I have heard Fr. Thomas Hopko quote his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, many times as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.” The image, of course, is of playing cards. Fr. Alexander’s point is that the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control – our spiritual lives consist in how we respond to what is beyond our control. It is home-spun wisdom.
There is another image that comes to my mind when I think of playing cards: stacking the deck (also known as cheating). We’ll return to this in a moment.
I have long thought that one of the deepest “religious” impulses in human beings is a belief in luck. Christians, Jews, people of every creed and no creed, want to “win.” And, of course, luck does not require a god. A great deal of what passes for devotion is, in fact, an effort to influence the outcome of the game. Much of this thinking falls in the “magical” category. “If I am a good man, I will be luckier.”
Change the language of luck and it becomes more devout. If I say my prayers; if I keep the fast; if I am less angry; if I give more money, etc. If…then. For some, God is the rewarder of those who do good – thus efforts of greater devotion yield more desirable results.
The most subtle aspect of our belief in luck is how quickly it substitutes for faith in God and how deeply it undermines the spiritual life. There is a feeling of happiness that accompanies winning. Some would even call it “gratitude.” “Thank your lucky stars,” however, is more appropriate than “thank God.”
Luck presumes a universe that differs greatly from the Christian account. With luck, the universe operates according to blind chance. No God is needed in the world of luck. There is the neurotic belief, of course, that if we’re smart enough and quick enough, we can bring some influence into the realm of luck and increase our chances. It is a perversion of “works righteousness.” The lucky universe is a world in which the wise learn to stack the deck and cheating brings great rewards.
The Christian account of the universe leaves nothing to chance. This is not to say that Christians profess a world of no freedom nor a world in which events are predetermined. The “mechanics” of the world remain a mystery. Every theological attempt to speak too specifically about such mechanics yields heresy. The world is free, we are free and God is free. But in the paradox of faith we confess that “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28).
Many people see the rider “those who love God and are called…” and mistake this to mean that the “good” is only for them. The mystery of goodness is the mystery of our salvation – our conformity to the image of Christ – our participation in the Divine Energies – our theosis. Goodness is not our winning the lottery or getting that new job we want or acceptance into the right schools, etc. It may not even include my child’s healing from cancer. The Christian account is a belief in the goodness of God as made known to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the world read through the lens of Christ’s self-sacrifice that allows us to say, “All things work together for good.” That profession of faith will sometimes appear utterly contradicted by the evidence around us. I cannot argue it’s case – I can only bear witness to what I know in the risen Christ.
What I know is that I am not lucky. The traditional morning prayer of Orthodoxy says:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.
This is not fatalism (“what will happen will happen and there is nothing to be done about it”). This is acceptance of the goodness of God. Belief in luck is fatalism, with the added nonsense that I know enough and am wise enough to make things turn out just a little bit better. Every gambler thinks he can beat the house.
In the crucible of experience our modern world has the unprejudiced testimony of addicts living in recovery. They speak about “acceptance” rather than luck. Luck is the stuff that addictions are made from. In the addicted life (and the life of sin) we keep doing the same thing expecting a different outcome. Next time…
Only confidence in a good God who loves mankind can save us from the madness of our drive to manage the universe. Those in recovery, like the fathers of the Church, also speak of “gratitude” and “thankfulness.” There is no one outside of ourselves (or our lucky stars or other notions of make-believe) to thank for our good luck. Fortuna is a brutal goddess.
Only if there is a good God who wills good for His creation can we be thankful. Such gratitude presses us to the limits of our weakness. “Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.” May I run out of luck and learn to be grateful.