The Path of the Good, the True, the Real

Imagine a character in a story who is wraith-like, barely existing. His every move threatens to draw him deeper into non-existence. As it stands, others around him are only able to see him moments at a time. He often disappears for whole days at a time as he lapses into such ghostly non-being that he cannot be seen at all. Each step he takes either diminishes his existence or establishes it. As such, the path he takes is a matter of life-or-death.

Although this is fantasy, it is a way of seeing our lives that allows us to envision what is actually taking place. We move through our days and with each step, we move either towards the truth of our existence, the fullness of our being, or we move towards non-existence, non-being. Each step towards the truth of our existence is an action of goodness, a move towards that which is good, or, ultimately, a step towards God, who alone is truly good. Each step away from that goodness, away from the path towards God, is a movement away from existence, a movement towards non-being.

St. Sophrony wrote of what he termed “hypostatic existence.” It was language, drawn from the tradition, that sought to describe a way of being that, at best, we have all only begun to taste, but for which we all hunger. It is personal, indeed, the only truly personal existence. It is personal but not private. It is the very mode in which we rightly exist as persons.

When we speak of the Holy Trinity, and the personal existence of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we are speaking of a kind of existence in which no person of the Trinity can be expressed in a manner in which He is alone, or considered apart from the others. The very name, “Father,” asks, “Father of whom?” The name, “Son,” carries a similar question, as does “Spirit.” It is among the many reasons that substitute terms such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” are woefully inadequate and inappropriate. Such terms are functional (at best) but reveal and convey nothing of the hypostatic character of the persons of the Holy Trinity. It is God Himself who has made Himself known to us as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The movement towards such a hypostatic/personal existence, is a movement towards an existence that mirrors that of God. Again and again, Christ teaches us to love: love your neighbor, love your enemies, give to your neighbor, give to your enemy, forgive everyone and all. And He repeatedly tells us that such actions are to be undertaken, “So that you may be like your Father who is in heaven.” Love is more than moral – it is the very nature of true being and existence. Those who refuse love are choosing a path towards non-existence.

It should be common knowledge (though it is not) that the whole of our purpose in this life is communion with God, and, together with Him, communion with all of creation. In the darkness of our present world, we imagine such things as communion to be a “lifestyle” choice, a term that describes little more than a reasonable relationship. In contrast to this, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos proclaimed, “My brother is my life.”

How would our day be different if we understood that the well-being of each person around us was the single necessary thing of our life? Perhaps the first thought would be: “exhausting.” That is, no doubt, true. Our relations with others are often quite distorted, driven by their neuroses and our own. We serve others because we want to be liked, or to receive the same thing in return, or to avoid unpleasantness. We rarely experience acts that are truly born of love. Our hearts are far too complicated.

The spiritual path towards true existence is difficult and even tedious. It requires attention and repentance, the willingness to expose ourselves to God in the naked, honest truth. However, this is not a journey we make alone. St. Paul declares, “Christ within us, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) If St. Silouan was correct in declaring, “My brother is my life,” then we must understand that Jesus has said as much of us: “You are my life.” We have no such declaration in the gospel, but we are told, “…that you may dwell in Me, and I in you.”

We have been shaped far too deeply in our modern individualist world-view. We hear Jesus saying nothing more than, “I’ll help you from time to time,” and we pray in precisely that manner. We fail to see that the Life-of-Christ-in-me is also living and willing my life (Phil. 2:13). Learning to live in union with Him, in a communion of life and action, is the very heart of the life of grace.

If we return to the original image in this article, it’s also possible to use it in understanding our movement away from God. Among the greater lies of our present time is the notion of a “secular self,” that our identities are the products of our own efforts and imaginings. Various forces within us are deeply vulnerable to this siren song of non-existence. We are constantly bathed in the images of the “successful,” touting various versions of desirability. Of course, though various people may be used in selling these images, the truth behind it all is a sham. Hollywood (to use only one example) is rife with misery – failed marriages and lives, overdoses and suicides. Though it rallies itself for political causes and moralistic pronouncements, careful examination reveals only a culture of self-indulgence and emptiness.

The material success of modern technology creates an allusion of greatness. To a great extent it only bears witness to power and wealth. Much that is deemed “progress” is accomplished only through the forced measures of our various artificialities. Money and technology cannot create goodness. Only that which is good, in communion with the Good, has any abiding existence. All else is “hay, wood, and stubble” in the words of St. Paul (1Cor. 3:12).

If, by some stroke of judgment, our world were suddenly stripped of its “hay, wood, and stubble,” leaving only the abiding presence of the good, we would see the truth of things. Many things (and people) who are presently despised would be revealed to be royalty and as brilliant as the noon-day sun. So much else, including people, would be seen in a diminished state bordering on nothingness.

The goodness that is the gift of God, the truth of our existence, is acquired moment-by-moment. I frequently encourage people to “do the next good thing.” We cannot grasp the good as an extended long-range plan. Such things are themselves little more than imaginings. When we study the commandments of Christ, they are quite concrete and specific, admonitions for each “next thing” that confronts us.

