God and the Self – Dragons and The Treasuries of Grace


Beloved, we are children of God, and it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1John 3:2)

You are dead, and your life is hid in Christ in God. (Col. 3:3)

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it. (Lk. 17:33)

You have to live God, because God is life. – Fr. Roman Braga


There is a deep connection between God and the self within Christian understanding. Obviously, they are not the same thing, but we do not know one without the other. It is possible to say that we only know God to the extent that we know ourselves and that we only know ourselves to the extent that we know God.

To know yourself is an inner activity, made particularly difficult in an outer-directed culture. Though we live in the age of the “selfie,” we are, nonetheless, an age that is distracted from the true knowledge of the self. The “selfie” has nothing to do with self-knowledge and everything to do with an objectification of the self – how I would like myself to look if I were someone else. What the selfie never shows is how we truly perceive ourselves.

There is an experience of shame that surrounds the self (everybody’s self) that is simply unavoidable. Shame is associated with the inner sense that there is something wrong with “who I am.” It is acquired from experiences, mostly unavoidable, within life. And so, we never go very far within ourselves without encountering some level of pain and discomfort. There are parts of ourselves that we do not share and prefer to remain hidden. Often enough, the discomfort surrounding such things is great enough that we avoid confronting them ourselves.  It is the primary cause for our avoidance of inner awareness.

All of this means that the journey to knowing the self will inevitably require going into and through the shame that surrounds it. The true self should not be confused with the “shame-self.” They are not the same. The shame-self is who I am, defined by how I feel about myself, or that aspect of myself. The true self is beneath that and deeper. By the same token, God is beneath even the true self.

It is of note to me that there is a great darkness associated with God in some presentations of the Christian faith, enough to drive many people away. When I read or hear such presentations, I am inclined to believe that I am encountering someone who has not gone beneath the self of shame. Reading along in social media, you’ll encounter memes and such that proclaim, “He just needs a good kick in the pants!” or words to that effect. Such sentiments seem to be applied to parenting, social policy, theology, etc., as the occasion requires. They are words without compassion or understanding, marked primarily by violence and dismissal. They are the words of someone whose “inner critic” says the same miserable words to them all the time. They are words that have not been examined. There is an assumption that, if only we worked harder, tried more, didn’t quit, paid attention, etc. (such an endless list), we would be better (and, perhaps, we would like ourselves). It is the voice of the shame-self, disguised as responsibility, morality, authority or whatever.

Within the Tradition, and the Scriptures, the knowledge of God (and thus of the self), comes as revelation. It is hidden and must be made known. That which hides God is within us, not outside of us. It is the “pure in heart” who see God. This does not necessarily imply a sinlessness or perfection. Rather, it is a stillness that can see what truly is without turning away.

Fr. Roman Braga, who is quoted above, suffered in the Pitești prison camp in Romania, perhaps the worst such regime in history. He was in solitary confinement for three years. It was in that context, he says, that he “learned to pray.” His writings constantly affirm that God is “within us,” that within us is a vast, limitless universe. In such a setting, you either find the courage to enter within and discover the life that cannot be destroyed or go mad. Fr. Roman’s thoughts on the inner life are not unlike those of St. Macarius:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius (H.43.7)

Fr. Roman reminds people that St. Paul taught that our bodies are a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” a saying that has been tragically reduced to a moral exhortation. Rather, we should have this Psalm in mind:

One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple. (Ps 27:4)

To behold that beauty and to make such an inquiry requires that we also encounter lions and dragons, poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. Those who do not undertake this singular pilgrimage spend the whole of their lives without knowledge of God or the true self. They remain people of the surface, doomed to act out the puppetry dictated by the self of shame. Over time, it adds to the treasures of evil and gives birth to ever more dragons and lions. It is little wonder that we bite and devour one another in our public life.

But there, too, is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace – all things are there.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny 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.






79 responses to “God and the Self – Dragons and The Treasuries of Grace”

  1. Randy L Evans Avatar

    “They are the words of someone whose “inner critic” says the same miserable words to them all the time. They are words that have not been examined. There is an assumption that, if only we worked harder, tried more, didn’t quit, paid attention, etc. (such an endless list), we would be better (and, perhaps, we would like ourselves). It is the voice of the shame-self, disguised as responsibility, morality, authority or whatever.”

    If it wasn’t for Peter Bouteneff’s “How to be a Sinner,” I would be very tempted to believe that the above quote could apply to the majority of Orthodox monastic or ascetic writings. I often have thought that the inner thoughts and wrestlings with our healing and salvation written by such monks or ascetics were, perhaps, not meant at all for average Orthodox believers to try to read, let alone absorb and apply. Yes, the advice is “don’t read these unless guided by a good spiritual father or guide,” but how few of those there seem to be anymore, and faithful parish priests are usually way to busy with flocks much bigger than they were meant to pastor. Bouteneff clearly points out at the very beginning of his book how certain writings can be very destructive if taken at face value for some people. I think I’m one of them.

