The Song of a Good Universe

“My whole life is a mess…”

I am a priest and I have heard statements to this effect any number of times in my ministry. It usually comes not after a single misfortune, but after multiple problems. It also reflects that the problems have moved beyond their external boundaries and have now become the framework of a person’s whole experience. It is not a statement to be taken lightly.

The Scriptures do not treat such experiences in a callous fashion. The entire book of Job poses the problem of a man who has lost everything to a string of misfortunes. Indeed, the book even provides the background story in which we hear a dialog between God and Satan in which God specifically allows Satan to do all of these terrible things to Job. Job’s problems are not in his head.

Job has no problems within his head -for after each terrible misfortune he says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” But he is not  blessed in the counsel of his wife. She is disgusted with how Job’s life is turning out and says, “Curse God and die!” His friends offer misguided counsel as well. Few things can be as irritating as a theologizing friend when you have suffered terrible loss. The platitudes of the “comforters” are often little more than salt in fresh wounds.

But the book of Job does not solve the riddle of Job’s suffering. There is no satisfactory answer – or no answer that would satisfy the philosopher. Job receives the vision of God – and with that – he is satisfied.

An oft-quoted verse regarding the world and its suffering is in the book of Romans. St. Paul says:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)

I would be willing to extend St. Paul’s statement to say simply: All things work together for good.

And this often proves a great difficulty for many. Our minds and emotions explode at the many contradictions that arise in the face of the world’s suffering (or that of a single child) and the word “good.” But it is important to note that St. Paul does not say, “All things are good…” It is, instead, a confession about the nature of creation’s movement. Despite all that is bad, wrong and evil, creation is moving towards the good (“working together”).

In theology, this “good working” of God in creation is called “providence.” In the Baptismal liturgy we hear:

For of Your own good will, You have brought into being all things which before were not, and by Your power You uphold creation, and by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the elements, You crowned the circle of the year with four seasons. 

The very heart of this faith begins in its first words: “Of Your own good will…” The Christian belief about all that exists in creation is that it is good. That the universe exists is itself good and is the work of God who gave it existence “of His own good will.” The same God who called it into existence upholds it. He sustains it in existence. If God did not maintain all of creation in existence, moment by moment, it would instantly cease to be. The good God who gave the world its good existence and sustains it, also gave it a good order – and it is here that the faith introduces the word providence. The ordering of creation has a purpose and a direction. And this purpose and direction are good.

I often think that our modern world, despite all of its technology and science, fails to think of the world as it truly is. Everything is in motion. Nothing in all the universe actually reaches the state of non-motion, or “absolute zero” as it is called. We can approach it, but never arrive. But our imagination tends to think of the world in very static terms, as though it were a snapshot or a painting.

It is difficult to speak of things in motion. Not unusually, in the writings of the fathers, the language of motion is translated into the imagery of music or dance. Music is sound in motion just as dance is pure motion. But as all of creation is itself in motion, it is appropriate to speak of the music of creation and the dance of creation.

The music that is the song of creation moves towards a goal. Like a great composition, the many discordant moments, the counter-melodies and sounds that jar the ear still move inexorably towards a resolution, a final chord that no one has yet heard except the one who first began to sing. And that chord will resolve all sounds so that they will be seen to have always been part of the whole. It is the musical expression of Job’s vision.

The folk dances in many Orthodox lands most often have about them a movement within a circle. The dance sometimes threatens to break the circle, to drive the dancer off her feet and hurl her with centrifugal force beyond the reach of the circle itself. But the steps return the dancer to the movement of the circle again and again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes with leaps and great skill, while other times like the drunken steps of the uncertain. But the circle remains and continues. It unites the dancers with the music, and at its best enables them to enter communion with the music so that their motion becomes the expression of the notes themselves. But the circle remains.

A very common presence in Orthodox music, both in the wide-spread Byzantine tradition as well as in many other places, is the “drone” note, known as the “ison.” It is a note that is held beneath the melodic line, sometimes sung by only a few. When it is sung well, it never overwhelms the melody. I like it best when the ison is barely there at all – when it is both present and absent – so much a part of the melody, though remaining stable, but so united that it can only be discerned through effort.

I think of this ison as being similar to the mystery that has been “hidden from ages and from generations.” It has always been present and even audible, but most fail to hear it (they weren’t listening). But the ison represents a unity and purpose, a common note that links every moment of the song. It is often just a note, sung, but with no words giving it shape. It supports the words. It gives an order that could easily be forgotten with the melismatic wanderings of a byzantine tone. For the melody wanders, feeling its way and pressing the boundaries of order. But the ison remains and always calls the melody back to its harmony.

The purpose and providence of God, the good ordering of the universe, is almost never discerned by studying the twists and turns of life. The outrageous events that assault the innocent are harsh notes that disturb our ability to hear any harmony.  St. Paul’s affirmation of the working of God’s good purpose is the confession of a man who was persecuted, stoned as a heretic, beaten as a criminal, imprisoned as an enemy, once tortured with hatred and envy. He knew all of the tragedy of the ancient world: infant mortality, famine, natural disasters, all of the catastrophes of our existence. And it is from within that harsh cacophony that he hears the single note of God’s goodness and its promise towards all things.

One of my favorite American hymns, “My Life Flows On An Endless Song,” was written by the Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry. A verse was added in 1950 that I have converted in my own thoughts to a Paschal hymn, the tyrants being our adversary and the prison, Hades. I gladly sing it with my friends.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

 

Photo by Yash Raut on Unsplash

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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164 responses to “The Song of a Good Universe”

  1. Sally Brower Avatar
    Sally Brower

    One of my favorite hymns as well. Our choir director got a Celtic singer to do it as a solo at my retirement service – the last worship service where I presided.

  2. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    > The purpose and providence of God, the good ordering of the universe, is almost never discerned by studying the twists and turns of life. The outrageous events that assault the innocent are harsh notes that disturb our ability to hear any harmony.

    A question, Father. Back in my “activist” days, I would have derided this as selfish. If innocents are assaulted, why should I have peace?

    I largely ignore the news these days, but when I do see it, it is inevitably because of some great tragedy that has occurred. At these moments, I often find myself sucked back into the cycle for a few days, before I finally manage to break free. I know that this disturbs me and causes inner conflict (I don’t hear “the harmony”), and yet the same question tends to echo around in my head during that time: “If they are going through what they are, why should I have peace?”

    To be clear, I do not believe your statement is selfish. But I am wondering how you would respond to the question. Sometimes, it’s not even a question for me. It’s simply a feeling of guilt. I feel guilty for looking away. Guilty for trying to preserve some measure of peace in my own life while others are suffering somewhere else. I try to tell myself that not focusing on the “twists and turns” is necessary so that I can attend to what is closest to me: my wife, my children, my neighbors, my church, etc. But it doesn’t stop the feeling of guilt.

    I am wondering if you have any thoughts?

  3. Claudia Avatar
    Claudia

    Nathan’s comments mirror my own thoughts. Sometimes I wonder at being born in a place that does not have constant war time strife. That being said, I do have fears about what is on the horizon.
    I appreciate Father’s essay and will keep it close for future reading.
    Thank you, Father Stephen.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nathan,
    It’s a very good question. First, there is never a moment in time that the innocent are not enduring outrages of one sort or another. That the news cycle brings one or more to our attention tells us more about those bringing the news than those about whom the news concerns.

    St. Silouan learned to pray “for the whole Adam,” meaning, everyone and everything. Indeed, with regard to that, we can hear God’s word to him to “keep your mind in hell and despair not.” I think that if we have entered into union with the Crucified Christ – to that extent – we will constantly be aware of the suffering of the world – and unite ourselves to that suffering in union with the suffering of Christ. The Song of a good universe is not a song that ignores or is immune to suffering.

