Moving Mountains

I live in a beautiful part of the country – the Tennessee Valley. On one side of the valley are the Smokey Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain. On the other side of the valley are the Cumberland Mountains, ancient relics of a once great sea. The Cumberlands, true to their geological origin, were great sources of coal. When we moved to Oak Ridge in 1989, we were struck by the view of the Cumberlands, just beyond the “back-side” of the city. Their most striking feature at the time were the scars of strip mining. The contours of the mountains were jagged. The mining had changed the once gentle shape of their slopes into a strange form of step pyramid. Thirty some odd years later, a bit of reclamation and nature’s own work, have softened the effect, though the mountains will always bear the shape of their scars.

Mountains are a good illustration of tradition. We haven’t built them – we inherited them. If you lived in a Swiss valley, surrounded by the massive alpine landscape, the whole of your life would, in some manner or another, be shaped by the mountains. No doubt, Switzerland’s long co-habitation with its striking landscape has yielded many interesting adaptations (and wonderful tourist destinations).

The two experiences of the mountains are a good illustration of life with and without tradition. America loves bulldozers. We move mountains (or portions of them). My area of the world is frequently marked by spaces carved out from the hills and wrinkles of our valley. Positioned within those spaces are strip malls, warehouses, and other functional buildings. Our landscape is shaped by the economy. Buy a mountain, move a mountain, build a store.

The vast, imposing presence of the Alps forbids such earth-shaping. It is little wonder that life in many Swiss villages can be described as “traditional.” The culture of place teaches the message that we adapt ourselves to the world rather than the world to us.

A “traditioned” life is not a static existence. Instead, it is something of a co-existence. The givenness of life is allowed. The mountains get a vote (or even a veto). There are many “mountains” in our lives – it is an ever-present feature of a material existence. Our planet is “traditioned” in a very unique position. That position (and much else that has been given us) make life possible. Very slight changes to that position would make life (certainly human life) impossible. At some point in our future, the ravages of an ice age will return (and there will be nothing we can do about it).

Our bodies are dramatic examples of a traditioning. For many, this seems to be annoying. Much that we imagine to be our “identity” is shaped by our bodies. Children enjoy playing “dress-up.” With a bit of costume magic, a child can be transformed from a weak child into a Master of the Universe. Of course, “dress-up” is an external event. The costume allows us to pretend. It becomes far more serious, of course, when our flesh is perceived as costume.

One need only tour the remains of ancient Egypt to see that human beings have never been entirely satisfied with their bodies. Makeup and costume adorn the burial art of their tombs. We have found tattoos on the bodies of pre-historic Europeans as well. Technology allows personal modification to reach for once unimagined possibilities. Plastic surgery in America is a multi-billion dollar annual business. We bulldoze even our bodies and faces.

There is an inner life shaped by our attitude to a traditioned existence. I do not think of this in terms of absolutes. However, there is a way of life in which we adapt ourselves and co-exist with what is given, and there is a way of life which constantly moves mountains and reshapes that which is given towards our imagined desires. They are two very different modes of existence.

Our contemporary world is rooted in the moving of mountains (of whatever sort). It has been a powerful tool in the hands of an industrial civilization. Of course, the ravages of a “managed” environment are everywhere evident to the eye. As noted earlier, I do not offer an absolute – there is always some management of the environment. But when our inner life takes on management as a dominant characteristic the results will eventually end in disaster. Mountains are mountains, and they eventually push back. That “push back” might only be seen in a resulting ugliness (like my local disfigured Cumberlands), though, most often, our insistence that creation yield itself to our mastery yields far more long-lasting disasters.

What we often fail to note is the spiritual ecology of the soul. Our culture has a way of forming our inner habits. In a world of mountain-movers, we tend to inculcate inner bulldozers. Our own lives too easily resemble the scarred landscape of constant expansion, littered with strip malls and abandoned projects. We move. We change. We do not stay nor do we grow.

St. Paul provides an interesting example. He describes a “messenger of Satan” that was sent to “buffet him.” We have only guesses to guide as to what this torment looked like. St. Paul relates how he besought God to take it away, only to be told, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor. 12). At some point, we have to co-exist with the mountains and park the bulldozer.

Beneath our co-existence with what is “given,” is a deep and proper regard for the Giver. From the beginning, human beings have been tasked with “working” and “keeping” the Garden. Modern, unfettered freedom, is a hallmark of sloth, a boredom with what has been given and an insane driving to remake the world. A Catholic writer has noted:

In sloth, we abhor what is there; we abhor what is; we abhor limits, place, order, being. Our misguided addiction to freedom without truth is a revolt of the self against any charged world which might demand attendance, care, obligation, or respect, and certainly any mandate of working to fill God’s beautiful kingdom. (Snell, R. J.. Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire).

As money has come to substitute for the inherent beauty, worth, and being of the world around us, we call in all of the bulldozers we can afford. That some of the riches people on the planet imagine that human beings themselves can be refashioned, we see the Tower of Babel in all its horrific implications.

Learning to rightly value what is around us, to give the Giver thanks for all things, and to live as workers and keepers, is not only the healthy way to live, it is probably a matter of survival.

Bless the Lord, mountains and hills,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you springs,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, seas and rivers,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all birds of the air,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

Bless the Lord, you sons of men,
    sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

_________

Photo by Artyom Korshunov on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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105 responses to “Moving Mountains”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is not the act of repentance critical to letting God move and reshape the inner landscape? Even the little work I have done shows me I cannot be slothful…

  2. David Anthony Avatar
    David Anthony

    Interesting allegory. Perhaps you might consider what landfills represent. Here in western New York, landfills readily spring to mind — especially in the Niagara Falls region which, like your adopted region of Oak Ridge, has been scarred by nuclear research. Here one can find immense man-made mountains that continuously spew unpleasant gases into the air and threaten to leak poisonous fluids into the ground. A comparison might be made between landfills and false faiths, which appear like mountains (with their centuries-long existence, colleges, headquarters, teachers, publications, legends, etc.) but are toxic to the soul.

  3. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    This post hits home in that I drive 129 into work, and the “mountain” alongside the highway is indeed being moved to make way for additional lanes. Considering the project’s criticality (expense, importance of the highway as a traffic artery, access to UT Medical Center), I can find paltry details online of contingency planning. I can note only each morning the “progress” with my own eyes. Most local media seem content to publicize press releases, rather than represent the public interest. History in general and the current times hardly give me confidence that we should trust the experts to know what they are doing.

    To be sure, the area’s growth requires accommodation, yet this growth seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle of demand. Moreover, the costs of accommodation do not always seem borne by those whom growth profited.

  4. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “There is an inner life shaped by our attitude to a traditioned existence. I do not think of this in terms of absolutes. However, there is a way of life in which we adapt ourselves and co-exist with what is given, and there is a way of life which constantly moves mountains and reshapes that which is given towards our imagined desires. They are two very different modes of existence.”

    Thanks so much for this, though it also brings a question to mind:

    What does it mean to take dominion over creation?

  5. Kyriaki Avatar
    Kyriaki

    Thank you. Father.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It has to be read in context. The context of the modern reading is “We can do anything we want with this planet because we have dominion.” It’s been abused repeatedly. The word means to have “rule over.” The question would be – what’s the difference between a good ruler and a bad ruler. A bad ruler only thinks of himself. A good ruler has his primary thought and care for those whom he rules. Thus, I read this as, “responsibility.”

