Providence – God in Extension

There are aspects of the Orthodox faith that require that we reach beyond what we think we know and dig more deeply into the writings of the Fathers. This is particularly the case when Orthodoxy uses similar language to Western theological models. We see a word (in this case, “providence,”) and think we know what it means, supplying that meaning from our inherited Western theological/cultural vocabulary. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to correct such meanings. So – I’m going to dig a bit into the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, a major touchstone in Orthodox thought and, interestingly, important for certain writers in the West as well. My primary source in this article will be the work, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita, by Archbishop Alexander Golitzin. I do not know of a better work on Dionysius.

Here is the passage I want to explore (be patient and keep reading):

But still, Dionysius asks, how is it possible for us to ascribe names to God given the impossibility of conceiving the Trinity? It is possible, he answers a few chapters later, precisely because it is not the divine essence that is in question, but “the divine names revelatory of Providence,” of “Providence the creator of good that has revealed itself,” and is therefore justly celebrated as “the cause of all good things.” Providence, God in extension, is God as revealed, and God as revealed is revealed as “the reality of goodness, the cause of everything which is;” therefore, “one must celebrate the Providence of God as source of good in all its effects.” Cause and ground of all, Providence embraces everything, and everything may therefore be seen as in some sense expressive of it. God may thus be called by any of the names of his creation. His name is every name and no name. [from Golitzin]

Ok, it’s a thick read. But, before giving up on this article, think through this next paragraph with me.

In popular theological thought, when the word “providence” is used, people assume it means “God somehow guiding history to make things turn out right.” This way of thinking is filled with problems. Most people think of history as a series of cause-and-effect events. We were taught to write history papers like this: “Describe and discuss the causes of the War of the Roses…” When this is our notion of history, then we have a very difficult time figuring out where God fits in to things. Does He work by making this king think and do one thing, and another king think and do another (multiply it out to include everybody and everything in the whole world and you come close to seeing God as a giant puppet master)? If you have fled from puppet master theology – you have done well.

A somewhat sneaky way of saying the same thing is found in the mouths of many modern thinkers (including a number of the Orthodox). It goes like this: God is utterly committed to working in and through history. He has done this in choosing Abraham and creating the chosen people, and from the chosen people, taking a pure virgin, and from her He becomes man and dwells among us. Then He gave us the Church which is now God’s means of acting in history, and the Church is now “building the Kingdom of God in this world.” Any challenge to this is sometimes attacked as a denial of the Incarnation. You can get labeled a Gnostic (been there, got labeled).

So what is it? We turn to Dionysius.

Abp. Alexander describes Providence as “God in extension.” In Dionysius, Providence is the primary manner in which the Divine Energies interact with all of creation. Dionysius worked with many major categories and terms from Greek philosophy, something that was already part of the Orthodox theological tradition. However, his work “Christianized” those categories and terms and gave us perhaps the most mature presentation of the faith up to that time. A strong theme in his work is our “going forth” from God and our “return.” God’s intentions for us existed “in Him” from before our creation (think of Jeremiah the Prophet – “before I formed you in the womb I knew you”). Those intentions continue with us and in us – they are the “Divine Energies” that uphold, sustain, and work within all of creation. Those energies are “God in extension.”

This is in no way a form of pantheism. The divine energies are, indeed, God Himself. That is Orthodox dogma. But the divine energies are not the divine essence. We may know and participate in the life of God in His energies, but we do not know nor participate in God in His essence. There is both immanence and transcendence.

Dionysius explores much of this in his treatise, On the Divine Names. We see (and know in varying measures) the names of God – Goodness, Being, Truth, Beauty, Kindness, Mercy, etc. We would quickly have to say (as regarding God’s essence) that He is Goodness beyond Goodness, Being beyond Being, Truth beyond Truth, Beauty beyond Beauty, etc. This kind of language is heard repeatedly in the liturgical life of the Church. It reflects the reality both of God’s unknowableness together with the mystery of His energies, everywhere present, filling all things, and making Him known.

All of this “God in extension” is summed up in the word “Providence.” Our story is not primarily historical – it is eternal. The existence of this historical universe shimmers with the brilliance of the eternal Providence of God that makes it possible. Its purpose is not defined by its history, as such, but by the will of God: “…that He might gather into one all things in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 1:10) What we experience and call history is the movement of the goodwill of God, the love of God, unrelentingly creating and drawing all things towards Him. That is our daily drama and the proper focus of our attention.

The secularization of Christian thought begins primarily through the shift towards a self-contained history in which God is limited in His relationship to us by certain chosen actors. He becomes a player among players. But this is not the God who is everywhere present and filling all things. One of the many lies of modernity is to center our existence in the historical process, and then to focus on that process as “that which can be discussed on the news cycle.” The Church becomes captive to the political process through the fetish of history (and then brag that you’re focusing on the Incarnation).

To say this is not to diminish the Incarnation. Indeed, the fetishization of history reduces the Incarnation to an event among events – God’s horse in the race – but only one horse among many. What is often missed in this diminishment is the extravagant and overwhelming greatness of God Incarnate. The One from whom all things come, the source of being, goodness, beauty, truth, became a creature among creatures. It is the promise and foretaste of our union with God. He is the revelation of Providence and Image that directs our attention to see the world properly (and to give Him thanks and worship).

Our cultural masters seek to direct our attention to the petty narratives of their faux history. It is like looking in a toilet bowl trying to discern the mystery of existence.

History – whatever the term might mean – is seen best and rightly through the lens of Providence. St. Paul says:

whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Christ is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy. In God’s Providence, the Incarnation is seen reflected in all such things – the “names” of all good things. “For He is every name and no name.” He is above every name and everything receives its name in Him.

Glory to God for all things!

P.S. I look forward to our conversations about this.



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.


196 responses to “Providence – God in Extension”

  1. Eric Avatar

    Good morning Fr Stephen
    (Well it’s morning here in NZ! 🙂 )

    What a post! Such food for contemplation

    If I might offer a suggestion of our problem, it is that we understand ‘history’ linearly, and under the ‘temporal’ line of ‘causality’ – ‘this leads to that’. This is problematic when you consider it carefully, for ‘what leads to this that leads to this that leads to that?’ ‘And what is the that that it leads to?’ For time doesn’t stop but ‘that leads to . . .’

    Understanding Providence in this way reduces God to the Watchmaker of the Deists, and I suggest implicitly most Western Christian ‘thought’ but more importantly ‘our Practice!’

    If however we understand Time vertically- rooted in ‘the Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth’, or it’s humble seed underlying the vertical growth ‘from God to God’ then lying in the dust with eyes uplifted, we Behold Gods Love, Mercy, Beauty in and through all things.

    Looking down – to the Slain Lamb – or up to The Risen One, – all that we behold is God as we might Know Him

    Vertical Temporality if you will?

    Just a thought on this summer morning

    God Bless you!

    Providence if you will

  2. David Anthony Avatar
    David Anthony

    Fr. Stephen, you said you were looking forward to conversations. What I have to offer might suggest I’m missing the point entirely…but you asked for it!

    When I consider the providence of God, I typically think of “provision,” as in “God knows you have need of these things even before you ask.” But I think you’re discussing something deeper than that — the providence of God in maintaining everything and bring everything to His desired fulfillment. The shorthand might be summed up in the phrase “God’s will.”

    Is this crazy? When I think about God’s will — His actions in our world — I think of it like this: God, being outside of time, sees our entire history, beginning to end. Having seen it, He determines how He will work through it to achieve His ends. In this way, we are free and God is as well.

    This is not a great explanation, because there is no history without God’s actions within it, along with our cooperation in (or resistance of) His actions. So what God is really seeing when he “sees our entire history, beginning to end,” is much more complex, with so many moving parts (God and each of us). There may be no human way to adequately explain this. My using the past tense (“having seen it”) may be problematic as well. But I use it to say that God’s knowledge is complete; He’s not surprised by anything, nor needs to “rethink” or “recalculate” anything.

    I suppose my main concern is avoiding determinism — I’m trying to retain the freedom of God and the freedom (and responsibility) of man. I’m also trying to avoid blaming God for history; e.g., God didn’t crash the airplane; such an event is due to man’s flawed interaction with nature, physics, what have you. But God knew it would crash and He will use the event in the fulfillment of His will, if there is anything in it that He can use.

    Now that my mind is twisted into a pretzel, I will stop.

  3. Dino Avatar

    I’ll pose a question that many might unconsciously have.
    So do sentient, time-bound beings chiefly ‘participate in’ – or to be more precise, ‘perceive’ – God’s providence to the extent they come into touch with the Eternal, through that Divine Grace that, as a kind of “in-breaking” of the Kingdom, transcends the here and now?
    And then, how come, saints that have repeatedly and intensely experienced such states, seem to also have the most robust ‘faith’ that things will also turn out well historically due to God’s management, despite them continuously deteriorating due to man’s.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    From one pretzel to another…

    Yes, I think there are lots of ways to think about this that twist us into all kinds of unhelpful shapes. It was one reason I went after the over-historical approach to the question. Here’s an interesting example:

    1. Bolsheviks take over Russia (bad)
    2. Bolsheviks attack and oppress the Church (bad)
    3. Lots of people flee, including much the the Russian intelligentsia (probably bad)
    4. Fleeing refugees establish the Church in many other lands (good)
    5. A flowering of Orthodox Church begins to occur in these newly founded places (good)
    6. I wouldn’t be Orthodox (likely) if the Bolsheviks hadn’t driven these people out… (pretzel)

    And on and on. The simple statement in Scripture (in Genesis): “You meant it to me for evil, the Lord meant it to me for good.”

    It is always the case when we try to discuss history that we have selected a tiny, tiny sliver, the most minute slivers, as causes and attributed to them vast effects. It’s just too little as thoughts go.

    Rather – it is the contemplation (the Tradition calls it “Theoria” – and generally means by this the contemplation of Providence) of the whole wondrous thing – the Divine Energies – God working in everything (down to the least Higgs-Boson particle or whatever) for the purpose of gathering all things together in Christ. Returning creation to its Creator. It should properly leave us speechless (I said as I speak).

