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. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    @ Dana:

    🙂 🙂

  2. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Eliza,

    Going back to something you posted earlier:

    [quote]
    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.
    [End quote]

    I think that you are on the right track there, and (in my experience) answering your “how” question is something for which prayer is made. Be open and listen closely when you are praying, and you may hear an answer or answers.

    For introverts, it may be an answer that makes us uncomfortable, but I think this is included in what Father Stephen describes as the “slow patient work of bearing the small sufferings of our life.” We may feel ridiculous in the company of extroverts to equate this minor hell of our own making and imagination with “suffering,” but it is real and difficult for us.

    I do believe–as you have articulated in your second paragraph–that is where the struggle for our soul’s redemption lies.

  3. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Thank you Dana, Matthew, and Mark! And bless you, Dana, for the thought – hugs to you.🤗

    Mark, I will try to do what you have said here. Thanks, again.

  4. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    what I have gleaned from the genuine God-bearing saints is that at its core, genuine repentance is, I guess, that very same thing earlier stated to Owen: our “continuous attempts at re-orienting our attention to the Good Lord” in all situations.

  5. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks, Dino.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think I’m not really able to speak definitively on the “bookend” questions. I’m also of the mind that whatever our “choices” might be – they are ultimately for our good – a freedom appropriate to who we are as creatures. I definitely do not think the universe is rigged against us.

    But, I sometimes stare at all of it and have unanswered questions.

  7. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    You mentioned, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Thich Nhat Hanh offered a fairly surface level treatment in that book. If you’re seriously trying to wrap your mind around Buddhist teaching, I might recommend either his Old Path White Clouds, or The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. The former is a narrative account of the Buddha’s life with the main lines of his teaching; the latter is a systematic account of the philosophy.

    From a Christian perspective, a sympathetic account is found in Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian, by Paul Knitter. He’s a Roman Catholic. I don’t know of any specifically Orthodox interactions with Buddhist thought. Which is a shame, I think. Nicholas Arseniev’s book, Revelation of Life Eternal, briefly explores the history of religions from an Orthodox position. And I find helpful Philip Sherrard’s chapter, “Christianity and Other Sacred Traditions,” in his book, Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition (Holy Cross).

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    I saw your comment mentioning Living Buddha, Living Christ, after I had posted mine. I didn’t intend to undercut what you said. I actually agree, it’s a good book.

  9. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Owen and Simon

  10. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Simon: Thanks for your thoughts about conditional beings and eternal choices. I agree. I think such a viewpoint is filled with compassion and mercy.

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dino and Owen for your thoughts about repentance. Very helpful!

  12. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Fr. Stephen,

    I watched the Connect 2018 video, as I said that I would and intend to rewatch it.

    Fantastic. I was particularly struck by the notion of music, or musical language, being circular vs the linearity of speaking. Such a brilliantly simple observation, yet my mind was carried off to the point of distraction. I would recommend that everyone watch it.

    So, a must watch again. I may do that tomorrow while I have lots of waiting around time again. Symphony rehearsals for my daughter and I am her chauffeur.

    Many thanks!

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, would you agree that as a fundamental part of the “reorienting our attention to the Good Lord” in repentance is three fold: 1. Understanding that only Jesus Christ is the mercy we need; 2. I need His Mercy to become who I am; and 3. accepting His Mercy which unites us to Him in communion.

    It is then can become a living interrelationship that transforms and transfigures as in the lives of the Saints. We have several recent examples in the US with St. John Maximovich being the pinnacle.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Guys, I spent 14 years in an organization that formally taught the spiritual equivalence of Buddha and Jesus and other avatars. It was one of the beliefs which I had to renounce to be received into the Church.

  15. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,
    Sorry this is so long.

    I have gone back to reread comments that I needed more time to think on. You said,

    “It isn’t obvious to me that the world is good. And frankly it isn’t obvious to many other people either. “

    I would agree with this statement, as it is. But creation, life, I see as good. I cannot explain pathogens and poisonous animals, and such. Those things are worthy of awe, at least. But I do believe that life is good.

    Because it is not obvious that the world is good, is that not why we should pray as in Luke 11:2, “thy kingdom come”? If the world were good, per se, would we need to pray for this? Maybe Fr. Stephen can interject on whether this means literally, or in our minds. I have taken it literally.

    I spent most of my life hearing the Lord’s Prayer, but never really hearing.

    Luke 11:2 I find to be so stunning that I can hardly get past it to contemplate the rest of the chapter. I would love to read it in Greek, but all my efforts to learn have been abandoned because of one interruption or other.

