The All Consuming Vocation

what_do_i_want_to_be_when_i_grow_up_1To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.” – Fr. Dimitru Staniloae

Vocation is a luxurious word. The very heart of the consumer economy is its ability to offer the individual a wide array of choices. We perceive those choices as yielding power and identity. Almost every child in the modern world knows the great existential consumer question: What do I want to be when I grow up?

It is an amazing thing to ask. Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker – every child can grow up to be President. What do I want to do? What will make me happy? What will make me fulfilled? If I am devout – what would God want me to do?

For we draw God into the consumer’s conundrum, even giving Him credit for such a wide array of choices as though such decisions are natural and the normal way of things. But through most of human history, people have had very few choices. Work was something someone did in order to survive. Opportunity was rather narrow. For most, the work that was readily abundant provided almost the only choice. My grandfather was a farmer as was his father before him and his father before him, etc. My grandfather eventually turned his talent for mechanical things into a job as an auto mechanic. My father was an auto mechanic as was his brother as well. There were other choices, but doing what was at hand seemed to them the thing to do. My mother’s father was a farmer as were his ancestors as far back as I can ascertain. Her father could still conjugate a Latin verb in his 80’s – he had finished high school – rare in his generation. But he did what his father did and probably never asked what he wanted to do.

The nature of our economy requires a mobile population – mobile both in where we live as well as mobile in what we do. That you will get a job at a company, work and retire is no longer an option for most – companies will need you to leave or become something different long before a career is finished. Cultural Christianity has obliged this changing market place and created a theology of vocation that gives Divine sanction to our vocational mobility. Indeed, the failure to know “what we want to do,” is almost never seen as a failure of the marketplace, a product of absurd dislocations and even more absurd educational planning. Instead, we view it as personal failure. “I never could figure out what I wanted to do,” the displaced, unplaced, unplaceable worker thinks.

My heart grieves for the false dilemmas that face young people today (and many others as well). How can anyone know what they want to be when they grow up? Be whatever you will, and I can assure you that at some point you’ll wonder whether you should have been something else.

The freedom God gives us – a foundation of our personhood – is not a gift designed to underwrite the consumer economy. To a large extent, I think it doesn’t matter what we do. Our vocation is not a job – it is the calling to be like our Father in heaven. St. Paul offers brief advice on vocation:

Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. (Eph 4:28 NKJ)

What should I do? Do something. And whatever you do, keep God’s commandments and with thanksgiving share with others out of the abundance that God provides. This is our vocation.

106 comments:

  1. When you’re looking in a mirror at the image of you there
    Who do you say that you are?
    A butcher, a baker, (a candlestick maker)
    A giver, a taker
    A parent, a child
    Someone beloved or someone reviled
    Whatever your story
    Whatever your state
    Be it ever so humble
    Be it ever so great
    You are the Image of God
    Whoa, oh, oh you and I are the Image of God

    When you’re looking at another at the image of them there
    Who do you say that they are?
    A lawyer, a doctor
    A banker, a robber
    A maid, the police
    Someone in joy or someone in grief
    Whatever their story
    Whatever their state
    Be it ever so humble
    Be it ever so great
    They are the Image of God
    Whoa, oh, oh everyone is the Image of God

  2. Father, I think there is some things here that are wise. Being someone very young and very ticked off at my current situation, one that I share with many, many others in my generation, I do find some things that bother me. Yes, people in the past had very little choice and did things to survey, but that is the past. We live in a very highly developed world these days. The affects of our own faith bringing about much of what we enjoy in Western civilization. I don’t think it is good to limit ourselves because those in the past did or had no choice.

    We now have a choice. And I think occupational health and wellness is important. In a world, where many choices are created for better opportunities is this really necessarily consumer-based? If so does it mean we have to take that consumer approach?

    I often feel the older generations look at my generation and 1) really misunderstand us and 2) have a hard time seeing why we’re just existential dopes in an existential world. I often feel misunderstood as Kierkegaard himself said. The reason for being has much to do with the topic of this blog.

    Is it wrong to seek or desire a vocation or career in something one does enjoy and does bring one fulfillment? In a world where such opportunity abounds and education is made so available is it wrong to desire those things? Is it wrong to be discontent in what one may be doing?

    Again, I appreciated much of the thoughts here and that we are here primarily to be worshiping beings, Eucharistic beings. However, being in the middle of this mess, largely created by the Baby Boomers and other older generations, I often feel those folks in those generations have sort of a condescending attitude or misunderstanding of such a predicament that we Millennials find ourselves in. Of course, please don’t see that as saying that is what you are doing here. This is purely an observation I have made.

    I appreciate your thoughts and they are encouraging here. Just wanted to ask some questions. Have a great day, Father 🙂

  3. “This is the beginning of a new day. I have been given this day to use as I will. I can waste it. . . or use it for good, but what I do today is important, because I am exchanging a day of my life for it! When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving in its place something that I have traded for it. I want it to be gain and not loss; good and not evil; success, and not failure; in order that I shall not regret the price that I have paid for it. I will try just for today, for you never fail until you stop trying.”

    – author unknown

  4. Words can’t express how thankful I am for such thoughtful words.
    I have 3 young children and I worry about “what they will grow up to be.”
    I want them to be God loving, God fearing people who are compassionate and share with those in need but I don’t want them to pushed around by society, struggling to make ends meet, because they didn’t get the right job with the right amount of prestige, pay and status.
    Part of this fear was instilled in me by my father. My father grew up poor and fatherless so he was determined to overcome or erase his struggles by succeeding in school and in work which he did immensely well. He became a physician and I am now a physician too.
    I love my job and am thankful to be able to help others and teach young physicians but I look around and am surrounded by clerks, technicians, janitors who take pride in their work and do their jobs well. Would I be bothered if my child became a clerk at a medical office instead of a physician like me and my father?
    I am not quite sure.
    I want my children to be happy in whatever they do, love their neighbor and serve God with a full heart.
    Your words clarified my thoughts and feelings so well. Thank you again. I really appreciate it.

  5. Father Stephen

    An excellent post.

    I am very uncomfortable with the term “The Will of God” as I have heard it taught in many of the churches I have attended. In my mind, it is a term that is front loaded with all sorts of unpleasant emotional baggage. I have heard over and over, that God has this “wonderful” plan for my life and if I am not utterly obedient, I will miss the mark and my life will lie in ruins. Those of you who are old enough might remember the television show, Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall. On this show the contestants would win really nice prizes, like a new color TV. Then Monty would give them the opportunity to trade what they have for what might be contained in a large box or hidden behind a curtain. Everyone knew that sometimes the prize behind the curtain might be an expensive new car or it might be a pet goat. Sometimes preachers have made me feel like God is Monty Hall, playing a cosmic game of Let’s Make a Deal with my life.

    I was in my 50s before I realized the will of God doesn’t quite work that way.

    In the parable of prodigal, Jesus tells us the way the Father feels about us. He loves us and is always waiting for an opportunity to run towards us, embrace us, and bless us. He wants to bless us and He wants be a part of our lives. Because of Jesus we are his sons and his daughters. God is not Monty Hall and our lives are not some sort of a cosmic version of a sadistic game show.

    Henry

  6. Jonathan,
    I understand your thoughts here – and in many ways they illustrate my points.

    Imagine that we live in a town that has been struck by an earthquake followed by a hurricane. Devastation is all around. People’s most basic needs are going unmet. What do we do? We don’t ask, “What do I want to be?” We ask, “What can I do?”

    It is, I think, an apt illustration. For modern culture, particularly in America, was hit by an earthquake at the time of the Great Depression. Huge dislocations occurred. Only the Second World War ended that stretch of time. Coming out of the war, what was set in motion was the consumer economy that now dominates our lives. Fundamental choices were and are being made to keep that economy going. We poured huge sums into college educations for G.I.’s following the war, creating the idea of education and vocation as the path forward. We began to create the mobile culture that would come to move 1 out of every 5 families every year. The Baby Boom did not invent this economic culture, but its demographics helped feed it. Mass marketing proved to be very successful.

    One interesting decision of the consumer economy was to put the onus for its success on the individual. Today this is at its most extreme point. The individual has to figure out where the jobs are, what the training should be, and today must take out loans to pay for his or her own training, often to disastrous levels. The individual has to guess what the economy/market wants. Many times the model fails. When it fails, individuals are swept aside. They are made to bear the emotional weight of failure – as if they were somehow personally responsible for being able to manage their way through the marketplace and economic dislocations. For my generation – the government upped the ante but creating 401K retirement plans, where workers no longer had guaranteed pensions but the wonderful freedom of investing accounts in the market. The last 2 recessions have destroyed tremendous numbers of retirement plans. Again, the individual discovers that the onus of success is with him.

    It is a model and many tout its freedoms and lack of guarantees as the absolute best of all possible worlds.

