Our culture celebrates the ability we have to choose – and so we think a lot about choices. We are told every four years that we get to “choose” our leaders (though the choices given to us might not be suitable in either direction). As I look back and think of my preaching over the years I can see a change – and not just a change wrought by my conversion to Orthodoxy. In many ways it has been a change wrought by the fact that I am not a young man any more (though I do not think I am yet an “old” man).
But I can recall a lot of sermons from my late 20’s (I was first ordained and assigned to a Church at the age of 27) that were primarily concerned with choices. The thought that anything was simply a given, or that anything impinged on my freedom was uncomfortable.
As years have gone by and I have watched my children grow up, leave home and settle into their own lives, it seems to me that I have fewer choices – or rather that the most important thing in my day may not have much to do with choice at all.
The vast majority of fundamental things in my life were completely beyond any choice I made. My gender, my nationality, my race, my language, my genetic inheritance – are all matters that I have to live with and come to terms with, but not matters that I choose. Part of the madness of our modern world is that things which do not belong to the realm of choice are being turned into options: do I have this baby; do I want this gender; etc.
Fr. Thomas Hopko is very fond of quoting his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”
This comes much closer to my present experience. So much of my life has always been beyond my control and only delusion has made me think otherwise. There are fundamental choices – to yield my life to God and acknowledge the fact that He is Lord of my Life. But it is also true that He is Lord whether I choose to acknowledge that or not. The choice I make is whether to remain delusional or to embrace the truth. That is a large choice, indeed, and one to be made moment by moment, but it is still a far cry from the power I once thought I had.
It is interesting to have more than one child. It is certainly interesting to have four, as we do. I can recall that when we only had one, we were able to imagine that this darling little girl was largely “darling” because we were wonderful parents. The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. How is this possible? Because people are different from the moment of their existence. The other two (a boy and a girl) have only ratified this understanding. They belong to God, not me. He created them, even if the “stuff” of their creation was consubstantial with me and their mother.
Of course, as they grow up, they have to learn that their lives largely consist in how they deal with what they have been dealt. And thus we all pray, “Lord, have mercy!”
We are more powerful than we imagine, but not in the ways we imagine. We are utterly weak in matters where we think we are masters. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we feel our way forward. Learning to choose what God has chosen for us and in so doing find the salvation of our souls.
Photo: My family last September (one son-in-law was not able to be with us).
Having Alexander Schmemann as your father-in-law: now THERE’S a hand! (although presumably, Fr. Thomas had some choice in the matter).
Wow! I recently transferred to a fire station significantly closer to home (310 miles to be exact) and I hate it. The days, the area, all of it. I have been praying over this exact issue of dealing with what I have been dealt. I find my spirituality is very weak indeed, on the scale given by Fr Schmemann.
Thank you for this reminder. “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
As I approach old age, I think increasingly on the words of our Lord to St. Peter, that when he was old, he would be led where he did not want to go. For many years now, I have recognized the sheer silliness of believing that we have very many choices, but the silliest of all was the “five-year plan” that captivated business executives during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Aside from its eyebrow-raising associations with Joseph Stalin — how do we know where Life will take us inside of five years?! Or, for that matter, inside of five months, or five minutes?! The only “plan” worth making involves the most inevitable “non-choice” of all: We all die. Therefore, today, minute by minute, plan towards eternity, for Christ is truly risen!
A beautiful post, Father.
Your observations about the experience of parenthood is right on. My wife and I are blessed with two daughters, who are about as radically different in temparament and interests as one could expect. One is an introvert, an artist, a writer. She loves solitude. She reads constantly. The other loves sports, can barely sit down to read, and is an extrovert. And they each demonstrated these characteristics from the beginning.
Each is a gift from God. Each is a joy and an education for her parents.
We didn’t choose them, but couldn’t have chosen better.
“Freedom is having no choice”
Thank you Father.
