Down the Path
This post is the beginning of a series. I will frequently try to include a photograph with each installment in the series. I’m somewhat of a hack photographer and often a single photograph will correspond with what I’m writing (at least, in my head it seems to go along…) and so as far as is possible and makes sense I’ll include something. The added benefit is that if you, the reader, are anything like me, having some type of image to look at and associate with the text will hold your attention longer than simply reading my words. Children’s books that are well illustrated often hold my attention much more quickly than simple type, as I have a short attention span and consider myself a rather large child most of the time, and pictures just naturally draw me in.
This post can be considered the preface to all of the subsequent installments. The string tying all this mind meat together will be the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim.
While there are many subtly different translations of this prayer, the text I will be using is as follows:
Oh Lord and Master of my life – take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. Give me rather the spirit chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant. Yes my Lord and my King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
I am currently reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. First let me say that this book is, well, unbelievable. I think there are many reasons to read it, ranging from pride or arrogance, compunction, to simply sheer curiosity. It’s certainly not easy or light reading. Not necessarily because it is difficult, but because Dostoevsky goes into great detail. He has a deep understanding of the human soul and psyche. And with that he understood how far we’d fallen from Eden, and what some of the common entrapments are. So far all of it is just astounding, and I’m only one-third of the way in. I thought I’d post one quote from the Elder (Fr.) Zosima of the town monastery, so far my favorite character in the book. He says the following in a conversation with an older woman who’s come to him for spiritual guidance..
…A doctor told me quite some time ago,” the elder remarked. “He was not a young man and he was certainly intelligent. He was just as sincere as you are, although he spoke in an amused tone, with a sort of bitter humor. “I love mankind,” he said, “But I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love individual people. In my thoughts,” the doctor told me, “I often visualize ecstatically the sacrifices I could make for mankind and, indeed, I might even accept martyrdom for my fellow men if circumstances suddenly demanded it to me. In actual fact, however, I cannot bear to spend two days in the same room with another person. And this I know from personal experience. Whenever someone is too close to me, I feel my personal dignity and freedom are being infringed upon. Within twenty-four hours I can come to hate the best of men, perhaps because he eats too slowly or because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. But to make up for it, the more I hate individual people, the more ardent is my general love for mankind.”
“But what is the answer then? What’s to be done in such a case? Is it completely hopeless?”
“No, because the very fact that it worries you is enough in itself. Do the best you can and it will stand you in good stead. As it is, you have done a great deal, for you have come to know yourself deeply and sincerely. However, if you have spoken to me so frankly only to make me praise you for your sincerity, then, of course, you will fail to accomplish through acts of love; all your good intentions will remain mere daydreams, and your whole life will slip by like shadow, In that case, you will certainly forget all about the future life as well, and in the end you will somehow or other stop worrying all together.”
“I feel completely crushed! This very second I realize that, just as you say, I was expecting you to praise me for my sincerity when I told you that I would not be able to bear ingratitude. You have brought out what was within me. You saw it and you have shown it to me!”
“Do you really mean what you say now? If so, after what you have admitted, I am sure that you are sincere and that you have a good heart. Even if it is not given to you to achieve happiness, you must always remember that you are on the right path and you must try not to stray from it. Above all, avoid lying, especially to yourself. Keep watching out for your lies, watch for them every hour, every minute. Also avoid disgust, both for others and for yourself: whatever strikes you as disgusting within yourself is cleansed by the mere fact that you notice it. Avoid fear too, although fear is really only a consequence of lies. Never be afraid of your petty selfishness when you try to achieve love, don’t be too alarmed if you act badly on occasion. I’m sorry I cannot tell you anything more. A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. Imaginary love yearns for an immediate heroic act that is achieved quickly and seen by everyone. People may actually reach a point where they are willing to sacrifice their lives, as long as the ordeal doesn’t last too long, and is quickly over just like on the stage, when the public is watching and admiring. A true act of love, on the other hand, requires hard work and patience, and, for some, it is a whole way of life. But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal but that, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever — at that very moment, you will have achieved your goal and will recognize the miraculous power of our Lord, who has always loved you and has secretly guided you all along.” ~Elder Zosima (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
The mind-blowing thing for me with this section is that I’ve been doing a lot of work with my own spiritual father – an elder monk if you will – and his own advice on these things is very similar. And yet it’s not at all how I’ve been approaching things or would have thought to. I am consistently amazed at how complicated I (and we as creatures) make life in general. So much of my mind is still wrapped up in the opium of “feelings” and entrapped with all of the Western hellfire and brimstone garbage, and the impression that God is a rule maker and soul taker. I like to believe that through years of learning Orthodox theology and spirituality I’m getting a handle on things, and then something comes up that makes me think, “Hmm, I ended up right back with the ole’ ingrained thoughts of, ‘Oh no! I’ve broken a law!'” I am convinced that The Lie is so complete and the curse so deep that remembering who we are and who God really is – a Lover and Creator first and foremost – it is nearly impossible to succumb to His will, and to be obedient to Him and those whom He gives us as priests and elders in this life. Nearly, mind you; nearly, but not impossible. In fact, I’m beginning to understand that it is only through obedience that we can ever hope to be saved and progress down the path to theosis. It would seem from the Elder’s words and from the advice and guidance given by my own spiritual father that this concept of obedience, albeit radically different than what our society, and in general the Christian West declares, is the beginning of all true spiritual growth, and the way back Home. The more I read books like this, the more I understand why we cannot possibly make it alone. Consistent wise counsel from a learned man and someone who’s successfully navigated the path for a very long time is worth more than all the gold, earthly power, and spiritual self-help books in the world.
Although much of what the Elder Zosima says in the passage above stands out as exceptional, the part that really hit something deep in me was this:
“Above all, avoid lying, especially to yourself. Keep watching out for your lies, watch for them every hour, every minute. Also avoid disgust, both for others and for yourself: whatever strikes you as disgusting within yourself is cleansed by the mere fact that you notice it. Avoid fear too, although fear is really only a consequence of lies.”
This seems to me to be the most dangerous thing about a human being. We are so good at lying to ourselves. Many men may keep themselves pure from telling lies to others but have made an art out of lying to themselves. We hear in the scriptures, “…perfect love drives out all fear…” and this saying from the Elder just rings so true with that. No wonder so many men are so afraid – afraid to love, afraid to give, afraid to care, afraid to achieve, afraid of themselves. In my own life so often fear can stop me from being who I really am. And really it is nothing more than the fear of myself, and the fear generated by the oh so subtle lies I’ve told myself for so long. I suspect this is the case for most – that at some point we fear because we know that the image that we “project” to others is often not who we really are. And so, what is left but to fear? And fear we must, or “they” might find out who we really are. Or even more terrifying, we may find out who we really are. Indeed, we are either angels or demons, and if we do not understand who we really are, and the immense power that is given us by God, we can do great harm. And so, the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim begins…