Following a Conversation with a Tree

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,while 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 Corinthians 4:16–18 NKJV)

On a recent hike in our city’s arboretum, I came across a small plaque. It showed the picture of a log cabin, built in the early 1800’s, that stood in that spot until the 1940’s when the Manhattan Project swept almost all the local homesteads away. The plaque told the story of the family that lived there, and the fortunes of its young sons, most of whom died in the American Civil War. It continued their saga up until the time of the cabin’s destruction. It was a story that, no doubt, rhymed with those of other families in the region, with but varying details. The plaque’s purpose, however, was to draw attention to two young oak trees in the photo, standing near the cabin. Those same oaks now stood, some 200 years old, as silent witnesses of all that had passed in the lives of that family. The photo, I thought, gave the trees a voice, a chance to speak of all they had seen.

I had another such experience recently while watching a program on the plight of the American Chestnut. They once comprised about a third of the Eastern forests in America, but were nearly driven to extinction by a blight brought in on imported trees in 1904. The forester in the program noted a few unharmed stands, and the slow efforts to nurture a blight-resistant tree. He noted, off-hand, that he fully expected the Chestnuts to return to something of their previous position over the next thousand years.

Both of these experiences made me think of “tree years,” to consider how the world looks to the slow vision of something that lives for hundreds, even thousands, of years (I was, of course, reminded of Tolkein’s Ents). In a world of 24/7 consumer-oriented “information,” it is difficult to see anything in long, slow, terms. We are increasingly more like mayflies and less like trees.

My grandparents were born in the 19th century, and witnessed the vast changes of the modern landscape. They were country people, largely occupied with farming and such, and were very slow to adopt technology as it came along. Indoor plumbing was quite late for one set of grandparents. I recall watching one grandmother continue to do her laundry outdoors in a set of washtubs (probably procured from a Sears catalogue) even after the plumbing was installed. They never seemed to be caught up in the news of the day or to give much attention to the “wide-world.” They were trees, recalling years of poverty, war, depression, and the constant blur of fashions, while remaining planted where they were, and steady.

The providence of God is far greater and deeper than a tree-story. The gold that we value so much and use in so many ways, was forged somewhere in the supernova of a dying star, eons before our own planet was formed. It is but a trite example of the whole of our existence. We live at a point in time that is but the crest of a wave that has been unfolding for over 13 billion years (at least that’s what they say).

That same notion struck the Psalmist, who wrote:

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3–4)

The work of God’s providence surrounds us at all times, though our hearts are frequently out-of-tune with the eternal hymn of its working. We are deeply aware of every offense against goodness, every tragedy, every rumor of evil, while we constantly ignore how we are preserved in health, delivered from danger, and overshadowed by God’s brooding goodness. In the math of good and evil, the miracle of our very existence seems to be factored as a zero.

There is a great gulf that separates us from the Psalmist. He saw the heavens, and knew only the vaguest evidence of their wonder. At the same time, he lived in a world where infant mortality would have approached 30 percent, and 50 years of age would have been thought of as well-preserved. He would have lived in a world whose dangers, at every moment, far exceed anything that touches our lives. He was, nonetheless, certain that God was mindful of him, and visited him.

I have come to think that the doctrine of divine providence is more readily seen by the old than by the young. For the old, most of life is “in the rear-view mirror,” while, for the young, it rushes towards the windshield at ever-increasing speeds. In hindsight, the hand of God seems clear, and, mostly, unmistakable. It is a mysterious working, particularly when I see good come out of seeming evil.

When most of the Fathers wrote about the divine energies, it was God’s providence they had in mind. St. Gregory Palamas defended the teaching that the energies were sometimes perceived directly as the Uncreated Light. As a young man, I longed to see what St. Gregory described. As an old man, I realize that I too long ignored that vision of the divine energies marveled at by the Psalmist. It is that vision that unfolds most completely for us when we give thanks always and for all things.

The voice of thanksgiving is, without exception, the sound that we can utter that is itself in harmony with the song of the universe. It is filled with tree-knowledge and star-wonder, confounding the lies of the enemy and those who would drown us in darkness. The Uncreated Light manifests itself in the created light, and in all creation that is light, some of which has slowed down enough for us to walk on.

Glory to God who has brought us from non-being into existence and set our feet on the path of praise. Glory to Him in all created things that sing His glory. Glory to Him in tree-friends and star-songs and the wonder of all things.

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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89 responses to “Following a Conversation with a Tree”

  1. Valerie Yova Avatar

    I think of you as the “palate cleanser” after reading the day’s (bad) news. I thank God for your ministry, for your generosity of spitit and for the exemplary discipline in your writing. God protect you and grant you many years.

  2. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    As one nearing three-score and ten in the rear view mirror, this reflection sings my song. Had I only heard the song in decades past… sigh! Glory to God for all things!

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Peter,
    Three weeks from today I will hit the three-score and ten mark. I’m also becoming as stiff as a tree some mornings. I enjoy my daily walks in our arboretum…it yields good conversations and reminds me of both God’s providence and the smallness of my place within it all – a tonic against the ills of modernity!

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I turned 75 6 months ago and yesterday was my wife’s 76th (although she is younger than I am in many ways).

    We live out in the country but close to more urban settings. There is this tree on our property that grows quite fast plus it is ugly. We constantly have to clear it before it gets too big (and it grows large). It is a bit like the sin in my heart that after 37 years in the Church and partaking of Her Sacraments and praying fitfully.

    The tree still lingers and if not tended to can take over. No one to whom we have talked seems to know what tree it is. We had one big one cut down earlier this year, but its roots keep erupting with new trees. They pop up everywhere.

    And yet, by the mercy of God, they give shelter to wild life (I saw a couple of cotton tailed rabbits this morning when I was out with my dog. The keep everything cooler in the summer even on days when it is over 100.

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

    Even while remembering the prayer to the Cross.

  5. Fr. John Strickland Avatar
    Fr. John Strickland

    That is a beautiful reflection, Father Stephen. Thank you.

  6. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Thank you for this, Father. Considering the nature of the original fall of Adam and Eve (eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), it seems apt that one might being to discern more deeply the true nature of good and evil by ruminating on trees.

  7. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Thank you Father, this is beautiful. That little boy looks so much like you!

    I feel it easy to see God’s providence in my own life and in the lives of those in my community, but I wish you would write something about how to see it in the very darkest places of our current world. How can I see it in the lives of children who are trafficked for sex? How can I see that God is overshadowing Gaza right now with his brooding goodness?

