I could not resist using the title from the R.E.M. hit of a few years ago for this post, though it’s really not about losing one’s religion: it’s more about losing your soul.
In one of my favorite C.S. Lewis novels, That Hideous Strength, Lewis tries his hand at the description of a soul in danger of being lost. His friend, Charles Williams, had, years before, masterfully done the same in his book, Descent Into Hell. There could be many pages written and discussions had about the exact meaning of “losing one’s soul.” But I know what I mean – and I cannot define it in a few words.
In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, his character, Mark Studdock, is pictured being tempted to lose his soul through a long string of seemingly inane choices (engineered by the infernal regions), no one of which in itself seems all that bad. He is making his way through the ranks of an institution, imagining himself becoming an “insider:” the bait that would take his very soul.
The world in which we live is, of course, no different. There are a thousand little things across the day or a week – small decisions we make on which turn very little – or so it would seem. Being Americans, we think of the “big decision” when it comes to religious matters. Thus, we easily think that “conversion” means a decision to join a Church or something similar. Of course, the definition of conversion should include such large decisions, but the process of conversion is quite the opposite: it is a composite of a thousand-thousand small decisions and actions.
Our hearts are formed and shaped in a very small crucible. The large decisions frequently come as the fruit of many much smaller. A decision to act and live with integrity, for instance, will yield many smaller results, even surprising results.
I had opportunity to preach last Sunday on the relationship between our inner life and our outer life. Integrity would be for these two aspects of our life to act in union, not only with each other, but with God as well. St. Maximus the Confessor, in theology that is not very easily penetrable, teaches of the “natural will,” a will that exists in us unfallen. It is an affirmation that although much within us is disordered, there remains, nonetheless, something that has not turned from God. For this same reason St. Augustine could write, “Our hearts are restless ’til they find their rest in Thee.” Within this understanding there can be no integrity that is not also union with God. We cannot act as an “integer” a “whole” until we can act in union with that within us which longs for God.
The host of smaller decisions that draw the soul away from God are a turning moment by moment away from this integrity. It is learning to live with an aspect of “deafness” in our lives – learning not to hear the voice of God that calls to us from the depths – a voice that leaves everything disconcerted until it is heeded.
It is interesting that the Latin roots of the word for “obedience” mean to act out of “listening” (it is related to the word audience). By the same token, the Latin word for its opposite, to act out of “deafness,” is the word absurd. The life lived without heed to the voice of God is a life lived in absurdity.
Christ tells us that “he who is faithful in small things will be made steward of larger things” (if you’ll pardon my paraphrase). The salvation of our soul – in whatever respect affected by our decisions – consists primarily in very small decisions, made moment by moment. Today I will not speak except in kindness. Such a small decision – one that would require a host of other smaller decisions (and discipline) is the sort of decision which requires efforts of integrity. It is a very small thing to say, and a string of very small things to do. But how will we ever reach the heights except we climb these lower reaches?
By the same token we are told that in “patience possess ye your souls.” Patience is almost invariably the bearing of very small insults – waiting for someone else or something else. It consists in doing almost nothing, when doing something would itself be sin.
Whatever we lose or gain today in terms of our soul – will be lost or gained largely in the smallest of matters. And yet these smallest of matters is, indeed, what matters.
I’ve really struggled with things in my life lately. And as I sit on the computer reading this before I go to work today, I feel it was written for me to read. I… I really needed to read that.
In IC XC,
This post reminds me of one my favorite quotes (and I don’t know anymore who said it first..) “How we spend our days is how we live our lives”. It helps me see the greater context our small choices fit within.
Tia, indeed. I can think of no better way to measure “living deliberately.” You doubtless could teach all of us much about making small, deliberate, conscious decisions on a daily basis. It’s not more complicated than that, but neither is it easier than that.
I think one part of what it means to live in such a manner is that it means to live.
Thanks for the note.
Beautifully said Father. I’ve always struggled to pay attention to the small things. Would much rather wait to screw things up in a really BIG way! Seriously though, thanks for this post. I needed the reminder in couple of areas I’ve been trying to change in my life.
I think this rings true for me as well.
Wonderful post, Father! With all this talk of little deeds I am reminded of the “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux — whose autobiography, Story of a Soul I am reading now. Have you read it? If so what do you think of her “little way” and how it relates to what you say here?
en IC XC
I have read St. Therese – many years back, but have always liked her, particularly her “little way.” There really isn’t a “big way,” if I might underline the point of my post. We don’t live from big thing to big thing, but just one small thing at a time. It’s the only place we really can be faithful.