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Indeed. It’s a useful book. We live in an “information” culture – and we get too much information, at the wrong time, in the wrong manner, etc. without a lot of help in assimilating it. Blessings from one sinner to another.

  3. Randy L Evans Avatar

    Yes, thank the Lord. Bradshaw’s book, and many others including your articles and book on Shame … and the fact that I’m 76 in a couple of weeks have all combined to help me experience some healing and balance in my self awareness and relief from toxic shame. On my website I recently wrote an imaginary 2nd chapter to the Prodigal son where the father visits his son a couple of months after the wonderful welcome home and basically says “you know, your older brother wasn’t all wrong after all…”
    You might check it out for a silly diversion.

  4. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen … how far does one have to look before they come to the conclusion that they cannot truly be themselves without God?

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think it’s a matter of grace – which is to say, “I don’t know.” Here’s an interesting contrast from the Scriptures. The first is from the King James translation – the second is the Septuagint. The Hebrew is a bit ambiguous.

    NKJV: Jer. 17:9 ““The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV)

    LXX: “The heart is deep beyond all things, and it is the man, and who can know him?” (Jeremiah 17:9 LXX-B)

    I prefer the LXX. And it’s an answer to the question.

  6. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

    If we look deep enough inside will we find God? I know my religious past would say “no way!” … that looking inside stuff is for the new agers!

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Looking deep inside can also reveal the dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil…some of them wear disguises and pretend to be God. We can only make that inner journey by grace – and more than a little guidance is helpful. The gospel is a beginning – but even that was meant to be read in the Church. There are notable exceptions – again – the grace of God makes all things possible.

    In my own life, there have been dragons and such that I only faced in my later years. It can be a very long journey. The end of the journey is Christ.

  8. Matthew Avatar

    I suppose, ulimately, we must trust that those who are really seeking truth will be lead to Christ regardless of how deep or how far they look.

    Yes … the journey is very long … at least that has been my experience.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, the journey never ends. As The Chronicles of Narnia invites us to always “…come higher up! Come further in.”

    Life is not static so we are required in the the life of repentance and Grace to always go deeper. “Come, follow me” is the invitation.

    One of the most seductive fallacies of “The New Age” is that the quest ends at some point of spiritual perfection. No, our way is “the Cross, the Grave and the glorious third day Resurrection.”

    We are called to die daily. Mt 4:17 “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” is not static either.

    It is a paradox.

  10. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Michael.

  11. Michaela Avatar

    Beautiful read. I loved the nuance in this. Thank you.

  12. Holly Avatar

    Matthew — you’re right that most of the messaging in the west to “look inside” comes from the new age movement.

    I was just catching up on comments, and the quote by Chesterton shared by Fr. Freeman in the last post struck me:

    “The modern world is full of old Christian values gone mad.”

    I cannot think of a better way to describe it. The necessity of looking within and finding God is real, but doing so without true Christian guidance could be very harmful.

  13. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    On inner peace of the soul: Love thy enemies.

  14. Eric Kyte Avatar
    Eric Kyte

    Thank you Father Stephen and hello once more – I realised I hadn’t seen your writing of late and then remembered about your ‘relocation’

    Yes indeed to the stillness. I’m recently returned from a few days walking in the high mountains with my wife. The Stillness is Profound and So Welcoming it can terrify. We fled one mountain hut because of the noisy racket of other trampers (as we say here in NZ). They hadn’t connected to the Silence and almost seemed to hide away from it in cacophony. (A word which I suspect has unhealthy roots)

    Fasting from much ‘talk’ is a good Fast


  15. Matthew Avatar

    Dear Holly,

    How should a Christian look inside?

  16. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I couldn’t agree more about the centrality of repentance. For me, the greatest mystery of repentance lies in the reason Jesus gives for this “change of mind” – i.e. because “the kingdom of God is at hand.” I used to think this meant: God’s reign has arrived, so you better repent or you’re in trouble! I now see Jesus’ statement in terms of this article and the anthropology it describes.

    That is, God is the deepest ground of our being, more immanent then we can mentally grasp. This immanent God is directly creating our true self in the divine image. The bad news is that the “mind” has forgotten its true self and the God who creates and upholds it. We dwell in a land of delusion, characterized by a sense of separateness, resulting in all manner of selfishness, pride, and enmity toward other supposedly separate, individual selves.

    But Jesus calls us to “change our mind” and “die” to our delusions, for the kingdom of God is, in actuality, intimately present in all things. Such a radical change of mind through the Cross reopens the channels of love for God, neighbor, and all creation. For all things, if perceived truly, find their unity in Christ.