    We describe Orthodox theology as “mystical theology” (and it was Dionysius, I think, who first used that term). We should learn to take this up as a practice rather than a slogan.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is also this thought. It becomes problematic to think of God as “seeing” or “looking at creation.” There is nothing good that is not sustained by the Good. Though the created good is not the same thing as the Uncreated Good – it can never exist at any moment apart from it. God knows creation in a manner that is more analogous to how I know my body – but with the distinction that He is not creation itself but permeates it and sustains it.

    There is a synergy. We are free. But my freedom is not a self-existing freedom. I am not free, for example, to become a stalk of brocoli. I am free to become truly what I am. And if I deny and ignore what I truly am, the goodness of the Good continually wars with me, in love, drawing me towards the truth of my existence. Relentlessly loving me.

  6. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I am reminded of the book I’ve mentioned previously here: Dorothy Sayers’ “The Mind of the Maker.” For me (as a lover of language) the specificity of the metaphor she uses to describe these same ideas–the creative act of writing–just works, and I can get a handle on your meaning, Father Stephen, despite my paltry knowledge of Orthodox theology, Tradition, and the Fathers. When you write about the same concepts as Sayers, I do not perceive any contradictions between your explanation and her laywoman’s analogy. So when the terrain gets “thick,” as you say, I fall back on that familiar ground as a help.

    In fact we ultimately are all in the same boat with each other as with comprehending the workings of Providence because of the constraints our tools of communication force upon us. That is, if your post contains your mind’s energies, I can read it and try to understand you through it, but I can’t do a “Vulcan mind meld” with your essential person.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Vulcan mind meld. 🙂

  8. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    I am wondering about the connection between this concept and the incarnation. The incarnation as, perhaps, the ultimate expression of this reality. And similarly the Eucharist. God is present in his Body and Blood, God is also present in ordinary wine and bread, but there is a difference. It was because I could perceive this difference, that I became christian, but I can’t find a way to explain it.

  9. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG

    Fr Stephen,

    Choosing between the edition of St Dionyius’ writings published by Paulist Press (RC) and St Anthony’s Monastery (EO), which might be the winner? The latter doesn’t have Celestial Hierarchy, but it looks so good (hehehe).

  10. Alla Avatar

    Father, thank you for a fascinating piece that I do not fully understand, but that makes me want to understand more… as do all of your comments. “I am free to become truly what I am. And if I deny and ignore what I truly am, the goodness of the Good continually wars with me, in love, drawing me towards the truth of my existence. Relentlessly loving me.” Would you kindly elaborate on this? I think it’s filled with mystery and it interests me greatly, but its full meaning eludes me… I would appreciate your further insights into this, or metaphors or analogies you find helpful. Most of my life, I have lived “at random” (I was not raised in the church and only recently came to the church after… an experience I haven’t talked about much). So, this speaks to me… thank you, I am indeed grateful.

  11. George Engelhard Avatar

    A quote from C. S. Lewis
    What ever you do you will fulfill God’s purpose. It matters greatly to you whether you fulfill His purpose as did Judas Iscariot or as did John, the apostle.

  12. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I just want to mention a distinction I’ve noticed for a long time now. If I had two people up on stage – one possessing a mystical Orthodox mind and the other a practical Western mind – and I asked each of them to define and explain a word like Providence…

    The Orthodox mind is going to go on and on about lots of ethereal-sounding concepts. It will sound a lot like poetry, like St. Simeon the New Theologian, and it will be all flowery with lots of repetition lilting tones of celebration and awe. And at the end there will be a huge applause.

    The Western mind will get all serious, break the word down, talk about its roots, give examples of how it’s used and (if we’re lucky) even provide one or two analogies so people have mental pictures to better understand. Everyone will consider the message seriously back and give affirming nods here and there.

    In some situations I have seen bystanders or even the facilitator himself try to decide which of the two minds is correct. But that’s ludicrous because right now one is speaking in apples and the other in oranges. There is no comparison without some translation. However, the answer isn’t to create a third language where both fruits are combined, but rather to appreciate each for what it is.

    Fr. Stephen’s description of divine energies vs. divine essence starts to make my eyes glaze over and static to fill my ears, but I have hung around people who talk & write like this just long enough to get the gist of what he’s saying. To be clear, I don’t actually speak “apple” but I can stand around with drink in hand at party circles and understand enough to get the joke and laugh at the right moment.

    My point is that there will always be a group talking in apples and another talking in oranges. And not only is that okay, it is part of the way God created us to be. Thanks for listening as I worked that out. (grin)

  13. Ilya Sterie Avatar
    Ilya Sterie

    Thank you for this article, Fr Stephen.
    I’ll first say Happy New Year to you and all reading this.

    I read Dyonisius quite a few years back when I was doing my Masters in Architecture and chose to focus on Orthodox iconography – those writings are simply awe-some; one can barely scratch the surface when reading them the first time, so thanks for the reminder to going back to them.

    As a visual person, along with being trained as an architect, I’m imagining God sees Creation both from above and from within (the closest imagery would be a Möbius strip?) We, being created in His image and likeness, have the freedom to decide and thus rearrange an immense multidimensional puzzle which God is constantly re-arranging back (as it where) into His divine scheme. That is not to say that our freedom is fake (as why would I make a decision if God turns things back to what He knows works!) But the more I parent my children, the more I understand that God gave us the freedom to decide precisely so we can learn, via our experiences, to discern what’s good from what’s bad. In a way, life is like a game, at times serious, at other times easy-going, and then everything in-between. Our experiences are what matters – what we do with each situation, with our hearts and minds, with our beings here on earth so we can be truly like God and inherit the kingdom. Children who do not grow up into REAL adults (so so many!!) are a burden: to parents, to their own children, to people around them, and of course to God.

    Please forgive my limited interpretation, I speak from the perspective of a 50 year old parent. Of course, others are not parents, or are (still) younger , or simply have different experiences and perspectives. And that’s what’s beautiful about Creation: it is SO varied and encompassing!

    Anyway – does the multi-dimensional puzzle imagery helps?

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In reading Dionysius it is good to have a guide. I recommend starting with Vladyka Alexander’s book referenced in the article – then go out to any particular edition of Dionysius. I recently got the Mystical Theology edition by William Riordan (RC). It has excellent articles (commentaries) with the Greek and English on facing pages. Dionysius was a word-smith (for example, he invented the word “hierarchy”). Riordan does an amazing job of showing the reader some of the depth of D’s words. It’s quite astonishing. St. Gregory the Theologian has this quality as well – particularly in his poetry – most of which has not been translated into English.

    I am not familiar with the St. Anthony’s edition.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your comment was playful. I also found it dismissive. I was sorry for that.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eric, I have studied history my entire adult life. My principle teachers were my parents who each had a unique and compelling vision of man’s place in the Cosmos. Not two dimensional. My high school history teacher who, extra-curicularly introduced me to Hegel; my college history and theater experience which seriously challenged the linearity of history and my own reading.

    That study, combined with a living encounter with Jesus my sophomore year demanded that I reject most philosophies of history. The question of Providence never really came up despite the fact I was living in the middle of it. I pretty well dismissed the western Protestant version just from reading history in light of what I had learned from my parents and my encouter.
    These discussions have made me suddenly realize that I needed more.

    My first step, which I had taken long ago, was that whatever Providence is, the west, particularly western history, had it wrong.

    Then Fr. Stephen brings it up and I must go deeper. I am finding that the west is not just wrong but have ended up with a total inversion of Providence. I suspected that for decades but it became clear.

    Providence is NOT us asking and God providing. Providence is God, through the Incarnation, the Cross, the Ressurection and Ascension etc. Providing us with the way to know Him. That results in us having all good things but having all good things is not the purpose.

    It is historical in the sense He took on flesh but not historical under most philosophies of history which have become political and misoriented.

    In the west ‘Providence’ has become God doing man’s will.

    That it is not. Providence is God’s condescension to become Man so that we can know Him. The main mechanism of Providence for me at this stage is repentance and a limited amount of obedience.

    I think we are essentially agreeing here at least I hope so.

    Submit yourselves all ye nations for God is with us!.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In my experience, many of us have never been given some of the most basic understandings of what it means to be human from a Christian point-of-view. Going into it sounds “mystical” at first – but it’s simply explaining the nature of how things actually are.

    I’ll give some thought – there’s one or two articles of mine that I’ll point out and then we’ll pick the conversation back up on this post.

    Here’s a couple:

  18. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    At the end of my comment I felt like I was just realizing something everyone else had already figured out, thus the embarrassed grin. Otherwise there was no play intended. I have seen these two very different modes of thoughts for a long time now, having spent much time around Orthodox theology and yet being raised in the West.

    I had no intention of dismissing anyone. Though it may sound like it when apples and oranges are brought in to demonstrate my point, the goal was to show that one is not ultimately better than another, but in fact that they are both quite necessary. People as a whole can’t live all in the clouds nor all on earth. They can’t live and breath all poetry or all logic. It can’t be all esoteric concepts or all mental pictures that even a toddler can understand. It’s a both/and situation again. It takes all kinds. That was my intent.

  19. Janine Avatar

    Wow. Maybe I have misunderstood (likely), or understand only a few things (possible), but Father, allow me to ask. Are you saying in some sense that really Providence, or all the energies which we call grace, is always at work through the Incarnation? Because in some way this makes sense to me. I mean, if we call the Incarnation the centerpoint of history, it means that everything fans out in all directions from there. It makes sense to me because indeed, to be incarnate of the Holy Spirit is somehow the point of everything, of all of us bearing that fruit through our own faith, bearing His light in the ways we are able.