When the Rich Young Man came to Christ (Matt. 19:16-22), he asked “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ directs him to God, who alone is good. When pressed further, Christ directs him to the commandments. When the young man presses yet more, he hears the ultimate good thing: “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor. And come and follow me.”

This example confronts us in each moment of our lives. There is ever the possibility to “sell what we have” – to give away the false structures and inauthentic identities that we cling to (including their material support) and to “give to the poor” – to love the other (neighbor, enemy) who stands before us. “My brother is my life” is the renunciation of every false form of wealth and the acquisition of true existence – life in Christ. The treasure of the Kingdom of God is buried in the life of my brother, my sister.

One step. One day. One moment. One commandment.

Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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79 responses to “The Path of the Good, the True, the Real”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My heart warms at your words and the spirit of them….about the same time I am saying Yikes! because I am so far from embodying them. Forgive me Lord and my brothers and sisters. I am indeed a sinner.
    Yet repentance demands change of deeds as well as simple recognition of wrong.
    At the same time I know that our Lord is with us in a real way always calling us to communion with Himself.
    I also believe that His mercy is such that each of us is never abandoned to our sins up to our last breath.

  2. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    “We rarely experience acts that are truly born of love. Our hearts are far too complicated.”

    Painfully true words. It feels a bit like having fallen into a puddle of mud, and then trying to do anything else. A pat on the back or hug? Mud. Handing some one some money or a gift? Mud. Trying to pull someone else up who’s stumbled? Mud. It taints everything. If I examine my motives closely, it’s almost impossible to find something I’ve done, however well meaning, that is completely free of ulterior motives. Though I suspect the only option is to keep going. To reframe something Mother Teresa said, “Acts of kindness are often tainted by selfishness, aim to be kind anyway”. “Attention and repentance” as we see the taint is all we can do. Thankfully, “… this is not a journey we make alone. St. Paul declares, “Christ within us, the hope of glory.”

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andrew,
    Precisely. That our hearts are complicated is simply one of the symptoms of our disease (sin). It is purified by prayer, repentance, and action: repeated over and over again. I have been with (possibly) three people whom I thought could be present day saints. In each case, there was an attention from them that would make you feel that you were the only thing in the universe. They were there – for you. Without sentimentality or hint of such a thing. It was both comforting and unsettling, particularly as I was increasingly aware of the “complexity” of my own heart. But, having seen it, I know that it is possible in a normal human being (by grace). I think that it is something that grows within us, often quite imperceptible to us.

    God is wonderful in His saints.

  4. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    The imagery is very helpful. Father the wraith-like character reminds me of one of the souls in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
    Andrew, the mud metaphor is great, and the quote from Mother Teresa, too. Every now and again, maybe God turns the garden hose on us and we get the knowledge of being washed clean for awhile.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Helen,
    I had two places in mind where the image of wraith-like and solid carry moral/ontological weight. One most notable you mentioned: the image of the souls in The Great Divorce. The other is also an Inkling, JRR Tolkien, where Gollum is devolving over time as he is corrupted by the power of the Ring, and Frodo, as he carries it describes being “thinned.” Of course, both Lewis and Tolkien had many conversations about their work and the imagery of a moral ontology must surely have been present to them many times.

    Orthodoxy, at its best, speaks in the language of ontology (being, well-being, eternal being), particularly in speaking about the Trinity and what it means for us to be human beings in the image of God. I find the most common language of morality (rules, behavior, etc.) to be too shallow to capture the full scope of what sin does in us, much less the full weight of glory. The Scriptures use the language of sin=death (in St. Paul, at least) to carry this ontological sense of things. But, when I picture it, the imagery of the wraith, or wraith-becoming-whole, etc., to be useful and helpful. It also reminds sometimes that it’s important to just “be” – to pay attention to communion with God (rather than watching myself like I was a movie or something).

  6. Albert Avatar
    Albert

    I am inspired and encouraged when I visit sites l like this, Father Stephen. Today your including a succinct quotation and a kind of poetic ending phrase really registered with me. Thank you for what you do, how you love your brother/ sister/ neighbor/ God.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
  8. Katie Andraski Avatar

    This gives me a wonderful image to offer friends who are sacrificially caregiving a family member. They are participating in Gods live. This post is one of those that makes my heart burn within me to love God and neighbor, the be the person who is that present to others. But I confess is have sinned by what I have done and left undone…At any rate thank you so much.

  9. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    “Do the next good thing.” What good advice.

    There is a quotation from St Mark the Ascetic: “Do the good you know, and what you do not know will be revealed to you ”

    Thanks for this food for thought Father. It’s intriguing to think about reality this way

  10. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    I’m such a far away from St Silouan’s, “my brother is my life”. I see in myself angst that I wish wasn’t there. The temptation of this angst is seeing another human being (tempted by someone who draws out my angst) as ‘other’. Seeking solitude in prayer is my means to seek God but it may also be my way to distract myself or hide myself from the truth of the dragons in my heart. I don’t know how to release myself from this condition and find true peace, hesychasm, in prayer. But with faith Christ tells us we can move mountains (even the mountain of my pride?). Therefore, following what you say, perhaps admitting the truth of this reality is the first step to draw my being, my heart, into Christ.

