A Single Moment

Grushenka, a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, relates a now-famous fable about an old woman:

Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.

It reminds me of a small scene in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Angels are trying to help a soul make the journey from hell to heaven. One, a woman, seems mostly to a grumbler. Lewis’ soul has this conversation with his own guide:

‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due her all right.’ ‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’ ‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’ ‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman— even the least trace of one— still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

Both stories have in common a tiny, insignificant thing: an onion, a grumble. There is in Scripture a similar “tiny thing,” a single moment that serves as a hinge in a human life. The exchange between the “Good Thief” and Christ on the Cross is hymned during Holy Week with the words, “The Wise Thief entered Paradise in a single moment…” It is a remembrance of the extreme measure of God’s grace.

The human life can be terribly complicated. We rarely make decisions that are straightforward. We are filled with contradictions. The gospel is frequently presented as a matter of choice and decision, a very dangerous categorization in a consumerist culture. We are the subjects of massive propaganda and advertising, the goal of which is to guide our consumption, not only of goods and services but of ideas and allegiances. In a world that celebrates freedom, we are made the subjects of marketing so all-pervasive that freedom itself is suppressed and distorted. Worse than this, I think, is the fact that our culture nurtures the “character” of consumption within the soul. We think and reason as consumers and “decide” in that same manner. This is not the same thing as the “will,” or freedom as understood in the teaching of the faith. We rarely actually engage our will, substituting, instead, the passions of consumption.

When I consider the reality of our lives, I think of St. Paul’s cry for help, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And I take comfort in the single moments.

The story of the Old Woman and the Onion is a parable stated in the extreme manner of absurdity. I was first drawn to it by the simple fact of its willingness to ascribe such mercy to God. A single, rotten onion, given as charity would be sufficient to get you out of hell! It was the imaginative force of such a thing that shook my soul when I first read it. In my childhood, there could never have been such a Christian mercy. Hell is hell is hell.

I have also had the unfortunate experience of meeting “Mrs. Grumbles,” or various versions of her. These are personalities that have almost disappeared behind a consuming passion or fixation (a memory, an injury). There is a deep sense that their freedom could come if but for a moment they could set aside this besetting thing.

But I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”

However, we generally labor along in the struggles of the life of faith, unaware of such moments, with a sense that it is hard, even wondering if God is involved at all. We are like the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son. The younger, foolish son seems to have found an amazing moment, filled with hugs, rings, robes and fatted calves. The Elder Brother felt he had received nothing. But in that moment, he is told, “All that I have is yours.”

The moment (“all that I have”) is so large and continuous, it is overlooked. On a cloudless day, the sky ceases to interest us. But we breathe it, swim in it – as it nurtures the life of everything around us.

I ran across a sermon of Fr. Pavel Florensky (who died in Stalin’s Camps). This small quote underlines the beauty of what lies within, and perhaps suggests how it is that God treasures even a single moment:

Oh brothers, if you could only realise how beautiful you all are! Does not the priest swing the censer to the Holy Spirit Who lives in you, when he turns to you with the incense? Is it not the altar of the internal temple that he envelops with clouds of incense? And is not man – also the self-same ikon of God? For, as in the ikon beyond the paints and the wood, the grace of the Lord is present, so behind the flesh of man, beyond it and the sinful soul, dwells in the innermost temple, in the many-eyed conscience – the Holy Spirit.

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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57 responses to “A Single Moment”

  1. Brandi Avatar

    “All that I have is yours.”

    I am going to spend the day contemplating on this and your astute observation about its enormity, Fr. Thank you for pointing out the momentous in that single line.

  2. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    It’s interesting, Father. When I last contemplated the conversation between the elder brother and the father, I felt sorry for the older brother. Your highlighting of the father’s words has helped once again to reveal deeper layers. Plus, the fact that the father left the party to meet with the elder son reveals his love for him.