    I am reminded of the declaration: “Behold, I [am always making] all things new”

    Does this make some sense? It’s just so huge really.p

  20. Cindy B Avatar
    Cindy B

    Greetings, and Blessed Feast of Theophany to you all.
    I have, for some time, wrestled with the concept of providence, knowing full well that modern concepts seep into my thoughts and, at times, engage my consciousness despite my best effort to remain grounded in the teachings of the Church. There is no doubt that goodness has come from some serious life struggles, and yet I can’t say I’ve developed a deeper understanding of God’s Will vs. my will. When the two don’t seem to parallel each other, life can “feel” empty, leaving me wondering if I’m missing something He is trying to show me. Likewise, I pray for some pretty sick people, one of whom has been ravaged by cancer from a young age. Reading her unfolding horrors and their (her and her husband) agony is beyond heartbreaking. Despite the prayers of many, many, people, they are feeling alone, scared, bewildered and even angry. It’s so very difficult to bear the unknown in the face of such suffering. I suppose this is the age old question “why do bad things happen to good people”, but I look at it with a self-critical lens that asks what am I doing (or not doing) to block my ability to connect with the Lord that is everywhere present and filling all things?

    Michael B said “…Providing us with the way to know Him. That results in us having all good things but having all good things is not the purpose.” I recently started a prayer group to intentionally pray for the people asking to be placed on our church’s prayer list throughout the week. As I set up the structure, the one goal I offered the group was to look at this ministry as an opportunity to grow closer to Christ by doing the work of the Church, praying in faith and love. It seems like we should all be able to uphold each other through the trials of life as we make this journey, but our abilities are often stunted by lack of understanding and fortitude. May our loving Lord have mercy on us all.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, if you are wrong, then so am I. Much of modern western thought historical/philosophical /theological tends to remove the immenence and Energies of God as a reality. It also tends to move knowing God into a cranial experience rather than a inner one of the soul and the heart still living and present in all things. Even me.
    His Mercy and Grace are not just concepts but reality. Takes a lot of both for we fallen folks to recognize it even more to enter it as the saints.

    God forgive us.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I get the point. However, to equate serious Orthodox thought with esoterica or mere poetry is to have simply not understood it. I am sorry that my own powers of expression have failed so far – but this is not actually a both/and. It is a matter of perceiving the truth or not. I understand hanging around and taking a look at this or that. But, in the long run it’s like watching people ride bicycles but never getting on long enough to learn to ride. Or watching people swim but never getting wet.

    When I became Orthodox some 25 years ago, there was much I did not understand, much I feared. But my heart (poetry?) knew the truth – and I jumped in the water, with my family and every penny I had in the world. I fell off the bicycle any number of times and continue to do so. But what I have tasted of the truth in the depths of Orthodoxy – with my own tongue and lips – tell me that my heart was correct. Often enough, the outrageous behavior within the boundaries of Orthodoxy drive me to despair, but for the depths I have tasted and would never turn away.

    My invitation to readers in the topic set forth is to drink – to discuss – to get on the bike and ride. What you are describing, or offering as a description, is from such a distance that it does no justice to the topic.

    “One is not ultimately better than another…” that is a sad statement to me – and untrue. I had the one. I abandoned it and would do so again in a heartbeat. I don’t know if I’ve gained the other as yet…but I will pursue it so long as my heart beats.

    Forgive me. My words are just inadequate.

    The poetic is necessary, never to obfuscate, but because when we speak of God and the things of God, we speak of the Poetic. “Man is a musical composition,” St. Gregory of Nyssa said. The modern world thinks we’re a sausage or worse. Modernity crucifies God on a Cross of practicality – which is generally just a very poor excuse for sin.

    But, I’m impatient with both/and. It seems like a cop-out to me, a way to live at arm’s length. I’m too old to manage that.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Quite – it is what sense is.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My heart goes out to you. I served for two years as a Hospice Chaplain here in the rural mountains of East Tennessee. Most were cancer patients, Black Lung, etc. Extreme poverty to boot. There was great faith among them – rural Baptists and Pentecostals – none with a preacher educated beyond high school. They taught me a lot. Jesus was everything to them – and those they loved. Most had always been surrounded with various forms of suffering – such is the lot of the poor in my region. They also had a quiet joy. I recall the bedside of a lung patient as she whispered her last prayers – they word words of transcendent praise! I knew I was standing in the Holy of Holies.

    The most important aspect of Providence is Jesus Himself. Christ in all things. Christ even in the cancer where He is crucified (as always) and where we are crucified with Him. “If we suffer with Him with shall also reign with Him,” St. Paul said. He said it because He knew it. He even cried out, in Philippians to know the sufferings of Christ yet more fully!

    The reason He could say such an outlandish thing was because He knew Christ. Christ had been formed in him. Providence itself (Himself) flowed in his veins and breathed with his mouth and beat in his heart. So, to know Providence, is to know Christ, and to lose ourselves in Him and to Him. The going out from God and our return to God is a singular journey of the love of God. Every moment, every step.

    It is as we lose ourselves in Christ that we find ourselves in Christ. This is a love story.

    I believe that coming to know Christ in the fullness of His goodness – in the depths of every situation (even those things we hate the most and fear the most) is the very heart of the faith. In that sense, my Baptist and Pentecostal mountain friends were more “Orthodox” than most within the canonical bounds of the Church that I have met. They were easy to pray with – they often taught me to pray.

    All things in which Christ is present are good – because He is good. Everything seen apart from Him will, in the end, be less than good because we did not seek the Good within it.

    I am writing passionately tonight – forgive me.

  25. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you for your reply to Cindy. Not too passionate; truthful.

    Michael, thank you. You make more sense of what it means to live our faith.

    Cindy, on the previous post of Father’s, I mentioned that I felt metanoia/repentance (“change of mind”) was also an important process for sins *done* to us, not just the ones we’ve done. You now have brought up an example of what we might call the fallenness of the world that is not necessarily anybody’s fault, but is in some sense a legacy of evil or sin in a cumulative and theological sense. So what that means is our action in responding to how we understand God’s will or grace also fits such a circumstance, what we inherit in the world. It is bringing light into what is in some sense evil or fallen, suffering and pain, even if no one’s “fault” we can point to. I think that also makes sense of how providence works this way. Your idea that you will all grow through prayer is very much reflective of the Incarnation in my opinion. We can bring everything to God, through the Incarnation, and it will change us too, and call us to change /grow

  26. Dixie Benny Avatar
    Dixie Benny

    This was excellent, Father Freeman.

    I worked for Providence Healthcare here in Washington state for five years, retiring in 2017. In many of their historical materials i found this quote: “All of know of tomorrow is that Providence will rise before the sun.” Jean Lacordaire. I had to really think about that and then it dawned on me that Providence, was God. It has been a continual reminder that He goes before me every day. My tomorrows are His yesterdays. There is nothing that I need that he has not “already” provided. It is a reminder of His calling, His love, His continuing presence and care. Thank you for this reminder!

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are most welcome, Dixie!

  28. christa Avatar

    “we can bring everything to God , through the Incarnation and it will change us too, and call us to change/grow” For me, what is hard to let go is the pestering feeling / thought that I need to “help” , “make things better” for those in desparate situations. It is difficult to sit with, not have answers to give, to just bear with the suffering and listen. Perhaps it is that I have a long way to go in learning to pray, and to trust that prayer to God. I have a hard enough time trusting my own life with it’s dilemnas to God , let alone anothers; though I continue anew each day. So much gratefulness for your words fr. F and for the conversation here.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No doubt, we are called to help: we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. There is a subtle mistake, however, in our desire to end suffering. There will always be suffering – and some of it will be beyond our reach. In the name of compassion, some are driven to do wrong things. An example is euthanasia. In the name of compassion we end suffering – but by killing. This is not compassion.

    In some cases we have to be a community who can make it possible for people to live with their legitimate suffering. The hardest thing in suffering is to do it alone. I think as parents we learn, over time, that our children will have to endure suffering. Loving them means helping them learn the hardest things as well as the other things. And these things – in my experience – are the hardest for parents. In this, prayer and trust in God’s providence, help. God did not ask us to do this alone – but together as Church. May He give us grace to find each other.

  30. Dean Avatar

    O Father Stephen, how your last comment touched this old man’s heart. Over 20 years ago I listened to an audio tape of Fr. Tom Hopko, I think on the glory of Christ. In the first part he repeatedly said something like, “Jesus, Jesus crucified and glorified!” He just kept on emphasizing Jesus’ name. And he continued in this vein for several minutes. My heart stirred. What a preacher. I’ve heard you, Father, say in your podcasts that if we have Jesus, we have everything. If we do not have Him, we have nothing. Many of those poor mountain people knew Christ Jesus intimately in their suffering. I hope/ pray we do too. When praying to Christ about my wife’s lymphoma, I say, “Lord Jesus, you know my (our) hearts cry. And that’s for healing. Yet even more, we want your will, whatever may be needed for our salvation. (If honest, I sometimes quail before these words I pray). But we must have You.” …or similar words from our hearts’ depth. Lord Jesus have mercy.

  31. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    I’m writing on my phone and cannot say much at this time. But I’ll say this much: thank God for your passionate commitment to write from the heart.

    Father, I believe I understand what you’re saying. And I believe my first taste of understanding Providence was in my praxis of science—even before I became Christian. But it was indeed that first taste that glimmer of illumination that drove me to become an Orthodox Christian.

    This is just my first reflection on your writing but please continue to help us to grasp, taste and with your help understand.

  32. christa-maria Dolejsi Avatar
    christa-maria Dolejsi

    “But we must have You” Yes. that is the prayer. God is with us….but we remain in alone, in disappointment, in agony because we do not recognize Him. My idea of what is Gods goodness is prone to error. God IS WITH us

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, by God’s Grace. I am thankful we connected.
    I have been deeply blessed by our Lord. Give Him the Praise. (getting your positive feedback though is a blessing too).

  34. Alla Avatar

    Dear Father, thank you for your reply, and for the posts you kindly pointed out to me. I have read them with great interest, and they are beautiful. I found in them a depth that makes me want to come back for more. I was particularly drawn to this quote: “And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.” Staying close to Christ is our lifeline, then… and that which is accomplished outside of this relationship (even things we deemed “valuable” or “important” at various points in our lives) will be scattered in the wind… I struggle with church practices, as they have not been my routine growing up; I feel that I often do things haphazardly, now more, now less (usually less rather than more)… when I talk to family it’s as though I am split between two worlds, and have to seek and find my lifeline again. And yet I come back to the life of faith and the church, because it appears to me like a deep, profound well filled with fresh water compared to the chimeras I was chasing in the past. Call it middle age 🙂 Thank you for your words, and for your kind willingness to share your thoughts. I am immensely thankful.

