Beneath the Letter of the World

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. (1 Cor. 9:9-10)

In this odd little passage in St. Paul’s writings, we see him as rabbi handling the Torah in a very traditional manner. The Law gives a rule for managing livestock. When I completed my Hebrew language studies in seminary, I came to the conclusion that Hebrew was great for telling stories, especially if the stories are about cows. For St. Paul (and much of the rabbinic tradition of his time), Moses did not ascend the mountain in order to write rules for cattle. In another place he says, “All things are for your sake.” (2 Cor. 4:15) The Law speaks of oxen, but wisdom reads beneath the letter and discerns the deeper speech of God. In this small rule, St. Paul sees eternal justice: if you work, you should be paid. No doubt, wisdom would pierce even deeper.

There are any number of times that we see St. Paul (and Christ Himself) handle the Scripture in this manner. Christ excoriates the Pharisees for their fascination with the surface of the Law:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.(Matt. 23:23)

To find the “weightier” matters of the Scriptures requires a good heart, and a willingness to patiently look beyond the surface. If this is true of the Scriptures, it is equally true of the world itself and everything within it. Christ said:

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.(Luke 6:45)

I believe that it is equally true that a good heart is able to see the good (in its depths), while the evil heart is blind. Even literalism is corrupted by an evil heart.

St. Paul had the advantage of believing that there was something beneath or beyond the letter.

“…we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.(2 Cor. 4:18)

Pure materialism is, in fact, a denial of the Christian faith. The material world does not exist in itself and for itself. It is sacrament and icon, which in no way denigrates its dignity or importance. Nevertheless, its importance is found beneath and beyond it. It is the eternal that resides within it, or is reflected by it, that gives it meaning.

This is important as we consider the world and the demands placed upon us by those who claim to speak for the world. With the birth of secularism, political, economic, and social forces seek to re-tell the story of the world in their own terms. Much of this story is the core of modernity’s mythic explanation of its project. In large part, it is a story of material and moral progress. At its worst, it re-casts Christianity as its enemy, part of the “traditions of the past” that are being overcome by its progressive efforts. Christianity loses its true center when it seeks to convince the world of its commitment to the modern project. At present, there is a growing collection of Christian Churches, hollowed out by their embrace of the modern, secular account of reality. In a drive for relevance, they became redundant.

Oddly, they serve as icons of modern humanity. C.S. Lewis described them as “men without chests.” T.S. Eliot used the phrase, “the hollow men.” These were efforts to describe a humanity that was losing its spiritual mooring. Without the transcendent, eternal reality as foundation, humanity crashes inward on itself, a free-fall in which only power determines the passing meaning of anything. Meaning itself becomes a synonym for “power.” A hallmark of 20th and 21st century life, wherever the modern collapse has become dominant, is a constant drive to re-define language. If words only mean what we say they mean – then the “Say-ers” are the new masters.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1, 3)

Our Orthodox faith teaches us that every created thing has a “logicity” – it is made by and through the Logos (Christ, the Word of God). The truth of any existing thing is not the truth if it is divorced from its logicity. Our effort to “speak” the truth is, properly, an effort to give voice both to the thing itself as well as its logos.

One clear example for this can be seen in the Orthodox Christian understanding of what it is to be human. Everything said of the humanity of Christ is also something that reveals what it is for anyone to be human. A result is the revelation of human dignity and of the fullness of what it means to be created in the “image of God.” The “dignity” of human beings is found in our logicity – the “unseen,” eternal aspect of our existence. Where this unseen aspect is denigrated or ignored, brutality and genocide inevitably follow. It is not the case that Christianity has not seen its own use of brutality and genocide – but this has only been when its theology was overridden and ignored for sinful purposes.

When we speak of creation as icon and sacrament, we acknowledge the demand that we pay attention to that which is unseen. It is, foremost, a discipline of the heart, but it is also a deep listening to the voices within the Tradition who have attended and seen and borne witness to what they have seen and heard. The rush of modernity, particularly as it has come unmoored from humanity’s past, is a noise that seeks to drown out the past. It rushes towards what it describes as a “better world,” though it has no image of what such a world would look like.

The spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy is described by the word, “Hesychasm.” It means the discipline of silence. That silence is not an absence of words, but an attention to the Word (Logos) within words. I think that we are, at present, set to lose many of the arguments within our culture. I am confident, however, that the Word continues to speak within everything that He has created. St. Paul described creation as “groaning in travail.” It is the sound of deep calling unto Deep.

Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these bones, that they may live.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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26 responses to “Beneath the Letter of the World”

  1. Kyriaki Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Please bless~
    Thank you for your continuing offerings of spiritual nourishments. May it be blessed for many years to come!

  2. Simon Avatar

    I think you may need to define “evil” for me. Most of the time all I see are billiard balls and pool sticks. Only rarely do I ever experience anything that I can construe as a “spiritual experience” and even then the memory fades very quickly. I am ready to accept that my heart is evil. That’s not a stretch. However, are we all born with an evil heart? Is the inability to see the world as anything other than physical indicate the presence of an evil heart? If that is so, what can a person do about it? Unless God gives one the grace, how can one be anything but blind? Can the eyes of the heart really see spiritual realities unless God opens one’s eyes? If that is true, is it a sin to be unable to see the spiritual world within the world?

    If you would indulge me, I think I might need some clarification.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, there is a world of difference between the passions and evil. None of us are born with an evil heart. Indeed, the innocence of children is quite obvious most of the time. It is only the various difficulties and abuses that they seem to inevitably endure that nurtures the passions and darkens their hearts.

    Evil is a parasite, a nothingness that darkens and clouds. It is not a thing in itself. An “evil” heart, is not “evil” in the sense of describe its essence – it’s just deeply and profoundly clouded. I can think of the environment in which I grew up – it so clouded the heart that it left many people unable to see and understand the essential humanity of an entire racial group. They often saw things (such as threats) that simply did not exist.

    I agree with you about grace. I think that grace is abundant and that it constantly bombards us. It supports every breath we take, etc.

    A darkened heart can begin to forget the gift of each breath (for example) and begin to think of themselves as nothing more than material. As such, there is no gratitude. Giving thanks is a primary activity for the softening and cleansing of the heart.

    I believe that in our culture and environment, we see rather minor glimpses of spiritual realities. Beauty is a spiritual reality, as is goodness. We see it, and, all to often, write it off as a mere subjectivity. When we do, we refuse to love it and gratitude comes with difficulty.

    Many days, all of this is hard. The passions overwhelm us. I again think that the practice of thanksgiving is a good weapon – a tool for cleansing the heart. We take it slowly. God is with us.

  4. Simon Avatar

    Have patience with me. Perhaps it would be helpful if you could elaborate on this statement: “I believe that it is equally true that a good heart is able to see the good (in its depths), while the evil heart is blind. ” Is it fair to assume that there are many reasons for blindness in one’s heart that are not evil per se?

    Also this statement: “Pure materialism is, in fact, a denial of the Christian faith. ” Could it be the case that a person’s purely materialistic perception is the only world that person knows from experience–although an infinite number of others may be imagined–and all over worlds “unseen” seem like speculation? It is difficult for me to see any denial of the Christian faith in that.

    I wish I could attest to the bombarding of grace. It isn’t something I have been illumined to experience.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve seen you bombarded by grace.

    I agree that there are many reasons that the heart can be clouded – and they need not be classified as evil (certainly on the part of the person whose heart is involved). Many times, the darkness of our hearts is inflicted upon us from various circumstances. They don’t make us evil or our hearts evil. But a darkened heart is not a good thing – it causes much suffering to us, and potentially to others around us.

    And, yes, it can certainly be the case that materialism is all that someone knows from their own experience. But, if that materialist perception means the denial of beauty and goodness (which it certain does in some forms of materialism) then it easily works to undermine the Christian belief within someone. I believe this is something that can be healed within us.

    Simon, I have heard you attest to grace in your life – and seen it as well. But I also understand how circumstances can make that perception wax and wane. It’s one of the reasons we’re told to encourage each other. Hang in there.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An additional thought. I think an honest commitment to treat what we perceive in the material creation with respect and care, resisting efforts to reduce it to a tool for someone’s ideology, etc., is, indeed a very Christian thing. Honesty is a virtue and a work of grace. I could not imagine you ever falsifying the results of science, for example, or being patient with anyone who did.

