially compared to the often catechized ‘changlessness’ of it. After all of the scandal he lays out, it does seem like his solution is about the only coherent one. It also seems like , though he acknowledges he often strays from the common teachings, that this could be just another way and more precise way to describe what the Church has always taught. But I do wonder if he is still merely attempting to discuss Tradition as a Tree by actually trying to define it it terms of logical coherence, and given that he kind of shuns the common grasps onto Divine Providence and Mystery etc. Or maybe he is trying to discuss/define Tradition as forest because it is necessary to do so, lest it be useless.

    I know you often write about the messiness within Orthodoxy. What is the proper way to think about all the change within the faith (e.g. rituals, emphases, doctrine)? This article does help settle some of the confusion, and doubtlessly I would find the answer above if I was a little more patient. But it seems like I’m still having a hard time with understanding how Tradition can be trustworthy if it actually has changes, historical inconsistencies, ‘creedal innovations’ that aren’t usually taught to the faithful?

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    … and yet Father, Fiddler on the Roof, try as it might lit a coal in my heart opposite to that intended. In fact it help me realize the essential cruelty and capriciousness of modernity and its faux sense of eneviblity

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not read DBH’s Tradition and Apocalypse (and I probably won’t). I have read various works of his – with somewhat uneven appreciation. He is brilliant and a wordsmith without equal, at present. But, again, my experience is that so much more could be said with less, and far more succinctly.

    My take on the problems mentioned are thus:

    Tradition is the “deposit of the faith,” the actual content of the faith itself – and, as such, is nothing less than the Holy Spirit. This is consistently with how Vladimir Lossky treats the matter.

    In its effective reality – I think of it (in terms of doctrine, etc.) to work similar to a grammar. A six-year-old child can speak his language fluently, thus exhibiting a knowledge of all the “rules” of grammar, but he does not “know” the rules in a manner that would sound like a rule. Usually, around 4th grade, (in my day), he begins to learn the rules – things like subject/verb agreement, etc.

    Though he doesn’t “know” the grammar in a formal way, he can nevertheless “hear” mistakes when he or someone else makes them, and corrects accordingly.

    In this way of thinking, the Church has always “known” the fullness of the Truth as it was given to her in Tradition. But the Church doesn’t always “know” the rule until it encounters a contradiction (heresy) to the rule. Then the Church struggles until it has found the right way to express the rule.

    That Christ is God – the only-begotten Son of the Father – the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – for example – doesn’t have precise expression until the doctrinal definitions of the 4th century. Earlier statements could, sometimes, be understood to mean something else, but, as far as I can see, were always still capable of meaning what is expressed in the formal doctrines of the 4th century. and so forth…

    This is the true inner life of the Church. And, wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, is also always the End of All Things – so, we could certainly be correct in saying that it is “apocalyptic,” etc.

    In the past, I’ve thought that DBH makes a bit too much of historical issues and accidents, sometimes overwhelming a conversation with massive amounts of historical data.

    When I read the NT (1st century), or St. Ignatius (2nd century), or St. Irenaeus (3rd century, or the Cappadocians (4th century), etc., it is clear to me that I reding one and the same faith – one knowledge, etc. In that sense, they are in the “same language.” If, however, I pick up any number of varied writers outside of the “Orthodox canon,” the variations and deviations can be anywhere from small “grammatical errors,” to a completely different grammar and language altogether.

    By the same token, it’s possible for someone to say all the right things, and use all the right grammar, and yet be saying something contrary to the Tradition and an affront to the Spirit of Christ. In those cases, it is more in what is “not said” – the “silence” in which the words are spoken (to use an image from St. Ignatius), that is problematic. These are troublesome, indeed. You can have a priest or monk, for example, quoting the Fathers and applying them, and, yet, within you, you feel that something is wrong. Those are the hardest things to identify and rebuke.

    Tradition, because of its inward and spiritual nature, is always difficult to quantify. Ritual changes, for example, certainly take place. But does the grammar of the Liturgy change? That is a more serious question.

    When I point out problems concerning “modernity,” for example, I mean by it that modernity has its own grammar, speaks its own language, and has a goal and telos contrary to Christ. Modernity can speak “Christianity” but with results that twist and distort the faith. I believe it permeates all of our culture and institutions, thus my constant harping on the topic.