    We, each one of us and together as the Orthodox Church, are described as Christ’s Bride. This implies a depth of receptivity, a true self emptying that I know I do not share. But I want to. And yet I see myself (like a movie) how I behave, as if I do not want to engage in the act of self-emptying needful to be an authentic servant of Christ. I do not have a loving obedience, like the Theotokos. At least this is how it seems.

    The path that is asked of us is much more difficult for me than what I’m willing to admit to myself. Today I made a decision that will potentially create disharmony, alienation, unpleasantness. The form of wealth I want is being liked, and I didn’t want to let go of it. The disappointment in me and the alienation was apparent. I so wanted to say yes to a fantasy of being liked. This fantasy and my adherence to it shows me I’m not in loving obedience to Christ in my heart. How much damage are we (am I) willing to do to make things the way I would like them to be (irrespective of the will of God)? Such temptations can, and if we stay on such a treacherous path, will kill us (spiritually and otherwise).

    It is interesting, Father, how shame and humility plays a role in this. It is indeed helpful to our soul to accept a little shame.

    May the Holy Spirit guide us on this narrow path with His grace.

  11. Josh Kimbril Avatar
    Josh Kimbril

    Beautiful reflection Father. I often think of this life as “Purgatory” (in the sense of purgation, not in a technical, “Roman Catholic” sense). We are all learning to be truly Human, and this life is the training ground. This life is the birth pangs of the real world, our true being. I don’t mean this in a Gnostic way, the material world is good. Rather, what we are now will be built upon and completed by Christ, and we all struggle to be what God made us to be. Thank you and God bless!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Reading your comment, this verse came to mind:

    So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, gour inner self his being renewed day by day. For ithis light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

    May God strengthen us all in the next good thing.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Josh,
    I’ve had similar thoughts.

  14. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father thank you for these words.

  15. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, you wrote:
    “The path that is asked of us is much more difficult for me than what I’m willing to admit to myself. Today I made a decision that will potentially create disharmony, alienation, unpleasantness. The form of wealth I want is being liked, and I didn’t want to let go of it. The disappointment in me and the alienation was apparent. I so wanted to say yes to a fantasy of being liked. This fantasy and my adherence to it shows me I’m not in loving obedience to Christ in my heart. How much damage are we (am I) willing to do to make things the way I would like them to be (irrespective of the will of God)? Such temptations can, and if we stay on such a treacherous path, will kill us (spiritually and otherwise). ”

    I can so, so relate to this. It’s the way I was trained to be in my family, and unfortunately still determines how I’m treated. So I have had to make a very hard decision about people I love very much but who can’t accept this commitment in me to what I learn in prayer. I am avoiding doing harm if at all possible (I have given up on dialogue really, because I now know it will do no good and just stir up “negative” input without benefit). And I have found consolation in a prayer for true peace. That peace meaning God’s communion between us — the kingdom within us and among us. This is the best thing I know to pray in these circumstances, because of the ungraspable fullness of what that peace really means. I can sense and feel it, but I know its meanings and echoes and reverberations are endless. I hope this is helpful for you also. God bless you 🙂

  16. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Janine, Dee,

    I had started re-reading Father’s book on shame, then took a detour and am reading his referenced book by John Bradshaw: Healing the Shame that Binds Us. What I understand from this book is that people pleasing is one of the many defense mechanisms when we experience toxic shame. I too have seen this in my life.
    Toxic shame is ubiquitous. Worse with abuse, but still so rampant because of what we tell ourselves, especially as children to maintain safety.

  17. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Helen!

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I am told that praying the Jesus Prayer when in the midst of pain (physical and/or spiritual), pain so badly you just want to curse, can be a good way to begin Heysychia and mercy. Even if in the middle of the night. Check with your Spiritual Father. Likely, many temptations will arise. However, His love will more than make up for any loss of human approval (or apparent loss)
    Father’s reference to 2 Cor. is apt. The “unseen” is a big part.

  19. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    “weight of glory” — so relevant to today’s post

  20. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Back in the day I spent two semesters learning to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, we find Odysseus headed to Hades to seek out the blind prophet. While there Odysseus offers a blood sacrifice to win the seer’s favor. When the offering is made Odysseus is shocked to find the Shades crowding around the altar to drink the blood and consume the flesh. The story read as if the shades would temorarily become corporeal. It maybe inappropriate, but I occassionally reflect on that when it comes to the Eucharist. We already are shade-like with one foot in hades, and the blood and flesh of the Eucharistic offering imparts being and existence so that we are less shady.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I think it is fair to say that there is something in the Odyssey that anticipates the Eucharist…even if it’s a very dim shadow (no pun intended).

