Around the Corner

Among the most appealing aspects of CS Lewis’ children’s fiction is at the point that I would describe as “turning the corner.” It is not that he creates a fantasy world, but that the fantasy world he creates somehow intersects with the world in which we live. It is the discovery that at this moment, quite unexpectedly, the back of an old wardrobe is a door into another world. 

You turn the corner, and…

It certainly intersects with something every child feels – the sense of surprise and the encounter with the unexpected. 

Some years back when our parish was just beginning, we occupied a storefront location next to a dime store. The space where I parked my car was hidden by a head-high bush. One morning, coming in to the parish, I could hear a young girl playing on the other side of the bush. Based on her fantasy monologue, I could hear that she was somewhere in a Harry Potter novel. As I stepped around the bush, she turned and saw me. I was wearing a gray cassock, was bearded, and even wore a pony-tail at the time. Her mouth opened wide and her eyes wider as she stared at me. I smiled.

“You…you’re beautiful!” she stammered.

I have never been more delighted to be an object of wonder. It was a reaction far removed from the fairly frequent looks of consternation on the faces of adults who are clearly disturbed that something so strange should be walking freely about their city.

The child’s reaction is not a mark of immaturity – but a mark of a human being still capable of belief.

In a secularized culture expectations are reduced to a minimum. Whatever occurs, nothing will be “out of this world.” Whatever corners are turned, what awaits is always more of the same. But there are exceptions.

Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, A Secular Age, writes of a sense of “fullness”:

In this case, the sense of fullness came in an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being in the world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference. These may be moments, as Peter Berger puts it, describing the work of Robert Musil, when “ordinary reality is ‘abolished’ and something terrifyingly other shines through”, a state of consciousness which Musil describes as der andere Zustand (the other condition).

Even more surprising is the recent case of Sam Harris (a noted atheist and writer) describing an experience he had by the Sea of Galilee. In his book, Waking Up, he relates:

As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.

Harris does not come to the conclusions of a believer, but he recognizes experiences that point towards something often overlooked.

My personal reflection is that Harris sold the experience short and could have gone further (deeper). But, in many ways, his experience fails precisely because he turns back to the self (ego).

In either case, there is and always has been an aspect of human experience of that which is “just around the corner.” I prefer Taylor’s term of “fullness” on account of its place within the Christian tradition.

It is one thing to speak of an experience of God, quite another to speak of an experience of the “fullness” of God. In the apprehension of fullness, the self recedes, even to the point of disappearance, while the fullness “fills” everything (hence the language of fullness).

This is, interestingly, language that is associated with the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, the Spirit “fills.” Persons not only receive the Holy Spirit, they are “filled” with the Spirit. The prayers of the Church address the Holy Spirit as “filling all things.”

It is difficult to describe the sense of “fullness,” other than to say that it refers to a completion, to a superabundance, to something of which there cannot be more. This is in contrast to the experience of emptiness and lack, the nagging disappointment that accompanies our adult existence and our encounter with the world.

In our family tradition, our youngest daughter always seemed to summarize our Christmas experience with, “This is the best Christmas ever!” Of course, as a parent, it is almost never the “best Christmas ever.” The time of year is too fraught with contradictions and concerns. The magic of a child, however, sees a fullness:

“You… You’re beautiful!”

This brings me back to Lewis’ intuition with a simple question: Is there anything of note just around the corner? Jesus’ parables surrounding the Kingdom of God suggest that there is.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46)

The Orthodox tradition points to this deeper reality as a quality to be found everywhere (the fullness is “everywhere present”). It is not a quality, or a reality that forces itself on our awareness. Instead, it is a quality of which we are normally not aware – and we are not aware because the lacking is within us.

This lacking is the very aspect of our lives that is addressed by repentance. The cry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is not an enjoinment to moral improvement. It is a call to recognize the very emptiness, the lacking within ourselves. Repentance is the personal recognition that Christ’s word is fulfilled in us: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Oddly, it is the very border of such an experience described by the atheist, Sam Harris: “a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts…. the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” His experience falls short of repentance in that he fails to admit that the experience is true. His thoughts, his “separate self,” is indeed, nothing, or bordering on nothing. He thinks that he is something, a man among men, an author, a thinker, a knower, one who considers the universe. He could have gone further had he sung, “All we are is dust in the wind.”

But the emptiness of self, the knowledge that we are but dust, is known by many. That we are nothing does not immediately reveal what is around the corner. That fullness is a recognition given as a gift. It can come quite unbidden. Treasures hidden in fields are most often discovered without maps.

The Orthodox life is the purchase of the field, the buying of the pearl. Finding the treasure and the pearl of great price is the gift of God. Around-the-next-corner just reveals itself to us. Then we labor and pray, sell what we have, share with others, forgive enemies, and repeatedly acknowledge the dust of our existence that we might live around the next corner in the fullness that is God Himself.