    That itself is a perception of an integrity about the material world that is more than materialism, I think. It is certainly the opposite of those who think that only power matters.

    That kind of “materialist” is an example of a good heart. It is an evidence of a belief in the good, in the true, in beauty itself, even if it hasn’t come with what we might think of as “depth perception.” There is, in fact, a lot of depth in it.

  7. christa-maria Dolejsi Avatar
    christa-maria Dolejsi

    Good Simon. Thanks for asking those questions and drawing out those responses. It clarifies and emphasizes, helps and encourages me too.!

  8. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I hesitate to mention specifics; however, in April, I was seriously injured, caused ultimately by my own stupidity. I’m on the road to recovery.

    In the very physicality of the pain of the injury, that is, before and while in ER, it seemed that I couldn’t stop the Jesus prayer under my breath. To distract me from my pain, someone attempted to talk to me as they removed some of my clothing. At that particular moment, I begged them not to talk to me and continued in prayer. It seemed that Christ was both distant and near, a vacillating presence that I struggled to hold onto in faith. Then I remembered to give thanks to Him for all things in tears. It was then it seemed He entered my pain, and the pain itself became my humble prayer.

    As they prepared to wheel me into surgery, someone saw my cross and offered to take it off. I asked to leave it on. Ironically everything, all the bustling around me, came momentarily to a halt as they tried to find a form for me to sign to let me keep the cross I bore.

    It’s interesting how the very dreadful physicality of my circumstances helped to make my prayer and accompanying faith genuine. Indeed, it is a fearful grace, a furnace we wouldn’t wish on anyone. And yet, while I might regret my stupidity, the accompanying grace to cover my shame and pain is beyond my capacity to express anything but awe and gratefulness. I still suffer as I recover and embrace this cross to whatever extent the Lord allows in His grace.

    Dear Father, thank you for these posts. For those of us who are suffering, your words are balm to struggling hearts. Glory to God for all things.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God give you strength in your recovery! I deeply appreciate your kind words and your sharing of this with us.

    Last December-January, I had a pinched nerve in my neck that created extreme pain in my shoulder and arm. It was about 6 weeks before I got significant relief. I recall that one night while trying to sleep the pain became my prayer. I don’t know how to describe that very well. It was overwhelming everything I thought and was not allowing me to pray normally – so I let the pain be my prayer. I changed it somehow – during that time. When you were sharing your experience, this came back to mind. “Fearful grace” is a very rich phrase.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, may our good God continue to bless and heal you..

  11. Margaret Avatar

    I will pray for Dee’s recovery and I am very thankful for her comments here, specifically I join in her words: “For those of us who are suffering, your words are balm to struggling hearts. Glory to God for all things.”
    Fr. Stephen, for so much suffering in so many different aspects of suffering: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and many I have not experienced, I thank God for the wisdom He gives you to share with us.

  12. Dean Avatar

    You’re a dear sister in Christ. I was wondering why you had not commented lately. I will pray for your recovery.
    May Christ surround you with His healing mercy.

  13. Simon Avatar

    I would like to share this only because I think the resulting discussion may be helpful to other readers who are having similar experiences and perhaps Fr. Stephen’s feedback will be useful not only to myself, but to others who I know have to be reading this blog.

    I was the subject of many years of cruel abuse. I am not the only one. And there are many more people who suffered far worse than I did. One of the difficulties I face is that I have altered states of consciousness. These altered states have different values, different temperaments, and responses to stress. It isn’t DID. It is an altered state of consciousness that is frequently associated with complex PTSD. However, I do experience episodes of memory loss where I later learn of extremely shameful things I may have said or done.

    A question I recurrently face is, ‘Which of these conscious states represents the system of values, temperament, and stress responses that is “real me?” Or, are all of the loosely associated conscious states a distortion for which there is no reality or substance?

    Sometimes I have auditory hallucinations. Sometimes I am tormented by dreams that are fiercely violent. Other times every breath is filled with God and my dreams seem extraordinary (at least to me!). I don’t trust any of it. Who is it that prays “Have mercy on me a sinner” and who is it that says “There is no god and the whole idea of god is foolish”? I don’t really know who I am right now.

