In writing about monasticism, I recently made mention of what I called “careful devotion to Christ.” In turn, a reader asked me to write further on “careful devotion.”
In many ways the great problem of our age is the two-storey universe (which is make-believe) in which we live as religious people. We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God.
This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced. In time, those who live in this manner will either cease to believe in God, or will find that their children have abandoned Him, or left the faith to find Him elsewhere, having concluded that Christianity is bankrupt.
The intention I had in writing about monasticism and its importance – was the resurrection in young hearts and minds of the belief in a one-storey universe. Young hearts need to come to the fixed conclusion that God is everywhere present – is more real than the things they think of as “real” and is deeply and utterly committed to our transformation into the image of His beloved Son.
Monasticism with anything less remains a disciplined life – but without such a conviction of the heart would remain as powerless as the two-storey Church. It would be a monasticism that lacked God in anything other than an abstract sense. Such a life would be madness.
The great ascetics of the Church, throughout its history, believed with all their heart that fasting, prayer, repentance and tears, obedience and radical forgiveness of everyone for everything, were tools given us by God for our cooperation with His work of grace – and that such “spiritual labors” yielded fruit – “some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.” They hungered for the Kingdom of God and believed with all their heart that it was possible to enter that blessed state to some degree in this life-time.
Orthodoxy is not faith in abstractions, or about a reward, up-there, someday. It is as real as the Incarnation of the Word. It is as real as the leprosy healed by Christ. It is as real as the storm He calmed from the boat. It is as real as the nails which held His flesh on the cross. No abstractions. Christ’s resurrection is not the victory of abstraction over reality, but the victory of Reality over the delusion of death and all its kingdom. It is the union of earth and heaven, created and uncreated. In such a union there cannot be two metaphysical floors of reality.
It will sound somewhat silly for me to suggest that we learn to pray to God as if He really existed. Of course, God really exists. But the habit of the heart in a two-storey universe has deep and secret doubts about that very reality. True asceticism hungers for the Kingdom of God above all else, knowing that it is the only proper ground of reality.
Of course, such devotion is not meant only for monastics. I simply look for them to help lead the way. In the last analysis, every Orthodox Christian must learn a “careful devotion to Christ.” We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment – and never as an abstraction. Compared to God, we are the abstractions. But God has become man, and in that event the abstraction of our schismatic existence was overcome. In the life of the Church we are now united to Reality. Why do we settle for less?
Why are our enemies more important than God? They must be or we would forgive them.
I could take this question and apply it across-the-board of our Orthodox lives. God is less important to us than many things because we believe in the reality of those things more than the Reality of God. It is two-storey thinking.
Some suggestions (all of which are aimed at overcoming the false sense of God’s distance):
1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.
2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two – now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross – every cross – and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.
3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.
4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.
5. Throughout the day – search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.
6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
The vast majority of us are not monastics and will never be. But we need not abandon ourselves to a Godless world, dotted by oases of His presence. The careful devotion to Christ recognizes Him everywhere (not as in pantheism) but in His goodness and His sustaining of all things, and in His person. We can be bold to overcome the “demons of feeble impertinence.”