  8. Anne Avatar
    Anne

    Thank you i

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    I’ll give some thought to it and see what I might write. Thanks for the suggestion!

  10. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    This post brought to mind some years ago, when I was in the garden after praying at Gethsemane, and someone mentioned that it was possible that some of these olive trees could have been witness to Christ’s ministry.

  11. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Leah,

    I have more time thinking about that question than is probably healthy. Here is something I have been pondering and maybe Fr. will comment.

    It isn’t clear to me at all why it would be necessary to find anything tragic in the suffering of others. It isn’t something that should follow from physics, or biology and certainly not from a secular or materialistic world view. Then why do we see these kinds of events and mourn them as tragic? I think that it is because the God of all existence is Good. The God that is Good and that is Love is the yardstick against which our existence is measured. Therefore, maybe the only reason we see these kinds of events as tragic and horrible is that we have a given ontological knowledge–that we may not even be explicitly conscious of–that we live and move and have our being in the presence of a Good God.

  12. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Leah,
    perhaps the shortest answer I have ever come across to that exact question, is when it was posed to Saint Gabriella (finally canonised this month), I’ll translate it -but even the translation makes it more wordy and not as “bitesize” as it came out of her wise mouth:
    whenever you encounter such inexplicable darkness and suffering in this world, ask for only one thing, the vision of the “other side”, once granted, that transcendental vision of the “shore beyond” this temporal world reverses your interpretational framework.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    First, it is important to remember how God Himself has defined His goodness. The death of Christ on the Cross, horribly tortured, mocked, and ridiculed, is a day that is often called, “Good Friday.” Indeed, though the things done to Christ were evil, Christ’s own sufferings were a mark and revelation of His goodness.

    That same good God specifically identified Himself in persons who are suffering: the sick, the hungry, the prisoners, the naked (and I assume that was just a representative naming). What I believe to be true is that Christ Crucified is present and suffers in all human suffering, and in the mystery of His goodness, unites our suffering to His. It is not an understanding that explains suffering – but it is an understanding that considers the mystery of His goodness. Christ is crucified in Israel, Christ is crucified in Gaza. Apart from that reality, neither would have any hope. Violence never brings peace. Only the peace of God (which was and is profoundly made manifest in the Cross) brings peace to human beings. Peace is not the absence of war – it is a substantial thing – ontological – it is the very life and grace of God given to us that we might live in communion with Him. Christ said, “Peace, I give to you, my own peace I leave with you, not peace such as the world gives.”

    The liturgical prayers of the Church begin: “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” and continue to pray for the peace of the whole world. No government can give us such peace (and they do not want to). They want to give us war because that violence is inherent in their power (or so I think). Pray for God’s peace. Acquire the Spirit of peace. As we acquire that Spirit, we’ll recognize it far better when we see it.

    Those are my thoughts of the morning.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, if I may: the violence I see and experience (large and small) I find, if I look, to be in my heart as well, even the worst of it. So I know, by Grace, that Our Lord is in my heart and my repentance allows Him to overcome the violence, destruction and death I would otherwise inflict. Lord, forgive me a sinner.

    There is also in most folks hearts the simple awe at the beauty the presence of our Lord which can bring anyone to their knees.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Through the power of The Cross.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    A wise abbot once said that the person of prayer need go no further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    All I know Father is The Cross is the ultimate Tree and I am in need of the Mercy that comes from it…

  18. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “in the very darkest places of our current world…in the lives of children who are trafficked for sex”

    Leah,

    All of the previous responses to you I believe are parts of your answer. I also think that framing the question in such a manner is what makes seeing the Light difficult. The commonality in the plural form is the evil thing. What do all the very darkest places of the world have in common but darkness? What do all those children have in common but being trafficked for sex?

    The goodness will be in the particulars that we generally cannot see from afar (often because we must rely on accounts presented by those with negative motivations). If we were in Gaza, for example, I’m certain we would find places where the Light is shining with overwhelming brightness.

  19. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen the Palate Cleanser

    It definitely has merit. I was thinking…

    Fr. Stephen the Shepherding Translator

    I’m a couple chapters into your master thesis on shame, Face to Face. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. A few years ago I read through John Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame that Binds You” because you highly recommended it. Read mostly like a textbook and was a slog for me.

    But in Face to Face you draw from him and many other scholarly sources – which would probably also be sloggish for me – and pull out such potent but easily digestible gems.

    I’m full of admiration and awe. Jesus and a few of the saints are the only people I’ve read who could do better at delivering truth with love to children of God who need to be met where they’re at. Simple, digestible dialogue and yet packed with layers of meaning for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

    And here’s is the ironic twist: You are the confessed ADHD in our midst and yet you stand in the gap between us and those trees and bring us the time-honored nectar of truth, beauty and goodness. Thank you once again for your ministry and being the person God made you to be in front of all the world.

  20. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Thank you to everyone, especially Fr. Stephen, who responded to my comment. I did already know a lot of these answers, but they were buried and needed the help of others in order to resurface. May the peace of the Lord be with us all.

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Drewster,
    Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Thank you! I’m particularly happy that Face to Face is proving of use to you. Ancient Faith seems to indicate that it is being translated into Romanian. Who knew?

  22. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Leah and everyone else.

    When considering the problem of evil, the only theodicy I can come up with is:

    Jesus walks with us through our suffering. Jesus knows our suffering. Jesus himself suffered. Jesus makes something good out of even the worst of suffering. Suffering never gets the last word in Jesus` economy.

    I struggled with this question for the longest time Leah. Thanks for encouraging me to think some more about it.

  23. Angie Avatar

    What a beautiful post, and a much needed reminder that we have so much to be thankful for, and the good is ever abundant by God’s hand. Thank you!

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Christ said from the Cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” I believe that he meant that. I believe that sin has a corrupting, dis-integrating, and alienating affect on creation. I think what we find in Jesus’ “My God, my God…” is the him giving voice to the groaning of creation buckling under the weight of its alienation. If that isn’t it, then what is it? Is Jesus quoting verses as he goes down the check list of things he has to say before he dies? I think that we want the assurance that the world at bottom isn’t the nightmare it absolutely can be at top. I think sometimes that we want to have the assurance of “death where is your sting?” just to take the bite out of the “My God, my God…” moments in life. In my almost certainly useless opinion I think that unless we fully join Christ as forsaken on the Cross, then how can we expect to share with him in his Glory?

