The Apocalypse of Christmas

Few people think of Christmas as the End of the World. We have one set of feelings and thoughts for the former and another set for the latter. Christmas, taken by itself, seems quite harmless and able to be adopted or adapted (in one way or another) by cultures at large. Indeed, some cultures adopt Christmas and forget about the Child in the Manger. A feast of good feelings, goodwill among men (etc.), a bit of family and seasonal food, and you have a feast that is free of offense allowing it, incidentally, to be monetized for the widest possible consumption.

The End of the World, on the other hand, suggests judgment, wars, and rumors of wars, and, of course, the very offensive reminder that this world will not last and neither will we. As such, apocalyptic ideas are useful only as fantasy entertainment, a bit of a scare that disappears when the theater’s lights come back up.

Popular culture has lost the meaning of the word “apocalypse” (and its derivatives). It has been drowned in a world of half-baked Christian misuse and Hollywood nightmares. Indeed, the word has been bastardized into “snow-pocalypse,” and other such faux events. It now seems to mean nothing more than “a big thing.”

The word has a much more important place in theology. “Apocalypse” means to reveal that which is hidden. St. Paul describes the whole of the Christian gospel in this manner:

“…the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24–27)

In this proper sense, the whole of the gospel is “apocalyptic.” It is something which, though once hidden from the world, is now revealed and made known.

Christmas as an apocalyptic event. It happens in “hiding.” Word leaks out and the wicked king, Herod, goes on the warpath. Through the silent means of a star, wise men from Persia make their way to Bethlehem, inadvertently alerting the wicked king. The mystery, however, is so well hidden that St. Paul tells us that the “princes of this world” (demonic forces) did not really understand what they were doing when they crucified the Lord of Glory (1Cor. 2:8).

We take the Christmas story for granted, reducing this great mystery to a card with well wishes. What was taking place, however, was truly “apocalyptic.” In that moment (or in the moment of the Annunciation nine months earlier) the world was turned inside out. The Lord of Glory, the Logos of God, the very meaning of the universe itself, entered our history and became a “historical figure.” The Godhead was now “veiled in flesh.” Simple shepherds kept watch with the very angels of heaven. Bethlehem (the “house of bread”), became the place where the Bread of Life Himself was first seen. In Him, all of the world would be fed – our true hunger banished.

American horror movies (that deeply misunderstand the apocalypse) have made much of an impending doom – various schemes in which people try to prevent the anti-Christ from being born. They fail to understand the nature of the apocalypse (they’ve spent too much time reading popular Protestant fiction). What has been hidden from the ages and is made manifest in the birth of the Christ Child is the entry into our world of the Kingdom of God. It is the birth of our salvation. The true Apocalypse is good news.

Evil is not hidden, except to the extent that it uses lies, darkness, and deception to distract our attention. We can see its work of chaos, murder, and deceit all around us. The apocalypse prophesied in the Scriptures is not the revelation of evil, but the final manifestation of the Good, the triumph of the Kingdom of God.

“Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:24–26)

And,

“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”” (1 Corinthians 15:51–54)

But, just as Christ coming as a babe was hidden from those wicked powers, so His presence among us now, and His coming in the End, remains hidden. Frequently, Christians themselves fail to see more than a system of moral teaching and a promise of life after death. The Kingdom itself (which is “in you”) is unknown. Where, in truth, we are already resident aliens, we, instead, live as though this world is our home and “working the system” our only hope.

There is a purpose in the hiddenness of God’s work. The depth of that mystery is found in the reality of the human heart. Christ teaches:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8)

The mystery of the Kingdom of God is made known to a heart that asks, that seeks, that knocks. It is a heart that has returned to the desire that is given to us in the gift of our nature. It represents the re-awakening of the heart, the re-birth of the true self and the re-discovery of wonder.

Bound in a world of information that falsely imagines that knowledge, power, management, and expertise are the secrets to well-being, we fail to see that such an orientation is itself the seat of our sickness. The heart that asks, seeks, and knocks is a heart that reflects the heart of God. It is a mode of being that allows us to rightly love, to properly desire, and to see what is hidden from the grasping hands of a controlling mastery.

The apocalypse of Christmas, the revelation of God-made-man, is also the revelation of the image of God in man. It teases us and beckons our hearts to the hidden things. The apocalypse is revealed within us.

Ask to know Him. Seek to find Him. Knock on the closed door of the heart until a crack is found.

Christ is born!

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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153 responses to “The Apocalypse of Christmas”

  1. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I get the impression the star led the astrologers to Herod and then to where Christ was as in an attempt to abruptly end the incarnation. That’s probably not tradition or a popular view. But given Herod’s murderous intentions it’s not difficult to imagine that a wicked would appear to a group of astrologers who probably thought the star was an omen. The astrologers were led to Herod with the intention of later of acting as informants.

    I never understood the later mythologizing of the star as angelic.

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    That’s an interesting take on it. But I suspect the later use of the story was based on Matthew:

    “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
    Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”
    (Matthew 2:9–12 NKJV)

  3. Subdeacon John Avatar
    Subdeacon John

    Father bless,
    If I am not mistaken, the Wise Men actually came to worship Chris two years after His birth. That would be evidenced by the statement that they “came into the house”, not a stable. Also the fact that Herod slaughtered the infants two years and younger. Am I off base on this?

  4. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father Stephen,
    These are beautiful reflections. Thank you so much. It makes me think of St Paul, and how he describes his experience on the Damascus road. His too was an apocalypse of the heart, as he writes to the Galatians,

    “But when it pleased God, who marked me out me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal [apokalypsai] His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles…”

    This revelation redirected his course to set the world on fire – but it was a revelation of Christ “in me.” It seems a veil was pulled away, and Saul realized that he had missed the mark of his truest, deepest nature. This brings the Incarnation close to home, to every one of us, as instances of the Mystery. I think this why he hears the words from Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Because Christ identifies as the persecuted. Indeed, we all find our identity in Him. Christ just is the Human Being, the Image of God, hidden in the heart of all but revealed to everyone who asks, seeks, knocks…

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

  5. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The astrologers rejoicing at the sight of the star are kinda like people rejoicing at seeing light at the end of the train tunnel. They definitely rejoiced but they didn’t really understand what it was they were rejoicing for.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I totally agree. In the Christmas liturgy we sing that the Wise Men were “taught by a star to adore Thee…” They were likely Zoroastrians, I learned recently.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Subdeacon John,
    I’ll have to do some follow up…

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am almost through “The Melody of Faith”. I cannot remember who in the comment section suggested this book, but whoever you are thanks so much!
    I have read a lot of books about Orthodoxy and this is without a doubt the best one so far; deep and profound yet easily understandable. The artwork included is also extremely helpful.

    I am struck by the idea of Christ being in every person. This was never even a possibility (theologically speaking) for me. That said, I was thinking of my sister-in-law this morning. She has given me so many self-help/new age books over the years (I received one yet again this Christmas!). I know she is searching and she thinks a new way of understanding Christianity is hidden in those books. She wants to dialogue with me as she deals with what I think is rebellion against her own Christian upbringing. I´m not really sure what to tell her.

    I shared with my wife that I think even her sister has Christ within her, but that her sister hasn´t pressed into that presence. My wife replied that she thinks most of her sister´s problems are a result of her “not having Christ”. I´m wondering … what is the difference between my new theological framework and the old parardigm my wife is still living within yet beginning to deconstruct?

  9. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    That’s a very good question. In my understanding, there is such a thing as “not having Christ.” But such a state is a form of delusion, of ignorance. St Paul speaks of some who, “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).

    Illusions are real for those under their sway. In this sense, there is such a thing as separation from God. But once the dark mist of ignorance is dispelled, i.e. our eyes are opened to see the truth of reality, we see Emmanuel, God with us. What we thought had been absent or nonexistent was actually, all along, hidden, but now revealed, like a buried treasure in a field.

  10. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Owen. Would it be correct to say that every human being has Christ in them as the image of God which they carry?

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Also … how are the eyes opened? Certainly not by apologetic arguments or rational explanations.