  35. Mariam Avatar

    As someone going through difficulties right now, (allowed by God, and out of my hands), I think of providence as “finding God”…in the mystery of the Cross, in the Divine Liturgy, in the dark cloud (Elder Aimilianos describes being God hidden in the dark cloud when we are going through sickness and suffering), in His love. But so much is beyond our understanding. “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as I am known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12. We cannot know God fully now, nor His ways fully, but we know He is “everywhere present fulfilling all things”. He is always present with us, and we find Him in the hidden mystery. I found wonder and still sacredness in reading a part in Dr. Patitsa’s book, “The Ethics of Beauty”, where he talks about God gives each of us a stone when we are in Heaven with Him, with our new name on it, and no one else knows this name that is a hidden gem between ourselves and God. I found your last paragraph in this article, about receiving a name in Him beautiful. Thank you Father. I ask your prayers.

  36. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    The issue of Providence is very related to theodicy. I remember sitting in my car one day thinking about how if God was to prevent one evil deed from happening, it would result in the control of basically everything when you think about it causally. Causal links are endless, and every time you multiply the number of wills by the number of bad decisions the exponent becomes unimaginably large. So, I get that thinking causally if you don’t have some monergism is a real problem. I don’t discount all monergism, just the puppet master sort.

    If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” ― R.C. Sproul,

    This is the other end of the spectrum, but there is some truth to it. Then you get people like Leibniz which most Calvinists accept in his Best of All Possible Worlds theodicy that is really a mathematical solution. I believe the multiverse is Leibniz on steroids because in one of those worlds there is a perfect you and a perfect world. Reincarnation follows in a similar vein, as does purgatory.

    In each case, it’s the multiplicity of causality that opens the door to perfection. It’s the number of the rolls of the dice, or God has already rolled the dice in His mind such that, this is the world He makes. It’s as good as it gets when you factor in a measure of human freedom.

    Here’s what’s missing for me: human freedom is usually factored in, but almost never is the demonic factored in.

    Historical causality, and God’s causality within time, are necessary to know God is faithful. If God makes promises He does not keep, He is not righteous. Righteous is defined primarily as keeping promises, that happen in time, and if they did not, God would not be righteous.

    Providence can’t be isolated from causal events, of our or God’s choosing, since the immanent and transcendent meet. If the way we know God is through His energies, and those energies are Providence, and if revelation/promises are energies, how can we avoid saying that causality is part of Providence? Causality is not all there is, and it may be overemphasized, and the I AM-ness of God forgotten. If God did not keep His promise to Abraham, Christ would never have been born for example. But that doesn’t mean that all Providence is causally concerned, I mean, Christ does uphold all existence and it is permeated with God’s presence. I remember trying to explain this poorly to my kids. It’s like a snow globe. God is both inside and outside the snow globe. We are inside and can’t get outside. God is both. If He’d always remained outside, never revealing Himself, we wouldn’t have the issue of combining eternality and temporality or how causality is related or not related to eternality. He creates the conundrum, which might be instructive towards humility. Again, if Christ never returns, the promise is null. If Christ did not rise, we are to be pitied above all, to avoid this pitiful state of affairs, Christ must return, and it will have many causal effects. I can’t help but say, that Providence when revealed or apprehended is causal, but even when it is not revealed or apprehended, it is still causal. And now I realize we’re back in the realm of progress. Causality is motion towards something, yet God is unchanging: He has no progress.

    But maybe you’re only saying that that’s not what Providence is, it is more the I AM of God’s existence/energies touching us, and that we make the mistake of thinking of that, totally in relation to God’s will, and the relation of that, to time and causation?

  37. Chase Avatar

    Thank you, thank you.

    It’s impossible for me to explain to you what a (very specific) balm this is for my soul this morning. May God bless you for your work in Him.

  38. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

    “Here’s what’s missing for me: human freedom is usually factored in, but almost never is the demonic factored in.”

    Thank you.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do think that our common notions of causality create problems when thinking about Providence. It makes of God a “player among players” (unless you do away with freedom in the manner of the Sproul quote you gave).

    I used a phrase years ago that I continue to find helpful: God “causelessly causes.” It’s a small application of apophatic language – which is always a useful antidote when what you’re saying results in diminishing God.

    Your last paragraph is closer to my meaning:

    But maybe you’re only saying that that’s not what Providence is, it is more the I AM of God’s existence/energies touching us, and that we make the mistake of thinking of that, totally in relation to God’s will, and the relation of that, to time and causation?

    I’m not a great fan of models that center on the will – it’s been problematic ever since St. Augustine made it his center piece and generally got it wrong. Someone needed to clean his blackboard.

    You can talk about the will/freedom, etc. without reference to Goodness, Truth, Beauty, for example. That’s truly problematic. It exalts things like law, obedience, causation, etc. to the fulcrum of the spiritual life.

    In Dionysius, eros (desire), is far more prominent with Truth, Beauty, Goodness, etc. inexhaustibly drawing us towards them (God). More than that, inasmuch as the Divine Energies are the abiding and ever-present source of all good things everywhere and always, the bulk of our being and of all things around us are always being drawn towards God.

    Jesus says to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, “It is hard to kick against the pricks.” St. Paul is “willing” to do one thing – but is being constantly goaded towards Christ. Everyone of us is on the road to Damascus.

    As to the demons. I take a bit of a “phenomenological” approach on that subject. I only know what I know from where they “touch upon” our struggles. I don’t really know much about their back story – we’re given very, very little of it. I assume this is because, as of yet, we do not need to know it. Someday we will – because we will “judge the angels.” That’s a very pregnant statement and may hide within it things we dare not imagine. So, I don’t go there.

    But, just as “all creation groans awaiting the manifestation of the Sons of God,” so every beautiful, good, lovely, gracious, wonderful, outlandishly loving fiber of our being, indeed our being itself, groans as well. We groan for God. We long for God. We have no rest apart from Him. Sometimes we listen to the wrong music and think we’re groaning for something else. But when we finally hear the Song that all of creation sings (and our hearts as well), then we can begin to rush into the flow of all things being gathered together in one in Christ Jesus. The more clearly we hear that Song in our heart, the more we can begin to discover that we are part of a vast chorus of the universe.

    “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and who sing the thrice-holy hymn, now lay aside all earthly cares…”

    The universe is a liturgy.

    These sorts of images and categories are far more useful than the Augustinian non-starters. I work to erase that blackboard within me. It got me nowhere.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, forgive me brother but your solution is complicated. Math has never been my friend.

    People living and doing by and within God’s Providence, that I can.

    Since there is energy involved I assume there is a possible quantum description but the number of variables involved would be nearly infinite if only humanity were factored in (not the rest of matter and non-human consciousness including the demonic and angelic consciousness.

    My Dad on the back of a horse on the eastern New Mexico prairie at sunset over 100 years ago intuited the solution because of the beauty. Providentially, all life is interconnected. What I or any other part of creation that has energy–all is interconnected. Even God, the uncreated One is but as the personal interactive source.

    That is why I have always gravitated toward the experiential side of the equation. All made even more simple to me by the Sacramental Life initiated and maintained by God out of Love and Mercy.

    Once I told Jesus that, if He were real, I needed Him, I was hooked up to Providence in a deeply personal way. The rest is either history or yet for me to experience. My experience of Him is extraordinarily multifaceted but all is within the scope of God’s Providence. Remember, we get to experience Him Sacramentally in all things and all other life. That, in essence, was what was shown to him.

    For instance the last prayers offered for one dying by the Church, open the Gates of Heaven. All those praying are part of it My late wife passed into eternal life in that mercy and did not reject Him at the Gates. (she repented).

    Remember, God’s Energies are Personal, revealed in the connection of Love, Thanksgiving and Mercy. Infinite. (Insert symbol).

    I may be wrong but I have never been able to see the personal in math or Infinity — Even through Donald in Mathemagic Land.

    Glory to God in the Highest. By His Mercy.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thinking in terms of the sacraments (rather than math, etc.) is useful in this. Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said that in the sacraments, we do not make things to be what they are not, but reveal them to be what they truly are. The whole world is a sacrament.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thank you Father. Sacramentally is the only way I can approach the Mystery. Just a bit ago my wife and I were offering our prayers to some of the Holy Angels to help us.
    My lovely wife has a good connection to angels. They seem more than ready to assist in pretty much every endeavor and circumstance. If we ask. Quite specific and personal situations with which we need help. The Saints and the angels are part of the Sacramental Order of things too and while angels are not human, they are Personal as well — as one or many.
    “There is more to Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    Ah uncle Will. So many nuggets expressing the human condition. Reading him and remembering the joy of speaking his words in inside my head…… Wow.

    Matthew may your Guardian Angel watch over you body and soul today in all your deeds, hopes, plans and prayers. Especially where there is a struggle of some kind.

  43. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I don’t believe in a mathematical model; I’m criticizing it as a necessary outgrowth of Western theology. I am very sensitive to any model of Providence that is deterministic, deistic, or pantheistic. Thank you for your prayers.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, Thank you for clarification. May the Joy of the Lord continue with you.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eric, history is NOT linear. History is a record of the Creation’s encounter with our Creator and a record of our sins.

    Do the Maori give presentations of their tribal dance? Tribal dances the world over are prayers that partake of a sacramental element (a gift of knowledge from my dancing mother).

    They sometimes contain elements quite similar to Genesis.

    History is participatory and is part of every level of the human being–including our need to repent.

    Lord have Mercy

  46. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you. I read Ecclesiastes after reading the post and came upon this:

    NET 3:11 God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time,
    but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart
    so that people cannot discover what God has ordained,
    from the beginning to the end[s] of their lives.

    7:3 I have examined all this by wisdom;
    I said, “I am determined to comprehend this”—but it was beyond my grasp.
    24 Whatever has happened is beyond human understanding;
    it is far deeper than anyone can fathom.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Providence and our salvation? Is there an articulation in the Fathers how they interrelate in the Light of the Sacraments and a person’s prayer life?
    Providence also contains our free will teleologically does it not?

