Care for the Soul

This article first appeared in 2015. It seems very apropos to our present moment. Glory to God for all things.

I do not understand Zombies. When I was a child, Zombie movies were virtually non-existent. The word referred to something like a Golem in Jewish thought – a creature without a soul. It is properly a frightening thing – for that which we think of as the soul, is also the seat of compassion and kindness. A creature without a soul would be driven by something other – which can only be dangerous for everything and everyone around them. A Golem cannot be reasoned with or appealed to. Like a Zombie, it can only be killed.

So what is this soul, this something that makes us not a Zombie or a Golem?

A man is walking down the hallway in his home. A spider suddenly darts out from under some furniture. Without a thought, the man instinctively steps on it. For the man, the action is nothing more than a reflex, like scratching an itch. For the spider, it is the end of the world. Of course, we think of other human beings with greater regard than a spider. Killing another human being is murder. But sometimes, the unthinkable occurs, and a mass-murderer goes on a killing rampage, randomly shooting children or adults, until, exhausted, he ends his own life, or his life is ended for him. We use phrases such as “killing rampage” that sound like a fit of anger. Such rages have been described as far back as Homer, and somehow make tragic sense for us. But we are also realizing that there is a new phenomenon – not a rampage – but an exercise in existential meaninglessness. The killing takes place without anger or words, but mindlessly, like stepping on a spider. Soul-less actions?

Modernity holds that we do not have a soul. And, in other terms, it holds that we do not have a nature. Human beings are a collection of choices and decisions. We can be whatever we want to be, or whatever makes us happy. Of course, such decisions may involve other human beings so that we engage in contractual relationships, negotiating our mutual happiness. If I don’t kill you, you agree not to kill me. I want what you make, so I agree to pay you what you ask. You want someone to make your widgets, so I agree to work for you in the widget factory. We call this negotiated world the “market.” There we buy and sell our happiness, hoping that the market remains in an upward mood.

But is there such a thing as the soul? Where do we find it?

The soul cannot be observed like the liver or the heart. It is a quality that makes the brain more than a biological calculator. In the Scriptures, it is pretty much synonymous with “life.” But this is rooted in a world-view that understands a person’s life to be more than mere biology and instinct. Modern people may have difficulty agreeing that there is such a thing as the soul, but they would not want to be locked in a room with someone who does not have what the tradition calls “the soul.” And those who deny the soul’s existence may very well discover that they have locked themselves in just such a room.

A primary care for the soul in human history is the telling of stories – not just any stories – but soul stories. I have coined this phrase to help us think about myths. Many modern people think that ancient myths are stories that were told in an attempt to explain a universe that was not understood. And so we think that now that we understand everything, we have no more need for such stories. But myths are not stories of “how?” They are stories of “Why?” and “What does it mean?” and “How should I live?” The answer to such questions is found in the formative stories of every culture.

When Plato described his ideal society in The Republic, he required children to learn to play musical instruments and described it as a requirement of the soul. The soul requires beauty. The soul requires poetry and song. It requires the capacity to live and not merely consume.

A deep failure of modernity is its jettisoning of soul stories. Contemporary music is simply insufficient for the soul. The result can be a struggle for the life of the soul – to exist without being swallowed whole by the consumption that surrounds us. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

The stories of the Christian faith are soul stories. CS Lewis described the gospel as a myth, with the distinction of actually having happened. It is incumbent on Christians in the modern world to be sure that what they offer is the full meat of the Christian tradition and not merely another form of fast food.

Of course, there are other stories. The fathers of the Church did not dismiss the myths of the non-Christians around them. The simple fact is that every shred of knowledge that we possess today about the pre-Christian stories of Greece and Rome exist because Christians preserved them. There are currents within our culture that would largely jettison the study of classical literature, including what was once known as the “canon of literature.” The drive to elevate current political and social understanding over every previous understanding has made it common to neglect important stories for adolescent fiction and the like.

The contemporary landscape argues that we have been making disastrous decisions for several generations. Some are making a case that we have entered a cultural dark age. This judgment is perhaps too pessimistic, but it is not without merit. But it also makes the strong case that Christians need to sing. They need to paint and tell stories. They need to build beautiful temples and adorn them with lives of sacrifice and kindness. They need to nurture the life of the soul, both within themselves and within their children. And make no mistake, they need to sing rather than just listen to songs. They need to speak careful words with great intention rather than just hear them.

