Fellowship of the Inexhaustible Cup

I just wanted to make a quick note about this.  I only found out about it today, so I have very little information about it.  I am not endorsing it, because my ignorance make me incapable of having an opinion about it, other than I’m interested to read more.  I am interested in any Orthodox response to addiction, and so I can at a minimum say that I’m pulling for them.  I’ll probably contact the priest in charge soon and question him about it.  In the meantime, here’s some links to the Fellowship of the Inexhaustible Cup that you might find interesting.

Interview on Ancient Faith

Fellowship Web Site

Confession and Step 5

Today I went to confession.  My local priest hasn’t been blessed yet to receive confession, so I travel to another town periodically.  The period is much longer than it should be.  Mostly I forget about it until it’s been quite awhile, and then I feel increasingly driven to get it done.  My laziness should not be confused with apathy or indifference.  I understand that confession is vitally important and necessary.  I just don’t let that mind belief translate into action nearly as much as I should.  Excuses aside, it’s just lazy.

But today I went.  Confession for me is like exercise.  I put it off, and before I finally do it seems pretty heavy, but afterwards I’m always encouraged and ready to re-engage.  This is good, since we’re about to go into Lent.  Getting confession in before seems fitting, since this is a period of repentance.  Maybe I’ll go again before Pascha.

I was thinking later on in the day that Confession for me feels very different from doing a fifth step in SA.  Either as a sponsor or sponsee.  If you are unfamiliar with the fifth step, it’s a type of confession that is done to another human being.  That person is typically your sponsor, but it can be a priest or other trusted individual.  It is massive.  It takes a lot of preparation time, and it usually covers things all the way back to your childhood.  That prep time is what is called step four.  When you’ve done your step 4 prep you set a time aside with the person who will “hear your fifth step” and go to it.  This is usually a process of hours.

I’ve been the person doing that step 5 confession once, and I’ve been the person listening to a step 5 a few times.  It’s a trust exercise on a massive scale, no matter which person you are in the equation.  You are going to get out as much of the whole, hairy mess that is your inner person, as you can.  It seems that unless you can turn yourself inside out, and expose all that ugly to at least one other person on the planet, you can never really connect with God in a way that will lead to relief from addiction.  A ridiculous level of honesty is required.  All others need not apply.

People have a lot of various responses to doing a step 5.  For some it is difficult and emotional.  For others it is liberating and they go in without any hesitation.  For me, it was a relief.  I was SO ready to get that crap out, that I dropped the worst stuff I had ever done on my sponsor without hesitation.  My sponsor was 3 years older than me in SA, and about 10 years younger than me in physical years.  It was his first time hearing a fifth step, and my first time giving one, so we launched in as only the naive can.  It took about 3 hours, and at the end he knew things about me that very few others do.  It was cathartic but not hugely emotional.  It made me feel transparent.  It let me move on.

But it wasn’t like confession.  It’s meant to be, but it’s not.  I still struggle with encapsulating exactly why this is, and I’m not sure I have a great answer.  The fourth and fifth step of 12-step programs evolved from the process of confession found in the Oxford Group, the parent movement that AA pioneers came through and drew on when founding AA.  The Oxford Group was a mostly Protestant attempt to reinvent early Christianity.  The goal was to shake up and wake up the Protestant church.  One of the main practices they reinstated was confession.  This was one of their foundational principles, and was part of the process that Bill Wilson went through when he got sober.  He translated that into the fourth and fifth steps of AA, which are the same fourth and fifth steps that SA uses.

So the Oxford group saw it as confession, like the early church had.  AA and SA sees it as a spiritual activity necessary to creating a spiritual awakening that is necessary for reconnecting with God and getting sober.  I have no reason to doubt the combined experience of millions that it is, in fact, necessary and spiritual.  But it’s still not confession in the way the Orthodox Church practices it.

When I go to confession, my spiritual father prays for and with me as we stand in front of the icon of Jesus.  We sit, and I immediately begin to cry.   Every time.  I’m not a weepy sort of guy, and he does nothing to provoke the tears.  I go in with some preparation like I did when I prepped for my fifth step, and that preparation does not include “make sure you cry” as a bullet point.  But I can’t help it.  The situation of feeling my sinfulness and the presence of God is nothing like what I’ve felt in SA.  SA is not a Church or a denomination.  It’s a fellowship of men and women who are all sharing experiences with recovering from addiction.  It’s spiritual, but it’s when I go to Confession that there’s an overwhelming need to repent with tears, and receive the love of God directly.  It’s so different, and it’s great.