    Does this resonate with your view of repentance?

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Glad you found the new location! Tramping in New Zealand…what joy!

  18. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    This article raises several questions for me. In a really good way. It’s illuminating stuff!

    One question is: when St. Macarius speaks of “the heart,” he mentions both dragons, beasts and evil…as well as God, grace and the Kingdom. Do you think he is actually signifying two distinct layers/aspects of our being, while merely referring to the heart as a single reality? That is, don’t dragons belong to the false self, while the true self is inherently good?

  19. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    One other question:

    When we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” how does this relate to the depth of God’s immanence as the inner ground of the true self? Did the ancients locate God in or beyond the sky, “the heavens” (I believe the Greek literally says “in the heavens”)? If so, when we pray, “who art in heaven,” should we think of heaven as an inner reality? Sorry, I don’t know exactly how to ask this question.

    Thank you!

  20. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Good question. I think it’s possible to imagine this is several ways. St. Macarius says, “All things are there.” I believe that the deepest layer is the “true self.” But there’s a lot of dragons before you get there. I use the language of the false/true self – but it’s not really very patristic – it’s just an effort to communicate on a contemporary level.

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    First, the ancients were extremely sophisticated – more than we realize. Any educated man of the Roman Empire know that the earth was a sphere and that it was approximately 24000 miles in circumference, for example. They also knew that the starry sky was vast. “The heavens” would have been a description of a transcendent space, rather than a physical place. The Macarian tradition, especially, emphasized the inner space of the heart.

  22. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    That is helpful, Father. It sounds like transcendence is actually the same as immanence, but in the other direction, as it were. The deeper inside you go, the wider the horizon gets. Maybe this is where we get the idea, “it’s bigger on the inside.” Many thanks!

  23. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    On inner space:
    For better or worse, as a child I wanted a telescope for Christmas. I received a small junior microscope instead. (My father wanted me to go into the health sciences but I wanted to be an astronaut). The interesting thing was to learn how vast the inner space was. It did change my perspective which was what my father hoped for. But I never went into the health sciences. In some respects one could say I just couldn’t stop going deeper and deeper. Little did I know I was heading for Jesus.

  24. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Well said, Dee. As a Dad myself, that’s encouraging to hear.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, I am still working on a good reply to your question. The Kingdom of heaven is “at hand” because it is deep within: physically, mentally and spiritually. “Closer than hands and feet.”

    Quite easy to over complicate. Working with the Jesus Prayer is important and a good spiritual advisor.

    Fundamentally, I tend to think that The Kingdom of Heaven is the mercy seat.

    Easy to over complicate, I think.

  26. Richard Broadbent Avatar
    Richard Broadbent

    Fr. Stephen,

    Because shame is something that has infiltrated humanity, this sets into motion a relentless drive to compensate for how we perceive ourselves. Much like dyslexia or anorexia of the soul.
    Consequently the reflection that comes back to us is because of the trick mirror we’re looking into.

    We’re moved to free ourselves from these hideous inner birthmarks, we spend so much time, energy and money trying to cover externally something that has caused untold misery and depression.


  27. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks for the initial reply. I’d love to hear more. Especially about: “the Kingdom of Heaven is the mercy seat.”

  28. Holly Avatar


    I cannot offer a better answer than to rely on the Orthodox teachings, and Fr. Freeman’s reminder to cultivate some stillness in our lives.

    In my own life I try to do it by limiting my media consumption, setting aside time for prayer, and generally creating some space for my relationship with God. I remind myself often, that He is always there and always loving.

    I reserve the “looking within” to times and locations where I am safe. That means either at home, with my icons and candle, or at church. I think it is important not to try to “look within” while out and about in the world.

    One of the things I adore about Orthodox worship is it helps me engage my whole self in prayer. By standing and venerating, I am giving my body. By speaking prayers, I am giving my words. By opening my heart, I give up any thoughts — be they beautiful or ugly — to God.

    The new age distortion of looking within, often results in feeding pride. It gives the power to the self (as in self-help), rather than humbling the self.

    One example I might offer is fasting. Science affirms that intermittent fasting is “healthy”. The pursuit of fasting either out of fear of not being healthy or out of a desire to be a better self, is an act of self-interest. Whereas fasting in anticipation of a closer union with God, is an act of love. One feeds the ego/self, the other feeds the heart.

    There are many such nuggets of wisdom that seem to be missing from the western expression of Christianity but have popped up in our culture in other ways.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, I cannot offer much other than, as a Christian, the direction to, by effort and Grace, to overcome my natural hubris that leads to sin is an imperative. In Christ, we avoid the tragedy of the Gréeks.