My soul, my soul arise!

Photo: My grandson working on my soul.

Here is a contemporary treat, a Kyrie written by Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, a great soul. The Lord’s song is still being sung. Sing along.




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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61 responses to “Care for the Soul”

  1. Nicola Avatar

    Yes. I can see this is true. But we lose soul because we run from that which pained us. We cut it off, not realising it’s still there until we face it. Our true self is crying and calling, but we ignore it and make a new one, based on what we think will keep us safe. By losing soul we have lost ‘true self,’ instead we invent ourself into what we think pleases others. And keep us ‘alive,’ when in fact it’s killing us. Because inside we are empty, because we are not living in truth with who we are. We avoid feelings. Is it any wonder we are a ship in a storm re-acting in all ways, but with no longer the anchor that we KNOW keeps us safe? The anchor being a deep, known love of Who we are and Who God is. The anchor safe means no matter the storm I know whatever happens love is for me. And with me. And in me. And that death cannot separate that. But without that anchor I am ultimately like a golem. I do not know myself. I have no anchor and the terror of the waves makes me respond out of what is not helpful; the need to be afraid of my death. I must do all I can to avoid such. Even to the extent of hurting others. That’s what we are seeing. A terror of the world because of a lack of knowing who we are in it. All we see is the death, but without the anchor that holds us and guide us through death into life. So we do not see the ‘North Star,’ but the tomb, black and terrifying, not knowing that we are loved and it’s a new start, but a fear of endings. All endings. And a fight (ridiculously enough!) to the death to keep avoiding them! How does this change? By knowing we are loved, in our deepest soul, in those painest of pain places we avoid, because we think we are not loved there, but we find, when we face it, that we are truly loved there, and that in actual fact, it is there our life begins.

  2. Anne Avatar

    I appreciate what you wrote. It’s inspiring. I am looking for a home church and I love walking into one of our churches and hearing all the beautiful music, seeing all the icons, the priest, the readers, and most important then all I get to recieve his body and blood the most needful so I can experience beauty. With him I’m nothing. Please pray for me to settle down soon. I’m on the coast in Brookings oregon where 30 orthodox people want to start a church.

  3. David E. Rockett Avatar
    David E. Rockett

    fine article Father…but I must confess the Kirie song at the end made the point far better. Our choir sang this a few yrs ago…almost too fully of beauty to keep singing. Lord have mercy

  4. Randall Herman Avatar
    Randall Herman

    I see this problem of ridding ourselves of soul stories infecting everything. As a former Lutheran pastor I find the move to contemporary worship a jettisoning of the soul story; one of the ‘reasons’ I moved into the Orthodox Church.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    May God give you grace!

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It made the point – as a song – and music is the true sound of the soul. Nonetheless, a bit of prose is of use for “rational sheep.”

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My parish had its annual “Big Dinner” recently. My part has long been to give guided tours of our Sanctuary and the icons we have. The word most used by those on the tours I gave as “Beautiful!” It was said both in awe and joy. Often the people wanted to articulate more, but most were unable to do so.

    The icons that seemed to get the most response were the icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos is the moments mention in Holy Scripture.

    In the past, I would occasionally get a Protestant wondering where the Scripture was, but with the fairly recent addition of the Mary icons, there was none of that this year.

    Awe. Beauty, Joy.

    These are attributes of the soul are they not?

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes. They are aspects of the soul – and evidence that we actually have a soul.

  9. Janine Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Beautiful essay, and inspiring. I really do believe in beauty. Since I was a child, I needed it desperately as a refuge at times, “as a deer pants for water brooks.” And the same is true of stories, good and true stories.

    Lately, I realize that our lives are filled with stories all the time. I don’t think we can function without them. When we sleep, we dream stories, whether we’re aware or not. We tell ourselves stories about our lives and what we’re doing. The proliferation of things to watch constantly on our various screens shows how we need stories.

    I’m going to try to follow your admonition to create beauty. It reminds me that doing so is a way to honor the Theotokos, and to follow the command to fill the world with life. Tending a garden is another wsy to do that too.

    Michael your stories about the icons remind me of a eautiful garden, esp of the Theotokos!

    I don’t know what to make of it when others don’t care about these things.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of my favorite songs of the soul.