    But your generation, attending and graduating college during the worst economic dislocation sense the Great Depression, is feeling the individualized trauma of this system more than any who have gone before. The “freedom” and manifold choices afforded you turn out to be not such a good idea. Many people will not have enough information to make wise choices. They will not succeed in the present structure. They will be unemployed or underemployed, saddled with debt, etc., and, far worse, told that the consequences of their failed prognostications are their own fault. You will be told that you are not as successful as this one or that one because you’re just not as good.

    Worse still, the Christian world would make God an accomplice in this economic nightmare. The choices and path forward will be woven into some part of the “will of God” that the individual again must discern for himself. Thus his failures (and there will be plenty in our present model) will not only described as his own fault – but now a mark of his spiritual failure as well.

    Of course, some will succeed fantastically. They will write books for the rest of us to read and tell us how to get ahead. We will buy them in such mass numbers that they will be yet more successful and yet more convinced that they are right.

    It’s a lie.

    What we see is not some evolution of the will of God in the modern world, geared to maximize personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Fulfillment and satisfaction are not rightly determined by career and success. That’s just mammon and a temptation. What we see is a massive economic engine that has accidentally been geared to make people crazy. It is designed and engineered to be driven by the passions. What most people think of as a career path is, in this culture, a path driven largely by the inner distortions of our unhealed passions. The stuff of success is the overconsumption of goods, driven again by the passions.

    The anger you describe is the direct result, not of wrong choices you have made or made by earlier generations – it’s just the symptom of the culture we live in. You are frustrated because you’re either not happy with what you do, aren’t certain what the next step is, or other such things, but at the same time have a model of fulfillment and satisfaction dangled before you as the standard measurement for good choices or obeying the will of God, etc. And the anger (which is only one of the passions this engenders) will not go away when you make “good” choices or your fortune turns. It will remain because it is a passion. It is one of several that will ultimately result in acedia, the state of the soul the fathers called the “noonday demon.” I like the translation “despondency.” It is a spiritual lassitude and dissatisfaction. It keeps us from praying and creates depression, and other states of soul.

    The only way forward in any of this is the medicine of the heart. The answer isn’t in job or education, etc. The answer is in healing the disease of the passions (in whatever measure we can at any given time). Recognizing the nature of the temptations created by the world around us is also an essential part of that healing.

    God give us grace, one day at a time, to conquer the noonday demon and be at peace.

  7. As someone wrestling with this very issue, I am curious to ask you what happens when what is at hand no longer supports your family or fits into the skill set that you have?
    I have followed my father into his business as a support worker for Adults with Disabilities. And while I had other grander ideas for my life when I started I acknowledge that I was/am good at it. As 13 years has gone by I have “climbed” the ladder into management, but find that I struggle with Administrative side of management, which is 75% of the current job. I have also grown as a family which has raised my family costs. I could go back to working front line but take a big drop in wages to do what I am good at or remain where I am not a good employee and scrape by.
    Am I mistaken in believing that what is at hand will no longer help me survive?
    I no longer ask what has God called me to be, other than a follower, a husband and a father, but I find myself asking at 32 what can I do for work to allow myself to be a follower, a husband and a father.
    I feel that I may have moved this away to from the theological question of “vocation” but I guess I struggle with the question because I don’t see it as that simple right now.

  8. Adam,
    The questions you ask are posed, to a large extent, by the dislocations of our consumer culture. We create jobs with which someone cannot actually support their family. The economy/business does this as if it had no responsibility to do otherwise – and expects individuals to figure out how to take up the slack. And in the name of something-or-other (we use many names), we do it. I recently saw a statistic for how many Walmart workers in America have to receive government assistance in order to live. And these are people who work!

    I think it is quite reasonable and responsible for us to ask what must I do to feed my family. It may not always be what I’m best at. There is no law anywhere (in Christ) that says I should or must do what I’m best at. The economy often gives us bad choices – and expects us to accept the responsibility for the whole thing. There’s not a good answer, because those who have arranged the questions don’t care about the outcome. Thus, we make choices, do our best and pray. Understanding your life as a follower, a husband and a father – you’re already way ahead. Whatever choice you make, keep those things intact. May God have mercy on us in such times as these.

  9. Jonathan, I am generation X (and not American) but I agree with many of the things you say. When it comes to not knowing what to do professionally, a lot has to do with lack of parental guidance. If as a child and teenager you’re only expected to get good grades in school and left to figure out by yourself what you like, you might find out you like a certain theoretical field, but not know about more practical subjects that are not taught in school (perhaps this is not the case in America, where high schools have more facilities and classes are more flexible). You simply can’t know things you’re not exposed to. There can also be a mentor problem. I for instance didn’t even realize I needed a mentor at the time, nevermind how to actually go about it.

  10. I’m just not sure, and I’m uncomfortable, condemning the desire for a good job and job fulfillment as something demonic or spiritually unhealthy. I simply just don’t believe it is. That is not to say that either one of those desires means one wants a lot of money. I’d love to be doing something related to my education even if it wasn’t a lot of money because it is fulfilling work.

    If finding fulfilling work is deemed evil or a passion then is one to just work pointlessly through their life even in a culture and country where one doesn’t have to do that?

    Sure, sure, happiness is not based on anything other than our own choices. I absolutely agree, however, I do think there is work that is meaningful and work that is not.

    Nor is meaning tied all up in what you do. This is not what I’m proposing. However, I do not find it sinful to desire a job one loves, etc.

  11. How would the Orthodox tradition view a person’s vocation as a Christian? In my evangelical church, the primary answer given is “to evangelize”. The vehemence with which this is stated is getting to me. I like Adam’s statement, “I no longer ask what has God called me to be, other than a follower, a husband and a father”. I can be a follower of Jesus, wife, mother, employee, teacher, musician, daughter-in-law and neighbor, all to the glory of God and to the best of my ability. Does God require more than this?

  12. Jonathan,
    The desire for a good job and job fulfillment as demonic and spiritually unhealthy is way beyond what I’ve said. Who said anything about demons? Desires are not inherently evil at all. But every desire can become something other than its natural good. When it produces anger and frustration, then temptations have begun to work and left alone, can become passions.

    It is important for me to be clear that the desire for fulfillment or for happy work is not sinful. But we are nowhere promised fulfilling work as part of God’s plan for our lives. That’s where some contemporary Christian thought goes wrong and sees God as the inspiration behind our present economic order. Ultimately, God is our fulfillment.

    My experience, at age 60, doing what I love to do and even feel called to do, is that work is not inherently “fulfilling,” nor even happy all the time. The human heart is not so simple. We hunger for God and the other things do not satisfy.

    Youth can make us think that our various hungers, once met, will satisfy us. We hunger for a marriage, only to discover that no match is perfect and it involves lots of work and death to self, etc. Same is true of a job – any job and every job.

    Happiness is not based on our own choices. It comes from God, comes from communion with God, comes with victory over the passions, comes with contentment. A person is blessed to find happiness, joy, contentment, etc. It’s difficult and rare.

    I will add as a last thought to “even in a culture and a country where one doesn’t have to do that?” is a myth in our country. It is a blessing to find work that pays sufficiently and supports our family, that isn’t always a drudge, that gives dignity, etc. I’m not certain work is meant at all to fulfill us. It’s meant to feed us. Some work is more enjoyable and more rewarding than others – but almost all of that stuff is not in the work itself – it’s within us. That is the nature of the spiritual life.

  13. Cathy,
    Our purpose, and thus vocation, is to live in communion with God through Christ by the Spirit. Everything else flows from that. Considered apart from that, everything is a distraction.

  14. Father bless.

    Thank you for writing this article. I think it is something that every college student and seminarian should read. For a period of time in my life, I bought into the Protestant lie that if you are a Christian you’re supposed to be “doing” some kind of ministry for God otherwise you are wasting your life away.

    I recently led a discussion here in downtown Asheville on the topic of work with a large “open spirituality” group that I co-host. One of my hidden agendas was to dismantle the idea that we are all supposed to be working our dream jobs, and if we’re not doing so then something is wrong with us. Economically speaking, it is simply not feasible for everyone to be working a job they love.

    I have found that many people carry guilt with them. If you’re not working a job that is glamorous or enviable then you are not being all that you can be. There’s something wrong with you; you’ve settled, or so the cultural narrative goes. So we unconsciously push each other into this lie.

    My objective that night was to relieve people of this guilt. While I could only say so much in the group that I was leading that night (since many of the members want nothing to do with what they perceive as Christianity), I was able to speak a little about finding freedom from the “American dream” and embracing the things that truly matter in life.

  15. Elder Sophrony, as well as many other Spiritual Fathers often came back to the notion that a person can react as Christ would react in any and every situation, any job, any setting. This is what safeguards ‘fulfillment’ perhaps (as described above), no matter the context.
    I was once given two diametrically opposed examples (in spite of the obviously special differences in them) to demonstrate this:
    One believer might be spending their Saturday night in an all night vigil preparing for Communion and another might be a waiter at a most distractful night club – only able to go for Communion straight after that…
    The first might be given Grace according to their zeal (during the vigil) and might retain it according to their humility and diligence; the second might be given the same amount of Grace or more. The second one’s not eating or drinking or sleeping (which the first one obviously shares), was while serving all night, and their joyful patience and invincible concentration on the Lord while in such difficult settings means the two are similarly predisposed…
    If we can do better at a different setting God would probably bring it to us.
    All this presupposes that the Christian is not attached, “dealing with the world he has no dealings with it”. He is clearly and constantly aware that “the present form of this world is passing away”. (1 Corinthians 7:31)
    So, in our predicament, no matter what it is, we can perhaps teach our children not what job to do, but how to do any job (through example) by showing them how to react as Christ in every situation – especially the apparently more “godless” ones. May we be given such a blessing.