    BTW, Fr. Stephen, I would pay to study Koine Greek with you if you are ever inclined to teach it online.

    I am struck by this,
    “I am the tumbleweed king.”

    Off topic, in Utah, my daughter and I once pulled the car off the road to chase a huge tumbleweed. Couldn’t catch it.

    You remind me of how I was back in the late 90s and early 2000s. Everything seemed hopeless and pointless. By then, I was an agnostic- which apparently you are not. So you are definitely one up on me there. I questioned everything and kept hitting nothing but cold hard empty lonely nothing, no answers. True despair as you have characterized this state, as well.

    Motherhood began to bring about the change. Still, even now, I can lose myself in, “What in the world is going on? I mean, What!!” I could go insane, truly, if I let myself be taken over by all these thoughts. Industrialization really disturbs me, btw. I probably have been clinically depressed multiple times throughout my life. Looking back, so many of my depressions might have been avoided if I had quit chasing the unknowable or the unhaveable.

    I would still be in that state if something hadn’t shaken me out of it. Awakened me from the state of idolizing whatever I wanted that I did not have. (Not saying you have idols, just that I did.) I would be there if I hadn’t been brought to my knees in awe of what I do have, what my daughter has, what is all around me. I have known loss of dear ones, dear lives. But I have seen signs that this is not the end.

    Life. God, somehow and for whatever reason, looked out on the vast whatever and let loose the spark of life. I know nothing much at all. I just know that I cannot as creation question a Creator. Not anymore. I mean, who the heck am I?

    You are a questioner. I think I am too. It’s hard to let go of questions. I have books about everything because I’m a seeker. But with my limited lifespan, at 56, I have to let much of it go. No one could tell me that back in the day.

    It’s hard to be happy for the life you have when it seems so lacking or miserable in some way. But you are super smart, you have your son, it sounds like you have a wife, and you may have a church? Give your son his best father. His best father happy(ish) in the life he has now with his boy. Give to people who want to hear your thoughts the chance to learn from you. You would prob make a heck of a science teacher.

    I have written waaay too much and there’s more to say.

    Hope I haven’t overstepped.

  16. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Wow, so much gratitude for everyone here. Each of you seem to be expressing something that is in my heart or weighing on my mind.

    I often get stuck on words or ideas, but I think this community and all of you are a living expression of the Cross. After all my attempts to form an intelligent comment went away, all I could see was such love and support and kindness and vulnerability. It definitely makes bearing the suffering of the world a little bit easier, to not have to bear it alone.

  17. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    I deeply appreciate your experience and it is very encouraging to me to see you sharing so many thoughts!! At the end of the day, I am an Orthodox Christian. My priest says that he knows that I am because he was there when I was baptized. If I am being honest, right now I feel a lot of shame. And I know the situation is not my fault–or maybe it is. I am struggling to see the forest for the trees. I speak frequently from different places in my life. Sometimes I give voice to the atheist I used to be. Sometimes I give voice to the seeker, to the guy shipwrecked by doubts. The boys are all here! It’s like all the possible people I could have been are still here kicking gravel. Psychologically I see myself as a collection of unintegrated, undeveloped possibilities.

    I am an Orthodox Christian because the kernel of Orthodoxy seems crystal clear. Clear in a way that nothing else is. But there are too many other things in me that just cannot see it. When you hear that description does it in any way resonate with you?

    I have this story that I tell my kid. I tell him that he saved my life. That I was trapped in a dark place and I couldn’t see to find my way out. Then an angel broke down the doors and led me out into the light. When I asked the angel his name the angel said, “You will know me when you see my face.” Then you were born and and right then I saw the face of my angel.

    I usually get big hugs from my boy right after that. But, today, he changed the story. He said ‘Dada, I didn’t break down the doors. It was Jesus.” Really? “Yeah, but I was there.” You were? “Yeah, I was the angel. You almost gave up, but Jesus took down the doors.” That wasn’t you that pulled me out of that hole? “Well, I helped.” You know, there is more truth in the story than not. And he sees Jesus as a liberator, and I am thankful for that.

  18. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael,
    I believe those three points you make and probably many others are inherent to our “turning God-wards”

  19. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael,
    Which organization was that?

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, forgive me but the name is not important. There was a lot of that “New Age” belief running around on the West Coast in the ’60s and ’70s into the ’80s. The fortunate folk, by Grace, became Orthodox. We put away childish things.
    The spiritual work of Orthodox Christianity is of an entirely different quality and depth. Many realized that and choose the Truth.

  21. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    No forgiveness necessary, Michael. It’s a relief to know you left behind “childish things.” As I often tell my own children: it’s hard to grow up.