  12. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I think that’s one way to say it, Matthew. Scripture says we are created in the image of God. And Christ just is the Image of God – the distilled microcosmic symbol of humanity – the Man, Christ Jesus. St Paul makes this point by referring to Christ as the Last Adam (echoing Genesis), who sums up humanity in himself, especially in his death and Resurrection. He restores us to our true human nature, seen, for instance, when he breathed on his disciples (again echoing Genesis).

    I don’t believe there’s any formula for conversion. I’m sure you’d agree. But I do think it normally occurs in the context of either great love, great wonder, or great suffering. In my own experience, conversion occurred when I was in jail, facing some charges that would lead to years in prison. I had burnt bridges with friends and relatives, and no one would bail me out. It was in this situation of brokenness that I heard the gospel and believed.

    Thank God, I was spared those years in prison by a judgment of mercy in court. But I also thank God for that path of suffering which broke down my small self and began to illumine the Truth. I hope that helps, brother.

    Christ is Born!

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    The difficulty comes, I think, in defining what is meant be “having Christ within.” St. John’s gospel tells us that Christ is the Light that “enlightens everyone who comes into the world.” In that manner, everyone “has Christ.” But it could be misunderstood to say that Christ is in each person in a manner that would nullify Holy Baptism. What we do not say is that anyone is bereft of Christ.

    When some say “having Christ,” they are describing an active, conscious, cooperation with Christ. That, obviously, is lacking in many. I suspect this is what your wife means. If we are thinking in ontological terms – we have to remember the full expression. There is what is generally true (Christ in all), but there is what is personally (hypostatically) true. So, in St. John’s gospel, we can hear that He enlightens everyone. But then we also hear about “as many as received Him.”

  14. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My sense of it is that the Holy Spirit reveals the mystery of “Christ in all.” It is in Holy Baptism that the Holy Spirit is received. That is the rule. I also believe rules should be broken, exceptions made. For example, Peter comes across an obvious exception and asked “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

    As an aside, I am also unsure of a reading that suggests that the star which was leading astrologers to find Jesus for infanticidal Herod taught them to adore Christ. Unless that is to be understood as an instance of God making “evil work for good.”

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To all: Merry Christmas!

  16. Burt Noyes Avatar
    Burt Noyes

    Christ is born! Glorify Him! Thank you Father Stephen for this post. Your reflections throughout the year have been a great gift to all of us.

  17. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    Just to affirm what Father said and add an additional thought: you asked about the difference in theological paradigms. Since my initial conversion to Christ, my own paradigm has developed several times. It’s been like experiencing several mini conversions along the path. For me, they all have had to do with the relationship of nature and grace. One’s perspective on this relation, whether implicit or explicit, structures one’s entire spiritual outlook.

    The first church I was a part of could be called dispensational fundamentalist. They used a strictly literal biblical hermeneutic. Any sort of sacramentalism or mysticism was vehemently dismissed. The sermon and the word of God were heavily emphasized, along with personal Bible study, normally from the KJV or NKJV. We were encouraged to read the scriptures, from cover to cover, again and again. I’m very thankful for this last emphasis. To this day, I can still see mentally many Bible passages, exactly where they were on the page. But this approach was literalistic and rationalistic, leaving hardly any room for metaphor and definitely not for allegory.

    This fundamentalist approach could be called “grace destroys nature.” In terms of salvation, God saves and we have no part to play in it. Synergy is thus not an option. God does all the work, completely enacts the change, by his power alone, a view known as monergism. In other words, there’s no cooperation between heaven and earth. That’s why the Old Testament promises (earth) were always read as having a literal fulfillment yet to come, while Christ works in the NT Church (heaven) on a different plane. In this view, never the twain shall meet. Ironically, as I read and reread the scriptures, my understanding of nature and grace began to change. I began to see a relation of typological fulfillment between the Testaments, and this affected my view of reality – the relation of heaven and earth.

    I eventually came to the view that grace fulfills nature, that Christ fulfills all the promises of scripture. As the blessed Augustine said, the New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed. This fulfillment relationship between the Testaments provides a paradigm to see all reality in sacramental terms: earth contains heaven, and the latter fills and fulfills the former. Divine grace completes creation as it’s truest ground and end. They are distinct but never separate. God’s being is the being of all beings; God’s life is the life of all living things.

    To me, the paradigm of “grace fulfills nature” is most beautifully exemplified in the Orthodox way: it is typological, allegorical, sacramental, mystical, synergistic, incarnational, participatory. In short, it preserves the mystery in “the mystery of faith.” The notion of mystery – primally hidden yet always ready to be manifest – was a fundamentalist no-no, at least from my experience. But I saw a different approach in the church fathers, and I was deeply drawn to it. Please know that I don’t intend to call anyone names, like “fundamentalist.” This was my own experience, and it does describe an actual paradigm, an extreme end of the spectrum concerning nature and grace. Maybe this description somewhat resonates with the transition you and your wife seem to be experiencing. I hope it helps.

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    The traditional treatment of the passage does not see the Magi as working for Herod – Herod pretends to be interested – he is a deceiver. But it’s also clear that the Magi come, give gifts, and worship the Child. They are not in partnership with Herod – his wickedness is his own.

    But, it’s an interesting point, viz. the star “teaching” them to adore Christ. It’s an instance (the first) of the Gentiles being brought to Christ – in this case – through a religious practice that is “outside” the Covenant. However, God is using all things to bring all to Himself.

  19. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My point is more about the star itself. The star seems to portray an evil agency at work. Sure the Zoroastrian astrologers were just following the star but it seems odd that we have come regard the star so reverently when the star would have mediated the child’s murder.

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Owen.

    Owen: Great love. Great wonder. Great suffering. Makes sense now more than ever. No problem from my side with the term “fundamentalist”. It is what I once was and if the shoe fits wear it!

    Fr. Stephen: How can my sister-in-law, who received a Trinitarian baptism as an infant in a Protestant church but who has completely rejected Christianity receive the Christ that is already in her? Must she simply look deep within in the hope of finding truth?

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    and thanks so much, Owen, for sharing such a personal part of your life´s journey. It means a lot to me.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Repentance is the beginning of seeing…it is a confrontation with the darkness.

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    We could just as easily point to the prophecy from Micah 2 and say that was to blame (for it was that prophecy that, at the time the Wise men came to Jerusalem that named Bethlehem as the place of the Child’s potential birth). The star later leads the Wise Men to the “place where the young child lay.”

    We can only speculate about the nature of the “star.” There’s been no end of such wondering throughout Christian history.

    It is interesting, though, to note that the “astrology” of the Magi has not come into condemnation. Indeed, at least in the Middle Ages, as well as after the Reformation, astrology (picking a propitious day based on star charts) was quite common among leading Christian thinkers. It’s not until it was pretty much debunked by modern science that astrology gets treated as superstition.

    But the star of Bethlehem has never come in for any calumny or condemnation (or suspicion). Herod does evil of his own self – the star is not a mediator.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Although I do not know the name, I saw a brief video by an Orthodox gentleman that described the swaddling in which the baby Jesus was wrapped as analogous to the wrapping of the sacrificial lamb used in the Temple.

    Our priest this morning, using the icon of the Nativity in the southern apsr and the icon of the Crucifixion and burial in our northern apse, pointed out the likeness of His swaddling and the way He is wrapped for burial plus how the cave of His birth is connected to the cave of His burial from which He arose.

  25. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael,
    I heard Fr John Behr make similar connections. He pointed out the infant Christ is laid in a feeding trough with the Cross already in his mandorla, born to give his flesh for food, for the life of the world (the feeding animals symbolize the gentiles).

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    These points and others make a clear connection between the Old and the New Covenants. How the New both fulfills and completes on a higher level the promises of the Old. Especially the promise of the Old for transformation and Salvation.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen, Michael,
    It’s a commonly made link – quite clear in the iconography and there are, I believe, some links in hymnography. I preached on this myself this morning. 🙂

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and it is beautiful nonetheless. Prophecy made real.

  29. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Michael B …repentance is the beginning of seeing….

    A quote from St Gregory Dialogist Pope of Rome:

    The Magi have something important to show us by returning to their homeland from another path. Our homeland is heaven. When we know Christ, the way to return to heaven from where we came is closed. We left our country following the path of pride, disobedience and prevention to the invisible world, after we tasted the forbidden fruit. On the road of return we must follow the road of tears and obedience, of scorning the worldly and abstaining from bodily desires.