I think both types of confession are useful.  My confession at Church usually doesn’t last that long.  My confessor doesn’t spend a lot of time on the gritty details.  He’s heard it before.  He’s much more concerned with the healing.  He talks to me about tuning my life to get better.  He expresses hope with firmness, and I go out with new purpose.  My confession in my fifth step seems to be more about a willingness to be honest, and an exercise in humility.  If I won’t expose the dirty parts of my life to another person, then I won’t let them go.  I have to admit them to myself, to God, and to another human being.  My sponsor didn’t forgive me, or even really give me much in the way of tune up advice.  He listened.  He accepted the burden of hearing my sins.  He encouraged me and pushed me on to the next step.  I’m very grateful for him, and for that process.

I will probably repeat it again some day, and I’m always deeply humbled when I’m asked to do this with another person.  But when they ask, if they are Orthodox (or of some faith that also practices confession), I tell them to go to confession with their priest.  I can do one sort of thing for them, but I cannot provide the medicine they will find in the Church.  I want them to get both.

Coming out of the closet

I recently heard a talk about coming out of the closet, by a person who was homosexual. This woman said something interesting.  She said we all have something that we are keeping in the closet.  We all have that secret that we don’t tell anyone.  That is our closet, and in that way we can understand the plight of the modern homosexual.  She said to be true to yourself.  You don’t have to apologize for your truth.  Be courageous and let people love you for who you are.

She is sooooo right!  And soooo wrong!  All at the same time. When she says we all have that something secret, she is so right.  Given the brokenness of the image of God in us, and the toxic environment, we have no choice but to have lots of ugly in our lives.  Many of us spend extreme effort and time keeping this hidden from ourselves and others.  Maybe part of your ugly includes the sexual, as mine did.  Only when I got in recovery was I able to look back on my sexual thoughts and actions and realize just how horrible it all was.  I guess it’s sometimes just too hard to accept how low we can fall.

Now, when she says we have to be true to ourselves, we should take a very large dose of caution.  Mostly the things in our closets are there for a good reason.  We wouldn’t be hiding them if they weren’t the worst parts of us.  Now perhaps it’s for social reasons, and the society needs to change, but I suspect that the reality is that our skeletons are just the wages of sin and death.  We aren’t the oppressed minority.  We are the oppressing majority.  We are the ones that keep others in bondage, both in our minds and in our actions.  We are racists and spiritual rapists.  We take and take, because we are selfish.

Being true to ourselves is humbling accepting this truth.  Yo DO have to apologize for it.  People shouldn’t love us because of these.  They love us in spite of them.

And often, it’s best NOT to bring these things out of the closet for others to see.  In SA we have a warning for newbies.  Don’t prematurely confess.  Many, in their eagerness to get release dump their worst actions and guilt off on family members who are just not ready to deal with them.  We spray the sewage around and then act surprised when people react badly.  Don’t do that, please.  If you are a sex addict, please, come to an SA meeting and find someone with sobriety, and talk to them about it.  We can handle this better than your family.  We’ll help you know how and when to disclose what needs to be disclosed.

I thank God that I eventually was forced to be true to myself, admit that I am a sexaholic, and surrendered my life.  I’m out of the closet!  Anonymously.

The Unmoral Christian Revisited

Following if the final article in the three article series by Fr Stephen Freeman about Christian morality and “moral progress.”   Read the first and second as well, please.

The Unmoral Christian Revisited

My article, The Un-moral Christian, along with You’re Not Getting Better, have continued to generate conversation around the internet, and within parishes. At least that’s the impression I get from numerous conversations, emails, social media, and even phone calls. Most of those conversations seem to be serious and are engaging the question of how Orthodox Christians should think about the moral life. A recent conversation in my parish has yielded some additional thoughts for me that I think might be helpful to others. At its core is the question of “moral progress.”

There is an abiding discomfort for many with my assertion that we generally do not see moral progress in our lives. That discomfort comes from many directions. Perhaps the most serious is the question that asks, “Then why bother? If we are not making progress in our battles with the passions, why make the effort?”