  22. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,

    “ I am an Orthodox Christian because the kernel of Orthodoxy seems crystal clear. Clear in a way that nothing else is. But there are too many other things in me that just cannot see it. When you hear that description does it in any way resonate with you?”

    Yes, that description does resonate with me. Profoundly. Not just with Orthodoxy, but with my belief in God, Christ, and so on. The kernel seems clear but is clouded with all the buts, what abouts, how’s, etc.

    At this point, despite questions that will still come to mind, I am learning to tune that out and hear only the what-must-be. Like an old dial style radio where there is a certain spot where the station is clear, other points less so, and then all static.

    Some days it is super clear, some days there is a little static.

    For now, I am not completely surrounded by static. I cannot let myself be or I would lose my mind. I know this. I cannot get into all of that here, but that’s how it is.

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    To the community,
    FWIW, and with respect for you all, I wanted to share a brief word about my own appreciation for certain aspects of non-Christian religions as revealed in this thread. Such notions only find a place in my worldview through the lens of Jesus Christ. In my view, these ideas must pass through the purifying filter of Christ. I believe the mind of Christ is the gold standard for anyone who claims to follow Christ as a disciple. Thus, how we think is paramount.

    St Paul tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Wherever we find truth, we find Christ. Christ plays in 10,000 places. The New Testament, in my view, gives a cosmopolitan view of Christ. Indeed, Christ encompasses the entire cosmos, the primordial Body of Christ, and all have (at least) an implicit participation in Christ.

    When this underlying participation is made explicit, such as in religious language, that which is universally direct and immediate takes on a limited form through symbols and sacraments. Orthodox Christians call these “mysteries.” In this sense, the Church is the Mystery of the Body of Christ. The saints and the faithful are the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ. These limited symbols and sacraments give us mediated access to the cosmic mystery of Jesus Christ.

    When it comes to non-Christian religions, I try to keep in mind that the people who believe and practice such things have, at least, and implicit participation in the cosmic Christ. This is why we find much truth and beauty and goodness in their practices and beliefs – because they are images in the Image, the kingdom of God is inside them too. Anyone who lives in love, lives in God, for God is love.

    My own exploration of these other traditions, I hope, has been a discerning one, and not slapdash. I believe that as limited creatures we need a limited (i.e. explicit) tradition and grammar to mediate the cosmic Mystery of Christ to us. I am an Orthodox Christian. I believe this tradition, at its best, mediates by its “mysteries” the Mystery of Christ most powerfully. With Orthodox Christianity as my “base camp,” I prayerfully seek to mine the riches of Christ in those 10,000 “other” places.

    Glory to Jesus Christ, and blessings to all.

  24. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Simon and Eliza,

    “Sometimes I give voice to the atheist I used to be. Sometimes I give voice to the seeker, to the guy shipwrecked by doubts. The boys are all here! It’s like all the possible people I could have been are still here kicking gravel. Psychologically I see myself as a collection of unintegrated, undeveloped possibilities.”

    I think Eliza’s metaphor of the radio is spot on here, Simon. Not all of the “boys” are the essential you and can be integrated. As Father Stephen and Orthodox theology describe it, we let loose those parts of the self that are not Christ; or, as Eliza describes it, we learn to tune out the static.

    (It occurs to me that we partly want to hang onto all of those possibilities because letting go of them feels like and calls to mind death, but, indeed, scripture says we must die to live again.)

    In reaction to Michael’s angelic vision, you asked, “But, there is a part of me that wonders why God doesn’t bridge the gap in that way for everyone…including myself.”

    Part of my response to your question was to mention “I am grateful and observant whenever the hand of God works good in my life.” (I actually meant to say “I am grateful and try to be observant” but my fingers did not type the “try to” my brain intended, for I think all of us might encounter “angels unaware.”)

    Have you considered that your son’s reaction to your story may be one of those small personal miracles that we don’t always recognize?

    This, from Dino, is worth in my opinion repeating: “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.”

  25. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Mark,

    You are very kind and I do appreciate your comments here and that you have made me feel welcome.

    Your statement to Simon regarding all the voices makes sense – that all the boys are not the real him. I will have to remember this for myself. Still, I do relate to what he says.

    Your quote from Dino is poignant and I am trying to absorb all of its meaning.

    Thanks!

  26. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,

    A follow-up to my last comment to you:

    I think a part of the reason for all the questions is that it has become ingrained. It is reflex, dignity, survival, and identity. I don’t mean to speak for you. Just that this is my perception of my own experience.

    Because when we were being raised in our cult churches we either weren’t questioning or if we did, that was quickly shut down. We were conditioned to shut it down ourselves. Does this hit home?