  30. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, are your sermons online?

  31. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Nikolaus,

    I have thought about what you have said in the previous post and I have given considerable thought to it. You never know when you when you’re going to come across something that brings a problem into sharp focus. I really appreciate your comments regarding “mental health” and the “intellect.” Thank you for that.

  32. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    Once in a while, but not these. The Rector of my parish came down with a nasty case of flu this last week, and I filled in for him on the services. But he also sets up the camera stuff for the sermons. So…they have passed into the void. Fortunately, he is on the mend, and I’m beginning the process of resting up my old bones. Tennessee has been particularly hard hit by the flu this year. A good number of my family have been down with it. May God preserve us.

  33. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father,
    Lord have mercy! I’m sorry to hear it. My son has had a cough since October, and now has RSV along with my daughter. So there’s been no church or Christmas travels for us. I pray you and yours continue to heal.

  34. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Simon something else to ponder over regarding divine Providence, during these days of celebration of the Lord’s incarnation.

    This story is in one of the books of St Nikolai Velimirovic, our present day St John Chrysostom:

    An incident from the life of Christ as the Divine Infant: when the holy family escaped from the sword of Herod and was traveling to Egypt, some robbers appeared on the way, with the intention of robbing the pilgrims. The righteous Joseph was leading the donkey, on which their few belongings were loaded and on which the Most Holy Theotokos was riding, holding her Son at her breast. The robbers grabbed the donkey with the intention of driving it away, and one of them approached the Mother of God to see what she was holding. As soon as he saw the infant Christ, he was surprised by His unusual beauty and then, in his astonishment, he exclaimed: “And if God took human flesh, He could not be more beautiful than this Child!”. Then the robber ordered his accomplices not to grab anything from these travelers.
    Out of gratitude to this generous robber, the Virgin Mary said to him: “Know that this Child will reward you with a great reward, because you protected Him today.”
    Thirty-three years later, the same man was hanging on the Cross, for his transgressions, crucified to the right of the Cross of Christ. His name was Dysmas and the name of the other, from the left, robber was Gestas. Seeing the Despot, the innocent and sinless Jesus Christ crucified, Dysmas repented for every evil he had done in his life. When Gestas blasphemed against the Lord, Dysmas defended Him saying: this man did nothing wrong (Luk. 23, 41).
    Dysmas was therefore the wise robber to whom our Christ said: I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luk. 23, 43). The Lord gave Paradise to the one who gave Him life when He was a Child!

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, I was given a couple of women’s magazines. Flipping through them there was so much on ‘taking power and control’. In such contexts the words of love and sharing were few. It was disturbing and sad.

    I’m grateful for this blog and to the love and support given here.

    Also, I believe I noticed (my poor vision made it difficult) in the online video of the Nativity services at St Tikhon monastery, that not only the icon of Nativity was displayed but also of the Resurrection, where Christ stands on the cross and pulls up Adam and Eve. Two births both incarnated and related to trampling down death.

    Merry Christmas to all. Christ is born!

  36. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Glorify Him!

    How can my sister-in-law, who received a Trinitarian baptism as an infant in a Protestant church but who has completely rejected Christianity receive the Christ that is already in her? Must she simply look deep within in the hope of finding truth?

    Matthew, I think it may helpful to remember the discussion on repentance. It is less an act (of introspection or otherwise) and more of an acceptance of what is revealed. I think we must, in most cases, simply pray for the revelation and live according to Christ’s commandments (as best we can). It strikes me that discussion of the self-help books, in light of Christ’s commandments, may be helpful. But that is just a thought.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Byron, Matthew,

    Byron quoted Matthew: How can my sister-in-law, who received a Trinitarian baptism as an infant in a Protestant church but who has completely rejected Christianity receive the Christ that is already in her? Must she simply look deep within in the hope of finding truth?

    I forgot to respond to that question. But, your sister-in-law, for example, should she choose to return to the Church and become Orthodox, would, under most Orthodox jurisdictions, be received by Chrismation rather than being re-baptized (note that a few jurisdictions insist on baptizing all converts).

    There’s a difficulty when it comes to confusing sacramental reality and whatever might be going on internal (in our perception) at any period of time. Think of someone’s child. They might well go through a period of renouncing their parents and such. But, should they change their mind, they are returning to something that has remained true.

    We can think of that in a sacramental manner – that the sacramental establishes a reality that remains and abides.

    And then, beneath the sacramental reality – there is a sense in which (in being Baptized or in taking communion) we are participating in and affirming something that, on some level, is already true. We already belong to God. Communion with God is our rightly created state. But sin (in its many forms) has interrupted what was to be our naturally, rightly created state – and we need to be re-established.

    Also – for your sister-in-law, you seem to be describing the situation in purely individualistic terms (“look deep within herself”). Communion with Christ is also life in His Church. It’s not an individualistic thing – that’s not how communion with God works.

  38. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Related to Matthew’s post, I’d be curious to hear orthodox perspectives on what is going on in someone’s life who, by all perceivable measures, has walked away from the faith. In my protestant circles, you normally get two explanations. One is that the person, once truly a believer, has rejected God and has forfeited their salvation. This isn’t necessarily a flippant thing, but comes from continued living that clearly isn’t Christ like with no remorse or repentance. The other is that this person was never truly a believer in the first place and their true internal state is now becoming apparent. They had faked it for a while and now the charade is over.

    It seems that this is foundationally different from the orthodox paradigm, so forgive me if I’m asking too broad of a question. But I think I understand where Matthew is coming from in how to articulate to someone who is either struggling with the faith or just skeptical from the starting point. The primary approach I’ve learned focuses on persuasion or rational argument, you sell it to them or defeat their arguments.

  39. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    I remember in my early Christian days, in an evangelical/charismatic context – people constantly checking in on one another. If you’re doing bad, your whole spiritual life could be in danger! It drove me crazy. I eventually abandoned it for a sacramental worldview (Anglican at the time). That continues in the life of Orthodoxy.

    People’s thoughts and emotions are like a rollar coaster. Lot’s of things go up and down. In our culture, we get confused. We want something one day and the next its something entirely different. We are formed and shaped as consumers and have far too little stability.

    Orthodoxy doesn’t take us a perfect people – or use us as its stable foundation. Christ is our foundation – and it is into His death and resurrection that we are Baptized. And that begins a lifetime of spiritual formation. Slowly gaining stability. Slowly seeing the will get free of the passions that toss it about. Slowly gaining greater purity and seeing more clearly.

    It is very difficult when we see something “lose” their faith. It can also be something that changes. It is for us to pray, to be steadfast, and to be patient. I had a friend (now deceased), who struggled through the years with a bi-polar disorder. His faith was all over the place. He became various things in the religious world. At one point, I was torturing myself and agonizing over one of his fallings. While I was praying for him, God spoke within my heart and said, “He belongs to me.” I did not quit praying, but I quit worrying. I knew that God loved him far more than I did, and that God would be steadfast in preserving him in grace. I have no doubt of his salvation and remember him always in my prayers for the departed.

    There is a sort of insanity that surrounds popular Christianity and its many changes of the heart. It is for us to become sane, to pray like sane people, and to be confident in Christ.

    To those who struggle, we should articulate love, confidence in the mercy of God, and be patient and caring as they struggle through whatever is set before them.

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Byron. Thanks also Shawn for your question.

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What should I say to her Byron?

  42. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Also Fr. Stephen and Byron:

    What you both share takes a lot of pressure off. It seems that any mental assent (be it positive or negative) doesn´t change at all what is sacramentally always there. It´s not my job to convince. It´s not my job to agonize over someone going astray. It´s my job to pray and to live the commands of Christ.

    Thanks you both.

  43. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you Father Stephen. I appreciate your wisdom and insight. Learning stability and sanity through confidence in Christ. Seeing faith as a lifetime of spiritual formation, not just a decision in time or ever changing state.