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Phi 3:8-15)

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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159 responses to “Around the Corner”

  1. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Also, Owen, if metaphors are useful in our context (as a way of conceptualization), is “going down” different from “going up”? It is interesting to me that one of the saints (I think it was St Sophrony) said the way up is to go down. What is meant by this?

    You used the metaphor of a room that has no ceiling. How does that metaphor change if we said it had no floor?

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    St. Sophrony’s expression means: the way to be exalted is to humble yourself.

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I likened it to the roots of the tree metaphor he used. As you say, humility like that of Christ.

  4. Bonnie Avatar
    Bonnie

    What a wonderful discussion! While researching St. Andrew I found this article (Link below connects to 3 parts.) The author refers to a journey St. Andrew may have made to Britain. Following from one reference to another, I saw photos of a residence in Romania where the Saint was said to have lived for several years. It is formed from a cave, and has images on the walls which resemble icons.
    I am an artist who tries to serve the Lord, and made a series of paintings (not icons) depicting scenes from the gospels, titled “Encounters.” People who viewed it were often drawn to one of the paintings. Although a paragraph describing the scene was on the wall next to the subject, the viewer would ask me for an explanation. Praying inwardly, I would retell that incident. Sometimes it seemed to be what the person had really needed to hear.
    One time, when the exhibition was hung in a church in another city, I could not be there. Later, on arriving to remove the paintings, I heard the priest describe a man, not a parishioner, sitting weeping in a pew. The priest asked him if he needed to talk, and he answered, “No, it’s just that I never saw Him like this,” gesturing at the paintings.
    I am such a baby in the spiritual life, and can only be awed that a word or painting can be used by the Lord in this way. Writing, composing, drawing might all become something that, just as Creation does, exposes a person to the ultimate reality, the Creator who is I AM. Recognition calls for a response.
    At Art School we had a teacher who hammered home the facts of Order, Truth, and Beauty we see in all created things. As we students left the building one very cold (minus 40F) night, we found the big glass door was obscured by thick patterns of frost crystals like a lush, intricate carpet. Someone had used his fingers to melt the words “DESIGN IS EVERYWHERE” across the door.
    Whenever I read Dee’s words about the Higgs Boson particle I just smile.

    https://orthochristian.com/43455.html

  5. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    100% agree. The state of “unknowing,” in face-to-face intimate communion, beyond words, is surely a higher state than discursive thought. The metaphor of the room with no ceiling tries to capture that fact, since “up” is the traditional direction of heaven. (But I think “deeper” may speak more directly to the interiority of presence.) I like to think of words and concepts as the map and immediate experience as the terrain itself.

    BTW, my priest is the same way. Thank God for that.

  6. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Bonnie,
    I loved reading your story of your painting. It is such a blessing when the Lord takes our work beyond levels we couldn’t even imagine. And thank you for the article! We need more endeavors to reveal such history.

  7. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    I try to use metaphor and often fail miserably. It’s not the field I’ve been trained in, but I’m trying. In my area we use models, hand-held, or other sorts, even an equation is a model of what we’re trying to explain or express.

    My understanding of St Sophrony‘a words no doubt mean something to me because I’ve had sufficient life experiences, some tragic, that help me to understand his intent.

    I interpret ‘going down’ as self-emptying, of looking over the edge of the abyss of my existence into a darkness I fear to look into. And staying there as long as I can with the grace of Christ. Then stepping back and having a cup of tea. That is if I’m still standing.

    I believe St Sophrony is saying this growth of such deep roots is needed before anything substantive is visible ‘above’ ground, let alone reaching ‘beyond’. Whether downward or upward is dependent of the grace of Christ. That and a simple willing open humble heart.

    Please forgive me for sounding as if I know what I’m talking about. I know ‘a pinch’ as Father Stephen says earlier— and I’m grateful to God for my pinch of salt. We each receive what we need in our embrace of Christ and His cross.

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    I believe your understanding of these things is profound. No need to apologize, for my sake at least. You said it beautifully.

    I have only read snippets of St Sophrony. Could you perhaps share a quotation of his about “going down”?

