This year’s conference offered courses that emphasized the importance of theological and spiritual training for adults. Keynote speakers included Kevin Allen, Fr. Timothy Baclig, and Michelle Moujaes. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from November 5-8.
Fr. Stephen Freeman: Well, it’s good to be here. I was here two years ago and enjoyed our time. It’s good to be back this year. It’ll be different than what we did then, although the book will be the same. I am working on another book right now that maybe this time next year will be in print. We’ll see how that goes.
We’ll start today: Imagine that you’re in church—we did that just shortly ago—but something has happened to you or has been done to you that left you without sensory perception. You don’t see, you don’t hear, you don’t taste or smell. So what, then, is the experience of the Liturgy? Set aside for a minute just how alarmed you would feel that you’ve suddenly lost your senses! Maybe when we finish the class today you’ll feel like you’ve lost your senses. [Laughter] For one, you would feel a profound isolation. Not able to see, not able to smell, not able to hear. A sense of isolation. And at the most, what you would have is you would be lost within your thoughts. You could imagine the service or even think about the parts of the service that you remember, but needless to say it would be a very limited experience.
What I want to suggest to you today is that this actually describes a lot of the modern experience, both of the Liturgy, but even more than that of life itself. This senseless experience has a name. I’m going to be giving you a bit of a new definition with this, but this senseless experience has a name. It’s called secularism. Now, that may sound strange because in our secular world, it seems that people celebrate their senses—you pay money to celebrate your senses and to help people stimulate your senses—but in fact that’s not what’s going on. It’s not our senses… In fact, I did a poster a while back with a priest, and there’s a lot of incense and an iconostas, and it said, “Get out of your mind. Come to your senses! The Orthodox Faith.” You’re welcome to make your versions of it and put it out there, because I think we finish listening to this today, it will perhaps make good sense.
I want to give a definition of secularism as I use the term and it’s used by a number of others. If when you hear “secular,” you think about Church and state—don’t do that. It has nothing to do with these questions of Church and state. That’s just a false, modern use of the term. The term “secular” really presupposes that there is such a thing as a neutral zone, that we use words like “common,” “normal.” These value-laden words: “normal” experience, and by “normal” and “common” and all of these sorts of generalized words, we mean a world that doesn’t include God, that doesn’t include religious experience. An idea that it is possible to experience anything in the world, much less the whole world itself without God being there.
That is a modern notion. It only goes back to about the late 1700s. It flows in some ways out of certain ideas that began… Actually, you’d go crazy if you tried to figure out where ideas began, but it began to be an important part of the Protestant critique of Catholicism. It also began to be in the Enlightenment, the notion that you could have a neutral world. In the overturning of the classical Christian world that had obtained during the Middle Ages in Catholic Europe, as that’s being overturned, one of the primary driving forces was to remove the Church from its power not just in society but in daily life.
There’s a wonderful little book—I’m a student of the English Reformation, having once been an Anglican—written by a Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy, and it’s called The Voices of Morebath, and Morebath is a little village, and they have a record written in the hand of a single priest—it stretches over 50 years—of the English Reformation, from the time of Henry VIII through Bloody Mary through Edward VI and deep into Elizabeth’s time, in which he records life in the village of Morebath in the parish. This priest is a survivor. It’s tough to have lived through all of that and not gotten killed once—much less just twice or so. You can see it, and Duffy… I first read this book… The first few chapters were boring. They were full of primary historical information from a medieval village, and you’re just kind of moving along; I’m thinking, “If this book doesn’t get better in another chapter, I’m going to quit,” but I hung in there because I love history, and eventually what starts unfolding, after you’ve gotten all the data from life in this village, as you begin to see, you get to know these people. Not a big parish, not a big town. You get to know them and see what’s happening to them, to their children, to their grandchildren, to their church. And you see what happened in the course of a single fifty years in a village—not London, but a village—in England, and it was being repeated all over Europe, at least the northern parts, parts that had come under Protestants.
It was a radical change. Not just the intellectual things I was taught in an Anglican seminary, the arguments between Protestants and Catholics. People going in their parish churches, that’s just not their issues. When Edward VI came on the throne and took England into a very strong Protestant direction, he died and was replaced by Mary, who undid everything he did: she was a Catholic. The people of Morebath, when she came on the throne, brought all their stuff back out for the church. They had just stuffed it away. They said, “You can’t have these statutes, you can’t have this, that, and the other.” It’s fine, so grandmother—they had yiayias in England back then [Laughter] and little babushki—they had this stuff stashed away and they brought it back in. They kind of restored the church. Under Elizabeth, after Mary died, they began to forget where the hiding places were. So things happen.
One of the things that strikes me as very interesting—this may sound just like a historical detail—one of the things that happened was that there were approximately 50 feast days in Catholic England that were days off work. They were feast days: you go to church, have a festival, eat so much, break a fast, do the kind of things that Orthodox Christians would do on a feast day. 50 days: add it up, that’s seven weeks vacation a year. You don’t get that [again] until modern France. Under Henry VIII they abolished them all with the exception of, like, Christmas and Easter. There were later many studies that talked about how much more productive Protestant countries were than Catholic. Yeah, sure! They abolished vacations! You can get very productive if nobody can get a day off.
So there’s really some skewed things—and that was used for years to beat the lazy Catholics of southern Europe, and the way the Germans beat the Greeks today. Maybe some people think there’s something more important in life than going to the factory every blinking day. Some called it a Protestant work ethic. That’s a really great idea, if you’re the one who owns the work and is making the money; if you’re the king collecting the taxes: we’ll call it a work ethic. I call it abolishing vacation!
And they created, if you will, a “normal world.” The “normal world” is a false world, a false creation that was a political and academic creation to exile God. They were not bezbozhniki; they were not atheists. But Henry VIII, for instance, abolished all of the monasteries in England. As I said, this was being repeated elsewhere across Europe. He abolished all of the monasteries in England, and with their abolition seized all of their land. To this day, the basic foundation of the wealth of the royal family of Britain comes from land stolen from the Church. That’s where the wealth came from: land stolen from the Church. Even the Soviets after the fall of their empire began returning land to the Church. English Christians never got such a good deal, but they’re in a “normal” country; they’re in a progressive country, a country that has a reputation not as persecuting Christians, yet a country that still lives off the fruit of one of the most vast persecutions that ever took place in the Christian Church.
Henry not only took the property; he had most of the monks drawn and quartered. He was one of the bloodiest butchers in the history of the Church. They turned him into a sort of comic figure. I mean, he did to the monks worse things than he did to his wives. The only thing worse than being married to Henry VIII was to have been a monk in England. It was not a pretty picture, but it created the world that comes to America. They talk about America as a Christian country. America has never been a Christian country. It was a Protestant country that tolerated the presence of Catholics. Catholics in the great emigration sent to America, among their most successful things—they’re still having to struggle with this, but among their most successful things was creating a Catholic America in terms of systems of schools, hospitals, orphanages. They had to do it themselves.
I remember as a kid growing up in South Carolina, there was a Catholic hospital in town. I can remember listening to adults talking, worried about going to that Catholic hospital to have a baby because if something happened wrong, they would always favor the life of the baby over the mother. That was just sort of… at least that was the Protestant kind of myth… I don’t even know if that was true or not; I had no idea how that policy worked, but I know the women were afraid of them, Protestant women like my mama.
But it created a world, if you will, with a notion of secular, that is, that there is a neutral zone. Now, today, we live in a culture that has raised the level of secular, in which it’s not just secular, a neutral zone, but it’s secular, in your face. “Get your God out of my life.” Or the signs that you see out there: “Get God out of my womb,” and there’s a lot worse than that that I’ve seen now. I mean, it’s really… I was in Target, in the Target store in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Knoxville, Tennessee—we’re not talking hardcore secular here, in fact, according to one survey I read, Knoxville is the single most Bible-believing city in the country. I don’t know what that’s based on, just a survey said that, and I’m from Greenville, South Carolina, and I don’t think Knoxville believes the Bible near as much as we did in Greenville. [Laughter] But I live in Knoxville now, but my hometown in Greenville had Bob Jones University. Boy, oh boy. Knoxville had nothing to compare with that.