  16. I do not mean to propose God has a “will” for your life and sound all Joel Osteenish. That is Evangelical non-sense. I don’t think God even calls us to careers or vocations. He may gift us towards something, but I think we have the choice in that matter and God blesses our paths.

    I am weary enough from today, so I will just leave the rest of your prior comment as is. I have not the energy to discuss much else today. Been a long day. I appreciate the time you took to respond nonetheless, Father. THank you 🙂

  17. Father, I believe I was meant to read your article this evening. I’ve not visited your blog in quite a while, but felt drawn to do so. Your words seem almost tailor-made for me.

    I’m rather tired right now, so it’s difficult to express what resides in my heart. I’ll let what I have read sink in, and tomorrow when I am refreshed from sleep, respond with substance.

    Blessings to you, Fr. Stephen, and all who read this blog.

  18. Father, this begs the question for me of how in the world does anyone discern properly what to pursue in higher education. I know very well you don’t oppose education, but how does one choose rightly in the proposed consumeristic world. If one removes the “what is God’s will?” question out and the “what do I want to be when I grow up?” then from what framework does one pursue educational endeavors? Should one even pursue that route? If so what is the process by which someone determines their vocational path? I know you are big on education, so I don’t think you mean at all don’t pursue it. At least I haven’t sensed that.

    I came back with these questions because I am contemplating these very things myself with the possibility of doing a Masters degree.

    If one is to agree with you in your assessment, which I am not saying I am, but if there is agreement, can you build the framework from which one is to flee from the passions, but also pursue education, please? I’m curious how that would work.

  19. First, we can build the framework to flee the passions no matter what we do – it can be done in all situations.

    Of course we do education and prepare ourselves for work. But the “what is God’s will” presumes that there is a right path towards what we do in life that will give us something. What? Success? Satisfaction? Fulfillment? Those are not wrong things – but when we put the means of success, satisfaction, fulfillment outside of ourselves – in a job or career – we have set ourselves up to a bondage that will almost always fail us and enslave us to despondency.

    The anxiety of “what should I do?” is very understandable. How could it not be? But it is our culture that has raised the expectations, and then said that you yourselves must discern this and get it right.

    What should a person do? It’s obvious that we should do something that we’re going to be more or less good at – being bad at something is a road to unemployment it would seem to me. Doing something repulsive would be similar. Doing something that no one would pay for is also not a good work strategy.

    What in the range of things fits the possibilities of my talents and desires and the necessities of the world? Serving God is possible in all walks of life unless we are doing something illegal/immoral, etc.

    Priesthood as vocation can be, I think, misleading as well. In the contemporary Christian setting it has become charged with all of the cultural mythology of what God wants me to do, my calling, my fulfillment, etc.

    The Orthodox understanding of the priesthood comes closer to “does the Church need me to do this task and do I have the necessary talents, gifts to do it well? Can I be faithful?” Monasteries are great examples. Normally, an Orthodox monastery only ordains as many priests as it actually needs to serve the liturgical needs of the community. An elder may or may not be a priest – often he is because of his role as confessor. In some places of the world, a priest is not very educated other than to do the services. In some places he might not actually be blessed to preach or hear confessions because of his lack of theological training. A visiting priest does these things (this is a fairly rare but not unknown situation).

    In the U.S. a “professional” priesthood is often the exception rather than the rule. There are many, many worker priests who earn their living other than as a priest. In the missionary situations (such as the Diocese of the South where we live) this is extremely common. I did this for the first three years of our mission here, and was more than willing to continue that way but was, more or less, ordered to be full-time in my priesthood. In our uncertain economic future (likely to be more uncertain than at present) vocational possibilities outside of professional priesthood is very much recommended. It is also worth noting that the normal minimum canonical age of priestly ordination is 30. When we think about that, is says a lot about vocational expectations. What does someone do until age 30? It certainly doesn’t sound like priesthood is the first thing out of the box – the primary vocation. It is a role, a servanthood, in the community of the Church. But even for the priest – his satisfaction, fulfillment, joy, etc. cannot come from his priesthood – it should come from God alone. Only if those things come from God will they actually be able to fill his ministry. If those things come from the priesthood, it will eat the priest alive, and gnaw at those around him. It is very easy for ministry to become a way of “meeting my needs.” It will make for a very sick priest and a sick community. It’s a very common temptation in our culture – this I know firsthand.

    The same is true of every vocation. Our work and jobs are roles in a community. They are not our identity – the arena of my fulfillment and satisfaction. We certainly can and should pray for guidance and mercy. That God help us find something to do with our work that will be useful and not impossible. It’s certainly good if we find it enjoyable much of the time. But all jobs – all jobs and ministries – are frequently marked with difficulty and unpleasantness. The world is fallen and the fall infects everything. “In the sweat of your brow…”

    This process is made more difficult because we’re afraid we’ll get it wrong. That we go into educational debt for what turns out to be bad. That the market will reject us. That I make a bad choice and don’t like what I’ll get. And so we pray for guidance and mercy. It’s the absolutes that have infected the myth of vocationalism that I am counseling against. Our lives are not nearly as scripted as vocationalism implies.

    We can talk at length offline.

  20. I totally get this. Our nation would rather go trillions of dollars into debt than suffer a little austerity – because the debt isn’t shameful but the austerity is.

    My husband and I went to Bible College and trained to be “in full-time Ministry” in Baptist churches. When we converted that path closed for us, obviously. Since then my husband went back to landscaping, which is what he learned growing up, until that couldn’t support us any more. It would be nice if one or both of us could go back to school to learn, say, something with computers or even farming, but we’ve already used all the financial aid and babysitting help we’re ever going to get. As a result, my husband is working in sales and I am trying to learn to be an author (and homeschool my kids) without the benefit of outside education. It’s not really a fun or particularly fitting lifestyle but I don’t see God rushing in to magically change all this necessity and circumstance for us. The one thing he did do was to basically compel my husband to leave landscaping for sales, by means of a grass-related allergy. I think it was the right move. It has the feel of what we “should do before God,” just like it did when we married and when our children were born. But no, it’s not particularly fulfilling or meaningful or satisfying in and of itself. It just “makes life possible for us,” as a good friend said. We’re partaking in the tragedy of our culture to the extent that our circumstances, our family history, and our choices produced that necessity.

    It’s nice to see this assessment that our difficulties don’t indicate a spiritual failure or even any other kind of failure. Learning to live with our circumstances is part of our spiritual discipline, I guess.

    So now we try to make our lives better in other ways – by building relationships and enjoying our existence less expensively.

    But if I were talking to someone just starting out in life, I would have plenty of advice about avoiding misery. Learn a job skill that involves producing something that your fellow man actually needs. Learn it in a way such that you could do it whether another person employed you or not. Learn it even if that’s not your chosen career path. Don’t go into debt, not even for a house. Marry a person whose faults you know and who is from as similar a background to yours as possible. Find a non-toxic parish and organize your life to be involved in it. Try to fill your life and your children’s lives with innocent merriment and the means to make it (music making, story-telling, culinary arts, dancing, and so on) knowing that any of these can be elevated to an act of private or public worship. Persevere in works of charity because you’re likely to need it yourself someday. Do at least the minimum to maintain relationships. Be aware that large and small apocalypses face us all the time and everything you build can always be lost. And whatever else may happen or whatever else you do, invest time and energy daily in increasing your love for God and preparing to stand before him.

    In addition to this, my husband, whose hobby is observing social and economic patterns, says that bartering and non-monetary transactions will and should become more important in the near future. So perhaps we should begin to find out how to exchange with people in our lives, in an unmercenary fashion, the kind of help that will make our lives less difficult and more full of love.

  21. Father as one who struggles with an essentially gnostic view of work: any work in this life is without value and essentially meaningless, part of the curse of the fall. A podvig at best. I find you observations helpful.

    How to act in a manner that neither over emphasizes work as a thing in itself or deny its salvific possibilities and in the process deepen communion with our Lord.

    How does the parable of the talents fit in this discussion?

    May God forgive me.

  22. Father,
    Since God is everywhere present and fillest all things, is it not true that He fill, not only everything, but, also, He fills all that is done, including the work that I do? He is there in it whether we recognize it or not?

  23. AR,
    Wow. Just Wow. About as well said a description of how to live as I’ve seen. May God bless it!

  24. Michael,
    First, the parable of the talents is not about “talents” (our giftedness for doing this or that). It’s money – talents (about 70 pounds is 1 talent – so 10,000 talents is a crazy amount of money). The not burying your talent parable is one of the harder ones to interpret in the gospel. I see it as urging a kind of risk-taking in the Kingdom. The pursuit of the Kingdom of God involves lots of risk-taking – because it’s worth everything. “The Kingdom of God suffers violence,” etc.