  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is both, I think. It is, of course, the title and first line of the Psalm. But the rest of the Psalm is fulfilled quite literally by Christ’s sufferings on the Cross – why would the first line be any different. However, I think it becomes problematic to say more than we can know about the precise experience of His forsakenness. One of the most ghastly bits of theology I’ve ever read is Calvin’s take on the phrase – he uses it to render God into the monster of Calvinist penal substitutionary atonement. Over the top.

    But, I think that whatever it is we experience as God forsakenness – Christ has entered into the very depths of it and made it His own – not by necessity but in His self-emptying. He is the Psalm.

  26. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr., I agree with that completely. And I agree with you that Calvin’s absolute depravity is complete nonsense. BUT, if it were true, then God would not deserve to be worshipped. There are several non-trivial implications in that statement.

    First, It implies that just because God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent doesn’t mean he deserves to be worshipped. Does Calvin’s god deserve to be worshipped? Well, no. Why? Who are we to decide that? Isn’t that passing judgment on God? Doesn’t God deserve to be worshipped regardless of our judgments? What happens if you are a Calvinist and you decide that your god doesn’t deserve worship? What happens next? From this it follows that appeals to God’s omni attributes doesn’t add any appeal or merit to why God deserves to be worshipped. This whole ‘we worship God because God is God’ idea is rubbish. Clearly we would assume that we would be justified in telling Calvin’s God to get lost regardless of omni attributes.

    The second implication is that, whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, we decide for ourselves what is worthy of worship. We make that decision for ourselves. We sit in judgment on God (as God is presented in books) and decide whether or not he deserves to be worshipped. Once that decision is made we either double down and never revisit that decision again, out of fear or sheer force of will, or we leave the door open to revisit the question when evidence to the contrary emerges and suffer with a very thorny uncertainty.

    I realize this is all very elementary to everyone else. But forgive a beggar for bringing a beggar’s voice to the table. When it comes to suffering we are quick to dismiss it as evidence against the existence of God as love. Suffering is very much a strong argument against the existence of a Good God. Just like a parent who neglects a child. The child’s suffering is a strong argument that the parent is unfit. Unless of course you are willing to say that no amount of suffering is ever good enough reason to challenge God as Good. In that case we’re back to Calvin.

    Lastly, telling a child that is being sex trafficked that Christ is being sex trafficked too or that Christ is right there with them is of no use. It’s not something that helps. It holds no comfort. It only helps those who are looking for something to believe in and are willing to believe. But it is a useless sentiment to tell a child.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    As evidenced by the arguments of Ivan Karamazov, suffering has always been the primary argument used by those who argue against the existence of God, particularly a God who is good. And it will always be so.

    It is also accurate to say that telling a child that is being sex-trafficked that Christ is being sex trafficked, or is right there with them, in them, etc., is of no use. That is true at the very least because it is “telling them something.” There are no words that are sufficient in such a setting. Christ never says, “I was hungry and you told me Christ was hungry.” It means nothing to use such words. He said, “I was hungry and you fed me.” Later, after feeding (or freeing a child, etc.) we might talk about things – but the thing itself is about action, not about words.

    For that matter, in Dostoevsky’s treatment, there are no words in the novel that are sufficient for the problems posed by Ivan Karamazov. In my own reading, I think that the person of Father Zossima is the answer, and even later, the willingness of Dmitri Karamazov to suffer, though innocent, continues in the same manner. It is not words, or thoughts, that matter. It is a life that is lived and embodies the answer.

  28. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I agree. It is in the life of one who chooses to be forsaken with the forsaken on behalf of the forsaken. No other life could possibly understand it

  29. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Any time I think very deeply about suffering I get lost in the weeds. Thinking about it makes me feel powerless, I get angry, and then I want to break stuff. I want to destroy those that destroy others.

    I don’t know if this makes any sense, but if I let it, suffering would make a demon of me. I think I would like to know how to bear it without being reduced to something dark and mean. I don’t want to understand suffering. I want to understand how to bear it without being made over in its image. I can’t be the only one that feels that way? I feel like suffering has a demonizing affect on me and that there is a constant threat of losing my humanity to it.

    I think we should relax on meta-theoretical frameworks and focus on the practical matters of how to cope as a community with the dehumanizing effects of suffering. Thank you for your thoughts, Fr.

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I suspect that the anger that is set off in such thoughts (suffering,etc.) is unresolved stuff from your own life experience. It’s understandable. May God give you peace.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Orthodox Prayer to the Holy Cross (Let God Arise)
    Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,

    Thank you for that. It’s odd that I have forgotten how much help that prayer has been to me. Thank you for bringing it back to mind.

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I need some help please.

    I am currently reading Aquiring the Mind of Christ by Archimandrite Sergius Bowyer. I just completed the chapter about heaven, hell, and the afterlife. The author states that how a man relates to the uncreated grace of God in this world is the determining factor of his state in the afterlife. What does this mean exactly?

    Must one live in a consistent and complete state of repentance and virtue in order to experience God in a heavenly rather than hellish manner? If so, how is this even possible? I fail in my struggle against the passions daily and these daily failures greatly affect my deification/theosis/salvation. Honestly (is there any other way?) the chapter instilled a lot of fear rather than hope. If I need to spend the remaining years I have left on earth trying to desperately live a life of virtue that is acceptable to God, I´m not sure I am going to make it. I even think there are those who do not believe in Christ who live a more virtuous life than I do (at least from outside appearances). Will they enter his glorious presence in a way that I will not?

    I didn´t have these kinds of problems when I existed solely in my Protestant mind and world which was completely focused on faith alone. It is in the opening up to the Orthodox world where I have begun to have some issues. While Calvinism is filled with hellfire and brimstone, it affords those with faith in Jesus Christ much peace. Can we say the same about Orthodoxy and its altogether different views about salvation and the afterlife?

    Thanks so much in advance everyone for any thoughts you might be able to offer up. My journey toward Orthodox continues …

  34. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    It can be quite frightening to think of these things. I don’t really know what to make of it all. I only hope and pray that Jesus take me when I die. How I will be judged and what will happen to me is for Him alone to decide. I hope he will be merciful. I am not in a position to offer advice really, but the one thing I would say is be careful about letting the imagination run away with itself. Try not to let what you may not fully understand or is beyond understanding be filled in with flights of fancy, or horrors. It’s hard, but try to encounter the real Jesus and to let go of what may be a Jesus of the imagination.