    To acquire the “mind of the Church” is, in the long run, to acquire that inner life that is the fullness of the Tradition. It’s slow, marked by patience, love, always with an eye to Christ.

    Hope this is a helpful answer.

  8. Brandon Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Very helpful!

  9. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    The comparison to grammar is illuminating because the goal of language is not to follow grammatical rules, but to communicate (a word having a close etymological relationship with communion!). The most useful rules, therefore, are those that clarify. Likewise, the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammars might aid in understanding how someone such as a monk can follow all the rules (prescriptive) and yet communicate more problematically than someone whose knowledge of the grammar is more child-like (descriptive).

    Language context is one area in which humans are still superior to computers. Programming languages, for example, are very prescriptive, such that a grammatical mistake generally means the program fails to compile (won’t run). But humans very often know “what you meant” to say and even what you might only be implying. We are much better at handling ambiguity and messiness and still seeing the big picture.

    At least for now 🙂

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, The Tower of Babal? Maybe that is why prayer seems to be easier when we allow it to be the center of the context rather than trying to screen out what can seem to be noise and distraction?
    There is at least one thing humans will always be better at than computers–being human. That includes being able to pray, to worship, to give thanks, to repent and to suffer for and with others.

    Lord, Jesus Christ. Have mercy on me, a sinner. (Some versions have “the” sinner

  11. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    Fiddler on the Roof has a warm place in my heart. My husband and I watched it on stage the day we got engaged. Tee hee. We saw it (along with my parents, for whom the tickets were a gift) then went out to dinner, had a long conversation about what marriage was about, and ended it by agreeing to marry each other. It was not a planned proposal – or a formal proposal at all – but a meeting of the minds and hearts that felt perfect and inevitable. (Married 12 years this summer.)

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mrs. Arandomhan,

    God grant you many years. Thank you for your story.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, in re-reading your post I find in odd that, in your discussion, there is mention of the Persons with whom we commune.
    One of the clearest differences between true Christian Tradition and every other faith is the reality that we commune with the Person of Jesus Christ and the Person of the Holy Spirit who reveal the Person of the Father.

    If the Persons are reduced to ideas or concepts they can no longer be seen, handled or known and all their power vanishes.

    My passions, in one form or another, entice me to ignore the specificity of Jesus as a Person all the time. Thus reducing even my own personhood and inducing me to sin.

    Since your eloquent article on the particularity of God and people, I am surprised it does not seem to get a mention here–although it took a re-read to realize–so maybe I missed the references.

  14. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Father, thank you for this post. It seems to touch on the Orthodox invitation to “come and see.” I understand the frustration of those outside Orthodoxy who want a clear, defined set of doctrines and theologies that they can compare and contrast with their own (“Give us your tree so we can compare it with ours,” you might say). The analogy I’ve tried to use is: if I tried to give you a list of my daily life, it may give you a sense of that life, but ultimately it will be filled with misunderstandings, it won’t capture the fullness of how I live in even a single day, much less in context with my family, my friends, my coworkers, throughout my entire life. To really know my life, we would need to live our lives together, not merely share details about our lives with one another.

    Similarly, if Orthodoxy is the fullness of Christianity, if tradition is what the Orthodox say it is, then details only get you so far. You have to experience it. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Or: “Come and see, and experience what it’s like to walk through the forest, not just look at a picture of one.”

    There seems to be a certain amount of self-denial that is necessary to even reach this point, though. So many relationships today are define by sharing details of our lives with one another (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc), I wonder sometimes if we mistake that for actually living with one another. The “language” of modernity seems to have no problem with a disembodied existence, making it that much more difficult to grasp what it is the Church has to say about living within the real living tradition, communion with God.

    One last thought- regarding transplanting forests to a strange new land, I have greatly appreciated your comments in the past regarding Orthodoxy in America as a generational endeavor. It’s a helpful reminder that forests don’t grow in deserts overnight, and encourages patience. I have never been a very patient person. I am nearly 40 now, and only just beginning to realize the virtue of patience (or long-suffering); I am a particularly slow learner. But your blog has helped a great deal with that. “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt you to inherit the land.”