  7. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. I would agree.

    I love what you have written today. It speaks to me deeply and it helps me as I begin to try and understand tradition. That said, how do we live up to our human potential as people who are creative and expressive and anchored in the image of God? Can we do this by only “working” and “keeping”?

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Flint Hills of Kansas is an area of eastern Kansas that is the most beautiful piece of nature I have ever seen. In person it has a unique feeling that, in me, promotes prayer both of thanksgiving and repentance. There are places within the area which have never been farmed and no plow has touched. Truly virgin prairie.
    That is because the soil on the higher parts is very shallow over (As the name implies) lime stone. In the spring and the fall it is rapturous in its beauty. Rolling hills that call one deeper and deeper and that seemingly never end.

    In my late teens I first heard of monasticism and its rigors, especially where one lived. I thought the Flint Hills would be a prefect place for a monastic community (there are small sections that are quite fertile land deposited by pre-historic alluvial rivers).

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    “How do we live up to our human potential?” I had to smile when I read that question. It’s spoken right out of the heart of modernity’s myth – as though spoken by a high school guidance counselor. 🙂 I cannot think of any verse or commandment in Scripture that would suggest this as an important goal (apart from really bad sermons about the servant who buried his “talent” of silver). Forgive me.

    First, none of us knows what our “human potential” is. Does this mean that we have finally exploited our inner resources to the last possible ounce? Why would we do this? If our life belongs to God, then so does whatever we do with it. Our goal is to be conformed to His image, not exploit our “potential.”

    Generally, I think the image of potential exploiting is simply the interiorizing of capitalism’s myths – a common enough thing in our culture – but not rooted in Christ.

    Instead, I think that we best live our lives by renouncing mammon and its goals. Live with everything, treating all things, all people, as having an inherent value and worth given by God. We fulfill our potential by pouring our lives out and emptying ourselves in the love of others. Pay proper attention to all things is to learn to see beauty, truth, and goodness.

    The full meaning of “working” and “keeping” – in the sense of Genesis 1, is, indeed, quite capable of fulfilling our God-given task in this life.

    When I take my last breath – I know that I will not have done all that I could. I know that I will have failed to love God and my neighbor as I could have. And so, we our last breath we pray: Lord, have mercy! and Glory to God for all things.

  10. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have a favorite quote from Marcus Aurelius that I think is appropriate. I understand that English is a woefully inadequate language to render the exquisite richness of Greek–especially English as spoken by Americans. However, I still think that the general sense of it applies: “Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.” Absolutely beautiful! This is a common thread in Stoicism. It seems maximally anti-reductionist insofar as the part is only comprehended with respect to the whole.

  11. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    It’s hard to live with that.. always aware how short I come up from loving those I have encountered and do encounter in my life. It is humbling.. that is good. But it keeps leading me into depression and guilt( some of it false ). I keep judging my expression of love. It always comes up wanting. I try to accept my limitations with words and actions. Only prayers and tears are what I can give too often. How to allow God to flow through my life, being forgiven as I pray Christ to forgive others ,who have and do hurt me, through me.

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Well Father Stephen … after about 3 months of being on the blog almost daily I can say two things simply:

    1. There is much wisdom in what you say and write.
    2. There is also a sense of pessimism and jadedness in what you say and write.

    I clearly understand your issues with the modern way of doing things, but I am also thankful for those who dedicate their lives to cancer research … even if some of them neglect their inner spiritual journey.

    All that said, I am happy being a part of this online community. It has been a positive experience thus far. Thank you once again.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I am happy you are here as well. If someone works towards curing a disease, they are doing a good thing. I have known hundreds of cancer patients (especially during my years of hospice work). At some point, when the treatments run out (which they do for many), there can be the difficult decision to stop treatment. When that happens, many things change. To qualify for hospice care, it is required that a patient have reached that point. Much of hospice care (at its best) is assisting a patient to live well with the fact of their impending death. Many nurses and others who have been involved in that ministry will tell you that it’s the best work they’ve ever done. That was much of my experience as well. Oddly, I would say that many of the patients “began to truly live” when they reached that point. It wasn’t pessimism – at least at its best. It was a focus on the moment, on the details, on family, on the gift of each day.

    If what I have communicated seems jaded and pessimisstic, then I think I have failed to properly communicate what I am trying to say. That is a fault on my part.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Christa,
    Everyone falls short. I recall a phrase used in the service of ordination. It describes the Holy Spirit as “completing that which is lacking.” There have been many times through the years that, as I approached the altar for yet another liturgy, I was simply aware of how far short I was of what seemed to be needed. At those times especially, I remembered that Holy Spirit completing…that which was lacking. As such, I simply made an offering of my self – however inadequate it might have been in that day.

    St. Paul said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellence might be of God.” I think it is helpful to give our attention to the excellence that God makes present rather than the inadequacy of our earthen vessels. May God give us grace as we offer ourselves to Him. He is enough.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    An additional thought: “…even if some of them neglect their inner spiritual journey…” Given that the scientific and industrial tools that are now at our disposal, it is a fearful thing to contemplate those tools in the hands of people who neglect their inner spiritual life. I have no arguments with technology, per se, something I have said repeatedly in discussions of modernity. It’s one thing to have powerful tools at our disposal – but another (and more important) to ask, “What kind of person will be wielding that power?” Modernity (as a philosophy, not a technology) has seemed utterly unsuited to producing the kind of people who use technology in a healthy manner. Is it pessimisstic to observe such a thing?

  16. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you so much Father Stephen. You seem to have really thought all these things through. 🙂

  17. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Matthew, for what it’s worth, I’m another person who’s glad you’re here, too. You ask a lot of questions I have struggled with over the last decade or so. I took the track of trying to figure it all out for myself – lots of reading, many pitfalls, very little engagement with those like Fr. Stephen who have already worked through so many of these questions. It wasn’t the best route to take.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your back and forth on the blog. Thank you for engaging. I’ve learned a lot the past few months. More things are “clicking” for me lately, thanks in large part to your conversations with Fr. Stephen.

  18. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    My mother, a brother, my sister, and my wife all died of cancer. When my wife was receiving her eight-hour-long chemotherapy every three weeks, I thought her oncology nurses were saints on earth. They would have to speak for themselves about their inner spiritual journeys, but from my perspective I cannot see how they could do the work they did in the manner they did without having made one. (For what it’s worth and perhaps surprisingly, many dedicated medical professionals over the years have spoken to me about their Christian faith; none has ever said they were atheists. That is simply my experience, but certainly others may have concluded God does not exist.)

    I think the distinction between being “thankful for” a person and hoping that person reaches his or her “potential” is important. One is valuing the person for who they are in the here and now, the other is valuing them for what they might become. The latter is a product of our imagination and can devalue their inherent worth; it can lead to thinking of only their utility.

    In the case of an oncology nurse, in fact, it’s easy to do. My loved one is suffering, and thus the nurse is a means to making my loved one (and thus me) feel better. It’s easy in such a situation to fail to see the nurse as a human being, rather than simply her profession. Her profession is indeed useful, but that’s obvious, whereas remembering she is a person with as much value as me takes work.