  25. Work’s salvific possibilities are the same as those contained in any circumstance. Since there are no circumstances that must ever make us blind to God ministering to our salvation (through them), circumstance is the locus of our salvation. We must obviously choose wisely when we deal with ‘the world’. Indeed. However, it is inevitable that, no matter what the choices, the more one becomes immersed in God’s Grace, the more marginal EVERYTHING becomes to his heart of heart’s, that place that he is constantly drawn towards all the more stronger.
    Any battle between the demands of the world and the demands of Grace is ultimately, potentially fruitful and provides wisdom- problematic as it may at first seem. May we allow ourselves to be lead closer and closer to Him through any circumstance, by keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the ‘guiding star’ (Christ) before us, in the midst of cities and wilderness, jobs and family, passions, tribulations and benefactions.

  26. George Herbert, The Elixir (which was reset by Wesley as a fine hymn). Easier said than done, when you’re breaking rocks in the hot sun, I imagine:

    TEACH me, my God and King,
    In all things Thee to see,
    And what I do in anything,
    To do it as for Thee.

    All may of Thee partake ;
    Nothing can be so mean
    Which with this tincture (for Thy sake)
    Will not grow bright and clean.

    A servant with this clause
    Makes drudgery divine :
    Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
    Makes that and th’ action fine.

    This is the famous stone
    That turneth all to gold ;
    For that which God doth touch and own
    Cannot for less be told.

  27. Today I spent part of my afternoon washing and cleaning in the altar. We have a parish cleaning day this weekend and I was getting my part ready. Somedays being a priest is part janitorial. But it was an easy time for prayer.

  28. This reminded me of Saint Silouan’s counsel that the only reason we suffer trials and tribulations (i.e: the only reason we see them as such) is because we do not pray.
    It is such a joy to read these articles!

  29. It is unfortunate that these days most occupations are too complex to allow for prayer while doing them. I am fortunate to have an occupation, massage therapy, that is mundane enough for me to pray, especially for the one I am working on.

  30. Fr Stephen,

    I think you really understand the nature of Christian vocation. I appreciate every word you’ve written here, and at 43 it certainly resonates with my own experience of the illusion of fulfilment through career. How well you also describe the guilt that ensues ‘failure’ to find one’s ‘vocation’ in those terms recognized by the dominant economic order…

  31. Thank you, Father. This is really a very freeing perspective for me. I have never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do for a vocation (other than perhaps be a wife and mother, which God has permitted for my salvation). I sometimes think, had I been raised in a Christian tradition that promoted it, I might have pursued a monastic life, because all that has ever been clear to me is that I wanted to live in communion with Christ being transformed into His image and nurture that life in others as well. When I was a teenager, I was first exposed to Mother Theresa’s life and ministry and was profoundly moved. I actually had a longing to join her in that life, but dismissed it as impossible because I couldn’t accept Roman Catholic dogma.

    AR, I second Father’s comment. Very well stated.

  32. Thank you for this Fr.
    I’ve been thinking lately that our current ‘problem/heresy’ is one of anthropology. We have a much weaker and more heretical understanding of what it means to be a human being than ever. The ‘Human as Consumer’ is just terrible. It is the nature of the fall that we understand our volition as manifest in and through the act of consumption rather than the act of offering/sacrifice. Doing what is at hand will always provide opportunity for offering and sacrifice and the fulfillment of our true vocation.
    Consumerism may start with what is near at hand but soon looks elsewhere for something else to consume. It is tied up with the appetitive passions and when we ‘Christianize’ it we distort our faith, looking for all kinds of signs to know ‘God’s will’.

  33. This is just a silly story, but it fits here.

    Adults always ask little kids “What do YOU want to be when YOU grow up?” I think this is mostly because it is hard to know what to say to little kids, sometimes.

    When people asked my son this question, it was in his nature to think very hard about his answer, as though it might commit him for life. His pause, however, was a real conversation killer. I told him he needed to think about something to say, that it wasn’t a commitment, just a way to keep a conversation going. Here’s what happened the next time; he was about 4 years old.

    “What do YOU want to be when YOU grow up?”
    “Six foot four.”

    And you know, these 14 years later, he’s almost done it!

  34. Part of the dilemma is that there is very little craft left in modern work. Construction/trades, some manufacturing.

    Human work is continually being devalued as the utilitarian approach that say “a machine can do it cheaper and more quickly” takes over in most areas of life. Computers and information technology is being touted for everything from education to medicine. Human work as traditionally understood is disappearing in this country. Oh, a few people are needed to program the machines, but even those positions are being automated.

    Money itself is continually devalued and the very definition of money has changed radically. The classic definition is “a medium of exchange AND a store of value.”

    Money no longer represents a store of value as it once did. Less and less is it even physical. As it becomes more and more digital, it becomes more and more meaningless as does the phrase on our paper money: ‘backed by the full faith and credit of the United States’

    Petro dollars and even Bitcoin are becoming an alternative medium of exchange.

    So working “to make a living” is changing drastically too.

    It is debt that fuels our economy, not anything of value.

  35. I fully agree, as I look at what do it want to do for work, what do I think I would be good at, I think of jobs like cobbling, or book making, but they have been so industrialized and automated that it is not a practical trade.
    William Morris faced that already back in the later half of the 19th century. He wanted to make artisan furniture and home decor for “the common people”, but because it was all hand made and of such high quality, the only “people” who could afford it was the wealthy.

  36. Michael and Adam,
    you certainly have a point! It is beyond me why some people are obsessed by automating everything, by A.I. and the robotization of everything seems to some as a most exciting development, irrespective of the ends to which these might be used… Man has always been his own greatest enemy and I do not think these developments would brake away from the mould.
    I heard the other day from a music composer -for example- of people who are trying to decipher creativity in order to come up with algorithms that would try to replicate human Music composition of various study-able styles.
    And if we were to consider the Spiritual aspect! well… then the poor and destitute are far more blessed than those poor souls that have been brought up in the modern consumerist, automated mollycoddled way, little wonder that the way to freedom from passions is the steepest it has ever been !

  37. Thank you so much for this! I am haunted by the prospect of losing my job at the organization where I have worked since age 21, 29 years ago, when a new administration enters early in 2014.

    I love the organization (a university) and my health has suffered over the past two weeks because of worry. But God tells us to cast worry upon Him, and I will strive to do that.

    I am not my job, and the Lord knows me better than I know myself.

  38. I will add that I am very good at my job. The hardest part of scripture for me, from my youngest years, is knowing that the race is not always to the swiftest.

  39. “Don’t die with your music still inside you. Listen to your intuitive inner voice and find what passion stirs your soul. Listen to that inner voice, and don’t get to the end of your life and say, ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “How does one live a good life?” In the context of this conversation the question morphs into one of several related questions.

    If I do what I love will the money follow?
    How do I find my dream job?
    What is the will of God for my life?

    In most of the material I have studied the question of living the good life gets hopelessly mashed together with the question of the dream job and material wealth. While a reasonable supply of money is certainly a necessary component of a good life, real wealth is much more than money in the bank.

    Real wealth includes things like health, friends, family, the respect of those we love, our faith in God, our service to the Church, personal integrity, and so much more. A good job is in that list. It is important, but a good job isn’t even close to the top.

    What if your job satisfaction is not the primary issue? Maybe there are things that are more important, caring for your family, living a life of integrity, serving your God, and extending mercy in a fallen world come to mind.

    So what is a dream job and how do I find one?

    Dave Ramsey suggests, “Find something that blends your skills, abilities, personality traits, values, dreams, and passions.” What if I can never get there? What if what I love has no commercial potential? If I can never find satisfaction in a job, can I use my job as a platform to find satisfaction and happiness elsewhere in my life? Singing my song does not mean anyone will ever pay me for the music.

    There is simply no guarantee that if you do what you love the money will follow.

    There seem to be two alternatives to this approach. Some authors are only interested in the facts. They are flinty eyed hard nosed realists who focus on practical necessity and economic realities. They write articles about how average salaries found in different career areas rise and fall with demand. They are not interested in your talents, or dreams.

    Some authors recommend splitting the difference between the dreamers and the realists. They suggest finding the least objectionable job that supports your desired lifestyle. This is an inadequate solution, believe me I know.

    I do not find any of these approaches completely satisfactory.

    Perhaps the question needs to be reframed. What is it that you just have to do? What is so important that you just can’t stand to live without expressing it in your life?

    In teaching basic principles of investment I have learned that a deep understanding of finance is not important. The student does not need to “figure it out.” The student just needs to get off his butt and do it. If he knows enough to keep 3 to 6 months expenses in a federally insured bank account, then put ½ of his surplus into a mix of different kinds of bond funds, and ½ of that surplus into a variety of stock funds (most should pay a dividend) and one mutual fund company name, Vanguard, he will be ahead of 90% of Americans. I can guarantee that he will make mistakes as he practices the art of creating material wealth. Something he will buy will lose money.