    It is of note that when Christ and His disciples were on their way to Gethsemane, they sang a Psalm. Traditionally, that Psalm would have been 118, which begins, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

    The first words from Christ after the resurrection are, “Peace, be with you.” This is not the peace that says, “There is no suffering in the world.” It is the peace of God which has encompassed all suffering and taken it into Himself. Because that is so – He can bid us His peace.

    I do not think that human beings were meant to live with an awareness of everything going on in the world – it becomes a distraction. And the news that we are given doesn’t actually supply us with useful information. It is a business that provides a product that is, ultimately, designed to sell something. One of the things it sells is itself – and the false concept that it is necessary to our lives. St. Silouan did not read newspapers, I am told, but He prayed as profoundly as we can imagine.

    Modernity has created a commericalized head-space that we imagine to be necessary and important (news, politics, etc.). All of it, we are told, should be important to people who “care.” That is simply a lie.

    We should care – we should love. And we should love as we are able and as circumstances allow us to act. We pray, “For the peace of the whole world…” in the Liturgy – as we should in our private prayers. When we do, we should offer the world to the heart of the Crucified Christ. Interestingly, the Great Litany each Sunday begins, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” It is in Christ that we have peace – not because the world is at peace – but because Christ has taken the sins of the world into Himself and His peace is being worked out – mysteriously, no doubt – in all things.

  5. Susan Cushman Avatar

    “The musical expression of Job’s vision.” I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Really, the entire post just filled my heart with joy.

  6. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! I especially appreciate your response to Nathan here in comments and will share some of your response on Facebook. Please let me know if this is something you would rather I didn’t do. I will credit you with your words, but be happy to remove anything I post. Glory to God for All Things!

  7. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for sharing your song!

  8. Anne Avatar
    Anne

    Thank You,
    Much Love,
    Anne

  9. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Thank you so much, Father. This is helpful!

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If I may: one of the most profound occurrences was about 18 years ago in the middle of Lent. My wife of 24 years accidentally overdosed on her pain meds because she was in so much pain. She died.

    As she lay in a coma, gradually slipping away my priest and a couple of chanters from our parish were singing the prayers for the dying. I, my son and my wife’s best friend were trying to pray too. Then I looked at my wife’s face and saw an angel at her head, his hands on either side of it, obviously praying. Intently. I have never seen before or since such intensity in prayer. I saw what was happening for about 10-15 minutes then the angel vanished and the doctor pronounced her. We who witnessed such grace will never forget it.

    My wife’s friend and her four children became Orthodox and still are. But wait, there is more….three weeks later during the Pascha service as we began singing “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…” I looked up into the altar and there was my wife with Our Lord, being raised. I have never known such joy, A joy that is still with me when I allow it to be. Not an ephemeral experience but a confirmation that Our Lord tramples down death by death.

    It informs my own poor efforts to repent.

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

  11. Esmée Noelle Covey Avatar
    Esmée Noelle Covey

    That is an amazing experience Michael, thank you for sharing.

  12. Mary Avatar
    Mary

    Michael, thank you very much for sharing something so personal and profound, it means a lot to me as I’m struggling with my own weakness. May God bless you always.

  13. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    “But the book of Job does not solve the riddle of Job’s suffering. There is no satisfactory answer – or no answer that would satisfy the philosopher. Job receives the vision of God – and with that – he is satisfied”

    This reminded me of a quote from CS Lewis I recently encountered and keep coming back to:

    “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are Yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”

  14. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    “The purpose and providence of God, the good ordering of the universe, is almost never discerned by studying the twists and turns of life.”

    As someone who has grown up as an evangelical and been surrounded by other evangelicals, I have often observed the opposite of the statement above.

    People I know often interpret the twists and turns of life as God’s direct providence in their life. The good twists are God’s blessing, and the bad turns are either his judgement or preparation work for something ahead. Many I know seem to feel so confident in their discerning the will of God in life. They reportedly have direct access through the Spirit. They can take big risks because God has placed it on their heart and they believe they’re called to one thing or another. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these claims, of the confidence these people can have in discerning God’s will. While I haven’t followed suit fully, I occasionally have looked back over my life and have seen God’s goodness at play.

    I’m curious if you could speak to this from an orthodox perspective? How would you relate to others who seem to have God’s specific will for their lives figured out. Can one look back and feel confident in God’s provision and perhaps see how he has worked good? Can we feel his calling to something different in our lives?

  15. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Father Stephen … how do Orthodox Christians reconcile a good God who created a good universe with all the evil and suffering in our world? Free will certainly plays a large role, but there are a lot of things which are evil that occur in our world that have nothing to do with free will … just look at the horror of the natural world as an example.

    I have come to the conclusion after years of agonizing over this question that suffering is real, God allows it, God will make something good out of it, Jesus Christ walks with us through it, and evil and suffering will not get the last word. Miracles are also real. More I cannot say at this point.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    I’m personally far more reticent to describe something as specifically “God’s will.” At least in the short run. All too often that equates to: “This is pleasant, or doesn’t involve suffering, I’m glad.” Rather, I would say that God’s will is always being worked through things – including when I sin (because God is good, though I often am not). That is His mercy.

    I see His good hand at work “in the rear-view mirror” – and far more clearly if its in the distance. Close up – I simply pray and ask for His mercy and do whatever seems best in light of His commandments. I hesitate to claim to know too much.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    They are reconciled through the Cross. The evil and suffering are either a: our free will, b: the work of our enemy, or c:the result of a creation that has been made “subject to futility.” But in all things, God is working good – because He is good.

  18. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you Father Stephen. I appreciate your response.

  19. Susan Crackpotish Avatar
    Susan Crackpotish

    Since even dogs can hear things we can’t, certainly Saints and Angels can. What sound or sounds properly directed to Christ, (including the sounds of pain and suffering, audible and inaudible, of all creation) might not contribute to heavenly prayer and worship and even return to us in the miraculous harmonics of His love and mercies?
    The goal of the enemy is to be above and beyond God, beyond The Word, so beyond worship, beyond music, beyond life. That seems only possible in a still, silent, meaningless hell, aflame with pride that has nothing to burn.
    Am reading The Enlargement of the Heart (Mount Thabor Publishing). Wow is it good! Thank you thank you thank you, Fr. Stephen. for recommending it.

  20. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    How does one learn to hear the tone beneath the suffering, or the twists and turns of life?

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Sophia,
    Anything of an experiential nature will vary a lot from person to person. For me, it began by working at settling in my heart the goodness of God – becoming secure in my understanding that He loves all things, cares for all things, and sustains everything – moving within them for good. That has been accompanied by prayer – one that has a strong component of listening. I don’t have very much that I ever “ask” of God. So, I say the Jesus Prayer, and I listen.

  22. Anna Sen Avatar
    Anna Sen

    Father, Guys,
    All of you !
    What amazing conversation and sharing of hearts!
    Thank you .

    Glory to God for all things.

  23. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this blog, this post, and that you allow a drifter like me to be here and take part in conversation. I said that I would not stay out of the shadows of lurking for long, but I am tempted to disregard that declaration.

    I have long been troubled by the account of God and Satan conferring about Job and glad to see how you address it.

    And you have given me the idea for a personal study on the fathers and the language of music – and read The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Victor Guoroian. This topic speaks to me, as the mother of a musician and as a sort of fair weather one myself.

    My daughter reads your posts and she will be agog over your take on the drone note. We’ve had some good conversations of late about this very subject and how some songs or pieces use a drone so artfully, and those compositions would be changed for the negative without that simple one note.