    Coming out from that dungeon where we’d been held for a good part of our lives, maybe all, the longer we were free, the more questions there were.

    It felt like an indignity not to ask the questions. It felt inferior.

    Because when we should have been asking questions, we weren’t. We couldn’t. We weren’t allowed. We didn’t allow ourselves.

    I still ask questions, I just don’t let them overtake me. I don’t let them imprison me.

    Well, maybe I do to the point that I don’t join a church. Just caught myself in a bit of a contradiction.

    I believe that I no longer rebel against God, that I accept that there is an eternal Creator. I accept that there must be a moral code.

    But, I do still rebel against human authority, particularly church. So, I do still have issues. And maybe this is a sort of rebellion against God, if He expects us to be linked in community of that sort.

  27. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Owen: Thanks so much for your thoughts about other religions. I think I agree with most of what you shared. As a Protestant, though, who is once again really warming up to the sacramental but who still has questions … why do you think that when something universal is made explicit it then leads to it becoming limited (in the form of the “mysteries” of the church for example)?

  28. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Owen: In addition … is God´s grace not wider and bigger than something that is limited?

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, I suspect I saw the angel because my wife Pamela did. She had always been a friend to angels. I wondered more than once why she got to see them and I did not. Those there who saw it were the one’s who loved her the most: me, my son and her best friend. It was obvious that she was praying with the angel.

    My priest did not see, nor the chanters nor the medical folk…

    To be Orthodox one has to be comfortable with a non-linear, non-egalitarian reality. A lot unseen, but nonetheless real. No one comes to God accept by Jesus Christ. The Sacraments are hierarchical too. No one receives unless the bishop blesses them to. At one point my Bishop banned me from receiving because I had committed an act outside the canons of the Church. It was a penance. He restored me once my penance was complete.
    I do not have a “right” to anything. His Grace is so much more than my will can ever recognize. The billionaire who is a member of my parish is not ahead of me for salvation either.
    We were unworthy of the blessing we received, yet we received it by Grace and the prayers of the Church(seen and unseen)in which we dwelt at that time. I saw. I wondered if I should say anything about it both then and since because the story can create blocks in people. Yet it is what happened.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  30. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    Good questions. I will try my best.

    If they’ve lived a little while, most people understand that language is limited. They might say, “words fail me here…” More technically, we could say that words and concepts are always “de-fined,” that is, “of the finite.” By its very nature, explicit language is circumscribed and particular in terms of its referent, its scope being limited to a finite meaning. This is not a bad thing. It’s just part of the finite creaturely experience. We can’t articulate the infinite. What is most interesting to me is that we only have access to the infinite via the finite. This is the Christian doctrine of kenosis.

    We ourselves are finite also, as well as self-reflective, so within our very selves we have direct access to the infinite. We can have an immediate encounter if we gaze into the mirror of our own soul to see the infinite. This is the realm of the implicit – i.e. the unstated – the apophatic, where words fall away. The Bible calls this a face-to-face encounter with God. The meaning of such intimate knowledge cannot be explicitly defined or stated in words; it can only be directly experienced. Hence the importance of silence in the spiritual life.

    Religious language, symbols and sacraments lead us into participation with this inherent inner presence. In other words, explicit mysteries of the Church lead us to see – reveal to us as in a mirror – the implicit Mystery of Christ which is the ground of our being. God pours himself out into limited things in the creative mystery of kenosis; but his grace is never limited by any thing, not ever. Grace just is God’s own eternal life – everywhere present and filling all things. It is universal in the widest and deepest sense possible.

  31. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Owen said:

    “Religious language, symbols and sacraments lead us into participation with this inherent inner presence. In other words, explicit mysteries of the Church lead us to see – reveal to us as in a mirror – the implicit Mystery of Christ which is the ground of our being. God pours himself out into limited things in the creative mystery of kenosis; but his grace is never limited by any thing, not ever. Grace just is God’s own eternal life – everywhere present and filling all things. It is universal in the widest and deepest sense possible.”

    Matthew: Forgive me for my continued ignorance, but I must ask again – If grace is everywhere present filling all things, then why do we also need the explicit mysteries of the Church to reveal the implicit Mystery of Christ which is the ground of our being? I, as a Protestant, am not in the Orthodox Church. That said, I try to do as much as I can to be Orthodox without actually receiving the sacraments and being part of the Church. Might that all be enough?

    I would like to chat with you per email if possible Owen. I don´t want to monopolize the comment section with my wanderings which may be of little or no use to others here. Would you be so kind as to offer up your email address?