    Saying I don’t care whether she has neglected her own spiritual journey is likewise symptomatic of thinking of her only in terms of her utility to me.

  19. Esmée Noelle Covey Avatar
    Esmée Noelle Covey

    Personally, I would never want anyone to neglect their inner journey in exchange for anything in this temporary world. And if we were not continually bulldozing mountains – and creating toxic waste in the process – we probably wouldn’t even need cancer research. We are all going to die of something. I am much more concerned about the mountains inside, the ones that must be traversed (with God’s help) in preparation for our true life. Forgive me.

  20. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Christa,

    We were created to rule the creators the earth, to govern planets, to create all manner of things – in short, to be gods.

    But we can’t right now. We are broken. The fix for this in this life is to be keenly aware of our shortcomings so that we will turn to God and draw close to Him. By doing so we will slowly receive healing and learn from His example.

    We admit openly that we come up short – not so that we berate ourselves, but so that we turn to God. Over a lifetime of this practice we in fact become more and more who He created us to be and reflect His glory to those around us.

    But never without Him. We must always continue to see limits and wounds so that we never turn away from Him.

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Probably not all the way through. It’s important for me to say that there’s nothing particularly new or original in my critique of modernity. There is a long list of writers and works, dating all the way back to the late 1800’s who have been critical of modernity (as a set of ideas). GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Tolkien (in his letters), and many in our present time – Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others.

    What is of note to me is that when I was in seminary (Anglican), back in the 1970’s, there wasn’t even a peep about modernity or any problems associated with it. Those who were responsible for educating and training me taught as if these ideas had never been uttered. I left seminary unarmed. I served 8 years in parish ministry and then went to Duke to do an additional theology degree. It was there that I was first introduced to this long conversation that had been taking place. We were a very diverse group of student/scholars with varied backgrounds. I had a much deeper and broader exposure to ideas and critiques than I had ever known. Some of them I found to be useful and helpful – others were useless.

    All of that was over 30 years ago, so I’ve had lots of time to think and to discover and to read yet more deeply. One result of that part of my life was that it showed me that I needed to be Orthodox (not just think about it), though it was some 7 years before that became possible. One question was, “If not modernity, then how do we live? On what basis? How can we be in the world but not of the world?” Pretty much, most Christian denominations have bought into modernity and have shaped their theology accordingly. I will say that there are some very important Catholic thinkers who have spoken very effectively about modernity and done good work. Nonetheless, I think they’re swimming upstream (we may all be swimming upstream).

    The problem isn’t with our work, on the whole. It’s in our inner life. We work, too often, for the wrong reasons and, unsprisingly, find it to be empty. There are other ways to do things.

    When I was a junior in college, I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the honor fraternity. They also inducted an alumnus of the university, Charles Townes, the inventor of the laser beam (more or less). He won a Nobel Prize for his work. He gave some lectures around the events – and – turned out to be a profound Christian. It was interesting to hear him talk about his faith and his science. He did good work – inside and out. A good example.

    My father was an auto mechanic. He won no prizes, but he did good work. Over the course of his lifetime, he managed to do amazing inner work – “working out his salvation from day to day.” At age 79, he and my mother became Orthodox. He, too, was a good example.

    Both men were from the same town and about the same age. But without a healthy inner life, neither would have been truly “successful” in the things that actually matter. What is our life?

  22. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks everyone. 🙂

    Nathan … I need to talk through things. That is why this blog has been so incredibly valuable to me on my journey. I have tried for more than 10 years to do it alone (I haven´t really had any other choice) and I am now realizing how much help I need.

    Peace

  23. Esmée Noelle Covey Avatar
    Esmée Noelle Covey

    I will also add that if there wasn’t a sense of pessimism and jadedness in Fr. Stephen’s writing about this “fallen” world, I’d be worried. The reason I became a Christian was because I realized there was more to “life” than what this world had to offer. It was the absolute optimism of Christ’s Resurrection that won me over. No matter how things may look around us at this moment, all is truly well. Christ is Risen!

  24. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Amen Esmée!

  25. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Drewster2000,

    I know I have repeatedly asked this question, but I would like to know what you think repentance means. Holly offered up a good response a few weeks ago I think. Michael also and of course Fr. Stephen. I´m still not completely sold that this is the absolute key to union/communion/relationship/healing with God. I think it is because my understanding of repentance has largely been shaped by western understandings of sin and moral/ethical infraction.

    When I lose my temper, for example, I´m not sure me saying “Lord forgive me because I once again lost my temper” is the way I should be handling repentance. “Whoa is me!” seems self-defeating and very unhealthy. I am trying to find a definition, but more importantly an experience of repentance that is profoundly right and good and beautiful.

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I’ve never thought Fr Steven to be pessimistic. Honest, yes, and when one’s focus is on Christ, it allows a vision of our circumstances.

    I too have learned the name of modernity from reading this blog. Yet I experienced it without having a name for it in common with other writers. With the vocabulary I can articulate what had been so hard to describe.

    Last, it may seem paradoxical but through the practice (ie not just thinking about) of chemistry I learned how to communicate with the unseen and real. This preparation allowed me to look for and embrace the theology and the practice of venerating Orthodox icons.

    I suspect what you might think is pessimistic is the critique of the notion to undertake action to change ‘the world’ to make it a better place.

    As Christa shows, just expressing love in one’s daily life is a significant challenge. Whatever it takes to engage in our daily affairs in that manner in Christ, is a huge undertaking, if it is indeed real. And it is enough.

  27. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee.

  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mark,
    I’m overwhelmed by what happened to your family. May Our Lord comfort you in His Love, especially in this Nativity feast.

    Your presence and your insights has been a blessing here too.
    Love in Christ,
    Dee

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew,
    To repent is a process of the heart primarily. It begins in the recognition that I am in need of mercy and realizing that my own will often denies that. It can have its roots in recurring sins and often does but it goes deeper. Ultimately, it is a surrender to the love and the presence of Jesus Christ Himself. That love and presence is these days often perceived as a psychological state. It is not. Nor is it exclusively concerned with specific sins which are only symptoms.

    Each of us lives in a world of sin, separated from our Lord because of it. Repentance recognizes that reality and asks that I be healed. The Sacramental form in the Orthodox Church is the Sacrament of Penance or Confession. As with all Sacrament the fallenness of the world and of me is recognized and the I participate in His healing Grace.

    The degree of participation is a function of my heart being open or not. That is a choice actually. At least I find it to be so. The use of the word in English reached a low point in 1996. After a 150 year decline in usage it is being revived a bit.

    “Repent” often has a negative and punishment based mindset. That is not what it is. The Jesus Prayer is both a good psychological and spiritual description and a powerful tool for bringing one into mercy for all of my failures, even ones I may not recognize because it addresses my ontological separation from my Creator and that mercy of Jesus (demonstrated on The Cross) is the only way to heal that separation.
    “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy of me a (*the) sinner.”

    My sins are not just lists of “bad” activities, they are the result of a fundamental separation from Jesus.

    The Jesus Prayer addresses that separation and my willingness to allow Jesus, through the Holy Spirit to heal that separation. Very little has to do with my will.

