Category: Humility

Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless, who are lovers of the horns of the unicorns.

Clement of Alexandria

“Are unicorns real?” my daughter Erin asks me.

“No girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

“Yeah, I know, just like dinosaurs.”

“No, dinosaurs are real. They just don’t exist anymore. They lived a long time ago.”

“Did unicorns live a long time ago?

“No, girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation with her. But she’s 4 years-old, and unicorns are an important part of her life. It makes sense that she’d want to double-check every now and then.

Now, for those wondering about what Clement was talking about, it is worth noting that there was a time in history when the existence of unicorns had not yet been settled. (Also true of dragons, for that matter.) Maybe the existence of rhinos, which one could describe as fat horses with a horn on their nose, found its way to Alexandria via the telephone game. Who knows? The point is, in his defense, real unicorns may have been within the realm of the possible.

However, he might actually be making an allusion to the Bible, which, of course, talks about unicorns.

If that’s news to you, it’s because most modern translations do not use “unicorn.” But the ancient Greek and Latin translations did. And the King James Version, following them, mentions unicorns nine times.

Since Clement specifically mentions the horn of the unicorns, that narrows the possible allusion to three verses:

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The Loveliness of the Cross

Renunciation is nothing else than a manifestation of the cross and of dying…. Consider, then, what the cross implies, within whose mystery it behooves you henceforth to proceed in this world, since you no longer live, but he lives in you who was crucified for you…. But you might say: How can a person constantly carry a cross, and how can someone be crucified while he is still alive? …

Our cross is the fear of the Lord. Just as someone who has been crucified, then, no longer has the ability to move or to turn his limbs in any direction by an act of his mind, neither must we exercise our desires and yearnings in accordance with what is easy for us and gives us pleasure at the moment but in accordance with the law of the Lord and where it constrains us.

~ St. John Cassian, Institutes

Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate Great Friday: the crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

There are cosmic dimensions to this. St. Paul tells us “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ … the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). So also, says St. John, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

This cosmic and mystical aspect of the cross historically occurs more frequently in the Byzantine Tradition.

We can also speak of the crucifixion as fulfillment of the sacrifices of old:

And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man [Jesus], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. (Hebrews 10:11-13)

This tends to be the more common Western emphasis: Christ offers himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so that partaking of his Body and Blood we may live anew in his victory.

There is at least one more emphasis, and perhaps, from my limited reading, this is more prevalent in the Russian Tradition, understood in the historical sense (rather than present-day nations and politics). This emphasis, according to G. P. Fedotov, can be called the “kenotic” or self-emptying aspect of the Cross.

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The Joy of Thy Salvation

Lesson after the Presanctified Liturgy

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Grand Rapids, Michigan

March 30, 2022


A story from the desert Fathers provides a fitting image for our topic tonight:

The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”

In chapters 14 through 18 of Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander focuses on the topics of humility, watchfulness, resolution, and prayer. Without humility, we cannot be watchful. Without watchfulness or “vigilance,” we cannot be resolute. Without resolution—“the will to resist” temptation—we cannot truly pray. Then, no matter how holy we may seem to our brothers and sisters, their praise only amounts to window dressing, while inside the houses of our hearts, nothing of value remains. We have allowed burglars—our temptations—to steal away our virtue while we weren’t looking, too self-absorbed to notice.

Colliander connects these four elements in the second paragraph of chapter 14:

Humility is a prerequisite, for the proud man is once and for all shut out. Vigilance is necessary in order immediately to recognize the enemies and to keep the heart free from vice. The will to resist must be established at the very instant the enemy is recognized. But since without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5), prayer is the basis on which the whole battle depends.

My intention in this talk tonight is to augment Colliander’s discussion of these four elements by fleshing out some of the Fathers’ teachings that he sometimes leaves implicit in these chapters. With greater nuance, then, I hope we’ll be able to have a deeper discussion of these essential spiritual tools as they relate to our own lives.

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Go and Tell

I’m going to break from my typical formula in this post. It has been three years today since my dad died. The only possession of his I knew he wanted me to have when he died was his many writings — mostly poetry, but also some diaries and other, often unfinished, prose, like what follows after the break below.

My father struggled with mental illness, that imprecise and blanketed term. I suspect much of it was undiagnosed PTSD from a life of trauma, but that doesn’t mean it was all circumstantial, and my father would be the first to insist that none of it did away with his own free will and responsibility. Nevertheless, nightmares plagued his sleep and regrets haunted his days. I know of only one thing in his life that ever cut through all of that and brought him any peace: Jesus Christ.

The following prose, lightly edited by me, seems to have been the start of a paraphrase or elaboration on the Gospel according to St. Mark 5:1-20. Or perhaps he thought this was enough as it is. I’m not sure. For those unfamiliar with the story, it will follow my dad’s words after another break, and then I’ll reflect in my own way….