I’m in a Target in Knoxville, in my cassock. There’s a lady there, and we’re standing in line to pay for our stuff, and she sneezes. So I said, “God bless you.” Didn’t make the sign of the cross, just said, “God bless you,” which, when I grew up, still was polite. Even a Baptist would say, “God bless you.” [Laughter] But she chewed me out. And I thought, “What has the world come to that I can’t bless somebody in Knoxville, Tennessee?” Part of me was thinking, “Lady, I’d have said something else if I’d have known it was going to be an issue…” [Laughter] Like, “Get your germs out of my airspace!” [Laughter] I mean, really. Cover your mouth. Anyway, part of me wanted to say, “Then how are you going to get your soul back in your body?” [Laughter] I’ll bring my entire one-storey universe into Target if you don’t mind!
But the issue was I had just invaded her neutral zone. I had no business doing it. I love wearing a cassock in public, because it’s a walking sacrament. It’s a church. It just upsets people, and I love it! [Laughter] It’s not that I like upsetting people, unless it’s for the right reasons. And it is the right reason, because secularism is a lie. There can be no world apart from God! There just can’t be such a thing. You can’t have it. “In him we live and move and have our being,” the Scripture tells us. Every breath I take is the gift of God. Everything I see, it is a sacrament. Everything—this is the fullness of the vision. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof—the great vision in Ephesians 1, where Paul says, “God has purposed to gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus.”
I see these little bumper stickers in back of cars. Orthodox Christians ought to be careful with their bumper stickers. The one I like is that “If you love Jesus, honk 40 times.” That’s a good one. [Laughter] But these bumper stickers say, “Orthodox Christianity since 33 ADD”—no, no, no, not “ADD”; I have ADD—”...33 AD,” the year. The Orthodox Church does not begin in 33 AD. It began with: “Let there be light.” Let there be light. The Orthodox Church is God’s work of gathering all things together in one, in Christ Jesus. That’s what the Church is. The Church is not an organization among organizations. It is the life of God being gathered together into God. I tell people: The trees are Orthodox. The grass is Orthodox. I even describe myself now as “cradle Orthodox,” yeah, but I lived in schism from myself for 45 years! [Laughter] In that sense, there are no converts.
I had a member of my parish who was Russian. I baptized her and her whole family. They had grown up Soviet and they had no experience with God. I remember her husband said, “I don’t know how to pray. I don’t even know what it sounds like.” I’m thinking: That’s a really neat thought. What do prayers sound like? But I wouldn’t have ever asked it that way. But I baptized, I taught them. We started with “Bog” and taught them the faith, and we baptized the whole family in a big old horse trough in the basement of my house. It was the early days in our mission. A few years later, something came up and I said something to her and I referred to her as a convert, and she bristled, really big, and she said, “I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.” I thought, “No American would ever brag about not choosing something.
We’re choosy people. We define ourselves by that notion of freedom and choice and who I’ve chosen to be.” She just looked at me and said, “Ya pravoslavniy!—I am Orthodox! I just hadn’t been baptized.” I thought: You know, you’re really right. To be an Orthodox Christian in the fullness is to become a human being. Is it Adam Roberts that’s developing the sort of catechesis or thing, and it’s called… “Becoming Truly Human.” I love that. I write about this. I talk this way a great deal in my parish. I tell people that this is one of the problems of the secular world and the secular mentality, is it actually robs us of our humanity. It robs us of our humanity and things that are important.
My favorite story of this is of my wife in 1980. We had our first child, and she wanted to nurse, which was very avant-garde in 1980. Neither my mother nor my mother-in-law had nursed their children, because in the 1950s, doctors said, “We now know”—I love this—“Science has shown us, we now know that you need to buy your milk, shop for it, because we can make it better,” and [things] like that. And women didn’t nurse. They just didn’t nurse. So our first child was born, and she was born a little early and the nursing reflex wasn’t fully developed, and there was a problem at home. The baby’s unhappy, my wife is unhappy, and believe you me, I am unhappy. [Laughter] So we didn’t know what to do, but finally my wife looked things up. You know, the underground network that women have to connect with one another, and someone told her about La Leche League. Two women came over to our house, and in eight hours, taught a young week-old baby how to nurse. I didn’t know you can teach babies anything, but apparently you can. And the baby’s happy, my wife is happy, and I’m just happy and got some sleep, but imagine.
Imagine a world where doctors tell human beings who belong to the species of mammal—think about the meaning of the word—that “You’re not supposed to nurse.” Of course, all the doctors got lactation specialists: “We now know…” [Laughter] But they’ll still sell you the formula in a heartbeat. They’ll still do that, and a lot of people are still very superstitious. I have women who say things like, “How do I know if the baby’s getting enough?” I’m thinking, “I know, they need a little window or something so you can tell, like on the bottles,” but I mean, what kind of a modern world do we live in that you can convince people that their bodies are naturally made for something that you don’t need?
We also have created, for instance, a sexual society that would be impossible without the intervention of technology. Oh, yeah. Our family planning—I’m not trying to argue against it, per se, but an average bedroom has a lot of technology, so we can control what we do. Of course, the ultimate technology with regard to children is killing them. We bring that technology in as well. We believe we can manage and control the world. Again, it’s a world without God, but it’s also a world without our humanity. Little wonder that young couples think that sex is about pleasure. I’m just very up-front with them, and I teach our teenagers about sex and stuff in the Church. I say, “Look, it’s for making babies. It happens to be fun, because you probably wouldn’t do that if it weren’t.” [Laughter] It’d be kind of icky. But, you know, God made it fun, but he didn’t make it just for fun, but our culture has divorced our humanity from our pleasure, so we become like I described us, actually removed from our senses.
The secular world, the world that I call the “two-storey” world, is the world in which we live in our heads. We live in our heads. The heads are the second floor, I think. And we have a problem: even when we do have our senses, we go to church and we have so much trouble trying to get out of our mind and coming to our senses. We go to church, my mind wanders. It’s all these things like this. I jokingly said, but it’s true: I do have ADD, and I’ve talked with a lot of others. It’s very difficult to pray or to do a lot of things because your mind, because of some wiring, who knows what, probably because my mother didn’t nurse me… [Laughter] My mind wanders.
I stand in the altar, and I’m there. My mind’s doing this, or it just gets tormenting and you’re just thinking about everything you can imagine that people might be thinking and you just get angry, you have that conversation and all this stuff is going on. I stand there, and I sense my standing there is my first prayer. For myself, I have to get grounded, I have to quit thinking that what’s going on in my head is what’s going on. It’s the noise, and it’s a very noisy place sometimes. Sometimes grace comes and I can pay attention and I do pay attention and it’s so sweet—but I am there.
The Orthodox Church, which is a very one-storey experience, says, “Taste and see. Hear. Touch. Smell.” I tell our converts—well, since we don’t have any converts… [Laughter]—we tell these people who are discovering their humanity and coming back to the Church that in the Orthodox Church we put grace on a spoon, because these theories of communion with Christ that are based on intellect, that I think about him, that I remember him, or something like that, these memorial theories that are common among Evangelicals—by the time you’ve left where you were, standing or in your pew, and try to get to communion, your mind has gone everywhere. Jesus says: I know your mind’s gone everywhere. Here! Here: Take. Eat. He never did say: Take, think. He said: Take, eat. Drink.
