Risking Everything

In the struggle to come to the wholeness of Personhood – to become the “true self” rather than to sink into the “false self” our very existence as spiritual beings is at stake. If you read across Orthodox books that center on the issue of Personhood – a common theme becomes visible. Our fall and our brokenness leave us vulnerable, even in our religious efforts, to the development of a “false self” something quite other than the wholeness of true Personhood.  Indeed, religion might be more than just a little vulnerable to this – it may be one of the best ways to pursue a false mode of existence. It should be quickly added that most of our activities contribute to this false self – for it is simply another way in which our sinfulness manifests itself. The movement from false to true self is another way of describing the work of salvation that is wrought in us through grace.

The distinctions being made between “false” and “true” are not about identities: not a matter of my being “Bill” or “George.” It instead a distinction being made between a distorted and improper relation with God and the world around me and a whole and proper relation with God and the world around me. Through any number of life experiences we find ourselves wounded and broken. Our love becomes distorted such that we do not love as we ought. Our feelings (in the very largest and all-encompassing sense of the word) become distorted. We do not love what and who we should love in they way they should be loved. The whole range of emotions from hate, anger, joy, love, etc., all become distorted. Thus it seems that often the longer we live the more damage we receive and inflict.

The healing of the self includes the healing of the whole self. Though purification, illumination and deification (or the various ways of describing the ascetical and spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian) our emotions are restored to their proper function. We are able to love, to be thankful, to have anger even hate (in their proper sense – meaning however whatever is actually in the image of God). We do what is right (not as measured by some abstract set of principles or objective set of rules) but as is measured by the will of God: “whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The difficulty in all of this is that it describes something dynamic, that is happening in the life of a believer. It is not static, such that it is finished before it is finished. Instead it is something of a roadmap, and looks at what is going on in the life of salvation and is a way of describing the relative merits of differing things. It is a way of saying what is important and what is at stake.

It is quite possible for a local church (as in a local parish, though we could be describing the more accurate sense of “local” church and mean the Orthodox Church in America or the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) to go about what looks like the work of the Church, and in fact not be doing the work of the Church. The sacraments may be present (these are utterly essential aspects of the life of the Church). Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said: “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions. But it is quite possible to put things the other way around, and instead of serving the salvation of each member, be serving the creation and the fostering of the false self.

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.

So, what is at stake? Everything. These things are easy to get wrong, and we doubtless fail at many of them most of the time. What is to be done? First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God. And not only that we believe in God, but that the goal of our life is our mystical union with Him and one another. We can engage in any Godly activity, but it will be seen as a Godly activity, if and only if, its goal is true union with God and one another. This will be marked by love, freedom, indeed the fruit of the Spirit. It may not be the most efficient of organizations (efficiency is not a criteria of Godly judgment), but if it is moving forward in this work of healing in whatever it is doing, then it is doing the work of God and He will be glorified.

Another specific activity, deeply related to this false and true self, is the knowledge of God, and all that we speak of when we say, “doctrine.” Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic. Someone may know all of the dogmatic formulas such that they can repeat them with no trouble, or even quickly analyze a statement as somehow being contrary to the doctrine of the Church, and yet know all of this in a way that is not proper. They simply become experts, like someone studying for a game show. This is an activity that fosters the false self, and may be more dangerous than many, because the person involved can suffer under the delusion that because they “know” all of the true facts, they actually know the truth, when they do not.

In the liturgy we sing: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.” This in no way means, “We now have the true facts.” Anyone could have the true facts. This is almost nothing. The hymn in the liturgy refers to a living relationship that is healing us a whole persons. There is no triumphalism in this hymn whatsover (if there is then one is singing from the “false self”). Instead, there is simple gratitude. We give thanks because God has done this for us (who in no way deserved what has been done).

Thus the Orthodox life should always be marked by a knowledge of God (frequently beyond expression even though it agrees with the doctrine as it has been revealed). But it is not doctrine I wish to know, but Him Whom the doctrine reveals. Again, everything is at stake.

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21 Responses to “Risking Everything”

  1. Robert Says:

    Amen! A most true and powerful reflection, and a great follow up on your last post. Thank you for it. May we all be on the path of healing, and never stray from it! Lord, help me.

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  3. Vincent Says:

    Bingo! You hit the nail on the head. Of course being not only Orthodox but orthodox what you say is in continuity with the mystical tradition of the Church. Being of the Latin Rite I mention only a few examples of continuity taken from 16th century Spain. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila describe the spiritual journey as a movement from the Purgative, to illuminative, to unitive. St Ignatius of Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises to “quitar afectos desordenados”- take away disordered affections- or in your terms find the true self. According to Ignatius we take away these disordered passions so that we can look for and find la voluntad divina – the divine will.

  4. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    Chock full of truth and depth. I will read this one many times over. What is the picture depicting (seems like a firing squad in the 18th C.) and who is the painter and when was it painted?