The crux of the issue lies in the very meaning of moral progress. In any normal meaning of the phrase there is an assumption that as we progress, we become better at things. We have less trouble with the passions: anger, greed, envy, jealousy, pride, etc. We make right decisions with greater ease and less confusion and turn away from evil with greater strength.

For some, moral progress is presumed to be part of our “synergy,” our cooperation with God in our salvation, a doctrine that figures prominently in Orthodox theology. Thus, many would look for moral progress as a sign that indeed the work of God in their lives is truly taking place and bearing fruit. We are told that the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peacelongsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Surely this constitutes moral progress!

It is in thinking about this that we need to be careful, even somewhat precise. The distinction I am making is important, and perhaps too easily missed. What St. Paul describes is the “fruit of the Spirit,” and not “moral progress.”

My parish conversation turned on the example of a recovering addict/alcoholic. It is possible for an alcoholic not to drink, to live a life of sobriety. What is not possible is for an alcoholic to drink responsibly in a controlled manner over a sustained period. Thirty years of sobriety will not change this fact. No amount of not drinking will make an alcoholic a better drinker. In that sense, there is no moral progress.

But surely sobriety is better than drunkenness? It is indeed. But what it represents is not an improved life, but a completely different mode of existence. It is not an improvement of the “Old Adam.” It is the “New Adam.” Someone might object that I’m using an example from outside the Church, apart from the sacraments, even outside of Holy Baptism. I am indeed. Such is the grace of God.

It comes down to this: We can live a miraculous life, in which, by the Spirit, we live remarkably victorious over the passions, or we can live a moral life in which our best efforts will remain about as good or bad from one day to the next for the rest of our lives. Our victory is not a moral victory, but life from the dead.

The life that St. Paul describes as the “fruit of the Spirit” can be compared to St. Peter walking on the water. No matter how much Peter might have practiced and struggled, he would never be any better at walking on water. His experience went from the miraculous life enabled by union with Christ to the moral life in which he nearly drowns.

The moral life brings its own sad temptations. Most poignant is its tendency to judgment. “If I can do it, so can you!” Those who imagine that the good life is lived through human effort (even with a little Divine assistance) quickly begin to value the human effort above everything else. They imagine that the moral crises of our time can be addressed through argument and legislation. Their judgment inevitably leads them to anger. It is why so many “good” people are today so angry. Our adversary cares nothing about morality: the anger is sufficient for his purposes.

The burning desire of almost every alcoholic that I know is to be able to drink responsibly. To simply have a drink or two, relaxing with friends, without the insanity that ensues when he loses control, is a never-ending fantasy. But if he yields to the fantasy he discovers that he has made no progress whatsoever. There can be no successful practice of “moral” drinking. The same is true for us all. We would like to make “moral progress,” to become the kind of people who can be trusted to do the right thing. But it’s a fantasy. We can either live the miraculous life of Christ or the moral life of man. The moral life of man does have progress – it progresses steadily towards death.

There is one last objection to the distinction I have offered here. It is the one that suggests that I’m simply engaged in word-play, making “morality” into a straw man. All language is a playing with words – it’s what we do. But these words are about an important distinction. The experience of that distinction can be seen in the successful sobriety of a recovered alcoholic, in the miraculous life of a saint, or in St. Peter’s stroll on the Sea of Galilee. It can also be seen in the angry judgments of frustrated moralists who imagine that with a bit more knowledge, a bit more effort, an occasional assist from God, they will, at last, live a better moral life, and happily buy one more round for everyone in the bar – from which they will crawl home one more time.


You’re Not Doing Better

Following is the 2nd of three articles by Fr Stephen Freeman about Christian morality and “moral progress”.  Read the first here.

You’re Not Doing Better

“I’m doing better.” Over the years I’m sure I’ve heard this many times in confession. I’ve also heard, “I’m not doing so well.” These are timely updates, personal measures and reports on the state of spiritual lives. And they are wrong.

You are not doing better. You are not doing worse.