We barely and understand this. Eating and drinking is an act of worship. The Fathers said, “The soul will do what the body does.” So you want to pray? You want to get your mind right? Do a prostration. Almost every book of prayers in the Church suggest that you begin with prostrations, because your soul needs to get down. You humble your soul with your body. It’s why we fast. We’re just trying to get back to our bodies in a culture that has told us that sentiment is the thing.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann described secularism as the greatest heresy of our time. He did not say simply that it was a heresy, but the greatest heresy. He didn’t just say it was a wrong idea; he said it was a heresy, because it’s actually rooted in Christian thought. Not Orthodox Christian thought, but it’s rooted in it, and frankly, as we listened to that survey last night, which is chilling, to say the least, I was sitting next to an Anglican priest who is inquiring about Orthodoxy, and we were chatting and stuff and sharing notes. He’s sitting there, and I’m thinking to myself, “My God, do you really want to get into this? You almost scared him away, Kevin.” [Laughter] But the only thing keeping him there was that the fire is even worse where he is now! This is what secularism has done to the Church. It’s not just a failure of education, because everybody born in this culture is born into the secularism. It is the default position of our world. It’s how we think. Many Orthodox Christians will think that when they walk outside the door of the church, they’re in the normal world, and church is somewhere they go to pray and worship. If you were in Romania or some other deeply Orthodox countries, you can hardly go a hundred yards without running across a shrine. Everywhere you go, the faith is there. Even, I like visiting England, and England has the leftover traces of a once-upon-a-time Orthodox nation. The names of villages and towns are for shrines and saints, and if you know, you’ve got a good map, there’s a wonderful Orthodox priest up on the border of England and Scotland who’s done a book that’s sort of a detailed map of going and visiting Orthodox Britain and trying to find these sites and places. It’s wonderful and filled with stories, and you realize these wonderful English names like Mildred and Ethel are actually saints’ names. At one time in the eighth, ninth century, there were 28 canonized saints in the royal family of the British Isles alone. Yeah. Although the present royal family’s got saints in there, too, because there’s cousins like St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and the royal martyrs of Russia are cousins, so there’s still saints. It’s still dangerous to be a king.
Schmemann, though, talks about a distinction between symbol—well, we’ll talk a minute about symbols and symbolism. It is correct as an Orthodox Christian to talk about the world as symbolic, if you understand what a symbol really is. The early Fathers would even use the word “symbol” in the East, could use the word “symbol” with regard to the Eucharist, but it changed. The meaning changed in the West, and today if you say “symbol” in our modern world, it means something that stands for something that’s not there. In that sense, it’s a sign of absence: something’s not there. It’s just the opposite: the word “symbol” in Greek, symbole, means to throw two things together. So a symbol is something that makes present that which it represents.
Icons are symbols. That which the icons represents is truly present. I noticed—I’m just sort of an observer watching Orthodox folks—Greeks tend to cross themselves like this. As St. John Chrysostom said, they were swatting flies. It’s just a little short thing, but I notice them. At church on Sunday, we get a variety of things, but every so often I have a visitor come in, stand in front of the icon—stand stock still, staring, for a long time, and then cross themselves very slowly and big, and I think: Russians. [Laughter] One of my Russians, Dimitri, I said, “Dimitri, why do y’all do that? I see this, all them Russians, you stand so carefully in front of the icons and you stare… What are you seeing?” He said, “Ah. When you Americans look at an icon, you see an icon. When I look at an icon, I see God.”
This was a very one-storey experience, that the presence remains. It remains and is there. Our two-storey world, I see the icon, and I think about it, so what I experience is my thoughts. I don’t experience the icon; I think about it, and all of these occasions of my senses I use only as occasions to think. So I’m lost in my head, and a one-storey experience is sort of like learning to get out of your head. I have said before, and I’ve noticed this, too, that with a first time that a normal—see there’s that word, normal—secular American encounters a one-storey Orthodox Christian, they will strike them as “superstitious.” Oh, yeah. They strike them as superstitious.
It’s interesting, the word “superstition” means to stand over. It means to stand over, the root meaning either standing over to see something in awe or, more likely, the notion that there is something standing over the thing you see, that there’s actually something present there. As I said, we see the world as symbol, as in everything we see is a reflection and bears something else. Every tree on earth participates in the wood of the Cross. We believe this. Trees, in that sense, have a kind of holiness about them. We’re not pantheists—some of you use the word panentheist, but you’ve just got to find some kind of language where you realize: We think the world is holy.
The whole world is a cathedral, the whole world is a church. The church we go in is an icon of the world. It reveals the truth of the world to us. It is not a place to get out of the world; it is a place to get into the world. The church shows us what the world is. Jesus, looking down, and we see this. Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of the saints, it simply shows us what the world truly is, and I love it. In some churches, you’ve got the big blue ceiling with the little stars and stuff. What is this? It’s the world! Where do you think you live? It’s in the presence of God, the presence of God is everywhere. It’s Patriarch Bartholomew who’s written and said in modern times that the whole world is a sacrament. The whole world’s a sacrament. I can encounter God—I should encounter God everywhere.
The lady in Target, she doesn’t want me to bless her, and I should have said, “What are you doing in my church?” [Laughter] Because this is my church. I joke about it, but I’m sort of the vicar of Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is a science city with 25,000. I wear my cassock everywhere. I’ve actually been there for 25 years, because I was for nine years the Anglican rector in town before I became Orthodox, but they all know me and I’m around. They see me with my cassock, and I go everywhere. I’m one of these people that likes to turn a place into a small town; I want to know everybody. I want to know. My wife, we’ll be going somewhere, and she wanted to go through the drive-through at the pharmacy. I said, “No, no, I want to go in.” And she said, “Oh, Stephen, it takes you so long!” [Laughter] And I said, “I know, but these are my people. I need to check on them and I know [their] name, and they know me, and we talk about stuff. I mean, what’s life for?” There’s too many people living in the drive-through. I want to walk in!
I’m their priest. They’re not yet in my parish, but I’m their priest. They give me prayer requests. I love going to Waffle House, one of my favorite places in places in town, and I go in and it’s “Hi, Fr. Stephen!” I’ll sit down, and they’re not even remotely Orthodox in there, but it’s wonderful Southern cooking and the prices are great, and I get prayer requests and it’s just wonderful. I love being in there. I also get called names in Walmart. Some people in town think I’m a Jew. I have no idea; they watched a movie or something. No, no, no… [Laughter] But I’ll take it. But making God present in the world and refusing, in the name of God, refusing to leave. We do not have to give up the world. It belongs to God. They won’t like it, they may eventually want to kill us, but I hope that they can find enough about us to find us guilty of Christianity so that we don’t simply live secular lives that blend.
There is in a lot of modern Christianity, this secularism has so invaded that there’s a loss of the sacrament. In Evangelical Christianity, the notions are simply that I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I have chosen him; I have made my shopping decision; I have chosen him, and that’s what matters. Baptism, it would say, is simply an obedience that shows that I’ve made the choice or decision, but essentially they don’t think anything happens. In fact, when I try to explain what we think, I’ve had some of them try to tell me, “Well, that’s just magic.” I think: Isn’t it? [Laughter] The whole world’s magical! What do you think? We came into existence out of nothing! How’s that for you? I mean, really! Just these strange ideas that are there.
When I write, and I do hammer, especially the last couple of years, I’ve been hammering a lot on issues of modernity and in secularism, and it’s really going at this stuff. We have something to say. We don’t have to apologize for our Christianity. It’s secularism that’s crazy! It’s secularism that’s divorced from their bodies, that’s divorced from their senses, that is living a kind of intellectualized existence. I mean, for heaven’s sakes, we’ve got issues going on now that if the guy says he thinks he’s a girl, he can go into the girls’ restroom! And they’re going to do this with teenagers! [Laughter] I’m sorry, but I don’t know, but that would have been popular in my high school. Join the club. I mean, it just… The idea trumps your body. What I think about myself is what I am.
I’m totally sympathetic and understanding that there’s people who experience a sort of dysphoria with regard to their body. It is clearly, however, a mental illness. There’s people who go to doctors who want them to cut a limb off, because they want to be handicapped. It is, again, another form of dysphoria, but it doesn’t happen to have the political cachet of the sexual stuff going on right now. Things that are clearly insanity are being law, and we may have to struggle with that, but we don’t have to apologize for struggling with it. For heaven’s sakes, they’re trying to… This is like trying to outlaw breasts on women or something. It’s insanity. We are what we are, and of course it’s a struggle. Of course it’s a struggle. Being a human being, we’re full of struggle. Life is a struggle, but as the Orthodox Church what we want to help people to do is struggle to get in the true normal world which is the kingdom of God, to come back to their senses, to come back to their humanity, and do the honest struggle.