    Repentance is a movement of my heart, mind and soul back to my creator.

    Thus Matthew 4:17 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    “At hand” How wonderous. Not some far off land I can only get to in some nebulous future, but “at hand.” Closer than hands and feet.

    May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you and open your heart to His rich mercy that is within.

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Yes Mark … I am in full agreement with Dee. Thanks so much for all your help and contributions.

  31. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    SO much to chew on Michael …

  32. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Matthew,

    One desert father described the spiritual life as falling and getting back up again – and then falling and getting back up again. That isn’t a definition of repentance, but it is an essential part.

    If we could zoom out to view a person’s repeated experiences of falling and getting back up – like a planet hanging out in space – we would see them slowly but surely turn from the dark death of empty space toward the Sun, the face of God Himself. To repent means to change. In this case it is a slow change over the course of a lifetime, a turning towards Him.

    And in the meantime, what is God doing? He is watching, loving, desiring, willing us towards Himself. What we have a hard time understanding is that more than anything else concerning His attitude toward us, He wants to be with us. If we understood just how much and unceasingly He desires this, we would be in danger of calling him a fool.

    At its heart, repentance is about learning to give up anything that would stand in the way of meeting His gaze – and getting about the business of doing so.

    St. Isaac the Syrian said, “This life is for repentance. Don’t waste it on anything else.” He wasn’t talking about feeling ashamed, but rather about turning toward the One who truly loves you without limits.

    The intellect does not comprehend such things. I am speaking to your heart.

  33. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Your question to Drewster prompted a thought in me. I’ll ask you a question. Why do the Orthodox confess their sins with a priest as witness?

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I ask this question because it will be instructive to us how to answer your question.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew,
    It is a process that takes patience, humility and Grace. I was received into the Church in 1986. When I was received, I knew Jesus was in the Church and her Sacraments. It is also in each of us who partake (to one degree or another).

    I started looking when I was 18. Twenty years of looking in all the wrong places. Thirty eight years now — half of my life. I am just now beginning to “get it”. I think.

    The key for me has been:
    1. Recognizing Him as real
    2. Wanting communion with Him
    3. Never giving up despite lots of lapses on my part.

    One of the reasons I admire monastics is that they accelerate the process of re-union with our Lord because they do not get distracted as much by the world and their own short comings.

  36. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you, Dee. I hope you (as well as others) know I appreciate all your contributions. I comment so much already that it would be nice if (as with social media) we had a “like” button for every time someone says something we want to applaud–for example, Father Stephen’s first comment addressing the concept of “human potential.”

    To be fair, Matthew did not say Father Stephen was pessimistic or jaded, but rather he described a sense of those qualities in Father Stephen’s writing. (This may seem like hair-splitting, but I was not careful enough in my own reading of Matthew the first time, and it’s easy with “second person” grammatical construction to take greater offense than is intended. I apologize, Matthew.)

    I think Orthodoxy is the very opposite of jaded, in that it teaches us to appreciate again that which we may have taken as commonplace and routine. A tree has value as a tree and not only because it has the potential to be made part of a Yamaha grand piano.

    As for pessimism, I do like the litmus test of Father Stephen’s question of “how is that working out for you?”

    Going back to cancer, I don’t think anyone here would say modern medicine has not accomplished miracles. Something as mundane as a new anti-nausea medicine that makes a patient better able to tolerate chemotherapy is a godsend. And so in evaluating any aspect of modernity, “how is that working out for you?” is a fair question–neither optimistic nor pessimistic but realistic.

    Contrariwise, consider something like the jet engine: “it is a fearful thing to contemplate those tools in the hands of people who neglect their inner spiritual life.” Indeed it is.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    Thank you for your reflection. In many ways, modernity could be described as very poor when it comes to nurturing virtue. I think that it has been a slow process – in which we’ve become worse at something that should be almost natural. It’s like watching declining math scores or the ability to read. There are plenty of exceptions – but overall – something is not working as it should, or as it once did.

    Consider the problem of democracy. On paper, it’s a good idea. Indeed, even monarchies can work well from time to time. However, a monarchy only works well if the monarch is virtuous and puts virtuous people in responsible positions. The same is true of democracy. It’s a good idea, but only if virtuous people are elected. And, frankly, only virtuous people elect virtuous people.

    Modernity (especially today’s variety) equips massive numbers of people with very dangerous weapons (I’m counting a bulldozer as a dangerous weapon). It’s a dangerous thing for people lacking in virtue to be armed with dangerous weapons.

    I’ve watched local governments throughout my life. Very few can ever resist the lure of money (it’s usually called progress). Everyone imagines how wonderful their lives would be if they won the lottery – and strangely – it rarely seems to be the case.

    A great failure of modernity is that it asks the wrong questions. It asks about technology, efficiency, productivity, etc. It does not ask about virtue or character formation (although, at present there is a great deal of Marxist-based propaganda even in elementary school systems – which is already beginning to bear some rather nasty fruit).

    Acquire virtue (which is another aspect of the Christian life). Nurture virtue in others (be active in your Church). Assist children in the acquisition of virtue. And then, be patient. If we do truly good work, its fruit will likely only appear after we’re dead.

  38. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Indeed, Mark, being careful is important, especially in the context of a blog. I suppose I was working on the implications of Matthew’s comment, not so much what was explicitly stated.

  39. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Fr. Freeman, forgive me if this is going too far. I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition and what you mean by it. I appreciate all the comments and commenters as well.

    I’ve come up with a sort of ancestry, or something that is within us that calls us back to itself. I see the reminders of that ancestry within the lives of the saints and services within the Church. But I also see it in the very fabric of who we are, and even in strange places like cancer.

    Cancer is not a disease, but rather a failure of cells to die as part of their natural life-cycle. The human body is designed to constantly regenerate itself. If cells stop dying, then tumors grow. (I briefly did cancer research when I was young.)

    Drew talks about desert fathers describing the spiritual life as falling and getting back up again.

    People have called the Church a hospital for the soul. It makes sense that one would have to keep falling down, keep confessing their sins, keep renewing themselves in order to live.

  40. Bradley David Avatar
    Bradley David

    Matthew,

    Forgive me for this unsolicited interjection. Regarding repentance: It is so much more than feeling badly about some wrong deed. Timothy Patitsas has explained it very profoundly in his work The Ethics of Beauty. He makes the connection as beautifully as I have encountered between repentance and eros, the movement from non-being into being, and sin. He is speaking in the quote below of the moment of creation and the movement toward God.

    “All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy,
    love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is
    repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the prerequisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ, to love him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin—but this is partly relative for us.”

  41. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Matthew,

    If I may add to the discussion around repentance. Protestant discussions seem to revolve around actions: sin is “missing the mark” (implying trying to strike or attain something) and repentance is often defined as “turning back” to God. But an action falls well short of how I’ve experienced repentance in my life.

    I think repentance is not so much an action as an openness of the heart, a recognization of Communion. It is a recognition of God, and His Grace in our lives. In that recognition, we cannot help but be given Grace, mercy, compassion–we are embraced by the Divine. It is that embrace that reorients us and draws us back to God. It is consolation. It is an act of Communion, not really a decision or movement. (It is so difficult to define).

