Alone – You Are Not

“Alone – You Are Not”

This is not a quote from Yoda. It is a simple statement concerning the nature of our existence. The fullness of existence is only found in communion, a mutual indwelling in which our lives are known and experienced not just in their self-contained form, but in their Interrelation to others and everything around us. True existence is a connected-ness. It is also the very place where the instability and fragility of our lives is most revealed. If we can withdraw into ourselves, it is possible to imagine that we are fine, and that the things and people around us are just noise, sometimes enjoyable and other times annoying. But we do not think of the things and people around us as if our lives depended on them.

Against this withdrawal are the words of St. Silouan: “My brother is my life.”

At the very core of Christian belief is the Trinitarian God. Trinity is not just a revelation of how we speak about God. It is also the revelation of the very character of existence. The monotheism of Islam substituted God as individual for God as Trinity. As such, it might be the first modern religion. That many modern Christians struggle with Trinitarian belief and expression is evidence of how far removed modernity is from classical Christian roots. For us, “relationship” is a word that describes how we are getting along with another individual. For the Fathers, “relation” is an expression of mutual indwelling and coinherence. This exists because that exists, and they exist in one another. That is the true meaning of relationship (or, better, interrelationship).

When Christ says, “No one comes to the Father except by me,” modern Christians take it to mean that non-Christians go to hell. It is, in fact, a statement about the nature of Trinitarian existence. No one can come to the Father apart from Christ because there is no Father apart from Christ. The Son is “Son,” because of the “Father.” But the “Father” is not “Father,” except for the “Son” (and so on).

This is true of God but is equally true of us. The limit within human existence is that we experience our personal existence as individual existence – or the temptation to do so is always present. It assumes that who we are only refers to what is within the boundaries of our skin.

A meditation: The breath we breathe. Is it part of us or is it something else? We cannot live without it. When we take it in or breathe it out, it is “our” breath. The only human existence without breath is a lifeless corpse. God “breathed” into the dust and it became a living soul. But the “breath” is also inherently the air around us. When does the air around us become “us,” and when does it cease to be “us”?

Of course, this is just a meditation on breath and air. But the same meditation could be extended to everything else around us. It could and should be extended to every person around us. If there were no relationships whatsoever, we simply would not exist. There is nothing within us that isn’t something existing in interrelationship. Nothing.

We do not create relationships, nor do we have them. We are relationships and we either perceive this and pay attention or we do not. Inasmuch as we do not, we begin moving towards non-existence – death. This is not a description of massive and universal extraversion. It is possible to be very quiet, even a hermit, and yet be profoundly aware and responsive to our existence as interrelationship.

The Scriptures say that “God is love.” They do not say that God simply “has” love. God “is” love, which makes love a matter of ontology. That God is love is perfectly consistent with His existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What we do not see clearly is that we are love, just as truly as God is love. Love is a mode of existence, indeed, the mode of existence.

“My brother is my life.” Consider the fullness of such a statement in Christ’s words, “I have come that they might have life and that more abundantly.”

I will add a note of apology and explanation. I have previously written articles that criticize the use of the word “relationship,” and, yet, here I am using it myself. The earlier articles stand, but I am here seeking to recapture the word “relationship” and use it in its older, theological meaning. Despite that vast vocabulary of English (the largest language in existence), words still create limits. I hope the reader will understand and be patient with me.

Photo by Noah Silliman 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.



Posted

in

, , , ,

by

Comments

32 responses to “Alone – You Are Not”

  1. Mike N Avatar
    Mike N

    “No one can come to the Father apart from Christ because there is no Father apart from Christ. The Son is “Son,” because of the “Father.” But the “Father” is not “Father,” except for the “Son” (and so on).”

    What an amazing gift and relationship that Jesus invites into with God our Father. That we are privileged to pray, “Our Father who Art ….

    Thanks for highlighting this.

    Pondering relationships.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, my Dad was an MD who ran a public health department that, in his heart, treated the entire community and worked to prevent bad health. He was adamant that the word “relationship” is fundamentally incorrect in dealing with our health and each other. He insisted the proper word and approach is “interrelationship”.

    He came to his understanding growing up in the high plains of eastern New Mexico as a small dry land farmer with his family: his mother, father and three brothers.

    It formed his approach to community health and he became one of the most respected local public health officers in the US.

    My brother and I transferred that understanding to living and loving in God’s Church. It has made a vast difference to me on approaching the Church and the revealed truth of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation.