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    Much of what I’ve said is a synthesis of St Sophrony’s words. I’ve been compiling his statements as an answer for you, but I believe reading them entirely within context is best. Nevertheless I’ve pulled out some passages. Most come from St Sophrony’s “The Mystery of the Christian Life, especially the chapters on the Spiritual life and Spiritual Striving.
    **********
    pg248: “[The contemporary world] has forgotten the culture of the heart. Thus the goal of ascetic effort is to restore the wholeness of man: to overcome the disintegration of man–a consequence of the Fall–and above all to attain the union of the mind with the heart. Usually people do not recognise that their intellect lives live one life and their heart another. Only when man mourns do his mind and his heart live the same entity, and this happens whatever is the cause of the sorrow……However, the tears of the ascetic are linked with his awareness of how far he is from God, and in no way with any earthly loss.”
    pg 252: “Without this humility, the heart does not open to embrace in great compassion all that lives…”
    pg 36: “A sower went out to sow his seed (Luke 8:5). Christ is the sower of this seed.
    When it is accepted in the soil of our heart, it grows, and by its roots it will tear through the fabric of the heart. This is what constitutes the surgery which heals man from the consequences of the Fall. It is an extremely painful operation. However, its pain brings not death but life. Once again we have suffering joined with the triumph of victory….”
    pg235: “When the God who truly Is reveals Himself to us, through the approach of His Being to us, the change we experience is so great in its content that our “narrowness” is unable to accommodate it. But the heart lives Him, in the indescribable harmony of love, while the mind falls silent, overwhelmed by a vision beyond comprehension.”
    pg 264: “There is a striking sequence in the ascent to God. It is repeated in almost all epochs, in almost all places. It is essential for all of us to remember that the Resurrection was preceded by Golgotha….”The state of our spirit in two opposite poles–on the one hand in the dark depths of hell, and on the other the state of illumination from the Never-Setting-Sun above–enlarges to an extraordinary degree the content of our being…’
    pg: 265: “To find the correct wavelength for speaking about the ‘one thing needful; is not a simple matter. Sometimes a word is given immediately, sometimes after a much labour; and sometimes it escapes us. The mystery of such a ‘slipping away’ cannot be explained. Personally I feel with all my being that this is one of the forms of divine pedagogy. And if this is the action of God, it is not subject to any investigation by logic…”
    pg266: “The pain is especially intense for those who have known in some measure the majesty of contact with the love of God in the heart and in the mind. But nonetheless, only with the alternation between being visited and being abandoned can we achieve the ‘twofold movement’: downwards, to the dark chasms of Godlessness and then upwards, to the luminous realms where God is ‘all in all’…”
    pg267:”…The desire of the soul to be like God in holy humility then becomes like an incurable thirst…”

    He did use the terms of abyss and tree in another book. I believe it’s in My Life is Mine. I have the text and will find passages there too, because I believe they are helpful. But not tonight. I need to settle down for the evening.

    Love in Christ,
    Dee

  10. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    His Life is Mine–gee wiz.

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    In my embarrassment, I couldn’t remember whether it was His Life is Mine or My life is His. Then I put down something even worse!

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for the links to the articles Fr. Stephen.

    How do Orthodox priests and bishops in America generally deal with the loud calls for the church to be more involved in the work of racial reconciliation? I know this is a big topic right now in the states as MLK Day just recently was celebrated. With all I have learned on this blog about modernity and the modern way of solving complex social problems, one would think I am now equipped to answer this question. Maybe it can be summed up in one word: repentance?

  13. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee: I have some problems with St. Sophrony. Why does it seem he emphasizes suffering as the way to humility and communion with God? I know that suffering has redemptive purposes, but I also don´t think we need to always suffer in order to grow in humility and to have communion with God. Joy, love, peace, mercy, etc. are also very important. I hope I am not misunderstanding him, but this is the sense I get after having read one of his books and after having read your comments above which quote him.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    The Orthodox population in the United States is quite small, perhaps 1 per cent. The Greek Archbishop of America, the late Abp. Iakovos, was very visible in his participation and leadership during MLK’s lifetime, marching with him in Selma, etc. The work of reconciliation is the constant, day to day, work of the Church. Much leadership today is being taken by African American priests and laity within the Church, as well as many others. There is also leadership offered by the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black. Repentance is key, and it is ongoing.

    How do we deal with loud calls? ““But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions,and saying: “We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’” (Matthew 11:16–17)

    “Solving this problem” is moot. The problem is sin. I suspect we do not solve sin.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Dee,
    I think that this question takes us far afield of the posted article. Matthew, if St. Sophrony doesn’t yet make sense, set it aside. “Suffering” is a large topic and has many aspects. Just let it be for now.

  16. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    I appreciate the quotations. Thanks for taking time to type those out. Based on Father Stephen’s comment above, I won’t comment extensively. Just to say that I need to read more of his work. And follow his advice.