    A bit of history: the singer, Paul Robeson was the first American black actor to play Othello, he had a feature song in the musical Showboat and many other accolades. When I sing the song, I cannot sing it without connecting to him and singing it with him.

    God’s mercy be upon us.

  11. Janine Avatar

    Michael, thanks. I love his version of “Going Home”

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, what a wonderful. You are one of the few people I have run across that knows him…a blessing

  13. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, I have kids the age your of grandson. They work on my soul constantly. It’s a beautiful gift.

  14. Shawn Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. As someone who has only begun awakening from modernity, I often feel that my soul is famished and starving for nourishment. I forgot who said it, but I recall a quote that was something to the affect that today’s challenge for the mind is more like irrigating deserts rather than clearing paths through the jungle.
    In my young journey, I have found that being able to see the emptiness of modernity is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you can better articulate the malaise you’ve lived with most of your life. You can stand against many of its claims and the impulses you feel. On the other hand, you see it all around you. You see society at large still held captive, including many of your loved ones. Having eyes that see can sometimes add to the malaise!
    In addition to what you have discussed here, I’m curious where else you might direct a non-orthodox Christian such as myself for nourishment?

  15. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Regarding your article, I think of how the soul can
    “seep out” at times before one’s death. My wife had a pastor brother. In the last year of her mom’s life she did not speak. She had suffered from dementia during years leading up to this. Yet when her daughter played tapes of her son preaching, tears would begin flowing down her
    I’ve heard of priests entering rooms of folks supposedly in comas. But when the priest would begin the Lord’s Prayer their lips would move reciting along with him. As you’ve written before about conditions such as these, the person is still there, the spirit or soul…though the mind be fading.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I remember a young man in my congregation who was preparing to go to seminary. He asked our archbishop what he should be reading while he waited out his year before going. The Bishop said, “Don’t read theology. Read good literature.” I would encourage that – good things – things that direct you to the heart, to beauty, to truth, to goodness. Do things that feed the heart – good music – good art, etc. If sometimes, in doing such things, it becomes piercingly poignant (in contrast to the emptiness of our culture), then remember to stop and pray for the world.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I have seen many such things in ministering to the dying.

  18. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    As someone recent to Orthodoxy, I agree with Father Stephen about good literature (including poetry), art, and music. Getting out into nature. Reading the Bible, especially the words of Christ. All those things served my soul well pre-converting.

    Also, avoid the bad stuff. When our souls are hungry and thirsty and haven’t found good nourishment, they’ll settle for nourishment that harms us and can even condition us to think that it’s a proper diet. I used to pooh-pooh this idea and think I was too “sophisticated.” Modernity very much endorses being broad-minded such that to be narrow in one’s tastes is seen as a universal defect.

    If we compare it to bodily nutrition, however, maturity recognizes that some food should be eaten sparingly, if at all.

  19. Matthew Avatar

    Forgive me everyone, but I´m still not getting this.

    So … I should feed my soul with beauty but in order to experience God´s eternal beauty I must have a heart of repentance, recognize my sinfulness, die to the passions, and as St. Sophrony suggests in his book “On Prayer” I must even hate myself in the interest of dying to myself.

    I find this path to be very unhelpful and extremely unhealthy. Hate your self in the pursuit of beauty?? I´m just beginning to take real responsibility for myself through psychotherapy which emphasizes caring for myself and pressing into my innate goodness. My therapist knows I am a Christian (she is not) and asked me if my faith provided support for me during the dark times of mental illness. I told her I have a inner struggle going on with my faith; a fight between God´s love and then all the guilt and shame that so characterizes much of Christendom. I´m not saying Orthodoxy is like what I describe as I am still learning much about the Church.

    Thanks for your continued patience as my journey continues.

  20. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, what a wonderful question. I am no therapist. Thank God for those who are. I would only say that Christian anthropology discerns a true and false self. The false must “die” – be converted and changed in repentance – so that the true self may shine with its innate goodness. In other words, there is a limited psychological layer covering the inherent image of God in us, an “I” that consistently misses the mark because of its self-seeking nature. Jesus urges his disciples to take up the cross and put this narrow, false self to death. What the disciple finds, if he follows Jesus to the cross, is a buried treasure within, a kingdom of light, Christ in you the hope of glory. I hope that helps. Fr. Stephen can answer this much better than I can, especially regarding guilt shame.