    I like a statement from the new Nativity devotional, “Behold a Great Light”.

    Mary must have known this. Surely she too could be still, could feel God filling her up with His grace and His love. She knew how to hold it…to keep all these things and ponder them in her heart, turning them over to examine them gently…. Both she and Joseph could pause and marvel over the things that God had done.

    I think repentance is learning how to hold this Communion (“the things that God has done”), to ponder it in our heart, to examine it gently. It is the Reality of a/the Gift given by God, recognized and embraced.

    I pray that is not too convoluted. If it is, please ignore it and forgive me my poor musings.

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Holly,
    In this context – that is true.

  43. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Bradley,
    Patitsas book is wonderful. Repentance is a returning to God – a recovery of our true eros. Indeed.

  44. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you for this post, Fr Stephen, and I thank Our Lord even more for your comments here. Glory to God for All Things!

  45. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    Thank you for your responses father Stephen and Drewster. To picture the Holy Spirit coming to fill and bring excellence to my attempts at loving is life saving indeed. Do I dare to believe it… Of course! All I have to do is ask!

  46. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    Father Stephen. Is there away I can send a post only to you..?I have a long history of shame and rejection . I have confessed my sin, but because of the continued rejection of my son and family and mental disturbance in my daughter. Guilt, or is it sin,feels always present and is life denying. I have read your book, Face to Face… and go back to it.

  47. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dear Bradley and Byron,

    Thanks so much for the interesting and compelling thoughts about repentance. I hear and read what everyone is saying and writing, and it all sounds very good, but it is also all very new to me. I keep running new ideas and even experiences through an old paradigm … almost unknowingly. It is hard to shed skin sometimes.

  48. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    Thank you for putting this idea into words so well. I’ve been trying to let go of the idea that I can and should control things, that control and imposing one’s will is always good. It is very difficult because this idea is everywhere!

    I love the metaphor (and reality) of living with mountains. I like to set a sort of theme for the New Year and I think in this article you have helped me see what it could be.

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Much of what takes place in a movement away from a juridical (typical Protestant) world-view to an ontological (Orthodox) is a pretty fundamental shift in understanding – among the most important. It also changes how we think about God. It moves us to a communion-as-mutual-indwelling and away from an external rules-judgement-based understanding. The problem with the juridical view is, to say the least, that it has no way to account for statements like, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Also, the many places where St. Paul speaks of being “In Christ,” or “Christ in me,” simply make no sense in a juridical view. In short, the juridical view of relationships is just plain inadequate.

    But, it’s also hard for us to make this shift in that our notion of relationship is pretty much legal/psychological. We think of ourselves as objects relating to other objects. That is actually bad biology, bad physics, bad science, as well as bad theology. It can be pretty practical sometimes (or so it feels) but it nurtures a kind of loneliness and alienation and forces God into some kind of Cosmic Law Enforcer role.

    St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (20th century) wrote: “My brother is my life.” He’s not speaking metaphorically. This is a much more proper model for understanding how we are in relationship with people (Michael Bauman prefers to say “inter-relationship”).

    I like to think of these ontological relationships as descriptions of “movement.” That’s a term found in a number of the Fathers. Repentance is turning towards God, which is a turning towards the true self, etc. I like the image of movement because of its dynamic character – it also accounts for our lack of perfection in anything we do. I use it a lot when hearing confessions as well. This article might be of interest.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, It can be quite hard to shed old skin. Just keep at it. In the Orthodox Church it is safer to open one’s heart to Jesus than any other place I have ever been, The personality of the clergy is not as much a factor. Even in confession with them.

    You ask good and important questions. That is a rare skill. As long as you listen to the answers, God will guide you.

  51. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    I’ve been reading through the Old Testament this year and have been noticing the continued call to return to God. While there is, of course, the whole sacrificial system in place, much more focus seems to be put on the return to God. I think of Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks about the consequences of Israel turning away from God and his covenant. There is great death, decay and destruction. As they move away from God, death increases in all its forms and they perish. However, Moses gives hope in reminding them that they can come to their senses and turn back to God and walk in his ways once again. This brings healing and blessing and peace. They will “live” again. Moses sets before them life and death, blessing and curses.
    In my Protestant upbringing, I would read this more from the legal perspective. Obey or get punished. Follow the rules and get rewards. All transactional. Having learned about the ontological approach, I see it differently now. Instead of transactional, it is communal. God isn’t a judge dolling out sentences, rather, he is the source and sustainer of life calling us back to him.
    I’m beginning to see repentance more as the journey back, the return to right paths, the return to life.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Shawn, I think you are correct on the nature of repentance. In fact I do not think it a stretch to see the entire journey of the people following Moses as an allegory of repentance. That is reflected in Mt. 4:17.

    Thank you for your comment.

  53. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Fr. Stephen and Michael as always. Pressing onward! 🙂

  54. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Matthew,

    When I was first introduced to the Church Fathers, back at a Lutheran seminary (not even Orthodox, yet), I felt almost daily like I was playing a game of Jenga with myself. I had a very coherent theological system in place, and trying to “fit” what the Fathers said into that system didn’t work. It was a very slow work of “removing” pieces and replacing them with other pieces, with the most important bits being foundational to the whole tower. I was always trying not to knock the tower down.

    Of course, through that process, every “piece” relates to all the others in some way, so it really didn’t work to simply replace one or another bit of understanding. I had this whole construct I’d inherited, and every time I thought, “Ah-ha, I understand what the Fathers are saying now,” I’d find out that I was still only understanding them within a strange mix of early church theology and my Lutheran theology. I was very confused for a very long time.

    I’m 15 years in, 10-11 years Orthodox, and it’s still a process. Thankfully, eventually, it doesn’t feel like a game of theological Jenga anymore. 🙂 It just takes time.

  55. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nathan,
    It really helps to be “bathing” in Orthodox reality over and over again in the services. I can think of how many times I’ve wanted to say to the choir, “Wait! Wait! What did you just sing?”

  56. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Did some comments get deleted? I was not able to access the blog for some minutes and then it appears there are some problems with comments on my end.

    Thanks.

  57. Clare Freeman Avatar
    Clare Freeman

    Matthew,

    I apologize, after an error during site maintenance this morning, I had to restore from a backup which had been made a few hours previously. No comments were purposefully deleted, please forgive the disruption.

    Clare

  58. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    No problem Clare. Thanks so much for the clarification.

  59. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Nathan for the Jenga example. It so resonates with my history and my experience.

    I have been confused for a very long time too about all this, but it is beginning to come together. I hope to attend more Divine Liturgies at the beginning of the new year.

  60. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Clare is my talented daughter who has a web-development company – she’s doing my web work for me. She’s also a gifted artist and a joy in my heart.

  61. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What a gift Father Stephen! All the best to you and your family this holiday season.

    I am so glad that Christ came to us. Amen.

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nathan, your Jenga comment is really illustrative. It helps me understand better the struggle some folks go through in approaching the Church and the Life in Her.

    Thank you.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “I am so glad that Christ came to us. Amen.”

    Well said, Matthew. May you and your family be close with Him this Christmas.