  3. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I don´t think anyone of us, not a one, has a completely unfettered will that is absolutely clean and free. As such, I think God is more understanding, merciful and restorative in His judgements than any of us can begin to imagine. If I am right, then I am also deeply thankful.

  4. Paul Tarro Avatar
    Paul Tarro

    This is helpful: The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Particularly Kitty Muggeridge’s translation and the introduction by Richard Foster.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I tend to think of models that overplay the “free-will it’s your choice” angle as being overly simplistic. It’s like people talking about “democracy” as if the system (in America) weren’t incredibly rigged, bizarre, etc. But the myth plows on. There is a very deep, inner freedom – part of the “pearl of great price,” and such. But coming to see it and encounter it can be one of the greatest feats in a person’s life – heroic, even.

  6. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Is this deep, inner freedom the place where a genuinely “free” will can be found? If so … what is the way to get there Fr. Stephen?

  7. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Matthew — God is a good God. (I keep coming back to this — thank you Fr. Freeman.) His love for us is so unconditional, it is overwhelming.

    I absolutely believe in the gift of free will. I can freely choose to accept God’s love, or I can freely choose to do anything else. I think the fetters are only there when I chain myself to false idols/pursuits/ideologies. (Rather like Grushenka believing that to be saved, she had to be selfish.)

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Holly.

    I do not deny that we have a will. What I question is how “free” it really is. I don´t think we “freely choose” in a the free-est way possible … if that makes sense!

    I also don´t think it is as easy as some think it is to simply break the chains of false idols and what not. As such, I only wanted to point out that God understands this; that God is merciful and restorative in His judgements because of this.

  9. Holly Avatar
    Holly

    Matthew — It makes perfect sense.
    I do not mean to say it is easy, forgive me if I came across that way.
    You and your comments here are an expression of God’s goodness in my own journey. I am very grateful to you shining a light on many questions I’ve been carrying around inside, but did not have the courage to ask.

  10. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I am so glad, Holly, that my presence here has helped you. Words cannot express all the help I have received from all of you. God is doing quite a good work here through all of us!

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Most of what we experience and call the “will” is not the real thing. It’s just choosing among the passions – as in – this feels better than that – I think this will work out better, etc. It’s “picking berries” at the most.

    The will is a very powerful thing – much closer to the core of our being. I think it is, generally speaking, a great gift of grace to be brought to a place in which we engage the will. It is the merchant selling everything in order to obtain the pearl of great price. Until that moment, he’d not really had to “will” anything.

    I think of my own conversion – there were so many practical (and frightening) consequences that surrounded that decision, and, at the time, so many unknown things, it became something like jumping off a cliff. I was not alone – my wife gladly jumped with me (and I was taking my 4 children as well). But it was very much, “I do not care about the consequences – I will do this thing regardless.”

    I remember speaking to a group of Anglicans in my parish after I had announced my intention – and they were quite curious about why I was doing this. I said to them, “It is a very rare thing in life to be able to risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom. This is that moment for me.”

    That’s the will. I had “wanted” it for years. But that wasn’t “willing” it.

    Just an example. I would add that marrying my wife was an act of the will for me. And one with such a joyful consequence!

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. What you share about how it was for you coming into Orthodoxy in a lot of ways speaks to my current situation. God is with me, but I am in some ways very much alone on this journey.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, as much as it seems as if you are alone, you are not. Even though they do not present themselves to our usual senses, your Guardian Angel and others unseen are with you. The prayers of others including many here are with you.
    If God has called you, no one else can stand in your way except the passions and doubts of your own heart. (I am saying this as much to remind myself as you).

  14. Brenda Sansom-Moorey Avatar
    Brenda Sansom-Moorey

    Fr. Stephen:

    I first came across this story in the guise of a tale written by the famous Japanese modernist author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Akutagawa drew on the Brothers Karamazov as the inspiration for “The spider’s thread,” which relates the story of a thief suffering in hell.