  44. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Nikolaus,

    I had a very vivid dream last night where an angel or something like that told me that the 30, 60, 90, and 100 fold in Jesus parable means fullness of psyche (pleroma psuxes). The impression is that psychological health is the fine soil and that the bad soil is psychological unhealthiness.

    What do you think about that?

  45. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I don’t want to speak for Nikolaos – but it would seem unjust in some way – often, psychological health is utterly outside of our control. There needs to be some kind of refinement in thinking about this. Some people labor for years with the burden of injuries and broken psyche’s – and yet God be very much in them and working wonders. Anything that becomes too “do this, and get that” – doesn’t really stack up.

    Mental health issues create certain hurdles and obstacles – but I’ve seen greater things within some such as these than in many who would be judged “healthy.”

    I should add that when Romanides speaks of “healthy” he had something different in mind than what we might call “healthy” in standard medical-speak.

  46. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t think justice or fairness has anything to do with it. It is just another consequence of being born into a world situation we didn’t choose. Clearly, this whole situation is unjust.

    Everything about it is unjust. I could rehash examples where a person’s life would be impossible to know anything about God or Christ. But, here’s if it is impossible for one, then it is potentially impossible for all

    Fairness isn’t the problem. If I’m going to object to something because it isn’t fair, then I object to ALL of it. The whole mess isn’t fair to anyone

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Indeed. Fairness is the wrong word for me to have used. Your observation is correct.

    My thought, however, was to think about what we are asking viz. God. If mental health is a requirement for the road of salvation – that is – to knowledge of God (in the manner that God intends for us) then only the sane could be saved. That would say something about God that I believe is utterly untrue. Therefore, what matters in our knowledge of God (in the manner that He intends for us) must be something different – something available to the mentally unhealthy (perhaps even more available to them!).

    Whenever someone spins forth a theological account of something (whether of the nous, or anything else), it has to be subjected to its application and then held up to the light of Christ Himself. If it fails the test (as in presenting Christ as other than He is), then it’s time to get the eraser and make some alterations.

    What I hear in your questions and thoughts are something of that application – saying, “This doesn’t work.” That kind of thing runs in my head all the time. What I want is to know Christ, not to fit Him into somebody’s straitjacket, but to know Him as He is.

    I haven’t wanted to go into Romanides in depth (Nikolaos quoted him). But, my experience in reading him is that he is ultimately too formulaic, and that his formulas drive his theology far too much. That has been my experience.

  48. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    What should I say to her Byron?

    Matthew, I can only say that one should be careful and gentle in any discussion. Generally speaking, be a safe (and soft) place for her to settle, as God wills.

    Please forgive me, I don’t have any exact words.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    1 Cor. 15:22
    For as in Adam all die, even so, in Christ shall all be made alive.

  50. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am assume that with respect to the whole of humanity only a few are saved as “first fruits” and then I would speculate that the rest are brought in “later” when they are made ready. Regardless, the Scriptures seem to indicate that those that are saved are few. Whether that few results from being the few that have heritable well-being or some set of factors doesn’t seem to make a difference. There will always be a heritable differential that that either favors or disfavors well-being. In fact, I’ve read that monastics take mental stability into account when receiving new monks.

  51. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think that mental stability as a desirable quality for monastics is not a reflection of the nature of salvation, but the nature of a human community. A monastery is much like a marriage – and a certain level of sanity or wellness is necessary. But, I do not think we should conflate this with salvation itself.

    I think of Dostoevsky. No one could accuse him of being mentally healthy. He had clear pathologies (a gambling addiction, for one). He was likely bi-polar or something like it. But, few have fed as many souls as he has. We does not become a great, holy elder. But he communicated a vision of the great and holy elder (Zossima) who has served us very well. Equally, his ability to enter into the madness of humanity, or even the darkness of our hearts, has also been of profound importance. God was with/in him.

    In my Face to Face, I did a chapter on Holy Fools, suggesting that they might be the best possible examples of the Orthodox faith. I don’t think anyone would want to marry one, nor would a monastic community of Holy Fools be inhabitable. Nevertheless, they can reveal the truth of our existence and the reality of God with a sharpness that is unrivaled. Their historical treatment in Orthodoxy is quite unique, and speaks volumes.

    As the the great scheme about who and how many are saved, and in what order – it’s too much for me. I cannot know such a thing.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the reasons I have valued experience over theology is because I have found it, in my case, to be less susceptible to advanced expectations. It began in 1968 when I prayed to know He is real. I said, “Jesus, if you are real, I need to know it!” He answered my prayer and let me know He is real.
    Then, in a sense, I was looking for a theology and a practice that best conveyed Him as He is. Not as how I think He is.

    In 1986, I attended my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy and I knew He is real 100%. Then I began to look at how Orthodox theology and practice brought me into Him. I try to understand the theology form the known reality of Jesus to expand my knowing and understanding including how to overcome my sins.

    So in 2023–55 years after being shown He is real–the nature of repentance and how it heals has been brought to my attention. Matthew 4:17 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

    I suspect that will be unfolded to me for the rest of my life–however long that is.

    Satan keeps sending darkness into my heart and mind that I am often slow to reject. I am weak. But Jesus keeps reminding me that He is real and I know it.

    Folks who are part of the community here seldom are in denial but each of us struggles. Forgive me, a sinner.

    Christ is Born!

  53. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Simon

    If you are interested in the theology of illness, bodily or mental, look for writings by Jean-Claude Larchet.

  54. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,

    You seem to suggest that holy fools are a counter example to to the possibility that mental health can impair one’s ability for spiritual responsiveness. As if to say that the holy fools are somehow mentally unhealthy. Is that the implication? Are you saying something like ‘mental illness doesn’t impair spiritual growth as seen by holy fools who are mentally unwell and yet they are spiritually responsive’? That’s what I am hearing you say. I have always seen holy fools as hyperbolic reflections of the human condition. I assumed their mental clarity was such that it transcended their peculiar behavior. For example, the holy fool that lives in rubbish and when given better food gives it to the rats and roaches. Is the holy fool mentally unwell or is the holy fool acting as a living prophesy, exposing the folly of materialism as mere rubbish?

    With all due respect, Father, when you push back on this this point I experience dissidence, a dissidence like I might feel to hear an astronomer talking about the world being flat. Don’t take that the wrong way, please. I’m just trying to communicate a sense of how odd it is to hear because it seems obvious to me that mental health can in fact make it impossible to be spiritually responsive. Take severe mental impairment for example. That’s extreme, but the extreme illustrates the magnitude of the problem.

    The idea of holy fools exists in many cultures. In Buddhism and especially in Daoism sages are often regarded as ‘intoxicated’ because of their bizarre behavior. In fact, Yoda’s portrayal in the ESB begins as a ‘fool’ his behavior exposing Luke’s impatience and anger. Of course, his foolishness is exaggerated in order to reflect the flaws in Luke’s character.

  55. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,

    You can’t value what you don’t have, but I am glad that you have had what I would say are many profound experiences. Good for you! But, for those who not only do not have those experiences, but also have challenges associated with shifts in consciousness, and troubling hallucinations…this whole thing feels as if I am being left out. For example, twice this week I have woke up to the sound of many voices, like a group of people talking in my living room. I could lay there and listen to the different voices. I couldn’t make anything specific out. You what a small crowd sounds like. I know what this is. I am not afraid of it. I understand what it is. But, then I see a rapid succession of for lack of better words demonic faces. Again, I know I am hallucinating. But then I see an icon of Mary with the Child. It was there in front of me. I could see it. The point is…how can anyone say that mental health doesn’t impair spiritual responsiveness whenever mental fragmenting can drive a wedge between a person and his own mind(s).

    Father, I hope you let this post through because almost certainly I am not the only one with these questions.

  56. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Perhaps only the sane are saved. I’m okay with that. I am not offended by that at all. In fact, I hope that’s true. It would be a relief.

    However, I would still have faith that in God’s Goodness that somewhere there is a place for me: “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him.”

  57. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Why can’t this scripture be my faith? Why can’t this scripture be the faith of the exhausted? “See, he will kill me; I have no hope…This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him.”

  58. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Byron.

    About mental illness and salvation:

    As someone who suffers from mental illness, I can say that it has at times caused me a lot of problems in life … even in my life of faith. That said, it has not been an absolutely insurmountable obstacle to growing in communion with God.