  35. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    an after thought and you’d be best asking Fr. Stephen’s advice on this. But reading St. Sophrony may be of value for you.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I have no idea what the author was saying but when my wife died in 2005, I was at her bedside, our priest and two chanters were praying as she lay comatose. Her best friend and our son were also there. As I looked on her, praying myself, I saw her guardian angel at her head, his hands on either side of her head praying intensely. Her friend saw the same. Three weeks later, on Pascha, Jesus gave me assurance she was with him.
    At the time of her death, she had not been to Communion for quite awhile and was angry at our parish. She made beautiful prayer ropes however.
    Her friend and family were RC. On the way down in the elevator, as we talked about what we had seen, our friend announced she would become Orthodox. Her daughters and their husbands still do and her friend does in Texas.
    There is more to heaven and earth than us dreamt of in our philosophies.

    Matthew 4:17 Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

    In my experience, my fear drives out His mercy He promised. John 16:33
    “Fear not…!”

    Lord, Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.

    Open the door to His Mercy, and joy follows.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I have not read Archimandrite Sergius’ book, so I cannot comment on that directly. I find approaches that overstate our efforts and their connection to eternal results to be troubling. First, they are speaking about what they do not actually know (speculation). It might well be based on information from saints that is well-trusted, but, it is still possible to be misunderstood. Second, we ourselves frequently lack information about what is actually taking place within ourselves, much less within the lives of others.

    There is the story of the widow’s mite. Her gift appeared tiny, but was greater than all others.

    There is this story for the Desert Fathers:

    At some time, St. Anthony the Great thought to himself “I wonder with whose spiritual achievements my spiritual life can be compared with”. God, however, in order to humble this thought revealed to him in a dream that superior to him was a shoe-maker who had a store in the back streets of Alexandria.

    Once it was daybreak, the saint took his staff and headed off to the city. He wanted to meet in person this famed shoe-maker and see his virtues. With great difficulty he discovered his store, sat down at the counter and began asking about his life.

    The man was simple and didn’t even occur to him who this elderly monk was that had come so unexpectedly into his store querying him. The man, while continuing to work and without taking his eyes off the shoes he was working on replied gently;

    “Elder, I don’t know if I have ever done anything good. Every morning after waking up, I pray and then I start work. First, I think to myself how every person in this city, from the smallest to the greatest will be saved, and only I will be condemned due to my countless transgressions. And in the evening when I go to sleep I have the same thoughts.

    The Elder rose with wonder and embraced and kissed him and said emotively:

    “You, my brother, like a good merchant, have gained the priceless pearl without toil. I have grown old in the desert, sweated and toiled but have not reached your level of humility.”

    I don’t mean to write in a way that says what we do doesn’t matter. But, we often labor in the wrong way. Acquiring humility, for example, is a far greater work than most imagine…but is universally possible even to the least.

    Love God, do your best, love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Forgive all. Ask for mercy from God. Embrace the sacraments. Don’t overthink everything.

  38. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Matthew,

    Ironically, perhaps, I recall reading that similar feelings to what you express were as much the personal motivation for Martin Luther in “reforming” his own beliefs before trying to spread those ideas to the Church as a whole. That is, he was terrified at the prospect his salvation was in some way dependent on his earning of it through his own works.

    When I was a Protestant, I was indeed more complacent about what would happen to me when I died. As I at least understood it, Christians *should* be complacent, because to have any doubt where we were going was sinful.

    I sought out something else (Orthodoxy), however, because of feeling that I was wasting (and had wasted) much of what God had given me in this life. I repented this complacency and would liken it now to the servant who buried his talent in the ground. When we consider all that God has blessed us with (as well as His commandments), then I do think we should be motivated always to live a life of virtue acceptable to him–not from fear but from gratitude.

    When we approach God as a person and think of Him as a loving Father, the difference becomes clearer.

    I do not want to criticize Protestantism because other Protestants are not accountable for my practice of it, but when I was a Protestant I thought “not getting in trouble” was enough. Orthodox practice has made me more aware of what God wants from me.

  39. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    You guys are really awesome! I will write more later. For now a very big thanks! 🙂

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Fr. Stephen, Mark, Michael and Andrew.

    It´s hard to not overthink everything. It is hard to know that even out of gratitude we are required as believers in and followers of Jesus to do things that contribute to our salvation as the Orthodox understand it.

    It´s also difficult to embrace this idea that the more I repent, the more unworthy I feel, the more humble I become, the more sure I will be of God´s mercy (if I have that right).

  41. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Part of the problem is that this is still all in the head – as if – you will get it figured out – feel good about it then do something with it. My suggestions point towards doing small things and then leave it in God’s hands. There’s a subtle difference between “feeling unworthy” and true humility, and it’s tied up in how we deal with shame in our lives – whether it’s healthy or toxic, etc. I recommend my book, Face to Face, as a possible help in that. But, even so, it’s about doing our lives day-to-day.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Real repentance, in my case, was an unqualified blessing. I did not, do not feel “more unworthy”, because I am more deeply aware of Him and His love. I am and am being forgiven. There is Joy in that. Actually a bit like the Protestant hymn: I come to the garden alone…

    It remains a daily struggle to recognize and accept His Mercy. It is not a struggle with doubt however but rather whether I want to step into His Life and shed my own.

    God be with

  43. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    it is hard not to overthink if you are so inclined. I wish I could say something to help you out. I have learned to let go of a lot of the head stuff, thank God, but there is still much to be done. We can get too caught up in trying to take in and do too much all at once. This just led to anxiety and hopelessness. God will and does provide the increase. As Fr. Stephen has said many times, bear a little shame. I have wanted to run and hide from God, or end up praying badly. If we were where we think we should be and were worthy, we wouldn’t really need God’s mercy and grace; we’d be satisfied with ourselves. God bless you.

  44. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    There is so much language in the Orthodox literature geared towards and informed by monastic experience that we forget that we are not monks and that we are not expected to be monks. America has become a neurotic narcissistic culture living in neurotic narcissistic times and when we (American converts) read language saturated in a monastic tone there is no way we have the syntax to really understand it. A lot of times I just skip over anything that doesn’t inspire my effort because there is PLENTY of Orthodox writing that is inspiring. Feed the heart things that are beautiful.

    Early in my Orthodox experience I was reading a book that had (at some point in my opinion) very outlandish language in it. I would comment in the margins of the page why I found it offensive. I have recently returned to reading that book and now my own comments seem overly sensitive to me.

    We grow and that takes time. I wish it didn’t. Fr. Stephen I really appreciate that story from the Desert Fathers.