    In paradise above, the Buddha is strolling along when he looks down and sees the thief. Wondering what good deed the thief may have done that can be used for his salvation, he remembers that the thief once refrained from stepping on a spider. Full of compassion, the Buddha sends a single silvery strand from a spiderweb down to the thief in hell. The glimmering strand is the only light visible in hell. The thief grabs onto it, and starts to haul himself up. Then he turns around and sees countless sinners trying to climb the strand behind him. When he screams at them to get off, the strand breaks, and they all tumble back into hell.

    I’m struck by the way the themes of divine compassion versus human selfishness can resonate not only across cultural boundaries, but across religious boundaries as well. In both stories, the misperception of divine power as weak reveals the true nature of those offered salvation.

    Thank you for sharing the Dostoyevsky story.

  15. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Wonderful conversation, thank you all, and especially Fr. Stephen for the “jumping off a cliff” moment and going “all in” despite risky consequences. I know those moments. Sometimes I live to regret them, but that tends to be when I am being afflicted with something I need to see through. That brings up something I’m grappling through — maybe it’s part of the toxic shame thing, but I often feel guilty when I try to follow God and disappoint or anger people. It becomes hard to tell the difference between right and wrong in those times when I feel what we might call “logismoi” and regret decisions made in prayer to go all in. It’s like God knows me and loves me, but I’m still sad that people are upset with me.

    And there we come to the subject of will. I don’t seem to know much about myself in light of how God seems to recognize or know things in me. I feel like I’m falling off a cliff but in my prayer life God has confidence in me I don’t have. From that experience I just think there is a place deep deep down where we love God or we don’t, and God knows that place. But it’s something so deep it remains mysterious to us.

    I know, sounds weird. I’m jumping off a cliff posting it 🙂 But I figure maybe I’ll learn something!

  16. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS Thank you for the reference to Fr. Pavel Florensky. I have heard of him but don’t know much about him. He’s fascinating, I will try to learn more. And his life is so sad. I’m also intrigued as his family background (which he seems to have researched extensively) is something familiar to me, and remains tragic for the destruction of historical Christianity in the region of his ancestors today.

  17. christa Avatar
    christa

    “in my prayer life, God has confidence in me that I don’t have” and “I just think that there is a place deep, deep down where we love God or we don’t and God knows that place” It remains mysterious to us. But if God knows, then just maybe that is enough. I am always confessing that I don’t love God as I feel I should because my actions are mostly so selfish. But God knows what my prayers are and where my prayers come from. And that is enough. To keep watching myself, and judging my motives actually keeps me from prayer. God knows and God is my judge. He is my merciful judge.

  18. christa Avatar
    christa

    “most of what we experience and call the “will” is ……..”picking berries”.” (thats good!)
    “It is a very great gift of grace to be brought to a place where we engage the will. It is the merchant selling everything to buy the pearl of great price.”
    I am thinking, it is the direction I keep moving in. I stray off the path , but I keep coming back. Sometimes I have gone off the path very badly, sometimes for years but God must be pulling me back. That’s where Gods grace does something, to keep me willing this way of life. It keeps one very humble. and thankful.

  19. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Matthew, you are at least moving along with your wife – that is a great blessing. The time seems to be right.

    Not to try to drum up the wrong kind of sympathy, but my journey has very much been solo, with the help of Fr Stephen from afar and a couple of people “IRL” as I was on my way into the Church. I can’t imagine entering the Church while my children were still at home. It was difficult enough for both me and my husband (who remains a committed Evangelical, and probably feels quite alone himself) to negotiate this in our relationship. If the children had been involved, I honestly don’t know if our marriage could have survived it. As it is, none of our 3 children is interested in Christianity at all; so much for the staying power of even committed Evangelicalism, in the thick of which they were raised… But I have hope for them in God’s hands, and those of the Theotokos. Blessed Xenia of St Petersburg has also been very kind to them, even though they don’t know it 🙂 Her prayers have helped with good jobs and living situations for all of them within the past couple of years.

