It is not enough to set the goal of merely surviving times of economic hardship. Like any other difficulty endured by Orthodox Christians, our goal is to have a joyful heart and ceaseless thanksgiving even in the worst of difficulties. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” We must truly submit to the reality that all things (that means everything: the air we breath, the computer on our desk, the money in our retirement fund, even our children) belong to God, and begin to desire His will, not ours, in relation to these things. Then, and only then, will we be equipped in our souls to endure events such as economic depression with joy and thanksgiving. Once we have stepped out onto this path of faith in God’s providence, we are able, with a willing and light heart, to practice other virtues which make such things as economic hardship much easier to endure, such as: sharing what we do have with those who do not, accepting all struggles willingly as opportunities for spiritual growth, and embracing poverty as a blessed opportunity not a curse.
When our community was first forming (35 years ago, during my childhood), we had relatively nothing. We were a band of young couples and singles withdrawing from the transient nature of the 1960’s ‘hippie’ and radical ‘Jesus movement’. We had a great love for community but no economic stability or material ‘success’ of which to speak. But knowing the Christian principal of ‘holding all things in common,’ we discovered very quickly that living near each other and helping each other resulted in an economic advantage that had been lost in modern society. Our families began buying the cheapest houses available (usually those in disrepair) and the community labored physically on rotating weekends in order to fix up each other’s homes. These improvements were accomplished with free labor (material costs only) so the equity of the homes rose quickly. Sometimes a house would be bought by two families who would then share the mortgage and repairs. When the equity increased sufficiently, one family would buy out the other, and the family moving out would have a down payment for a home of their own. We bought homes on the same blocks, shared food from our gardens, babysat each other’s kids (for free!). And we tithed ten percent of our income to the church (the majority still) do in accordance with holy tradition founded before the Law. If a new family arrived who had nothing, or an existing family fell on very hard times, they would simply move in with one of the parish families until the crisis past. In all my life, my parents never went long without guests sharing the house. As a child I figured all those people must be related to me somehow; they’d lived in my house. All of this community-mindedness greatly aided our ability to gain and maintain financial stability and to experience, first hand, the love of Christ in the midst of His people. It provided a foundational experience that would propel our community for decades. The reality of that era has greatly diminished in the second generation, but the sparkle of its grace remains.
The holy apostle Paul exhorts us saying, “We rejoice (glory, exult) in our tribulations (sufferings), knowing that tribulations produces perseverance (endurance) and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” Yet how many of us actually rejoice when things are difficult? Even so, psychology and history demonstrate clearly the spiritual reality that in hard times faith increases, people lose the luxury of being self-centered, an honorable and healthy interdependence develops and humility gains ground in the heart. To the Orthodox Christian, times of economic hardship can be gloriously fruitful to the soul and simplifying to our rat-race existence. We are stripped of our deluded impression that material possessions, career success and ‘image’ will make us happy. Priorities are better arranged and our love for those who suffer with us is allowed to grow. In other words we become better people; we become more like Christ.
St. Gregory Palamas assures us that, “Insensibility, callousness and hardness of heart develop as the result of ease, soft living and self-indulgence.” If we embrace the spiritual opportunity offered by times of hardship, there is an incredible decrease in spiritual distractions and, if we so desire, the path to salvation suddenly becomes very clear. I will never forget first reading the comments made by the profound Romanian theologian Fr. Dumitru Staniloae when he was finally released after five years imprisonment under the Communists: “It was an experience like any other,” he stated plainly, “only somewhat difficult for my family.” To this he added only that prison was the only time in his life when he was able to practice, and to retain prayer of the heart; the Jesus Prayer. When pressed to speak out of his tribulations in prison, he refused, saying, “To carry one’s cross is the normal condition of the Christian, and so there is no need to talk about it.”
Lastly, and most terrifying to American society, is the fact that poverty is a blessing. “Blessed are you poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” To be impoverished to the point of despair is a great trial and Orthodox Christians sacrifice in order to relieve such suffering; even “selling all and giving to those in need.” But for those of us blessed and spiritually challenged with living in relative luxury as we do here in the United States, a time of economic hardship can very well be the very first time in our lives that we come face to face with our dependence on Christ; something very easy to deny when life is soft. Yet when major companies are folding and layoffs are happening by the thousands, fear chases men towards God. Our own helplessness becomes suddenly clear. In shock and horror, reality dawns on our prideful minds, “I’m really NOT in control of my life! Bad things can happen even to ME!” And, mercifully, the seed of faith that has been preserved in us since our Baptism awakens. Knowing suddenly that He holds our life in His hand, fear of God enters in, and with it, the beginning of wisdom. We turn towards consolation in prayer, we worship more often in His holy house, and we begin seeing ourselves for who we really are: broken, prideful, cut off from His love, deluded by material security, starving in our souls, and in need of healing. Throwing ourselves on Christ in earnest, a peace and joy enters into our being. It is infinitely deep and eternally satisfying to our soul. All worldly things lose their importance and we begin to truly hunger for God. He feeds us lovingly (as He has desired to do all along!), and the depth of that mystical feast is beyond measure. Reflecting, we recall that hardship brought us to this feast, therefore, we rejoice in our suffering.