The way to bear my own “cross,” I now realize, is prayer that seeks to find the Lord’s glory in the midst of all — to offer Him what bears on me and the people and things I bear upon. I have nothing else to offer. Everything else I’ve tried proves pretentious and empty.
I recall this passage from Psalm 5 and what a friend told me about the Hebrew: “My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.” (NKJ) My friend said the Hebrew meaning of sacrifice and offering in this passage is simply “I offer.” It does not distinguish the person praying from his circumstances. The Psalmist simply looks, waits, watches for the Lord to come into the midst of it all. Active recognition that that God is at the center of all things is to invite Him into our midst. As we are His temple it makes some sense that the only gift He wants is us.
Thank you for this post. I’ve not been able to have things “my way” very often in this life and it has been a work of grace. Thank God. And thank you for the picture. God bless.
I rarely comment on your blog, though I often read it. I find that most of the things you write about, and your takes on them, match mine pretty closely. We are close to the same age and even share some similar background, with the Episcopal church, for example. Now I learn we even have four kids each, altho mine are all sons.
The idea in this post that impacted me the most is that our free choice is limited, more than we imagine, and that in large part mankind’s besetting sin is to try to make choices where no real choice is possible.
I have a favorite saying that is probably a cliché, and I’m not sure if I came up with it myself, or whether I heard it early in my Christian life, but I often use it when I am witnessing one-on-one. “You didn’t have a choice to be born, but you do have a choice to born again.”
Of course, the root idea is from Christ’s night visit with Nikódimos.
Modern man, even modern Christians sometimes, have the attitude, “if it’s possible to do it, then do it.” Hence, modern medical science has given us “choices” to change our sex, modern psychology certifies as normal our choice to change our sexuality, and the educational establishment opens to everyone career choices for which some are really incapable of fulfilling, and this is followed up by a make-over of what constitutes competent performance of a job.
This will not be a lamentation of present circumstances. Sin is the same from the beginning till now. We just express it differently, yet it is still so boring and uncreative.
To choose freely to have the same will as that of another, in marriage, in partnerships, in families, in the church community, is to undo the sin of Adam and reengage our lives, resynchronize them, with the life of the Holy Trinity. This is always the work of grace in us, yet our good and man-loving God is so patient with us, waiting for us to choose what He has chosen, proving that we are indeed the children of our Father.
Joanne’s comment reminded me of this well-known prayer attributed to a Confederate soldier disabled during the Civll War:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for-but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
I would much appreciate prayer for a friend of mine, Louise, whose many infirmities and sufferings–physical, emotional and spiritual–are too numerous to mention and whose choices are perhaps even more limited than those of most of us. Her prayer right now–along with that for relief from her many and increasing physical disabilities and the pain that is her constant companion–is for a proper and right image of God, which she has struggled for years against many unyielding obstacles to attain. I see parallels between her needs and those of the Paralytic, whose healing by Christ we commemorated this past Sunday. Her only hope is from a visitation from on High.
Apparently, many have made a choice to visit this blog–1600 more hits, and the total will be 2 million. Congratulations, Father Stephen, and thank you for your wisdom and depth of heart and mind.
Thank you for the congratulations and for noticing. We should cross the 2 million mark tomorrow night, with a little luck. Mostly it tells me that if you do just a little bit each day, someday, it’s a lot. Mostly I think of many kind notes and private emails from people who have been helped in their journey towards Orthodoxy, or just a little deeper into the faith. I know I am helped tremendously – even therapeutically – by writing. Glory to God.
I am thankful for your blog. I recommend it to people all of the time. Thank you for this well-put post. I really do like that quote, “Spirituality consists in dealing with what you’ve been dealt.”
Good words. Thank you for writing!
Well said Father.
Thank you for this post. I am in my late 20s and as you said it “seems to me” I have more choices.
Could you maybe detail sometime the last sentence of your post: “Learning to choose what God has chosen for us…”.