The great important thing to me about the Church is the Church must become a safe place, especially in these dangerous days to come, the Church needs to become a safe place. That safety, to me, is a place that makes it safe to bear your shame. Safe to bear your shame. I could do a whole long talk on the topic of shame. I may be a book on it, too. It’s really been something close to my heart over the last few years. It’s the most painful thing we experience in our lives, and whether it’s sexual shame or other kinds of shame, people need to be safe, because the only way to bear shame, ultimately, is to be vulnerable to it. Elder Sophrony says, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” You just do it a little at a time. They have a Church where it’s safe to do that.
Someone [was] asking the question last night about support for Orthodox Christians who are having difficulty with their sexual identity. I’m almost hesitant to use the word “gay” because it’s a modern creation of the notion that I’m not certain is even true, but still this is important. I want to close out with just a little bit of a quick theological… Do we stop at… How far do we go? Aw, heck! I’ve got plenty of time. [Laughter] We’re just starting. Oh, good. I was feeling pushed here, suddenly, yeah!
Q1: I did want to hear about the evaluation, but I don’t know if that’s before Q&A, just to give people a chance to.
Fr. Stephen: That’s before a Q&A, yeah. Good. I’m just watching this clock over there, and I’m just sort of having that anxiety that I was about to run out of time. I was hurrying faster than I needed to.
God’s gifts to us are not here to alienate us from the world around us, but to connect us to the world around us. It’s interesting: when you read Orthodox writings about prayer, like the Jesus prayer, or reading in the Fathers and stuff, and they’ll talk about “noetic experience,” from the word for nous, it’s very tempting in the modern world to get very much in your brain and in your thoughts when you read things like that. You get into kind of a discursive version of meditation, what you’re trying to think on things. It doesn’t work. It’s just more noise among the rest of the noise. It doesn’t get you there. There’s a sense in which I sort of emphasized this today: noetic experience is pretty close to non-discursive experience. It is not made up of words. It’s much more a direct apprehension.
The nous is the faculty by which we perceive God and all things in their truth. When you perceive God, you don’t have words. You just perceive God, or in the sacrament or whatever. As I say, as a priest with ADD, when I have those quiet moments, my brain actually stops, and I’m present in the altar, it’s like paradise—paradise. I think, “O God, please let me stay. Let me stay. Let it be quiet for a while.” But that’s why we call the practice of prayer “hesychia”: it’s quiet, and it’s not just being quiet outside, it’s mostly being quiet inside, so that you can perceive. This is a faculty of the soul. In other words, it’s natural, and it’s part of being human to have a noetic apprehension—not apprehension; whatever; “apprehension” would work—of the world.
And the Church is filled with these things. It’s like: “Be still and know that I am God.” That knowing that comes in stillness is a noetic perception of God, and you cannot get that in the secular experience. As I said, the secular experience, the second storey is simply thought about the world. I might add, not only is it thought about the world, because that can almost sound nice and intellectual, but we don’t experience so much thought about the world as we experience noise about the world, we experience anxiety about the world, we experience feelings, passions, and all.
We were having a conversation, at table, one of the meals already, about Evangelical worship. Evangelical worship, which permeates our South but is also widely spread across an increasing number of churches, is geared towards the passions. It’s not meant to be, but it is, in that it means to appeal to the same things that advertising appeals to. Advertizing is completely geared toward the passions. I mean, what do scantily-clad girls have to do with Corvettes? But you won’t see one without the other in an ad. What’s that about? We know what that’s about! But it’s how we sell things. You go into church—
I spoke a few weeks ago at an Evangelical college near Knoxville, and it’s really kind of interesting. It’s a jarring kind of experience that the whole student body is there; it’s a big convocation, and it’s mega-church. There’s rock-and-roll—actually really good rock-and-roll; I was impressed—but it was well-done, the words up and the videos and everybody. It was great. I had a great time. And then I walk out. It’s sort of jarring for them, like: “Uh-oh.” [Laughter] “Oh my God, it’s that guy from Target!” [Laughter]
I think to myself, “What can I say to these people?” It’s my second time to speak there, and it’s a kind of challenge to find the right thing to say, partly because they want me to speak to their passions. They would like, when I’m done, to say, “Gosh, that was great! And I’m not going to remember it the next week, but, gosh, that was great. He tells great stories. He’s funny.” He’s funny: what is that? What is that? It’s not nothing; it’s just the passions. In a sense, if church is marketing to the passions, then all it’s doing is making more passionate people, which is, in Scripture, called slaves, slaves to the passions.
It’s difficult in Orthodoxy, because we want to free you from your passions. So I tell people when they come to exploring the Orthodox Church, I’m very honest with them; I said, “Prepare to be bored. You need to be bored—because you’re just riddled with passions, and you may really like this at first, but it’ll get boring, because if it’s not boring to you now, the devil will show you soon just how boring it is, and he’ll tell you: Gosh, this is boring. Is he ever going to finish? Or whatever’s going on: gosh, we’re singing that same thing again this week. Or: these psalms. [Groan] Psalms, psalms, psalms, psalms.” I always tell them: And you ain’t seen nothing. Go to a monastery. It is hours and hours of this stuff. Psaaalms.
I tell them: You need to understand, when we worship, we believe we’ve gathered together in worship in order to waste time in the presence of God. What do you think worship is? Worship is wasting time in the presence of God, because we really, really don’t have anything better to do. That I find it boring is my problem, because I’m a slave to my passions. So of course I find it boring. That’s what not having your passions stimulated for a while feels like. It’s called “boredom.” So you have to work with it.
Our children—we have no nursery—half my congregation is shorter than this. It’s amazing. It’s noisy, it’s busy. There’s all of them coloring on the floor. Sunday morning, it’s just everywhere. Ignoring me as I preach. They’re actually doing what their parents wish they were doing. [Laughter] It gives their parents something to do, kind of watch them and worry about them so they don’t have to really have to pay attention to the service because it’s boring. But they’ll learn; as children they learn. But I watch, for instance, when they come into church, I built a little icon-stand about this tall. It’s in my narthex, and the children come in, just barely able to walk, and they go up and kiss the icon. I so love it. They’re learning, learning on a very visceral, noetic level. Your body—your body—is closer to a noetic experience than your brain is, because it tends to experience rather directly. So God has given us a lot of physical experiences in church and would like you to pay attention to them.
With the children—I remember when I was an Episcopalian, they always had debates about “should children be given communion?” Not a question in Orthodoxy. Old-line, in the Old Country, only the children are taking communion! The adults, the question is: Can adults take communion? [Laughter] No, it’s for children. [Laughter] But they would wonder about it, but “they don’t understand.” I would just start laughing. “They don’t understand”—you understand!? No, no, no. They understand, in the way that understanding is real and true.
I remember a child saying to me, “When I go to church, I eat Jesus, and someday, if I keep eating Jesus, I’ll be filled with Jesus!” I thought, that’s theosis. That’s pretty well… It’s stated simple, but that’s pretty well it. Hopefully they wouldn’t outgrow that theology, this understanding. This is pretty close to it. But coming into this sense of a one-storey world, as I say, coming back to our senses, sometimes it looks like superstition and therefore occasionally troubles people.
I think it’s important that, particularly when we’re doing adult education, that we not just confine ourselves to the ideas of our faith. The ideas are important, but oftentimes there is, because of how our culture is, it thinks of Orthodoxy as a set of beliefs. That’s kind of right. It’s probably more accurate to say it’s a set of practices. It’s something that we do. We do it because we believe it, but the doing is even more important. It should become a habit and a way of life, something that is internalized.