  45. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    One of the most encouraging things I have ever read came from the Philokalia Vol 3: “The person who has received the grace of spiritual knowledge knows that all things are ‘wholly good and beautiful.’ But he who possesses only the glimmerings of such knowledge should recognize in all humility that he is ignorant and, as St. John Chrysostom advises, he should admit on every occasion, ‘I do not know.’” And there are a number of other such quotations in Vol 3 that emphasize admitting to ourselves in all humility to an ignorance of that which we truly do not know. This is why I love the Symbol of Faith. I don’t know anything at all and I should probably keep my mouth shut. But, when I join my voice to the voice of the Church then I can say “I believe” because the “I” in that moment is not the isolated and alienated “I” of the Western mind. It becomes the larger “I” of communion, the body of Christ. My voice becomes the voice of the Church and more importantly the voice of the Church becomes my voice. It saves me–at least for the moment–from getting lost in the meta-cognitive bushes (thinking about what I think) during the service, “Hmmm, what do I really think? Hmmm, what are my ideas?”

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, thank you for sharing that.

  47. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    “It is hard to know that even out of gratitude we are required as believers in and followers of Jesus to do things that contribute to our salvation as the Orthodox understand it.”

    If you would prefer the sola scriptura of Protestantism:

    “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

    “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

    “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

    (Micah 6: 6-8)

    In the NT we have Matthew 25:31-40, but I like that Micah uses the same specific verb as you did 🙂

    Certainty (i.e., knowing) is a purely mental condition that I think we over-rate because our brains are flawed instruments. To function as human beings, we accept a great deal of uncertainty and sometimes must delude ourselves about what we know. For example, a prominent neuroscientist has just published a book called “Determined” with the thesis that free will does not exist. He argues that the drunk driver is no more to blame for killing a pedestrian than the pedestrian is for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both (ultimately) had no choice in their actions.

    The author would like to see a society with laws and a judicial system that reflect “what science proves.” For my part, I do not see how an individual human being could ever put such a belief into practice in even a single life. (Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” comes to mind, but he’s a fictional villain.) Regardless of what we “know,” we live as though our actions matter.

    Do I know how or to what extent God requires me to contribute to my salvation? I do not, but I feel correctly oriented toward God when I practice certain thoughts and actions and–as Father Stephen says–do my life.

    Suppose you have always wanted to play the violin, and your Beloved–at great personal expense and sacrifice–gives you a masterwork Stradivarius. Your first attempts sound awful, especially when you compare your playing with other violinists.

    Much time goes by, and your Beloved asks to hear how you’re doing with your gift. Which would cause you more shame: to play a beginning piece badly after many days of regular practice, or to tell your Beloved that you hid the instrument in the closet and never touched it because you didn’t know how to play it?

    Regardless of whether using what God provides me is required for my salvation or not, hearing “well done, thy good and faithful servant” seems infinitely preferable to feeling I am disappointing Christ by my actions. The Orthodox view of Hell (I think) accords with that.

  48. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much again everyone. I appreciate the responses and the comments.

    Mark … over the years I have begun to wonder about free will. Are we really free agents in the truest sense? Aren´t most of us in our choices conditioned in ways (maybe because of past pain or trauma or lack of knowledge, etc.) that make it nearly impossible to make absolutely free choices? Also, when one considers the natural world of animals and insects where there seems to be unending suffering that cannot be explained by “free will”, it makes things even more complicated.

    Also, it seems that Orthodoxy views Protestantism as highly rational and that such intellectualism, scholasticism, rationalism, etc. is detrimental to spiritual transformation. I lean toward accepting this criticism being correct, but I also don´t think God is suggesting we should hang our brain and its thoughts at the door when we enter the nave. Is God asking us to do this?

  49. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    The closer you come to Christ, the more easily you see your own sins. This experience is like fire, burning away the chaff in our hearts. It is not an easy experience because it includes carrying our own cross. However, along with this tension is the experience of joy in Christ. He is always with us, beside us, in us, and we in Him. There is so much joy when we notice His presence. Sometimes, when such an experience arises, we receive the grace of the Lord to be grateful to God for all things, even those most difficult to observe and bear in ourselves. But when we are able to see our own sins, there is also the light and the path to follow Jesus.

  50. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I hope I’m not too bold to engage you in your last question. The way the Orthodox reflect on ‘our brain’ or ‘our mind’ is to consider and encourage a movement of the mind into the heart. There is a new way of perceiving and experiencing our lives when the mind is in the heart.

    So the answer is no, we don’t leave the brain out of the nave because the nave is like our heart. It is the place (ie the heart or nave) where we immerse our mind (brain). While we might be inculcated to analyze (this is my weakness), that’s not all the brain (or mind) can do. It can go further than that and experience more depths than that.

  51. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    just to clarify what I meant by head stuff. I am not advocating anti intellectualism, nor negating the use of reason. By head stuff I was referring to the noise and clutter in the head: the false assumptions about ourselves and reality; fantasy and imagination; what may be engendered by the passions; what we can know and what we cannot; logismoi and many other things. To basically by God’s good grace and mercy to still the storm.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Three prayers have been important to my wife and I which we try to offer daily:
    From the red prayer book: The morning Trisagion Prayers and the Troparia to the Holy Trinity. Our Beloved Queen. . .. The Prayer to the Venerable Cross and the morning prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow.

    We do not always get them done. One thing I have learned is that a simple prayer rule is easier to keep than a large rule that can become burdensome.

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

  53. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I wouldn’t argue that agency (free will) doesn’t exist. I would say it does exist, and then argue that we have confused it with something else, like a state of mind or the ability to choose between a medium or large fry.

    As far as I can tell, from my own experience and from the Tradition, freedom and agency are hypostatic in nature. Freedom and agency increase with hypostatic growth. The heart needs to be passively exposed to and absorb the Liturgy. The heart needs to be passively exposed to and absorb beauty. The mind gets you to the parish, it physically gets you there, but the rest is a matter of exposure and absorption. Think about sunbathers. The intention puts the sunbather on the beach. The mind places him or her there physically. But sunbathing is passive. A person lays on the beach exposed, vulnerable, passively absorbing the the light of the sun. I think most of the work is done without our explicit knowledge of it.

    A friend of mine was fond or arguing that we don’t have free will–we have “free won’t.” In other words, the will is there, principally, to put the breaks on the wheels. I’m not so sure he isn’t right.

  54. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    As I mentioned before, I think any time we try to “speak for God,” we should do so with the utmost humility and circumspection.