  32. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    Of course – robertowenkelly at gmail dot com

    I will try to answer your last question after church today. Key word being “try” ☺️

    Have a blessed day.

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Owen. 🙂

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Owen, et al
    I’ve been busy this weekend at a speaking engagement, and unable to comment…but I’ll make an observation or two this morning.

    Matthew, you restated the question that poses the essential need of being sacramentally united with the Church. Is “trying to be Orthodoxy” enough?

    The answer is that grace is “enough.” The Thief on the Cross found salvation “in a single moment.” However, that “grace is enough” is easily misunderstood, and all too easily abused. The temptation, I think, is to fall into the trap of “mental Orthodoxy.” Of imagining that Orthodoxy is a “thought life” rather than a life of concrete practices.

    Modernity, in its two-storey constructs, nurtures a kind of Gnosticism. What matters to us is how we think and feel. In Church contexts, sacraments are not essential, but simply useful (if that). I would even extend this to our dilettante “mining” of other religions. I shy away from saying much about other religions – in simple respect of the fact that it is not something I’ve ever been.

    It is not sufficient to study and extract wisdom from Orthodox Christianity (though in impossible situations, grace is enough). When I decided (such as it was) in 1991 that I wanted/needed to be Orthodox, my prayer was, “O Lord, make me Orthodox.” It seemed impossible (in so many ways). I had no idea how it would come about, and, part of me even meant by the prayer, “O Lord, you’ll have to make me!” But it was declaring to God the desire of my heart in a moment of singular clarity.

    It was another seven years before it actually happened. What took place over those years was a script I could never have written nor foreseen. It was full of fits and starts, contradictions, and even betrayals. In hindsight, “becoming Orthodox” has taken many more years after I was actually received into the Church, and is still on-going. The sacraments are very much at its heart.

    I think it is important to settle what is in our heart (as best we can), and make our way forward. It belongs to God to solve all the many obstacles that come our way – in such things – His grace is indeed enough.

    God keep you.

  35. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. Can you quickly summarize what you mean by modernity´s two-storey construct or should I simply read your book? 🙂

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I would add that even though I was received by the Church in 1986 and have been trying to become Orthodox it was not until last year that I really began to become Orthodox through genuine repentance. Repentance is a continuous practice and when I have enough humility to ask, God is merciful beyond imagining. Years of shame was broken into pieces. Some were taken away but I have more work to do. But, by Grace, I was finally on another story. An act of will is required to open the door to repentance and to keep it open. Giving thanks is part of keeping it open. Giving glory to God and our Lord, Jesus Christ for ALL things.

    Matthew, Father explained the basic nature of the two stories in his reply.
    Mental acceptance and practice(or rejection) that we control that can include a lot of outward practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I have seen in myself the temptation to becoming a Pharisee. Politics and learned criticism Yesterday’s scripture readings address that topic. Galatians 4:22-31 and Luke 8:16-21

    Then there is the second storey. Beautiful, challenging and healing. I am still on the outskirts. May our Lord open the way to you.

    This is the day the Lord has made…Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

  37. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you so much Michael!

  38. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mathew,
    I highly recommend Fr Stephen’s book Everywhere Present, if you haven’t read it yet.

  39. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Reading the book is always a great idea. 🙂 But, essentially, the “two-storey universe” is a way that I describe modernity’s exile of spiritual things to an “upper storey” – imagining that “down here” is a neutral zone, a place of “just stuff,” with no religious significance unless we choose to think about it in that way. In that sense, the world is empty, meaningless, with nothing of inherent worth. So, our Christianity becomes a thing of the head, a set of thoughts. Here below, we perhaps engage in moral activity, but that’s a far cry from the “One-Storey Universe” where God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” where everything has inherent value and meaning.

    Some have used the imagery of a “disenchanted” world. That works, too.

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I like it Fr. Stephen! Thanks so much!

  41. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    Thank you for your comments. You observed:

    I think a part of the reason for all the questions is that it has become ingrained. It is reflex, dignity, survival, and identity.

    I don’t think you could be more correct. It is ingrained. You are absolutely correct. And it has become ingrained for the reasons you mention: reflex, dignity, survival, and identity. What’s funny is I keep making the same mistakes over and over. The shame surrounding dignity, survival, and identity is in the way of moving forward. Or how it has ingrained a compulsive skepticism is in the way. That was genuinely insightful. I appreciate that very much. I’ve done the same with my son. In an effort to protect him from what I have endured in my own childhood–50 years ago–I have failed to help him adjust to his own. He’s just not in ANY immediate danger. Why have I taught him to live as if he is? It goes back to shame surrounding dignity, survival, and identity. And the issues surrounding identity are tremendous.