    Thank you for the work you continue to do here, Father.

  15. phil mueller Avatar
    phil mueller

    “Many times we cannot see the forest for the trees. It is even more difficult if the trees have been transplanted into a strange land.”

    how can we know anything then? i can, and have, believed many contradictory things over the course of my life so far. how can i know that what i currently believe is any more “true” than what i used to believe with equal fervor?

    ask a million christians any question about theology and you’ll get a million different answers. heck, ask a hundred bishops and you’ll get a similar variety. and that’s just within the “canonical” orthodox church, nevermind the billions of other sorts of christians, and the billions more muslims, hindus, animists, new-agers, etc etc, all equally convinced of their own beliefs. will god really damn them all for being wrong? if so, what kind of god is that? if not, why does any of it matter?

    i’m sorry for being confrontational, but this is killing me inside.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it’s important, in developing the sort of patience needed in this life, to set modest goals. For me, a good death is among those goals. Perhaps, we could even say that we should live our lives in such a manner that generations to come might make mention of us when they see what is around them (for the good).

    There’s a Troparion to All Saints of North America (used in the OCA), that begins, “O hills of Pennsylvania.” It speaks of generations who came to this land and worked in coal mines and factories, and built beautiful temples, etc. I enjoy it each year when the choir sings it (on that feast day), in that it recognizes the tremendous sacrifice of many hard lives that gave us what we have now (which can seem so little). We are clearly living in an amazing time for Orthodoxy in America – and, possibly, – it will be worth remembering some day.

    Of course, to have mention in heaven is even greater – the “well done.”

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You should take a break from such thoughts. First, it’s not nearly as chaotic as you describe. If so, we wouldn’t even be able to understand each other. And, for what it’s worth, it is important that we learn to bear the shame of being finite and fallible. Christ said that, at the end of the day, we should, “At most, I am an unprofitable servant.” Do your best – but just do the next good thing that is at hand. We are not created to contemplate what everybody, everywhere, may or may not think.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    God bless you brother.

  19. Byron Avatar

    The analogy I’ve tried to use is: if I tried to give you a list of my daily life, it may give you a sense of that life, but ultimately it will be filled with misunderstandings, it won’t capture the fullness of how I live in even a single day, much less in context with my family, my friends, my coworkers, throughout my entire life. To really know my life, we would need to live our lives together, not merely share details about our lives with one another.

    Nathan, these realizations of the depth of commitment and communion needed to know (love) our neighbor “as ourself” remind me of why I should be quick to not judge those around me. I am not repentant and reflective to know my own life very well; how well can I possibly know theirs? But it is so very difficult to live this. The humility required is so beyond me.

  20. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Memory eternal, His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos.

    He is beloved by so many.

  21. Kenneth Avatar

    The first book I ever read about Orthodoxy was “The Orthodox Church” by Metropolitan Kallistos. I read it straight through twice (as a Protestant inquirer 11 years ago), and at that point I already knew that I would need to become Orthodox. Memory eternal!

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon my experience is that real humility is a gift of The Holy Spirit. One can ask for it and learn a bit by regular Confession, but it is still a gift–sometimes a painful one. I am not there yet either for sure.

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I had a similar experience with the same book. Although it was not as long ago as 11 years. I’m amazed to say it was about 10 years ago. I say that I’m amazed because while I believed in the truth of what Met. Kallistos wrote and eagerly imbibed the theology, it was still a few years later that I dared to enter an Orthodox Church service. Until then, I had not entered a church for several decades (albeit once for attending a wedding) for worship.

    The added words ‘for worship’ might seem odd. In an unusual situation, I was invited to attend an Orthodox service in a very remote place, St Paul Island, Alaska. I had been invited by the local school to provide the teachers an “in-service” workshop on pedagogy, and I was flown there for the purpose. The quaint little church appeared to me to be a historical building, and I was curious about it. (I was not Christian at the time). While I was indeed curious about the Alaska Native history and culture, I had an amazing blind eye to the importance of their Orthodoxy Way of life. What was so amazing about my blind eyes was that their piety was so obvious in their manner and various other ways that I now find it hard not to notice. I had taken pictures of the places and people, and years later, after I became Orthodox, I see things in these pictures that I had not seen in person. Among the most blatant were the icons on the walls and their clergy’s cassocks. Believe it or not, I didn’t notice, perhaps because I didn’t know what I was looking at. And in that regard, I thank Met. Kallistos’ words in his book, to begin to open my eyes.