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our free will plays a part. It’s just that it should not be treated simplistically as some do in which the will is everything. We do not understand our own will, oftentimes. So we get that strange statement in the morning prayers, “Save me whether I want it or not…”

    Providence can be seen as a word that describes everything God is doing in our lives and in the world. It is God “extending Himself” towards everything in creation. If you will, to see something sacramentally is to recognize its providential character. In the Eucharist – we see Bread and Wine saving us. In Baptism, we see water saving us. But we should also see the air we breathe saving us, etc.Ultimately, everything bears the saving grace of God towards us.

  49. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Was just looking up some commentaries on Ecclesiastes and came across the idea that Ecclesiastes was originally a heretical text that was edited to show us how not to think. It’s like a debate between an atheist and a Christian and a deist, and the point is to show, “Uh, no, that’s not how we think.” This by Tremper Longman, long time respected OT scholar. That’s how it feels when you read it, it’s incredibly modern the pessimist in the dialogue. Regardless, it captures some of the angst with a bad view of Providence.

  50. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love your ministry. You are a gift to so many of us. God has obviously blessed you with this role. Because of all these things I have no desire to argue about differences or detract from what you do. May God grant you many wonderful years.

  51. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,

    There was great faith among them – rural Baptists and Pentecostals – none with a preacher educated beyond high school. They taught me a lot. Jesus was everything to them – and those they loved. Most had always been surrounded with various forms of suffering – such is the lot of the poor in my region. They also had a quiet joy. I recall the bedside of a lung patient as she whispered her last prayers – they word words of transcendent praise! I knew I was standing in the Holy of Holies.

    If the bulk of the Protestant converts to Orthodoxy came from this community, I sincerely believe the Orthodox Church would become ever stronger in the faith. But unfortunately, as far as I know, most do not come from this community. The Christian people you describe would have a firm understanding what God’s righteousness meant in Christ’s words, “unrighteous mammon”. But it seems the bulk of the converts to Orthodoxy attempt to dodge and reinterpret such words such as those and the words “eye of the needle” and the “narrow gate”.

    I thank God for your ministry and for God’s Providence. He let me be born into a kind of cultural bubble, which brought significant pain and shame but now I can see His Glory in it all.

    Dear Father, you were in the Protestant churches for a long time, and I know you struggled mightily within them, but you held fast to Christ, and here you are, a beacon to many.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, let me apologize. I appreciate your kind and supportive words. I was too strident and defensive in my comments last night. FWIW, I’m in the middle of a prednisone taper, treating a pinched nerve in my neck. It’s relieving the pain, but it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster – my body’s riding the prezel-like waves of Providence, Lord have mercy!

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Those people of the mountains are American “peasants.” I love a “political” discussion I had with one a few years back. He prefaced his thoughts on the matter (he was 65 years old) with, “Well, I ain’t ever voted…but”

    If such people were in an Orthodox land, they would be Orthodox. Many of their most natural instincts were quite Orthodox (which taught me a lot about Orthodoxy). Most people experience Protestantism in a much more middle-class, mainstream cultural form, where is has developed many bad and egregious tendencies. At the same time, I think many of the things that afflict the Orthodox in America come from the same cultural tides that drive the middle-class in our country. There are sometimes issues among our immigrant community, though most of them have received their faith in a more “natural” peasant-like form. It’s not sophisticated – but endures hard times very well.

  54. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    One of the blessings of working at a university is having an astonishing library steps from my office. (Although the knowledge contained there is less impressive since the advent of the WWW, the library’s ambience still has a Google search box beat.) Today at lunch I popped over and checked out “Mystagogy” and began reading.

    Just from the introduction, I have two questions:

    1) What are your thoughts about the argument that Dionysius is Neo-Platoinism dressed up in Christian clothing?

    2) More broadly, what is your take on pseudonymity in sacred texts?

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions – both of which I’ve thought a lot about and explored – both of which you’ll find well-adressed in the pages of Mystagogy. But, in a nutshell, here’s my take:

    Though Dionysius draws heavily on Neo-Platonist language and themes – he dramatically and clearly reworks them in a profoundly Christian manner. This is perhaps more clear to Orthodox scholarship (and even a lot of Catholic scholarship). German scholars (mostly Protestant) in the 19th-20th centuries really gave him a drubbing and largely dismissed him as a Platonizer. Indeed, many of them wrote Orthodoxy off as just Platonized Christianity. When it was clear to them that Jesus was a German, liberal Protestant (probably Lutheran).

    There’s a nice 35 minute video lecture by Abp. Alexander on his personal journey with Dionysius that I highly enjoyed and recommend:

    He describes how he got past the German problem.

    It should be noted that it was the Germans who tagged Dionysius as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” Golitzin does not use that term.

    Though, I think the evidence is overwhelming and undeniable that the Dionysius who wrote the Dionysian Corpus not a first-century companion of St. Paul. It’s a pious thought – even held my some modern saints – but I think it is demonstrably incorrect.

    What is the case is twofold. First, it is an act of humility that the author does not reveal his identity. It is not an act of deception. Second, much is revealed by his choice of pseudonym. He takes up the persona of St. Dionysius, because the saint was a Greek philosopher. And it is Greek philosophy that Dionysius is re-working, appropriating, and making serve the purpose of the Christian faith. There is nothing wrong in this, I think, and we should just accept it.

    Overwhelming evidence includes things like language and ideas. He is a wordsmith. He clearly coined the word “hierarchy.” It does not occur in the any writings prior to his use. And within decades it starts appearing everywhere. There are other such examples. He was tremendously influential – but only starting at a certain point, i.e. the writings did not exist prior to that.

    Abp. Alexander thinks that the author is likely a Hellenistic Syrian, but I’m not really qualified to have an opinion on that.

    As to the use of pseudonymity in ancient texts in general – it’s obviously something that had a different cultural place than in modern times.

  56. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father and Mark,
    I hope to hear more exchange between you (Mark) and Father Stephen, on your readings. It is fruitful for us all to hear Mark’s questions and reflections as a person entering Orthodoxy and reading Mystogogy. At present, I’ve decided to not read it (yet). I have walked an interesting road in my life, and I’m aware that there have been an abundant number of influences that have the potential to distract my walk following Christ. I love reading, and I suspect I do too much of it. In my twenties, I finished my first degree in philosophy with a concentration on ancient Greek and Jewish philosophy. And I had learned Hebrew to read the Jewish texts directly. In my thirties, I entered a science program at a university and subsequently earned degrees in Chemistry. All of these threads including my childhood inculcation into Seminole culture God wove providentially into each other and brought me to Orthodoxy. As a result, I have a special appreciation of the seeming paradoxical words non-causal causality.

    But there is an Achieles heel I have in walking on such a road. It’s as if I could be something by reading it or watching it on a screen. One thing Chemistry taught me is that I only really began to understand it by doing it. ‘Doing’ authentic Christian Orthodoxy is not my forte. I wish it was and I’m working on it. Communion in prayer life, repentance and love are so important but I usually miss that target. It’s easier for me to love God’s creation, but much harder for me to love people.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is much wisdom in what you’ve described. I have spent a lot of time through the years reading things where the “coin did not drop.” It didn’t drop, I think, because “it was not my question.” There are questions of the deep heart that recognize the answers when they come. There is a resonance. Dionysius was largely off my charts for example. I’d sample him and get nothing. Not my question.

    But several years ago, God brought Abp. Alexander into my life (he’s my archbishop). He shared his story about his journey and Dionysius’ role in it, and, frankly, I saw him (the Archbishop), and loved him. Since then, it’s like my heart has been finding questions and answers within Dionysius (and Maximos, as well, who was deeply devoted to those writings). It seems to be time in my life for those questions.

    Generally, when things unfold like that for me, it seems to be my lot to digest and share them. So, I’m working with it now, a bit at a time. But things have their time. Time and space.

  58. Drewster2000 Avatar

    “It’s easier for me to love God’s creation, but much harder for me to love people.”

    Hear Hear, Dee! Your statement reminds me of a joke I’ve heard in the service sector more than once: “I love the job; it’s the people I can’t stand!” (grin)

    I resonate with your struggle. May God give us both the grace to work with them. May He use them for our salvation and we not resent Him for it. (wink)

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Some second thoughts. It is important that we not underestimate the place of Greek philosophical thought and vocabulary in the Christian faith. God chose the specific time and place in history in which Hellenism (late Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant form of the culture in the Mediterranean Western world, as well as much of the Middle East and North Africa. It provided a common vocabulary (which Hebrew could not have done) and certain forms of thought capable of bearing the heavy weight of Christian doctrine.

    The Nicene Creed required that language, as did all subsequent Councils of the Church. The great doctors of the faith, the Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom, St. Irenaeus, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Athanasius, and on and on, all worked in that language and thought form. What we have in St. Dionysius is an example of that thought form in one of its most mature development. And there is widespread agreement that St. Maximus the Confessor might hold the singular position of its truly most mature development – but he is unthinkable without the shoulders of Dionysius.

    Those (such as late German scholarship) who sought to deride Orthodoxy as a Platonizing of Christianity – must be recognized as among those who helped destroy modern Christianity. Orthodoxy – in its Eastern form – simply is the bedrock and touchstone of Christianity. Those who might call themselves “orthodox” (with a little “o”) are only orthodox insofar as they share in the thought and teaching of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Where they deviate – they are not orthodox. That can, I think, pretty much be demonstrated historically if need be.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, one if the crucial steps for me in my journey is almost brand new: In order to comprehend the incredible difference that Christianity is, I had to begin to come to terms with humanity–my own first of all. My wife Merry (married 13 years) has been essential to me there. The fact that she was going to a Christian Church that was primarily Cherokee and Sioux converts to the faith. People whose families have been Christian for generations.