  21. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Owen. Well … the way you are describing things sounds much better, but I am still finding St. Sophrony´s book disturbing and disheartening. He says, and I quote:

    “Every creature having reason swings between two extremes – between love for God to the point of self-hatred and love of self to the point of hatred for God.”

    Why must so much in Christendom be so black and white? I hate neither myself nor God. I want to love myself and ALSO love God. To me this seems to be a much healthier path of salvation. All this sin and hatred talk only makes me feel terrible. It´s no wonder Luther nearly went crazy! God loves me and I love God + myself. Yes … there are times when I need to repent of straying from God´s love, but a near total posture of constant repentance in order to experience God´s beauty so that my soul is adequately cared for … well … I have theological, spiritual, and practical problems with this. St. Sophrony also talks about the need to reflect and meditate on hell in order to experience the kingdom of God. This is madness in my mind … sorry!

  22. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, just to add one more thing: the false self is a mental construct. I wasn’t clear about that above. It interprets the person as separate from God, other people, and the world around us. But this is an illusion, one that leads to all manner of self serving and competitive thoughts and actions. The true self exists beyond the mental construct of “this is who I am as a separate self.” Thus the true self is pre-conceptual. Beauty Itself cannot be accessed by discursive means. For me, the Jesus prayer has been a blessed means to quiet the mental chatter and begin to access the joy of divine awareness, to return to the center and abide in Christ. Beauty illuminates this path of return because it resonates with our essential nature. Again, I hope that helps.

  23. Matthew Avatar

    Thank you again Owen. I appreciate the time you (and others) are investing in these responses. I get and like what you are saying, but the problem I am having is the way of dying to what you call the false self; the way of experiencing the beauty of God which destroys this false self and unveils the true, innate goodness in us where Christ resides. Why must I meditate on hell and concentrate on my unworthiness in order for this transformation to take place? As I have said more than a few times, it seems so unhealthy and also foreign to how I understand and experience God in Jesus Christ.

  24. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, I just saw your follow-up comment. I love to hear your heart, brother, and am sorry for your struggles. I get what you’re saying, in that “hate” language can be problematic. I personally don’t use it, although I know it has a long standing in the tradition. Maybe some of the other commenters will have better insights than me. I do not want to hog the thread 🙂

  25. Matthew Avatar

    O.K. Owen. Thanks again! 🙂

  26. Anne Avatar

    It’s all a bit too confusing for me personally. I decided to move near the ocean and I do my prayer rope there. I hope to find peace and I find it when I take communion. We have a loving God. I hope I’m not too shallow here.
    With much love Anne big hug

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    One problem, forgive me, is that you’re taking a self-directed approach to Orthodox thought and it’s creating roadblocks for you. St. Sophrony, for example, is writing in a mode of language that is quite typical in monasticism. Jesus Himself said, “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) It’s hard to fault a monastic for employing the words of Jesus Himself. But, of course, we have to properly understand Christ’s words and learn to ponder them rightly.

    When I run across things that trouble me or confuse me (and I still do), I lay them aside and move on. At present, you’re reading very meaty books that speak of things that are well-beyond your present experience and understanding. You need to lay them aside, go slower, and relax a bit. St. Sophrony, for example, was about as sane a human being as I’ve ever heard of. I’ve met many of his disciples, monastics who knew him, lived with him, and were formed by his teachings. They are among the most sane and whole individuals I’ve ever encountered. If reading him is making you crazy, then put it down. Do your therapy. There will be a time for Sophrony – be patient.

    I don’t know your present circumstances but I’ll offer this word: Orthodoxy is not in books (it’s not even in blogs). It’s primarily in the parish and the sacraments. Books cannot substitute for that. We cannot eat ink and paper (or digits).

    Generally, for example, when someone becomes a catechumen, their priest will guide their reading for a while. He’ll recommend a pattern of prayer. He’ll consult with them on how things are going. If their in therapy, for example, he’ll take that into consideration and try to be helpful as they heal.

    Religion (and theology) are power things. There are many ultimate ideas involved – the nature of the self, of God, of human relations, etc. These things also touch on issues within therapy. Self-therapy is not a good idea. Neither is self-theology.