  30. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks again, Michael. It’s a good reminder.

  31. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Holly. Very helpful indeed!

  32. Matthew Avatar

    I know I could in all likelihood Google this, but I would much rather interact with all of you!

    My wife comes from a Protestant family and here in Germany there are a lot of traditions associated with the Advent and Christmas (Nativity) season in her tradition. Special hymns and carols. Advent calendar, candles, and wreaths. Certain baked goods, etc.

    I think the Orthodox officially begin the Nativity season on November 15th and then fast until the 24th of December … is that correct and is that only in the Greek Orthodox Church? How do Orthodox families generally celebrate Advent and Christmas (Nativity)?

  33. Dianne in Indiana Avatar
    Dianne in Indiana

    Matthew, I came from the American Episcopal Church, through my English mother. I was raising three children there until I found Orthodoxy (OCA). My first comment to the Presbytera when she told me about the Nativity fast was, “When am I supposed to make my Christmas cookies?” Her answer… “During the 12 days of Christmas, afterwards.” Yikes. I like the Orthodox approach, spend the time before Christmas in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and quietness. Don’t do all the “things” the world is doing to de-Christ Christmas. It’s easier (? maybe?) that the kids are grown and gone. We don’t rush around finding perfect gifts, no great parties (except non-O family, no need to offend), and lessening or eliminating those things that take us away from Christ. I’m not saying it’s easy, or I do it perfectly. It’s a smaller Lent, but still important.

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The Nativity fast does start November 15. In a culture (US) where Christmas is almost synonymous with ‘party’ not to mention Thanksgiving and associated social gatherings, it is a time that is difficult for me to navigate the fast. I do my best, however I’m not married to a self-perceived Christian— it’s complicated. Praying daily is essential in preparing for the feast.

  35. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    This statement:

    Praying daily is essential in preparing for the feast.

    I think this encompasses the entire spiritual life in “this world.” Today is the day of salvation, the coming of God is near, and you’re reminding us: stay awake! If Christ be born in us, we must fast – we must not settle for anything less than infinite union with infinite love.

    Prayers for good strength as you navigate the “complications” 🙏

  36. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    after the fast comes the Feast – Christmas proper is the 12 days from 25 December to 6 January (always the same dates, doesn’t matter if the calendar is Julian or Gregorian), just like it used to be in the west. Special foods, special songs particularly in the “old country”. In the US, families do different things, not unlike western Christians (Advent wreath, devotions, building paper chains with Bible passages written on them, opening the Advent calendar doors). We’re not in the “old country”, so sometimes we grope along. My parish already has a Christmas tree up and decorated in the fellowship hall, but in Liturgy we are still very much in a preparatory mindset. The Nativity figurines will be added near the tree on Christmas Eve. My priest mentioned this morning in the homily that the last three Sundays the Gospel readings have featured rich people in one or another characters, and how the Lord interacts with them – food for thought. The “Christmas season” is 25 December to 2 February, the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple/Candlemas – 40 days after the Lord’s birth.

    Theophany/Epiphany, within that time, is the feast of the Baptism of Christ – even more light on display than Christmas, and lots of water, too. It’s deeper, and an earlier feast, than Christmas. Perhaps Fr Stephen will write or re-publish something about Theophany when it comes around. Local bodies of water are blessed – my favorite instance is the parish in Colorado that goes out to the Continental Divide, where the priest blesses the snow that will flow all through the US in both directions.

    Between Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent, roughly mid-February, the parish priests go around to the parishioners’ homes for house blessings (and often gain a little weight because of all the refreshments offered).

    The Orthodox Alaska natives have a lovely tradition of carrying paper stars lit from within by candles around their villages on Christmas Eve, in remembrance of the Magi, who are part of the 25 December scene, even though we know they didn’t come around until later. You might look that up. Our parish has done that from time to time.


  37. Jp Esnouf Avatar
    Jp Esnouf

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for these encouraging words. My burden is that I can’t seem to find, or see, or even recognise this, Grace. The dragons are to many, to scary. What’s the point of it all, is the looming question in the back of my mind. Why does Divine Grace seem to be guarded by poisonous beasts? Why does it feel like we battle alone, and only after, if we are ‘lucky’, Grace comes, but the damage is done.

    Apologies if this seems random, I’m really struggling lately to “not settle for anything less than infinite union with infinite love” as someone commented. What a beautiful statement, but it feels more and more like a sentiment.

    “The shame-self is who I am, defined by how I feel about myself, or that aspect of myself. The true self is beneath that and deeper. By the same token, God is beneath even the true self.” This is the truth of the matter. But if we are to go deeper by the Grace of God to find God (that is always present), I wish it would have been easier.