    I am struck by this statement: “But it is important to note that St. Paul does not say, “All things are good…” It is, instead, a confession about the nature of creation’s movement. Despite all that is bad, wrong and evil, creation is moving towards the good (“working together”).”

    So much to ponder.
    Thanks again!

  24. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Matthew and Michael

    Matthew, I very much relate to your question and appreciate that you asked it.

    Michael, I have previously read your account of your wife’s coma and the Pascha service and am always smitten by it. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. It is so important to offer up a clear, succinct explanation for the problem of evil. The problem of evil is a big stumbling block for so many when considering the things of faith in a good God.

    My one sister-in-law was raised Christian Science. My other sister-in-law dabbles in Buddhism. Both of these religions have big problems with suffering. Christian Science claims that suffering is an illusion. Buddhism claims that suffering is to be avoided at all costs. It seems to me that classical Christianity may be the only religion that doesn´t shy away from suffering, deny suffering, or altogether try to erase suffering.

  26. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Eliza,
    The music of creation – the Song of God – is very interesting to me. You might (if you have time) enjoy this talk I did in Atlanta a few years ago.

    https://youtu.be/j5joZJgjYL8?si=xOs4whzkV-Z_4nAb

  27. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    “Few things can be as irritating as a theologizing friend when you have suffered terrible loss. The platitudes of the “comforters” are often little more than salt in fresh wounds.”

    Amen. I have been guilty of this. Even as recent as in the comments of the last post. Apologies.

  28. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Me too Owen. 🙁

  29. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    In fairness to Buddhist teaching, I wanted to make an observation and to hear what you think. Buddhists (seem to me to) make several profound observations about the nature of suffering. For instance, suffering is not an objective reality, but a subjective response consisting of resistance to what is. That takes some explaining, but certain Christian “mystics” have observed something very similar. And I would say that, indeed, Christ shows us the way to remove all suffering, to thoroughly transcend it. Perhaps our temporal life will always consists in the experience of a “bright sadness.” Then again, perhaps some (saints) do fully realize their share in the divine nature, in the present.

    Maybe your sister-in-law has shared something different?

  30. Susan Crackpotish Avatar
    Susan Crackpotish

    What has helped me accept suffering in this world is the always more glorious person of our Savior Christ. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, His eternal covenant of life, without which our world could not have come into being, has suffered for and with us since that eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20). There would have been no world without His suffering, and no redemption without His incarnation, death, and resurrection. I used to see sufferings as the fault of others; but am understanding my sin as its cause, implicit and complicit in all of it for all of time; and sin as the preventer, enemy, and antithesis of life. Time then becomes the greatest divine mercy. In it we can join Him through the joys of repentance, worship, and thanksgiving, even and, sometimes, especially, in our suffering (how other could we even begin to appreciate His or Him?), anticipating the end of wickedess, the end of sin and death, and the glory of His redemption of all creation. That glory sings through all time, though we seldom have ears to hear. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  31. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you! I will look at this tomorrow when I have some waiting around time.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, in your answer to Matthew above you say that the reconcilation is through the Cross. Could you expand on that as to how that works for each of us in terms of our own repentance and reconciliation?

  33. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Please forgive the potentially negative tone. It really isn’t negative. Not like it might seem when reading it in your head.

    What people need isn’t words about providence and God’s goodness. Things that can be rehearsed. People need to genuinely see God’s goodness for themselves, to have a genuine worldview-shifting revelation of God’s goodness. If not for that, then talk of God’s goodness is little more than an insistence against all evidence to the contrary. It is just taking a perspective on a bad situation. I can’t see what I cannot see and based on my understanding of Orthodox anthropology the goodness of God is a noetic perception. Therefore, it seems to me that apart from noetic perception the insistence on God’s goodness is like a self-induced illusion. Say it enough times and it will stick.

    I have been thinking about Michael Bauman’s experiences with angels. You can hear the confidence in God’s goodness that saturates the way he speaks of those things. Maybe Michael along with Fr. Stephen can talk about the goodness of God with the kind of confidence of having had real experience…but that is not 99.99999% of the human population. I don’t mean to dwell on Michael’s visions. But, there is a part of me that wonders why God doesn’t bridge the gap in that way for everyone…including myself.

    It isn’t obvious to me that the world is good. And frankly it isn’t obvious to many other people either. I could just as easily agree with the Buddhists that “good” and “bad” are illusions that do not speak about the world as it is in itself, but as it is experienced by the nervous system.

    Of course, what does a tumbleweed know? Uprooted and blown about by the wind it can’t be anything but confused. Round and round, over and over going in circles. Worn out and brittle it breaks against the stones. A husk of its former self. The world is full of tumbleweeds. I am the tumbleweed king.

  34. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Owen said:

    In fairness to Buddhist teaching, I wanted to make an observation and to hear what you think. Buddhists (seem to me to) make several profound observations about the nature of suffering. For instance, suffering is not an objective reality, but a subjective response consisting of resistance to what is.

    Matthew: Suffering is not an objective reality? Would a Holocaust survivor agree with that statement?
    Maybe you can unpack for me a bit more, Owen, what you mean by a subjective response consisting of resistance to what is?

    That takes some explaining, but certain Christian “mystics” have observed something very similar. And I would say that, indeed, Christ shows us the way to remove all suffering, to thoroughly transcend it.

    Matthew: Does Christ really show us the way to remove and transcend all suffering, or does Christ simply show us how to rightly endure suffering?

    Perhaps our temporal life will always consists in the experience of a “bright sadness.” Then again, perhaps some (saints) do fully realize their share in the divine nature, in the present.

    Matthew: I´m not sure what you are getting at here Owen. Can you explain it in a different way?

    Maybe your sister-in-law has shared something different?

    Matthew: My sister-in-law takes a buffet style approach to Buddhism. She discards any religious aspects she doesn´t like or agree with and sticks mainly to the behavioral tenants she finds useful. I don´t think she even understands what Buddhism says about suffering. What I offered up in my comment re: suffering was my understanding from what I have read and studied about Buddhism.

  35. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    You’re in a difficult place at the moment – I understand. I agree that words about goodness and providence are of little use. For myself, it is the crucifixion of Christ and His resurrection that are the “proof” of such things. That I see the same goodness and providence working in all things is first, a matter of faith (in the crucifixion and resurrection), and, second, sometimes a matter of noetic perception.

    I pray for you – as you know. May God give you grace in everything.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Owen,
    I do not think it is correct that Christ has taught us to transcend suffering. The Cross is at the heart of the faith. The gospel accounts do not minimize that suffering in any way whatsoever. Moreover, we speak of being “crucified with Christ” (which is a world away from transcending suffering). We unite ourselves in His suffering – that is the “mystical union” (indeed, it’s how Baptism itself is described).

    The goodness of God is revealed in the Cross. Our faith rests in that paradox.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Last weekend, and this weekend, I am leading giving retreats on the topics of God’s goodness and providence…so they have been very much in my mind. It seems increasingly clear to me that this is a fundamental question for Christians of our time. The temptation for any of us is to go a 2-storey route, and speak about God apart from the suffering and sorrows of the world. That yields a very empty Christianity.

    In our conversations over time, we have focused especially on the Cross and the abiding suffering of Christ in everyone and everything. That is the mark of both His goodness and His providence. The massive evidence of human suffering does not negate the Cross – it begs for it. It is also true that the experience of the Cross often brings with it the cry of, “Why have you forsaken me?”

    I am remembering all these things as I pray for you. God give us grace!