    I hope the people in the Greek parish there will warm up to you and your wife. It’s difficult not only not being ethnic Greek, but in Germany people in general tend to not share much of their lives with those outside their families. My parish friends have become my family, and it has helped a lot. I wish I could be more active; have to drive an hour to be there. I’m beyond grateful every time I walk underneath the long, wisteria-covered pergola between the parking lot and the cathedral. We have beautiful grounds and a beautiful worship space, and it’s my true home.

    Dana

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Dana.

    While my wife is supportive and also tracks completely with Orthodox theology and spirituality as she understands them, she mentioned last night that she simply isn´t ready. She attended Divine Liturgy with me a few weeks ago, but walked out. She said it was too loud, too foreign, etc. We are in a very strange situation right now. We are members of a Baptist church which we regularly attend (my wife more than me (she is rather active)), my wife going to the Catholic Mass on Saturday at 6:00pm, and me attending Divine Liturgy and heading toward Orthodoxy. My wife sees the massive problems with Protestantism and I think she has embraced the importance of the Eucharist even while she cannot embrace many of the theological aspects of Roman Catholicism (it shares a lot of the same problems with Protestantism). It´s my suspicion that she simply has been so conditioned religiously speaking from a western perspective that it is so hard for her to transition to Eastern Orthodoxy. Man … it is hard on some days for me, but I am trying to be obedient to where God is calling me. I don´t want to run my decision through my “it feels good” or my “I am comfortable here” filter. I want to go where God is in all his fullness, even if that means I have to do it (for now) alone.

    While I would love to be doing this with my wife (and she with me … she said so herself!), it is not in the cards right now. Please continue to pray for us if you would. It doesn´t help that I think she is receiving incorrect counsel from the Roman Catholic priest. He told her she only needs to believe the Nicene Creed (or possibly the Apostle´s Creed?) to become Roman Catholic and that the RCC has all but capitulated to most all of Luther´s 95 Thesis demands! I grew up Roman Catholic and this is not the information I received.

    Matthew

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello again Dana. You said:

    “I hope the people in the Greek parish there will warm up to you and your wife. It’s difficult not only not being ethnic Greek, but in Germany people in general tend to not share much of their lives with those outside their families.”

    I started learning modern Greek yesterday and I intend to stick with it regularly. We are also planning a trip to Greece in October. I don´t think they really know what to do with me at the parish. I have been coming and going since the time of the pandemic and am still no closer to conversion. Not being Greek (or German for that matter) confuses them a bit I think. Here in Germany at least, there are not many Protestants running to become Orthodox like there is, I think, in the U.S.

    You are also correct about the social situation here in Germany. People tend to stick to their families and old school friends. I have been here for nearly 20 years and have no close German friends. That said, Germans will be the first to say that Americans (from a German cultural perspective of course) tend to be superficial and rather “thin” relationally speaking. If you are able to make a German friend, they say you will have a friend for life.

  22. SC Avatar
    SC

    Father Bless

    Thanks for your article. I love your focus on how God takes the little good he can find in us and uses it as best as possible for our salvation, a little bit like the 5 loaves and 2 fish. I wonder if the story from the brothers Karamazov is based on the story of St Peter the tax collector of Constantinople, who was spared hell because of a single loaf of bread he threw angrily at a beggar.

  23. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    On a cloudless day, the sky ceases to interest us. But we breathe it, swim in it – as it nurtures the life of everything around us.

    A wonderful statement, Father. Thanks for this post; it is very hopeful and uplifting.

  24. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Matthew, I will be another voice to say that you are not alone. I was recently received into the Church (a year ago this past Theophany) and I entered without my wife and children… a very similar situation to yours. I spent 5+ years as a seeker and catechumen. While she ultimately supported my reception and continues to do so, there is a block for her. Patience and prayer is all I can advise.