    Anyway, I don’t believe there is a simple answer or explanation that will magically solve my problems. Please pray for me. and hopefully the Mercy of God will show me how His Grace is already holding me. I just need to feel His comfort again, it’s been years. Amen.

  38. Matthew Avatar

    Thank you both SO much … Dee and Dana. I have a much better understanding now about how Orthodox celebrate Christmas.

    It seems to be a much longer season than what is typically celebrated in Europe or in the U.S. in most Roman Catholic/Protestant traditions.

    I really love the Protestant holiday hymns. I would miss them if I became Orthodox 🙁

  39. Matthew Avatar

    Dana … BTW … in Germany (and even more so in the state of Bavaria) I think on the 6th of January children wearing golden paper crowns go from door to door singing. They are called “star singers” and they represent the Magi.

    They even have a code of sorts that one sees posted in many doorways:


    20 and 23 is for the year. C and M and B (I think) are the initials for the three Magi.

  40. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    There’s no need to give up those beautiful Christmas hymns to be an Orthodox Christian! I’ve heard the best of them are sung in the monasteries, and I know we still enjoy them at our house. ☦️

  41. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    As Father Stephen has written often, the Reformation was more a reduction of Christianity than an adding to: “sola scriptura,” for example. In becoming Orthodox, I found many more practices (and beliefs) I had to add, rather than anything I had to cut out.

    It was the Protestant Puritans, after all, who banned celebrating Christmas entirely 🙂

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Some parishes have carol singing apart from (or after) various Christmas services. It’s not at all uncommon.

  43. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m sorry all of this is difficult for you – it is for many others, as well. God give you grace – and comfort you. You’ll be in my prayers.

  44. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    On the phrase, “not settle for anything less than infinite union with infinite love,” this certainly refers to my desire and not an accomplishment in my own life. It’s the spiritual impulse in us that impels us to fast. It also causes us to desire Grace, even to feel that Grace is lacking, to sense we haven’t arrived back Home yet. In this way, Grace is already present as the very homesickness, the deep desire for re-union with Love. Grace may be nearer than you think.

    I hope this helps. Many blessings to you.

  45. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    I realize that reading books and articles is not always conducive to helping us, especially those of us dealing with seemingly unendurable amounts of shame (our shame-self is all we see). Maybe reading isn’t what we need (it’s certainly not always what I need). But for anyone who has that struggle, for something to read on the topic, I recommend “From Object to Icon: The Struggle for Spiritual Vision in a Pornographic World” by Andrew Williams.

    It is powerful and applicable to any struggle with sin in our lives, and the shame we carry as a result of our sin. His discussion goes well beyond a discussion of pornography, and it acts as something of a guide to how to see beyond our shame-self (which I, too, once found impossible), and ultimately to Christ. I hesitate to share an example of the book, as what speaks especially to me may not be what speaks to others. But it may be helpful taken as a whole.

    Lord, have mercy on us.

  46. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you for that reference!

    Indeed, we all struggle to maintain our spiritual vision and well-being. There is much that is trying to grab our attention. I’m grateful for our Church and liturgical services. Just being there ignites the heart.

  47. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Since you brought it up, I highly recommend Father Thomas Hopko’s (of blessed memory) book, “The Winter Pascha”.

  48. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks everyone. 🙂

    I´m not getting notifications anymore in my inbox though I always check the two boxes before I post and my email address is already on file.

    Is there a problem?

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Check your junk/spam folder. That would be a possible problem. I’ll check the email list.

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Everything looks fine on this end.

  51. Matthew Avatar

    It´s fine now. Thanks so much Fr. Stephen.

  52. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    I am reading that book as well. You are probably aware that it references the passage by St. Macarius from which this post draws its title.

    Potential readers should not be put off by thinking it’s a book about pornography and addiction. It’s about how through sin we objectify all of creation. In our culture we’re somewhat aware of this, referring to “food porn,” “car porn,” etc.

    For those familiar with how the brain becomes wired (and also how the neural networks of AI are trained), this passage needs no explanation:

    “My interpretations of words, tones of voice, glances, and movement are all affected. This is a spiritual process of increasing blindness, and the neurological process of neuroplasticity reflects this spiritual reality physically: the pathways and connections that I exercise in my brain get stronger, and the ones I do not use become weaker.”

    As Dee says, the sensory bath that surrounds us most all the time atrophies our vision, so that seeing rightly is a constant struggle.

  53. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Mark, yes – that’s a great summary of the problem as Williams describes it. The manner in which He directs us to Christ and the cross, even to learn to venerate the cross within our own lives, was what really impacted me and was liberating even just to read. To recognize the desire and need to be known “in truth” while simultaneously recognizing the the fear of being so vulnerable, as well. For myself, at least, he has a gift for giving voice to the complex emotions I’ve had regarding my own shame that I had no way to give voice to. And he does it in such a gentle way, always directing back to Christ, who fulfills our true desires. It is a therapeutic read.