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Also of note:
    The New English Bible translation of John 6:54-56 says:
    Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you for the Scripture. It gives me much to ponder.

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    THAT is interesting. “Real” as in “real” not as in “authenticl”, e.g., “That real Italian food.”

    Food that makes one less shady and more hypostatic.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    The KJV is much weaker, having, “My flesh is food, indeed, etc. It turns it into a mere intensifier.

    NT: ἡ γὰρ σάρξ μου ἀληθής ἐστι βρῶσις, καὶ τὸ αἷμά μου ἀληθής ἐστι πόσις

    The ESV translation has it, “My flesh is true food…” I think “real” is even better.

  26. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water”..Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.””

    I thought of this very similar passage in John 4 while thinking about John 6. Here Jesus describes “real” water as “living”, “springing”, and “everlasting”. There is a relationship between what is Real and the ability of that which is Real to impart realness to otherness which makes me think that hypostatic reality is the kernel of all realities.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Indeed (really!)

  28. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Simon and Father, I always think of “energy” as connected with the principle of that living flowing water. This is the basis for our understanding of grace and mercy. So indeed it brings the “weight of glory” (just another term to think about it IMO) to anything. This is such a historical part of the Orthodox tradition. I was thinking today that I honestly believe sprinkling holy water makes an eventual discernible difference in gardens and even in a public park

  29. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I am really enjoying this insightful understanding of “real bread” and “real water” beyond the use of “real” as an intensifier. It just fits in so cleanly with Orthodox syntax and grammar. If that which has ultimate reality or Being is hypostatic, then communion is hypostatizing: it imparts Being to Otherness. I’m going to leap off of a cliff here and say that when we partake of creation Eucharistically (blessing creation and giving thanks for it) we both hypostatize and are hypostatized. Perhaps, at least in part, this is what is meant by the “royal priesthood.”

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Leapt off a cliff and into the arms of Jesus! I think you are quite correct. It’s what sacraments do.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is an inexpressible (by me) beauty to the living hypostatic reality of the Holy Sacraments and beauty is essential to life.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The language of John 6 is an interesting example of spiritual discernment. Without discernment speech about Jesus flesh as real food is taken literally and becomes offensive. What’s interesting is that is actually the correct response to the idea of cannibalism. It is offensive. However, with discernment, we see that Jesus is speaking Eucharistically.. However,, with a little more discernment, we find that “real’ is more than an intensifier, but an indicator of Being. Another level of discernment sees that this isn’t about magic moments with the incantation of magic words but a revelation of the real nature of all things.

  33. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    So we need not take the words literally when we speak of the flesh and blood of Christ? That was not what I was taught by an Orthodox priest. Was he wrong?

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    He was not wrong. I would have said the same thing. Sometimes, as we parse exactly what is meant when we say that – words begin to fail us.

    Most commonly, in the formularies and phrasing of the Liturgical books, we say “truly” this is flesh, etc. Or, this is “real,” etc. Obviously, we see bread and wine. We taste bread, we taste wine. So, when we say “literally” do we mean we should be tasting something other than bread and wine? And if literal doesn’t mean that, then what does literal mean?

    From the beginning, the Church has confessed the Eucharist to be truly the Body and Blood of Christ. We’ve often gotten into trouble when we tried too hard to explain that. But, I think a priest saying that it is “literally” the Body and Blood of Christ he’s trying to say that it is really and truly and actually, etc.

    Simon’s point, I think, was that when Christ first made His statements about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6) His listeners only heard a crude sort of literalistic cannibalism and were offended (and many of them left). His disciples, I think, had no more understanding of what He was saying either, but refused to leave Him (Jn. 6:68-69) They stuck around long enough to (at long last) know what it meant.

    The word “literal” is over-used and badly used. It more-or-less came out of the Protestant debates of the 19th century surrounding the inerrancy of the Scriptures versus the historical-critical scholars. “Literal” became a buzz-word of, “Well, do you believe it or not? Did this really happen, etc.?” “Literal” became the equivalent of “true” or “real.” Many things in the Scriptures are true without being exactly “literal” in that sense (such as the symbolism in Revelation, etc.). And many things that are “literally” true have their true significance beneath and beyond the “letter” that is their literal meaning.

    So, not to beat this to death, but “literal” can be problematic – if misunderstood – and is not the common word in the Liturgical formulations (mostly because it’s just a 19th century Protestant buzz-word and not a patristic formulation). It’s okay to use it – but it then leaves a gap when you discover that it’s hard to discuss the reaction of the crowd in John 6 without giving it a different meaning.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your clarification.

    Indeed, if one is not careful with such thoughts the heart, mind and soul end up wallowing in mud. Discernment is also a buzz word among the RC, used to qualify their theology too.