    I suppose I should encourage you to also be patient with your priest and parish. I was warned by my priest and bishop that there is no urgency, and to have “peace” about the whole situation. God is working it out. That’s the trick, isn’t? Patiently waiting on God? Not easy for me, and I suppose not anyone in situations like ours.

    I will pray for you. I beg your prayers for me.

  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    SC,
    I’m not sure what Dostoevsky’s sources were for the story. He moved in very interesting circles in an interesting world.

  26. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Justin, Matthew, et al
    My “journey” to Orthodoxy took more than 20 years – and for a fair amount of that time – I had no idea that I was on that journey. As I look back at it (26 years after my reception into the Church), I can see that all those years had a purpose and that I could not be where I am without them. God is generous, kind, merciful, patient, etc. Above all, strive to love God and neighbor. He is working all of this out.

  27. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I’m curious. What was too loud?

  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Similar to you, in hindsight, I can see how Providence prepared me to enter the Orthodox Church. But it still amazes me. I really was so anti-Christian. That hurdle alone took about 50 years of recovery time. Indeed the Lord is patient.

  29. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Justin. Justin, I will indeed pray for both of our situations. Patient is all I can be at this point. I cannot unlearn what I have learned. I cannot go back to where I once was. It is either Orthodoxy or simply continuing to putter along, unhappily, in the world of Protestantism. The choice seems clear, but God is holding the calendar. Love God. Love neighbor. Seems like the best advice I have received this week.

    Hello Dee. My wife found the chanting a bit loud and distracting, though admittedly she is very sensitive to sounds that most other people would be very much O.K. with. I think the fact that there were no pauses in the Liturgy was also something she struggled with. Also, while I would like to hear the Liturgy in English or even German, I am O.K. with the Greek. For my wife, though, the language creates a distracting barrier for her.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, at my parish we have about six chanters each with strong voices. During Divine Liturgy they get rather loud where my wife and I sit (right in front of the chanters stand

    The choir (about 30 strong) can get loud too especially for the people in the pews right in front. Too many old folk like me not to have pews.

    The chanters chant in English and Lebanese mostly(we are Antiochian) but they also do some Greek and Church Slavonic. Our head chanter
    is native Lebanese.

    In smaller parishes a single chanter can easily fill the space and in a foreign language seem quite noisy.

  31. Anon Avatar
    Anon

    Matthew, Justin,

    We all have a journey.

    Like Matthew, “I don´t want to run my decision through my “it feels good” or my “I am comfortable here” filter.” And like Justin, I’m in this autonomously as part of a larger family.

    Protestantism is hard to leave. I was raised in a group that many considered a “Cult”. I won’t use that term to describe it, I’ll say cult-ish. And the reason I won’t is because I consider most of Protestantism cult-y. I recently heard an interview with someone who said that as an Acts 9 dispensationalist, he didn’t think that Acts 2 dispensationalists were, “really Christian”.

    I think of it as Satan’s efforts to divide and conquer the faithful – create division through Solae, then through parsing verses. But I digress.

    My wife believes the faith in which she was raised, and while I have tried to temper the worst of fundamentalist, penal substitutionary Protestantism in my family, the lack of consistent Christian theology has meant that my children seem more unaffiliated and “none” than Christian.

    It doesn’t help that because of wifely resistance, I haven’t been back to the local parish since the Priest changed, and everything is now in Syrian. There are other options around that I’ve been exploring…

    But my point is this:

    We all must make the choices we do, and trust that Christ is working at all times, and in all things more diligently then we ourselves can even conceive. The road will be lonely sometimes. Christ, himself spent 40 days in the desert, alone. In Gethsemane he was again alone.

    But I, for one, am assured that he has my best interests at heart – and wherever I am, I know he is with me and has not forsaken me.