    Is satisfaction in life the same? I just started giving away silver eagles, writing a blog, and teaching Dave Ramsey at church because I saw a problem that was so great I couldn’t stand not to something about it.

    Am I a great money master who knows all and sees all? No. Have I ever failed in my attempts to help others? Yes.

    Perhaps the question should be, “Has the song that is my life made this world a better place?”

  40. Henry,
    My point here, working from the fathers, is to critique the questions themselves. It’s like putting Adam and Eve in the garden, and then starting the conversation, “Which of these fruit do I really want to eat? Which one must I have? etc.” They’ll always end up eating the wrong one. But the conversation at first sounds so right. In Perelandra, Ransom found out that the conversation was interminable, the enemy never tired of posing the questions. In the end, you just have to smash him. My posting suggests, “Wake up and smash the enemies face. Get out of the conversation.” And the worst part of the conversation is that contemporary Christianity has chosen to underwrite it with its own ill-advised ersatz theology of vocation. Such a god is a handy-god, useful to the secular purpose. People buy into consumer success, and create a god who will guilt them into to boot. It’s madness. A Christian can live in this world, but he doesn’t have to believe in it.

  41. Father Stephen

    It is certainly a challenge to be in this world but not of it. Yet we must earn a living in this world. You know what I think about our debt fueled consumer society. I spend hours every month warning people to stay away from that abomination.

    The perfect will of God for my life as taught in most Protestant churches is a dreadful guilt trap. Yet, I sought the blessing and guidance of God throughout my career. In retirement I continue to seek him.

    You are living proof that a man can successfully find his way through this maze we call life while maintaining the highest levels of personal integrity. Perhaps it was one of the gifts of Protestant Christianity to extend that possibility to all professions and levels of society.

    I didn’t set out with the intention of helping others with basic financial questions. I just saw so much dangerous behavior and avoidable suffering caused by the false god of consumer success. I just had to do something.

    Henry

  42. The problem that in this world, fallen as it is, when we follow our desires and passions they oft lead us astray. It seems rather that we are better served if I am reading Fr Stephen right, to do whatever comes to hand but do it with God in mind first. Let Him multiply the loaves and fishes.

    I still wonder about the parable of the talents and though.

  43. I am a massage therapist and acupuncture physician. In the last 2 years my practice has all but dried up. At first I spent most of my nonworking time trying to promote my practice. This produce virtually no change.
    Recently I began devoting more of my off work time to prayer. Praying not for myself and my practice but praying for others and and humbling myself before the Lord. And things are improving. Opportunities are coming to me. I received a letter form one of the top acupuncture clinics in the area advertizing a postion opening.I have an interview Monday with them. Please pray for me!

  44. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for discussing this. I’ve read a lot here that’s helped me and my thoughts. Our vocation is not our fulfillment; our dream career might be inspired by distortions of our soul; just get a job, let it be reasonable (and not reject it if it’s somehow great), and worship and pray.

    I still run up against a problem, though. Let’s say I’m one of the younger types who feels an existential weight on the notion of career. But let’s say I’ve taken your advice, and now I’m more worried about my relationship to God than about my job, and I’ll accept gladly any job that’s good-enough. I look around me for what’s good to set my hand too.

    And I find so many things! And not just so many good things–so many things that I’m good at (because I’m well educated and healthy)! How do I decide which job to set my hand to? One job might pay well, but might be so rough that that I come home physically useless for anything after work. Or maybe I’m emotionally useless. Maybe a job doesn’t pay well, but does enliven me for life after work. Maybe a job pays well, but involves being in a toxic environment. Maybe a job is very isolating. Maybe a job ends up offering a host of ministry opportunities. Maybe a job offers a host of opportunities for me to receive ministry.

    Of course every job is different, and will affect me differently. The point is, if I look to choose a job with this mindset your talking about, I have no reason to choose any particular job. They are all equally good (and there many to choose from).

    How do I choose wisely?

  45. For me, i feel like Ive chased false leads my whole life. Im a dreamer with many interests and locking down to one thing and abandoning all others seems terrible. In a way, I feel like Victor Frankenstien, full of potential in what ever field I pursue. In reality, I lose interest too easily to make any contribution to ANY field. I guess I’ll just keep delivering mail.

  46. Jarrod,
    Your question viz. wisdom is the truly hard one – which is why they call it wisdom. It’s good to know yourself – Socrates thought this to be the beginning of wisdom. Thus rather than romantically or sentimentally imagining how we would like to be – it’s good to think of how we are. Am I able to handle difficult emotional weight in a job? If not, it would be foolish to do that to myself. Some things are like choosing to eat an apple or an orange. Which one? Doesn’t actually matter, just eat. The same is true for many jobs. We choose one good thing which means we won’t have the other good thing but such is life. At age 60, many, if not most of my largest choices are behind me. There are thus many things I could have been that I will never be. Wisdom also means to bless our reality. I know that I will never be rich, and that I won’t finish that doctorate, etc. But I have so much for which to be grateful – profoundly grateful – more than most.

    If it’s possible, avoid toxic environments – that’s why they call them toxic – they kill you.

    It is not necessary in life to choose the “best” thing. The “best” is a consumer’s word. In many ways it’s meaningless. What could the “best” job possibly mean?

  47. Ron, there is that nasty word “contribute” aka “make a difference” and “achieve”. It is not what we do that contributes, but our transformed humanity.

    I for one thank you for delivering the mail. You probably have.time to pray and you assist others in many ways.

  48. I so very much appreciate your article here that I read a lot of it to my 13 year old son. We have a daughter in college and the message contained here is one that we have tried to encourage in her. So she’s going to get a degree that she can use to get a job and help other people. After that, she can determine what she wants. I hope she seeks God’s help.
    However, I must say my favorite comment of yours is contained above in your response to Jonathon because this is a truth I have been trying to get into words and you do so perfectly here:
    “What we see is not some evolution of the will of God in the modern world, geared to maximize personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Fulfillment and satisfaction are not rightly determined by career and success. That’s just mammon and a temptation. What we see is a massive economic engine that has accidentally been geared to make people crazy. It is designed and engineered to be driven by the passions. What most people think of as a career path is, in this culture, a path driven largely by the inner distortions of our unhealed passions. The stuff of success is the overconsumption of goods, driven again by the passions.”

    Thanks from the bottom of my heart!

  49. Fr. Stephen, what is “consumerism?” What I mean is, consumption is something that’s not only necessary but even holy. The priest who baptized me always used to say “consume the body of Christ” in reference to taking communion. Every offering involves first getting something from God, then with thanks giving it back to God, then receiving it back again and consuming it. So shouldn’t a Eucharistic life involve consumption? What has happened to turn this holy, thankful, humble practice into the center of an evil or desperate way of life? Is it fear of death? Is this the same sin as gluttony? I’m struggling to complete the intuitive leap to what you mean by this word. Thank you.

  50. AR,
    Obviously we must “consume” things. I suppose the issue is the “ism.” An example. In the 1950’s the average size of the American home was 943 square feet. Today it is around 2400 square feet (and that is just the average – and says nothing about the “McMansion” neighborhoods with 4,000 square foot plus homes). Do we need more space today?

    People obviously need food, shelter, etc. For most of human history, people have consumed what they needed. In good times they consumed a bit more than in poor times – but generally they consumed what they needed. This obtained even in the modern period to a large extent (witness the small homes of the ’50’s). But following the collapse of the world economy in the the Great Depression and the Second World War, the world gave birth to the concept of the consumer economy. Factories remained on something of their “war footing” that had produced full employment during the massive effort of “total war.” But the new production did not consist of bullets and tanks but housing (driven by low cost 30-year loans for veterans) cars and appliances. The massive 1950’s Eisenhower project, the building of the Interstate Highway System, created the pathways of suburbanization (and inadvertently killed the American rail system). The 1950’s and beyond redesigned America for mass consumption, continuing a war-time level of production and purchase. It is worth noting that the Interstate highway system was approved as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, justified as a construction for the defense of the nation (useful for moving troops around). The half-trillion dollar investment was far too generous an infusion of jobs and cash for Congress to refuse.

    The advent of credit purchasing also largely dates to the 1950’s. The previous decades’ practice of savings purchases simply disappeared.

    U.S. household consumer debt profile: Average credit card debt: $15,185; Average mortgage debt: $147,133; Average student loan debt: $31,509.
    In total, American consumers owe:$11.13 trillion in debt.

    Obviously, since we must consume things, our desires play an important role. In the past, the natural limits of income, etc., limited those desires. Credit has pushed desires into a more dominant, less-controlled role. Mass-marketing, pioneered in the 50’s, has become quite scientific (just like political efforts). Our desires and their manipulation are now scientifically studied in order to yield a maximum effect. Consumption has gone from a natural part of life to the point of life itself.

    Gluttony certainly plays a part – but so do all the passions. The most powerful passions, such as sexual drives, are exploited mercilessly, created sexualized children and other perversions. It is not incorrect to say that we live in an orgy of consumption.