    Words of explanation, figuring things out, exegesis, these, the Mysteries of Christ, require more than school-book training.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is not part of the “problem” that we are trying to articulate the hypostatic reality of the Word being flesh. Holiness and perception of the Kingdom in the midst of the depravity of sin?
    My sin is burrowed into my flesh even as the Person of Jesus is revealing Himself?
    My body is literally here even as the unseen is manifesting itself.
    The tension created as a result of the “literal” Incarnation can make it seem as if one is trying to serve two masters.
    Is that not part of it too?

  37. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I just think that the word “mystically” and “Mystery” etc are very important here, especially to Orthodoxy. (At least as I understand it.) One cannot fully explain a mystery. We don’t need to use transubstantiation to explain just how Christ’s flesh and blood is “truly” “mystically” present. Nor to explain why we must do this or what happens because we do this. A mystery means something is hidden but it also opens up doors to something else as yet not fully known. These are things that still have open doors ahead of them. There’s that “teleological” sense again of a fullness we don’t yet know. But we trust (pistis/faith) they are true.

    And I also think one can’t leave out the experiential reality of this. I think especially in Orthodoxy, we learn by doing. We grow through practice. We don’t know the fullness of belief or faith first. That is a continual process of growth.

    I think this is connected with Eucharist as gift, and the feeling that we need somehow to qualify or be deserving first. It doesn’t work that way. We don’t know everything first.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    Often our language is driven by the necessity of stating the truth in the midst of opposition. In the early Church, there was no Protestant opposition denying that truth of the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. However, for quite a long while, we have had to speak with just such an opposition and denial in mind. At the heart of it is not just a denial of the Eucharist, but a denial of the entire sacramental mystery of the Kingdom of God. In its place are set false accounts of salvation and such. So, though it would be most preferred that we could keep silent, we nevertheless have to speak – with all its attendant problems.

  39. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father. That makes a lot of sense.
    ” At the heart of it is not just a denial of the Eucharist, but a denial of the entire sacramental mystery of the Kingdom of God. ” Amen. Powerful words!

  40. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I absolutely told myself “Don’t use the word ‘literal’!” but at the time I couldn’t think of the words ‘at face value’. The main point is that what we discern in Scripture is layered. I can’t prove that John didn’t intend ‘real’ as anything other than an intensifier, but when that possibility is pointed out it makes sense given how consistent it is with Orthodox thinking and meaning.

  41. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Christ’s blood and body in the chalice also speak to me of the incarnation. As a Protestant communion was just an idea, and communion only symbolic (in the modern sense). Christ promised to be with us until the end of the age. The Eucharist is one way in which He is truly present with us. It is life-giving, through which His presence, glory and mercy are imparted to us. The Veil lifts slightly each time I partake.

  42. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    That said Father, that is to speak words, best to provide careful clarification as you have done. This isn’t the purview of anyone. You are ordained. You’ve received a broad vision of almost 70 years including years in Christ.

    As for the rest of us: Zeal can burn rear-ends as easily as hearts. Check with a priest or bishop first— stay humble. (Actually that goes for priests too)

  43. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Janine,
    Thank you for your comments. Especially for your insight into my situation I mentioned earlier. Your words were balm to my heart also.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father on another blog a poster lumped us with everyone else as a “denomination” trashing icons in the process. With the conversation here especially the quote on the Body and Blood, I emphasized that we are a communion

    I do wonder if there is a connection to the “denomination” mess and the whole “identity” movement.

    The communion of the Church takes the mystery of male and female much deeper and experientially understandable. A beautiful description of what I’d rather than personal opinion about what one feels.
    Am I on the correct path with that?

  45. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Dee. The feeling is mutual. God bless

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    “Denominationalism” is a Protestant invention. It basically means “differently-named.” Orthodoxy is not a denomination. We existed when there was no other “church,” and we remain the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” Protestants are better described as denominations rather than “Church,” particularly in that most of them have no true doctrine of the Church. Many consider themselves to be “fellowships.”

    I’ve noticed recently that there’s an ex-Orthodox convert guy making videos and such attacking Orthodoxy, filled with false information, bad interpretations, etc. It’s making the rounds, particularly among some of the Reformed internet folks who don’t like us anyway. But, I’ve also seen some responsible retorts to his stuff. Those who do not want to be Orthodox will always find reasons not to be. The New Testament spoke about all of this long ago. It is, of course, also quite difficult for the many innocent parties who run into stuff like that in that they lack the information needed for discernment. God is infinitely patient – or else none of us would be saved.

    I could draw a connection on the identity issue. Philosophically, all of it is “Nominalism,” the notion that a thing is not something in itself, but simply name (Nomen) it is called. Thus, there is no beauty, per se, only our perception of beauty. It’s just a word we call something. And so, a Methodist is not really different than a Baptist, they’re just “names” for different kinds of Christians that make no difference (Nominalism would say). Pretty much all of the Reformers were Nominalists. Interestingly, there were 3 main schools of thought in the Latin Middle Ages: Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Nominalism. And, more interesting than that, Nominalism was also called the “Via Moderna,” the “Modern Way.” It’s the philosophical basis of modernity, according to some.