    At best, it helps me to have bucket loads of compassion for people who suffer with mental illness and any other illness that can negatively affect the will. Why do people not come to Christ and his Church? I do not have definitive answers, but I think part of the problem is an imperfect will which has been negatively affected by any number of things; sickness, trauma, abuse, biography, etc. — though I openly admit those very same things might draw someone to Christ and his Church. It is not so easy to understand (for me at least).

    Lord have mercy.

  59. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    “Spiritual responsiveness.” I believe that spiritual responsiveness is possible in everyone – in some manner – but with a very wide degree of variation. It is, I believe, the most intimate question of the most intimate place in the human heart. The brain, as it was described by a contemporary elder, is like an “instrument.” It might well be out of tune, missing strings, etc. That affects what can be done with it. But it can still be played, even if only in a feeble manner, or a manner that is hard to discern.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s simple aphorism that the spiritual life consists in “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt” is another way of looking at it. Or, even, the widow’s mite. We celebrate certain saints, but are unaware of most of them. Perhaps the ones we most easily see appear to us as “sane” of as examples of what happens with a sane mind. But, in truth, we don’t know their inner world. We don’t know their secret world and its depths. That is to say, we do not fully comprehend the hand they have been dealt (it’s hidden), nor do we fully see what they have done with it.

    What I am not saying is that “mental health” doesn’t matter, much less that it isn’t a torment. It is not fair (like all disease). It is not just. It is not “ok.” It is something, however, in which the Crucifixion of Christ can be made manifest. In some manner, love is possible.

    I cannot think of anything to which I would say, “This cannot be saved.” I can think of lots of things to which I can say, “I don’t understand – or – this is beyond me.” Before some things you can only wonder and pray for mercy.

    There remains a vast distance between the widow’s mite of responsiveness, and impossibility.

    It is possible that we are not saying the same thing when we use the phrase “spiritual responsiveness.”

  60. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon, I have not said that spiritual responsiveness is not “impaired.” It can be like a huge mountain. If responsiveness means to climb the mountain, then the impairment could be total. But the responsiveness might well be only to say, “Have mercy!”

    The weariness of your struggle is clear – “it would be a relief” you say in a comment. In the simple statement:

    However, I would still have faith that in God’s Goodness that somewhere there is a place for me…

    There is a place for you. May God keep you close and give you a measure of comfort.

  61. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Simon,
    Since several have shared stories, I’ll add one. I was hospitalized with a severe depression when I was a sophmore in college. I had come out of a charismatic house church/commune, and my faith was in a shattered state – a lot of which was driven by the symptoms of the depression – which were pretty severe. Internally, I was mostly aware of darkness and confusion.

    I do not have good words for what took place in me, other than to say that the last day of my hospitalization (as it turned out), I “saw” a point of light within me – that had hope and a promise of healing. There was nothing more than that. But, on that tiny basis, I checked out of the hospital, and began what was a very tortured journey. I had good days, bad days – really, really bad days and darker nights.

    I began to attend the liturgy in an Episcopal Church (it was back when things were mostly sane there – and that Church was quite traditional). The stability of the Eucharist was a balm for the soul. Oddly, another helpful thing was that no one came up to me and asked me how I was doing, or tried to have a “spiritual” conversation with me. I just needed to be quiet, to take communion, and put one foot in front of another. When I look back, I feel that I’ve never left off the journey I began in the hospital. Now I am old. I will say that for all of my years on that journey, I’ve felt a deep kinship with anyone suffering from mental pain or impairment. I have time for them in my life. I agonize for them/with them. We are doing this together.

    Sometimes we cannot walk – someone else carries for a time – or drags us – or just sits with us. My own “salvation prayer” is simply this, “Jesus, do not leave me alone.”

    So – Matthew – I totally understand the “bucket loads of compassion.” I have found that to be common here in our conversations over the years. We don’t write each other off – or simply argue to make points. May God preserve us all.

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you are not old yet, just older.

  63. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thanks Simon, Matthew, Father Stephen and others. I spent the summer of 6th grade in a psyche ward with a multitude of mental disorders in full swing. All of this was the culmination of a slow descent of my mind that I had no context for. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was something that runs in my family, on both sides. Over the past 25 or so years, I’ve been on mountaintops and deep valleys regarding mental health. Waves of the disorders have capsized me to varying degrees over the years. Anyone who deals with this is likely deeply confused, but especially someone entering adolescence. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but realize I’ll never fully understand. Simon, I at least somewhat think I understand what you mean about being spiritually less / un-responsive during these times. When I’m in the valley of a depression or cliff ledge of OCD, there is very little at all I can respond to. I’m just trying to survive. This was especially true in my younger years and earlier in my faith. As time has passed, I’ve discovered that my responsiveness if often greater as God leads me out of darkness and places me on safer ground. I used to want so badly to stay in this place of stability, to avoid another dip or spike. However, what I’ve learned to do is to really take hold of what I know to be true about God and Christ. That God is good and Christ gave his life for me out of his love for me. That’s about all I can hold on to when the darkness hits, but it can at times be like the Star of Earendil that Frodo uses to ward off the evil spider. It gives me enough strength to continue journeying through to the other side, one slow step in front of the other. Certainly isn’t easy, but has made such a tremendous difference for me. I hope this helps, and like Matthew and Father Stephen said, I have tremendous compassion for those struggle in this area.

  64. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    Thank you for sharing this. I have come to think that simply “hanging in there” (as in being loyal to Christ) is a greater thing than most imagine. This is particularly so in the face of things like mental illness or other forms of internal suffering. The first of all saints to have been honored in the life of the Church were the martyrs. It was only later, and that by way of analogy, that we honored great “spiritual giants” (or whatever term we might give them). The mark of a martyr is that they were loyal, despite the sufferings they underwent.

  65. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Of course I’m old. I’m not dead yet, but I’m old (for a human). I have little regard for our modern cult of youth. Old is good…to the last drop.

  66. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Good to the last drop … Maxwell “Old” … man I am dating myself! 🙂 🙂

    This conversation is so healing and compassionate and filled with understanding. It does good to me in ways even my favorite topic, theology, cannot and does not.

    I have a few questions, Fr. Stephen, but if you feel like you are unable to answer them openly in the comment section … no problem.

    Was the charismatic/commune aware of your struggles with depression? Were they equipped to help you in any way? Did this charismatic/commune have an effect on your struggles with faith? I ask these things because I have my own history with the charismatic movement which in some ways (or a lot of ways?) was not very healthy.

  67. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am also reading “The Art of the Icon” A Theology of Beauty by Paul Evdokimov.
    It is really amazing. I have read nothing like this in western theological books.

    I think the problem is there simply are not enough Russian theological and spiritual books translated into English or other languages. What a pity.

  68. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    On your question about the charismatic movement, some here may have had positive experiences. However, in my childhood, my mother was so mistreated in the various Protestant communities that were around us that she stopped going to church altogether. My father continued taking my brother and me to church for a time. This was my first taste that something was wrong. I was about 8 years old. I started to ask questions of Sunday School teachers that they couldn’t answer.

    In second grade, when I was asked the name of God, I said, “Breathmaker,” the Seminole name for God. My answer was innocent. I was in second grade. But the Sunday School teacher’s response to my answer was seared into my memory. I was deeply ashamed such that it took some time to tell my mother what had happened. These events are only the first of decades of brushes with Protestants of various stripes saying or doing things that are so reprehensible that I would not step into a Church (out of my desire rather than for a wedding, etc) until I was about 60 years old. As a result I do not describe my entry into Orthodoxy as coming from a Christian background I expunged anything Christian as far as I could within myself. I got the impression that anything that had been ascribed to Christ had to be completely bogus, based on my experiences with Protestants. Fewer such experiences happened with Catholics, but there were a few there as well that tipped the scales to confirm that Christianity is the bane and destroyer of true human goodness and authentic spirituality.

    Science of all things was what brought me back to Christ. In the context of our conversation here, I give my life witness that Christ finds you where you are. Whether you know it or not.