  64. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Michael. Same goes for you and yours. 🙂

  65. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    This is a wonderful conversation on repentance. In my understanding, the Greek word metanoia literally means to change one’s mind. “Change your mind for the kingdom of God is at hand,” says Jesus. It means to transform your outlook, to see things in a new way, to adjust your lens of perception. Not everyone has “eyes to see,” according to Jesus. He wants us to repent, to rightly perceive reality, to see the reality of our union with God. This is the good news in Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom. When Jesus gives us sight, we see that we are saved in Christ, united to the Father, bound to God in the Spirit. There’s no separation. God’s kingdom is no farther away than the renewal of our minds.

  66. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    Particularly in the case of metanoia (repentance) – I think we need to translate the “noia” (nous) part of the word more strongly than “mind.” The nous is the “heart,” the very core of who we are. It is a fundamental change/transformation within us. It’s in this reality that our conversion takes place. “mind” can be too weak as a word among moderns. Just my first take on that.

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, am I wrong or don’t many monastics talk about the physical location of the nous somewhat below our physical heart? In reading some descriptions it seems to be very like “the center” my dancer mother always used to talk about: a physical, spiritual, emotional locus of the human body. Not found on any X-Ray that I know of, but definitely there.

  68. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father Stephen,
    I agree with you. We’re talking about a fundamental change, a transformative event. And the “location” matters. St Paul prays that “the eyes of our hearts be enlightened.” Jesus says much about the heart. But Paul also writes, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Here’s that radical change of metanoia, I think. Then there’s the trichotomy of “body, soul and spirit.” If I’m honest, I find the NT’s anthropology to be strangely (but pleasantly) ambiguous.

    Do the Orthodox traditionally treat pneuma, nous, and kardia as the same inner reality? Just to clarify, I certainly don’t believe metanoia comes as a logical result of discursive thought. That would be the domain, in scientific terms, of the brain’s left hemisphere. On the other hand, the right hemisphere gives us a lens (or filter) on reality much more in tune with a religious view of the world. I find this highly relevant in terms of “location.”

    All this to say, I agree that translation matters very much. The translators of the Philokalia into English chose to translate nous as “intellect” and kardia as “heart.” They also define them distinctly in the Glossary. Could you comment a bit more on Orthodox anthropology? Do you think we can penetrate the ambiguity of these various terms? How can we appreciate the findings of neuroscience in this context?

    I know that’s a lot. Thank you kindly.

  69. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael,
    I like the term, “the center.” When preparing for prayer, I ask our small children to be still, quiet, breathe and find their center. It’s a simple and intuitive exercise, and they get it. We re-collect ourselves to the center, and from there we pray.

  70. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What is the spiritual goal then … to somehow push the “nous” (intellect) into the “kardia” (heart)? I ask because as a Reformed Protestant I spent most of my years cultivating the “nous” at the expense of something deeper … something at the “kardia” level. Where and how does true spiritual transformation take place?

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, in Orthodox literature there is an overlap of the heart and the nous. It depends on the writer and the context. The “goal” is a living, deepening Communion with our Lord and Savior…a foretaste of His Kingdom. The nature of that Communion also unites us to one another.
    The seeming ambiguity can be frustrating.

  72. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What do you mean, Michael, that the nature of that communion also unites us to one another?

  73. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I now see where I came up short as a Reformed Protestant. The Bible alone, without the Tradition and sacraments of the Church, seems to be rather inadequate in bringing about deep inner spiritual transformation and healing. I made a decision, gathered a lot of information, talked a lot about sanctification and even had a few charismatic experiences, but none of those things made this dead man fully alive I don´t think. It is good to be discussing the heart of Orthodoxy here as well as the reality of deep repentance. As I warm up to a healthier understanding and experience of repentance I am seeing many things in a new and profound way.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ahhh. Owen, in terms of prayer the mind descends into the heart. The dichotomy and separation often seen in the West is over come in theory and in practice. Personally and corporately. Thus are the bread and wine transformed and transmuted by the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood.
    Each of the Sacraments has a similar reality to them which sanctifies and creates (W)Holiness.
    A consequence of the Incarnation–the Word made Flesh. The Flesh given by Mary.
    I may have it wrong but IMO the nous is a doorway into the Kingdom revealed through the Mercy and Grace of our Lord.

  75. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    The translators of the Philokalia (Met. Kallistos was a principal force in that) had to make a decision about how to render “nous,” and chose the classical, Western word, “intellect” from the Latin “intellectus.” Like all choices, it had both good and ill as a result. I think it’s worth noting that it was among the first major translations into English of Hesychast literature (a good choice). However, it could not foresee the future and the developing life of Orthodoxy in the English-speaking world. I think that in hindsight, it would have been better to simply render it as “nous” and let the reader come to think with that “new” word. “Intellect” is quite misleading (at least, in hindsight).

    That said, it’s also somewhat confusing that Orthodox writers move back and forwards between “heart” (kardia) and “nous.” They are, pretty much, the same thing. The tri-partite Body, Soul, Spirit, has never really caught on in Orthodox writing as a primary way of speaking/writing. So, I’ll leave it alone as well.

    “Center” is a useful word – and treats the “heart” very well, I think.

    We think we are “brain” people – but, in fact – our whole body is involved in the activity that we usually attribute just to the brain. Indeed, bacteria in the gut contribute to our thoughts.

  76. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    In reading this post again, I am struck by the notion that our cultural approach to life (bulldozers) is absorbed into the inner lives of its citizens. I live in the southern High Plains of Texas. This land used to be native prairie as far as the eye could see. Once it was discovered that the soil was fertile, much of the land was plowed up for farming. This resulted in the Dust Bowl, a truly ecological disaster. Once the effects of the Dust Bowl were mitigated to an acceptable lever, plentiful irrigation water was discovered just beneath the surface. With our arid climate, this was a welcome development by many. More land was cultivated and more wells were drilled. Over the course of 50 or so years, the once thought limitless water supply has been drained down severely. Many areas now hardly have enough groundwater for domestic use. Over that same time period, the regional economy grew and diversified. Now, many of the farms with depleted water are being purchased and developed with housing developments, strip centers or other commercial buildings.

    Native prairie to farmland to Walmart. Bulldozers.

    It’s interesting how I can see this play out in my heart as well. It seems that, to some extent, the growing up process is a continual act of bulldozing and rebuilding. Although I’m just now nearing 40, I would assume that this process can go on indefinitely.

    Father Stephen, you said something to the effect that at some point in life, it’s time to park the bulldozer. It’s time to co-exist with the mountains that are there. How does Christ and his church help us do this? For me, in this stage in my walk with Jesus, it seems that I’m learning to just simply exist for once, and draw near to God daily, with no other intentions. I’m trying not to set the course or plan the outcome. I come to the source and trust him with the rest. Any advice?

  77. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks for the response, Father. Learning that all reality (i.e. our entire perception of what is) is filtered through and mediated by the hemispheres of the brain, the neurons in the gut, etc. has given me a greater sympathy for human beings – all of us – who “miss the mark.” We simply have no other means to process truth. At the same time, maybe there is a mode of direct, unmediated access to reality. Such an experience would still be processed through our organism as such. I am eternally grateful for the Incarnate God who knows our weakness from the inside out and claimed them for his own.

  78. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Shawn – really well said.