    But, on the sexuality/gender stuff, what we have now are specious, even bogus theories that posit that “gender” is the real thing and is basically whatever we think/feel/imagine ourselves to be. It has many flaws, some of which are extremely dangerous.

    Though I would generally describe Orthodoxy as quite friendly to Platonism (in that it believes universals and such to be “real” – to have an existence as the divine logoi), it’s still quite important to have some grounding in materiality. Christ became flesh, blood, and bone, with a human soul – not just an “idea” of “human,” etc.

    However, I believe the current situation is, more or less, a “fad” or “fashion.” It is destroying science (along with other political intrusions). On the whole, we should settle it in our hearts that we are living in a time in which the civilization we inherited is collapsing. It’s been doing so for quite some time but is picking up speed as its collapse is being monetized and financed at a high level.

    So, we’re back to thinking about how to live as Christians who are “resident aliens.” Our kingdom is not of this world. Sigh.

  47. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, I don’t know if it is wise to ask this question or not. It’s just that I have seen written what you say here about our inherited civilization from many quarters. Most are upset. But my question is always, if this is so then what do *we* do? That is, do we have a vision for something here?

    I really appreciate that you wrote this: So, we’re back to thinking about how to live as Christians who are “resident aliens.” Our kingdom is not of this world. Sigh.

    Sometimes I think this is good for us to be in this place, or maybe to know this again. And really the only answer I can ever come up with is small: follow the commandments, try to love one another as He loved us, live the truth of faith, and of course we have inherited a very very rich tradition, which many seem to be discovering. Beyond that I hope to be led in prayer.

    One thing I find often, at least in my perspective, is so much wishful thinking is blind to what is harmful. We can’t live in our fantasies. In our topic here of the real, maybe that’s germane. So much fantasy is being bought, sold, and swallowed- to all our detriment.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Resident aliens. What a thought. What I find most challenging is the depravity of the world coexisting with the personal mercy of Jesus and the Holy Trinity. It is often astounding. It makes confession more difficult, necessary and foundational. Shame plays a big part in that realization. Dualism could also be a problem.
    The actuality of the Incarnation and the Cross critical it seems.
    I keep returning to Matthew 4:17 (indeed the whole Gospel of Matthew) “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
    Learning how to repent deeply and well is a challenge even when one is called to that way as we are. The land of Prophets, Martyrs and Holy Fools.
    Lord reveal your mercy to each and all.

  49. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Janine,
    Your “small” thing is the one thing needful.

  50. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think the gender identity movement is much more pernicious than a mere fad. I have been reading about the evolution of ideology in the soft sciences but particularly sociology departments and the bent towards Marxism is notable. When someone points it out it’s impossible not to see it after.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Oh, it’s more than pernicious. But many have no idea what they’ve stumbled into. Very sad. It makes my heart very heavy. I saw some of its early manifestations when I was in grad school at Duke in the late 80s. It’s morphed since then and even turned on some of its founders.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    Fr. Hopko counseled us to “live small.” I have encouraged the same. Many, of course, are driven to political action. The weakness of political action is that it doesn’t change hearts. The Soviet Union was a “political state.” It was not, however, brought down by politics. It fell. I believe that these present forces should be resisted, in that we should not pretend to agree with them. We push back by telling the truth – by agreeing with nature (and God). But, we may very well “lose” this battle for a while, and, if so, our culture will become quite bizarre. But the more bizarre it becomes, the sooner it falls. Bizarre just doesn’t work too well. Frankly, there’s more push-back now than there has been in the past 5 years. And, interestingly, a number of major European countries have rejected their radical medical approaches in these matters – though not the whole of this madness.

    But, Christians are and always have been “resident aliens.” This is not our home and we have never had a Kingdom in this world. What we have cannot be shaken nor can it be defeated. It has already been victorious over all things in the resurrection of Christ. If we live in union with the resurrection, then we walk in the Kingdom, and we can patiently keep loving all the people within the madness until the whole things is done.

    It’s why we’re here.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I have a Romanian friend who suffered under the Communists. When the subject of these present gender politics comes up, he says, with digust, “Bolsheviks!” He’s seen this stuff before, in a different guise. Politics (the drive for raw power) is dangerous under any guise. People outside of academia are not entirely aware of how things have developed. I know people who have already lost their jobs for failure to agree with this stuff.

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and Father accept with love any damaged person who comes to us. Of course merely saying no is a crime in some folks minds already.

    Yet, miracles happen. It appears Jordon Peterson is becoming Christian and his best friend is Orthodox.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Given the story of the Apostle Paul, no conversion should surprise us.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Words are all we have to work with in this blog setting. So we feel our way forward, try one thing and another, clarify, revise, etc. what matters, ultimately, is what it is the words themselves are feeling after. Whenever such a “sweet spot” arises in a conversation, it is a great joy. The words today on the Eucharist found that place several times. God be thanked.