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Michael and Matthew,
    I take your word for it. I’ve been only in two parishes and watched others online during COVID. I haven’t experienced anything that I would have called loud. I suppose I believe that the canter’s voice needs to carry well to hear the words that I desire to hear well. I usually sit at the back of the Nave (desiring to be inconspicuous) back to the wall. (no real explanation for this behavior) Because of my typical position, I appreciate strong voices.

    Matthew, I have sympathy for your wife. For a while (I’m not sure how long), I wouldn’t go into an Orthodox Church because I didn’t want to deal with bearded clergy, as funny as that may sound. But I knew I wanted to follow Christ and worship in His Church. And that left me with few other options. I got over it. And now I sincerely appreciate the appearance of the clergy and wouldn’t have it any other way.-Go figure!

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have witnessed just such a moment — a woman being saved as she lay dying by the prayers of an angel. Her best friend also saw it and decided to become Orthodox as did her two daughters now married with children of their own iny parish. I have never, before or since, seen such concentrated prayer.

    As Hamlet said, “There is more to heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    And so it is….

  34. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dee. I didn´t know what to really think about the beards either at first. 🙂

  35. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Not all clergy have beards. Our OCA priest has a mustache and goatee, but hardly noticeable, about like 3 days of growth.
    I’ve been in many parishes throughout the years. As different priests have different voice range and volume, just so with readers/ chanters. A very wide variety.

  36. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I read a quotation from CS Lewis over the weekend that hit home with me and applies to the recent discussion of the will. I can’t find his exact words now, but they were something to the effect of that, when he felt most compelled to do something, when he was absolutely certain within his mind he had no choice about which course he must take, that (paradoxically) it was then he most felt as though he were exercising his (free) will.

    Despite the paradox, I see a way in which it makes absolute sense. For a decision we’re unsure about, we’ll sometimes say, “Let’s flip a coin.” We are far less likely to allow chance to make the decision for anything we consider of importance. Still, what Lewis was saying is deeper than that and more of what Father Stephen describes in his choice to convert: “I do not care about the consequences – I will do this thing regardless.”

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, thank you for sharing the paradox. Enlightening.

  38. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I don’t understand the paradox Mark. Can you explain it a bit differently? Thanks.

  39. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    The paradox is that when we talk about *free* will, we emphasize the freedom aspect (choice) of it, whereas it seems in both Lewis’s and Father Stephen’s experience, they felt they exercised their *personal* will the most in those situations in which they feel almost not to have had a choice at all.

    Other than that, I’d have to again echo Father Stephen:

    “The will is a very powerful thing – much closer to the core of our being. I think it is, generally speaking, a great gift of grace to be brought to a place in which we engage the will. It is the merchant selling everything in order to obtain the pearl of great price. Until that moment, he’d not really had to ‘will’ anything.”

    The emphasis, then, is “will,” rather than “free” (the latter being in contrast where most philosophical discussions engage the question). That we can pick that pair of socks over this pair of socks does not engage the will, but falling in love with our soul mate, choosing our true vocation irrespective of the monetary rewards–those difficult things that we do only because we *will* them–give our whole self over to them?– are of our will.

    The more I try to explain the more I’m afraid of saying something off the mark, but I do think I understand it.

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks SO much Mark. I understand now much better and I think I agree. It makes sense.

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I think I never really gave much thought to how deep the will is in our inner being. I never really thought I wasn´t engaging the will when I made “free” decisions … like green beans over spinach … things like that. I simply spoke about free will in a casual, yet to me also in an absolute sense. I made a decision and it was “free”. It was only a few years ago when I really began questioning the “free” aspect of the “free will” question … are we as free as we really think we are? Now with the depth question to consider and ponder, and with the fact that most people rarely if ever engage the will, the Gospel becomes even more beautiful and good … if that makes any sense! 🙂

  42. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Does anyone have a copy of the following book?:

    On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry

  43. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I do not, but there seems to be a PDF available of it online. Google “beauty being tanner lectures.”

  44. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Mark!!