    What level of consumption is reasonable? I leave that for others to consider for themselves.

    I am deeply troubled that the distortion of freedom that is the consumerist culture has been defended as the original vision of the founding fathers and the quintessence of capitalism and the American way. Worse still, as noted in my article, is the way that culture Christianity has morphed the Christian gospel into a celebration of such consumption, even creating a consumption-driven version of Church. These distortions rival the corruption of the late Middle Ages.

    Hope that’s helpful. Sorry for the rant. 🙂

  51. It has reached the point where we even consume children through abortion, in vitro, surrogate mothers, designer “families”, embryonic stem cells, pedophlia, NAMBLA

    Debt, self will, vanity, greed, carnal lust, lust for power…..

    Consume or die

  52. None of which is capitalism although it goes by that name. It is much more like a modern day mercantilism, a zero sum theory used to colonize and control. One of the things the US colonies were trying to escape.

  53. AR,
    the Christian vigilantly follows the “law of necessity”, while those who lack watchfulness follow the “law of desire” in one way or another.
    Eat (consume) to live (enough to pray) not live to eat (consume)..

  54. Comment on AR’s most timely question:

    So shouldn’t a Eucharistic life involve consumption?

    A Eucharistic life is a life consummated. It is mankind who is consumed – in the love of the Father.

    [“Consumerism” is something else. It is the means by which fallen man is able to temporarily satisfy his needs. Becoming more “docile” (see Bernays et al), he is less wont to wage war on his equals, though not apparently on the defenseless].

    Nonetheless, we are commanded to heed Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).

  55. There are two questions under discussion in this conversation. They are interrelated but they are different. One is our response to our wildly out of control debt fueled consumer society. The other is the question of vocation. They become interrelated because most of us search for the least objectionable job that meets our family’s needs. The problem is needs and wants are two entirely different things.

    As far as using debt to buy what we want is concerned, don’t bite the hook. Don’t use a credit card unless you can pay it off every month. Pay cash for cars. Avoid student debt. Never have student debt that exceeds an average first year salary in your field. Avoid that unless you are in a field like nursing or petroleum engineering where you are pretty certain to find a job. Don’t buy a house that costs more than 3 times the annual salary of the primary breadwinner. Put 20% down if at all possible.

    Why is it that in my 40 years as a Christian I have never heard a sermon on the evils of debt? One of my friends in the ministry suggested that probably all preachers are in debt. Sometimes the Church herself is in debt. It bothers me when the House of God is the property of the bank.

    Vocation is a more difficult question. Our legitimate, even Godly aspirations must interact with the practical necessities of an economic reality that we do not control. We may need to change our expectations in order to provide for our families. I don’t ask that you give up your dreams, but you may need to put them on hold for a higher good. You may have to pursue your dream in your spare time.

    I don’t have an easy answer. I spent over 30 years of my life working as engineer. In addition I spent 3 years in engineer school (beyond 4 years for a BA) to get my BS. Then I spent 5 years in night school to get my MS. Yet, in spite of my successes. I am really not an engineer. It is not who I am. Working in research and development was at times quite rewarding. I am thankful that I had a secure job that paid more than enough to support our lifestyle. I am thankful for my small pension and my retirement account.

    Still, I have regrets.

  56. Fr. Stephen, I never mind a history discussion. As for the American dream, I’ve learned not to put any stock in any American origin myths new or old, but I know a lot of people think that when the U.S. was established a divine miracle occurred and something political was done, for once, for a non-political reason.

    As a monarchist, I think that part of our American lack of connectedness (former conversation) is that we have no nation in the sense of extended family and our nation insofar as we have one, does not have a parent. We owe allegiance and fealty to a text rather than to a person. (Talk about parallels to protestantism.)

    Well, I could go on, but basically my observation is that many of us are quite desperate most of the time (though not everybody is aware of feeling desperate, I guess) because we lack even the natural and normal gifts of grace, and our sins of consumption probably come from that – in terms of their origin in the individual heart. The more we die the more we seek nourishment. I say this from personal experience. It’s hard for me to believe that any real living person thinks or feels that “the point of life” is to move through perishable goods as quickly as possible. Everyone wants to save the world but – sheep without a shepherd. If we could learn to be fed by God, how different we would probably feel.

    And conversely, given the picture you painted, it may be that we neglect the Heavenly Supper because we’re so stuffed with earthly goods. I guess it depends where someone is at on their journey of repentance or damnation.

    And yes, it’s possible to live quite contentedly with a family of four in 250 square feet. What people can’t do without very well is outdoor space and room to ramble. Though many don’t know they are doing without a necessity in that area.

  57. AR,
    I think this conversation is long, long overdue in our culture. I have been very interested and listened carefully to the conversations taking place in post-Soviet Russia. Regardless of how one feels about its present leadership – the significant question with the collapse of the Soviet system was “now what”? Communism had a mythology and a direction – a purpose – certainly misguided in many ways – but its utopianism (a kind of Christian heresy) served for a cultural identity. Afterwards, I heard the question being asked, “Did we suffer these 70 years only to be able to shop at Walmart?” There was a deep echoing emptiness for anyone who was listening as the question was put to the West. America failed miserably – I would argue that it is the single greatest failure in American history and a judgment on the American project. We had nothing to say and even less than nothing to offer to another nation that for a moment in its history was sincerely asking us a primal, existential question.

    In the aftermath of that failure, Putin has articulated the vision of an Orthodox Russia. People can argue that he is less than sincere, etc., and perhaps that is true. But, it seems to me, that such an articulation is much to be preferred to the vision of the EU (whatever that death-wish may be) or the blind consumption of America. China’s headlong rush into consumer production and consumption is among the most soul-less journeys in history. It will end badly for them if it is not corrected, as will our own marriage to mammon. At present there seem to be but three clear voices in the world: the consumerists (among whom I include China, the U.S. and EU); the Islamists (tortured by their own demonic visions); and the Orthodox (at present only a mild voice being expressed in the whirlwind of everything else).

    I do not discount the many other forces. Oddly, the Roman Catholic Church, despite its protestations, is a weak presence in these voices, having been utterly disenfranchised within the cultures where it is native. This may happen soon to Orthodoxy in its turn, and the world will plunge head-long into a protracted darkness whose end is known to God alone. I’m no prophet.

    A little time ago one of my Russian members in the parish said to me, “There are only 3 Christian nations left.” I said, “Which ones?” He replied, “Russia, Poland, maybe Italy.” As an American I guffawed.

  58. Dino, I know we are supposed to have seasons of fasting but we also have seasons of feasting. I’m not comfortable with your utilitarian view of food and drink. Monastics have their reasons for restricting food to enough to keep them alive, but I don’t think the goal of eating is to live. Christ’s words are far more radical: even food can’t give us life or keep us alive, only God’s Word can – the Logos himself in us, sustaining us. If we achieved this, surely food would be a mere medium, an occasion for God to indwell creation and for us to give thanks and celebrate the cunning, playful, humble, shy, love-compounding and joyous ways of Life. I recall G. K. Chesterton wrote that the only person who knows how to eat temperately is the person who truly enjoys his food. Of course, Chesterton was fat so who knows? Maybe he learned through regret, like me.

    Andrew, I believe the word consummate comes from con = with and sum = together (like adding.) Basically, to consummate a relationship is to achieve a final union. Though probably related in origin, it’s not the same term as consumption. Consumption is definitely a form of the word “to consume.” It has reference to eating because digesting is a similar process to burning – a natural process in which matter/energy is changed from one form to another in the process of using it or making it useful.

    So, if we really expect God to consume us, I think we could come to harm because we might try to live in that place within ourselves that is being burned. Even people in Hell are not consumed (burned) by God’s Love. Not because (as Mohammed had it) God re-creates their body at every second in order to prolong their torture, but because God’s fire is harmless and enlightening. So these poor souls, burned out by the passions which have consumed them and eaten them alive, can’t catch fire with God’s Love anymore. The saints, like Moses’ bush, are not consumed either, but assumed by God’s harmless flame.

    Well, I don’t like to get technical with theology because unsystematic terminology and the paradoxical profundity that lies hidden in every theological assertion can give the illusion of contradiction. But, if God consumes us in the sense I understand the word, then we might as well be worshiping Moloch.

    It’s like in Hebrews, I think. “The greater blesses the lesser.” Unashamed of our poverty, we run to people we aren’t worthy to appear before and hold out our hands and say, “Bless me!” This is our humble tyranny, our glad embarrassment, our holy dishonor. We eat our God. Only in the most disgusting demonic perversions does God eat us.

    But perhaps I’ve misunderstood you, so please forgive me. Go with God.

  59. Father, I’m glad you have spoken so plainly. I think you are speaking the truth and I feel your grief in my own soul.

    Perhaps the most encouraging contemporary story out there is the story of Lichtenstein. What a monument of Christian courage that prince has proved to be! It seems so small a place in a world being engulfed in darkness.