Wonderful post! My favorite sci-fi trilogy is his space trilogy and that is my favorite book in the series. I have read and reread that book because it has such gems hidden in it. To do the small things is doing the big things. Sometimes we hold off on doing things because we feel that they are too small and we lose the chance of accomplishment. One thing at a time. When I came to Orthodoxy it was because of small choices and steps I took over a 10 year (most probably 48) period of soul searching and looking for a relevant faith. Every turn I took led me closer as does even now! Glory to God in ALL things!
ah, if only we could “take every thought captive to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5)
Take them captive one at a time.
Just for the record, the REM song title “Losing My Religion,” refers to an old southern expression, which is synonymous with the expression “At the end of my rope.” In other words, the song has nothing to do with religion or losing it. I’m REM gave up explaining this long ago because, in the never ending process of repeated explanations, they found themselves “losing their religion.”
Hi Father Stephen,
You might be interested to look at this blog of a Benedictine priest by the name of Fr. Odon de Castro. He is into the Benedictine way of life and the teachings of the Great Fathers of the Church. He is also very loyal to the Pope. You can find his blog at http://odondecastro.blogspot.com
It is good to be reminded that our souls are both ever in danger and yet naturally turned toward God. This does mean that each has a spiritual duty to care for their soul. None is excused from this duty. As Cicero said, “There is not a moment without duty.”
As an old southernor, I was vaguely aware of this. Just a good title to rip off.
Gelo, Thank you for the reference.
Dear Fr. Stephen:
Thank you for these thoughts. You always seem to have a gift for timing on the seeds you cast! In the midst of trying to prepare for confession and reception this week, I had to grimly laugh at myself for missing the ‘small things’ as I prepare for the ‘big thing’ which is, in a way, but a futher opportunity to be attentive in these small things, even in the moment – each baptism, chrismation, etc., is (it seems to this no-nothing) an occasion of “preaching Christ crucified” — or can be [God grant that!]. In the end, the event has less to do with me than with Him.
Please forgive any pride or vain thoughts I’ve expressed here, or any thing wherein I may have offended . . . and I ask your prayers that my reception (and further life) will only be to God’s glory and a witness to Him.
And thank you again for the sound, ireinic teaching you provide here.
I come from a small holiness tradition known as The Church of God (Anderson, IN)– three years ago I started going to a University there–Anderson University as it were. I’m studying Bible and Religion as well as Philosophy.
The thing that is hard for me, is that the reasons I came 3 years ago are no loner reasons that I am here–the studying and training in Exegesis as well as of Christian Theology have in some sense made me feel that I have lost the ground–my grounding in the morality that my parents gave me.
For a tradition like mine, how do you define holiness in a time where society and technology are so heavily influencing the lay understanding of it? I feel like the things my parents have taught me have all been outmoded and outdone by reasonable theologians, theologians that whether I agree with them or not make a very strong argument. Theologians like Paul Tillich, Charles Harshthorne, and DZ Phillips (more a Philosopher of Religion than Theologian).
The other thing that I find hard to accept is the absolute hypocrisy of many churches–churches that have created an atmosphere where something as benign as saying tabooed words (curse words) may castigate or mark a person who uses them–but these same people who are outcasting others are ignoring the homeless on our streets, the junky in the alley, the aids crisis in Africa, the pervasive ecological decline of our earth.
I feel like I have lost my community, it’s difficult to worship to songs that have words that are so shallow (as many of the churches in my movement have been adopting contemporary worship songs). And its especially hard for me to accept expenses at our budget meetings when I so fully remember hearing stories of conditions for churches in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Have I lost my way? Is this some result of taking so many small steps? Why do I feel so alone in my situation–sometimes I feel like I am alone even from God.
What am I to do?
I only try to help us focus on the small things lest any of us, myself included, be subject to delusion. The large things are subject to discussion, and should be discussed, of course, but all too often in our Orthodox internet world, people discuss the large stuff as if they were church fathers or something, while the small stuff, the things of which our life and our salvation actually consist, are neglected. Thus I have carved out for myself a “small” place in the scheme of Orthodox teaching and encouragement. And yet I know, in the larger scheme, I have chosen the better part. May God give us grace, moment by moment, to be faithful in the things he gives us. May I be kind to all whom I meet this day.
Dave, my heart goes out to you. I wonder where to begin. I think that your instincts are largely quite right. Certainly Paul Tillich is not a theologian worth reading. He’s both out of date (if you’re a liberal) and beside the point if you’re actually a believer. I’ve read much of him in my years prior to becoming Orthodox.
Part of what you point to is that in Protestantism, even fairly conservative and traditional denominations have lost their way. The Orthodox Church has watched this with growing alarm. Whereas we have been slow to evangelize in the past, respect what was correct elsewhere, and tolerating where they differed from the traditional Orthodox faith, this has no longer become tolerable. The Orthodox Church has felt it necessary to say to other Christians – flee. Run for your life to the truth of the faith that has been stored up and kept for you these many centuries.