    Quite a journey

  61. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Drewster,
    Thank you for your words and prayer. Indeed my comment reveals the wounds that have not healed. I pray that the Lord might heal my (and our) soul. Meanwhile the Lord has set me in the Orthodox Church. And He lets me have the strength of heart be able to give glory to Him while it is unequivocally not a better church. And therein, I believe, paradoxically might be my healing.

  62. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Your comment brings to mind a few memories. The Seminole people had been missionized fairly early on in American history. Yet there were some cultural features of their practice that were sufficiently different that in among ‘white’ Protestant churches they were called devils and devil worshipers (including myself).

    My earliest memory in a Seminole church was a place in Oklahoma (we were visiting my uncle, my mother’s brother). I was very young possibly five years or younger and in the service a conch shell was blown. It was very exciting for me as a child. Later I related to a Rabbi some of the Christian practices I had remembered and he was completely convinced that among the Spanish who missionized the Seminoles were Marranos, formerly Jewish people who had converted to Christianity. He believed that the conch shell blowing was related to the shofar in Jewish services.

    My mother eventually (I was eight) stopped going to church because of the harassment. I too got harrassed but not when I was with my white father. I clung to him for dear life in that environment.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There were very sad chapters in our history…may God give us grace and may His Providence redeem us all.

  64. Janine Avatar

    If I may, as one married to a native Greek, I have always had the impression that for the early Christians — of all persuasions, but for this commentary particularly for the Greeks — saw Christ precisely as we have been discussing. He transfigured what came before. What came before was not necessarily bad or evil, but since Christ is the Person who is truth, whatever served truth served Christ. It is my impression that for the early Christians from every country, Christianity became the transfiguring power of enlightenment that did not just reject the past but rather illumined it, including whatever of the past was also a search for goodness, truth, beauty. And, if I may add a rather “chauvinistic” note, but along the lines of what Father has said, this meeting of the Hellenic philosophical tradition and Christianity gave us theology. Those early Fathers such as Basil, Chrysostom, and Gregory were the flower of Hellenistic education. They had been groomed in the best schools for service to the state, the best and most brilliant students of their generation. They chose instead to serve the Church, and their tremendous intellect, education, insight, and faith combined to give us the gifts of patristics. At any rate, this is my understanding. I’m sure this is a story among a very complex set of stories and traditions, even of the time. But nonetheless it is a central part of our collective heritage of faith.

  65. Janine Avatar

    Many years ago , I was stunned by reading the autobiography of Black Elk. It impressed me that he was a true mystic and true faithful Christian; his own experiences and tradition did not impede but fed his faith in Christ. I do not think he felt a contradiction. At least, this was my impression when I was much younger and his personality and character touched me deeply.

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Russian mission to Alaska and its native peoples is, by and large, a good example of Orthodox missions. May God preserve us in that practice, even as we missionize Western civilization itself.

    St. Patrick of Ireland, was a “Brit” – a British Celt. He was captured by pagan Irish “pirates” and made a slave. He escaped, later returned, after becoming a monk and a bishop. He preached the gospel to his former captors, and brought the Irish to Christianity in pretty much a single generation…without bloodshed or violence…or the support of an army. He preached and worked miracles.

    The history of the Church, however, including its modern splinters, is marked by many sins committed in the name of Christ. Bad theology, or even inadequate theology, nurtures bad practice. It has also always been the case that within the Church, including its modern splinters, there have remained many good and simple hearts. People who read the gospels and practiced the commandments of Christ. Unknowingly, we all long for the day when the commandments of Christ are written on the hearts of all and we are gathered together into Christ. There He will wipe away our tears.

    May God teach our hearts to long for it – for ourselves and for all.

  67. Janine Avatar

    Amen, Father

  68. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Saint Herman’s example of Russian Christianity among indigenous peoples is what gave me hope that my conversion to the Orthodox Church might be truly sanctioned by Christ. Without his example in the early days of my conversion I was fairly low in trust and fearful that I was only kidding myself about the Orthodox Church being what it said it was, the Church founded by Christ.

    By the way I also have Roman Catholic relatives who are in denial that St Patrick was Orthodox.

    Our collective memory has a tendency to be rather short. May God have mercy.

    Janine I also read about Black Elk when I was young. But when I read about him I wasn’t ready to adopt a forgiving attitude toward Christians. At that point in my life there were few Christians that gained my trust. If I had met him in person, his thoughts would likely had changed my way of thinking. He was Catholic if I remember correctly.

    My closest association to an authentic Christian in my personal life at that time was an RC priest who ministered to me in ER in a hospital. When you meet a true holy person it is indeed unmistakable. His light gave me hope much later in life that Christ is real.

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, forgive me for my arrogance if I have offended you in any way. I just love the intersection of traditional tribal faith and prayer practices and The Church. Both my mother and my work in the dramatic arts gave me some wonderful tidbits. Both were instrumental in my conversion to Orthodox. Lots of ways and I am grateful for that mercy.
    One of the practices in the congregation I still remember in a moving way was when one of the elders prayed in Sioux language for those who were ill. Praying to each of the cardinal points of the compass invoking the Creater of all AND the angelic spirits of each part of the Creation. Evocative in so many ways–truly a work of Providence. I did not understand a word yet the humility demonstrated by the elder, the minister and the rest of us will always be in my heart–a treasure.
    God forgive us, we have not been back. We are trying to help them raise money to re-gravel their parking lot.
    A lot of Providence goin’ on. Much for me to learn by His Grace and mercy

  70. Janine Avatar

    Dee, yes Black Elk was Catholic. I believe that as an elder he tried to teach Lakota tradition and faith in Christ as complementary, with an emphasis on what we’re talking about, the renewal of creation. Apparently according to something I read, he loved the Latin mass.

    Thank you Dee for your testimony

  71. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your answers. Archbishop Golitzin does address my questions in the introduction (and will likely continue to do so throughout), but I was naturally curious as to your personal views. As you mentioned in a previous comment you were contemplating writing a book involving Dionysius, I didn’t think you’d mind answering too much 🙂

    My own undergraduate life I remember finding much in Plato that was appealing. (The poorest ideas, at least, one would hope do not continue to be studied in universities millennia later.) It’s not, therefore, that I read Neo-Platoinism as a pejorative and immediately tossed the book aside. Nevertheless, the description of some wording being identical to a Platonic scholar’s work, the element of pseudonymity, and Luther’s virulent advice together raised my eyebrow. So I asked a priest!

    When I was young and trying to figure out exactly what I believed, what deterred me from exploring Orthodoxy more deeply was (if I can remember correctly) a conception that Orthodoxy described man not just returning to God, being drawn to God by God, but becoming God. Reading Kallistos Ware’s works almost a year ago now, I could more clearly see the Orthodox distinction and thus a theology that comported with what I personally read in the words of Christ and the Apostles.

    Dee is right, however, that Divine Liturgy (and subsequent participation in the Church) were and are necessary to complement the intellectual understanding that comes about from reading and reasoning.

    To go back to your previous interchange with Drew, I think that dual experience of heart and mind is more the two necessities than something like apples and oranges. Or perhaps we are like blind men trying to describe a divine “elephant.” It is not (in my opinion) that Christian believers most often disagree because of having exactly contrarian beliefs or a belief in one thing and not another. Rather, we emphasize the part of Christ’s message that most speaks to us in our separate personalities. (In writing that, I wonder whether there is a portion of the Beatitudes, for example, that when we listen each of us most identifies with or yearns to be included in. My aspiration would be pure in heart.)

    I like the phrase about Orthodoxy I read often that it allows the fullest experience of the faith; that description seems wholly positive and offered most in a spirit of peace.

  72. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Janine thank you! I should reread his writing.

    Dear Michael I took no offense and sincerely apologize if my comment seemed to suggest that.

  73. Alan Avatar

    Dee, My deepest apologies to you. I’ve very sorry and ask your forgiveness.

  74. Skip Avatar

    Father Stephen, maybe this was addressed already in the comments, so forgive me if I’m repeating something already hashed out above, but I was pondering something you said early on:

    “1. Bolsheviks take over Russia (bad)
    2. Bolsheviks attack and oppress the Church (bad)
    3. Lots of people flee, including much the the Russian intelligentsia (probably bad)
    4. Fleeing refugees establish the Church in many other lands (good)
    5. A flowering of Orthodox Church begins to occur in these newly founded places (good)
    6. I wouldn’t be Orthodox (likely) if the Bolsheviks hadn’t driven these people out… (pretzel)

    And on and on. The simple statement in Scripture (in Genesis): “You meant it to me for evil, the Lord meant it to me for good.””

    This put me in mind of the notion (one I think some Fathers discussed) that even absent the Fall, Christ would have become incarnate among us, but *because* of the Fall, both how this was accomplished and what it meant for us changed. The Incarnation was part of the “plan” (for lack of a better word) regardless, but due to all of the consequences and patterns of sin from the Fall, it is different, and we can never know what might have been.

    So too I think your “pretzel” expresses a similar working out of providence: absent the Bolshevik Revolution (and absent the Turkish pograms of the late 1800s too, which sent many of the Middle Eastern Orthodox here too), we might not have the Orthodox presence here that we do, but also absent those horrors we might have the Orthodox presence here in a different (and perhaps less disunited) form. I cannot help but ponder that at this time now, where Christianity in the cultural West is in such a crisis, that Orthodoxy offers a return to the right path*, and so was perhaps always part of God’s providence, but the path there has been unexpected (by us anyway).

    *An Evangelical pastor I know, who 2 years ago was utterly unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, told me the other day that many in his circle are now seeing and hearing about the Orthodox church rather frequently.

  75. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Mark, you said…

    “Or perhaps we are like blind men trying to describe a divine “elephant.” It is not (in my opinion) that Christian believers most often disagree because of having exactly contrarian beliefs or a belief in one thing and not another. Rather, we emphasize the part of Christ’s message that most speaks to us in our separate personalities.”

    I think you said much more eloquently was I was trying to get at with apples and oranges. Just the other day I heard someone comment that Orthodox tend to emphasize the divinity of Christ while Catholics dwell more on His humanity. I feel safe in saying that both His humanity and divinity are essential and important for us. And I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that it is almost impossible for one person or group to hold both of those in balance without eventually favoring one over the other – due to all kinds of factors.