  45. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    “The gospel is frequently presented as a matter of choice and decision, a very dangerous categorization in a consumerist culture.”

    I’m wondering if you could speak more to this? I can fully see the problems with presenting the gospel as a nice package on offer for you to “choose” or “accept”. One idea amongst others, but this one is the best. I admit that this is where I started as a Christian. Over the early years I had many starts and stops to ‘take my faith more seriously’ or try by my own effort to be more obedient to the gospel. However, at some point, seemingly by no action of my own, the gospel came alive within me….the will was there….there truly was no other way. What I would sometimes seem to pick up and discard was now a pearl of great price.

    I know we can’t fully, try as we may, map out conversion/regeneration/salvation (whatever you want to call it). But I think my experience may tie well to this article as it seems to involve both choosing and will and, most importantly, God’s grace. I know this is a big topic, but I would greatly appreciate any insight you may have.

  46. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Shawn. I think you are wanting Fr. Stephen to help you, but I (if you don´t mind) would like to share something that might or might not help us both and anyone else entertaining these questions.

    While Christ wasn´t the real-deal for me until I “made a decision” for Him in the summer of 1996, I had in fact been baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church. Over the years I have moved away from what a teacher called “decision theology” to embracing the Christian baptismal rite as the entry point into a relationship with Christ and His Church. A decision, to me at least, seems a lot like giving rational assent to a set of spiritual laws (usually 4) when, rather, God is calling me into a deep, salvific relationship that only He can begin.

    What does this mean about my “decision” in 1996? When did the Gospel really come alive within me beyond my own mental assent and reasoning? I´m not really sure. Maybe someone else here can help us unpack this a bit more …

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    In that “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…” and that “Christ first loved us,” the primary “decisional” aspect of our salvation has already been made by God Himself. Our decisions are responses – always. They also wax and wane – stability is frequently hard to come by in our culture.

    Many aspects of our conversion and life of grace depend on where we’re standing when we look at them. As an older man (70), most things seem to have been providential – in that my life is mostly a matter of hindsight. In my 20’s, to think in providential terms seemed confining and frightening. I’ve got a new article posting later today – it might be of interest in this question.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you say: “Our decisions are responses – always.”

    That is where I began thanks to my late mother when she flat out told me: “God is real, you need to find Him!” So I knew from the beginning that faith is relational.

    A few years later, Jesus made the reality clear by choosing me(1968) 18 years later I was received into the Orthodox Church(1986). I will be 76 in a few weeks. By His Grace and Mercy our interrelationship has deepened but I am a stubborn and often hard hearted man. Still Jesus, through the Church, continues to deepen our interrelationship.

    The only “decision” I have is whether or not I respond to His love. Trying to make it a matter of my will alone, I have problems, trying to conform Him to my will rather than my will to His love through prayer (Sacramental and personal), fasting and alms giving.

    Last Sunday our assistant priest preached on the final judgement. He made the Scriptures clear both the nature and outcome of our choices. Sobering.

  49. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thanks Matthew, I appreciate your perspective. Thank you as well Father Stephen. I think as I mature in my walk with Christ I’m realizing how much was done and decided on God’s part. Decisions that, if He had not made them, would leave us without hope.

  50. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks also Shawn.

  51. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I pray these words are helpful at this point in the conversation:
    “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1: 12-13

  52. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Does anyone have a copy of?:

    Metaphor and Religious Language — Janet Martin Soskice

  53. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry

    Have you read this Mark?

  54. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee said:

    “I pray these words are helpful at this point in the conversation:
    “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1: 12-13”

    I have never read these verses quite like this before, Dee. Thanks.

  55. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I was not able to copy your italics Dee … sorry!

  56. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I have not, Matthew. Anything in it you thought pertinent to the recent discussion here?

  57. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Maybe, Mark, that a single moment of true beauty does more for the health of the soul than 100´s of pages systematic theology text?

    (Though there are some that might find that also beautiful :-))

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