  69. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you Father Stephen. I find it interesting as well how we give the term Great or Giant in today’s world. It tends to be based on level of accomplishment, measurable impact, size of movement……bigger is better, more is better. However, I often think of my 94-year-old Grandmother who lives alone at home. She hasn’t done much “great” in terms described above, but I know that she prays for each member of her entire family by name at least twice a day. None of us will ever fully understand how her prayers have blessed our lives, but she has done great things!

    I admire how the Orthodox still pay homage to the saints, and especially the martyrs. I’m just now reading some early church history involving persecutions which is eye opening to say the least. Like you say about the saints, many martyrs are celebrated, but we don’t know about most of them. I’m sure they’re all great to God.

  70. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Please, forgive me for coming off as argumentative. I am disposed to picking at things–details as well as sores. I think it is a neurotic trait, and neuroticism frequently comes off as argumentativeness. I get paralyzed on the heads of needles and that paralysis is deeply frustrating. Even though I know that, I still struggle to move on unless this point is resolved. I am not always this way. But, I am right now.

    The mistake is mine and I ask forgiveness.

  71. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    God give you grace. You’re among friends.

  72. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee said:

    “I got the impression that anything that had been ascribed to Christ had to be completely bogus, based on my experiences with Protestants. Fewer such experiences happened with Catholics, but there were a few there as well that tipped the scales to confirm that Christianity is the bane and destroyer of true human goodness and authentic spirituality.”

    Dee … I am so sorry for this. Truly. I also (now) believe that there were many people who crossed my path years ago who had similar feelings as yours, but I never even bothered to listen to them. I just pushed through with my evangelistic agenda. I rejoice that God worked in such a way to bring you to Christ and his Church despite your experiences with Protestantism.

    Maybe sometime, if you feel you can and want to, you can share the story about how science lead you to Christ and his Church. I find it absolutely fascinating when I meet modern scientists who are also in Christ. It gives me hope that science is not the destroyer of faith as a lot of religious folk believe. If you cannot share, no problem. Thanks so much for what you have shared up to this point. Peace.

  73. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I get it Simon. I often need crystal clear clarification before I can take the next step. You are not alone. Thanks so much for your presence here.

  74. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    At the time of that depression, the community I was part of was ill-equipped to deal with it or to be helpful. They cared…and that was of value. But it was inadequate. For that matter, the mental health community wasn’t of much use, either – not for a long time. There’s been little “magic” over the years. The answers I’ve received have been slow, but helpful. The most beneficial work that I’ve done has been in the area of shame (hence the book on the topic). Mental health is as much physical as anything – or a very complex mixture of stuff.

  75. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  76. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    I have a few comments that I will try to limit. I am hesitant to speak because I may well have nothing valuable to add.

    This comment is to everyone, especially those involved in the mental wellness discussion here.

    To Simon, I would add the possibility of physical causes, hormonal, etc. that could cause some of the mental issues such as hallucinations – you have prob already looked into this, so don’t be offended if this seems insultingly obvious. I do know some people whose hallucinations were physically driven. Not meant to be presumptuous, you probably have looked into every possible cause.

    Father Stephen: are there particular people in the Bible who can be identified as having some mental disorder of sorts? I don’t mean the ones referenced as demon possessed. When Paul stated , “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me”(II For 12:7), was this physical or mental? Can we know?

    To anyone:
    How can anyone know if they are “sane” or not? I ask this seriously to anyone who cares to answer.

    We have societal standards, but is the society which measures sanity sane itself? If a thing is deeply disordered, as some (including myself) believe our society to be, then is that sane? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

    I only mention this because maybe one standard of mental health/ unhealth is not mental deficiency somewhere else.

    I often think of myself in terms of mentally well or unwell, but how do I know really. I think myself mentally fairly ok now, but I could look back at some point and think that I wasn’t.

    I am not a follower of Jordan Peterson, not for or against him. But, I have listened to his talk “Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard (Existentialism).”

    Peterson uses the example of a 3 year old child who believes he is being left alone in a mall. He says that we think of a normal child as one who is unafraid and happy. But, he says, the truly normal state of a human child is fear. It is only because a child has people who keep him safe that the natural state of being is overcome, over-ridden, etc.

    This seems self evident in a way, I suppose. It strikes me as sort of profound.

    Our normal state is anxiety, fear, etc. Maybe things that we moderns would see as mental illness. Anyway, this is a great condensing of his talk.

    Also, maybe Irreducible Mind by Edward Kelly has already been discussed somewhere in the comments. It seems I recollect a mention from a while back. Maybe.

    I was startled to see that migraine activity such as auras, which I have had as long as I can remember, are considered a hallucinatory syndrome.

    Also, on p. 435 a Sir John Herschel is referenced for kaleidoscopic visual imagery while lying awake in darkness. This is in the section on hallucinatory syndromes.

    I also have this but mine is not always regular geometric in nature as Herschel’s. Mine are colorful, any sort of shapes or images, sometimes words. It is clearly originating in my mind, not coming from outside. But it is unsolicited. Same thing with music. And voices are not uncommon.

    Just mentioning this because I never thought of it as hallucinatory but here I have a book to tell me that it is.

    Maybe “normal” is not necessarily the norm. Maybe more people have “abnormal” experiences than we would know.

    Just some random thoughts.

  77. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Eliza,

    I was thinking much the same thing. When it comes to the rest of the body, we do not pigeonhole a person as abnormal because of having a myriad different physical conditions. We just accept that not too many people are “perfect specimens.”

    For the mind/brain, however, we often talk as though the ideal not only exists but is common or even in the majority. I doubt very much that is true because, whenever we read biographies, almost everyone worthy of a biography evidences one or more mental deviations from this imagined ideal.

    The Internet should put to rest that the correlation is only a relationship of genius (achievement) and madness (neurosis). We know from mass social media that average people are just as all over the place, regardless of how much social media also allows us to try to present only our best selves.

    Mental health issues are easier to keep hidden and rationalize, which we’re encouraged to do (though perhaps less so than once upon a time). But it seems to me as the most complex organ (and one that can be viewed as an extreme mutant versus other species), the human brain doubtless has as many malfunctions as any other organ.

    Given all the versatility they are capable of, we shouldn’t be surprised that most brains have glitches.

  78. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Mark,

    Thanks for responding. I still approach this commenting business with much anxiety. So I do greatly appreciate it.

    This is a timely topic in light of the possible expansion of MAID in Canada to include mental health or the so-called lack of it. Truly disturbing.

    You sum it up nicely with, “Given all the versatility they are capable of, we shouldn’t be surprised that most brains have glitches.”

    Yes! Even with animals this is true.

  79. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Eliza,
    I can’t think of any Biblical characters, per se. St. Paul is a very good question. He describes his affliction as “a messenger of Satan sent to buffet me,” but gives us no speculation. The Tradition does not supply information either. Whether he is speaking literally, or speaking of a nickname for an ailment, we don’t know.

    I have been a confessor for over 40 years, counseling, etc. There are very few people whom I would describe as “healthy” in the sense of having no mental disorder – whether anxiety, depression, ADD, OCD, etc. For some, it’s mild, for others it’s profound. Neither of my parents would ever have thought of themselves as having any sort of mental disorder – but they both did. It was simply not diagnosed or treated back then. Frankly, the treatments were lousy as well. When I was medicated for a short time when I was in college, the medication’s side effects were far worse than the depression/anxiety. I stopped the meds. There are much better alternatives now – both pharmaceutical and herbal, etc.

    So, I’m very loathe to do more than be helpful with anyone – careful not to suggest that our varied afflictions stand between us and salvation. St. Paul’s affliction seemed to be allowed precisely to help his salvation – such is the grace of God!

    The danger, I think, is when we practice such a subjectivized form of our faith that our inner state is mistaken for reality itself. Sometimes it is, sometimes not. That was part of the insanity I found in the charismatic experience. These days I say, “Do not mistake your neurosis for God.”

    My anchor is the crucified and risen Jesus. He is the revelation of God (Jn 1:18). I take that is the straightforward proof of the goodness and mercy of God. The sacraments are a steady means to participate in His death and resurrection. So, however I might feel on any given day, that reality is not up for grabs. My moods may be terrible, or my physical health deteriorate. At some point, I will decline and die. But Christ remains.