In truth, we don’t know how we’re doing. Only God knows. But we have internalized a cultural narrative and made it the story of our soul. That narrative is the story of progress (or decline). It is the story that the modern world tells itself and the story by which it frequently justifies its actions. In the name of progress we have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Progress describes a movement and a direction. It presumes that the movement and direction are good. Of course, it also presumes that it is possible to know what the most desirable direction should be. In general we think that greater wealth, greater choice, greater freedom, greater health, greater education and such things are the stuff of progress. The more such things are provided, the greater our progress.

In philosophy all of this is known as Utilitarianism – classically stated as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” There are also classical faults recognized in such thinking. How do we measure the greatest good? What constitutes the greatest number? Is the harming of the lesser number justified for the sake of the greater number? These same questions, when applied to our personal moral calculus reveal the same problems. Our Christian lives are not a moral project. This is worth thinking about very carefully. So I will state it again:

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.

St. Gregory of Nyssa once stated, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” This is not the story of progress. We are not mud that is somehow improving itself towards divinity. There is nothing mud can do to become divine. And if we were honest with ourselves, we don’t even become better mud.

I have been a priest for 34 years (15 as Orthodox). In general, people do not improve. Many people, once they begin the discipline of confession, become frustrated as they notice that they confess the same sins time after time. Often they are embarrassed by this fact and try to apologize to the priest. “I feel like I’m not making any progress at all,” is not an uncommon statement. I tell such penitents that they should not expect to make progress. I don’t mean that they shouldn’t resist sin, only that they will discover that they consistently struggle with the same temptations and succeed and fail more or less over time. That’s how life really is.

So what is mud like us to do? What is our struggle about?

“I do unite myself to Christ,” is the statement candidates make at Holy Baptism. These are the words of mud speaking of the most wonderful possible gift. That we should become gods is Christ’s gift to us, not our achievement. It is a reality birthed in our muddy souls at Baptism. And what is birthed in us is a new creation, not really the mud man at all.

The life in Christ is not at all about improvement. It is rather more about failure. It has nothing to do with improvement.

Our holy failure is described repeatedly in Scripture:

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Mat 16:25)

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2Co 12:9)

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He emptied Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phi 2:5-8)

More could of course be added. But the thrust of these verses has nothing to do with improvement, let alone moral improvement. What is happening in our spiritual lives is not the perfecting of a better “me.” It is like a comparison between mud and light. Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.”

But these verses point the way forward. It consists of losing, of weakness and emptiness. The spiritual life is not an improvement of the moral self, it is the finding and the living into the true self (the New Man), birthed in us through Christ. We lose the moral self in order to find the true self. We confess our moral weakness and there we find the true strength of the New Man. We empty the moral self and understand that even its best effort and performance is but “hay, wood and straw” (1 Cor. 3:12).

Elder Sophrony offers this maxim: “The way up is the way down.” It is into the depths of our moral (and existential) nothingness that we go in order to find the heights of union with Christ. This is, ultimately, the most proper practice of confession.

Confession is acknowledging my failure, my weakness and emptiness in the presence of God (and His priestly witness). St. Isaiah tells us: 

But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; (Isa 64:6)

Even our righteousness, our best and most successful moral performances are like unmentionably filthy rags! If we understood this rightly, we would acknowledge that the very things we have in mind when we say, “I’m improving…” are as empty and useless as the things of which we feel ashamed.

And it is that very shame that would open to us the gate of paradise. Only a saint could face the complete emptiness of that point, but all of us can bear “a little shame” (in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias). For it is in the weakness and failure of our life that we become “poor in Spirit.”

This same emptiness and weakness is also the place where we find that we become generous and courageous. The generosity of the moral self is always an effort of the rich. We struggle to share and even admire ourselves when we succeed. I have always observed a very different dynamic when one poor person helps another. I have seen the poor give half of everything they have (and more), as if it were nothing. And this is extremely common. The greatest generosity in the world is among the poor. I recall an Anglican bishop telling me how, when he visited a poor village in India, he was staggered to learn that many in the village had not eaten that day in order to offer a decent meal to him. And they did so with joy. That same generous joy often permeates the very poorest areas of the world that move the rest of us to such pity. We should pity ourselves!

The sacrament of Confession is not the place to become better or to report on our progress. It is the place to become poor, weak, and empty and to embrace the shame of it like our dearest friend. For it is only in that place that we will truly find Christ. This is the Hades into which He descended and where He awaits us (that He might raise us up).