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    I think the heart of repentance is our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (for that is how He has given Himself to us). In our repentance we pray, “I am crucified with Christ…” In our reconciliation we pray, “Nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

  39. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    I cannot thank you enough, Fr. Stephen, for your comments here — and in response to Simon specifically. It is a blessing to my heart to read your words: “In our conversations over time, we have focused especially on the Cross and the abiding suffering of Christ in everyone and everything. That is the mark of both His goodness and His providence. The massive evidence of human suffering does not negate the Cross – it begs for it. It is also true that the experience of the Cross often brings with it the cry of, “Why have you forsaken me?” I still do not understand entirely what to do when I cry out in this way from my heart and it’s been awhile since I have, but at least I do not feel guilty or that I am doubting God’s goodness and providence. I pray God blesses you and all who gather with you for your retreats.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Margaret,
    Thank you. May God preserve us all!

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, the Joy of the Lord be with you. Forgive me, a sinner.

    One has to understand the context of what I saw. My late wife was suffering great pain, physical and spiritual before she accidentally overdosed. Our family was not doing well. But, the Church responded anyway through our priest and the two chanters(one was the head of the ER in the hospital). What I saw was in the context of the prayers of the Church for the salvation of Pamela’s soul. All of us there were surrounded and interpenetrate with the Grace of those prayers. Especially Pamela, even though she was comatose. That was the case whether I saw or did not see.

    Seeing the angel was a gift to me, our friend Cristenette and my son.

    I was recently talking with my priest who had been doing the prayers about what happened(Pamela reposed in 2005) and he asked me what the angel looked like. (He was very like our icons).

    Pamela had always been open to angels having had other direct experiences with them in the past. She was praying along with the angel for her own salvation and for us as well, I am sure. We were all lifted up but of the 8 or so people in the room, only 4 of us “saw” the angel. I have seen none since.

    I am confident each of us receives what we need for our salvation which is both a divine grace and a work of prayer on our part. Forgive me for creating confusion in your heart. Jesus is always with you. Repentance is the key as in Matthew 4:17

  42. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It is a particularly difficult time right now–lots o’ shame.

    In the final analysis God’s goodness is a noetic perception. Which means that unless the nous is made capable of seeing it–by either revelation or effort–concluding that the universe is good is a value judgment. It’s an insistence made in defiance of the harsh reality that to be alive means survival. Survival can be brutal.

    Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.” By faith we understand. That statement implies that it even takes faith to believe that that the universe is created. That isn’t trivial. “By faith” either means “a belief or insistence that something is the case” or “by faith” means by noetic faculty. If it takes faith to understand that the universe was created by God, then how much more faith does it take to believe that the universe is good?

  43. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate your inquiries into Orthodoxy here at the blog. Please know that I do not speak for the church. Fr. Stephen does that beautifully, and I do not intend to contradict him. I will only share my opinions based on personal study. I try to do that as an Orthodox Christian.

    When you mentioned Christian Science and Buddhism as two religions that “have a big problem with suffering,” my initial thought was to include Orthodoxy in the list. For example, we sing in the liturgy:

    Thou didst descend from on high, O Merciful One!
    Thou didst accept the three-day burial
    to free us from our sufferings!
    O Lord, our Life and Resurrection: glory to Thee!

    Suffering is real. It’s worth noting, though, that even illusions are real (they exist) in as much as they affect our experience. Either way, Christ came to free us from our suffering by his death.

    Regarding the Buddhist view of suffering as non-objective, here are several quotes that may help.

    “The Buddha said, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.” Suffering in his teaching does not necessarily mean grave physical pain, but rather the mental suffering we undergo when our tendency to hold onto pleasure encounters the fleeting nature of life, and our experiences become unsatisfying and ungovernable.”

    Another:

    “Dukkha [suffering] refers to the psychological experience—sometimes conscious, sometimes not conscious—of the profound fact that everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable.”

    One more:

    “Dukkha [suffering] is produced not by things themselves or by their insubstantial nature. Rather, our mind has been conditioned by ignorance into thinking that eternal happiness can be obtained through things that are ephemeral and transient.”

    When I said mystical or contemplative Christianity sees things similarly, I meant attaining a vision of the world in which there’s nothing wrong with creation per se but with our sight. This occurs through a process of purification and illumination in which the eyes of our hearts are cleansed to perceive differently, to “see God.” Orthodox call this divinization by the Holy Spirit. It enlightens the darkened mind, giving access to the mind of Christ – to see like he sees – that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” here, now. Our perception is thus cleansed, and we recognize with St. Paul, “Christ is all and in all.” The scales fall away. As Jesus said, “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

    I do want to be clear – with Fr Stephen – that Christ himself did suffer. He suffered voluntarily to reveal to us who suffer (mostly involuntarily) the way through suffering and out the other side into the Risen Life. We have access to this life, God’s life, now, through the Cross. I understand the Cross to be the means of transcending suffering.

    I hope this helps! Again, these are my own opinions and interpretations.

  44. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,

    You didn’t create any confusion.

    I am wondering, why you Michael? I mean that sincerely. Why did you get to peer behind the veil? What special need did you have that so many others don’t have? Do you think it was arbitrary? You indicate that it served a purpose for the salvation of some. Why were you (and others) given this anchor for your soul? Wouldn’t you think that there are many people with needs at least as great if not greater than your own? I absolutely believe what you said about seeing angels. What kind of person would lie about such things? I do believe you.

  45. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    As with Margaret, I am particularly appreciative for your comments to Simon, Fr. Stephen.

    Not to single him out, but Simon’s ponderings and your answers are are a primary reason that I have continued my visits here.

    I have often wanted to thank him for his questions but didn’t want to seem like a fangirl. His questions always speak to my own difficulties. He has the temerity to speak it, where I usually prefer to stay in the shadows.

    Actually, I would pay to read any blog that Simon might have, if he does have one. As a scientist, his mix of the religious with the scientific would probably be phenomenal reading. I hope I am not out of place to say this.

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    I suspect that the Liturgy’s mention of suffering has in mind the suffering of hell rather than the sufferings of our present life (just for the record). Our middle-class American lifestyle has predisposed us to look for ways out of suffering in this present life (we think it counts as success). But for most people, for most of history, the opposite was true.

    Again, I do not think it is correct to describe the Cross as a means to transcend suffering. Suffering (as seen in the Cross) is also an inherent part of love. Love is the goal of the Christian life – union with God in His love. Not the overcoming of suffering. Forgive me for banging away on this.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Eliza,
    I think Simon would be shocked to know he has a “fangirl.” You made my day!

  48. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Simon,

    “Wouldn’t you think that there are many people with needs at least as great if not greater than your own?”

    In my own case, I answer questions like this with the humility that God has greater knowledge of need and the human heart than I do. Thomas, for his doubt, was allowed to place his hand in the wound, whereas in the centuries since, others have only the story of Thomas by which to examine their own faith.

    Why did Paul, while persecuting Christians, receive the road to Damascus? Would you or I have thought such a man deserving of a miracle so that he might serve as apostle to the Gentiles?

    I am grateful and observant whenever the hand of God works good in my life. In all honesty, however, it is often fearful to think of what a miracle of God might then require of us.

    During the Nativity Fast, some of the devotions I have been reading regarding Mary treat this theme: what her “here I am” entailed for her.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, I really do not ask questions like “why me”, etc. I am still operating on the instructions from my mother when I was 18 (1966). “God is real, you need to find Him.” (Handing me a copy of Huston Smith’s ‘Religions of Man’) and “He is in here somewhere.”

    She also gave me a silver and turquois cross hand made by a Native American in Taos New Mexico for her about a hundred years ago now (my niece has it for her son). The man called himself Adam. They met outside the town in a grove where my mother went each morning to do her dance (she danced with Martha Graham). He called her “My little daughter who dances in the sky,”

    As I have said before, I am not a “theology guy”. My path has always been experiential. Seeking Him noetically for the last 58 years and counting. I have never known Him to be anything but good even though I am not. Both the book and the Cross made that clear in the beginning.