    But, for the time being, the simple rule of laying something aside when it is unhelpful is useful. Read simple stuff. Pay attention to physical health and diet. Get lots of sleep. In college, I once took a 3 month “vacation” from even thinking about God. I prayed and told Him what I was doing and asked for His help – but I had to quit thinking for a while. It helped a lot. At the same time, I went to Church, took communion, but I eased up on theology.

    Addendum: Our modern daily language (and therefore a lot of our thoughts about ourselves and the world) is pretty-much an oversimplified take on our humanity and psyche. We have reduced ourselves to consumers and centers of pleasure. American thought declares the “pursuit of happiness” to be supreme (and our present day understanding of that phrase is not what it originally meant). We are sick, and we need medicine. Orthodoxy represents a far more complex and nuanced understanding of what it is to be human. I believe it is true – rooted in the teachings of Christ and nurtured by 2,000 years of living experience and reflection. It’s difficult, however, to take modern language and Protestant ideas, and digest mature Orthodox writing. One of the things I try to do on the blog is to “translate” Orthodox thought for modern readers – a little bit at a time.

    Modern man, strangely, “hates” his life – and is constantly trying to buy things, to do things, to think things, to fix it. We pretty much never just live it. But it’s a misguided hate. Our emotions are disordered. There’s a phrase used in AA that is useful: “Easy does it.”

  28. Matthew Avatar

    There was a song that had the lyrics … “Slow down, you move fast, gotta let the morning last.”

    Maybe that´s what I need to do. Thanks Fr. Stephen.

  29. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “Feeling Groovy”–Simon & Garfunkel 🙂

  30. Matthew Avatar

    I should say there “is” a song that “has” the lyrics … 🙂

  31. Matthew Avatar

    @Mark: 🙂

  32. Shawn Avatar

    Thanks to everyone for their response. It is truly encouraging and a good reminder that I needed to hear. Would you be willing to recommend one or two good pieces of literature? Maybe good for beginners. I have been reading more as of late, Lewis and Tolkein for example. I do know that I’m probably not ready for more meaty works. Any who, I’m certainly open to recommendations. Thanks again!

  33. Matthew Avatar


    The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein 🙂

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Mysterious Stranger–Mark Twain

  35. Simon Avatar

    Owen, there is something in the quality of your comments that I find deeply appealing. I would be interested in talking with you outside the blog, if you’re interested.

    Why must I meditate on hell and concentrate on my unworthiness in order for this transformation to take place? As I have said more than a few times, it seems so unhealthy and also foreign to how I understand and experience God in Jesus Christ.

    Hi, Matthew. I want to let you know that I am deeply sympathetic to the frustration you are feeling. I felt it to the first time I started reading Fr. Sophrony’s book. I use a color coding system to underline passages in books I read and notes in the margins to remind myself what I was thinking when I highlighted certain passages. I use red to indicate passages that I find strong disagreement with. And let me tell to you, brother, there’s a lot of red in my copy of that book. There is no other book in my library with more red underlining than that book. I had to quit reading it because it made me mad all the time. I have since returned to reading the book and I am telling you the truth there are many comments in the margins that feel like someone else wrote them and not me. Now I am getting much, much more from Fr. Sophrony.

    Why did I experience so much hostility to Fr. Sophrony on my first pass? Here are a few thoughts about my experience. I am sharing these thoughts hoping that something may be of use. If not, then just ignore what I am saying.

    First, as someone struggling with C-PTSD I have very sensitive triggers to language that rhymes with the comments my father used when he abused me. What I suspect is that if my experience is typical then monastics are rich in language that would be triggering to people who struggle with trauma. What I can say is that if you can be patient with yourself and focus on things that inspire you I am confident that your perspective will change. To be clear, I am not implying that you are suffering from trauma. This is just my experience. I set aside anything that punches my buttons and I just move on.

    Second, monastics have a very exaggerated experience. They join the monastery in order to devote themselves to Christ in ways that 99% of us would never have the opportunity to do. I take some comfort that over 2000 years of monastic experience has not seen fit to remove that language which tells me that there’s something in that language that has pragmatic value at some level. I have no desire to be a monastic. I want to be a father to my son and I would never say to my son some of the things I read from monastics. It would be entirely inappropriate to do so. But, in a monastic setting those things are probably necessary, even vital. Evidently it works because the Buddhist monks are just as bad. I take the weakness to be my own, set aside anything that punches my buttons and I just move on.