    What I will say is to echo Father Stephen’s (and others’) “We are not saved by knowledge.” Having a great intellect is no more helpful in reaching God than having great wealth. The billionaire who donates a million dollars to a church is no more righteous than the impoverished widow, and I think the same relationship exists regarding IQs.

    If we have great gifts of any kind, I do think we should use them. That CS Lewis employed his reason to write as coherently and persuasively as he did, for example, has been of great help to me over the years. His intellect has been a similar blessing to millions. I do not think, however, CS Lewis is “required reading” for salvation.

    Dee puts it beautifully: “to consider and encourage a movement of the mind into the heart. There is a new way of perceiving and experiencing our lives when the mind is in the heart.”

  55. Maggie Avatar
    Maggie

    Would it help relieve your torment over questions of what will happen to you when you die to remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross next to him? That “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” has always been a great comfort to me.

    And along the lines of Fr. Stephen’s suggestion about “doing small things and then leave it in God’s hands”, I often turn to three prayers I found in a novel written many years ago: Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.

  56. Maggie Avatar
    Maggie

    I meant to address my above comment to Matthew.

  57. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you all so very much. No Dee … not too bold. I appreciate your engagement.

    Mark … I am often too filled with ideas and thoughts and knowledge. All this hasn´t yet been very spiritually transforming 🙁 I am still on the journey though.

    Simon … can you help me understand your viewpoint re: free will a bit more? I want to follow your thoughts clearly.

    Andrew … thanks so much for the clarification!

  58. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Thank you Matthew for asking,

    The common sense understanding of free will in the West assumes that the will is an effect without a cause. It’s a spooky jack-in-box that turns its own handle. I think this idea of the will is almost certainly mistaken. I don’t know anything about the will. To me when I listen to people talk about the will it has all the substance of an urban myth. It is usually just a vague, metaphysical term people use in place of saying “I do what I want when I want.”

    The will as I would understand it–which is not understanding it at all at this point–is grounded in hypostatic being. As a person grows from proto-hypostatic being (psychological experience) to being then there’s an increase in will. Again, I don’t know what that means. I think much of that remains hidden. When a person grows from Being to Well-being, then the will is revealed even more. To think of the will as grounded in anything else other than the hypostasis is language I don’t have syntax for yet. However, I am almost absolutely certain that the psychological certainty we will when we feel like we are choosing freely is an illusion and is NOT the will that God is concerned with.

  59. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So Simon, maybe as we are being saved, as we grow more and more in union with God, our wills are being more clearly revealed? The kind of will God is concerned with?

  60. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    I read this just now and thought of you: orthochristian.com The Ways of Christ’s Commandments, Spiritual Instructions of St. Arsenia of Ust-Medvedits, part 3. I hope it may be helpful; I found it so.

  61. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you so much Maggie. I will check this out Andrew.

  62. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Andrew. I read through most of it. I have to say, though, that I am drawn to Orthodoxy (in part) because Orthodoxy, I thought, steers clear of total depravity thinking. That said, there seems to be a whole lot of talk about sin and passions being innately part of our being. Is it possible to be innately good while also being overwhelmed by sin and passion(s)? Some days I feel as though my life of faith is not characterized by sin and passion(s); that it is actually possible to grow closer to God, to feel God´s love, to exist in a way that I don´t feel like I have to think about sin and the passions all the time. Is this not a much healthier mindset and a healthier relational connection to God? I cannot wrap my head (nor heart) around the mantra “The closer you are to Christ, the more aware you are of how sinful you are”. I would think the more I grow in Christ´s likeness, the closer I am to Christ in union, the more love I will feel coming from God and the more I can rejoice that for as far as the east is from the west so also have my trangressions been forgiven. This is not only coming from my head, mind you, it has also been my personal experience.

  63. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    did you read the part about loving yourself and not giving yourself a hard time about what you cannot give yourself, but is a gift from God; purity of heart and freedom from the passions and sin.
    I didn’t get the impression that there was anything there about total depravity.
    Seeing sin and the passions at work in us is par for the course. We are not totally depraved, neither are we totally good.
    I’m sorry you didn’t find the article helpful. I won’t say anything else.

  64. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    No no Andrew … it was good … I just have more questions. That happens after I read something most of the time. Please continue sharing.

  65. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    My understanding of Orthodox belief is sin is like a disease, which would mean we are not totally depraved but it is something that has corrupted us, like cancer corrupts an otherwise healthy body.

    The personal experience you describe, however, I think is important because even the simplest things humans can have trouble communicating to one another in words. For example, you describe drawing closer to Christ in union, whereas my preferred description is feeling more oriented toward God (like a radar antenna better positioned to receive the good signal and freer of static). I suspect both are approximations of what we experience, but we know what we mean 🙂

    The greater awareness of sin might (in that case) mean something more like the greater levels of humility and repentance needed. In my own case and in much of what I’ve read, at my most humble and most repentant is indeed when I feel most where I should be. As the devil’s fall is generally thought to have been caused by pride, that does not seem surprising.

  66. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew,
    I think I will leave it to Fr. Stephen to say whether something sounds right. It is his blog and he is the priest. I will say that when you consider that our lives are hidden in Christ, I wonder how can something be in Christ and not be at full union with Christ? If that reading is correct, then all things are already restored and our journey is one of revealing what is hidden. And this must be true for all creation, right? The eschatology of all things was completed on the Cross and now the Christian life is one of revealing that which was completed when Christ said, “It is finished.”

    Maybe father Stephen could comment on that as well.

  67. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Matthew.

  68. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Regarding the issue of absolute depravity, if we take the Apostle’s words in Colossians at face value then whatever your life might be it cannot be absolutely depraved. To say something is in Christ I take to mean in communion with Christ. If creation were utterly and absolutely out of communion with God I would think it would cease to exist. So, the continuing existence of Creation–from an Orthodox point of view–testifies (I think) to the communion that God holds with Creation in Christ. And this communion that God holds with Creation is revealed in the lives of Christians and the Saints in particular. All of that is a mystery. I say that to say that the protestants in general and Calvinists in particular do not have the syntax or the vocabulary for the communion ontology professed by the Orthodox and for that reason they come to some pretty ridiculous conclusions.

  69. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Over the places where you have commented, I have noted that you have said you’re attracted to Orthodoxy because it doesn’t present (hopefully!!) a theology of total depravity. As I’ve said in the past, there are few commenting on this blog who are more anti-Protestantism than myself. Also, ironically, few here know less about Protestant theology than myself. My anti-Protestantism arose in early childhood (about 8 years old) and was fueled across the years until, by my late teens, I decided I wasn’t Christian and remained that way for about 40 years. I believed in God.