    Gratefully yours in Christ,
    Owen

  17. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    I can only think that St Sophrony’s linguistic expression is what makes him appear as you describe, while the actual essence of what he says is rather identical to the words of more ‘joy-focused Fathers’ (such as Elder Aimilianos or Saint Evmenios for instance). The real key here is that all of these would never understand the notion of suffering in the way a secular mind would. The endless arguments of learned secularist atheists with Christian apologists always gets stuck on this matter because the eternal mystery lying behind it all, is utterly misunderstood by the secularists. It is a completely different angle of interpreting things. The radically different mind of Christianity is solely predicated upon the mystery of the Cross. Without this mystery, especially without the deep knowledge of how eternal joy only ever comes from communion in the Cross-Resurrection twosome, we can’t explain any of the saints words correctly. And it is a struggle to acquire that “mind” in the face of adversity even for seasoned believers.

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Well said. Thank you. St. Maximus said, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.” This is not a morbid love of suffering, but, a word spoken from “inside” a cruciform life in which that mystery is effectively healing the soul and healing the world. There is nothing masochistic about the Orthodox life – but it has to be seen from the inside – and that takes time and patience for all of us.

    What English work with the Elder Aimilianos’ teaching would you recommend as a start for reading?

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen, Matthew, Dee,
    I offer my apologies. My comment viz. the conversation was written just after I woke up this morning, carrying something of a “grog” factor. I’m so much more coffee’d now and think I cut everyone off prematurely.

    We’ve been snowed in here for the last several days. It’s pretty, it’s fun (sort of), but our groceries are beginning to show signs of waning. However, we have lots of coffee stored up.

  20. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I have enjoyed your sledding clips 🙂 Also, I did venture out myself to the Publix yesterday to restock a bit. In Maryville a perfect spot for a little sledding is just above the roundabout into the Publix parking lot. I’d say 50 to 100 kids of various ages were taking advantage of it, as though summoned like a flock of seasonal birds.

    On the subject of the effect children can have, I could feel just watching and listening to them something in me being restored that can’t entirely be put into words, but I’d say it was a kind of reassurance in the middle of winter and my own wintry thoughts.

  21. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    as far as I can see (online) there are only 4 books of his available, (but there might be more).
    So, my guess would be to start with the one that was first published (The Authentic Seal).
    For a few years those first books (all based on medium length talks of his to laiety and monks that vary depending on target audience) was all we had even in Greek .
    There are some real gems in there.
    However the books published later, which are based on his explanation of Patristic texts, are sublime.
    The latest is on Noetic Prayer -explaining Gregory of Sinai from Philokalia.
    But we have to wait for these to hopefully appear in English.
    A blip to the ‘order’ of publication translations was [perhaps the most difficult book] on St Maximus, which – being translated by Fr Maximos – occurred, for that reason, earlier than many others before it in the queue.
    Perhaps the most succinct and dynamic publication is his book on the life of St Nilus of Calabria – collection of talks to the brotherhoods and sisterhoods under him that have an unparalleled energy. I cannot wait for that one to be given the English translation.

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    For what it’s worth, I believe St Sophrony’s books are important to the Orthodox Church and to her young life in the US. For that reason, I’m grateful for Dino’s comment and your reconsideration to allow the conversation to continue.

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    How then, Dino, are we supposed to understand the notion of suffering?

  24. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I think it was you, Dee, who mentioned having Irish roots and being interested in Orthodoxy in Ireland. Interestingly enough, there is an American priest (Fr. Robert) and his wife and family who are living in County Galway now. Apparently Fr. Robert has been commissioned by the ROCOR to start an English speaking church community there. This is exciting news as my wife and I have talked about relocating to Ireland.

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    There is a distinction between Western Christian writings and understandings of the spiritual life. In fact, St Sophrony mentions his own growth, which went through phases of exploration (for example, in Eastern religions), until he meets the fullness of the spiritual life in Mt Athos, more specifically in an Orthodox setting.

    More to the point, I have heard non-Orthodox describe their use of the Jesus prayer, but it is possible to hear (almost in tone if not in words) they are not hesychists. My personal interpretation (don’t know of others who have written this) is that they have not followed this path of both Golgotha and Resurrection that St Sophrony writes about. I think this is important. St Sophrony thought it was important to write about it. And I am grateful that Father Stephen allows this conversation to continue. However, it continues mainly because Owen asks a specific and very important question, and I hope to provide what I have found in St Sophrony.

    What he writes about is not some self-inflicted, morbid approach to God. If it was, then it would be sick and dead. St Sophrony says that until we have a living experience, we understand the words of Christ in a distorted form. (pg 261 The mystery of the Christian Life) For example, Christ does not want us to hate our mother and father, and yet he uses such words to describe the love and following of Christ.

    To put these words in a nutshell (and giving it a disservice by doing so), he is writing about the importance of humility and love. Humility is a very important aspect that we (having pride) often experience as pain. Pride is often an expression of hurt from toxic shame. (It may be helpful to read Father Stephen’s book on this subject, “Face to Face”.)