    Lastly, Fr.’s Stephen’s comments about Orthodoxy is not in books is really spot on. Never before in history could people print and read books as easily as we can today. That has pros and cons when it comes to spiritual development. In the past spiritual development occurred in communities composed of families. Families that had known each other for generations, suffered through epidemics of cholera and plague, worked in the same fields, raised each others children, shared the same bath water, lived and died together. Today we are like pod people living in hyper-sterilized environments. In other words, the community of families (parish) in which saturated spiritual development for centuries is all but extinct in West. We need fewer books and more actual relationships composed of families.

    I wish you the best, brother.

  36. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Just an example of natural beauty nourishing my soul…
    We are having something of an autumn windstorm in Wake Forest, NC. The trees are bent over under the wind, showers of bright yellow leaves filling the air. It’s cold and sunny and beautiful. The sight made me think of a quote I heard recently by Thomas Merton: “Do I even have a life anymore? I’m blown down the street like leaves scattered in all directions.” I think his point is about finding our truest identity beyond having, beyond clinging to, protecting, or defending the cherished individual identity – “a life” – we think we should have. There’s freedom in letting go, like the leaves do, finding our identity in Christ. Whatever Merton’s meaning was, what strikes me was the fact of seeing a metaphorical meaning in nature that describes who I am. Something about that leaf storm reveals my truest identity – not the false identity I often assume at work, at church, in the home, etc. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who talked about the longing to be joined with the beauties of the natural world. That longing exists, I think, because at the essential ground of our being we are already joined. But our constructed and conditioned identities act to psychologically separate us…
    Now I’m going back outside!

  37. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Shawn,

    Things that are still being read or enjoyed a long time after they’ve been written usually have something worthwhile in them, so classics you might have missed (Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, etc.) are good when at a loss. This time of year and if you’ve never read it, A Christmas Carol in the original Dickens haha. Great Expectations and David Copperfield are long but worth it. Jane Eyre is a fantastic book.

    Since you are reading Lewis and Tolkien, you might like George MacDonald, who influenced them (I’ve not been able to get into MacDonald, after two serious attempts, but I intend to keep trying).

    Dostoevsky always comes up on this blog, but most would disqualify him when you specify “for beginners.” Chekhov’s short stories are things of beauty. I also like Joyce’s “Dubliners” as of more value (IMO) than all his novels put together.

    Going back to fantasy, several works use the Arthurian legends successfully (Mary Stewart’s, TH White’s, and I very much liked Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex). Mythology in general.

    Walker Percy is a more idiosyncratic choice. Graham Greene’s best novels struggle with questions of faith, and the prose is superb, although Greene seems to have been a pretty unpleasant individual.His conclusions are not necessarily Christian, and my recommendation comes more from his ability to get at the human heart and just write beautifully. Recent Nobel prize winner Ishiguro’s writing connects with me.

    Except for Dostoevsky, I don’t think any of what I’ve listed would be considered “Orthodox” reading, which most here would be better qualified to suggest. They are works that I’m glad I’ve read and try to fit the criteria you provide. Shakespeare, the Romantic Poets, Yeats, Blake…just good stuff for those times that Father Stephen’s describes of not wanting to read theology!

    If you prefer less challenging fare than the classic novels, young adult works are also good starters. I didn’t enjoy a recent foray into Madeline L’Engle, but it might be I’m just too old. She is certainly “wholesome,” however. The first couple of books in The Little House series, especially if you have kids that you want to read to.

    My wife and I always read to our children, and it’s a practice I recommend without reservation.

    Good hunting!

  38. Simon Avatar

    The passage from John 6 comes to mind. Jesus went on at length saying “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” And many of the disciples were asking each other, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Jesus went on talking more about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And the disciples again asked themselves, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” Jesus asked “Does this offend you?” And then Jesus double downed and went right on talking more about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He did this until finally “From that time on many of His disciples went home and walked with Him no more.” And so Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” And the disciples replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    So this experience of being offended is nothing new. As Fr. Stephen says be patient.

  39. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Shawn, one of the wonders of our age is the audiobook. You may know this, but if you have a valid email address, audible offers a free trial. Anyway, if you take this approach, I have found the secret to be pairing excellent literature with outstanding narration. A few of my favorites are:
    Don Quixote translated by Edith Grossman, narrated by George Guidall
    Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, nar. Brian Nishi
    Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, nar. Linda Stephens
    Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, nar. James Anderson Foster
    The Brothers Karamazov translated by David McDuff, nar. Luke Thompson
    The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov, nar. Michael Page
    Anna Karenina, Maude translation, nar. David Horovich
    Happy reading!