The Demoniac


By James Pahman


The demoniac stood rigidly erect against the stone cell wall, his ankles bleeding where the fetters abraded against his skin and bone, tearing the flesh and slightly paring the bone. His arms lifted above his head held taut by two metal chains which were wrapped around his chest and […] winding around his arms and wrists, nailed into the grey wall by spiked metal clamps. Lesions prickled his senses and scars marked his body. In his eyes were the flashes of fire and passionate violence, they curled and rolled as he hung his burning head toward the compulsive churning of his legs; other times they would stare, glassy and unaffected by the raging mocking clamor of the crowds as the soldiers dragged him across the rocks and dust of the Gerasene desert bound by chains and pulled by horses.

His mind boiled and echoed the taunts and derisions he heard constantly slashing in acute agonizing voices which screamed in fiendish shrills with wicked velocity, tearing the images of his thoughts like thin paper and flashing the illusions of killers and murderous beasts haunting all his awareness and plaguing his mind with ruthless death. The demons played their harsh dissonance within the confines of his brain, battering his nervous system with the intentions of relentless warfare, choking his heart with the distortions and destructions of the horrid, blotching and arraying his vision with a miasma of foul ugliness and disgust.

Tearing the chains and crushing the fetters, he ran in an impetuous fever to the tombs; the desert caves of bones. And there he raved and shrieked in his exposed nakedness, attacking all those who came near. Throughout the rocky mountains’ lofts he would wander crying out bitterness and cutting himself with the sharp stones. He epitomized and was plagued with sin and torturous lusts, from within the black depths of his soul to the ostentatious scars and bleeding ruin of his miserable body.

Who can describe the weighty loneliness of his barren entity, whose heart was parched by the blazing coals of hatred and malevolence? Possessed by demons and abandoned by men of mercy, for he could not be restrained or tamed. He would lay enveloped by the cold, hard walls of caves, the places where the dead were left to rot and decay within their separate cells. Did a song ever leave his lips? Had he comrades to share his humanity?

Would a woman ever comply to be his helpmeet? Did he laugh from happiness and content? And was his strength employed for the vigorous productive work that a man is satisfied with? Or did he ever create an expression of the reflected image in beauty and delight? None of these at all, for we hear the echoed screams of a ravaged spirit tearing into the dark blanket of the night, out of a cave where hollowness is joined with a man, possessed by demons, fuming in the pit of his soul.


It was a cool, calm summer morning. The sun lavished its golden light across the Galilean sea. The surface of the waters sparkled like jewels. Occasionally pelicans would hover above slicing into the sea for a mouthful of fish. Fishermen had a propitious livelihood because of the waters, abundantly inhabited by fish. Early at dawn they would row their small boats out to the larger vessel and initiate their work for the day.

The demoniac stared out towards the sea and heard the gentle splashing of oars cutting the clear waters. He squinted his eyes and lifted his hand to block the brightness of the sun. There at the shore he saw the men jumping out of the boats and pulling them to the edge of the sea. And he saw a man of strong stature lift out of the boat. It was then that he was impelled by vicious roaring from the demons to go to this man and spread his violence before him. And so he ran with great impetus and speed, incited to conquer the stranger on the seashore.

So as not to leave readers unfamiliar with this story’s inspiration in suspense, here is St. Mark 5:1-20:

Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”

For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”

And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.

So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.

And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.

The ancient world spiritualized illness, but our tendency today is to secularize it. While I think our era’s error avoids some serious harms — the scientific method has born good fruit — there are times when our imagined superiority blinds us to anything that doesn’t easily fit into our modern worldviews.

I always feel for our priests the Sunday each year they must read and preach on this story. Our estrangement from ancient worldviews means that talking about something like demon possession will leave one’s hearers wondering whether one has oneself gone mad. When we find it impossible to understand another person’s worldview, we render empathy impossible as well.

For whatever reason, my father found empathy easy in this case. Or, at least, reading his reflection helps me empathize with the demoniac in the story. In our era, mental disturbance is illness, and as illness is unwelcome, especially chronic and untreatable illnesses, we resort to stigmatizing the mentally ill. They remind us too vividly that there remain many deep and serious things about this life for which we have no good explanation, not to mention solution. For their part, the mentally ill sometimes aren’t the most easily approachable people. Not everyone possesses the gift of connecting and caring for the outcast.