    Yet Christ, in his love and humility, does not force such things upon us. Christ is the ultimate humble Person. We can never reach the depth of His humility, and yet we strive to be like him. But such striving must itself be undertaken with humility and, importantly, with love. It’s too easy to go overboard to “be humble” yet carry on in pride. We can only take so much at a time to keep our sanity. Hence, his expression is to take on a little of such effort and then step back.

    For what it’s worth, I’m reading St Sophrony now after nearly a decade of reading and seven years after baptism and living in the Church. Now I’m beginning to get it. I’m unsure whether these words would have been as helpful for me at the beginning of my journey. It’s hard to say what might have been.

    My words are inadequate. I ask Christ to make intelligible what I’m not able to say well.

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    How about the book entitled “The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life with God”, Dino?

  27. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you so much Dee.

  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    Going down, as I have expressed earlier, is that room you described, but without a floor and without a ceiling. It is necessary to go down first before going up. And whether the movement seems to be down or up, it is initiated by the Holy Spirit, not by will on our part. Last St Sophrony says this: (pg 256 The Mystery of the Christian Life)
    “But the love is of a special kind, and the knowledge is of another order, so it is not easy to speak of these things. Thus, while we have not yet been vouchsafed this gift–always only a gift, never by no means merited; our consciousness of our real unworthiness makes it an unexpected gift— we shall remain in prayer seeking the love of God, the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of awareness of our sin.” (italics are his emphasis).

    Secondly on our humanly perception of “movement”, St Sophrony says that Christ is the measurement of everything, the idea of eternal ascent does not apply to Him. He writes about the Father’s writings and intent on this idea of movement that might be misinterpreted (pg 262 The Mystery of Christian Life): “Is not this idea of ‘upward’ movement’ actually the unchanging state of the ultimate tension of insatiable love, rather than the changing state of ‘movement’?” St Sophrony says he prefers the words in Hebrews to speak about this subject (Heb. 6:17-20)

    Now here’s the metaphor on this subject in “His Life is Mine” (pg 104-105)

    For a clearer picture of the Christian journey let us adopt the method resorted by the fathers of the Church and draw on an analogy.

    When we see a centuries-old tree with its branches reaching to the clouds, we know that its roots, deep in the earth, must be powerful enough to support the whole. If the roots did not go down into the bowels of the earth–perhaps as far down as the tree is high–and if they were not as strong and widespread as the part we see, they could not feed the tree. They could not support it–a slight wind and the tree would fall. We can observe something similar in the spiritual life of man. If, like the apostles, we recognize the greatness of our calling in Christ–that is, of our election in him before the creation of the world to “receive the adoptions of sons” (Gal. 4.5)–it makes us humble, not proud. This lowering, this humbling of ourselves, is essential if we would preserve a genuinely Christian disposition. It is expressed in constant awareness of our nothingness as radical and all-round self-condemnation. And the deeper one goes in self-condemnation, the higher God raises one.
    “Until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force….He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt 11.12, 15) (the italic emphasis is mine not St Sophrony’s)

    St Sophrony also has a prayer that ends with this: “Accept us who implore thee, and sustain us by thy Holy Spirit”. These ending words are so important: sustain us by thy Holy Spirit. We cannot take such steps without the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

    I’m grateful for your question, Owen; I believe it also helps me to attempt to write and think on these things, because sometimes we have experiences that need processing and someone to talk to. This is why our life in the Church is so important and to have a helpful, healthy relationship with a confessor.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I’m excited to learn the news of the new parish in Ireland! I just did a internet search and found their website: St Patrick Mission. It looks like they have commissioned iconography very much in the tradition of the earliest iconography we have from Ireland. –Big Smile!!

    I hope you have a chance to visit there and even live there!!

  30. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Last but not least, Father Robert is a beekeeper! –A very good sign! Glory to God : )

    My patron saint’s name is Gobnait. When I first came across her name, I had a chuckle because it sounded like a sound a turkey would make (in English–gobble-gobble). Then when I looked up life story, I discovered she was actually my patron saint. Like her I was a beekeeper and made salves that people were saying were “miraculously” helped skin conditions. (need to insert I wasn’t Orthodox at the time and took such stories as ‘placebo’ events). Of her revelation to me I realized I was laughing at my own saint-name. Glory to God!

  31. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Apologies for fast typing. Words got dropped and tense inserted–I’ll be more careful next time.

  32. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    No worries Dee. I thank you so much for your comprehensive responses. It seems (though I admit I may be over-simplifying things) that in order to reach up to God one must be able to “look down” which is another way of saying being humble. I really like the example of the centuries old tree St. Sophrony offers up.

    It was also good that Dino mentioned the linguistic expression of St. Sophrony being problematic for untrained ears (like mine). Knowing this now helps me to better embrace (though not completely understand) what St. Sophrony says about our nothingness and our radical self-condemnation. It is very difficult for a Protestant who has been heavily influenced by secularism to hear anything that sounds like we must radically condemn the self.