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    At the risk of plugging my own book:

    The journey into the true self, for me, was also the occasion for discovering the place of shame in my own life, as well as its place in the spiritual life (in both its forms: healthy shame and toxic shame). Healthy shame has a primary and essential role in humility (the Mother of all virtues), in worship (awe and wonder are impossible without healthy shame), and in many other aspects as well. Toxic shame makes healthy shame difficult and requires healing. The results of about 10 years’ worth of reading, prayer, consulting, and personal work (both spiritual and therapeutic) is framed in my book, Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame. It’s intended as a resource but is not a how-to or self-help work.

    I think I was surprised to discover how vital healthy shame was to things like the perception of beauty and such. The experience of beauty that “takes your breath away,” for example, is all too rare – and often because we have hardened our heart to such things (avoiding the pain of shame – even healthy shame). Children do all of this some much easier – spending time with my local grandsons is a way to see the world through their wondering eyes, to remember beauty and the innocence that doesn’t mind being young and inexperienced and constantly surprised.

    Children are spiritual gurus if you know how to listen to them.

  41. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon, please feel free to reach out anytime: robertowenkelly at gmail dot com

  42. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    You mentioned George Guidall. If you’ve not listened to his reading of “Crime and Punishment,” it might be the best audiobook I’ve ever come across.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I have never been a great reader of books on the Church and life in her. Other than Kallistos Ware’s books. I have always relied on participation.
    I love giving people a tour of my parish. We have lots of extraordinary icons but the number is not the key. The key is looking and listening. I am blessed to know personally many fine exemplars of the Orthodox faith. Fr. Moses Berry for instance. You can find him many places on the web. If you are anywhere near Wichita, Ks I would be honored to show you around.

    To me the quintessential Christian prayer is: “Lord, have mercy.” The full version being the Jesus Prayer but it took me being in the Church for over 30 years before I could begin really praying that.

    May His mercy lead you.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, almost forgot the best book: Athanasius, “On the Incarnation” But it, too, requires discernment to understand well.

  45. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Mark, thanks for the recommendation. Guidall’s performance of Don Quixote is stellar as well. Sometimes there’s just a perfect chemistry between the voice performance and a work of literature. My wife and I are listening to Linda Stephens read Gone with the Wind right now. It’s one of those experiences where you say to yourself, man, she’s in the zone. Btw, I almost forgot Moby Dick read by Stewart Wills. That one is free on LibriVox, as many of these great classics are.

  46. Helen Avatar

    I think I can relate to having difficulty with some words. For me, they are often heavy in my soul from the dysfunctional ways well-meaning yet unhealthy people in authority in my life used them. Be gentle with your self and lean into the loving God if you can. I couldn’t trust that for a long time, but I have experienced his love and healing. And I found he loves me, personally me, not the person I think I’m supposed to be for him to love me.

  47. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, thank you for those words. My wife is reading your book right now. She was raised to Southern Baptist, then became Anglican for 5 years before we became Orthodox about 5 years ago. She loves the book. Being a stay-at-home homeschooling mom, she reads it in snatches. But I hear very good reports. Can’t wait to dig in myself. Thank you for your ministry.

  48. George Avatar

    A solace lament;
    A gentle breeze for guiding
    Leaves off winter trees

    Aglimmer with hope
    Oh a reminder are these
    Aglimmer with hope

    -Glory To God for all Things

  49. Janine Avatar

    Lots of good advice here. Thank you Father especially for your words a ways back about seeking the things that feed our souls, and taking time to pray when that gets tough. Wonderful.

    Lots of good advice to Matthew too. I’m touched that so many care very much.

    One of my most beloved priests once told me, “We have tools, not rules.” This is the thing to remember in Orthodoxy. That’s kind of another way of saying what Father said. If it’s unhelpful, put it aside. It’s possible later you will come to another understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I have come to another understanding of something I once found impossible.