My dear Russian who was baptized had never been in the door of a church in her life until she came into our—at that time, we were in a storefront—until she came to the storefront, but I remember later… The bishop of Pittsburgh—long story—donated six pews to my parish; we didn’t have any. Actually, he donated a bunch of stuff from a parish they closed here in Pennsylvania. It was Archbishop Kyrill, and he called Archbishop Dmitri who famously did not like pews. He called him and said, “We’re closing a church”—this was in Newcastle, Pennsylvania—“Send up a mission team and we’ll hand them down some stuff.” So we got some candlestands and things like this when we were in the warehouse. He said, “Take it. Anything you can get, do it.” And we’re out there, and he tells the guys who were loading the truck, he said, “Get the pews.” There were like six oak pews. So they unbolted the pews and they get the pews, and he said, “Tell Archbishop Dmitri they’re for him.” [Laughter]
So we have these six pews at St. Anne’s, and they’re sort of around, around the walls and things like that, but my dear Russian lady who had never been to church in Russia, she said, “It just seems wrong to sit down.” And I thought: Yeah, I understand. It’s comfortable. That seems terribly wrong to her, that you should be comfortable in church. Again, the praxis, the actual practices, she gets that. Your feet should hurt a little. It’s okay to sit some. It depends on how… your parish may have different kinds of practice with this. In the South, we OCA oftentimes don’t have pews, because Archbishop Dmitri did not like them. He built his cathedral in Dallas. The fire marshals asked him, “How many will the cathedral seat?” He said, “Oh, about seven.” [Laughter] There were a few chairs…
In cultural thought of Christianity, in particular sort of popular Christianity, the question of “What did God do for us? How is it that we are saved?” comes up. This is an important question for us as Orthodox Christians as well and goes to the very heart of what we believe and how we practice. The primary notion of salvation in the Protestant world, but I hear it often, some version of it, among the Orthodox as well, is a notion Protestants call the substitutionary atonement. I call it “legal model.” That is: you did something wrong and you’re guilty, and because you’re guilty you deserve to go to hell, but God loves us and Jesus paid the price for us so that we don’t have to go to hell and we can get out. That’s how I was raised and nurtured on for the Baptist Church. In South Carolina, everybody’s born a Baptist. Catholics are born Baptists in South Carolina. It just permeates everything. That’s how I started off my life. My parents became Orthodox at age 79. God is good.
At age 13, I guess I was a budding theologian, but I remember the afternoon very clearly. It dawned on me, thinking about the way I had been told how Jesus saved us that it dawned on me that all of the problem about human sin was God’s problem, that he was upset about what we had done and we had offended him and we were deserving of going to hell, but it also dawned on me, if he had just chilled out, we could all be all right. Well, actually, the logic was there and I’m 13 years old—13-year-olds are very logical—so I committed my first act of blasphemy—not my last, but my first—and I remember kind of shaking my fist at God and saying, “If you’re going to send anybody to hell, then I don’t want to go to heaven.” And I quit. I quit God. I quit Christianity for a little while, because, in a way, that experience… I sometimes say to atheists, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that one either.” That was really my first experience of rejecting a false God, because this account is a false account.
One of the problems about it, too, though, is that this sin is abstract. If I’m driving down the highway, as I was this… My control was set at 80 as I’m rolling up the various interstates between Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Frankly, me and the rest of the traffic was doing the same. I guess 80 was pretty good. The signs said 70, occasionally 65, but if everybody’s doing it, that’s what you do, especially if the trucks are there with you. I don’t want to… You’ve got to stay with traffic. Did I feel guilty about that incredible stretch of lawbreaking I’ve just engaged in? You know what? Not a bit. I mean, I know I broke the law—this is being recorded? [Laughter] I plead the fifth.
It’s really only bad if I get caught, right? If you get pulled over, and then there’s that whole experience of shame and guilt and things like that, but mostly you feel unlucky. It doesn’t really touch the core of my being. It’s not about that. To treat sin as a legal problem really just doesn’t go to what’s going on in our lives and what it’s really about. And it also doesn’t preach any more. Young people don’t believe it’s a legal problem. The moral approaches to Christianity are currently running on bankrupt. They do not preach. They do not have a culture that agrees enough with the moral teaching of the Church for us to make an appeal when we try to teach.
People need to understand sin in a much deeper and more profound level, and this is certainly the Gospel as it’s understood in the Orthodox Church, and again it is a very one-storey approach. It’s an approach that unites us with God. What we say as Orthodox Christians is that sin is death. As St. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death,” and we broke communion with God. This is the way St. Athanasius describes it in his book, On the Incarnation. Someone mentioned using that as a study book. Gee, I really recommend it. It is so good. You read it and you think, “This thing is really old, but it’s very, very good.” We broke communion with God who is the Lord and Giver of life and in him we live and move and have our being. When you break communion with God, you begin to die. The moral stuff you do wrong are just symptoms of death. It’s just what death looks like. First it kind of rots you.
I volunteer once a week in a drug and alcohol treatment center. I love working with alcoholics; I love working with drug addicts. Life is so primary. Boy, they really understand that it’s not a legal problem. You’ve got a legal problem—well, a lot of them who are in the treatment center I work in do have a legal problem and a bracelet on their ankle, and they’re the ones least likely to recover, because they’re there by a legal order. They think they have a legal problem. One of my favorite experiments to do with a group is to get them to imagine that they have $50 million in the bank account, and I really get graphic of imagining. I make them tell me what bank it’s in, and you’ve got the checkbook. You know you can write the check on it. Once I get them really kind of into the deep imagination of $50 million, I ask them, “If this is true, how many of you would be here tomorrow?” Boy, there’s no hands [that] go up. And I said, “So, we need to get clear then: you don’t think you have an addiction problem. You think you have a money problem.”
I did this once, and there was a guy with tears running down his cheek, and he said that when he was 18, he inherited three million dollars. Now he was in the shoestring—believe me, a real grim-looking shoestring operation of a treatment center, with nothing. You can blow three million bucks in no time on friends, drugs, and cocaine and alcohol, women, cars, whatever. It’s just all gone. He was just like: “I do not have a money problem. I had a money problem. Now I don’t have a money problem. I have a drug problem.” Sin is like that. It’s not a legal problem; it’s an ontological problem. It’s a matter of your being, your very being. We have death at work in us.
It’s interesting. How do you translate phthora? It’s from the Greek. It literally means corruption. It’s what your body does when it dies and the worms start in. It’s phthora, corruption. We have it: “Who without corruption gave birth to God the word,” when we sing to the Mother of God. I noticed, I guess, Antiochians we’d be singing, “without stain.” This is very, very Western language—forgive me, but it is, because it has to do… And we sing, “without defilement,” and neither word, neither “defilement” nor “stain,” translate phthora very well. The word has a lot to do, actually, with the perpetual virginity of Mary, that is, without suffering any damage to your virginity, your body, you gave birth to God the word.
In my parish we follow a little different… We say, “remaining virgin, you gave birth to God the word,” which translates the idea of it. We wrestled, we used all three, we tried different things, and right now the bishop’s not watching very closely, so we’re trying different things. [Laughter] We have a locum tenens. Is this being recorded? [Laughter] But “remaining virgin,” but trying to get at… I need to get my people—a lot of them are former Evangelicals—I need to get them away from this legal mindset. I don’t want them hearing “defilement” or “stain.” It’s not your problem. Your problem is you’re dying. You have a mortal disease called sin.
AA says alcoholism’s not a moral problem; it’s a disease. I’ve heard some people want to argue about that. They’re right, ‘cause sin’s not a moral problem— or they say alcoholism’s not a sin; it’s a disease. Sin’s not a sin. Sin is a disease. That’s a much better way to… That’s why the Church is a hospital, by the way, for sinners, because you have a problem and it even shows up in your flesh. We use flesh terms to talk about it: corruption is rot. Rot. Why do we have incorrupt bodies of the saints? It’s a sign of the holiness in them. Their bodies don’t rot. This is very one-storey. It’s not a legal problem. You’ve got a rot problem.