    Because when we were being raised in our cult churches we either weren’t questioning or if we did, that was quickly shut down. We were conditioned to shut it down ourselves. Does this hit home?

    That hit home like line drive.

    Coming out from that dungeon where we’d been held for a good part of our lives, maybe all, the longer we were free, the more questions there were. It felt like an indignity not to ask the questions. It felt inferior. Because when we should have been asking questions, we weren’t. We couldn’t. We weren’t allowed. We didn’t allow ourselves.

    Thank you for that, Eliza. You’re absolutely right. That is really insightful.

  42. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    I wanted to reiterate what Father said about avoiding the Gnostic heresy which treated the material creation as evil. Orthodoxy is the most incarnational form of Christianity. This is as it should be, since the Church is the Body of Christ.

    To enter the Orthodox temple is to enter the cosmos as sanctified in Christ. Think of Israel’s tabernacle. Scripture says it was patterned after the heavenly tabernacle, and its design was reminiscent of a lush garden. It was truly a microcosm, a “little world,” with heaven in the center in the most holy place. There were ornate vestments, water, oil, incense, candles, colorful images of earthly and heavenly creatures, an alter, and a sacrifice. Remember: this was the heavenly pattern.

    It turns out that all these “worldly” items are found in an Orthodox temple as well – but they have all been refashioned and transformed in Christ and by the Spirit. It is Christ who is in the sanctuary, the most holy place (i.e. heaven), on the altar, sacrificed but risen, his body given to us in the Eucharist. And we, the Orthodox faithful, mystically represent the cherubim, gathered around the altar to feast on the bread of heaven.

    These are just several aspects of the incarnational, earthy, cosmic character of Orthodox Christianity to consider. But, like Father said, as beautiful as they are to think about, they are meant to be experienced and practiced.

    I would like to comment on the “mysteries” in another post. I hope this helps.

  43. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Owen.

  44. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, you asked:

    “If grace is everywhere present filling all things, then why do we also need the explicit mysteries of the Church to reveal the implicit Mystery of Christ which is the ground of our being?”

    This is a tough “why” question. Please know, Matthew, I will NOT do it justice. The question is about the working of God’s grace in the sacraments of the Church as that relates to God’s universal grace. Importantly for me, I believe that nature is inherently graced. God is actively present everywhere in all things to save the world. But we fail to notice this, we fail to attend to the sacrament of creation. In this limited sense, we are disconnected from God’s universal saving activity; we are dis-graced. We need re-union. We need healing for our spiritual sight.

    The particular mysteries of the Church put God’s universal saving activity into sharper focus for us. They remind us that the dying and rising of Christ constitute the very shape of reality by holding up a mirror, effectually reflective for those with eyes to see. For instance, when we enter the temple, we look toward the sanctuary, hidden behind the iconostasis. We then see the Royal Doors open to reveal Christ on his heavenly throne, the cross upon the altar. This architectural design is meant as a mirror: within the depths of our own being, at the innermost part of our soul, hidden, there Christ reigns from heaven.

    We hear time and again in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us attend!” We’re being called back to proper attention. But something clouds our vision. Something must be burned away so that the Spirit can shine. Something must die so that new birth can occur. St Ephraim of Syria says, “Fire and the Spirit are in our baptism. In the bread and the Cup also are fire and the Spirit.” All the mysteries contain the death and resurrection of Christ. The ego, the false “I,” must die so that the “I am” can shine from the sanctuary of our souls.

    God’s grace is not far away, as if God were some kind of object “out there.” Indeed, God’s grace is always closer than close, and it fills heaven and earth. He is the Light that lightens all people. Again, creation is inherently graced by the Spirit of grace. But all people tend to hide their light “under a bushel.” The bushel is the false self. Confused, ignorant, darkened, and thus sinful. The Church is the sacrament of God given to facilitate our ego death and transfigure us into the risen Body of Christ. And the “mysteries” are mirrors, meant to direct our attention back to who we really are as God’s children, just as the prodigal son did: he came to himself, and in so doing, he came back to the Father.

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

  45. MWS Avatar

    The world can be an enchanted place, if you allow it to be. I have had many moments in my life where strange things happened that I just couldn’t explain. The rational would call some of these events coincidences, others they might call them hallucinations. Some of these things might only be recognized as special in hindsight. In the end, I call them all providence, and God’s presence being revealed in this world.

    When I started exploring Orthodox Christianity many years ago, I had a dream – really one of the only real dreams I’ve ever had as an adult. It basically revealed to me that my pursuit of Orthodox Christianity was leading me in the right direction.

