The Fathers and Mothers of the Church often speak of two ways we err in our pursuit of godliness: to the left and to the right. Error to the left is the error of casting off restraint, of giving in to temptation, of letting go of all discipline. It is what St. Isaac calls in one place, “the freedom that precedes slavery.” We can easily err in our pursuit of the Christian life by being too easy on ourselves, by not disciplining and controlling our thoughts, words and actions. However, this way of err is pretty well known. Many of us have been warned repeatedly of the dangers of relaxing our discipline—we have been warned so much that we may have even developed a fear of letting up, a fear that we might loose everything if we relax in one area or another.
But this overemphasis on discipline and the fear of erring to the left has pushed many (Yours Truly included) to err to the right. Erring to the right refers to becoming too righteous. Consider the words of Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?” This warning from the Bible is echoed throughout the spiritual writings of the Church fathers and Mothers.
St. Isaac the Syrian also warns against “immoderate activity.” One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies, a theme that he picks up from St. Macarious the Great (whom St. Isaac often quotes), is that so long as we are in the body, we are subject to change. This change St. Isaac blames on the “humours,” following the medical understanding of his time. Today we might speak of hormonal changes, changes in stages or circumstances of life, or changes in body chemistry (e.g. diabetes, diet induced changes, or stress induced changes). St. Macarious likens the changes we endure to the atmosphere: just as we have no control over the weather, we have very little control (and often no direct control) over changes in mood, attitude and feelings within us. Until our death (that is, so long as we are joined to what St. Paul calls “this body of death”) we will have to endure changes. For this reason, we must be both disciplined and moderate in our spiritual pursuits.
St. Isaac puts it this way (and here I am summarizing): If we err to the left by being too relaxed with ourselves, by not guarding attentively what we think, say and do, or by not keeping disciplined in our life of prayer and virtue; if we err in this way, we will find ourselves falling into confusion leading to temptation by lusts. If, on the other hand, we err to the right by being too hard on ourselves, by being immoderate in our righteous works (including both external works and private prayer life), then we will also fall into confusion leading to despondency and despair: “Righteous works with moderation and…perseverance are beyond price; slackening in them increases lust, but excess, on the other hand, increases confusion.”
Moderation with perseverance are the key.
Let me tell you a story. A certain friend of mine has found a great deal of peace in praying the Jesus Prayer. He has developed a friendship with a monk at a nearby monastery, and over the years, this monk has become his confessor. My friend was afraid to ask his monk confessor for a prayer rule because he knows the monk prays (it seems to him) unceasingly. Particularly, he was afraid to ask for a specific rule regarding the Jesus Prayer. The monks in this monastery pray the Jesus Prayer exclusively for an hour each day and then continually throughout the day. He was afraid that if he asked for a rule, the monk would give him something too big for him to do regularly. After several years of relationship, my friend finally got up the courage to ask his confessor for a rule. And you know the rule the monk gave him? Not 100, not 300, not 500, but 50. Fifty Jesus Prayers anytime during the day that he could fit it in—even while driving to work!
“Fifty Jesus prayers”, my friend told the monk, “that’s easy. It takes less than ten minutes.” And then the monk told him the same advice St. Isaac is telling us today: “The secret to developing a prayer life is to begin very small and to stay consistent: you can always pray more if you want, but you don’t have to.”
Prayer rules are funny things, in my experience. (Not “ha ha” funny, but ironic funny.) A small, easy to keep, regular prayer rule—even if it is only the Our Father muttered sincerely from your heart before you get out of bed in the morning—even such a small prayer rule, does more real, long-term good in our lives with God than do longer, more strenuous rules that we either continually fail to complete or (worse case scenario) we complete with frustration in our hearts. Prayer requires discipline, but it is a life-giving discipline. Disciplines that leave us depressed and confused are almost always manifestations of error: error to the right.
I think for many people, and this has been the case in my life, it often comes down to humility—or lack thereof. I have wanted to think of myself as someone who is sincere and fairly mature in my Life in Christ, and whenever I have let this thought abide in my mind, it has resulted in my biting off more than I can chew. I commit myself to habits of prayer that I cannot keep over the long haul, I commit myself to good works that I just don’t have the energy to do (not without sacrificing my family or some other responsibility that I already have), I commit myself to behaviour (righteous habits) that have more to do with what I think I ought to be like than they have to do with any genuine desire to love God and neighbour. And when I fail in these commitments, as I always do, I return to humility (humiliation is often a doorway to humility).
The advice of St. Isaac and St. Macarius can save us, can lead us to humility another way. If we can observe and accept the reality in ourselves of our changeability, of our feebleness and our brokenness, then we can make a beginning with something small. Since I know, for example, that cold rains are common here where I live, I’d be a fool to begin a long walk without rain gear—even if the sun is shining right now. Similarly, since I know that I am spiritually weak and my inner world is subject to storms and snows and blustery days, it is foolish of me to begin any righteous endeavour without taking precautions for these realities, this changeableness that I know exist in myself—even if today I feel like I can climb Mt. Tabor to be transfigured with Christ. The reality is that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, I won’t. I stand a much better chance of actually climbing the mountain of holiness if I just get used to camping about the base for a long while. The air is very thin on top of the mountain, and I get winded just walking about its base.
It’s a good thing that our spiritual life is not a competition. I think St. Paul’s metaphor of spiritual life as a competition may have made much more sense before the era of capitalism. Nowadays, we have a terrible fear of losing. We have a fear that if we don’t try hard enough, God will abandon us. We fear that we will miss out, be left in the dust, or just somehow fail to make the grade if we don’t burn ourselves out climbing mountains too steep for us, doing righteous deeds that are too hard for us. We don’t really trust in God. We don’t really believe that God loves us, that we already have everything in Christ, and that any work we do is just so that we can better appreciate and perceive all that God has already given us. We don’t realize that we misunderstand God and His calling in our lives just as easily by trying too hard as by not trying at all.
The Christian way is the middle way, the way of humility and life-giving discipline. It is the way of trusting in God—it is not about trusting in my ability to please God.