    My husband, who doesn’t have time to write, imagined a novel in which St. Nicholas Romanov is wandering Russia in disguise, trying to return his nation to Christ, being a father to his fatherless people.

    As for the United States, there are a few things we could do. We could pioneer a better way of living and then use our technology to talk about it. We could try to plant Orthodox Christianity amongst the Native tribes by building self-sustaining monasteries in their backyards. We could go back to the inner cities we fled from as a church and scoop up those poor desperate souls quite easily with even the small amount of love and attention and piety and voluntary poverty we ourselves are capable of. Build a Christian lower class. Pray for saints. I doubt we would continue to suffer from a lack of significance in our work if we did that.

    But why did you guffaw? Was it one of those “so true!” moments?

  60. We could also revisit our approach to children and youth. We could cultivate them with music, conversation and togetherness instead of with expensive programs. We could teach them to pray and bring them to Christ without their knowing it by singing with them all the time and teaching them music. We could focus on being kind to them and never, ever embarrass them, even for the sake of decorum in church.

    We could refuse to put the same academic burdens on them that their peers labor under, all for the sake of getting into the best college and getting the highest-paying job. We could make it necessary for them to work hard and manage money and take responsibility, and make opportunity for rewarding learning, but more importantly we could deeply involve them in a church family that values them for their God-known person rather than their performance.

  61. Yes, I know that humor. 🙂 It’s like when a fresh wind rises and all the quilts on the line billow suddenly.

    Do you think my craving for action is misdirected or premature? What do you think we should be doing in the face of all this darkness? Just living as well as we can? I know I’m at a different place in life than you are… sometimes I still have ideas of a youthful nature, wanting to go and perform some heroic deed or what have you. Not that I have much stamina, when it comes to it.

  62. AR,
    A desire for action is generally a very good thing. But we should restrain the desire to change the world. Changing the world is a thought habit of modernity driven by the arrogance of our age. How things turn out in the world is entirely up to God. It is up to us to change ourselves and live rightly and well. The aggregate of such actions are very much in the hand of God. If He choose to bless, even very small things can have a profound effect. Americans are particularly subject to the temptation to change the world. We get all judgmental about the lack of schools, hospitals, etc., on the part of the Orthodox. I’ve heard various such things (rants). Gosh, just having a healthy parish is a pretty big accomplishment in most places in our country.

    I have often told my convert-dominated parish here in Appalachia, that our first task is to simply be an authentic Orthodox community, so that there’ll be one when someone comes looking for it. And we have been that parish for many. Just 15 years ago we were a very tiny group meeting in a Warehouse. We’re still small by many measures – but so much more complete than we were 15 years ago.

    It is a great contentment to me that I will fall asleep not having seen the fruit of my labor.

  63. AR,
    it is God’s Grace that teaches this “utilitarian” view of food, drink, sleep and everything of this Earth. A wealth of Saints that encountered God in His Uncreated Light went for numerous days without even remotely remembering such needs (St Symeon the New Theologians’ and Saint Savvas the Fool for Christ’s documented experiences spring to mind).
    They were schooled directly from God’s encounter to not consume ‘what they wanted’ but what they needed. (a dangerous lesson in consumerist society that could make it “collapse”…)
    Their desiring faculty was completely absorbed and fulfilled by Him Who is our ultimate fulfilment.
    It is clearly not sinful, in fact it is a truly great matter to partake of food, drink, sleep in eucharistic gratitude towards God. However, the experience of God first hand, makes even this seem like a cheap replica of Him Who is our true food and drink and rest. Our previous attachments are effortlessly loosened.
    Temperance, understandably, comes naturally after this. Am I making sense?
    Even worldly joys have a certain power to eliminate hunger and sleep… No?

    In fact, we ‘change the world’ to a formidable degree when others see our asceticism as the consequence of such an otherworldly and fiery joy. Just like Holy martyrs -such as St Catherine- would transform thousands through their example in a single day.

  64. Father, thank you for your honest comments, I will take them to heart. I didn’t realize my comments had a “change the world” cast to them. I am also suspicious of that sentiment. I’m sorry if I pushed you to respond when you didn’t want to… for my part I’d rather know than wonder what I did wrong. Perhaps a symptom of insecurity but one I live with. Again, thanks.

  65. Dino, it may very well be that the highly sanctified forget the enjoyment of earthly things, I don’t know. How can I possibly understand what they are experiencing? It is my hope that rather than causing us to despise the creation, grace will allow us to see God in it, between the seasons of total enwrappment in the face of God. Why should I not wish to be enwrapped in God alone at all times forever? In some sense, I do wish this. In another sense, I have respect for God’s act of creation and indwelling. However I mainly just believe that it’s unimagineable.

    For me, it’s an important distinction: I should try to eat (or not eat) to glorify God whether living or dying. Not to stay alive. The reason this is a safe goal is because it is unattainable without Grace. If I believed that I should be practicing a “law of necessity” just because I’m a Christian, I would probably make myself sick and delusional. Technically, you can live without eating for several weeks. Where is the line of necessity, then? You see what I mean? Without grace, necessity becomes extreme and collapses on itself in self-will and self-righteousness. Either that or you become permanently discouraged and stop trying. With Grace, I dare say necessity may not exist at all.

    The saint I follow says that the only ascesis that matters is the actions we manage to do out of love for Christ. That law is much better for me. I think it’s better to thank God for a box of chocolates than to be scandalized over what God has made out of a terrorized conscience. And that choice faces me because I’m not a saint and that’s where I’m at and I have a neurotic conscience.

    However, this is just my reaction to how I perceived your words and as I said to Andrew I could be completely misunderstanding you.

    God keep you.

  66. I have found this a most interesting discussion. It started life as a simple warning about a modern American heresy.

    Then it turned into a blanket condemnation of our consumer driven economy.

    Then a meditation on the forces changing the world.

    It seems to have ended at the point where it began, that we must cultivate our own garden (both our physical gardens and our spiritual garden).

    As the noble Turk informed Candide, “I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children cultivate them; our labor preserves us from three great evils—weariness, vice, and want.”

    Thank you for allowing my participation in your conversation.

  67. AR,
    Now you’re talking! 🙂
    Yes, indeed I agree 100%: “eat (or not eat) to glorify God whether living or dying”…
    My guess was that the misunderstanding is easily arrived at concerning [the very poor translation of the Patristic rule of thumb: to follow the “Νόμος τῆς Χρείας” which I unfortunately translate as] the ‘law of necessity’, as it points to all sorts of ‘other directions’ in a Western context.
    Maybe it is better to conceive it as just another take on the philokalic notion of Nepsis/Vigilance…
    Anything that does not have as its motive <blockquote"out of love for Christ" is already side-tracking, indeed….

  68. Fr. Stephen, thanks, I’m not anxious now.

    One could hardly expect you to do more than have a healthy parish and family and run this time-consuming online ministry on top of your personal life and who knows what else. For me this blog has been providential. I, on the other hand, have nothing right now except my children, and I feel that I am failing to provide them with even the level of enculturation I received as a child, mainly due to not having much music to sing with them other than nursery rhymes (though I think those are great.) I am in a position to redesign my life. I don’t have the monastic calling, nor the partners (or spiritual maturity) for the inner-city mission, but I think I could work towards the English-Orthodox psalter I had in mind. It’s just a small matter of learning Byzantine Chant, becoming an expert in British folk music, spending a lot of time with the Psalms, attending lots of services, and seeing if anything congeals or any partners appear. But hey, what else do I have to do?

    To withdraw a bit from my original statement and try to get at the idea in a better way: I think there are elements of American life that can still be considered as something like “national” or “indigenous” or “folk-culture.” You probably are sitting on top of some of that, where your parish is located. If God should bless the effort, we may be wise as a national Church to direct some of our future thought, prayer, and effort in those directions if God grants us further growth. These elements seem to me to be clustered largely around:

    1. the largely forgotten, deeply wronged native tribes

    2. the folk heritage of English-speakers (which gets neglected because of multi-culturalism)

    3. impoverished uneducated inner-city people and

    4. young people who are growing up with a certain amount of distance between their minds and the mass-culture or consumer culture that you’ve discussed here – because they are being homeschooled or live in a home with poverty or limited media access or are just in church a lot or whatever.

    I say this simply because as we have previously discussed, Orthodox Christianity has a natural partnership with genuine culture. So it seems to me that if we have identified a great part of our culture as pseudo-culture, and a great deal of religion as practically consumerist, (impervious to Orthodoxy) then we should see potential in the impoverished (those whom a wealth-and-facade-obsessed culture may have trampled on and left behind) and in the remaining deposits of genuine culture.

    But I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this sort of thing and it can’t be forced. As I said, and meant, I will definitely take your warnings to heart. Dear Father, I would never want to add to your burden! Much less to coerce God.

  69. “sitting on top” – not like someone that fails to mine the deposits beneath his turf, but like someone who planted in good soil.

  70. Dino, yes, how could any Christian disagree with that?

    So, chreias… can you get at the essence of that? Or if ‘necessity’ is the best word you’ve got, what did you mean by it?