    I know I am not the only one who struggles with this. Perhaps Father’s comments will help us all.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, last July I had a similar experience of the pain becoming the prayer. Mine also began in my neck radiating down into my shoulder, then mid back, hip, then settling in my big toe. It went on nightly for so long that I had the choice to get upset or pray. I started praying and Jesus was there waiting for me. Repentance started becoming more important to me as Mt 4:17 became my verse. 10 months later the condition is still with me as is the fruit and desire to pray deeply.
    While I haven’t yet gotten to a full bore thanksgiving for the pain, close. The pain a call to prayer, repentance, thanksgiving and joy. Glory to God for all things.
    The next step is to use the emotional pain of my shame (toxic) in a similar manner.

    I can change no one else much less the world and I learned of the “Myth of Progress” from the historian Carl Becker about the time I began discovering Jesus almost 60 years ago.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon may Jesus bless you and guide you. Jesus is real and very much as the Church and Her saints describe Him except more.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Who is it who prays, ‘Lord, have mercy?’”

    Not to overlook the depths of your question – but, given that “it does not yet appear what we shall be…but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,” it is also the case that any of us can say, “Who is this who prays?”

    In the same vein, it is of note that the Scriptures tell us that the “Spirit Himself prays within us.”

    What I find particularly noteworthy in the Scriptures handling of this – is that it places the answer to “who I am” at and in the End of all things. It even suggests that the End of all things has resided in us from the beginning and represents the unity of our being.

    Think about St. Paul’s 7th chapter of Romans where he meditates on sin – and concludes that he himself is not the author of some of his actions but rather it is “sin that dwells in me.” At the very least he is reminding us that the question of identity is much more complex than we might imagine.

    When I think of your experiences – I think of you rather than the experiences themselves. “I had a bad night,” is ever so much different than, “I am a bad night.”

    Some of the kind of experiences that you have with the Complex PTSD can be profoundly disturbing and feel as though they constitute the self. It is perhaps more useful to think of them either as artifacts of abuse (like wounds or bruises), or even as efforts of the personality/brain to protect itself from something worse (which is sort of what bruises and wounds are in the body).

    When I think of my Christian life, which now stretches consciously over 63 years (I’ll turn 70 in a number of months), I could ask the question, “What is the relationship between I who pray now, and whoever it was praying at age 7?” There’s certainly been changes across those years.

    My answer to that question is to think of “me” as something like a point moving through time and space. What is constant is not “me,” but the One to Whom I have been praying. Some of the time I’ve prayed badly (or hardly at all). But He is the identity that “changes not.” He is the steady point (the Logos) that gives me and all of us meaning.

    When waves of doubt crash over you, or everything regarding God seems useless or without meaning, I think it is possible to let it sort of wash over you and subside. Sort of like how we can deal with the waves in the ocean. The wave will pass, and God will still be there, having held on to us despite any doubt or feelings of meaninglessness.

    Years ago, I had a best friend who was bi-polar. We started the commune I lived in together. He had a profound impact on my life. He also was totally mecurial in his religious affiliations. He became Catholic (having been born Baptist). He became a Buddhist (and lived in a monastery at the foot of Mt. Fuji for about nine months). He became an alcoholic (and found the religion of AA – probably his best choice of the lot). He was even Orthodox for a time. As such, I believe him to be Orthodox above all else.

    At an early point in time (I think it was during the Buddhist period), I was praying fervently for his salvation and was very worried. It is one of the few times that I had a clear sense of God speaking to me. He said, “He belongs to me.” I prayed for him throughout the years (he died three or four years ago) and remember him in every liturgy. But I never again worried about his salvation. He belonged to God and still does.

    We are not the constants that create our own identities. God is the constant Who is creating our identities and sustains us. We pray as we can, when we can. He prays in us, even when we don’t believe or when we think we no longer care. We are His. That’s who we are.

  17. Simon Avatar

    I think I could use some feedback on the ‘blindness = evil’ and ‘sight = grace’. At present this persistent state of alienation seems like a blindness one might associate with evil. Perhaps language with less value laden associations would be more helpful

  18. Simon Avatar

    Also, thank you for your replies.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a well-made point. I would say that none of us wants to be blind and would likely think it’s a terrible thing if we lost our sight. Perhaps it would have been better if I re-framed my thoughts with less value-ladened imagery.