    I remember things at that early age that was shaming in Sunday school. The class was asked the name of God. I was supposed to say “Jesus,” and instead, I said “Breathmaker” (the Seminole name for God). The shame was bad enough that I didn’t want to tell my mother what had happened immediately after because I was given the impression that I was depraved. That word wouldn’t have been in my vocabulary because I was too young. But it was clear to me that I was not clean dirt.

    There were other circumstances to add to this story, but I’m keeping this as short as I can. As crazy as this might sound, I came to Orthodox through my understanding of the Higgs Potential Energy Field, ie not through any theology that I was then aware of. I believe ‘theoretically’ in the needful act of “a Christ” to initiate the field and it is best not to go further with that, because I as ignorant as they can come who might seek understanding God in such a way.

    I read Orthodox theology for about three years before considering stepping into a Church. After that it was about a year and a half before I was baptized.

    I say all of this to bring to you in fellowship as one with similar concerns about the notion of depravity that is so common in Protestantism. I also believe that with so many Protestants converting to Orthodoxy, there will be times that I will hear an Orthodox person sound a lot like a Protestant. I believe it takes time for the medicine of Orthodoxy to take full effect. It takes full and complete immersion for years, especially since, in North America, the very ethos of the culture is Protestant.

    Even if you should become Orthodox, there will be times that you will hear a Protestant tone and even full-on Protestant theology spoken by someone who presents themselves as Orthodox. As I have been on occasion, you might be dismayed. Nevertheless, Orthodoxy is unequivocably not Protestantism. I guarantee you, for what it’s worth, since you don’t know me, I wouldn’t be here if it was.

    Please continue your questions and express your concerns. Father Stephen has the blessings of his Bishop to do this ministry for good reasons; he knows ‘the Way’ and describes it well. He is familiar with the heart that has been wounded by Protestantism. He knows how to speak to it.

    May Our Lord Jesus Christ continue to bless you in all ways.

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, your words make my heart rejoice. Thank you.

  71. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Since we are on this topic of the nature of sin and depravity, a question occurred to me last night when I felt very much as though my reaction to something was sinful, and it particularly troubled me because it did seem to originate in my own character rather than an external temptation.

    Resisting the sins of lust or gluttony, for example, I can understand as our better natures winning out. When I am *selfish*, however, or petty, those impulses seem to arise purely from within me. Because those sins are the most personal, we also seem most reluctant to confess or admit them (they seem to cause the most shame).

    An example would be a close friend or family member is going through something terrible, and I worry about how it’s going to affect me (which will in fact be much less), rather than having compassion entirely for my friend/family member. Another form of it is worrying that I won’t be up to meeting their needs at this time and being a good, supportive friend, rather than simply being one.

    How am to understand that this sin is also external to my true nature…because it seems very much “of me”?

    A less personal example would be a student feeling relief that the teacher is sick because of not having to take an exam.

    Part of the problem, I think, is when we are tempted toward some sins, we resist by not doing them. But this kind of sin the mere reaction seems sinful, and we cannot deny that we at least in part for a moment reacted as we did.

  72. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee, Matthew, et al
    There are many strange legacies of the past 500 years. I am currently working on a lecture on “How Beauty Can Save the World.” I’m speaking at something of an outreach event in upstate South Carolina in 2 weeks in which my talk is the keynote. There will be other lectures, as well as presentations of Orthodox music and iconography. It means my thoughts have been floating around in the question of beauty for a couple of weeks. Last weekend I participated in the festivities and ceremonies of my youngest daughter’s wedding in Memphis, which took place at St. John’s Orthodox Church where my son-in-law, Fr. Philip Rogers, is the priest. It was an exquisitely beautiful Church, with an exquisitely beautiful bride(!), together with a wonderful attendance by much of my family (all four children – a rare occurence anymore). It was an experience of beauty and joy.

    I say all of that as a context for thinking about the darkness of depravity. There is, no doubt, much about human beings that can behave in a terribly depraved manner (I think of our present wars brewing all over the place and the many innocent lives that are being lost – while the Masters of War continue to bank their profits). That, too, is a context for this question. That dark, depraved behavior serves, unwittingly as a background against which the beauty and goodness of God’s creation stands in stark contrast. What is truly depraved is how removed the darkness is from the truth of our existence. Christ describes our adversary as a “murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies.”

    Depravity is the wrong place to start when doing theology. Beauty, Goodness, and Truth serve that purpose far better. It is Christ who reveals the truth of our existence and what it means to be fully human. It is Christ who makes it possible for us to love – to love even our enemies and those whose lives appear depraved. He has descended into the lowest hell to bring us into the Light.

    May God preserve our hearts in His goodness!

  73. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    I find it helpful to think of the equation of sin and death (a common theme in St. Paul). Sin is “death at work in me.” As I age (turning 70 in less than two weeks), I am daily aware of the death working in me. Arthritis in many places makes the beginning of the day slow and painful. Movement helps. But, death will win out soon enough. But seeing that it is that same death that is manifest in sinful impulses is of use as well. Though sin is “external” to our nature, it is, nevertheless, at work “in me.” (Romans 7) Those small victories when sin is driven back and I choose life, choose love (in whatever broken form), there is resurrection taking place within me.

    It is one of the reasons that I strongly counsel people to give thanks always and for all things (as St. Paul teaches). It is the voice of the very life of God within us drowning out and crucifying the sin and death that seeks our destruction.

  74. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    “Though sin is ‘external’ to our nature, it is, nevertheless, at work ‘in me.’ (Romans 7) Those small victories when sin is driven back and I choose life, choose love (in whatever broken form), there is resurrection taking place within me.”

    That is clarifying. Thank you.

    Much happiness for you on the occasion of your daughter’s wedding!

  75. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    You all are so kind and helpful. Thanks so much. This spiritual traveler in Jesus Christ so appreciates it!

    Fr. Stephen … will your lecture be streamed? I would very much like to hear it.

  76. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    and see it! 🙂

  77. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    May God bless your daughter’s marriage, Father!