I’m getting old. Yesterday I saw a priest buddy of mine. I first met him in the early ‘90s. We were younger back then. We were in our early, mid-40s, early 40s or so. Actually, Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green, who’s white-haired, too, now, and he’s complimenting my wife, how lovely she looks and how good she’s doing. He looked at me, he said, “Why, you’ve gotten old!” [Laughter] I’m thinking, “Man, that’s unkind!” Tomorrow, I mean Monday, I turn 62, and this is starting to be not funny any more. It’s corruption. Yes?
Q2: So, then, what you’re saying is if a person has stopped sinning, they’ll have solved the problem.
Fr. Stephen: Not really. Resurrection solves the problem. Only resurrection solves the problem. You see, that’s one of the problems of an Evangelical theology. They don’t know why you need a Pascha. You need Jesus to die on the cross to do the payment, but they don’t need Pascha. They have it ‘cause it’s in the Bible, and he’s raised from the dead which basically means so they can have a happy ending, but the resurrection—they don’t really know why [there is a] resurrection. We do. Jesus, we know why he dies. Not to pay a price—who’s he going to pay? St. Gregory the Theologian said: Who is the blood paid to? To his Father? Absolutely not. To the devil? He said that is an abomination! No, no, no. And then he said at the end of this matter there’s a great silence. He said there’s not an answer to it.
The truth is, the blood as payment is a metaphor, not to be tried to taken into some kind of metaphysical explanation. The best way to describe it is how we describe it in Pascha. First, Jesus became what we are so that we might become what he is. How we tell the Gospel story—and this is so important, I think, in grounding people, grounding people, grounding people in their Orthodoxy and weeding out this sort of kind of Westernized thought that’s there. God became what we are. He became flesh, or, in 2 Corinthians 5—this is a shocking verse, and I’m surprised at how many Orthodox don’t know it—[2 Corinthians 5:]21-22, somewhere around there: “He made him to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” It didn’t even say he put sin on him. Didn’t say he considered him sinful. Didn’t say he paid the price. He said he made him to be sin. Boy, that’s a troublesome verse!
He becomes sin without sinning. He is without sin, and yet he became sin. Now, here’s the interesting thing with this. Because Christ became sin, you and I have union with God in our sin. One of our problems is we keep trying to have union with God in our righteousness. You can’t have it. Your righteousness, as Paul says, is like filthy rags. It’s no good. God save me from excellent people. They do— you may have done this, too, in your parishes. They do like a gifts-and-talents survey. It’s great. They do it in the business world, too. They do it in Evangelical churches. You get a gifts-and-talents survey, find what everybody’s good at, and hopefully get them in their jobs, what they’re good at. You know what that is? That’s called a colony of hell. How can anybody be saved doing what they’re good at? You need to be saved by getting weak, by being broken, by coming face-to-face with your sin. That’s how you get saved.
Paul, St. Paul, was so righteous—he said it himself: “Concerning the law, I was blameless.” Paul was so good, so good God sent a demon—calls him a thorn in the flesh, to buffet him—and when Paul prays and says, “Take it away,” he says, “I prayed three times.” I mean, for Paul, apparently that’s serious. I prayed three whole times, Paul. [Laughter] And God did not take it away. Instead, God said to him, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” As a confessor and hearing stuff like that, people will say, “You know, Father, I keep falling into the same thing,” and I’m thinking, “Yeah, if you got over it, God could send you a demon. Would you like that?” [Laughter]
Sometimes, we keep trying. This is good, but for heaven’s sake, you keep falling into it, at least let it humble you. Bear a little shame, and enter into your weakness and even into your sin, and there you will find union with Christ who enters into the depths of hell and death, as we celebrate at Pascha, he enters hell to the very deepest parts of hell, unites himself with us, and takes us with him. Pascha: Jesus is kicking down doors and getting us out of there. Fr. David?
Fr. David: A book I would recommend is called The Gifts of Imperfection [by] Brené Brown. He’s not writing it from an Orthodox perspective, but—wow.
Fr. Stephen: Fr. David’s recommending the book—this is for the recording purposes—by Brené Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection. She is a psychologist and a researcher and has written a lot of excellent stuff on the topic of shame. I recommend almost any of her books.
Fr. David: Another one she came out with is about growing up or something like that.
Fr. Stephen: As I’ve mentioned, it’s something that matters a lot. Orthodox theology is a seamless garment. Everything is connected. It’s all one thing. It works if you kind of stay in this model of union, that God united himself with us that we might become what he is. Jesus becomes what we are, and we’re along for the ride. He’s going to take us into hell, and out. And out.
The Elder Sophrony said—he talks about it as an inverted pyramid, that Jesus has gone to the very depths of Hades, and he says, “And his friends meet him there.” And this is like the St. Silouan who was willing to enter into the very depths of that not despair but to pray for the whole world. I think the only answer to secularism in our day is full-blown Orthodoxy, and I should add to that, give it a little, additional adjective—suffering Orthodoxy. Yes, Kevin?
Mr. Kevin Allen: By overcoming that. I’d like to kind of hear how you connected it.
Fr. Stephen: The question being: how do you connect Orthodox asceticism with the notion of sin and death. Well, first off, it’s always grace that overcomes sin and death. I don’t. In my imperfection and in my struggle… I got into an argument last year, and I still stand my ground, because a lot of people backed me up with quotes from elders of Mt. Athos, so I know I’m good. [Laughter] In fact, Mt. Athos republished the article on one of their sites, so it was okay. I was talking to you about no such thing as “moral progress.” Progress is a modern notion, a very modern notion, and that notion has invaded the Church. Some people think that synergy in Orthodoxy, that is, our cooperation with God, is actually a ticket for moral progress. I’ve been hearing confessions for 35 years. I’ve yet to see any. I’m pretty much hearing the same confessions from people that I heard 35 years ago, regardless of their age. Now, I don’t have any saints in my parish that have been manifest yet, although I suspect the confession of saints sounds worse than anybody else’s. They don’t show up and say, “You know, Father, I don’t have anything. I’m pretty well there.” No, the saints go to the bottom of the pyramid, and they’re the chief of sinners.
I think part of what goes on in the major part of our asceticism, I would summarize it actually in the words of the Elder Sophrony, “learning to bear our shame.” It is a certain kind of brokenness. For instance, when it comes to fasting and Lent and whatever, people come to me and everybody gets a moderated fast these days or something like that, or they struggle with it—you’re pregnant, you’ve got children, you’ve got all kinds of stuff. How do I do it? I tell them: Whatever you do with fasting, and we discuss that, I want it to be a little bit more than you can do, because I need you to fail. Because if Great Lent… When Pascha comes around and you hear the sermon of St. John Chrysostom: “You heedless…” his “Ollie-ollie-in-come-free”—if that doesn’t sound like good news to you, you just blew Lent.
I really worry about OCD Christians who come in and just love Lent because it’s got rules, and I’m going to do this! I mean, neuroses are always difficult; they create a lot of problems. But failure is important. You don’t try to fail, but your union with Christ is going to come there. Asceticism does not… The kind of asceticism that you succeed at only brings pride. It is the asceticism that you fail at, that you’ve stretched yourself. It’s just like athletes say, “No pain, no gain”: pain in asceticism comes in the form of failure, the shame. Elder Sophrony said, in teaching Fr. Zacharias writes about this, that in hearing confessions, he told them: Teach them, especially the young ones, to bear a little shame.
Shame is the experience, not of feeling bad about what I’ve done—that’s called guilt. Like my speeding thing. Guilt’s no big deal; it doesn’t touch me. Shame is how I feel about who I am. This is big. This is the root of things. This is the first emotion described in Scripture. Adam and Eve in the garden begin naked and unashamed. They sin; they are guilty. God comes; they hide. “Where are you?” God says. “We heard you and we were naked, so we hid.” And he said, “Who told you you were naked?” I mean, God did not shame them, and he brings the subject back to the guilt: “Did you eat what I told you not to?” And instead they turned the guilt into shame. Adam doesn’t want to be wrong; he won’t bear his shame. “The woman you gave me, she gave me to eat.” The woman won’t bear her shame: “The snake talked me into it.”