    I don’t think there’s anything to do about this reality, nothing needing to be fixed at the day (beyond the salvation of the whole world of course). It just it was it is, but realizing that things are this way helps me to be aware of my need for the perspective and understanding of others. It encourages humility on my part. It causes me to trust God more and more often. As Fr. Stephen has said, this life is messy. In chaos I learn that I am not enough and that I must reach out to Him and others much more than I would like. That’s not me in a state of failure; that’s simply our path to salvation in this life.

    Much of 2022 I spent with a mystery illness. Only recently are diagnoses and remedies being found. For the first few months my nightly routine was to wake up at midnight, take lots of pain killer, get into an ice cold shower (the only thing which would touch the headache), and then wait until I could finally fall asleep again. The doctors were clueless, friends and family couldn’t do anything, and so what’s left? I sat in the dark until I finally understood that I was there to reach out to God above all things – and to understand just how little I know or can control.

    As one church father explained, first nothing matters. Then you find God and put Him first – and then everything else falls into its proper place. I would add – you still have no control over those things, but now at least you can love and appreciate them as you should.

    And as Fr. Stephen has said many times, it is through the cross – our weakness and failure – that we find our salvation. It is found in the dark of night and not the light of day.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark, Drewster,
    I understand the points both of you are making and know what you’re working to express (I think). On the one hand, there’s the desire to say something valuable about two different things, without devaluing either. And, I admit that I’m resistant to that (I happen to think it’s a habit born of modernity).

    I did want to comment on the distinction of the West focusing on the humanity of Christ and the East on the divinity. The reason is because this is a trope that one hears now and again – it’s actually false and misleading. What can be said of Orthodoxy is that it is decidedly “Chalcedonian.” Perhaps the apex of Orthodox thought is best expressed in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor, who took everything into the fullness expressed in the Council of Chalcedon (5th Ecumenical). It’s fairly complex in that in considers both the humanity and the divinity but in the most complete possible expression.

    The West, particularly through the lens of later developments in sacramental thought, in which versions of the Penal Substitution and a piety of the pain of the Cross found an ascendancy, created a focus on the humanity. “Christ as perfect man pays the price demanded by the justice of the Father,” etc. And, it has continued and found other more compatible expressions in the modern period because the divinity has all of that dogmatic baggage that modernity would rather do without – it’s less problematic. Thus Christ is increasingly viewed as a moral figure. Very soon, our culture we judge Him to be morally problematic and will seek to sweep him away with the last vestiges of Christianity itself.

    I maintain that the West is losing its way – particularly in that it no longer “sings” in the fullness of a Chalcedonian faith. It’s well intentioned, but the melody has become quite thin. It cannot serve as a “balance” when talking about two things for at least the reason that it doesn’t have anything near the weight of what it seeks to balance. You cannot sing the Western theology without making the East sing very softly. Thus, they both suffer.

    It interests me how many Catholics I know who are “fleeing” to the Eastern Rite within Catholicism, looking for more meat.

    Not an argument – just my thoughts.

  77. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Alan thank you for your kind words and courage. May God bless you with great blessings on this day of Theophany.

    I ask you for your prayers concerning my wounds and words. May God hear our prayers for healing.

  78. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    as a former Roman Catholic I can say that they do not focus more on the humanity of Jesus. They keep the tension of theology from above and theology from below; fully God and fully man.

  79. Alan Avatar

    Thank you very much Dee. I appreciate your graciousness. We’ll pray for each other and I echo your words, May God hear our prayers for healing.

  80. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Drew, Thank you for the openness and vulnerability in your expression above. Whether or not you think you communicate “eloquently,” I have no difficulty understanding your meaning (perhaps because of standing near your same position on the elephant so that I can easily feel with my own hands what you wish to describe).

    Father Stephen, I also mean no argument with you regarding the position(s) of the West versus Orthodoxy (which we would both agree have to be simplified to be even discussed: you have referenced your own heartache over the current global crisis roiling Orthodoxy).

    To be clear, if I had to be binary, I consider myself wanting to be Orthodox in my outlook and sympathies. I agree that the West has made mistakes that Orthodoxy has experienced to a lesser degree (and that the fraction of those errors, both subtle and egregious, I am aware of would be tiny to what you could recite).

    It is not so much that I want to describe something of value about each, but to emphasize that what is important is, “In trying to learn with one another, are we wanting the elephant fit into what we would like to believe about the elephant…or can we all agree that, working together (in communion, to use perhaps the best word), our goal is to get at the elephant as He truly is?”

    CS Lewis was not Orthodox. The Baptists and Pentecostals you described above as having “taught me a lot”…that’s more what I’m trying to say: the idea that sometimes labels may make Christians believe they are farther apart from one another than, in the essentials, they truly are.

    I appreciate all the effort you put in here for all of us. If there is any doubt, I do come here to learn and not to argue, regardless of how my inquiring may sometimes communicate itself. Your work always conveys that exact quality I value, of seeking after God’s truth wherever the seeking leads.

  81. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    The elephant is a denial of truth and is especially used to encourage syncretism and that no one believe system/religion has the monopoly/fullness of truth. It has been especially used in new age spirituality. We are all clutching at straws. Which I would say is a denial of Jesus, being the way, the truth and the life; of God’s self Revelation as Trinity.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a metaphor that has a very poor history and track-record, indeed.

  83. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    ‘Glory to you who have shown us the light.’ We no longer have to stumble about in the darkness of ignorance and demonic delusion (although we still have to struggle against them); we have truly seen a great light, the light of the world, the truth of all things. Thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ.

  84. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    I do not think any mortal Christian has the “fullness of truth” (cf. Matthew 24:36). (That each blind man does not grasp the entire elephant, however, does not imply the elephant is not real or that, indeed, the elephant’s nature is changed by human misconceptions.) The treasure of infinite truth is apportioned in our discrete and finite vessels of clay. We may no longer be stumbling in complete darkness, but we yet see through a glass darkly.

    Father Stephen described, for example, years of the “coin not dropping for him” regarding Dionysius. My long ago, first attempted engagement with Orthodoxy, I, unfortunately, was not in the right position to see or perhaps there was not yet enough access to Orthodoxy in East Tennessee to get a true picture. (Even now St. Anne is a 50 minute drive for me.)

    This real-life circumstance was a limit, even as I all those years ago very much was looking for what I found the first time I participated in Divine Liturgy. For most of my life, Christ-seeking Protestants have sustained me and provided Christ-like examples. And so I think it is important always to have empathy and find ways of embracing those struggling toward the light, wherever they are in that struggle, rather than assuming that our own eyes (based on the label on our jar) have become completely mote free.

    For what it’s worth, I have never had the slightest interest in new age spiritualism, so whatever “dog whistle” the metaphor has among those folk is coincidental from my ignorance of the same.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re right about the “dog whistle” thing. The metaphor originated in a Hindu story and was quite popular starting in the 60’s or so. It sends off fire alarms for many – particularly if they’ve had to battle they’re way through the morass of new-age-like confusions.

    I do not think it is right that we claim that we individually have the “fullness of the truth.” Rather, we say that the Church is the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23). In that sense, we can say that the “fullness of the truth” has me, or something like that.

    I am also reminded frequently of the gentleness of the late Abp. Dmitri, my spiritual father, who urged us converts not to speak ill of where we came from, inasmuch as it was quite likely the place where we first met Christ. There are many stories and experiences of what a mixed bag that might have been. After all, most converts have “left” something. My own experience has taught me, though, that if the primary drive in our lives is what we were leaving, then we’re heading for trouble. Rather, it is what we are gaining that matters. I had plenty of issues as an Episcopal priest – but my conversion to Orthodoxy was not about fleeing – it was about coming home.

    At the very time of my conversion, there were terrible problems going on here in the S.E. between the OCA and ROCOR (who was out of communion with everyone other than Serbia at the time, I think). It was a mess and directed affected me, my family, and the initial beginning of St. Anne. I had no honeymoon, or time of blessed peace with my conversion. It was obvious to me for a number of months before being received that I was heading into a mess and that it would be difficult. I suspect that Providence was very much at work in that – though I had to overcome any amount of resentment over that first decade. I think, on the other hand, that it was an accurate reflection of Orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy, in its struggle to maintain true, authentic ecclesiology, has always been a place where difficulties and strife have occurred. The constant schisms and re-inventions of the Church that occur in denominationalism create make-believe scenarios or false ecclesiologies (“we’re all one”). There’s a brutal honesty in Orthodoxy that probably scandalizes others. I have dubbed it the “ecclesiology of the Cross.”

  86. Skip Avatar

    “I am also reminded frequently of the gentleness of the late Abp. Dmitri, my spiritual father, who urged us converts not to speak ill of where we came from, inasmuch as it was quite likely the place where we first met Christ. There are many stories and experiences of what a mixed bag that might have been. After all, most converts have “left” something. My own experience has taught me, though, that if the primary drive in our lives is what we were leaving, then we’re heading for trouble. Rather, it is what we are gaining that matters. I had plenty of issues as an Episcopal priest – but my conversion to Orthodoxy was not about fleeing – it was about coming home.”

    Father, this is so very true. I left my Protestant church feeling disappointment and some degree of anger, but the longer I have been in the Orthodox church, the more I have been able to recapitulate everything that was right and true and good where I came from, and so have been able to actually find more and more in common, through Christ, with other Christians, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. I’ve tried to express this to others by saying (and realizing this is an incomplete thing to say, as this is something not easily expressed) that it has been in the Orthodox Church where I finally learned the beginnings of what it is to even be a Christian, and thereby see in my Protestant friends how they are themselves already living that out. Even saying this, however, feels clumsy. Put another way, in the Church I think I’ve finally been confronted by Christ, and having seen Him, been taught to see Him elsewhere too. But I had to be in the Church first to even see Him at all (which is really a lesson on my own blindness).

  87. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Mark,
    I was not implying that any mortal had the fullness of truth; perhaps I wasn’t clear in what I was saying.