    Fortunately, the Tradition gives us a fair number of boundaries and words to guide the process. But we fumble a bit now and again. Words fail me often enough.

    Be well, everyone. I’ve got to take my tired old body to bed…East Coast time here.

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Indeed, Father, words fail me often also.

  58. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon I just now saw your comment at 12:58pm. Somehow I missed it. And I apologize.

    I must of gotten trigger happy after a previous thread on this blog. — Not your fault but my own. Last, I believe your intention and insight you reveal in the comment at 12:58 was spot on and edifying.

    Please forgive me.

  59. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, thank you for your brilliant and powerful words! I think what you are saying is so important that we really can’t estimate where such guidance is taking us forward. Thank you also for rooting us in our tradition — in the Resurrection, in the conversion of St. Paul, in the Eucharist, in these things we know and must live. I believe as you do that corruption leads to its own destruction, and I think we have seen this in many examples in fairly recent world history. I suppose, in that light, our “small” work is the true work of resistance to corruption, holding to the good. After all, the big political movements are subject to their own futility and so many temptations even with the best of intentions. Speaking for myself, of course, I really do need the discipline I fail at every day haha!

    Dean, thank you very much also

    And to everyone participating in this conversation, thank you

  60. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, I am the truly trigger happy poster

    I forgot to say something I wanted to in the context of our general discussion here.
    Father, as I was doing morning prayers, I was saying a prayer to St. Philothei of Athens, who is special to me. (Also St John of San Francisco.) I realized with St Philothei that she fits what we are talking about. One of the prayers to her states, “We praise your radiant way of life, for you sprouted forth as a rose in the midst of Athens. ” This morning I read that “as a rose in the midst of winter.” And I think that’s what it was, she was a rose in the midst of a terrible regime over the Athenians and so many others at that time. She did what she could in so many ways with what she had (she was martyred as she died of her injuries for ransoming and sheltering slaves who’d been taken esp for harems). She did so much with what was available to her, and her gifts are still important and giving for the city of Athens even to this day. We know how St. John suffered and led in the midst of so much conflict. It just struck me how they are examples for what we are talking about now, and our conversation has helped to see their significance for me. So one more thanks is due

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, sometimes it seems that I live between existence and non-existence with little movement in either direction permanently. What I find so confusing is how both the depravity of ultimate non-existence and the sweet mercy of our Lord calling me to life can exist in me at the same time.
    The only thing I posit is that the depravity becomes more obvious as I strive to live a life of repentance in His mercy, by His mercy.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I think we all have “good days and bad days” – sort of cycling between what seems like salvation working itself out and times of just falling apart. That we simply abide in Christ and cling to Christ is everything. Even my bad days, it seems, have a place in His work of mercy. May He preserve us all!

  63. Jacob H. Avatar
    Jacob H.

    Fr. Freeman, as always, this article was a wonderful one. A major reason as to why I was drawn to Orthodoxy was its emphasis on the ontological foundation of the Christian story. And I love it when you explicitly write these articles in that vein.

    Your metaphor of the wraith is terribly relatable. And similar to Michael’s above comment, it all reminds me of how T.S. Eliot described us “hollow men… shape without form, shade without color; paralyzed force, gesture without motion.” It is astounding how little we move towards God and how readily we move to that which we know will turn us into those wraiths. I can only imagine and hope that God hides our salvation from us so that we don’t become prideful of our “improvement”.

    Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but speaking along the lines of existence and non-existence, I find the understanding of sin that is a movement towards non-being to be much more terrifying than “sin” that is a breaking of some moral code. For the latter, there is only the concept of infractions, but for the former there is the reality (or should I say un-reality!) of the nothingness which St. Sophrony so harrowingly spoke of in “We Shall See Him as He Is.” Conversely, salvation that is “from the One, the Good, the Beautiful …” is so much more bestirring than the idea of Christ jumping in front of God’s firing squad for our sake. I have to give thanks to God for the preliminary work of the Platonists, which provides us with the language to conceptualize these things.

    Fr., a major interest of mine has been Sts. Silouan’s and Sophrony’s writings on personhood, and I now also have a copy of Fr. Zizioulas’s “Being as Communion.” (I also include Dostoevsky in my study on personhood!) Apart from these sources, are there any other books/lectures/etc. that you would recommend?

    Also, in regard to what you wrote: “If St. Silouan was correct in declaring, ‘My brother is my life,’ then we must understand that Jesus has said as much of us: ‘You are my life.’”

    This is such a humbling and reassuring statement. Thank you for that!