  80. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Simon, Dee, Matthew, Fr. Freeman, Shawn, Liza, Mark. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. (I too hesitate to comment, but I will risk it and hope my words may be of some help.)

    I have spent most of my adult life privately studying healing in almost any form I could find. It was what ultimately brought me back to church. It was there I also began to develop a relationship with the Theotokos.

    I feel there is a feminine component to healing that is necessary and often overlooked because it is hard to quantify. The love of the Mother that is so tender and accepting and forgiving – that motherly love that pours out when she sees her child in pain. It is different than fatherly love.

    If I may use a simplistic example — when a child falls down and skins their knee they need two things. The first thing the child needs is reassurance and love, the second thing the child needs is to clean and bandage the wound. Our world is very good at the second part, but lacking in the first part. Only bandaging the wound and not addressing the heart can leave the child confused — they’re told they’re fine, but they know their heart is still hurting. If the wound is not visible at all, it can be even more confusing.

    Just as the body will keep renewing itself, and knitting back together every cut it can; the heart will keep crying out for healing. That is not illness, that is how we were designed.

    Finally, (and forgive me, as I have a rather strong opinion on this matter) I want to point out that the foundation of modern psychology was never about healing the heart or teaching that each of us is a perfect expression of God’s unceasing love.

  81. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your answer. I always wonder about Paul’s affliction. The way it is spoken of in II Corinthians is both reassuring and troubling.

    That is intriguing about your experience as a confessor. In my own life and family, I know few to no people without some issue. Seems we are all in need of a doctor.

    You said,
    “Do not mistake your neurosis for God.”

    Amen. Boy, could I tell tales about my misadventures in doing just this very thing!

  82. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Holly,

    Thanks for your comment. I find it illuminating- “the heart will keep crying out for healing.”

    If we didn’t cry for healing, that would be the illness.

    Thanks!

  83. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Holly,
    Yes to the Theotokos and the importance of her role in our lives.

  84. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Eliza and Holly,

    Thank you for sharing your comments. I think you both bring up valid points.

    Over my journey with mental health, I’ve “lived” in certain camps. The first was the medical camp. This reduced everything down to chemicals, symptoms and treatment. Find the right medicine, eat the right foods and exercise. I believe there is truth here, and much benefit, but if you’re looking for a cure you will wind up disappointed. I also spent time in the spiritual camp. This is where you spiritualize all of it. As an evangelical, I was often met with a message that fear, anxiety, depression, obsessiveness are results of weak faith and a lack of true belief. Faith should supersede all of this. I will say that this viewpoint wasn’t shared by all members, but it’s a common perspective. It does seem to be changing more recently in the evangelical world which I think is good. In the spiritual camp you try harder, pray more, devote more time to scripture reading, cut out as much sin as possible, throw away your medicine and then despair that you’re not a true believer when it all comes back.

    I spent most of my time in these two camps, but I would also take excursions to the third camp, therapy. Therapy (psychology), to me, feels like it draws from the first two camps, sort of a combination. This camp can be helpful in ways, but in my experience depends a lot on the particular therapist. By far, the most healing therapist I saw was a kind old Catholic man with a phd in psychology. I still see him to this day if needed.

    I eventually got tired of switching camps. They all seemed to have something to offer. Over time, God graciously led me to draw from all three camps. I realized that they all were providing healing in different areas: physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, but I am a whole person that consists of a complex intertwining of all those facets. For me, this has been the best approach by far. I don’t have a perfect formula, but I will say it’s important to keep looking for helpers you trust.

    Now, there’s only one nagging thing left. Even with all this help, even with growth and maturity and a great support team, I still struggle…sometimes immensely. That’s where what Eliza and Holly said comes in. I still live in a fallen society. Not just fallen a little bit, but broken deeply. Father Stephen does such a great job helping us see that. I would recommend a book by Alan Noble – You Are Not Your Own – Belonging to God in an Inhuman World. He is a Protestant, but doesn’t focus on that at all. He helped me see the world and our culture more clearly as well.

    I’m learning that my heart still longs for Eden, to be at peace in the presence of God. I’m reminded every day that I’m not there. So on some level it makes sense that I still struggle. I do think it would actually be deeply troubling for a soul made in the image and likeness of God to be content in today’s world. I’m coming to terms that I will always have a heart that longs for home and a mind that struggles mightily to cope with my own brokenness and that around me. Surprisingly, this realization has led me deeper into knowing Christ. Slowly learning to relate to his sufferings and being comforted knowing he shares them. If I feel like an exile having only a faint recollection in my soul of Eden, what must Christ have felt like having actually created it! It helps me to know that to some extent it’s ok to still not be ok with life.

    I’m still grateful for all the support I receive, even outside the church. I still need to function within this lost society as best I can, but I’m learning to live with the trials more, trying to take heart that Christ has overcome the world. Thanks again for the comments!

  85. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Shawn,

    Thank you! What you say about drawing from the best of the three camps is very interesting.

    Similar to when we have a physical illness we can pull from different types of treatment (traditional medicine, alternative, physical therapy, etc) with the end result being an improvement or healing of the illness.

  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    1 Corinthians 15 applies as much to our various derangements as to our more literal death..

    Given our fallen state (all of us) it would be a great miracle if we were not deranged in actions, thoughts and response (personal and corporate.

    Handel’s Messiah: ‘Since By Man Came Death’ is a powerful way to contemplate what St. Paul says..

  87. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I have said it before and I will say it again … this blog is truly a gift.

    Shawn: I so appreciate your post about the different camps of healing you were part of. What you share is similar to what I have discovered in my own life. I am coming out of a stream of Christianity that did not and could not help me with my mental health issues. They cared, which was kind, but simply being told that you either a) have a sin problem or b) not enough faith or c) need to read your Bible more seemed to me to be very closed-minded, anti-scientific, too black and white, etc. I was taught that any kind of secular treatment was demonic and that modern psychology was a sham. My condition worsened and at the same time I began seriously deconstructing the theological and spiritual paradigms I had inherited. I began getting help in ways I had previously avoided. I now see a secular psychologist who respects my religious worldview and even seems to try to incorporate it into my therapy. I spent almost a month in a secular clinic and it was immensely helpful. I am not adverse to alternative methods of healing. I feel like I am on a much healthier path these days. My movement toward Orthodoxy has also been immensely helpful as I continue to journey through life.

    Holly: What do you think, then, is the goal of modern psychology?

    Thanks also to the rest of you. I cannot express how much I have learned over the last 3 months or so simply by reading the comments here and interacting with many of them.

  88. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    To all,
    Orthodoxy is not an ideology. It is not part of the “war of ideas.” It is the life revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ as gifted to His Church through the centuries. It is not the enemy of science or medicine nor of human thought and experience.

    That said, we are wise to recognize how our human life/culture is tossed about with various schemes and ideologies. It is incorrect to speak of “science” as if it were a single thing with a single set of ideas. Rightly practiced, science is an ongoing conversation and set of practicies. Poorly practiced, it can be the front for ideologies and political agendas.

    Psychology is a strange mix of practices. Early theorists, such as Freud and Jung, were highly theoretical, almost fanciful in their notions of the human psyche. The politicization of diagnoses within its professional organizations demonstrate how vulnerable it is as a science to cultural influences that are devoid of scientific discipline. It’s a very mixed bag.

    Nonetheless, some of its forms can be of use and quite helpful in many ways. I point to the book, Ancient Christians Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, by Bishop Alexis Trader (of Alaska), as a good exposition of psychology and Orthodox thought. Bishop Alexis is a Schemamonk who of Mt. Athos, with his doctorate in patristic studies and psychology from the University of Thessaloniki.

    My experience has been that you have to look around for a reliable therapist when such help is recommended or seems necessary. Sometimes the field seems like the Wild West. But, it has always been the case that medicine is not auto mechanics. Human beings are not machines. There are scientific skills that are important, but actual insight into human beings includes non-quantifiable abilities such as intuition and inspiration.

    All of that makes it problematic to make sweeping generalizations about psychology, science, medicine, etc. We do our best as we take small steps in our lives towards healing and wholeness. What works for one does not always work for all.