  79. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Man Owen … the sympathy you describe is really touching. I now more than ever want to share in that kind of mercy toward other human beings, especially those who are not Christians. It´s no wonder all those arguments I formulated years ago in an attempt to “present the Gospel” fell on deaf ears. It´s not easy to process divine truth … heck any truth for that matter … in a pure way that is. We are complicated beings. I´ll leave it at that.

  80. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    Good examples. The American “settler” mentality imagined unlimited resources and acted accordingly. I shudder when I remember our American folk tales when I was in grammar school. We learned about Paul Bunyon, and, more or less, celebrated chopping down all the trees in the midwest. Amazing!

    We’ve discovered that we were wrong…but the mythology, particularly in the forms that we internalized it, remain. We are finite creatures.

    We have not spent much time in our culture thinking about how to live. We think about how to grow, how to prosper, how remake the world, how to make the world a better place, etc.

    Our abuse of technology has given us false impressions about ourselves and the world.

    There’s much to be said about getting old. At age 70, you never think about what you’re gonna be when you grow up. You’ve already done it. Also, you become increasingly aware that you’re running out of stuff – your body’s wearing out. You’re gonna die – sooner rather than later. If you’re ever going to live, now’s the time.

    In truth, that is always the case. First – I think one thing to do is to learn how to honor the mountains in our lives. For example, I have ADHD and I cannot take med’s to manage it (because I’ve had a heart attack, etc.). So, I have to honor that mountain in my life – pay attention to how it affects me (for good or ill). For example, when I’m working as a speaker, I use a manuscript so that I don’t go down too many rabbit trails (and even then, sometimes the rabbit trails take over!). Many other things too many to mention. It means acknowledging it in my life – not cursing it – but blessing it. Asking God for help, etc.

    I would encourage people, on a practical level, to set a goal of getting out of debt. Debt in our culture creates the illusion that there’s an infinite amount of money, that we can do what we want without financial limitation. We refuse to be as poor as we really are. This is, I think, a fundamental refusal to be “owned” by our culture. It is difficult, and may take years. But it’s a mountain that needs to be retired – in that the debt is a false mountain. Be patient.

    Interestingly, the prayers at bedtime in most prayerbooks have us looking at our bed and meditating on our coffin. No need to sleep in a coffin like some monastics – we already do!

    It sounds to me like you’re well on your way. Please share insights for the rest of us.

  81. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “The Ethics of Beauty” has been brought up in this discussion, and so I want to pass on that Ancient Faith is going to stream “The Origins of the Ethics of Beauty” by Dr. Timothy Patitsas at 3 p.m. EST (a little less than an hour from now).

  82. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Sorry, that’s Protect the Veil, not Ancient Faith.

  83. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    Thanks man. I believe mercy is near the heart of the Orthodox way. It is the only way God sees our sins. Indeed, we are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins. The river of God’s love flows one way only. We can block it with a rock hard heart or allow it to flow through us. But, in the end, given enough time, a river will penetrate even the hardest of rock. His mercy endures forever. ☦️

  84. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, the nature of the Communion dogmatically is stated in the phrase: He became man so that man might become God. Yes, the nature of the Communion unites us further.
    God is with you…

  85. Christa Avatar
    Christa

    Thank you Owen for putting it so succinctly.
    “We are not punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins.”
    This has certainly been my experience, and that of many I have encountered. Such tragedy of lives driven away from communion with God. Pride, guilt, rumination…all used by the evil one. How urgent to flee to repentance and confession!

  86. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you Father Stephen. I find it interesting that things I bring up to you which are just beginning to dawn on me have been going on for much longer. I like how you said to honor/bless the mountain. You don’t necessarily celebrate it, but you don’t keep trying to knock it down either. I’m slowly learning this in many areas of my life. For one, I’ve had chronic anxiety and depression episodes for 25+ years now. For most of that time, I operated under the modern mantra of bulldoze the mountain. With the right combination of medication, therapy, physical health regimen, diet and good ole’ moral effort, I could be cured. What this led to was a continual discontentment in my souls because, try as I may, this mountain still persisted. The harder I ran the bulldozer towards it, the bigger the crash oftentimes. Slowly, through wise counsel and much reflection, I’ve begun honoring this mountain in my life. I still find it wise to take medication, seek therapy if needed, and try and take general good care of myself, but I know that I will still have episodes to pass through. The mountain’s existence doesn’t mean total failure. Strangely, allowing a mountain to stay and working around it makes it less troublesome. There is even some beauty there.

    You mention that we, as Americans, don’t really think about how to live. I find this very true in my life. As I mentioned earlier, by God’s grace I am learning to park the bulldozers, take my foot off the pedal and simply exist. Let go of those ego attachments that I’ve been building for so long and let them fall off. I have a wife and 3 kids, and we’ve been trying to do this as a family. There were huge withdrawal effects initially. We didn’t know what to do if we weren’t chasing something and “doing” something. We didn’t know how to just “be” together. Living meant doing….not being. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me, it seems God is interested in our being over our doing. It’s still not easy, but I can see fruit both in my life, marriage and my family dynamics. There is more peace in our home and hearts. We know each other more. We are learning to commune as you might say. We still struggle with feeling left out or insignificant, but we know that the rat race of modern life is a facade…..albeit an attractive one.

    I’m so grateful for this blog and the orthodox faith. You and your commentors do such a tremendous job in articulating the deeper things in life. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas! I’m going to go try and simply exist with God today!

  87. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Owen,

    Great word about sin. Punished by them not for them. That one difference in perspective makes all the difference. Also, wonderful metaphor about God’s love as a river!

  88. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    A translation from Fr John Romanides on “nous” :

    The healing of the human soul is the main concern of the Orthodox Church. The Church always healed the space of the soul. It had established, from the Jewish tradition and from Christ himself and the Apostles, that something operates in the area of ​​the natural heart, which the Fathers called “nous”. In other words, they took the traditional “nous”, which means intellect and reason, and made a distinction . They called nous this noetic energy, which works in the heart of a mentally healthy person. We do not know when this differentiation was made, because it also happens that some Fathers name with the same word “nous”, the logical faculty, but also the noetic energy, when it descends and functions in the space of the heart.

    So from this point of view the noetic energy is one and only energy of the soul, which in the brain functions as logic, but at the same time it functions in the heart as nous. That is, the same organ, the nous, prays incessantly in the heart, to those who are meant to have noetic prayer of the heart, and at the same time thinks e.g. math problems and whatever, in the brain.

    We must say that what the Apostle Paul calls nous is identical with what the Fathers call intellect. It is a difference in terminology. When the Apostle Paul says “I pray in the spirit”, he means what the Fathers say “I pray in the nous”. And when he says “I pray in the nous”, he means “I pray in the mind” (intellect). The name “nous” of the Fathers is not the “nous” of the apostle Paul, but it is the “spirit” of the apostle Paul. When he says I pray in the nous, I pray in the spirit or I chant in the nous, I chant in the spirit, and when he says the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit, by the word spirit he means what the Fathers call nous. And by the word nous he means intellect, logic.

    In his phrase “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit”, he speaks of two spirits: The Spirit of God and the human spirit. This human spirit, by some strange development, appears later in the time of Saint Macarius of Egypt to be called nous, and only the names logos and intellect remain and refer to the logic of man. Thus the “nous” was identified with the “spirit”, that is, with the “heart”. Because the place of the human spirit is the heart, according to the Apostle Paul.