    However incomplete our understanding and our seeing through a glass darkly is, I do find the elephant metaphor unhelpful in a Christian context, due to its origins and purpose and therefore would not accept the elephant as being real in a true sense; having more to do with the imaginings of men than the Revelation of God.

    And I have been helped myself by clergy, monastics and lay people when I was a Roman Catholic; good, decent people. What is at issue, is not other people’s goodness or faith; I have met atheists who are kinder than I am.

    I am not Orthodox, but am hoping God is leading me and will make it possible for me. Is the Orthodox Church the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, or not? And if by God’s mercy I can become Orthodox, will I receive the healing I need? Or is the Branch Theory true? Should I have therefore remained within the Roman Catholic Church, even though I had come to reject some of its teaching, which basically put me out of communion it. The label on the jar, to use your metaphor, may not be important for you, but it is for me.

  88. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you again for your counsel. I remember reading the story as a kid…probably pre 4th grade 🙂

    “My own experience has taught me, though, that if the primary drive in our lives is what we were leaving, then we’re heading for trouble. Rather, it is what we are gaining that matters. I had plenty of issues as an Episcopal priest – but my conversion to Orthodoxy was not about fleeing – it was about coming home.”

    Same here. I am not fleeing Protestantism but my own sense of having let my faith become hollowed out. In contrast, I did experience the sense at that first Divine Liturgy of timelessness and perhaps this was a glimpse into heaven.

    Also, I began watching some of your YouTube videos before even knowing you were “you.” I’ve told your wife that the first couple of times in church that I saw you (and the long beard) I thought you were likely some priest who had come over from Eastern Europe somewhere, not the guy in the Protecting the Veil series that I had found so accessible and sincere.

    One Sunday you filled in for Father Daniel, and the scales fell from my eyes. Talk about seeing through a glass darkly! Your homily asked us whether we lived like God was real. And that was what I needed to hear, and what I do think is missing in most of the flailing churches. To try to summarize it, you were unabashed about knocking down the wall between the heavenly and earthly house (as is the subject of your book).

    Anyway, I do not have bad church experiences like many commenters here have written of. It does trouble me, however, that so often I read and see Christians focused on areas of disagreement (sometimes being manipulated into the same by those with completely non-Christian agendas).

    I’m old (and perhaps inconsequential ) enough that I can’t say I have felt anything external like what you must have as a priest converting, but I don’t expect the same benign neglect from others regarding my daughter’s future path. (My son, while indulging me in attending St. Anne when here, has already told me that he’s a “Protestant boy.”)

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    How sweet to be mistaken for an old immigrant priest!

    On parishioner at St. Anne, perhaps 10 years ago, said that he had attended the parish for months until one Sunday he realized that I was “that Fr. Stephen.” At the time, I actually worked hard to keep something of a wall between my blogging and my parish ministry. I did not want the notariety of the blogging stuff to interfere (and would have stopped had it been a problem). Eventually, the parish council confronted me and wondered why I did things as I did – they saw my internet work as a parish asset. So, we changed things up a bit (as in, putting a link to the blog on the parish website, etc.).

    Funny how all those things go. The truth is, St. Anne, over the years, has been a place of sanity for me. It’s where I live. People see me for who and what I am – which helps keep the hypocrisy reduced somewhat. It’s interesting now to be the retired priest – who isn’t even always in attendance – who fills in from time-to-time, and doesn’t even know the names of all the catechumens (of course there’s so many of them!).

    I am also wonderfully blessed in the support and patience of our parish priest. It’s a joy to watch the work go on “without” me – kind of like being in heaven among the “crowd of witnesses.”

    In my book (due out in February) on shame – I have a chapter on “the shame of conversion.” It looks both at the experiences of converts coming into the Church (where there are many experiences that will trigger various shame reactions) as well as the experiences of those who are receiving the converts and sometimes being chagrined by what they see. One of my observations is that Orthodox in America (though it has been here for over 200 years) is only just beginning to confront America (over the past 30-40 years) with the influx of converts. In 1960 or so, Orthodox conversation really didn’t need to include R.C’s, much less Protestants. I know many ethnic clergy who have no idea what various Protestants think or believe, for example.

    But today, in the current context, there is a real need to know more, to engage more, etc. And that is a new experience – filled with all kinds of new problems. It is exasperated sometimes by behaviors that are less than helpful – too strident – too riddled with unidentified shame and such. But, the NT is actually filled with references to a situation that is not all that different. Surprise! It’s a book that is relevant to our lives!

  90. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I am not fleeing the Roman Catholic Church, by rejecting certain must be believed dogmas, to actually be a Roman Catholic and to be in communion, I put myself outside of said communion. I could of course have just carried on going to Mass and receiving communion and not saying anything about what I did or did not accept. I believe it was the right thing to do, instead of pleasing myself and becoming an even worse hypocrite and at least hang on to some honest integrity.
    Having known very little about Orthodoxy and having been praying the Jesus Prayer for some time, I decided to delve into what Orthodoxy was about. This led me to change my perspective on Roman Catholicism and led me to rejecting some RC dogmas and accepting Orthodoxy in a limited way and seeing as there is no Orthodox presence anywhere near me, I’ve gone out on a bit of a limb and ended up in a bit of a limbo.

    I apologise if some of my posts are not clear enough. I take the comments section at face value and comment from time to time, but have no interest in giving lengthy academic type or too biographical comments.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, may God continue to bless your journey and bring you fully home.
    I came out of a “New Age” group with a longing for Christ. As we came closer to the Church, the new age stuff became less and less relevant. Those that preferred the occult went their way.
    No question that Jesus and Mary were both with us despite how we twisted things.
    When I attended my first Divine Liturgy, both Jesus and Mary welcomed me and I knew I was home.
    It has not always been an easy homecoming but I am still here 36 years later, by God’s grace.

    What has helped most is participation in the Sacraments. Especially the Divine Liturgy and Confession..
    “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
    That has become a door to go more deeply into the life of the Church (seen and unseen).
    Glory be to God

  92. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Michael,
    your getting to point always welcome.

  93. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    A last thought. Blind Bartemaeus? God became man, not elephant.

  94. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I just wanted to say a few words of my appreciation for your participation here. By way of contrast, I am rich with having several Orthodox Churches within driving distance. But such richness in proximity is no guarantee of righteousness or the possibility of it, even if one such as myself should participate in Orthodoxy Liturgical services. I sincerely believe that it is the condition of the heart that matters. As Christ said, blessed is the poor in spirit. I have no doubt that your prayers are heard by our Lord and in such authentic prayer is communion.

    On the elephant analogy:
    I first heard its use in science circles, often used as a model teaching students chemistry. I’ve used it myself, but while feeling deeply disturbed by model’s inadequacy ontologically. But it apply describes what scientists think they are doing when they conduct their experiments and then share their results. They believe that they will eventually get to some point where they can extrapolate successfully the ‘rest of’ the elephant. And then they will go about testing their hypothesis. The problem with the model is that with all of our science and technology that we have so far, the elephant that we can hardly barely grasp only constitutes about 5% of what is “out there”.

  95. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I should add that it is probably hubris to think that we might grasp 5%.

  96. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I look forward to the book and reading it! I believe it will indeed be relevant because in your brief descriptions a coin has dropped in my understanding regarding my own conversion.

    I have no desire to be upsetting to others in these words I’m about to say. I’m not sure whether such words will be helpful or not. And since I’m not sure, Father, please delete as you see fit.

    I have not liked Christians by and large for most of my life while keeping my awareness of those Christians I have also always loved and at the same time having not met Orthodox Christians. Obviously there is internal conflict with what I have just said. It has been very painful for me to become Christian. It is very painful to become Christian and to see much of the same behaviors they have, that I have always hated in them, I find in me. While in catechism I had a dream in my sleep in which I committed the same atrocities that had been committed against my family. Those atrocities included the ultimate death of my grandfather and rape of children including I belive my mother (she wouldn’t talk about it).

    This dream continues to haunt me. But it enables me to say the last pre-communion prayer in truth: I am indeed the first (chiefest) of sinners.

  97. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    One of the Protecting Veil videos I watched that featured Father Stephen before coming to know him in person was this:

    Around 2:20 he begins talking about forgiveness and the upcoming Vespers that this year I think occur on February 26. To be sure, I have very little to forgive others for, nothing comparable to what you describe. But I can attest that even slight, almost insignificant offenses are difficult for me to forgive without practice and asking God’s help. Nothing else in my experience is better relief for the soul, however, and makes me feel instantly that I am aligned as I should be with God’s will.

  98. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, what you say saddens my heart, not just because of your pain, but the larger pain of humanity, fallen. We each share in that, not impersonally either. We inflict darkness on each other. Forgive me. Jesus loves each of us in away I cannot fathom. He loves sufficiently to take my sins upon Himself and transform.

    As the priest says in the absolution: “having no further care for the sins you have confessed.. .”
    I often find that the hardest part of the Sacrament followed by “… arise and go forth and sin no more. ”

    That is a call to me to repent and forgive– very hard for me.

    … and yet there is Joy somehow. Afar off the avenue of joy looks intimidating as there is such turmoil all around that path. We can look and turn back in fear, as I have often done. Or “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” The turmoil is in my heart — ended by walking past and entering Joy anyway.

    It is the opposition of the Cross though. Both internally and externally.
    When I have partaken of the voice of the drums gathered with others, it the rhythm of the human heart accelerating and bringing us all closer to ourselves, each other and God Himself.
    I often sin against myself as well as others. I have that of which to repent as well.

    Dee, you are part of the prayers my wife and I say each day. God bless you and clear your way and be at peace with Him who shines His Joy within each heart who turns to Him. Even sometimes in the very midst of our storms.
    This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

  99. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Dee. I appreciate your insight.

  100. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Each of us carries within us various wounds – some lesser, some greater. That Christ gave us words from the Cross is such a precious gift. To endure all that took place on that day (which gathered the whole of days) and to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” are not just a gift, but a promise that the voice that spoke them abides within us as well, and can, over time, speak them and mean them as well.

    I found this quote from St. Maximus early this morning: “Only love overcomes the fragmentation of human nature.” God grant it to us – day by day.

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

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