  5. Les Says:

    Yes, Father, you have described this very well. Like Vincent, I am Latin rite Catholic, and how often do we see spiritualities and movements and organizations all with good intent searching for this very knowledge of God, and so often missing what they are seeking by the very formalization of their method, or practice, stultifying the very insight that was the inspiration for the movement in the first place.

    What you are talking about here is very radical actually, yet because it is lived and it is grace freely given to anyone who is willing to receive, it is available to the most ordinary among us. Perhaps this is the point of St. Paul’s famous discourse on love in I Corinthians 13. As Father Barron, Catholic evangelist, has pointed out, we cannot “have” God’s love, we can only receive and when in the instant we receive we give it away to those around us He fills us up again so that we are that cup that is overflowing, and become that instrument of healing for those around us.

  6. mike Says:

    …reading this tonight makes me realize how spiritually superfical ive been all my life…im deeply grateful that i may yet get another chance to get it right….Christ have mercy..

  7. nikodim Says:

    indeed, a powerful reflection, full of truth and depth. thank you so much! love in X.

  8. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Another timely reflection Fr. Stephen — thank you for putting in words what the Spirit does with colour!

  9. Dean Arnold Says:

    Efficiency is not next to Godliness?

    Please pardon while I reboot.

  10. J.Peanut K Says:

    Indeed, thank you for the insightfull article. I too am Latin Rite but fully realise the truth when I see it. All too often we are trapped into doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. We become encumbered by the rubrics (rules) so that we lose sight of the reason for the rules,union with the Godhead. May our hearts be enlightened and enlivened so that we may be a more perfect reflection of the Fathers love to the world around us. Jesus said it perfectly……THY WILL BE DONE. We are truly flawed in our humanity this is why we must deny ourselves and follow Christ. Christianity isn’t a religion it is a way of life. It’s how we treat everyone even our enemies.May I come to follow more closely and reflect more perfectly. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus kingdom come in my heart and all the hearts of the world.May we love Him more and more. May this be the year that His dreams for us are fulfilled. AMEN!

  11. Prudence True Says:

    Fr. S –

    If at times I’m critical of your blog or our Orthodox faith today, it is because of my lack of skill in expressing what you’ve said so clearly here.

    It’s easy for our church life to fit into the beehive of our secular life; it’s far more difficult for our church life to become a unique spiritual corner in our journey toward the Kingdom of God. Learning this difference, is learning the experience of God.

  12. Barbara Says:

    Thank you for these words, Fr. Stephen. “First we pray and seek to live our lives as though we believed in God…and that the goal of our lives was our mystical union with God and others.” First we pray…

    Your reflection also reminds me of these words from Fr. Boris Bobrinsky, in Compassion of the Father, p. 27.

    Truth and life are but one.
    Truth and love are but one.
    Truth and holiness are but one.
    Truth and beauty are but one.

  13. Prudence True Says:

    Barbara –

    Is that you, my friend, from SBM? If so, I hope you are well. Please tell K2 I pray for her and her family.

    If not, sorry.

  14. Barbara Says:

    Prudence – Thank you for your prayers for K2 and her family! We are both well and speak often of our lovely visit to SBM. I hope you are well also.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for allowing this personal exchange!

  15. Benjamin Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. I feel as though my Protestant upbringing fostered the growth of my ‘false self.’ I graduated from Protestant seminary with a full head and a cold heart. I am just now seeing the damage that has been done. Thank you for this convicting post. Christ have mercy, indeed.

  16. Pauline Says:

    Wow. What food for thought, as I wrestle with the possibility of conversion from Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

    I am still reading this slowly (and have begun attending Liturgy at my tiny local parish); might I ask for prayer as I try to discern and follow God’s will.

  17. Lina Says:

    ”Part of the argument of St. Gregory Palamas, against those who argued for a different manner of knowing God, was his insistence on the experiential character of the proper knowledge of God. Thus when we know God properly, we know Him as Person, not as object or topic.”

    I am intrigued by this comment. So many people I am meeting seem to have no clue about knowing God personally. Yet they are in church Sunday after Sunday. There does not seem to be any sense of what it means to be made a new creation by God?

    Out of curiosity what are some of the other manners of knowing God that St. Gregory Palamas was rejecting besides object or topic.

  18. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Lina (if I might),

    There is only way to know God and that is through humility…

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Knowing God simply as doctrine or abstract principle, would be other examples. I will run a short article from Fr. Sophrony (and St. Silouan) that might be helpful.

  20. Lina Says:

    Thank you. I look forward to learning more. As I said I keep meeting people who are active in church, attend every Sunday and yet when I mention something about having a personal relationship with God they look at me blankly, like what are you talking about.

    I worked in a third would country for many years and most of the Christians there had to depend upon God because there was no one else.
    Life was, is, a constant prayer just to survive.

  21. Giorgos Charalambous Says:

    Hello, there is a problem with the link “St. Anne Orthodox Church” under “Information on the Orthodox Faith”. It goes to a strange page, please correct.

    Thank you

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