    Paul Evdokimov once wrote (in I think “Ages of the Spiritual Life”) that we are not abstract beings. We can’t live 100% by rules, philosophies, abstracts. That’s why Father spoke of learning within the doing and the community. That’s why we still need to learn what the language means. (Like — my 2 cents — to “hate oneself” is really talking about dealing with our own habits and limitations of selfishness, self-centeredness, narcissism, and hanging onto the past; not hating the true person Christ calls us to become.) Faith has to be lived and fleshed out, and that goes for all the bumps along the way. This is the real deal. That’s how we learn. Our Bible is filled with people who had a whole lot of bumps along the way for a reason, because this is for real people, not abstract beings. Real people need kindness, because that is where sanity lies. Be glad you are real!

  50. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames


    Fr Stephen is right when he advises to lay something aside if it troubles you. I’m one of those who did a lot of reading on Orthodoxy, and I can confirm that notes in my books when I was coming into the Church 15 years ago are a lot different than the notes I make now! Have patience with yourself. It’s true that a person isn’t able to “get” Orthodoxy very well without being immersed in the prayer and liturgical life, but Fr Stephen’s blog was such a great help to me then, and continues to be.

    So, try saying just the Trisagion prayers; look them up on line. End with the Our Father. I don’t think there’s anything in those prayers that would bother your conscience as a Protestant. Keep it simple. Attend liturgy and/or vespers when you are able; if you’re not ready now, don’t worry, you don’t need to rush anything. God knows your heart.

    Finally, in Orthodoxy “repentance” isn’t about feeling guilty and trying to work up some kind of anguish about your sins that you think God might accept. It’s much more like the sense of both the Greek (“drop your agenda” is a translation I appreciate) combined with the Hebrew (“turn back”). As God helps you, simply do the best you can to keep turning toward Jesus. He loves you, and he will open the doors, including the doors of your understanding.


  51. Matthew Avatar

    Dana – Your word picture of repentance is beautiful. Thank you.

    Michael – Read it and love it! Thanks for the offer to tour your parish, however, I live in Germany and I don´t know when I will be in the U.S. again.

    Janine, Helen, Simon and Owen – Thanks too for all your thoughts and help. I greatly appreciate everything.

    Two big takeaways for me are: 1) Orthodoxy has to be lived and experienced in order to be rightly understood. 2) It is very difficult to understand Orthodoxy with the syntax of a modern world and a deeply Protestant theological vocabulary.

    Thanks again everyone. Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last …

  52. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    …feelin’ groovy…

  53. Matthew Avatar

    @Fr. Stephen — :-):-)

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, one of the points I received reading “On the Incarnation” was how radically different repentance became. It took me a long time for it to really sink in (years), but it did, in part, because I worship surrounded by icons. Especially More Spacious than the Heavens:

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Jesus, as “fully man” knows intimately “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to” (to radically reinterpret Hamlet’s famous lament).
    The Cross takes that knowledge (in the deepest meaning of that word) and raises it to an entirely different level. To a certain extent when we partake of the Sacrament of Confession, we participate in the Crucifixion AND when the priest says: “Arise, having no further care for the sins you have confessed”, we participate in the Resurrection on a small scale.

  56. MollyT Avatar

    A word from the peanut gallery re: audiobooks:

    It’s possible that your local library has them to rent out digitally as well. Though I much prefer reading to listening (except when I’m driving, of course!) I absolutely loved Martin Jarvis’ reading of “Great Expectations.”

    Andy Serkis’ reading of “The Lord of the Rings,” is riveting too, in my opinion, though my library loan expired on that one before I was able to listen to even a quarter of it.

  57. S. Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Zombies are generally pure evil and become, like war, the perfect outlet and object for our every evil urge, maybe the best excuse EVER. We must work at killing, them, at night, (winning the right to snooze when the sun’s up?). To not kill them is to give humanity over to the oxymoron of living death. The Golem, on the other hand, was created to protect and save people, and animated by God’s name. That name had to be removed when it became a problem. Among other things, (such as a lesson in government), it’s a lesson in humility. Can read about here —>:

  58. Matthew Avatar

    Beautiful icon Michael! I pray with three icons daily. A small one I purchased in Poland (Jesus with a sheep around is neck), one my sister-in-law bought as a gift for me from Greece (the crucified Jesus with the Roman centurian looking upward at the cross), and a contemporary icon of the resurrection of Jesus created by a Ukranian artist. My prayer life has never been better!!

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, may our Lord live in your heart and reveal Himself to you as you are able to see.

  60. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Michael!

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