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Oh and yes Dee … I did see that Fr. Robert is a beekeeper! From the looks of his website he seems to have big plans for what he wants to do in Clifden. He seems very missions-minded and open to outsiders. This is not something I have experienced within the Orthodox community in Germany.

    Anyway … I contacted him through his website and I look forward to hearing from him.

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Mathew,
    The words that trouble you that St Sophrony uses are similar to what you might find in Psalms. In essence they suggest a desire to learn to love God and as that happens and as one comes closer to God, one becomes more aware of what keeps one from getting closer and suggests a way to let go of what prevents one from getting closer to Him. This is not the Church attempting to condemn or control ‘the sinner’ that one typically hears in a Protestant Church. Rather it is a radical opening to God’s love in one’s heart as one learns to love and receive the love of God. This is an opening of the heart not someone outside you condescending or condemning you. It is a willingness to be open to God.

    St Sophrony describes the joy one has in nearing God. If there is joy then there is more going on under these words than what can be conveyed well or easily. St Sophrony also speaks of the inadequacy of his words.

    What Dino says is correct it is hard to understand or hear it correctly if one has been subjected to a punitive substitution understanding of salvation. And if it disturbs then put it aside. Christ is meek and loves you —follow his commandments love your neighbor, love God your Father through Christ, open your heart to the Holy Spirit. All of this in the life of the Church where the Physician who is Christ heals the soul.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, thank you for your words to Matthew. They enhance the Joy in me.
    For me, the words of our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew say it most succinctly: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (4:17)

    “At hand” has come to mean within to me. Closer than hands and feet.
    My journey has shown to me that the Orthodox alone still embrace the reality of the words.

    A big incursion of Arctic air has left us quite cold here in windy Kansas.

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

    Another way, Matthew, of restating the words of St Sophrony and the Gospel.

    Be patient in your struggles. I have been in the Church 36 years and am just now learning the teaching.

  36. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    The Way of the Spirit has a fantastic collection of very deep talks, highly recommended.
    I think your question “how are we supposed to understand the notion of suffering?” should have a simple answer in the spirit of Orthodox guidance: it is Divine Providence, providence we cannot comprehend while it is occurring, providence we lack the necessary eternal viewpoint to interpret now, rather identical to the story of Joseph in Genesis.
    This pre-‘type’ of Christ’s first and second coming – Joseph -, goes through a series of heavy ‘crosses’ in his life, involving a variety of sufferings, and in the end reveals that somehow, ‘resurrection’ was at work throughout his suffering. Do not look at the never-ending possible other cases of suffering to come up with objections to this salvific guidance but ponder just this as it is a well of hope and the godless objections are the opposite.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Dee, et al
    I’ll add an eyewitness account viz. St. Sophrony. I have visited (more than once) the community founded by St. Sophrony and that embodies his teachings (which are simply the fullness of the Orthodox monastic tradition). There wasn’t a hint of morbidity or “self-hatred” in the popular sense of the term. Instead, my experience was of amazingly whole persons – with a “largeness” and “fullness” about them that I couldn’t explain. When I was in conversation several times, it felt like the world had fallen away and that I was being “heard” unlike anytime in my life. There was no cult of personality, no constant quoting or citing of St. Sophrony.

    This, of course, is the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. It is quite international, with monastics from across the world. It is also quite unusual in that it’s a “double monastery,” with both monks and nuns. The nuns live on one side of the lane and the monks on the other, and they worship and eat together. My experience is not unusual.

    Orthodox monasteries are not duplicates of one another. All of them are governed by their own “typicon” (the West would call it a “rule”). The “personality” of a monastery differs from place to place. In part, it is because the monastery is not eradicating the personality of the monastics. Though there is the practice of “dying to the self” – (which is a commandment to all Christians) – this is not a practice of the eradication of the self. In Christ, those who “lose themselves” also “find themselves.” It is a path of healing – a movement towards true wholeness.

    I think what separates this from Western experience is that it is a 2,000 year old practice, a life handed down through the generations. There are no “Orders” in Orthodox monasticism, no great marks by famous founders (like Francis, Benedict, Bernard, etc.). In Protestantism, there is no monastic experience, just a succession of “fads” or “movements” spawned by this leader or that, this latest book, or that. It cannot attain depth because it has no roots. It’s too ephemeral.

    This is in contrast to Orthodox experience. Visiting in the monastery of St. Savva in the Judaen desert, his incorrupt relics (his body), were in a glass case in the chapel. He died in 532 A.D. That is a community of monks that has been in continual existence since that time. It’s fruit includes scores of martyrs (their skulls are also stacked and present in the chapel). But again, there’s nothing morbid there. It’s not death that you sense – but an abundant life – without fear. I questioned one of the monks about tensions with their neighbors, the Bedouin. “We have no enemies, he said. We’re monks.”