    ===============================
    I cannot wrap my head (nor heart) around the mantra “The closer you are to Christ, the more aware you are of how sinful you are”. I would think the more I grow in Christ´s likeness, the closer I am to Christ in union, the more love I will feel coming from God and the more I can rejoice that for as far as the east is from the west so also have my transgressions been forgiven.
    ================================

    Matthew, this made me consider how “one direction” we tend to think of things. I do think you are correct: the more we grow in Christ´s likeness, the more we rejoice! But that doesn’t remove us from recognizing our sins. Indeed is seems to me that they stand out in even greater relief, the closer we draw to God so that we may give even more thanks for His Grace.

    To me, it’s something like the commandment to Love God with *all* your heart, mind, and soul–but then also to love your neighbor. How does one turn *all* one’s love toward God and be able do the same for one’s neighbor? I think the nature of Love is that it does not exhaust itself; it is not finite. It simply continues to be there, as much as we need it.

    Grace is like that as well. The more we draw to God and rejoice in His grace, the more we can see our own sins–not so we will become downtrodden by their existence, but so we can heal in an even fuller manner through repentance and thanksgiving. We give thanks *in all things*, even in the recognition of our sins (perhaps because we can see that God’s grace is even greater). I hope this is helpful. Please forgive me if it is too poorly stated to be of use.

  78. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    How am to understand that this sin is also external to my true nature…because it seems very much “of me”?

    This brings to me a picture of a person who has lain the dirt and grime for so long that it seems a part of them (even though it is not).

    I am reminded of a time in my life I walked through a part of an Eastern City and walked past a large pile of dirt lying on the sidewalk–which then moved, because it was a man! I literally did not recognize him before focusing on his face. He was that caked with dirt, that filthy. Yet the dirt, which had completely obscured his humanity, was not him. I just couldn’t separate it from him; I lacked the ability to make the distinction.

    Perhaps this is something we also suffer from in our sin? We see it as part of us because it has been caked on so resolutely and so thoroughly in our lives. Our abstractions and ideas can only take us so far in recognizing it for what it is…. Just thinking out loud. Forgive me if it is not helpful.

  79. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Byron,

    Father Stephen put it in a both touching and poetic way, but your reply is helpful as well–in an “earthy” way 🙂

    It reminds me of how our body odor is actually caused by bacteria growing in our sweat, not the sweat itself. Yet when we haven’t bathed for a while, we would say, “I need a shower because *I* stink.” And we do think of it as our natural smell.

  80. S. Avatar
    S.

    The trees are silent witnesses, and refusing to speak evil. You kept silent on a certain ‘father’/author (a Saint, according to his publishers) I used as a reference at one point, but I heard your silence, observed the cautions, and have since understood (a little more anyway). Thank you for your mercy + patience.
    This brings up also comments back then on seizures. It now seems most likely that, contrary to a negative, totally enervating, shame-centered American post-epileptic seizure experience, Dostoyevsky would have been able to know his in a positive way (one man called it a re-set) because the Orthodox culture, the witness of his time, didn’t associate suffering with failure, guilt and shame, but with divine blessing. Something like that. Yes, it takes time. Thank you so very much.

  81. Lina Avatar
    Lina

    Dr. Robert Fulford, an early osteopathic doctor, suggested to his patients that they go out and hug a tree. Many people found great comfort and healing while doing this repetitively.

  82. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    Many blessings to your dear daughter and new husband/son-in-law! The Lord’s grace allows you to see His beauty amid the darkness we have in this world. And yes, due to Him there is indeed Beauty, the workings of God, in this world!

    And, as you say, where we need to start in our journey and exploration in theology is with Christ, His Beauty, and our life in Him is always in light and beauty.

    Thank you for your response!

  83. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Byron. It seems that repentance and thankfulness are absolutely key in the process of spiritual growth and transformation.

    It also seems like recognition of sin is not meant to make us feel terrible, but to actually more fully form humilty in us. Humility is the path to purity of heart which leads to experiencing God in a fuller way. These are just my thoughts.

  84. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello everyone.

    Can someone suggest a book which discusses how the Orthodox understand forgiveness? My wife has asked me to search for such a book for her.

    Also, why the Church? Can´t I simply go outside, be thankful to God for the creation and universe that belongs to him, repent when necessary and through all that grow in salvation?

  85. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    God has used the book I am currently reading “Acquiring the Mind of Christ” to answer all my questions about the Church. The Church is the primary vessel by which the beauty of God is incarnated into the world. Through participation in the life and sacraments of the Church, one grows in salvation. It would appear that without the Church there can be no salvation. God seems to have answered my question that I asked above in this comment section. 🙂

  86. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Also – we do not exist as mere individuals. The Church is essential to our salvation – it is what salvation looks like. God exists as Trinity – to be like God, conformed to His image, we require a community – the Church is that community given us by Christ.

    Forgive me, but that we can even imagine an individualistic salvation says much about what some versions of Protestantism have done to destroy this key element of the faith. “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” is in the Creed, as essential as, “I believe in One God.” Just adding my thoughts to those you have been reading.

  87. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

    I am in total agreement about the individuality of many versions of Protestantism. I used to think I was saved alone, my experiences with God were totally my own, my journey with God was a solitary one, etc. What´s interesting, though, is that Protestantism does talk a lot about community and being together as the Body of Christ, but clearly not in the way the Orthodox Church expresses and understands community.

    That said, I never thought of myself as not being part of the Church back in those days. I used to say I was part of God´s universal church as a result of my faith in Jesus Christ; membership in a local church was really of secondary importance for me. I suppose it has to do with the way many Protestants (especially evangelicals) understand ecclesiology. It is rather “loose” in many settings and version.

    That said, aren´t all Christians part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” even if they don´t say so or even understand what that means? By virtue of faith in Christ they must be in the Church somehow … almost mystically … I mean God wouldn´t simply leave them outside the nave … would he?

    Also … is J.S. Bach and his music sacramental in any way?

  88. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Bach’s music has a sacramental quality, no doubt.

    As to the “boundaries” of the Church – it’s a very difficult question to answer for a very simple reason: the present denominational construct of Christianity was never envisioned by the Fathers of the Church. They dealt with various heretical and schismatic groups, and the canons on that topic are a subject of very vigorous discussion within Orthodoxy.

    But, the simple answer is – “no.” Not in a fullest sense of what it means to be a part of the Church. There is no “universal, invisible” Church, as many Protestants like to describe it. The Church is quite literal and concrete (and therein lies the difficulty in speaking about it). This is not to say that the non-Orthodox are not Christians – but that there is an impairment in reality (generally through no fault of their own – but rather the messiness of history and the sinfulness of many generations).

    What we can do is make our way forward as best we can – knowing that we have a good God who is merciful and kind.

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

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