But Jesus did, as one should expect of the Son of God. Indeed, before God and apart from him, we all drift about under the sway of violent passions, self-delusion perhaps the most prevalant of all. We should — yes, like my dad did — see ourselves in this story. Indeed, reading it today, I noticed something truly remarkable:

All throughout the Gospel, but especially in St. Mark’s account, Jesus tells people that he heals or helps to keep it a secret. They say, “Thank you!” And he says, “Don’t mention it,” except he really means it. In fact, he usually strictly warns them, “Don’t tell anyone.” “Don’t tell,” he says to the blind man whose eyes he opened. “Don’t tell,” he says to the deaf mute whose hearing and speech he restored. “Don’t tell,” he says to the leper whose sore-ridden and infested skin he cleanses. Immediately following this story, Jesus raises a little girl from the dead, and what does he say to her family? “Don’t tell.” But to one man, this man, the man society had abandoned to the torment of his irrationality, Jesus says, “Go and tell.” What better testament for one’s message than the voice of a man once mute? Yet Jesus doesn’t choose the blind or deaf or mute or diseased to be his witness — he chooses this man, a “madman” — crazy, dangerous, violent, mentally ill, disturbed, tormented.

Of course, the transformation in him must have been remarkable. It terrified the people of the area, who begged Jesus “to depart from their region.” I suppose it also ruined the local swine-herding economy, which either must have been run by Gentiles or non-observant Jews, since pork isn’t kosher. In any case, add that to the reasons this man would seem to be a terrible choice. Who would believe him? How could they get the memory of his madness out of their heads? And who would be paying for the pigs? (Not Jesus, so far as we know.)

Yet Jesus says to him, “Go and tell.” I’ve been asking the wrong questions on purpose to illustrate my point. What we should really be asking is, “Who better?” Who could be more humble than a man full of shame at his own behavior? Who could be more compassionate toward others than one who knows the pain of compassion’s absence? Who better to represent Christ to a world possessed than a man freed by Christ from bondage to the devil?

On this third anniversary of my father’s death, I’m thankful for this seemingly unfinished bit of prose for helping me enter into this strange, ancient story in order to see all the better the beauty of that “stranger on the seashore,” whose peace overpowered the pain and violence of his heart.

May his memory be eternal.

Piety and Propriety

When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive. Continue reading

Christmas 2017

He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

~ St. Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation, 2.8

Christ is born! Let us glorify him!

Today is Christmas. What a weird event.

I’m not talking about all the shopping and whatnot. That, of course, can be overdone. We actually opened our presents with the kids Christmas Eve this year. This was mainly for practical reasons – we’ll be at church and then my mom’s all day today – but I think it might also help to take some of the focus of the day away from all the stuff, however wonderful it is to give and receive gifts.

No, I’m talking about the birth of Jesus Christ, which we commemorate today. Continue reading

I am going through the pangs of being born. Sympathize with me, my brothers! Do not stand in the way of my coming to life—do not wish death on me. Do not give back to the world one who wants to be God’s; do not trick him with material things. Let me get into the clear light and manhood will be mine.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans, 6.2

My good friend Nathan (“Basil”) has produced a wonderful new film about 1) the stories of religiously unaffiliated persons or “nones” and 2) the story of how he went from being a none to finding the Orthodox Church.

You can watch the trailer above.

There is a press release here.

The film has a website, where you can request to host a screening, here.

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Racism and Asceticism

40a3c679a8a8c232f2bfaf15d6698bdfAt a meeting of monks in Scete, the old men wanted to test Abba Moses. So they poured scorn on him, saying: “Who is this blackamoor that has come among us?” Moses heard them, but said nothing. When the meeting had dispersed, the men who had given the insults, asked him: “Were you not troubled in your heart?” He answered: “I was troubled, and I said nothing.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Today is the feast day of St. Moses the Ethiopian, also known as St. Moses the Black. (I’ll give you three guesses why.)

As this saying shows racism is not new. No doubt it grows naturally (however viciously) from our tribal pasts, when one’s society was also one’s extended family. Not only were customs and culture shared, so was DNA and, thus, common physical characteristics. Continue reading

Humility and Secrecy

One of the holy men named Philagrius lived in Jerusalem and laboured to earn himself enough to eat. And when he was standing in the market-square trying to sell what he had made, by chance a bag fell on the ground near him, containing a great many shillings. The old man found it, and stood there thinking, “The loser must soon come here.” And soon the man who had lost it came lamenting. So Philagrius took him apart and gave him back his bag. The owner asked him to accept some of the shillings, but the old man would have nothing. Then the owner began to shout and call: “Come and see what the man of God has done.” But the old man fled away unperceived, and went out of the town, so that they should not know what he had done, nor pay him honour.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Abba Philagrius demonstrates well the admonition of Christ,

Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. (Matthew 6:2-4)

Not wanting the praise of men for his reward, Abba Philagrius fled, knowing that praise can induce pride, and pride destroys compassion and humility, which are better than any material reward.

There is something else about this story, however, that I find insightful. Continue reading

What God Wants

Life has been busy, so just a saying without commentary today:

An old man was asked by a brother: “How do I find God? With fasts, or labour, or watchings, or works of mercy?” The old man replied: “In all that you have said, and in discretion. I tell you that many have afflicted their body, but have gained no profit because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink with fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole Psalter, we still lack what God wants: humility and charity.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.91 Continue reading