In early March 2021, His Grace Bishop John visited St. Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Christian Church in Twin Falls, Idaho, for a pre-Lenten retreat. The retreat’s timely topic was “Being Balanced in an Imbalanced World.” In a (still-not-quite-yet) post-pandemic world, we are all learning how to reprioritize and how to balance our lives. Faith, family, finances, feelings…all of these were affected over the past fifteen months; now things are slowly getting back to “normal,” and everyone is trying to navigate new waters.
How do we move forward from a year of chaos, conspiracies, corruption (both assumed and actual), conflict, and catastrophe? The truth is, none of us are the same, and we may never return to the life we knew pre-pandemic. Many people lost jobs, and many lost loved ones; many couldn’t wait to get their kids back in school, but many have since chosen to keep them at home; some are still looking for work, and some have had severe mental health issues as a result of the extended isolation and fear.
Many of us are still dealing with lost or damaged relationships with our friends, families, and even with our priests and parishes. Whether it’s the origin of the virus, whom should be in the White House, the fragility of our freedoms, the validity of vaccinations, the relevance of racism, or the ever-popular mask debate, everyone held differing views and ideas on, well…everything!
Things may be calming down, but the residual effects of 2020 will linger for years to come. But His Grace reminded us that the world was off-balance long before 2020. Why? Because we continue to choose ourselves over God. In the words of Bishop John, “It’s not that Eve ate the fruit; it’s that she and Adam chose their own hunger over God and His life.”
His Grace noted three particular points. Even now, well past Pascha, we can still apply such pre-Lenten encouragements to our daily lives, in times of feast or famine, calm or chaos.
1. Abandon Individual Biases. His Grace said we are all susceptible to individual bias which says, “I do everything out of circumstance, while everyone else does it out of personality.” For example, “I ran the red light because I was running late, but they ran the red light because they’re inconsiderate.”
This is neither balanced nor Christlike behavior. Bishop John assured us that being off balance is what leads us to resentment, and so we must be deliberate. We must, in the midst of getting angry at the differing political opinions of our loved ones, ask ourselves, what’s more important? Whether someone is or isn’t wearing a mask, or being right with God? It’s not that difficult of a question and the answer isn’t even up for debate. Yet many of us without hesitation opt to judge our neighbor and make assumptions without any self-reflection.
His Grace reiterated that oftentimes what aggravates us the most about others are the things that aggravate us about ourselves; we pinpoint those things in others because it makes us feel better about our own weaknesses. This pride is a great source of sin and evil, and a major contributor to keeping us off balance. We must remove individual bias from our lives, choose to see the best in others, and admit our own failings so that we might reflect and properly repent. Our task is to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and better love and forgive others as Christ loves and forgives us.
2. Set Appropriate Boundaries. His Grace suggested that with regards to setting boundaries, whether literal or figurative, we must ask ourselves these three questions: What is reasonable in this situation? What is holy? What is God’s perspective on this matter?
What is reasonable? These answers can often be found by conversing with our priest, who knows us well and has been given the grace to guide us when we come to him seeking advice. What is holy? These answers are easily accessible by way of both the saints and the scriptures. What is God’s perspective? Typically this is not difficult to discern when we are familiar with the Faith, or at the very least, know where to turn.
Boundaries also pertain to our thought lives. “Do not take on the responsibility of others’ choices, distortions, opinions, beliefs, or actions,” Bishop John said. “That’s a very heavy and unnecessary burden. We cannot control others. Instead, face God and pray.” He reminded us that people are typically the way they are, and we won’t be the ones to change them; only God can do that.
3. Be yourself. At first glance this may seem like a modern mantra, but it’s really very Orthodox. Bishop John assured us that Christ came to show us who we are; sin is not in our nature and so we mustn’t define ourselves by our sins. Instead, we must see ourselves as people of the Resurrection.
To really be human is to be like Christ and to be balanced is to be like God. “To be yourself,” said His Grace, “is to detach from the passions.” Easier said than done, of course. We do this through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We attach ourselves to God through prayer (interaction and relationship with our Creator), and we detach ourselves from the world through fasting (self-denial) and almsgiving (meeting others’ needs).
His Grace acknowledged that Christians often experience burnout when we either can’t or don’t live the way we know God wants us to live. This leads to cognitive dissonance, to feeling misunderstood and not being able to help others, and simply not being able to perform the work we feel called to do. The Christian life is all about taking care of what’s most important first, and so, according to His Grace, we must be intentional and deliberate about budgeting our time, finances, and our energy.
Yes, 2020 was a rough year, but there have been rougher ones and there will be rough times ahead, since difficulties and struggles are a part of life. We must live in the knowledge that all God truly wants from us is to love Him and other people. This is how we really do begin bringing balance to our lives and being a light to an ever-darkening world.
One of Bishop John’s encouragements can be applied for all Orthodox believers no matter what the liturgical season, and no matter where they may be on their journey towards a more balanced life. “During Lenten prostrations, focus on the part where you get back up,” said His Grace. “It’s easy to fall down, but the lesson is in getting back up.”