So what does God do? They have to leave paradise. Well, what does he do when they have to leave paradise? He clothes them, with garments of skin. He covers their shame. Eventually—which is foreshadowing of the great covering we celebrated in baptism, as many as have been buried with Christ, as many as have been baptized with Christ, have put on Christ. He is my covering; he covers my shame. I now wear my Jesus-suit. I rejoice every time I vest as a priest and put on the righteousness of Christ, my baptismal garment. Now I have no shame. I need not be ashamed. I can stand in the presence of God now, restored to paradise, with my original innocence. He has covered my shame.
But when I refused to do that… That’s the distance between man and God, was his shame. He can’t bear who he is. And according to psychologists, shame is the only unbearable emotion. People can’t stand it. You feel slightly awkward when you go into a room of strangers. What you’re feeling actually is shame. You’re not certain that you look right or that they’ll know you or whatever. Some of us, if you’re neurotic like me, may need to act out a little bit, be sure you notice that I’m there. I did that. We all have that. I’m just standing up here sharing my shame with you. [Laughter] Because I can. But it’s learning to bear some of that. The vast majority of the things we do, frankly, flow from our shame.
Mr. Allen: So virtue doesn’t matter?
Fr. Stephen: God gives virtue.
Mr. Allen: Asceticism does not help us in that struggle?
Fr. Stephen: It does. It’s something… and he gives us to do. We fast like that, but it’s a work of grace. In a sense, I would say asceticism is constantly exposing myself to God and putting myself in vulnerability before God so that God can do a work in me that sometimes manifests as virtue. In a culture that is permeated with the notion of competition and excellence, it is very important in asceticism to rid it of such ideas. The Scripture doesn’t use images of competition. Paul does in a couple of places, but Paul’s not writing in this culture. In this culture, it has become a cult of success. As I say, everybody here is above average. We’re all on Lake Wobegon, we’re all just fine, and we’re so excellent—and no, you’re not. You get fights going on in your parish. You know what they’re about? They’re about shame. Somebody can’t bear their shame, and they’re making everybody else miserable.
In a monastery, it would die, it would just dissolve if the monks can’t bear their shame. So this is what Elder Zacharias, who’s the primary confessor for the monastery in Essex, to teach them to bear a little shame. That’s one of the sweetest communities I ever visit. Goll-ee! That place is just wonderful.
Yeah, I think so. Yeah, absolutely. It works humility in us. Again, getting out of the thoughts, we… You’ve got to be careful that you don’t do asceticism as a selfie. “I want to watch me. I want to watch me doing God.” This is really dangerous for priests, because we look so holy. You do, you just look really holy. Even in Target, you look pretty holy, even if you frighten the children. [Laughter] My new line with kids when I see them and they’re just like this, I tell them, “I work with Santa Claus.” [Laughter] And that gets their attention, and sometimes the parents’ll even let me stand there and explain to them. “He’s a friend of mine. I know him.” [Laughter] “He lives with Jesus in heaven and he loves little children.” But anyway…
Well, in a culture that, in a sense, has become shameless, the church of whatever is the church that will not point out to me my shame. Tolerance is all about not shaming someone. And there’s some ways in which, for instance, the way homosexuals have been shamed in certain times in our culture, I can understand the incredible wholesale rebellion against it. Instead of being helped, they were hurt. I’ve told people who suddenly go wacky on the Church about all of this and suddenly accuse us as if we were running gay pogroms or something. I said: No, no, no. Actually, the truth is the Church has been—certainly the Orthodox Church—has been one of the few safe places for them. Even when I was an Episcopalian, back when the Episcopalians were—you know, normal. I’ve always had gays in my church! I’ve confessed them for years. Every priest I know [has]. And what do you do with them? It’s the one place of compassion that I’ve ever known.
People were doing strange things, but you’re just trying to help them work through your struggle. That’s all I’ve ever known in my adult Christian life, is the Church doing that. Not beating anybody over the head, but helping them with their struggle, helping them with their shame. Sometimes they fall, when they fall their way; other people fall their way. I fall my way, and we’re all bozos on this bus, and we’re helping each other to be well. I think it’s going to be very hard, because… The problem about the tolerance thing is it can’t stand intolerance. One of the things about shamelessness is it doesn’t heal shame. The shame is still there. I will say that people are deeply vulnerable. As I said, it is an unbearable emotion. Studies say that the majority of men turn shame into anger; a majority of women turn shame into depression, but it’s a mixed bag. In fact, I tend to tell people, especially in confession, if they’re wrestling with anger, which to me is the most commonly confessed sin—we’re an extremely angry culture—I tend to help them go back and identify the shame they’re wrestling with.
For instance, your child ticks you off. It doesn’t seem at first that that’s shame about it, but a child who disobeys you to your face? Oh, it’s very shaming. It’s very shaming, and that’s—you feel the flash. That flash is… By the way, I’ll tell you where you experience shame, the first place you always experience it is in your face; that’s the first place. This is an important thing. We talk about seeing God face-to-face. Why icons are always face-to-face. As we stand unashamed before the judgment seat of Christ, we’ll see him face-to-face. You first feel it in your face. Your blood’ll rush there; you’ll feel a slight burn. And then the anger flushes. You just, you need to kind of… My son, who’s 27, 28, he’s really internalized this. He’ll just stop, breathe, and pay attention to the shame. Guy, you’re going to get holy.
For instance, when a parent corrects a child, shame language is always language about who you are. When a parent says to a child, “You’re bad,” that’s shame. That’s not moral correction; that’s actually hurting a child. I will correct parents when I hear them shaming a child. Children naturally do this. A child meets a stranger in their mother’s arms, and suddenly they bury their face and doesn’t want to do it and may even cry if they’re forced to do otherwise. They’re experiencing shame; it’s very frightening. They’re feeling completely vulnerable. I try never to force a child, and I won’t let parents do that. It’s like: No, no, no, no, no. They don’t need to be… It’s really cruel to force someone in their shame.
But I want to say, though, because this is very strong, it’s a good thing to know and to read and study. The Elder Zacharias, in his books—St. Tikhon’s publishes them, and they’re works on the teaching of Fr. Sophrony—he has said more about shame than anyone else I have seen in contemporary Orthodox writing. You really have to dig through the Fathers to find it; it’s there. In fact, Elder Sophrony said, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” That’s pretty… And I’ve been spending a lot of time; I even spent some time with Fr. Zacharias in England to ask and get some personal direction on it.
Yeah. [Inaudible from the audience] I know, and I really… I don’t know if I’ve found any good language for talking about the devil. First off, you asked me what an angel is, because the devil’s an angel. I’ve got to admit, they’re kind of beyond my understanding. I believe they’re all over the Liturgy and around places. I’ve got my guardian angel and stuff like that. I tend to not major a lot on it. I mean, I don’t deny it. I just say: Look, there’s a lot more stuff going on out there than you know, and you are not in a neutral territory. It’s a dangerous world. Some of the occult stuff that goes on can get a little loaded.
I find it fascinating, of the phone calls I occasionally get for, you know, somebody’s got a haunted house… I think it’s interesting: Why don’t they call a Protestant when that comes up? They don’t. They know who can do the work. [Laughter] I’ve got the holy water. But I concentrate probably much more on the kind of existential situation where people are and their own experience of death and shame within themselves. In that sense, the fact that everybody experiences it even though we’re in a shameless culture, they still have it. It’s a very, very vulnerable place, so you have to tread carefully so you don’t hurt somebody, because you’re on holy ground when you step to somebody’s shame. You’re on holy ground, and you have to be very, very careful with that, and you cannot—you should never weaponize their shame.