    The real question for me is the grounding of our material reality in a transcendent reality. It’s not enough to say that someone is a human being – are they a human being created in the image and likeness of God? I think that we “see” people differently if we see that about them. If they are merely material things – then all bets are off.

    In the same manner, when we look today at movements that suggest human sexuality/gender is “on a spectrum,” and the spectrum is a matter of subjective claims, there is a need to invest biology (materiality) with more substance than is being granted. For Christians, that substance (male and female) is itself part of our understanding of the image of God. But that’s a very complex conversation.

    I’ll pay attention to the value stuff – for sure.

  20. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Dear Simon,
    Not sure why I’m writing, but I wanted to tell you about my best friend of 15 years, Jennifer, who reposed last May, the day after Radonitsa, of breast cancer. She finally received a correct diagnosis of complex PTSD, also as a result of abuse, in addition to having had a difficult relationship with her mother – mother not physically abusive, but my friend – a brilliant, creative person – could never measure up as the kind of daughter her mother wanted, even though her mother did care for her (I’ve yet to understand her mother in all of this – complicated). This explained so much of what she experienced, how she acted, and how she thought about things while we were close. She moved away the last few years of her life and I had little contact with her, but a few months before her death she got in touch with me by email. I was not able to be with her physically before she reposed, but in communicating with her in writing I have some hope that I somehow helped her. I never quit praying for her!

    She was one of the greatest blessings in my life. We had a lot of the same questions about things, she understood me more than anyone else in my life, and she helped me through so much – figuring out what was going on inside me, seeing things in relationships more clearly, leaving Evangelicalism at the same time… She was instrumental in helping me find reliable Orthodox sources on the Internet, which was all I had in the beginning of my journey into the Church. I thought she would follow me into Orthodoxy, because she was convinced that Orthodox doctrine was the best and truest of all that was expressed in Christianity, but that didn’t happen. There would have been answers in the Church to much of her hesitancy, but she was afraid to go there, for various reasons that I think I understand. Near the end, in spite of some things she believed (I think because she was more afraid of death than she let on), she wrote that she still believed Jesus, and like with Fr Stephen and his friend, that was enough for me to trust her to Him.

    Fr Stephen has written so helpfully about when our brains have problems. We know that abuse and other adverse childhood experiences change how the brain functions. From what you write, it seems you have been impacted in those ways. I could see it a bit with my friend, too.. She followed some interesting paths, especially near the end, but nevertheless, I have never known anyone so dedicated to finding and living in the truth as she was. I always remember her with great gratitude.

    Our lives are hid with Christ in God; there is great comfort for me as Fr Stephen has expressed that. And, there have to be people in your life who see what Fr Stephen sees and are grateful for you, too – it is evident in what you write. Thank you so much for sharing here.


  21. Simon Avatar

    Father, forgive me for not being clear that I was not eschewing values or valuation. I am suggesting that with respect to spiritual growth some language seems demonizing, like the use of evil. When I asked the question it was from within the context of Orthodox seekers who experience blindness, alienation, and despair.

    The current of trans-speak and it’s drive to influence children is evil–horrible evil. Although individuals may simply be unmoored and out to sea.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. We were “ships passing in the night” as the metaphor goes.

  23. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I don’t have any kind of PTSD, and yet some of what you relate rings a bell. “Who’s praying or talking right now?” At such times I find an inability to trust myself and therefore turn in wordless prayer (pain sometimes) to God. I throw myself over the edge and hope against hope that He’ll catch me. I’ve reached my limits and there is no other way forward.

    I offer this in case it helps.

  24. Justin Avatar


    I want to give you what my spiritual father gave me as I was struggling with the demons attacking me:

    God already loves you and what you are going through is for your salvation. That is the end game. No. Matter. What.

    For what it is worth. One day, one hour, one minute, one second at a time. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.

    Lord have mercy on all of us.

  25. Elizabeth Avatar

    Thank You Father. Warm greetings to all …
    Just sharing a few thoughts …
    The true self’s center is grounded in Love. At the heart of creation, God is present in All. Recognising ourselves in others is part of self-knowledge …
    Christ is in All …

  26. Byron Avatar

    May God grant healing and health to all here, especially those suffering through so much! May He draw us all close to Him in these times.

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