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Yes. And, Amen.

  39. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father & Matthew,
    I have this other thought that I have not corroborated enough yet but I’ll put it out here, perhaps our understanding of providence-within-suffering is like Pageau describes a different experience which he says is “whenever you perceive a unity [of multiplicities] whatever this is, you have a mystical experience of sorts”, whether you perceive a chair (instead of the parts making it) or you perceive the love of an admirable husband or father who has passed away (instead of the parts making it)…
    So that instead of focusing on the suffering I am going through in my migraine, analysing this one ‘part’ of something that belongs to a larger incomprehensible providence, I might, more “naturally”, or as they say “holistically” (and traditionally), make something that can seem like an ‘abstraction’ but, is simply no more than a birds-eye-view and remember that Christ says his Providence is so aware that “not a hair of your head will perish!”
    Sounds a little theoretical but maybe it is not wrong.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Interesting. I’ll ponder it as well.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, your postulate seems confirmed in my life over the last month or so.
    Several negative happenings in my life recently–some major–BUT today, as I prayed and began my day: Joy is in my heart.

  42. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Forgive me for placing so many citations on your blog. I provided what I could to answer Owen’s question. I’ll refrain from doing this.

  43. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    The idea that the sum is greater than its parts is referred to as ’emergence’ in the sciences. I have recently begun revisiting some of my previous neuroscience research on the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: How do trillions of individual synapses integrate all of the environmental inputs to yield a globally coherent conscious state? Researchers are coming around to the idea that biophysical noise drives the emergence of global coherence. In fact, at all levels of biological information noise drives the self-organizing features that we recognize as life, consciousness, and personhood. I like to believe that this isn’t an instance of God cobbling together the human mind, but a feature of the universe where the emergence of complexity is wired into the system.

  44. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I don’t know what it means for something to be incorrupt. When I look at pictures of St. Savvas that isn’t what I expected to see.

  45. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michael,
    one of the most oddly insightful counsels of Elder Aimilianos, even in seemingly unrelated ‘temptational’ situations – like sufferings, worries, lusts, excitements, confusions, boredoms, illnesses, weaknesses, failures – was his ubiquitous: “guard your joy!”
    I have seen how this trains one’s mind for a continual re-orientation towards Christ in thankfulness. It is pedagogically healthier – as a linguistic expression – than many other traditional Orthodox counsels that are often misunderstood (by us ‘moderns’) because they can sound like ‘blame yourself’, even though their objective is this same re-orientation.

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    There are various “versions” of incorruption. Primarily, it describes a body that has not been subject to putrefaction and decomposition (bacterial action, etc.). Of course, over time (as in the case of St. Savvas) a body loses its moisture and becomes dried-up. Although, St. Savvas was removed from his monastery by the Crusaders and taken to Venice (a very moist environment) and was there for many hundreds of years.

    But, what we have in incorruption is that a body behaves quite differently than the other bodies around it – it is not the work of what is “normal.” When St. Nektarios was dug up, ten years after being interred, the flowers that had been tossed into his grave (coffin) were still fresh (that’s a modern, contemporary example). Or, in the case of Abp. Dmitri of Dallas, when disinterred after six years, there was no decomposition, despite being in a very moist grave, where putrefaction normally (in that cemetery) would have been unbearable to see or smell.

    So, it varies. But, the common aspect is incorruption – (which is not the same as saying, “no change”).

    Of course, with St. Savvas, he is frequently seen walking around in the monastery (not his relics, but St. Savvas). I’ve got a chapter about this in Everywhere Present.

  47. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    I’m very attracted to what you’re saying. Would you want to say that God created the wiring in the system, or is manifested in the wiring in the system? I hope this question doesn’t take the conversation astray.

  48. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dino,
    Thank you for your comment to Michael on ‘guard your joy’. Insightful indeed to re-orient to Christ in thankfulness.

  49. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    the expression “incorruptible”, re- relics, has a huge variety of instantiations. Some are just bones like any other bones that merely have a slightly different tinge, some occasionally (or continuously) exude an otherworldly ‘fragrance’. The other day this happened when they brought some relics to our Church and the usually only faintly fragrant (or not fragrant at all) relics of the saint that resides in the Church, along with the generally more intensely fragrant relics of the visiting saint’s, both, started filling the entire Church building inside and even a little outside, so much that the Priest paused the service to acknowledge this strange ‘meeting’ and ‘greeting’ “of the Saints” (typical Greek speech instead of saying the ‘relics’ met).
    There are many occasions where larger quantities of myrrh than is physically reasonable will be emanating from a tiny relic. Or times when something like the remains of a saint, I remember this with St Silouan once in Athos, will produce copious amounts of fragrant myrrh only during his feast day.
    Some instantiations of so-called “incorruptibility” are more staggering, like the far more “incorruptible” relics of Saint Alexander of Svir, where it is visually (not just olfactorily) obvious that something is going on!
    The rather dark and crusty looking hand of Saint Mary Magdalene which I am particularly used to venerating, in Simonopetra, has been repeatedly examined and studied by secular scientists because it remains always warm – at body temperature – (perhaps as testament to it having touched the resurrected Christ). Obviously they admitted the reality of the warmth, but equally foresee-ably, they did not exclaim: “mirracle!” but “unexplicable!”