Begin to read in Orthodox writings and titles. Though some will seem new and strange at first, this is the faith that has preserved the world by God’s grace. What you love and know to be true, you will find here, as well as much that you did not know. But flee the purveyors of modernism. They know not what they do!
Amen to that, Fr. Stephen.
Dave, you might want to start by reading St. Basil the Great’s treatise On the Holy Spirit and St. Athanasius On the Incarnation. Both are available from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in Crestwood, NY. May God bless you and guide you.
Alice. Thank you. Also, Dave if there are questions or other matters, please don’t hesitate to email me directly.
Dave, the shortcomings of the fruits of the Reformation come to us all in various ways. There are SO many human issues that are magnified by the inadequacy of modern evangelicalism to address. I say “human issues” because they exist even in the Orthodox Church. It would be a bait and switch for us to say to you that the Orthodox Church knows no problems with hypocrisy, social justice, ethical laspes etc. We have them all too. But what we also have is 2000 years of grounded, unequivocal spirituality that addresses these issues both on a personal scale (where all things begin really) and within the Church. I’d suggest picking up St. John Chrysostom “On Wealth and Poverty”, and reading Bradley Nassif’s article on social justice in Chrysostom here http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2007/002/3.11.html
God bless you for your spiritual sensitivities, you are not alone.
Thank you for this thoughtful & helpful post. Isn’t it wonderful how CSL & CW both manage to describe the eternal importance of tiny choices, yet without slipping into legalism? They both understand and express a kind of spiritual existence, rather than a chain of deeds, as the foundation for their “true fiction.” Thanks for the reminder.
Charles Williams has been “the forgotten Inkling”, and suddenly in the last few says I’ve found several blog posts about him. I’ve tried to link some of them at Notes from underground: Descent into hell — Coinherence and substitution
Williams is interesting – a very strange background (though probably no stranger than Owen Barfield’s). Lewis had an interesting circle of friends. But make no mistake, Lewis was the center of the Inklings. Apparently he was the affable sort with a personality large enough to pull it off.
The strangest remark I ever heard by a priest was an Anglican who once said to me, “I went skinny-dipping with C.S. Lewis.” Apparently at Oxford there is a pond, “Parson’s Pleasure,” where the male students and faculty often swam in such manner. Nonetheless, it was a picture that I did not care to picture.
I have a good friend who has just finished writing a movie script on the life and relationship of Lewis and Tolkein. I’ve read it and it’s quite good. I hope he does well with the film people.
Hi Fr. Stephen,
Thank you so much for the post. Having been involved in some pretty big issues in life, it has been all too easy to get stuck in the cycle of keeping my eyes on them. In the process however, I miss the smaller, sweeter, opportunities to relish in the smaller things that lead us on the path of Holiness. I believe the Orthodox faith is such a beautiful and true representation and expression of Christ’s life and that which He imparts to us to live. I only wish we would spend a little more time focusing within our communities on the “smaller, yet crucial” elements of life within the realm of Orthodoxy. I’m not sure if this is a “Greek”thing, but we seem to live communally for the outward things and quite autonomously for the more heartfelt things that quite honestly, we have been commissioned to edify one another with and through. I have lost several loved ones struggling within our faith that simply put, needed wise counsel, a loving shoulder on which to cry. Many divorces have taken place as well, not only due to the hardening of hearts within the family, but the “little things” are simply not addressed by those we look to for leadership and guidance. Sometimes I feel as if we lose our beautiful religion to the politics of an infrastructure that quite honestly tends to forget the little things. Maybe your voice could be helpful in this area.
Thank you for your obedience in bringing this simple, yet very necessary truth. What a sweet soul you have.
God Bless You,
Thank you for you very sweet note. It is deeply tragic when these things are overlooked. As a priest, I will have much to answer for come the judgment. I hope I can be faithful and teach these little things for what they are – the very things of which the true faith consists.
It’s nice to see that other people have read Descent Into Hell; phenomenal novel.
thanks for a great post as well!
It’s a very profound novel, even hard to read because he does such a good job of writing. I think that book and a number of other things have made me reach the conclusions that souls are lost and saved in the tiniest of things – things that add up and culminate in the larger decisions for and against God.
I think of the woman who grumbles in Lewis’ The Great Divorce. And we’re told the problem isn’t that she grumbles, but whether there is more than a grumble left.
Thanks for the post. I feel as if I have lost my religion or soul. I haven’t been a faithful servant of God. I used to love going to church. I used to look forward to it. But somewhere when I was growing up I fell away from church and over time I even quit praying. I was wondering if I would have your blessing to Post this on one of my blogs. I think that this can help other people that aren’t aware of your blog here.
Christopher – please feel free to use this.