    Now, its been a bumpy ride, we’re looking at possibly 20 years and counting since that dream, many things have happened, both good and bad. I have not yet been baptized or chrismated as an Orthodox Christian. However, my experiences in Orthodoxy as part of protestant group that I’m currently with has certainly enriched my experience – and I think in some ways it’s enriching those around me. The people in my circles are asking questions that I’ve never heard asked before.

    I think it’s a good thing.

    Lord have mercy upon me.

  46. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I think it is a good think too MWS. I am connected to some Protestant churches and groups that are “Orthodox friendly”. It has been a great experience.

  47. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon,

    Glad if you found that somehow helpful, even if it is just seeing that someone else gets it.

    I would imagine that there are online groups for ex -Jehovah’s Witnesses, and you may have looked at that sort of thing. I never stayed long with any online groups dedicated to my former church, for one reason or other.

    You said, “ I’ve done the same with my son. In an effort to protect him from what I have endured in my own childhood–50 years ago–I have failed to help him adjust to his own.”

    You have probably prepared him for his own life better than you think. This is the boy who told you that is was Jesus who saved you, not himself, as per one of your recent comments. Sounds like a well raised boy.

    Thanks!

  48. MWS Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s funny to see you write, “Orthodox Friendly”, with regards to my church. I know of at least one prayer group actively praying that I don’t fall into apostasy and leave for the Orthodox Church.

    I admit, at first I was a bit annoyed.

    But here’s the thing. Protestants worship their God from a position of fear. Fear of the God who would kill his son on a cross, so he wouldn’t take his anger out on humanity. Their whole theology is built upon the idea of not making God mad. This thread runs through their approaches to everything from authority, to what rules God wants us to follow, and which ones “were nailed to the cross”.

    All the verses such as, “many are called but few are chosen”, “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”, and even “the 144,000”, are used to justify their fears that salvation is an extremely exclusive club. Somehow, like the Pharisees thousands of years ago, each group thinks they’ve cracked the formula of faith and works where others have failed.

    So, my fellow Church members are driven by their fears for me, my soul, and more broadly the souls of my family. These prayers are coming from a place of concern and fear. So, given all that, how can I possibly despise their hearts?

    To go back to what we were discussing earlier, I feel that what’s happening is Providential – something is happening here… Maybe they will change, maybe I will, but as long as they are praying for me, I am invested in them. And for now, at least, will continue to stay a see what happens.

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    MWS,
    I would like to interject something. You make a pretty sweeping condemnation of Protestants – one that I think is neither fair nor accurate. First, Protestantism includes a wide range of groups and has since its beginning. Much of it, despite its problems, began with noble aspirations and poor assumptions, yielding unexpected consequences.

    But, there are Protestants who are not at all as you describe the group with which you been associated. Thus, just a caveat to speak with greater care.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well, I left my prior religious community despite the presence of Jesus and His mother I had known there because in my first Orthodox Liturgy, they both let me know they want my wife and me to be Orthodox. The hard stuff, the theology questions came came later. The longer I have been Orthodox the more I realize there was far more theological sympathy between the old and the new. But the context is different, the interrelationships are different.

    Those things take a lot of patience to understand. And a lot of Grace.

  51. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Indeed. It was as an Anglican that I first learned to love the Liturgy, the sacraments, the priesthood. It was there that I first learned anything about the saints and the Theotokos, even though they were somewhat “dimmed” in their presentation. What I learned created a hunger in me for the roots of the faith and the fullness – that brought me at last to Orthodoxy. But I would be deeply ungrateful not to acknowledge my indebtedness to my past.

    Vladyka Dmitri, my late Archbishop, used to tell us, “Do not speak evil of where you came from. It is likely the place where you first met Christ.” There are glaring exceptions to that (abusive cults, etc.). Nonetheless, God in His goodness meets us in many places. It is for us to be grateful.

  52. MWS Avatar
    MWS

    Fr. Freeman,
    Thank-you for your words, and I’m sorry for my unmoderated overstatements.

    However, the core theology from Lutheranism onward has been about some sort of tension around faith and works based largely on an Augustinian understanding prevalent in the West. I studied quite a bit, and the only thing that has ever made sense to me has been Orthodox Christianity.

    All the others felt to me to be exceedingly contrived.

    We each fight our own battles.

    My father, for instance, was exceedingly comforted by Luther’s idea of salvation by faith alone, and died with that comfort. May he be blessed.

    Lord have mercy upon me.