  64. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think the work of salvation entails a much larger picture than saving human life from death. I think there are many if not most instances where limiting the scope of the human condition to practical matters like living a simple life is wise. However, there’s a fair number of scriptures that indicate that the scope of redemption is multi-dimensional involving the hierarchy of angelic beings. In some sense it is impossible to fully understand the human condition apart from the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” With regard to our shadow-like existence this seems to have been imposed for our protection “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3). And then in Romans 8 “For creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope.” Frequently we get lost in the limitations of the scope we have been allowed to have. But, that certainly is for our benefit and for our salvation. I sometimes see the saints as being hidden in Egypt (this world or system) in order to, in a sense, protect them from Herod (principalities and powers). In 1 Cor 2 it says that “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” I also think that if the “rulers of this age” understood the wisdom of God at work in the saints they wouldn’t be eager to create any martyrs either.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jacob,
    I’ve become a little less enthusiastic about Zizioulas work (at least his stuff after Being as Communion). St. Sophrony and St. Silouan are very solid. One further avenue would be in reading the work of Fr. Zacharias Zacharou, more or less the successor of St. Sophrony at his monastery. His dissertation on St. Sophrony, Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, has lots of good material.

  66. Jacob H. Avatar
    Jacob H.

    Simon,

    “I think the work of salvation entails a much larger picture than saving human life from death… Frequently we get lost in the limitations of the scope we have been allowed to have.”

    No doubt, and I whole heartily agree. Though while we are are left with that very limited scope, we still know that man is a microcosm, and the salvation of man has a cosmic significance for all of creation — how that plays out, who can know? And in the end, who can fathom what Christ’s restoration of all things might be… I have my hopes, though.

    “I sometimes see the saints as being hidden in Egypt (this world or system) in order to, in a sense, protect them from Herod (principalities and powers).”

    I have never thought about it in this manner before. I sometimes bemoan that there are living saints among us that are unknown to the world, but I must accept that it is for the best. It is, after all, by their prayers that they uphold the world (and much more). Perhaps it is best not to disturb them.

  67. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Simon, Jacob,
    Many if not most saints are hidden from the world. I think it is a good thing also. Any kind of notoriety could very well ruin their life in Christ…as Father’s wife noted that winning the lottery would ruin theirs!
    One of the world’s oldest trees is the bristle cone Methuselah tree, found in the White Mountains of CA. Rangers will not disclose which tree it is so that visitors do not endanger it. It remains hidden in plain sight, as do most saints.

  68. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, Simon, Jacob, Dean et al — thank you for this conversation, very much.

    I am intrigued by the hiddenness of the saints because of principalities and powers. I listened to a talk (I think, maybe I read this) by Fr Andrew Stephen Damick, in which he was explaining that somehow the Crucifixion “fooled” those powers. They thought they were successfully destroying Christ. I was perplexed by questions like, “Are they really that dumb?” but of course we don’t know what it’s like to be them (a frequent answer I think). It still makes me wonder. Is this what you are alluding to?

    Dean, thank you so much for that analogy to the beautiful Methusala tree in the White Mountains!

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    1Cor 2:8 alludes quite clearly to the fact that the rulers of this age (demonic powers) did not understand the mystery of the crucifixion. Likely, they still do not.

  70. Marianne Avatar
    Marianne

    I really needed this, Father, thank you: “That we simply abide in Christ and cling to Christ is everything”

  71. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The complexity of the human condition is such that it leaves room for a tremendous amount of speculation and even more room for our biases to get the better of us. I am up to my ears in that barrel of monkeys myself. I appreciate the wisdom “That we simply abide in Christ and cling to Christ is everything.”

  72. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Lovely as always Father. Thank you.
    The photograph is special too, any particular reason why you selected it – apart from the fact that it reflects “Good”.

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Santosh,
    Ancient Faith (and thus, myself) have been taking great care recently to use only photos from the public domain or from “free” sources – copyright issues are important. That has made my photo selection more careful – I’ve been using stuff, for example, from Unsplash, a free source. So, I look for things that “fit” somehow. This particular photo had the character of a “path” – something that’s been on my mind.

  74. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks Father, for the passage from 1 Corinthians. So much more mystery that stretches to the future! God bless

  75. Lynda Ochsner Avatar
    Lynda Ochsner

    Wow, another excellent post… and how short of the mark I continually fall. “We rarely experience acts that are truly born of love. Our hearts are far too complicated.” Also a helpful line, “do the next good thing” — not an extended long-range plan.

    I continue to have this ideal pictured before me — the Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s treatment of Gollum (and yes, the great illustration you mentioned in reference to the Ringwraiths of Lord of the Rings), and also in a book I’m currently reading about a 20th century Russian priest who was a Soviet prisoner for many years (Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father).

    It seems unattainable in practice, and so I also remember Paul’s words in Romans 7 “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. … Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Lynda,
    I’m working on a post just now that reflects on Frodo…I hope you enjoy it!

  77. christa-maria Avatar
    christa-maria

    thnaks Father and all for these words, For the care and love and humility expressed. It sustains me…my 37 year daughter said today how much your posts help her. please pray for us. christa and kalina. Thank you.

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God keep you both!

  79. Mark Avatar
    Mark

    Thanks again Father, your post’s always shed light on what I call my “Western programming and life in the Matrix”. A life shaped and governed by modernity, humanism, rationalism, individualism, and linear expectations of progress and success. What blind slavery it is.

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