  54. Michael Moniz Avatar
    Michael Moniz

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and this post was a blow to the soul. I was praying this morning the very thing for the courage to face myself and not to distract or finding a cope, but to honor the commitments I’ve made to God, others, and of course myself.

    Life often feels like a big diversion from what it was meant to be. No wonder we are facing an existential, as I am now. I’ve ignored God, and myself.

    Carl Jung- “that which you resist persists”

    Thank you Fr. Stephen

  55. sgage Avatar

    @Michael Moniz,

    “Carl Jung- “that which you resist persists”

    And the flip side of that:

    What you contemplate, you imitate.

  56. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O

    Thanks Holly, for your reply to Matthew above, about how a Christian should look inside. Very helpful.

    In my own beliefs and practices (as much as possible), I am learning and trying to live the Orthodox way. And I am able to participate in some weekly evening Zoom Bible Study sessions with a local Orthodox church here. But I’m married to a hardcore Calvinist-Baptist who really has lost touch with what it means to be human; he hates and detests anything of “Roman Catholicism” (and concludes I’m “in a cult”) — including candles, what he scorns as “bells and smells.” Recently he found out I was using candles in my daily evening prayer (it was a scented candle) and in a rage said no more candles…. I do have an unscented candle, to include discreetly in my worship especially in the mornings when he is not around.

    I am also very thankful for this blog.

  57. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    My daughter and I finished reading Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter” together recently. It was my third time through the book, and I told her that my take on the main character (Scobie) was different now than when I read it in my 20s. My judgment in one way was harsher because of seeing him as truly weak, whereas when I was younger I saw him as strong but defeated by trying to protect everyone else. Yet I have more empathy for him now because I understand better how difficult it is to get through life without making a few terrible mistakes along the way. In other words, the passage of years us less desiring of being judged based on the worse thing we have ever done, and thus it should also make us less willing to do the same to others.

    I was until two years ago a Protestant, and while probably not as strident as how you describe your husband, I, too, was dismissive of, for example, venerating icons.

    Even so, I was pursuing Christianity and what I understood Christianity to be, based on what the people of faith in my life had passed onto me. Now that I believe that I have found a better, truer path, I do not judge those folks any more than I would want my former self judged. (I hope I never presented to others as someone who “lost touch with what it means to be human.”)

    Moreover, I don’t think any arguing with me would ever have convinced me to give Orthodoxy a go. Throughout my time as a Catechumen, my priest never tried that either. The best a believer (in my opinion) can do is to persuade by example. If your husband sees something desirable in you that Orthodoxy has wrought (such as your demonstrating a peace of soul versus his “rage”), I think that will be much more persuasive to him than something else might be.

    I hope my daughter will eventually convert, but I also realize that any pressure from me is as likely to cause resistance as acquiescence–even though she is much more open to Orthodoxy than what you have described.

  58. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Mark for the above response. I so resonate. I am too so thankful for this blog.

  59. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O


    Thanks for your comment. I was unfamiliar with this book you mentioned; appreciate the insights.

    Yes, a good reminder to not be too harsh in judgment of Protestants, and I have come to realize this over the years, that it never does any good to try to argue someone into a position, in this case of Orthodoxy. I only discovered Orthodoxy myself less than 2 years ago; sounds like a similar journey with you (and many others no doubt); through the last several years I had been pursuing Christianity as best as I understood it–which for several years meant Reformed Baptist, then Reformed (Paedo), but then seeing the emptiness and dissatisfactory answers there, and striving toward true Christianity — back to what the early Church was. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were also great influences there, after considering what I knew of their lives and writings (from my very earliest Christian years) as quite different from the negative view of these godly men–from the hardcore Calvinistic Baptists who think that Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox people are not even Christians.

    That is my prayer, for his heart to soften and to see something desirable in me due to Orthodoxy. I do not wish to come across as harsh, but there are some people who seem especially difficult to reach and difficult to deal with. In his case, a seemingly careless attitude, that loves the modern world and only the modern form of Christianity, and lacking any real piety, just some outward actions such as mealtime prayers (no other praying) and reading the Bible (superficially, casual reading but no interest in actual Bible study). This is the attitude that calls anyone else’s acts of piety “legalism!,” that Christ’s death means we can enjoy life now, but not act in any way as to be “different” from the mainstream middle class of society, and go to heaven when we die. Among at least some of the other people at the Calvinist Baptist church we attend, I do see a quality of real piety and real interest in Christianity, at least what they understand Christianity to be — and I see it more in them than in my husband.