  53. Saveliy Sotnikov Avatar
    Saveliy Sotnikov

    “All the verses such as, “many are called but few are chosen”, “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”, and even “the 144,000”, are used to justify their fears that salvation is an extremely exclusive club. Somehow, like the Pharisees thousands of years ago, each group thinks they’ve cracked the formula of faith and works where others have failed.”

    While I can understand the sort of fear that MWS is referring to is not a very healthy place from which to approach God… how else are we supposed to with such words in mind? “Many are called, but few are chosen” but it’s OK because…? “only a few find it” and I’m supposed to not be paranoid about that fact? At least Evangelicals have the “solace” of “knowing” they’re saved because they’ve recited a short prayer.
    I remember reading an old Russian book on the afterlife, and it said, in no uncertain terms, that most people are going to Hell. I ended up rationalizing it as referring to the Particular Judgement; after all, we must have prayers for the dead for a reason, and that maybe by the time of the Final Judgement things will be a lot better? But sometimes I can’t help but feel that He is setting up most people to failure…
    Needless to say, I’ve been praying for the dead a lot more. I find it’s not too different from praying for myself anyways. In all likelihood, I’ll end up in Hell with them, and maybe the favor will return to me in some way.

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Saveliy, do not forget Mt 4:17 “Repent. For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” That is an even stronger promise I think. I will always be a sinner, but that is always tempered and overcome by His forgiveness. I am not chosen but I was called to a life of deep repentance and life by Grace. Now, I have to fulfill that. Conversations such as these inspire me to go more deeply. Thank you…

  55. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Saveliy,
    The good news is that all those Bible verses can be understood in another way. The most important thing (for me) is how we understand God and his character. All scripture should be read in a way worthy of God and his character in Christ, who tramples down death by death and wills that all men be saved. To think that most people are going to Hell forever, or that “He is setting up most people to failure,” is to limit God’s goodness, love, and power to save, to put it mildly. God is more than able in power and willing in love to create a world in which He saves all that He wills. My faith is that God has done so, through the purging of “fire” if necessary. May your prayers for the reposed be blessed.

  56. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Saveliy,
    When I read statements (from whatever source) that “most people are going to hell,” it tells me more about the author than it does about God, the Church, or heaven and hell. There are certainly verses (as you note) that stress difficulties and such, but they have to be read in the context of the whole of Scripture and the life of the Church. I like your approach – more prayers. When we read through the kneeling prayers from the Vespers of Pentecost, for example, our hearts should be encouraged.

    My hope rests in the mercy of God.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you say “My hope rests in the mercy of God.” Everything I know of Him and of you leads me to the conclusion that is not a vain hope.

    By your prayers it will not be a vain hope for anyone here.

  58. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “There are certainly verses (as you note) that stress difficulties and such, but they have to be read in the context of the whole of Scripture and the life of the Church.”

    Do you have any idea how long it took me to learn this??? I now ask where is Christ is in the Scriptures I read, not necessarily where (or what) is the theological meaning of what I am reading. We need the Church to help us understand what we are reading. “Quiet time” doesn´t bring clarity most of the time, only more confusion (IMO).

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

  59. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s an experience we often overlook: No matter what difficulties the gospel reading might give us on any particular Sunday – it still is only a prelude to receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Even the difficulties are meant for our good – never our destruction. He is a good God and loves mankind.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The rest of the story:

    Earlier I posted the wonderful story of my late wife being helped to salvation by the prayers of an angel. But, I often do not tell the rest of the story. At the time it seemed she lived in anger. We hardly talked to one another except in dispute about something. She had stopped going on Sunday…Not outwardly the type of person one would think would be so lovingly received.

    But she made prayer ropes, beautiful ones all by hand and I am sure she prayed as she did so….:”Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”.

    ….and He did and on me as well. He is a good God and loves us. Each of us. That is why the Gospel of Matthew records Him saying: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand

  61. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    “The difficulties are meant for our good” … wow …

    It´s the heart of Orthodoxy that I love so much. He is a good God who loves mankind.

    Praise the Lord!

  62. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    To continue:

    Totally depravity is a lie! We may be broken. We may be marred, but we are not totally depraved. How could we be? Christ lives in us — the very Image of God!

    We are ill and in need of a doctor. God wants to heal us. As I understand it, the process of salvation (theosis) is indeed this healing in the making.

    God will bring the good thing he started to its proper and best conclusion.

    The best of all … death has been defeated! Amen!

    Just some other reasons why I love Orthodoxy as I understand it.

  63. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Not only the Image of God … but God incarnate! 🙂 🙂

  64. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Michael B.,

    That is a very inspiring rest-of-the story and leaves me speechless. It wasn’t the backstory that I would have expected.

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