How many of us have thought how much easier our spiritual life would be if we didn’t have to deal with daily chores, refereeing sibling arguments, stretching to make ends meet when the stretch is reaching its breaking point, or trying to remain a kind and gentle spirit in the face of not so kind and gentle people?
I have, daydreaming of the time in my life when trying to cook for the fast won’t be such a struggle, or not having to worry that each parental decision I make is setting the stage for my kids’ future psychotherapy sessions. (Well, I really don’t take it that far, but I’m quite sure I’ve done some decent psychic damage which I’ll hear about someday in front of my grandkids.) Life out in the monastic boonies just seems like a less treacherous and more peaceful path to spiritual sanity.
But what do I know? At a recent retreat for the women of the parish, I learned that St. Theophan the Recluse wrote that a hermit has a harder time making progress with instinctive, deep-rooted sin than a person who lives in the world. “Life lived in common with others is more suitable, because it provides us with practical experience in struggling with the passions and overcoming them. In solitude, the struggle goes on only in the mind, and is often as weak in its effects as the impact of a fly’s wing.” Dang…not only is the grass not greener on the other side, it has brown patch as well.
So if we, in our hectic and demanding lives actually have such golden opportunities for overcoming our passions, why do we end up in confession sounding like a broken record, repeating the same sins over and over and over again? I’m sure Fr. Aidan (and all parish priests) could win bets predicting our list of transgressions, though we may throw in a new one here and there to replace one we finally got right.
“The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives” was the topic of our retreat, and was presented by Susan Cushman (a priest’s wife, mother of three, and an iconographer) of St. John’s Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Her goal was to first identify what is meant by balance, and how we can achieve it first in an earthly sense, and then ultimately in a spiritual one. Beginning with stories of five women who achieved sainthood by humbly enduring the lives God gave them and reaching out to the needy around them, we saw that it was indeed possible for people in everyday life to actually become saints. They weren’t ascetics, they didn’t live among lepers, they did not leave their families. Instead, they embraced all that God gave them, and shared this joy with others.
Next, we talked about how we really can work this out in the world around us. Why do we want control and authority, and how do we relinquish it when we figure out how destructive it is? How do we cultivate meaningful friendships that will support us in our quest for healthy activities and conversation? How do we set aside our pride and take on suffering with humility and obedience? Where do we find the confidence to give kids as much freedom as possible, knowing that they will likely abuse it at one time or another, or perhaps even for years or a lifetime? Ultimately, how do we make our hearts a place of peace by daily accepting God’s earthly plan for us, and then reflecting this contentment through our words and actions?
As Susan spoke, I thought of each day as a test, and what my spiritual score would be at bedtime. Did I try to make everyone’s morning positive? Did I make time for meaningful prayer? Did I lose my temper at my kids for forgetting their chores again? Did I show extra patience with a student who was doing his best to disrupt the class? Did I judge my neighbor who lets her two toddlers play in the cul-de-sac unsupervised? Did I feel the love and peace of the Holy Spirit within me enough to guarantee me a spot in God’s Heavenly Kingdom?
Or did I act as though I had yet another day, another week, another year to put into action all those things my heavenly Father has taught me, but have not been humble enough to obey? (As I sit here typing this, I realize how audacious it is of me to expect my kids to listen to all my rules, when for 51 years, I have certainly thumbed my nose at many of God’s.)
Having one foot in the world around us, with its insistence on self-esteem, pride, individual rights, competition, material wealth, litigation, entertainment, and over all “me-first” messages, causes our other foot to grope willy-nilly for some sense of spiritual balance. Look how insidious it all is; in one 8th grade class last week, two students came in wearing t-shirts with these messages: “YOU’VE NEVER EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT BEING THIS COOL” and ‘I’LL TRY BEING NICER IF YOU TRY BEING SMARTER”. What the marketing world considers fashion humor, subtly (or not) becomes the mantra of another generation, and fosters the incipient personality traits which as adults we struggle so hard to conquer.
Messages like these which are dripped into our psyches day after day after day eventually morph into the repetitive behaviors that are even more difficult to let go of than the 10 pounds we gained last year. So maybe that explains confession.
Both the speaker and my sister parishioners were indeed humbling to hear as they shared life experiences; some which had dragged them to despair and depression; some which had humored them through troubled parental waters. We heard how one mom bit her tongue while watching her son go to prom with perfectly spiked, bleached blond hair, chains, and spit-polished jump boots (oh yeah, and his father’s black suit and tie to meet the school’s dress code). Another wept with the remembrance of seeing her mother on her knees, praying that her spiritually wayward daughter would find her way back to church. We heard the heartache of a mother who told her suicidal son, after helping him over and over again in every way possible, that no, they would not drive him to the hospital one more time to keep from hurting himself. And we all breathed a sigh of relief that he was awake the next morning, ready to take control of his life. We learned that we were all looking for solutions, which in essence meant that our children, our husbands, our lives were problems, and not opportunities for spiritual growth. It was an emotional day.
And so was Divine Liturgy the next morning. Looking at a room full of women who had gathered together for a special weekend, and hearing Father pray for each one of us by name (including those who were not able to be there) was all it took to bring me to the brink of tears, the way sappy commercials do, or the realization that my daughter only has a year left at home. At least I was able to eke out a few correct notes in our 5-person choir when I wasn’t swallowing the lump in my throat, and I doubt if anyone noticed me looking appreciatively at each and every one, thanking God silently for the blessing of knowing them.
So unlike the monks and nuns, we do have to have that one foot walking amidst 21st century life and all that it presents to us. But if we look at each obstacle to our peace of spirit as the opportunity St. Theophan talks about, we may just find that Middle Place, that common ground between our earthly and heavenly lives. We can face each day with contentment for God’s will. We can trust that what He has given us is what we need at this moment. Perhaps we really can become the saints He expects us to be. And maybe one day, our story too will be told.
 Fr. Aidan Wilcoxson is a priest of St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church– Ed.