    There is always an exchange of Divine Life going on in the Holy Trinity and, since the Incarnation, we took are made part of that through the worship of the Church.

    It is not a transactional model. The exchange that occurs is whole and balanced that both allows and gifts Worship, Life and Mercy. I just have to enter into the Life through the Sacraments and community by repentance.

    To me it is inherent in all we do, but especially The Jesus Prayer.

    The communion of interrelationship in the God Head allows for life to be abundant in each heart.

    A lot of what appear to be paradoxes resolve into the dance of life.

    Forgive me, a sinner

  3. Leah K Avatar
    Leah K

    My husband and I were just talking this morning about how to encourage our middle school and high school children to engage with our parish youth group, even though they don’t feel like they connect very well with the others. I feel as if you were listening in and provided a much deeper perspective on “relationships.”
    I know I am tempted to measure how close I am to this person or that person and make decisions about social interactions based on those assessments. Do you have any additional thoughts on this, especially as it relates to our youth connecting with each other in the Church?

  4. Peter Evans Avatar
    Peter Evans

    Fr Stephen, after reading the earlier article you linked above, I detect no inconsistency in your attitude toward the modern word “relationship” and believe that your later article does a great job of recapturing the secular word and using it to point to a larger, spiritual reality. It put me in mind of the way early Christians in England took over the pagan high places and built churches thereon. Keep up the good work!

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    I think there are many difficulties in our modern settings. In a traditional village – our chidren know each other from other settings. In the modern world, they often only know each other from Church and there are often aspects of that that make it difficult to bond socially. It also is very dependent on personalities and such. It’s a good matter to talk about with your priest (who knows the personalities involved).

  6. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    We are relationships–There is so much depth and truth in those three words. We should really give pause to think about what that means for freedom, sin, and the human being as microcosm. Protestants don’t have a syntax for that language.

  7. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “We do not create relationships, nor do we have them. We are relationships and we either perceive this and pay attention or we do not. Inasmuch as we do not, we begin moving towards non-existence – death.”

    I´m wondering if this is true for the secularist who claims their is no God and that we are all autonomous beings? They must be moving toward non-existence (death) in a real sense since they are denying the very truth of the deep interrelationship that exists between people as well as between God and people.

    Though I don´t think many secularists would deny the importance of relationships, I think their understanding of relationship(s) is a shallow and possibly even a selfish one. Maybe they think — I am in relationship with someone else for what I can get out of it to satisfy my own personal needs. This is just one example.

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    It’s thrilling to think God has known us all since before our birth, that we’ve existed in that sense from eternity, caught up in a relationship of Love already and always. Stunning revelation! Why is my heart so often insensitive so as to pay little attention to this immortal communion? It’s hidden in plain sight; it is “at hand.” But we need eyes to see.

    “What we do not see clearly is that we are love, just as truly as God is love. Love is a mode of existence, indeed, the mode of existence.”

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    We also have relationships with animals, domesticated and wild, and trees and plants. Even (to stretch the envelope) the earth and rock. All things hymn and sing and praise of the Love of God.

    As an introvert, relationship with humans is the most difficult for me. However being among them is not so difficult. It is my hope that what is in my heart that counts most. Nevertheless there are expectations in this culture (coffee hour and such) that I do not participate. To some this maybe perceived as failure.

  10. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    God is Love. God is Communion. Love is Communion. Being made in the image of God we are communion we are love and the nature of our hypostatic existence hidden in Christ is one of communion. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of communion and as Christ says “the Kingdom of God is within you.”

    Perhaps the nature of God, or the sense in which God is One, is in Communion? Perhaps God is in full communion with His Creation because God loves His creation and God’s Love is given in its fullness not in partial measures? Perhaps the Cross is the revelation of a God that in His indissoluble communion with a suffering Creation is being crucified with Creation in its suffering? Perhaps the Cross is an event revealing in time what is happening in eternity? Perhaps there is a sense in which the visceral response we have to suffering is a sort of revelation. The revelation being 1) that God is Good and 2) that we are beings meant for communion.

  11. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The limit within human existence is that we experience our personal existence as individual existence

    We read in Genesis that the first human pair were expelled from the Garden. Recently, I have been wondering whether it isn’t fair to say that being “outside” the Garden is an image for having our faculties in bondage to a purely sensory and psychological (outwardly directed) experience of the world? To have our faculties shackled in this way could only leave us with an experience of futility–isolation, alienation, radically individual. If Life inside the Garden is one of hypostatic being, one of communion, then life outside the Garden is one of psychological being, one of isolation. There would be no other way to experience the world on the purely sensory and psychological level. Every ideological framework for understanding our place in the universe constructed from our isolated sensory impressions can only leave us in a state of delusion and ignorance regarding our hypostatic existence.