The wisdom of the Church’s prayers are filled with this knowledge. St. John Chrysostom offers these golden words:

O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that You should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and You do not have a fitting place in me to lay Your head. But as from the heights of Your glory You humbled Yourself, so now bear me in my humility; as You deigned to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body. As You did not refrain from entering into the house of Simon the leper, or shrink from eating there with sinners, so also enter the house of my poor soul, all leprous and full of sin. You did not reject the sinful woman who ventured to draw near to touch You, so also have pity on me, a sinner, as I approach. And grant that I may partake of Your All-holy Body and Precious Blood…



Thanks again, Fr. Stephen

I would like to commend to you a series of articles by Fr Stephen Freeman.  As usual I find Fr Stephen’s thinking to be illuminating, and his discussion on morality and moral progress really made me think.  I appreciate the chance to rethink it in new terms.  I recommend reading through all three articles to follow the development of Fr Stephen’s though.   Following is the first of Fr. Stephen’s articles.  I’ll add the other articles in subsequent posts.

The Un-Moral Christian

In recent articles I have challenged the place of contemporary morality in the Christian life. Some have had difficulty with this, wondering how we should then think about the commandments that are directed towards our behavior. Others have suggested that my challenge is merely semantic. There are certainly semantic distinctions being made here – but the reason for them is important and goes beyond mere words. But if it is not proper to think of ourselves as “moral” beings, how should we think? How do we confess our sins if morality is not the issue?

Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct – it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions – but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.

But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart – that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being “from God.” The “unmoral” life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.

This “unmoral” life is not distinguished by its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a “Christian gentleman” meant nothing more than a “gentleman.” This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?

If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?

It is about being a god.

This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.

But is our primary confession simply that we fail at being gods? As difficult as it may be to understand, this confession is closer to the point than repeatedly admitting that we’re only marginally good at being moral. One of the failures of morality is that it seems so tantalizingly possible. And so we distract ourselves as we wrestle with our morals, condemning ourselves for what we somehow imagine that we can and should do.

But think carefully about the commandments of Christ: “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Morality withers in the face of such a statement. Christ’s teaching destroys our moral pretensions. He doesn’t say, “Tithe!” (Priests and preachers say “tithe”). Christ says, “Give it all away.” He doesn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He says, “Love your enemy.” Such statements should properly send us into an existential crisis.

The disciples recognized this. “Who then can be saved?” They wondered.

Christ responded, “With men it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”

The modern fascination with morality is a theological travesty for Christians. It is the reduction of the Kingdom of God to the Democracy of the Mediocre: “I give thanks to God, for I’m doing better and making progress!”

But the Kingdom of God is found in what we cannot do. Morality is not a treasure buried in a field – that treasure is nothing less than the Divine Life of God.

So how do we live the Divine Life of God?

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)

This is the life in which we moment by moment offer ourselves up to God. We voluntarily empty ourselves before Him and yield ourselves to what He can do in us.

…to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…be glory. (Eph 3:20-21)

The root of this life is our communion with God. And the rupture of this communion is the true nature of sin.

…for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)

And this is the proper character of our life. We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breatheChrist. We do all things in Him and through Him. Learning this manner of life is the task of our faith. It is the path of the saints and the teaching of the Fathers.

We could describe our lives in a “moral” manner, but this would not touch upon our communion with Christ. Our “moral” efforts, when done apart from Christ, do not have the character of salvation about them. Christ does not die in order for us to act in a certain manner. He died in order to enter into our death that through our dying we might enter into His life.

In confession, it is our communion that should most concern us. We do many things that are contrary to Christ’s commandments, and they are worth mentioning. But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most. Morality is little more than our feeble attempt at self-sufficiency.

Apart from Me, you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)

Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God. It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try. Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention. This emptiness and futility of lives is often experienced with shame and embarrassment. We feel that we should somehow be able to do better. But Christ intends to bring us to this recognition of our futility. It is why our salvation begins at the point of death (the ultimate futility). Since everyone can die, everyone is capable of salvation. But it is death that we most fear.

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)

Our fear of death is a place of bondage because our new life can only begin there.

 Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luk 17:33)

The point of confession is to lose our life. If moral failure is part of that – well and good. But moral success can be just as problematic. Witness the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph: “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart … what more should I do?” The elder stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”

Indeed. Why not?