It is crying for healing. In that sense, they are in… That’s where they are in hell. That’s one of the reasons I like dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts. I don’t have to convince them about hell; they already know it. Instead, I’m telling them, “I know a way out.” Oh, the tears! A lot of them, and this is the South, they’ve never heard anything but a legal Gospel, and when I start telling them the Good News as we know about it as Orthodox Christians, and I say the story of the woman taken in adultery… A lot of them don’t realize. They just never listened to that story, and I retell it for them. It’s just tears down their cheeks. Jesus covers this woman’s shame! She’s probably nekkid! In the South, we make a distinction—naked means you have no clothes on; nekkid means you have no clothes on and you’re up to no good! [Laughter] She was probably nekkid. She’s out in the street and she’s shamed, and Jesus, he’s there with her, and he says finally, “Where are your accusers?” And she says, “They’re gone.” He says, “Where are those who condemn you? Neither do I.” He didn’t say, “I told you so.” He didn’t say, “You had it coming to you.” He just—“I don’t condemn you.” Gosh, what that must have been like! Golly gee, you can go from sinner to saint in a moment, in a single moment like the thief on the cross—who bore his shame; great story, too. We deserve it. He bears his shame. “Today you will be with me in paradise”—in a single moment.
The grass, the trees—everybody’s Orthodox. We’re just helping people find their way home and back to their humanity, back to the one-storey universe we live in, where God is here, where he is everywhere present and filling all things, and he’s present to us. It is complete and total good news. I’ve done a study guide, just some suggestions for my book, if you want to use it. Did you do the handout? It’s just me… It’s like if I was going to do a class of this, there’s a page for each chapter, with some little bit of thoughts in it. I’m assuming everybody read the chapter, because it doesn’t work without reading the book. And some questions to reflect on that. What I’ve tried to do in that writing is to really just expand some central stuff of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, frankly, nothing else. I think God… If you write Orthodox theology, you should never be original. Originality is not a virtue. [Laughter] I like to translate things into terms and images that are contemporary, that people can deal with. People don’t know Church words. “One-storey universe”— if I say it’s a sacramental world, what the heck does that mean? I say, “one-storey universe,” and you think, “What’s that?” It was just language I worked out doing catechumens, trying to explain a sacramental world. It works. And I would, by the way, just recommend: plug in “shame” on my blog and read the articles, because I have written some about it that you… After this, it’ll make more sense.
As I say, shame is a primary feeling about who I am. Who I am. It’s when I feel negative about myself: I am—inadequate. I am awkward, I am not pretty, I am fat, I am addicted to porn, I am… These are “I am” things. It’s how we experience ourselves. What’s so painful about it is you believe you are that and that if it’s revealed it’s very vulnerable and shaming. In other words, you don’t like it. It’s unbearable to seen as that awful and inadequate. We really do experience it as danger. When I say “vulnerability,” it means you can wound me; you have got my number. One of the things about going to confession that people struggle with. What is it that people fear in confession? It’s shame. “How can I face him if he… Will he ever think well of me again if I say these things to them?”
It’s an interesting experience. Some early times, when I was first talking about shame, I dealt in a context and I was talking about incest, which actually covers more people, statistically, in America than alcoholism does. It’s a huge problem. It’s probably worse now than when I was talking about it 20 years ago. It’s a huge problem, and it is the most secret thing that people have experienced, and they can’t even talk about it. They can’t talk about it. These are experiences… And for many people, something like that, something like incest or something similar or whatever, are probably their first sexual experiences. It’s a dark part of our lives. God knows we can’t talk about it. It’s so shaming. To be able to… I tell people, when I’m preparing for first confession for converts, I talk a lot about learning to bear your shame. I say, “I don’t need the detail of da-da-da-da-da-da-da…”
I’ll tell you the most shaming thing—my first confession, it was so hard for me; I was in college, Anglican, and I made confession in a monastery—was to talk about a kitten that I’d killed when I was eight years old. It was an accident. I picked it up. It was a newborn kitten. I was with a cousin [at] my grandmother’s house, and it peed on me. And it shocked me, and I dropped it. It broke its neck, and it died. The most important thing for my first confession was to talk about that. I felt sick! Yes?
Q3: How do I differentiate, or how do you differentiate, in the category of shame, whether it means sinful or not-sinful? Also what Kevin is asking. [Inaudible] It’s not something to confess.
Fr. Stephen: I know—and yet. And yet, if we experienced it… Because this was the problem—forgive me—but what you’re really describing there is legal responsibility. You don’t have a legal problem with God. You have a sin problem. And, yes, we do experience our ugliness as shame. It can drive people to more destructive behavior than any of their legal problems. In fact, sitting down with somebody and saying out loud, “I hate how I look”—now we’re getting somewhere, because part of it is: Bear your shame. First off, it’s okay. You’re not going to die. In other words, there’s a healing that comes in that. This is part of the medicine of immortality that we face the truth of our being.
I, in fact, in writing about shame, said that I think that the most fundamental experience of shame we have as human beings is our existence, because we’re contingent, that is, I have no existence in and of myself; it depends totally on God. In the presence of God, I am nothing, and I feel my dust, and it feels shameful. It’s vulnerable. They think we’re trying to shame them, and we’re not, but they think we are. I think this is what happens with the sort of moralistic approach, that’s sort of legal that way, and a lot of Christians do this, and a lot of Orthodox Christians have a very legal understanding and a moralistic understanding of their life and of their confession. They’ve got their list, I go down my list, and you really haven’t touched anything. As I say, it doesn’t sound like confessing that I think I’m ugly. It’s a big deal, because it’s certainly not my fault, and yet I might overeat as a result of it. I might engage in very destructive sexual actions because of it. And until I can actually bear it.
Imagine you’re Zacchaeus. Now, his problem isn’t ugly; Zacchaeus’ problem is short. But he experiences short like some of us experience ugly. And he doesn’t like being short. I’m sure he’s trying to be discreet in the tree, and I’ll bet he’s not the only one in a tree, but Jesus calls him out by name. Zacchaeus knows his name—oops—and brings him down. He goes to his house. Jesus, just walking right into Zacchaeus’ shame. The shame that’s driven Zacchaeus to betray his people and to be a tax collector: Jesus walking right in there. Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed with the generosity and covering of Jesus that he gives away his stuff, he returns four-fold everything he’s done wrong. I mean, this is powerful stuff. In a way, can you get ugly enough to get well? I guess part of what I’m dealing with here is getting away from the legal concept of morality, that it’s just what I’ve done wrong. What you did wrong is not nearly as destructive as what you think you are wrong. That’s so much closer to who you are.
Jesus became what we are that we might become what he is. In the language of ontology, which is the Greek word for the study of being, it’s about is and being and are. It’s built around that verb, and not nearly so much as around do and did. Do and did comes from what you is and are. And I work as a priest, and in my writing, frankly, to try to help people get to what they are, into the being, and then we move from there. Frankly, one of the reasons is it’s not… A lot of what I do and write and do with this is trying to get away from the moralistic vocabulary that has dominated our culture so that people can actually hear what I’m saying without getting so Christianized that they can’t.
Shame is really interesting. That’s actually more psychological stuff, but it’s really Christian. I’ve found it very refreshing; it’s very helpful. Fr. Zacharias, when I was talking with him about this in private, said that to bear your shame, in other words, to recognize it and just sit with it, just really sit with it—don’t run, don’t change it, don’t think about it, just kind of sit with it, feel it—he said, and then pray and ask God to comfort you. That was his word: to comfort you. And he had a string of verses about how God wants to comfort us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is sort of something I’ve been practicing for a couple of years now. It helps. It just helps tremendously. As a confessor, if someone brings that and is able to do it, I don’t have to counsel them on it, just listen to them and reassure love, that they are loved, that they are accepted, that Christ is with them in that most comforting, wonderful experience of the epitrachelion over your head, which is the covering. He clothes my nakedness; I’m safe. I’m under the shelter of his wings. What a wonderful, wonderful image. We must be down to our time, so… [Applause]