    Byron, Michael, humility is so paramount in the Orthodox Way. I don’t have it either. But I thank God for helping me realize this and see my condition. And I take to heart what Fr. Stephen says about pride, which has an underlayer of toxic shame. We use pride as a buffer in our social interactions in the US, to cope with our toxic shame. And I believe it is this which steals our humility away. When I lived in Canada as a student in chemistry, my friends and I were at an international chemistry conference. We would take bets at guessing where the attendees came from. It was easy for me to spot the ones from the US by the swagger in their gait. When I hear stories of people who come into the Orthodox Church and end up with their noses out of joint because they were not offered communion, rather than be indignant (my own form of pride), I remind myself that many of us are wallowing in an internal pool of shame.

    May God help us. May we remember God and the image of God in our neighbor and in our own hearts.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, and thank you for these thoughts/observations.

    My book on shame will, I hope, point to paths of understanding for some readers (who knows how many?). It’s impossible, I think, to write everything that I have been observing in this matter. But, time will tell.

    What is true is that I generally see that most of the time, nearly all of us are walking bundles of shame-related behaviors, such that this is primarily what we mean when we say, “Experience.” What is truly rare – extremely rare – is experience that is devoid of this aspect. That is also to say that our experience of the authentic truth of who we are is extremely rare. We do not know ourselves anymore than we know God – and precisely to the same degree.

    The journey to knowing God is not a path away from the shame, but a path into its depths (like a journey into Hades which is an “icon” of shame itself). In its deepest places, we can there find Christ who descended there in order to meet us. In union with Him, we can find the true and living God and the authentic existence that is His gift to us.

    But dancing around and posturing in our shame-suits (the most common way of being) is a useless exercise. God give us grace to go where He leads.

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    I so look forward to reading your book!
    Indeed, what you have described in your comment is the path to healing. Glory to God for His Passover. May we follow Christ where He leads us!

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hebrews 2:15 says that we were in “lifelong bondage through fear of death.”

    In many ways, shame is an experience that is the “fear of death” (from its very earliest beginnings). It fears exposure (and so wants to hide). So much else about it (even in its healthy form) has something of death about it. Which, I suppose, is why is rhymes with Hades. It is also why it must be entered, confronted, and healed.

    When it was said (by Pope John Paul II) that America is a “culture of death,” he was saying far more than I think he knew. Piercing beneath this is essential to the way of the Cross and to the crucified life. Only the crucified life can understand shame and go beneath and beyond it.

    I’ve got a very important meeting tomorrow with the team from Ancient Faith on the book (the “launch meeting”). Please keep us in your prayers as we map out how all of this is supposed to go down.

  27. Nikolaos Avatar


    You may appreciate this tribute on Metr Kallistos

  28. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes, Father Stephen, this is a culture of death. And the fear of death is pervasive and encouraged. In this society, we are not encouraged to face it but to evade it.

    I pray for your successful meeting!

    Dear Nikolaos, Thank you for the link. I did indeed enjoy watching the tribute to Metropolitan Kallistos. He has said so many insightful and helpful words concerning the Orthodox faith. He and his words are still with us. I plan on watching it again.–Thank you so much!

  29. Eric Avatar

    Very briefly – thank you
    The way you speak of Tradition as misunderstood as a tree speaks of ‘thingness’ as if it is something we can stand apart from and evaluate. I’ve recently been engaged in a reading of the remarkable ‘The Matter with Things’ by Iain McGilchrist. As the title suggests, he has a problem with the world of ‘things’. ‘the various ideologies and unexamined cultural assumptions that crowd contemporary Christianity’ are as it were ‘the many things’ Jesus suggests Martha is caught up with. My own church’s synod agenda looks at the world as if nothing coinheres – put another way, it does not behold Christ in whom all things hold together . . . As to a culture of Death – it is Life that ll things hold togerher. When all is fragmentary nothing flows . . .I’ve probably said enough. Bless you!