    I thank God for His mercies and the many gifts He has placed among us.

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen! The book suggestion looks fascinating!

  90. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Eliza, for what it’s worth, I think Peterson is wrong. Our default is not fear, but communion. A young child that is born is born in relation to their mother (and father, in some ways). A three-year-old will cry if lost, but their cry will be for the safety of the relationship(s) they know. Their fear, similar to sin, is more along the line of a learned experience over time.

    I feel there is a feminine component to healing that is necessary and often overlooked because it is hard to quantify. The love of the Mother that is so tender and accepting and forgiving – that motherly love that pours out when she sees her child in pain. It is different than fatherly love.

    Holly, I think true healing requires both the feminine and masculine: the whole human, properly expressed. The fullness of healing rightly requires the fullness of humanity, so to speak.

    None of this means, of course, that there are not physical conditions that affect us all along the way. I think it is worth considering that a “norm” is generally defined by a group, not an individual. The very definition is tribal. It’s a major reason there are fewer and fewer accepted norms in our highly individualistic Western Society. Just my thoughts.

  91. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Byron,

    That is a good point about our default being communion, not fear. It certainly seems a healthier way to look at it.

    I just thought Peterson’s take was intriguing, worth considering, not that I necessarily agree. Also, I think one point he is making is that humans default to fear if not raised in a caring setting and that this is natural.

    What Peterson says would seem more true if talking about a creature that from the beginning is on its own.

    Thanks!

  92. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    To answer your question about science and Christ, I will point to what Father Stephen said above.

    I’m unsure what is best to say in this blog regarding my life experiences that pertain to my path from science to Christ. It is important to say that whatever I learned from my observations of nature then and now is already present in the scriptures.

    Initially, when I concluded that there had to be “a Christ,” the idea was so repugnant that I threw away all of my notes on the thought experiment that led me to that conclusion. Father noted that it wasn’t the science that rejected this realization. Rather, it was my bias against Christianity (resulting from my experience with Christians) that made it a pill hard to swallow. My mind kept returning to the project I had initiated because I had been inculcated into a practice I had learned through the discipline of physical chemistry. I wanted to understand how the Higgs Field worked, and I was inculcated in physical chemistry to start with basic principles of subatomic behavior and build up from that level up to the macro level observable on the benchtop in a chemistry lab. In other words, I worked using a practice I was taught to use and maintain from a habit formed over decades. I had no intention of falling into a thought pattern thinking about a Christ-like figure. I was disgusted with myself.

    Arriving at the realization that there is (what I will call) a universal-level physics in nature, in need of “a Christ,” was a very uncomfortable accident that I rejected for about three weeks. When I realized that fear was the driving force of my rejection, I decided to reject the fear as best as I could and start to learn a little theology.

    But which theology? Having a life-long rejection of Christianity from Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, what was left? The first two books I picked up were Met. Kalistos Ware’s on the Orthodoxy Church and the Orthodox Way. What kept me hooked and willing to keep reading was his treatment of icons. It seemed to me that what I was doing with my studies on the Higgs Field, was sort of building an icon of Christ, albeit accidentally.

    Needless to say, I kept going in my studies in Orthodox theology. About three years later, I gathered the courage to finally go through the doors of an Orthodox Church to witness my first Orthodox service. A few months later, I enrolled and became a catechumen.

  93. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Such a wonderful witness. The fathers speak of “theoria physike” or “natural contemplation.” The Logos can be seen throughout everything in nature. Glory to God in all things!

  94. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    -Eliza,
    I agree. Certain methods work better for some than others, but they all can likely provide benefit. There’s probably unique wisdom in each of the approaches.

    -Matthew,
    I’m glad it helped. I’ve been blessed by your comments as well. At times, I think some people lean on the faith fixes it approach out of fear. If they see their faith as strong, and mental illness is caused by weak faith, then in a way they are protecting themselves by insisting mental illness is spiritual only. It’s a frightening thing to realize that we all very well could experience significant mental illness. Sadly, some of the strongest proponents of faith fixes it are only humbled in this regard by either their direct experience with it, or that of a loved one.

    I was told by my therapist (the old catholic guy) that all truth is God’s truth. Secular sources can be providing you with true and good things, although they don’t recognize its source. That helped me in accepting other treatments outside the church.

    I’m glad you’re on a healthier path now, and I’ll pray that it continues.

    -Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your response. I’m glad for the reminder and clarification that orthodoxy isn’t an idea, a trend, a method. I’m glad it’s something living, real and sturdy. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how practical orthodoxy seems to be. Practical in that it realizes we are whole beings and live in a physical world that is a mixed bag but can provide good things in various ways. I also appreciate that it is honest and doesn’t paint a rosy picture or something rotten. The warning against sweeping statements is well received. It can be tempting to want to settle the matter with a generalization, but it’s far better in the end to always remember the need for patience, wisdom and discernment.

  95. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Dee. Thanks so much for your story and your witness. Fascinating!

    While reading “The Art of the Icon” – A Theology of Beauty by Paul Evdokimov
    I thought of you. Here is the quote:

    “A scientist studying the disintegration of atoms can also reflect on the integration of the world, through the Eucharist, in the Body of the resurrected Christ. The Jesus prayer will come naturally to purify him/her as he/she studies and to initiate him/her to the wonderment of the angels, and to unfold before his/her eyes, full of amazement, the “flame of things” hidden in the very matter of this world.”

    Evdokimov, for me at least, is on another level entirely. I have never read anything like what I am reading in his book, some of which I must admit is very difficult to understand … but I am trying!

    (him/her, etc., are my notations … not Evdokimov´s)

  96. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The fathers speak of “theoria physike” or “natural contemplation.” The Logos can be seen throughout everything in nature. Glory to God in all things!

    Father thank you so much for you words that remind me again of what I needed to hear then years ago and now, what I was first taught in Met. Kalistos’ book, the Orthodox Way (pg 121):

    “…Learning to read God’s word in the book of creation, discovering his signature in all things, I then find–when I return to read his word in Scripture and the books of prayer–that the well-known phrases have a fresh depth of meaning. So nature and Scripture complement each other. In the words of St Ephrem the Syrian:

    “Wherever you turn your eyes, there is God’s symbol;
    Whatever you read, you will find there his types…
    Look and see how Nature and Scripture are linked together…
    Praise the Lord of Nature.
    Glory for the Lord of Scripture.”

    (St. Ephrem the Syrian: in Brock, The Harp of the Spirit, p. 10)

  97. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Matthew,
    I think anything, without the foundation of love, can lead to harm.
    In my own experience, flipping my understanding from one of “irredeemable brokenness” to “I am a unique expression of God’s love”, was huge. Part of that ongoing journey was helped by a very kind therapist.

    I’m a sensitive person. I cry easily. I feel things deeply and it can be crippling. Personally it does not help me to label myself with an “illness”, because I think I was meant to be a sensitive person. What has helped me function more than anything is to accept that fact and practice gratitude for it.

    I am still overwhelmed by the love I feel whenever I attend services. I’ve learned to keep a tissue up my sleeve, so I can let the tears flow when they come.

  98. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you Matthew for your comment! I need to read his book for sure, but I haven’t yet. It’s interesting that the very first Orthodox prayer I learned was the Jesus Prayer. After I started to read Met Kalisto’s books, I started to read the book The Pilgrim’s Way, which encouraged me to begin praying the Jesus prayer. However, I didn’t attempt to constantly pray as described in the book–that was well beyond any capacity I had or have.

  99. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Holly: Thank you for your response. I so relate. I am a very sensitive person and I also cry easily. I have always been like this for as long as I can remember, but because of cultural “norms” had to run from what I now think is my true self. No more running!

    Dee: You are welcome! Met Kalisto´s books have been of great value to me as well. I especially enjoyed “The Orthodox Way”. He articulates Eastern Orthodoxy very well for someone with western ears like me. 🙂

  100. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Romans Ch 8 is brought to my mind especially v. 28: We know that all things work together for good to those who love God to them who are called according to His purpose…

    The loving presence of our Lord God and Savior works in each heart that listens to His Life. A life that is beyond description mostly, but a life that is of the Kingdom.

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