    Thus, for the apostle Paul, logical worship is with the nous (that is, with the mind, intellect, logic), while the noetic prayer is done with the spirit and is the spiritual prayer, that is, the prayer of the heart. So what the Apostle Paul says, “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue”, means that he preferred to speak five words, five words that is, in order to catechise others; rather than mentally praying. What the Apostle Paul says here is interpreted by some monks that the Apostle spoke about the Jesus prayer, that is, about “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, which consists of five words (in the Greek). But here the Apostle Paul speaks of words with which he catechised others. Because how can catechism be done with mental prayer, since mental prayer is a man’s inner prayer and the others around him hear nothing? Catechism, however, is done with logical teaching and logical worship. We teach and speak through reason, which is the normal communication between humans.

    However, those who have noetic prayer in their hearts also communicate with each other. That is, they can sit together and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. In other words, there can be spiritual communication between them. This of course can happen to them from afar. And they too have the gift of insight/discernment and foresight. With the insight they detect the sins of each person, as well as their thoughts, while with the foresight they see and speak about things, actions and future events. Indeed there are such gifted people and if you go to confess to them, they know everything you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicolas, much to ponder in what you wrote. Than you.

  90. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    They called nous this noetic energy, which works in the heart of a mentally healthy person.

    Explains a lot.

  91. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    We need some healing…

  92. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Simon the Greek sentence is : “Ωνόμασαν νουν αυτήν την νοερά ενέργεια, η οποία λειτουργεί στην καρδιά του “υγιούς ψυχικά ανθρώπου”.

    I translated “υγιούς ψυχικά ανθρώπου”, “mentally healthy person”. I am not 100% sure if this is accurate and perhaps Fr Stephen can suggest otherwise. The word “ψυχικά” refers to the “soul” (psyche), ie a person with a healthy soul.

    I noticed that I used “mental” in the penultimate paragraph above, I should have used “noetic”. In modern Greek the word “nous” refers more to the intellect and mental faculty. The word for “dementia” in Greek is “άνοια” (pronounced ania) which means loss of nous. Also “paranoia” and many other derivatives.

    I mention this as someone without mental capability (due to dementia or other psychic illness) may well have noetic prayer. Again Father could confirm the Orthodox view on this.

  93. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Matthew,
    you asked a question about communion: “The nature of that Communion also unites us to one another.”

    Michael can elaborate more about this, but I thought I would mention something about its starting point, and that is the Incarnation. In my experience, Protestant thought basically ignores it. It’s a big deal in Orthodoxy, because without it there would be no benefit for us from what God did for us to begin with. This is a little long, forgive me. (Fr Stephen can correct and amend as necessary.)

    A bit of terminology: You may remember Fr Stephen discussing ontology, “what” a thing is. That “what” in Orthodox theology is a thing’s nature. We know “what” something is because we experience its energies (actions, and whatever we can discern is behind those actions) as we encounter unique instances/beings of that nature: persons. This is how we know anyone. When Jesus says that if we have seen him we’ve seen the Father, he is expressing this in a very condensed way. In encountering him as a unique Person and experiencing his Energies/Actions, we understand the Nature of What God is – and also the Nature of What A Human Being is, since Christ is the first truly human being, the “last” (really, “ultimate”) Adam (human). So, three things to keep in mind: Nature, Person, Energies.

    (This is one reason why Orthodoxy avoids saying that humans have a “sin nature” – a phrase not found in Scripture. Fr Stephen has also written that we are not our sin. And if what we have is a “sin nature” then how could God have become united with it? Not logical. See below.)

    In the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity has united his divine Nature with our human Nature, the possibility of which was an aspect of our creation as humans. It was always God’s intention to unite himself with us in that way, appropriate to us as created beings – we know this because the Incarnation happened! The Incarnation was not some kind of “plan B” God had to institute because of the Fall. No – he mitigated the effects of the Fall (death and sin) without changing his ultimate plan. Because every human being shares in Human Nature, and the Second Person has taken into himself this human Nature in which we all share, in the Incarnation God has established the ground of communion (along with the “potential” of sharing in his Divine Nature) with every. human. being. who ever lived or will ever live. This is something that has been done without any “choice” on our part – simply because God loves us and wants us to be united with him – it’s what Love drives toward. Thus, because of the Incarnation, every human being “benefits”, if you will, from what Christ did in the Crucifixion/Resurrection (Pascha) – it passes to us because He shares our Nature. That’s why the Fathers write that if Christ had not assumed human Nature, there would be no salvation (deliverance/healing). God has done everything necessary to enable us to turn to him (repent), including uniting himself to us in this way. Fr Stephen has also written elsewhere that the only thing we Do, ultimately, is say “yes” to God; that could be another way to describe what happens in the “turning” of repentance.

    That’s a big theological bite to chew on, I know. Finally realizing this was a breathtaking turning point in my journey. Nothing in my experience of Protestant thought and life could touch what it opened up for me as I pondered it. Christ did not simply “pick up a fleshly body” in order for a sacrifice to happen (although the sacrifice is certainly included, along with the means for God to get into Death). This is why we can sing the texts of the cycle of eight Resurrectional verses with depth and meaning each Sunday throughout the year, even during Lent.

    Well, that’s probably more than enough for now. My Internet connection is awaiting repair at the telephone line level, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to get through again. A very Merry Christmas to you and your family, and all here, especially dear Fr Stephen. Christ is born!

    Dana

  94. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dana, Indeed He is Born! You do a wonderful job of elucidating the Incarnation. Thank you.

  95. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    I think you’ve translated it quite well. I also think that there’s a level of noetic activity that takes place despite our limitations/etc. as you hinted at. God works in us both to will and do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13)

  96. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Merry Christmas and Blessed Nativity everyone!

    Mark … could you offer up a short summary of The Beauty of Ethics? What I found on the internet left me longing. I want to buy the book, but it is rather expensive (50 euros for me). I want to know a little more about it. Thanks so much.

  97. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dana. I so appreciate the response.

    As a Protestant, I couldn´t agree more with the limits we place on the Incarnation. I think it is nearly the same for Roman Catholics. A baby in swadling clothes who brought peace to earth who is headed to the cross to die for our sins.

    There is so much more to consider when contemplating Christ´s birth. You have done a great job explaining the depth of the Incarnation; a depth that so many others need to hear!

  98. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joyous Nativity to all. May the blessings of the day fill each joy.

  99. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thanks Dana. That was good for me to hear as well. Hopefully I’ll begin to wrap my brain around it one day!

  100. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Christa,
    Thank you for the response. I understand the “urgency” you mentioned. I am sure you know this, but it’s important to remember that we repent and confess our sins not because this makes us worthy of God. We never are. Yet, at the same time, paradoxically, we always already are worthy as sons and daughters of God.

    What we do matters; but who we inherently are matters more. Indeed, it is this deeper self-hood which beckons us to “reestablish” union with God and others in the first place. I believe this is the truest Mystery of Nativity, that Christ is born – in you and in me. In the cave of the heart, he humbly takes flesh. Christmas blessings to you!

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