    The other night I was reading the Philokalia vol3 and I came across this: “Through the fall [the soul] was plunged into a sea of forgetfulness, into an abyss of delusion, and dwelt within the gates of hell. As if separated from God by a great distance, it could not draw near to its Creator and recognize Him properly…[Christ] dispelled the forgetfulness, the delusion; then, breaking through the gates of hell, He entered the deluded soul, giving Himself to it as a model. By means of this model the soul can grow to maturity and attain the perfection of the Spirit…to return to yourself and to recover your original glory.”

    I am wondering if we haven’t underestimated the degree to which our the bondage and futility of Creation has to do with our experience of ourselves as purely psychological creatures.

    To return to ourselves and recover our original beauty as hypostatic beings implies that the it is all there as something hidden within us waiting to be uncovered, revealed.

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello everyone. Pardon me in advance for this question which will take our conversation, for the moment, in another direction.

    Is it true that there is antisemitic language in parts of the Orthodox Pascha liturgy? I did some cursory searching on the internet, but did not find anything conclusive regarding this topic.

  13. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you for all of theses words here, Fr. Stephen! There is much to meditate on — plus I really like the meditation and encouragement to examine all aspects of the meditation contained in this blog post. I also appreciate your comment at the end concerning “relationship” and know that God is Love and is assisting you as you offer us encouragement in Christ. Glory to God for All Things. I will be sharing your article link on Facebook and with many friends who are not engaging in Facebook.

  14. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee, your comment reminded me well of Colossians 1:17, “in Christ all things hold together.” The illusion of separateness is dispelled in Christ. Our faith teaches that in the person of Jesus it is revealed that God has become incarnate as us – that God’s life and our life are one life. And this one life is Christ’s life. We begin to realize that although I am not God, I am not other than God either; although I am not my neighbor, I’m not other than my neighbor either; although I am not the earth, I am not other than the earth either. Christ is all and in all, as St Paul says in another place.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    No doubt we underestimate our bondage and futility – and seek to normalize our condition.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I haven’t found the language in the Holy Week liturgy to differ from that in the New Testament. It is not where my mind goes during Holy Week.

  17. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    God has become incarnate as us. We are not God, but neither are we other than God.

    You’ve said so much with so few words. I really appreciate this.

  18. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Simon,

    My mind went in a similar direction. When Adam is first introduced to Eve, he says:

    “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

    After they eat the fruit, however, they become self-conscious and don’t want their nakedness exposed to the other. And Adam says:

    “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

    Adam’s attitude toward Eve has gone from their being of the same flesh and bone to seeing her as something the Lord gave him (a separate individual).

  19. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Simon said:

    “No doubt we underestimate our bondage and futility – and seek to normalize our condition.”

    Agreed. I struggle with this all the time. I think I am doing O.K. spiritually speaking, that I am finally at a place of maturity, that I don´t need to think about sin or the passions anymore. It´s like I am attempting to normalize my condition.

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    or to ignore altogether my condition …

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Reflecting on my comment in the previous thread, I realize that the word fellowship is used in Bible translations to mean communion. Yet the English translation falls far short of the ontological depth that is contained in the Orthodox meaning.

    I used the word fellowship to describe my sensitivity and concerns in common with another commentator, Matthew. However as you rightly point out, there and here, true communion among us is contingent on the presence of God, on Love, and certainly not based on opinions or judgment of others.

    I do have a bug in my bonnet with regard to Protestantism. I acknowledge also that the truest path to come into communion in Christ in Orthodox worship, is not through being against other confessions but to seek Life and Love of neighbor and enemy in Christ.

    I ask for forgiveness.

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    You speak of theosis without mentioning it directly—but in poetic terms.

    Thank you for this.

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon and Dee,
    Thanks for your feedback. I claim no originality. These are things I’ve heard said elsewhere by those more insighful than myself. But count me as one of those who see theosis as the heart of the gospel – Christ’s perpetual invitation to share his divine oneness with the Father.

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen, I think you are right. Theosis is the heart of the gospel.