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father Stephen, I have long pondered the “fear of death”. Hamlet’s approach: “If it be now ’tis not to come; if is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” Seems abot right.
    One of the reasons I sought and accepted Baptism in the Church was to improve my readiness. Because The Orthodox approach seemed the way to do it.

    After what Jesus revealed to me in the Pascha shortly following my late wife’s repose, He is ready to cover our sins if we but ask or others ask on our behalf. I am sure that Pamela entered into those prayers as she lay in a coma for several hours before she reposed.

    So, as long as I have a repentant heart, or even some small streak of repentance, Jesus mercy does the rest. I have no fear of death because I strive for readiness. Part of that readiness is realizing the inevitable death of my body while at the same time making ready through prayer and confession to realize the eternality of my soul.
    “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God: Have mercy on me a sinner. ”

    I find the fear recedes and I am more ready.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I sometimes think that actual, physical death is less frightening than the small deaths we experience in shame. Many people would rather face bullets than their own shame.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, yet we still have a remedy—CONFESSION With Jesus Christ along with a qualified witness and guide like you.

  33. Nikolaos Avatar


    God is Wonderful in His Saints (Ps. 67:36) and Orthodoxy is a tree with abundant fruit, our many Saints in every generation.

    We even have a Saint for small “things”, St Phanourios whom we celebrate tomorrow (

    He is like having a good friend, an older brother, a companion in simple, urban, ordinary everyday life. A humble minister, willing to obey our entreaties and who has undertaken, according to God’s will, to help us with the little things of life, like finding our lost keys…or even a parking place in the centre of town ! all we promise him is to light him a candle or make a sweet pie (phanouropitta).

    May this most popular Saint reveal to all of us things, persons and paths that lead us to salvation and God’s love.

  34. Eric Avatar

    Thank you!

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, one more literary thought; this time from Frank Herbert in Dune: ” Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. When it has gone past, I will turn my inner eye to its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    Doing that within the structure of confession through the Church and submission to the love of Jesus brings transformation just as many have witnessed to.
    Yet in the Church it s not just ” me” who remains but “me” in community (seen and unseen).

    Shame and fear and mercy interact in the process and connections are created in such a way one is ever quite alone. There is always sustenance, love and friendship closer than hands and feet.

    I looked at many alternatives, half measures at best, even within the Church. Only the way of the Lord as He spoke in Mt 4:17 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” seems to encompass the fullness. But one still needs a guide.

    A deep adherence to the principles embodied in Mt. 4:17 allows us to be called to repentance without judgement. To endure each others shame and, by Grace, be healed and restored to community. A community in which the sacramental reality of Jesus Christ is the core.

    “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! ” Psalm 118:24

  36. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    > Many people would rather face bullets than their own shame.

    Father, is this the meaning of John 3:19?

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would not see the verse in that manner (“men preferred darkness to the light”). It’s that shame is a much greater pain than the physical pain of a bullet. Shame can threaten us at the very level of our identity (which is not the same thing as the level of who we truly are). But, I think it can be the source of our greatest fears.

    None of us, I think, could bear the pain of seeing the full reality of our shame in a single moment. It would be more than we could take. So, in that sense, we could not bear that much light in a single moment. Even the disciples on Mt. Tabor say the light of Christ “as far as they could bear it.”

    God is merciful, however, and takes us on this journey a little at a time.

  38. Kenneth Avatar

    This is a great article that bears re-reading and helps answer many questions that were on my mind. I once heard a Protestant leader say that even if Christ is the center of our faith, “everything we know about Christ comes from the Bible” (hence the Bible is still primary). But in the Orthodox Tradition, the living experience of Christ precedes Scripture as we know it, and this living experience continues in the Church ever since. Glory to God!

  39. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Thank you, Father. I associate shame with hiding, so I wondered if that’s why we prefer darkness to light – to hide from the shame of evil works. Preferring death to bearing shame seemed related in some way. An attempt at the ultimate hiding place, perhaps. I appreciate your thoughts and correction, though.

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