    My mention of his having lost touch with what it means to be human, refers to observations, of characteristics that Fr. Stephen has described in previous blog posts here, notably the posts a few months ago on “Empty Ritual” and “What happens when we play (pray).” The “empty ritual” attitude; quoting Fr. Stephen from these two posts — “This is a challenge to the notion that spiritual meaning resides only in the mind. Those who have reduced spiritual actions to such restricted notions are very likely unwitting iconoclasts…. As for those who simply oppose all ritual – they take an absurd position. Human beings have bodies and they move. Those movements have always been understood to carry meaning. ” — and — “The difficulty comes for the adults who cannot bear the Game. They cease to see the deeper pattern or believe that something unseen is greater than what is seen. The Game becomes but a game and they mock the ritual as empty and without value. But it is the life devoid of the Game that has no value. The life that is not rooted in the deeper pattern is a life that has lost its shape.”

    In fact, the other night when he was so upset about the candle, he scorned about me “playing” (at something that seems ridiculous to him). Soon after that, I remembered Fr. Stephen’s post about liturgy and how it actually is a type of playing that we are doing, and what a positive thing that actually is.
    This blog is so insightful and helpful for me, thanks again Fr. Stephen.

    Hope this makes sense, and thanks again for your thoughts as well.

  60. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    Thank you for clarifying your description of your husband’s loss of “the human touch” because it did (originally) strike me as harsh. I understand your meaning much better now, and I also perceive now that you have been thinking long and deeply about the “root cause” dividing your religious attitude (posture) from his.

    His practices are not at all like those of my Protestant friends and family (their faith I would never characterize as careless).

    If you have not already read Father Stephen’s “Everywhere Present,” it covers what you are (I think) describing: someone who prefers that God confine Himself to life’s second storey.

  61. Eliza Avatar


    I am stunned that you only discovered Orthodoxy 2 years ago. You seem ( and probably are) so solid, so Orthodox.

    I have been dabbling and dawdling for several years now.

  62. Eliza Avatar


    I can relate to your frustrations with Calvinist Baptists. I am close to someone who was severely traumatized by a friendship with a Reformed Baptist family. It seemed to start out wonderfully and they seemed so accepting. Ultimately, this person was suddenly and harshly scorned. The best we could gather was that it was because of not being properly conservative – though this person is probably more truly conservative than them. This is a severe oversimplification of the ordeal.

    This was a group of people heavily invested in Douglas Wilson”s Omnibus curriculum for their homeschool. Everything had to go thru that prism or it was unacceptable. They would verbally make pronouncements about who was going to hell and so on.

    Sorry this is a heavily reduced version of a complicated story.

    I do relate in some way. That is my point. I agree that there is really no reasoning with them. I tried to counsel this person to try and remain polite and as neutral as possible in dealings with them, but it is hard. But there is absolutely nothing to be said. Maybe actions will eventually sink in, but not arguments.

    Prayers for you.

  63. Eliza Avatar

    Lynda, Just to clarify, when I said arguments, I don’t mean being argumentative. I just mean any words at all meant to convince the person- whether argumentative or not. That’s my experience. Certainly, there may be someone out there who has managed to verbally convict a Calvinist into believing something he didn’t accept before.

  64. Katie F. Avatar
    Katie F.


    I was like your husband for a long time, very hard hearted. When my husband converted to Orthodoxy I forbade him from praying to saints around our children and so for years he prayed in corners and closets without complaint. But his life spoke what I refused to listen to in words, and thanks be to God, my children and I were received into the Church two years ago.

    I’ll pray for you and him.

  65. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    Thank you. As others have described of themselves, Orthodoxy has just seemed my natural fit once I finally embraced it. To be sure, if I had not found people and a physical place, it would have been more difficult, but the first Divine Liturgy I ever attended, I could believe that it was indeed a view into Heaven.

    I do not possess near the knowledge of the Orthodox landscape that many others have and that requires more time/immersion. But God has provided a good compass for setting out.

    Thank you again and keep at your dabbling 🙂

  66. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O


    Thanks for the response, and that is a good way of describing it, the two-storey universe — the person who wants to confine God to life’s second storey. I read that book in audio format at the beginning of this year (and probably should read it again at some point).

  67. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O


    Thanks for sharing, and your prayers. And I understand what you mean, about arguments as in reasoning, general defense of the faith. So sorry that you have had to go through that difficult situation, and what your friend experienced too. Sadly, there are a lot of ugly stories, behind the scenes, associated with Calvinist and Reformed Baptists, and indeed it seems that nothing gets through to so many of them. It is such a reductionist view of the world, and they reject so much, anything that is outside of their narrow confines of “reality.”