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    I have venerated the hand of Mary Magdalene as well – very striking.

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Michael, Dee, Dino, and Fr. Stephen:

    Thanks so much for all of the helpful, insightful, interesting, and beautiful words. The more I read, the more I realize how far I really am from Orthodox life. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it only proves how much more I have to learn and experience. I do struggle, Michael, nearly everyday. Struggles with sin and temptations and bad theology and limited understanding and a heavily secular Germany, etc., etc., etc. That said, I carry on. I must. There is no other way for me at this point.

    Dee … not wanting to take this discussion off track, but there seems to be talk here about some miraculous things that are happening in the Orthodox world. I´m wondering how you, as a scientist, came to embrace the miraculous? Miracles don´t seem to be very much part of a rational scientific worldview.

    Thanks again everyone. I so appreciate the support.

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Regarding miracles and the scientific worldview:
    Sometimes, it is the case that I might witness something of a miracle, and the rational brain kicks in and almost robs me of the experience of the Holy. I tell myself that this isn’t science doing the robbing but the adversary attempting to distract me using my science training. Science is a tool. And I believe it is a gift to complement the other gifts the Lord has given us, not to diminish or replace them.

  53. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Agreed Dee. Thanks so much for the good explanation.

  54. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Forgive me for adding one more thought. I have the privilege of working among people who haven’t forgotten their traditional ways of knowing. Their culture has no separation between the science they conduct and their spiritual lives. I’m not sure they even have a word for ‘science’ (I should ask); rather, it is so interwoven in their life in Christ that one is not separated from the other. But to some extent that is changing as they become inculcated into this culture, in the academic settings they are entering, I believe. (They describe it as “two-eyed seeing”. ) Yet, they are also attempting to avoid losing this gift that they have as they engage with us in Western culture.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, In your answer to Owen above you mention “passing over to the New Age errors. That is where I began in “New Age Christianity” It was an international community. Through time, prayer and Grace most of us migrated to the Orthodox Church.

    The “New Age” is about controlling the blessing. In the theology of the Orthodox Church it is not an issue of control. The Grace of God is given; we each receive as we can personally and as part of a community. A hierarchical community.

    As we say in the Creed: “He came down from heaven….” It is really easy to assume we are raised up and secondarily we are …”and was Incarnate of the The Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man”

    Clearly the movement is from God to us. Some scientific explanations including one quoted here (which I cannot find right now) assume the movement is from the bottom up.

    The root and direction of that type of causation is mistaken. Difficult for some to adopt. It took me 36 years to begin comprehension….I do have a medically certified thick skull.

    Even repentance is a call from God to enter into communion from the top down.

  56. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    A new job and small children at home have kept me from responding until now, but I appreciate the quotations. I like several themes I see there. (1) “Going down” into death with Christ and only then being raised up with Him. (2) Divine love and knowledge as “always only a gift, never by no means merited.” Something I’d like to know more about is (3) this “unchanging state of the ultimate tension of insatiable love.” It’s an interesting statement. I think I hear echos of Sts Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor in it.

    Really delightful stuff. I’m glad to hear your being enriched by your reading.

  57. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee … I would love to experience what that kind of union is really like. You are speaking of science and spirituality among the people you are working with, but I am also thinking that maybe we can widen the picture. For me at least, I sense a great separation and a huge compartmentalization in my life overall. Maybe others do as well?

  58. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    The huge compartmentalization is part of our culture. Yes, I feel it, too. While my students seem to be okay with signs of my spirituality, sometimes I think it may make some of my colleagues nervous. Others, however, are very gracious. I mention this because the latter situation became apparent this last Christmas. After working there for five years, I was amazed how many people desired to wish me a Merry Christmas. I was rather careful and wished them happy holidays. But the kindness in their good wishes surprised me. In academia, in the past, it seemed to be verboten for various reasons to mention Christmas.

  59. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen ,
    No worries. As it is I should have just named the sources rather than quotes. As you see now there were several passages that contributed to my thinking and I had felt it better to use his words than to use my inadequate words. I’m sorry for the quotes. It would be better to read them in context.

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