    Theologically my journey included a lot of messy stuff (to be polite). However, He was/is constant. His mercy beyond anything I can articulate. But His Mercy has always been true shinning through my sin and confusion. Mt 4:17 has depth.

    The silver cross was much more significant than the book. It has the capacity to draw one into its center and the love that is there. The Person who suffered on it.

    My first experience of an Orthodox Liturgy blew me away. I had no doubt I was home even though the life in that community was rough. My family was Baptized in 1986 and moved to our current community in 2003.

    The theology is important as the noetic experience can easily go astray if not in the proper context of the Church. Being in a community of true worship is also critical. The prayers and the services of the Orthodox Church are tuned to both a noetic and theological approach. He is revealed in and is the Life of the Church, even in our failings.

    May our Lord continue to bless your way.

  50. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza, you are way too kind! You made an old man blush!

    Regarding the transcending of suffering, I agree with Fr. Stephen. Suffering isn’t transcended through the cross, but transformed, i.e., made to serve for the salvation of all. Christians assume the cross with the purpose of participating in that transformation within themselves for the world.

    Another image used in the Tradition is Christ as the conqueror of hell and the prisoners are freed. Hell isn’t transcended, it is conquered. I am not against the use of the word “transcended”. But, because it usually loaded with connotations foreign to the monastic experience I would exercise care as to how I would use it.

    In Buddhism what is ultimately transcended is Samsara, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Suffering is explained by the attachment of contingent beings to the impermanence of Maya. Our psychological experience of pain and pleasure operates in rheostasis with the environment. For this and other reasons the greatest illusion of all in Buddhism is Atman, personal existence. Personal existence or essence is rejected as central illusion/attachment that drives Samsara.

    In the Christian understanding there are elements which rhyme with this, but ultimately Buddhism is necessarily reductionist and impersonal (Anatman, no self). In Christianity personhood is front and center. In fact, in Orthodoxy personhood is raised from the psychological to the hypostatic. The Buddhist idea of the interconnectedness of things has an analog in Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox idea turns on the communion of persons and is fulfilled in the communion of persons with God. Ultimately all of this is underwritten in Orthodoxy by the interpersonal communion of the Trinity. In that sense, the communion of persons is ultimate reality in Orthodoxy while Buddhists see Nirvana or non-being as an ultimate or final state.

  51. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,

    I think you might have intended to say that psychological experience goes astray. That is certainly the case. I have been giving considerable time to reading literature on the psychological experience of cults and cult members. What is woefully clear is the vulnerability of the human mind to self-delusion: Every idea no matter how stupid will have believers. It is really scary. I think that is because we are using a tribal mind geared for communal cohesion, predator evasion, and poison berry identification to do things like create beliefs. Community is critical for our sanity. In the wake of the dissolution of the nuclear family and local communities we have become vulnerable to all kinds of idiotic ideas. So, maybe you mean that psychological experience can go astray. However, I imagine that genuine noetic experience is always anchoring. If not, then what the hell is the point? Doesn’t that raise the specter of radical skepticism?

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mark,
    I sincerely appreciate your comment to Simon.

    Sometimes, I wish I could see the visions others see, particularly of the Theotokos. She often remains discretely hidden from me, but I hear full-blown visions of her in this blog. However, if I did see her as others can, I suspect that I would count myself deluded. The effect may well harden my heart rather than soften it.

    In contrast to what I said in the previous paragraph, I saw something I can not speak during a Paschal service on the Altar. The effect of that experience nearly threw me down to the ground. The glimpse was all that I could endure. I sincerely believe that we each receive the bread (of the Our Father prayer) we need for our life in Christ. And sometimes, what we think we need isn’t what will nourish our life in Christ.

  53. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Hi, Eliza.

    Thank you, again, for your encouraging words. That actually means a lot–especially right now.

    I only post thoughts to Fr. Stephen’s blog. Mainly because I feel safe. Under the umbrella of his wisdom I trust him to mitigate against any knucklehead ideas I might be infatuated with in the moment. Having been raised as a Jehovah Witness I am very aware of the damage done by the combination of good intentions with bad ideas.

    It’s staggering how many people confuse their psychological certainty with knowledge.

    However, I am writing a series of short essays for a friend of mine who is a journalist. He has invited me to discuss science and scientism on his blog. With Fr. Stephen’s permission I can post a link when I am done writing it up.

  54. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks for your thoughts Owen.

    Are you saying that both Buddhism and mystical Christianity see the cause of suffering rather similarly, but propose different ways of dealing with such suffering?

  55. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, thank you. For my part, please, bang away. I appreciate the kind and intelligent pushback. 😊

  56. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you, Dee.

    I suspect you are right (cf. the instructions the Children of Israel received regarding the daily harvest of manna).

  57. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Simon said:

    “In the Christian understanding there are elements which rhyme with this, but ultimately Buddhism is necessarily reductionist and impersonal (Anatman, no self). In Christianity personhood is front and center. In fact, in Orthodoxy personhood is raised from the psychological to the hypostatic. The Buddhist idea of the interconnectedness of things has an analog in Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox idea turns on the communion of persons and is fulfilled in the communion of persons with God. Ultimately all of this is underwritten in Orthodoxy by the interpersonal communion of the Trinity. In that sense, the communion of persons is ultimate reality in Orthodoxy while Buddhists see Nirvana or non-being as an ultimate or final state.”

    Thanks so much for this Simon. It is very helpful to me. 🙂

  58. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew,

    Buddhism and Orthodoxy are not similar in their understanding of the cause of suffering. They are radically different. I think Dino put it best when he mentioned in a previous post that the real dilemma is one of origins. I have used language about the false-self in previous posts and that may sound like the Buddhist idea of the self as an illusion, but what I intended was more inline with Dino’s thoughts about origins. I think his comment summarizes it nicely, “Sounds as if we have been given a freedom to determine what our origin will be: nothingness or God.”

  59. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mark,
    Regarding the manna given to the Israelites: rightly so. Good lesson! Thank you for that too.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, you have a good point. I will say, however, the structure of the Church both Liturgically, theologically is what allows noetic experience to deepen and avoid delusion. It allows for, supports and directs us to true worship, genuine repentance and community. The experience alone, without the Church, tends to not grow or worse.

    The only remotely comparable community I found were the SW Native Americans with their liturgical dance accompanied by the heart beat drums. I assume that the Hebrew Temple worship was something even deeper.

    Theology alone can lead to a Pharisaical approach.

    The Holy Spirit leads us, if we allow Him to.

  61. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,

    Thank you for the thanks! Sorry to make you blush. Fr. Stephen made me blush. Of course, I had it coming. Anyway, I have wanted to say that for a while now and did not because of fear that it would sound weird.

    I would like to read your essays if Fr Stephen will allow the link.

    It is smart to be careful of blogging or writing publicly. The only person’s writing that I currently closely follow is Fr. Stephen’s. For a time, I followed another so-called Orthodox writer, maybe so-called is unfair. If so, I apologize in advance. He went well off the deep end. Then, I followed him out of absolute dismay. Now, I don’t even want to know. I think adulation, even relatively small, can be dangerous for the subject of that adulation. Not to mention the harm done to followers who adapt something of that person’s ideas. Ideas that can be wrapped in beautiful words and mystical notions, yet lead to a dark web of wrecked lives.

    One example I will give is of an idea that I got from somewhere. Cannot remember where. It almost seems Chestertonian, but I haven’t been able to re-find the source. Not to offend people who like Chesterton. I do and I don’t. Isn’t that so Chestertonian of me?

