Crushed into Recognition

This is a reprint from 2019. I was looking for something where I quoted George Herbert’s “The Agony,” my favorite poem. So, here’s one of several such posts.

This morning I was crushed beneath a flood of memories – not the memories of good things, but of sad and shameful things, petty things, wasted lives and ignorant passions. There is often a veil of fantasy that covers much of the sad detritus of our world, a narrative that seems plausible enough to allow us to stop there and avoid the crush of darkness. When I think of St. Silouan’s sojourn in hell, or the Elder Sophrony’s reflections on the abyss, it is the naked ugliness of human existence that first comes to mind.

There’s nothing sinister to a dark crushing flood. Sometimes you wake up and it is there staring you in the face. Other times, two thoughts encounter one another and explode into a cascade of shame. Regardless, it’s misery of the worst sort. The deepest lie and the unspoken fear is that this is all there is.

But this little corner of hell, as repulsive as it is, represents a true icon of what Christ enters in His descent. That God became man, if it goes no further, can be downright noble, as comforting as a Christmas card. The more pressing image, however, is that God-as-man descended into hell and brought about our salvation precisely at that point.

This is at the heart of the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel. The icon of Nativity is written in a manner that intentionally echoes the icon of Christ’s descent into hell. The same is true of the icon of Christ’s Baptism. Each of these presentations boldly asserts that human life is already a living hell to a certain extent. Nothing that crushes us, particularly that darkness with which we are complicit, or, worse still, which we ourselves have initiated, is ignored or brushed over in God’s becoming man.

On any given day of the year, I prefer that the darkness be portrayed in the abstract: a cave, a space, a suggestion on an icon. The abyss of human brokenness is bone-crushing when seen directly. There is a reason that shame’s first instinct is to look away. I do not understand a love that can look without flinching at things we dare not so much as whisper.

But this is the truth of God’s love. We are not alone, even in our hell. The weight of ugliness that seems to crush, cannot push us beyond that love. Indeed, it can only press us deeper within it. There is nowhere in the darkness of the abyss that is not filled with Christ: “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8).

My morning’s unbidden visit to the abyss did not last. A poem chased it away. Sweet words.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

George Herbert (1593-1633)


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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






26 responses to “Crushed into Recognition”

  1. Maureen Read Avatar
    Maureen Read

    My favorite too, Fr Stephen, one I copied in my keepsake book (before the net) and reread a few days ago, as I am wont to do. Thank you.

  2. Simon Avatar

    I am looking at the prosphora thinking that the wheat had to be crushed, leavened, and subjected to fire in order to receive the seal, or image.

  3. Fr David Gilchrist Avatar
    Fr David Gilchrist

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Your ‘on-line friends’ are deeply grateful for your ministry. May the Lord strengthen and uphold you!

  4. Brandi Avatar

    Dearest Fr. Stephen,

    It is in these times of such visible horrors this post especially resonates with me. I thank God for you, and although I don’t comment, I read all your words, and they strengthen me. Thank you for noting the abyss, and our Way out of it.

  5. Kenneth Avatar

    I agree with Brandi. When I first encountered Orthodoxy (from a Protestant background) and I realized that the love of God truly has no bounds, that even hell cannot keep it out, I was overwhelmed by such beauty. I am grateful to such a beautiful God and to beautiful Orthodoxy.

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You’re most welcome. It is a daily and sustaining joy to me to read such comments. Interestingly, I do not remember what was the occasion of the abyss the day I first wrote that piece…in a sense…it doesn’t matter. The abyss simply comes up. No doubt, it was time to step back and have a cup of tea.

  7. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Brilliant, and providentially timed as always. I have been experiencing precisely that sense of hell – my own shame and that of those whom I love but who keep rejecting, betraying and abandoning me (I suppose my ugliness pushes them to it) – but indeed there is One who is actually attracted to my sin and ugliness, and beckons me nearer and dearer to His loving, sin-wounded breast, heart and nail-scarred hands. Glory to Jesus Christ forever!!

  8. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Oh, and I just read your last comment, Father. Indeed ’tis time now to look away from the abyss into a spot of the Earl of Grey’s finest (just pray i don’t try and divine my immediate future from the leaves at the bottom, leave it all in God’s Hands, right?). 😉

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes. Have some tea and look steadily at Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

  10. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Haha I’m so scatter-brained right now I went and drank the rest of my stale coffee; thanks for reminding me that I need and am authorized to practice the small self-care item of making a proper spot of tea! Love you and your blog so much Father, and love you all, all ye fellow-strugglers who frequent this blessed space.