  68. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The clothing, costumes, and marks we place upon ourselves seek to reveal something (or cover something). In some manner, they shield us, though feebly, like the fig-leaves of poor Adam. There is, however, a nakedness that is not ashamed, when it is covered in the righteousness of Christ, received in Holy Baptism. Its marks are indelible. Within the soul there is inscribed the wounds of Christ, gathering into them all the suffering of the soul. In that patient work, suffering is transformed into glory by the God who will not and cannot forget.

    Remember us, O Lord, in Your kingdom!”

    From an earlier post by Fr. Stephen God’s Tattoos

    Joy is the product of communion with our crucified and resurrected Lord through Grace and repentance.

    It is not an emotion but participation in the being and person of Christ Jesus. It is an antidote to suffering which only those who embrace The Cross can know deeply. It is a gift.

  69. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O


    Thanks for sharing your experience, and your prayers for my situation as well. Orthodoxy is still very new to me, only since the last year and a half. I wish I could actually convert, or even attend Orthodox services. (I did manage to visit, one time over two months ago, the Orthodox Church 20 miles away, the one I participate in weekly Zoom meetings with; my work job activity provided me a reason to be in that part of town, so afterward I went by and saw an Orthodox Church for the first time, and met the priest.) I have managed to acquire a few icon prints, ordered online. My husband is physically blind (long story, due to type 1 diabetes complications), and so in God’s providence, one thing I’m thankful for is that he cannot see the icons in my room upstairs, to know about and object to those.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. It seems to me very unlikely that my situation will ever change in terms of my husband’s attitude. It’s nice to know that sometimes the life actions get through, even if after a long time.

  70. Matthew Avatar

    Dear Katie, Lynda, Eliza and everyone else,

    I was raised Roman Catholic and then became an evangelical believer in the summer of 1996. My spiritual story is rather long, but in short I became a person suffering from mental illness (which my “born again” conversion did not cure) who was “on fire for the Lord!”. I was a garden variety Reformed-Calvinist (though at the time I had not idea what that meant or what it was!). My point is, no one would have been able to convince me with any kind of argument(s) that I was on the wrong path. Don´t get me wrong, I am happy that I became a true believer in our Lord. There has to be some sort of entry point I think. That said, part of being in that tribe is receiving a narrow worldview which creates a tight space of black and white thinking with easy answers to complex questions. I was “in” and so many other people were “out”. My story over the last 12 years or so has been nothing less than a work of the Spirit in me. It was my own self searching, my own questions about my theological and spiritual world, all ignited by God´s spark of course, that has lead me to being very close to becoming Orthodox. Pray for those, without judgment of course, who are where I once was. For those who are already Orthodox, continue to be gentle and open when dealing with seekers. It is, in part at least, what continues to draw me.

  71. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen … I´m wondering what your objection might be to adding an edit button (even one that has a timer) to the comment section?

  72. Eliza Avatar


    I very much understand, or think that I do. I grew up in a tight knit cult group whose name I did divulge, but just deleted. Maybe best not to say. I was baptized, and left finally when I was 26. The leaving was reluctant and hard fought. It was not at my own initiation, really.

    Not to say that people as mainstream as Calvinists are to be considered in the same category as a church which originated from the mind of a Depression era ad salesman.

    I am still haunted by those times and so am very sensitive to anything that looks and feels like that.

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t say anything too harsh. Prayers for you.

  73. Eliza Avatar


    Than you!

  74. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I do not know of such a button.

  75. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    WordPress does not by default permit users to edit comments (I think you have to install a plugin). Moreover, we would probably have to establish accounts and login with passwords for this feature (otherwise, there is no way of mapping a user’s comments to that user).

    Also, it’s worth remembering that–as much as I appreciate how the comments and discussion add to the site–this is a blog, rather than a a discussion board. The more time Father Stephen must spend performing administrative tasks on it for our benefit, the less time he can spend on his writing 🙂

  76. Shawn Avatar

    I appreciate you candidness. As someone who has struggles with significant mental illness since the age of 11, I know it can be hard to bring up especially in Christian circles. Like you, my mental health struggles weren’t cured by being born again. That message is implicit in most evangelical circles while being explicit in seemingly all of them. I appreciate so much what Father Stephen has said regarding the topic, how we are one being, not a soul trapped in a body. How body mind and soul are all one, so suffering in one area impacts all the others. Likewise, healing in one area also impacts all the others. Over the years, I’ve learned to let go of my modern notion that all suffering is bad and should be avoided. I’ve learned to sit with it more, to take it to God and relate to Christ through it. This is also something that Father Stephen’s writings and this blog have helped me with. Very grateful for this blog and for the Orthodox Church!

  77. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Mark. Understood.

  78. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Shawn.

  79. Matthew Avatar

    You didn´t say anything too harsh Eliza. Thanks so much for your words.

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