    A number of years ago, I became captivated by the notion that sometimes to do right, one has to do wrong. Prior to becoming gobsmacked by this idea, I would have had the sense to know it was garbage. But because of circumstances,I picked up on this, adapted it, and justified it. Without going into details, I did get my comeuppance. I read a lot, so who knows where I picked this up.

    So, it is good and a sign of humility that you do not trust yourself to have your own blog. Still, if you ever do a Substackish kind of thing, I would read until you got a big ego and started Snapping Selfies at Spritually Significant Spots. I hope that’s not too catty.

    You said,
    “It’s staggering how many people confuse their psychological certainty with knowledge.”

    Indeed. I was raised on this sort of ideology. Still, in the Bible Belt I come across a lot of religious people who are psychologically certain. I find it scary and sad.

    I was in a church similar to Jehovah’s Witness. 30 years later, I still cannot trust church, authority, or even groups centered around any one person.

    Anyway, thanks again. I was afraid of how you would take knowing that you have a fan. And one who is usually too shy to comment. I thought that by speaking up that you might see that you have some talents that others might appreciate and even pay for the privilege.

  62. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for a wonderful reflection that has so much to ponder. You said in one of your comments (in reply to someone’s question) that the way to “hear the tone beneath the suffering” is by settling in your heart the goodness of God. This seems so central and is the main point I will dwell on. It’s very much needed and therapeutic.

    I also appreciate that you wrote: “I would be willing to extend St. Paul’s statement [Rom. 8:28] to say simply: All things work together for good.” This is so much more cosmically profound than other common interpretations I’ve heard throughout my life that focus more narrowly on the circumstances of one’s own life. I would be curious though to know how you might understand what St. Paul meant in the remaining words “…to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”

    Thank you again, and glory to God for all things.

  63. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kenneth,
    I have seen that verse rendered thus: “For those who love God and are called according to His purposes, all things work together for good.” The Greek can be read in that manner. For myself, I think that all things universally work together for good, because God is good. However, I think it is an “eschatological” question whether someone will be willing to live with the good that is being worked for us. That is a matter of freedom. Will the love of God be light, or will it burn? It is truly a “fire.” It can do either.

  64. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    “Will the love of God be light, or will it burn? It is truly a “fire.” It can do either.”

    Amen. Everything hinges on the heart. Whether it has “eyes” to see.

  65. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    “I was in a church similar to Jehovah’s Witness. 30 years later, I still cannot trust church, authority, or even groups centered around any one person.”

    I am right there with you. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever get over it. I wonder how much the self-doubt it created is still holding me back. When you believe in such a way where doubt seems impossible and everything seems True only to find out it was a steaming pile leftover from 19th century Adventism…well, that’s hard to recover from. I remember feeling so lost and uncertain about everything. It was the first time I really encountered existential despair. Descartes likened it to being lost at sea where you can’t see land and you can’t touch bottom.

    “Ideas that can be wrapped in beautiful words and mystical notions, yet lead to a dark web of wrecked lives.”

    I agree. To me the deeply subjective language is too vague. It can almost mean almost anything you want it to mean. My rule of thumb is to say less rather than say more. I enjoy the occasional theological excursion, but less is more.

    I can always share the link to the essay through Fr. Stephen if you like.

  66. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, thank you.

  67. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Michael,

    Thank you so much for sharing the account of your wife’s passing. I came back to read it today, after I received word that one of my Uncles took his own life this morning. I have no answers for my family. Everyone is grieving. Nobody saw it coming.

    As I read your note, I realized that the the angels and the saints must have seen his pain. They saw and they prayed for him. I have no doubt. I am heartened that someone was praying for him. We all would have been if we’d known his struggle.

    Thank you for sharing. I am incredibly grateful. Lord, have mercy on us.

  68. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    You asked whether the cause of suffering in Buddhism and Christianity are similar. Yes, I think they are: ignorance. Some stress the radical difference between these traditions, as Simon does above. (I’m grateful, Simon, for your precision and accuracy.) That is fine; but I do not take that approach. I try to look for deep common ground. You also asked whether they deal with suffering differently. No, I think they both teach death to self. This too could also be nuanced such that there seems to be no similarity between the traditions. Again, I’m fine if someone takes that approach. I myself sense a mystery at play beyond the scope of institutional teachings. Different people are in different places with these questions. I am only sharing my opinions and interpretations here as an Orthodox Christian layman, since you asked, Matthew. Glory to Jesus Christ.

  69. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon, Eliza
    Glad to facilitate when ya’ll are ready.

  70. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    May the Lord be merciful to your uncle and may he be healed and welcomed into paradise.

  71. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon and Fr. Stephen,
    Yes, I would like the link to the essays. Thank you for being willing to share.

    Fr. Stephen, I think you have my email address from when I input a comment. If not, then I can email you so that you know where to send Simon’s links.

    Simon, you said, “ It was the first time I really encountered existential despair. Descartes likened it to being lost at sea where you can’t see land and you can’t touch bottom.”

    Yes. That despair did not hit me immediately upon exiting that church. Within a couple of years, it slammed me hard. Lost at sea is probably the best metaphor. I am embarrassed to admit that I became numb. Numb to anything except caring about stray animals that found their way to me.

    Becoming pregnant with my daughter was my rescue. In mothering her, the numbness was replaced with hope. I thanked and do thank Providence always for seeing me through to the day when my soul reawakened. This is an oversimplification, but to the direct point.

    This was not the end of all my problems, and I did sometimes despair in the years afterward. But not for the same reasons and never in the numbness of a withered soul.

    Now, I like to think that I know better than to despair. I see the time that I wasted on that emotion was unconstructive. I could have given so much more goodness to my daughter and the rest of the people and, even, the animals in my life, to everything, if I had seen that life itself is hope.

    Life is everything. I know this idea does not explain suffering. But I believe in redemption and I believe that God redeems suffering, because it has to be. Because Christ’s suffering was redeemed. I am just echoing what so many here already have said. But it is the conclusion that I have reached, as well.

    My problem now is I don’t know how to breach the divide for the rest of my time here on earth. The divide between me and gathering with like minds and receiving communion. So many times I was so close to going to the local Latin mass Catholic Church but I could never do it because of that particular scandal. I visited the Greek Orthodox Church a few times but don’t want to attend long enough to make enemies. Silly, I know. And so forth.

    Anyway, many thanks for being willing to chat. I am always willing to talk about all sorts of fun topics. Cults, despair, distrust, abusive people, feelings of uselessness, etc.

  72. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nathan, I echo Fr. Stephen.

  73. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    Cults, despair, distrust, abusive people, feelings of uselessness…that’s my bread and butter! These things have become like a habit of the mind. Like, when I am just driving down the road or mowing the lawn that’s where my mind drifts off to. Takes hard work post-brainwash not to confuse the level of threat I feel to the level of actual threat in the environment.

    Owen, I feel compelled to disagree with you on the cause of suffering. When I was meditating with the Wat Phrasriratanaram Buddhist monks in STL they were very clear with visitors that the central cause to suffering is Atman, the self. Attachment to Atman and its subsequent attachments to Maya constitutes an ignorance of the truth that there is no self (Anatman). In other words, people have a common sense assumption that their is a real personhood or personal essence that constitutes “who they really are” and in Buddhist thought this discreet billiard-ball-like individuality is the cause of suffering. More specifically, it is ignorance that this billiard-ball-like individuality is an illusion and which creates attachment to Maya through desires that is the cause of suffering. In other words, there is a self-reinforcing feedback loop between Atman and Maya. Fun fact: I have a Sanskrit tattoo from the Dhammapada which I received from a lay Buddhist practitioner I met on retreat.

    That is NOT superficially different from Orthodoxy. That is a substantial difference.