  11. Shawn Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    It might not be appropriate to discuss in the comments, but I’m truly ignorant of the part of Christ’s death and resurrection where He descended into hell. Have I just missed it, or is this something evangelicals tend to omit? In any case, is there an article you could direct me to that discusses it? Seems like a very significant point of emphasis in orthodoxy.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes. Evangelicals (and many others) completely overlook Christ’s descent into Hades, and it’s almost the entire content of Easter/Pascha in the Orthodox understanding. Here’s an article:

    Often described as the “harrowing of hell” (Christ sets us free, etc.). Here’s a list of Scriptures that reference it or allude to it (found these on Wikipedia, conveniently):

    Matthew 12:40: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
    Acts 2:24: “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
    Acts 2:31: “Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption’.”
    Ephesians 4:9: “In saying, ‘he ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”
    Colossians 1:18: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”
    1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, …”
    1 Peter 4:6: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
    Matthew 27:50-54: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

  13. thomas Avatar

    The abyss is part of what brought me humbled before Christ. As an atheist I had no recourse against the abyss. It would come on me, usually in the dark of the night as I try to sleep. It would accompany fear and anxiety that I could not shake without the help of some alcohol. It was in the grip of one of these episodes last year that I said a simple prayer: “God I don’t believe in you, but help my unbelief.” I think I was given that prayer, as it is similar to Mark 9:24, but it had been over 25 years since I had read anything in the bible. Immediately, I was filled with a peace that felt beyond this world. I soon found Orthodox prayers online and started praying them daily. This started my journey into the church.

    As Father said, the abyss still just comes on me, but I find reciting the the Jesus prayer to bring much comfort and peace. There is now an everlasting Lover that will rescue me from the Valley of Death.

  14. Shawn Avatar

    Thank you for the resources Father Stephen!

  15. Alex Avatar

    Hi Father,

    Thankyou for your ministry. The last two lines of that poem are awe-inspiring, and I have added them to my Orthdox quote document!
    With joy from Melbourne

  16. Andrew Avatar

    A lovely and heartening reflection Father. Ps. 139/138 has always been one of my most treasured. An echo of God’s earlier promises “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. I’m reminded of a quote from Oliver Clément that seems relevant:

    “In this complete subjection to the cross the Name of God is revealed. And this Name is love: “God is love, as St John says. In his love for us, God joins us in our suffering, in our rebellion, in our despair and our agony: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thus, henceforth, the incarnate and crucified God comes between our suffering and the void, between our rebellion, our despair, our agony and the void and, rising from the dead, opens for us strange passages of light.”

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thomas, may our good Lord continue to bless your journey.

  18. Jeff Avatar

    I understand that Mel Gibson has finished a ”Passion of the Christ II” which follows Him in His descent into hell.
    Certainly different from any other movies these days.

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    That sounds interesting, for sure.

  20. Known Avatar

    I have been blessed with knowing our Lord on a deeply personal despite my sins. He is stern with me but at the same time He has never shamed me. He calls me to repentance in ways that are deeper than I usually want to go and He is persistent.
    If one allows Him to enter your life, wonders will follow even if the strife of the world always seems to linger. The Mercy and blessing of our Lord be with each of you

  21. Shawn Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    At times, when the abyss draws me in, I think of the psalms. Many of the psalms involve David lamenting about his enemies, often literal people and armies seeking to end his life. If I read that literally, I can’t relate much since I don’t have armies outside my door. However, I do have enemies. Much of what you write about today describes our enemies. Those of the spiritual nature, those of modern society, those of the heart. I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to read the type of psalms I described with that in mind? While the abyss or constant strain of broken human existence isn’t as concrete as an enemy soldier, it seems that we deal with these type of enemies as often as David dealt with the other. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think it precisely the right way to read those Psalms.

  23. Shawn Avatar

    Thank you

  24. Oliver Hoig Avatar
    Oliver Hoig

    Father Stephen,

    I, too, have been eagerly reading your posts for years, often with tears as I encounter the presence of the Holy Spirit. The George Herbert poem you posted and your words brought quickly to mind another of his:

    Love (3)

    Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
    If I lacked any thing.

    A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
    Love said, You shall be he.
    I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
    I cannot look on thee.
    Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
    Who made the eyes but I?

    Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.
    And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
    My dear, then I will serve.
    You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
    So I did sit and eat.

    Peace to you.


  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Thank you so much!

  26. Dan Avatar

    This is beautiful. Thank you for this word.

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