    Lately, I find myself using theosis and hypostatization interchangeably. In fact, the concept of hypostasis has become something of an interpretive apparatus for me. For example, I see communion as fundamentally hypostatic. The psychological sense of the word “communion” entails a phenomenology. But, the hypostatic sense of communion is an ontology. The first is an appearance the second an essence. Thinking about the Cross, Christ didn’t come to give life that doesn’t end (limitless temporal continuity). He came to reveal eternal life and eternal life is full hypostatic Being.

    I have been meditating on 1 John 1:2 (NRSV) “this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.”

    We can speak using all manner of metaphors “growth”, “journey”, “revelation”, etc. But, I wonder if the totality of the end doesn’t already exist as hidden and what we experience at the level of psychological awareness is the very tip of a ‘revelation being revealed’.

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Mark, I like that a lot!

  26. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon, I agree, and I think that beautiful passage is about realizing our true nature as God’s children. “This life was revealed” in us, and as us, as it flows from the Father in Christ as the new Man. The old man, Adam, is the ignorant false self who lives in the fear of death (separation). In this way, the point of human life is to “wake up, rise from the dead,” and let Christ illumine you. In Christ, the true human being, it’s our nature to shine.

  27. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen, I really like how you put things. I also like how the emphasis you place on ‘as us.’ As in ‘God has become incarnate as us‘ and ‘This life was revealed in us, and as us.’ That ‘as us’–just those two words–contains so much of the faith. When you lose the “as us,” then the Christian message collapses back into a theology of sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god. Without that particular communion syntax the gospel will be assumed and interpreted within a reductionist paradigm and, unsurprisingly, misunderstood at its core.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not to put a damper on everyone’s enthusiasm ( the breath of the Spirit), but Theosis is not easy, cheap and most will not reach it. We can always hope for it because God is with us but, I was received into the Church in 1986 and I am just beginning to learn repentance–often for falling back into the same sins I first confessed then. At least no new ones yet.
    I have a friend, somewhat older who is a Hieromonk who is somewhat more advanced I think the word I have always associated with him is Joy.

    May our good God bless us all with His Joy and Mercy in abundance, unworthy though we may be. Forgive me, a sinner

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on each of us here.

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    I’m not sure how we judge “theosis.” Generally, I would suggest that (if we measure ourselves at all), we look at how we love our enemies (or do we even desire to). What God has accomplished in us is, for the greater part, hidden, and will not be revealed until the end. In the meantime, prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath (and theosis as well). So, do not dampen enthusiasm. Just get on with the struggle.

  30. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,

    What does it take to be saved? I heard somewhere on an Orthodox broadcast that the last thing that the thief stole was his salvation. That’s a really interesting way of thinking about the thief and his plea to Christ. Was the thief taking the easy way out? How much ascetic effort did the thief expend? But, we’re not thieves hanging on a cross next to Jesus waiting to die any second are we? Or…are we? I personally think about my faith from a moment to moment, day to day basis. What has God willed for me this day? Well, evidently he wills that I remain unemployed placing stress on my marriage and family (that’s not easy). He wills that my son suffer for the mistakes of his father (that’s not easy). He wills that my health shows continued signs of heart failure (that’s not easy). He wills that I continue to struggle with a personality disorganized by C-PTSD (that’s not easy). What I am saying is this: Life is hard enough on its own. Why does God have to make it harder by making salvation so far out of reach only a few would get there? So, everyday, at every moment perhaps all we can do is mindfully remember the plea of the thief “Remember me…” and then we do what we have to do.

    Why does it have to be harder than that? If I have completely misunderstood you, Michael, then, please, forgive me.

  31. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,

    In Holy Week the Church sings:

    The Wise Thief,
    You made worthy
    of Paradise
    in a single moment, O Lord.
    By the wood of the Cross
    illumine me as well
    and save me,
    and save me.

    It echoes your question with the answer – that, “yes, it is that easy.” What we too easily overlook is that the whole of his very messy life, the thief was journeying to that moment. May we all make such a journey.

  32. Robert Avatar
    Robert

    The wife and I are currently reading together a lovely little book by Graham Pardun called ‘Sunlillies.’ He’s a crunchy Orthodox poet and explored these themes quite beautifully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!


Latest Comments

  1. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’. The sins of others that I see often remain unacknowledged and…

  2. Anonymous, “These things are a victory in my opinion, but I have cautioned him specifically with regards to the church…

  3. Carlos … your latest comments do my soul good! Thanks again. Thanks everyone else too! Fr. Stephen, I agree with…

  4. That’s so true Michael. I think of Jesus taking the disciples across a fearsome stormy Sea of Galilee (seasoned fishermen,…


Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast



Categories


Archives