    In Orthodoxy personhood is not illusory. Personhood is not the cause of suffering. Suffering is not transcended as if you could free yourself from suffering by escaping the tenacious illusion of personhood and separateness. The more I think about it the bigger the gulf between Orthodoxy and Buddhism becomes. I apologize if I am coming across obnoxiously. But, I think this point deserves to be hammered out. In Orthodoxy, the paraousia (presence) of the deified person (hypostasis) is front and center of the whole damn thing.

    Here is my long and short of it, and I hope Fr. Stephen lets me slide. In my understanding Creation is intended for the communion of hypostases. That is the telos. However it has come to be–pick a mythology–Creation is experiencing fragmentation and the pieces are experiencing their own internal alienation and dis-integration. I don’t know how to talk about the initial fracture in Creation that has spiderwebbed into the vision-occluding, communion-breaking mess that we have today. But, from what I understand, the spiderweb is the problem. The cross uses the spiderweb to undo the spiderweb–trampling down spiderweb by spiderweb. In the Cross the ever sprawling spiderweb is being mended from the within the spiderweb itself, from inside the fracture. A person who has mended the alienation and dis-integration within themselves is called a saint. The saint hasn’t transcended suffering, the saint has healed the fracture within themselves. The saint has moved from mere psychological into real hypostatic existence. That is what I understand to be a kernel to Orthodox teaching.

    The more I think about it, the less analogous Buddhism and Orthodox mysticism seem. I apologize if that seems confrontational.

    Good grief…could be how I am losing all my friends… : (

  74. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    I am rereading your last comment and I am glad you spoke up because your experience is so much like and to hear the change in how you experience despair is encouraging. My son has also been a lifeline as well. I tell him all the time that he saved my life. The story I tell him is that I was trapped in darkness and an angel from God kicked in the doors and led me out. I asked the angel ‘Who are you?’ and the angel said ‘You will know me when you see my face.’ And then you were born and I saw your face for the first time.

    I am having a difficult time. I am hoping my present challenges don’t stand in the way. If you could remember to pray for me I would appreciate it.

  75. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon,
    Perhaps as a side note here, I think we can rather obviously extend “freedom to determine what our origin will be: nothingness or God”, to [having] “freedom to determine our eternal end “.
    And importantly, in this understanding we can also say that, everyone is actually granted Theosis, even the devil himself; but, there’s Theosis in Love and in Truth – the Theosis of the ‘saved’, and there’s theosis in ego – ‘theosis’ of the ‘lost’. Our God-likeness lies in this freedom to absolutely self-determine, and it is probably steered rightly (as well as tested mostly), to the degree we try to always turn God-wards and utter from our inner core “Your will be done”, (like the Theotokos at the Annunciation [Luke 1:38] and the Lord Himself at Gethsemane [Luke 22:42]) in the face of suffering…
    And the more we align ourselves with eternal objective meaning – the Logos – the more suffering is transformed. Utter and un-transformed suffering (Hell) is essentially utter lack of meaning. Bring in full meaning and suffering is transformed.
    Hanging on the Cross of any type of suffering, let us always attempt, again and again, to turn like the good Thief on his cross ‘Christ-wards’ as much as we can. [Luke 23:42]
    And if someone can label even such continuous attempts at re-orienting our attention to the Good Lord as also being efforts at some self-induced illusion, we could say that, the thing is, our power of absolute self-determination for good or for bad, mainly lies in this act of choice of internal noetic orientation/attention, so we guard and steer it accordingly.

  76. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Owen. Death to self … one way is to dies in the arms of God and be made alive in Christ. The other way seems to be to die into a cloud of nirvana and non-being. This may be a gross oversimplification, but if I am correct I´ll take classical Christianity over Buddhism any day of the week and twice on Sunday!

  77. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Nathan. I too echo Fr. Stephen´s words.

  78. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Do we invite suffering? Do we avoid suffering? Should we attempt to alleviate suffering? What purpose does suffering have? Why did God make a deal with satan which brought poor Job so much suffering?

    The topic of suffering has me tied in knots … just a bit! 🙂

  79. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dino,
    I love what you said about everyone being granted theosis. That is spot on, I believe. But I do wonder about “absolute self-determination for good or for bad.” That seems to paint a picture of moral neutrality. Wouldn’t we rather say that our essential nature is good, that there’s a law written on our heart, an eternity planted within us, which never ceases to call us into Divine Life? This would mean every striving of ours is actually for the good, i.e. even our evil actions are accomplished because we think (in ignorance) that they are good in some sense. If self-determination were *absolute,* how would God work all things for good? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  80. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Regarding God and Satan’s chat about Job,

    I t brings to mind an image of Mom or Dad chatting over the back fence with the neighborhood ogre.

    “Yes, that’s fine, he is a bit of a pampered goody-goody, give him a bit of drama. Just don’t kill him.”

    Not to make light of the situation. That’s long been my impression of the story. But as Fr Stephen explains it, I take some comfort. Still, myself, I would like to avoid that sort of attention.

  81. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    I understand the either/or approach and respect you choice. Sincerely. For my part, I tend to see shades of grey. May God grant us peace in seeking.

  82. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    My advice is not to use the book of Job as a means to understand the problem of suffering – much less to read the exchange between God and Satan in an objective, historical manner. Read everything through the lens of Christ – frankly, nothing else works. It is also the case that “understanding” suffering never solves it. If understanding suffering solved anything – Christ would have been an author/philosopher. The Cross is the wisdom and power of God. Start there.

  83. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    You shant lose me as a friend for speaking your mind. Nope. We do have a sincere disagreement here. I stand by what I’ve said, but I won’t go on defending it here. Not the proper venue, most likely.

    My heart remains open, brother. Let’s chat soon.

  84. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Simon and Owen: After having read your posts about Buddhism over the past day or so I have come to the conclusion that I am not nearly as informed as the two of you seem to be about the subject. What I have gleaned through your posts, though, is that while there are many touching points between Buddhism and classical Christianity, the core for me seems to be this question of being versus non-being; personal versus impersonal; reality versus illusion.

    Father Stephen: Ok. Let´s say I end agonizing over trying to understand suffering from an intellectual perspective and I just simply accept suffering as a given. What then does the cross teach me (as a believer) about suffering?

  85. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,

    I will surely pray for you, fwiw.

    Thanks for reading my rambling posts. This is another reason that I tend to stay in the background. I like to hear myself talk, or see my own words, too much when I do get going. Then I see that I have talked more than my comfort level and withdraw again. I don’t like having to worry that I said something wrong or did I use a word in a way that in retrospect I didn’t really mean.

    How long have you been away from the JW? You may well have said somewhere in a comment but I haven’t read all comments on the blog all the time because it can get too much. But yours and Fr Stephen’s dialogs keep me coming back.

    I will have to be sure how I use the word despair now. I have to go back and find my first comment here and see if I characterized my social experience as despairing. I may have. If I did, that is an overstatement compared with the utter devastating despair of having left my long ago church. That also coincided with a divorce that I didn’t want. All of it was connected.

    Anyway, I have prob said too much.

    Prayers and hopes for you. Fr Stephen I don’t know if you can locate my email. I can put it here in some non bot friendly for if need be.

    Thanks to all!

  86. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Simon: Is this an oversimplification?

    Atman (self)
    Maya (physical things)

    Problem: Attachment to Atman as well as to Maya without realizing that neither Atman nor Maya really exist (they are illusions). This construct creates suffering.

    Solution: Practicing Buddhistic principles in order to move on from these attachments into a world of non-being which is ultimately manifested in achieveing nirvana.

    Nirvana is the state where Samara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth) is ultimately defeated.

    If I am on the right track, then I am inclined to think that Orthodoxy is very different from Buddhism for the reasons you already offered up. As a gracious nod to Owen, I do respect his desire to see shades of grey and points of agreement between Buddhism and classical Christianity. I think my sister-in-law wants to to this with me as well. She gave me a book called “Living Buddha, Living Christ” one Christmas. I read it, but still didn´t walk away from it better equipped to answer the kinds of questions the two of you are.

  87. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I cannot render into words what the Cross is in reality (it would just be another intellectual explanation). We are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ – the Crucified Christ is in us and His crucifixion is in us (I am crucified with Christ). It is the slow patient work of bearing the small sufferings of our life – in union with Christ through prayer, etc. And emptying ourselves in love to those around us (that is the Cross in action). A little each day, right where we are. Christ makes it known to us as we live in such a manner (which I usually summarize as “keep the commandments of Christ”).

  88. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Owen,
    since you ask if self-determination were *absolute,* “how would God work all things for good?” I must first answer that –having just mentioned the idea of the devil’s self-willed damnation as “theosis”– I mainly had *his* example of absolute anti-God self-determination in mind.
    There is however, a certain self-determination (mainly towards God Himslef) in us sentient creatures to which God has given a truly free and truly absolute power. It is the core of our likeness to His Image. As simultaneously frightening & divine as such an *absolute* power may be, the Divine Shepherd can regardless, simultaneously both respect it, as well as (inconceivably creatively) steer it towards eternal well-being.
    This, I think, is where the mystery of time (while it exists – Revelation 10:6) plays into Divine Providence, and it is also why we can discern Providence so much better in the rearview mirror.

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Father Stephen.

    I am crucified with Christ. I no longer live. It is Christ that lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave Himself for me.

    Something like that I think :-)!

    Would you say that emptying ourselves in love to those around us (following the commands of Christ) would also include helping to alleviate their suffering?

  90. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you Father Stephen and Dino, for the recent comments to Matthew and Simon (respectively).

    They are keepers.

    Eliza:

    “I like to hear myself talk, or see my own words, too much when I do get going. Then I see that I have talked more than my comfort level and withdraw again. I don’t like having to worry that I said something wrong or did I use a word in a way that in retrospect I didn’t really mean.”

    Again, I think we’re likely similar on ye old Myers-Briggs. The same feeling can also prevent my doing good for others, however, so I think it’s a feeling that often is unhealthy for us, rather than corrective of an actual problem.

    Posting non-anonymously (transparently) on the Internet is, in this respect, new for me, but since I know Father Stephen in real life it would seem somehow deceptive to “talk” with him here under a pseudonym.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Each soul has layers. The outermost layer is the life of the world, the flesh and the devil. As we approach the Cross in our life, through prayer, worship and other efforts the layers fragment and gradually are peeled away. Repentance allows us to tear away more layers. It is the activity of the Cross in our life. Our shame is over come as we repent and Joy is revealed in and through the blessings of the Holy Spirit and communion with our Lord, Jesus Christ. There are always more layers and opportunity to know Joy even in the midst of pain and suffering.

    Buddhism has nothing like it because it is impersonal and denied the Incarnation.
    Athanasius “On The Incarnation of the Word” is the best theology I have read.
    BTW it is available through the best bookstore ever: Eighth Day Books: http://www.eighthdaybooks.com
    They also carry Fr. Stephen’s books and many, many more.

  92. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Michael!

  93. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    St Ignatius famous Epistle to Romans is one of the best rendering in words of -at least- the ‘phronema’ of the Cross, the ‘inverted logic’ of the Cross and his divine godwards fervour is clearly seen in them and is quite astounding, just consider some of his expressions from it:

    “I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.”
    “I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more.
    “What a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me!”
    “Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil —only let me get to Jesus Christ!
    “I would rather die and get to Jesus Christ, than reign over the ends of the earth. That is whom I am looking for — the One who died for us. That is whom I want — the One who rose for us. I am going through the pangs of being born.”
    “Let me imitate the Passion of my God. If anyone has Him in him, let him appreciate what I am longing for, and sympathize with me, realizing what I am going through.”
    “My Desire has been crucified and there burns in me no passion for material things. There is living water in me, which speaks and says inside me, “Come to the Father.”
    “I do not want to live any more on a human plane.”

  94. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dino. Most of the time I feel like I am too weary, too afraid, too unable to live up to the call these saints describe. The Cross seems to much to bear for a mere mortal like me.

    I love Jesus. I trust Jesus. I try my best to follow Jesus. That said, I am still afraid of so much.

    Lord have mercy.

  95. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Matthew,

    If you want to know something about Buddhism, then you should probably ask a Buddhist. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ is a good read. The same guy that gave me the tattoo also gave me a copy of that book. At the end of the day, there’s nothing that beats becoming a friend to a community. So, if you have the time, find a Buddhist center and talk to the monks. Think about what you hear and come back to the blog and share your experiences. That could be very enriching for everyone!

    Dino, that is really interesting. Here is what I heard you say. Suffering will always exist in so far there is nothing that will not be granted theosis. Those who transform suffering through the heartfelt “Thy will be done” it will transformed for life and light. But for those who do not turn to God they will always be with their suffering and their suffering will become their own hell. What I find interesting is the implication. The implication is that suffering was always a part of Creation and it was always meant to be transformed as part of the human experience, which would align with Christ being crucified before the founding. In other words, there was never a time where Creation was suffering-free. Because if that is not the case then Creation is expected to bear a burden it was never intended to bear. In which case, how could God ever expect anyone to bear suffering well?

    If you decide to respond, please, keep it simple. Even a simple yes or no will work!

    Fr. Stephen, could you share your thought on that as well.

    Frankly, I have concerns about how anyone who is a conditional being can be responsible to make absolute choices that have eternal consequences. My kid can make choices, but I also understand that he isn’t capable of understanding the gravity of the consequences. Frankly, when I look at humanity that is what I see. I see people in a messed up situation they didn’t create and they don’t understand. Maybe they have no awareness at all of some hypothetical (to them) noetic faculty. Yet their decisions are going to imprison them in their untransformed suffering for eternity? How can a non-eternal being make that kind of eternal choice? It doesn’t make sense.

    As to self-induced illusions, even Orthodoxy can become a self-induced illusion. As psychological creatures we are very vulnerable to self-induced illusions. If we aren’t aware of that then of course a person can have some sort of gratifying self-induced experience that they will confuse for the real thing. That’s human behavior 101.

  96. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    that is the situation for us all, those words of St Ignatius are essentially the words of the Spirit that has filled him and set him on fire, whereas we are struggling to find a mere spark still there in our soul.
    However, it is good to nurture that spark at all times and reading the words of those truly inflamed, is a very useful thing, as long as we know that we are using them in that manner.
    With time, such a ‘practice’ becomes more effective, it is quite like the situation bodily training, where initially, upon seeing the enthusiasm of those who are rather obsessed with it, this might put some people off (rather than inspire them), but with small steps, they eventually start seeing that an internal feedback-loop of healthy zeal becomes firmly established.

  97. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Mark,

    Thank you for your comments and encouragement. That anyone here is willing to talk to me is heartening.

    I thought that you must be using your real identity and that is quite bold for an introvert. I wish that I were in Fr Stephen’s church area. I am around 3 – 3 1/2 hours to the south and I do not like the Chattanooga to Knoxville interstate drive.

    Eliza is part of one of my names, btw.

    Thanks, again.

  98. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I too wish I was in Fr. Stephen´s church area Eliza. If I was going to drive there, though, I have to admit they haven´t built that bridge yet!

  99. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dino.

    How do you understand repentance from an Orthodox perspective?

  100. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Simon and Eliza,

    If I were in the same room with you, I would give you a great big hug, should you allow it.

    Dana

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