  71. Henry, you are welcome. I see you like to take the aerial view of conversations. That interests me as sign of a comprehensive or multi-tooled intelligence.

    Yes, whatever we may discuss, we always bring ourselves back to “what do I do before God here and now?”

    I’ve never heard much about debt in church either. Sometimes churches want you to be more or less in debt to them, pressuring everyone for pledges a year in advance or requiring a dollar amount yearly donation in order to be members of the parish. I admit that bothers me though one doesn’t like to cause a rift in the church family unnecessarily. I recall a youth leader once preached a sermon on the text in Proverbs that the borrower is servant to the lender. I was pretty incensed, thinking, Oh, that was just in those barbaric old times. I knew my parents had a mortgage and couldn’t imagine life without it. But, the truth now is even worse, isn’t it? Nowadays the borrower is slave to so much more than just one person.

  72. AR,
    I often wish I had two life-times – there’s so much more I would like to do! I utterly agree that there is so much more to be done in inculturating Orthodoxy into American and “Anglo” culture. It may happen more easily in the British Isles. Here in the US, Anglo-Scots-Irish like me are somehow not seen as having a lot of indigenous anything – other than a history of owning everybody else. 🙂 I plead a little guilty. But, for example, living in Appalachia, and as an indigenous Appalachian (it’s my native dialect), I would love to see a development of Shape Note type tunes for the singing of the 8 tones. The Bakhmetev settings (from the Russian court) are very late and are sort of Westernized Russian things anyway. Such an Appalachian development would be no more “Western” than those. I’ve discussed this with other priests who are also interested. Perhaps an American monastery could someday create such a thing. The “Anglican Chant” settings that I learned in seminary would also be beautifully adapted to the 8 tones – and have a familiarity – at least in the British Isles – that would be appropriate.

    I lament the fact that mass-culture has largely destroyed many folk elements, often without substitute. We don’t dance much anymore. The average person doesn’t sing. We “watch” other people do these things. That’s deeply unhealthy. I am increasingly convinced that we will have to help people become human before we can help them become divine.

  73. AR,
    it is based on St Paul’s admonition: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” (1 Timothy 6:8)
    His following words explain it further by saying that “they that will be rich fall into temptation”, into many “foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition”.

  74. “I am increasingly convinced that we will have to help people become human before we can help them become divine.”

    That is perhaps the best thing I have read or heard said in a very long time (with all respect to your blog, Father). You are often very, very good, and this is extraordinary.

    The sentence pointed me right back to the Incarnation, for obvious reasons. For some reason, it also reminded me of a phrase in Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” (a chronicle of a year spent on the dunes of Cape Cod), to the effect that to be less than human is to be a beast. Beston added something to the effect that to be more than human was to be a monster, which would probably be true if not in the context of theosis — after all, what did the Serpent offer in the Garden but the temptation to be more than authentically human?

  75. I have heard that the “need to become human first, before becoming divine”, is also clearly highlighted to many novices that enthusiastically enter the monastic context (in Athos) nowadays, almost as if it is an advise that is particular to our times…

  76. “We don’t dance much anymore.”

    How very true – especially in my own life. It’s just not a part of my cultural heritage. I sometimes watch with envy the joy of those whose dancing is an integral part of weddings, feasts, etc. Not the modern dance, but the folk dances of various cultures. Oh to be human!

  77. Dino,
    A friend who was a novice under Fr. Seraphim Rose, noted that he was made to read great literature as part of his novitiate. Not just any great – but I was very interested in the books he described.

  78. Dino, contentment is a beautiful spiritual virtue that I aspire to, as I know we all do. I think it’s often found in taking joy in whatever we do have, with thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s found in gaiety with having not quite enough, as well.

    As a natural human aspiration, I want to provide my family with a well-appointed, beautiful home, a well-stocked pantry, and clothes that encourage respect for one’s humanity and the humanity of others. Also a culturally rich environment, which in St. Paul’s day would have been almost automatic. I want to cultivate in my family the feeling that the world is a kindly place created by a kindly Maker, though if they have to work in the garden a little in order to acquire their food that’s an education in divinity all its own. I don’t think luxury is good for children but I don’t think Pauline austerity is usually what they need, either. I don’t want them to think that in order for God to provide for one person, another person necessarily has to do without. Ascesis is no good unless it’s voluntary so that’s why a mother’s approach to all this has to be different. Private sacrifices, perhaps, but that is almost built into a mother’s life. But I am not trying to argue you out of whatever vision God has given you for your spiritual walk. Thank you for trying to help me.

  79. Brian, I don’t know if you have children… but if you do and they are still young enough, they will teach you to dance, however awkwardly. All you have to do is go to youtube and find a playlist for Irish dance tunes. Irish folk music is the most universal that I’ve found. The rhythms would almost be at home in Africa or the Middle East, the melodies might have been modeled on grapevines and rivers – it’s irresistible. Your children’s wonderfully human instincts will take it from there. But yes, I share your envy for the enculturated folk dances. Listening with one’s body (a good description of dancing) is good practice for worshiping with one’s body. Like praying, it’s worth doing even when we don’t do it well.

    If anyone is interested in contemporary continuity with Irish, Scots, and English folk music, there’s really a surprisingly thriving folk music scene in Canada. They have several excellent radio stations available on the internet where you can glean from this. When we consider this blog and other online resources, I don’t see technology as necessarily adversarial to our aims, although our past experience with technology may often have compounded our lack of simplicity to an alarming degree.

  80. AR,
    what you describe seems highly commendable to me. I would also – based on your words- add that it is indeed discerning and astute to follow a somewhat different path (a far more ascetical one) for oneself, while providing for others richly.
    As always, it is one’s personal example that will inspire the children, especially they provide them with a sense of freedom at the same time.
    It is a known fact that many have witnessed the greatest lenience by the most strict ascetics and Saints; equally, those who are not that zealous on themselves are often zealous on others.
    Concerning children in particular, as Father says, “we will have to help them become human before we can help them become divine.”

  81. This ‘difference’ between ‘my’ path and the respect of others ‘doing as they please’ reminds me of many Elders’ words on the matter too, for example:
    Elder Sophrony used to say that, he who has come to know Grace in Its fulness embraces such an unimaginably strict life that he hesitates to preach it in the slightest; he is even prepared to take up on himself – if possible – all the ascetical struggle and “repentance on behalf of all others”.
    He was obviously talking with Saint Silouan mainly in mind…

  82. Fr. Stephen, when I had to chant in church as a chatecumen (yes, they were that desperate) I had been listening to Anglican music and so my chanting really came out sounding very Anglican. (The tendency to a falling cadence.) As you speculated, it was not really different from the normal plain chant that people use when they don’t have a tune for things, other than being a little more contemplative and in my opinion a little more elegant.

    I really like your idea about the shape note tunes. Do you ever listen to recordings by Anonymous 4? Their usual repertoire is western chant traditions, medieval and renaissance a capella music, but they made a really successful recording called ‘American Angels’ where they did marvelous things with early American hymns. This is some of my favorite listening outside Orthodox chant. Some of this is available on youtube and is probably worth checking out in light of this discussion.

    My favorite origin story for Byzantine Chant has it that secular ancient Greek music had a strict system for inventing modes that was based on their mathematics, which was apparently considered a divine science. Apparently the musical theologians of the early church sifted through hundreds of extant modes to select the 8 which they believed were most capable of expressing Christian sentiments. (Reminding me of the magi finding their way to Christ through the use of their celestial science.) So it’s plain that any development of Orthodox chant for new cultures has to draw on a musical tradition that is suitable enough to be married to the psaltic art. In light of that, I think it’s encouraging that shape-note tunes were invented mainly for use in church.

    I love Byzantine Chant. The warmth of the tonality, the rhythmic likeness to natural phenomena, the subtle sense of balance achieved at the end of the chant, and the cosmic significance of the ison, are things that I feel we should accustom ourselves to. And yet, it wants to take on an anglicized attack, doesn’t it?

    I’m sure you’re right that the monasteries are the places for this kind of thing to develop. My personal desire for a Psalter is to have something to sing at home with my children, though of course it would be better if the music at church and at home were the same.

    I taught my son to sing with this little verse set to Ode To Joy (which is wonderful for learning because the melody is entirely stepwise:)

    Michael, Michael tall and bright
    here is one in need of light.
    Bring your trumpet, bring your sword,
    bring the white rose of the Lord.

    He and my daughter will sing this twenty times in a row and not get tired. As you can imagine this brings me a lot of joy. In addition, it tells me that community singing is good seed for fertile ground.

  83. Dino, St. Silouan is so holy he frightens me. But I think a very little grace participates in that sort of thing a very little. Same kind, different extent, I guess. Eh, Dino old dear, I’m just a child myself, really. There’s still part of ME that wants convincing it’s a kindly world.

  84. Here is a question: what of craft, i.e, the ability to take something we are given in raw form and make it beautiful whether it be in words, music, dance, ideas, the physical things we use each and every day, our children, our spouses. Craft takes patience, diligence, focus and prayer. It can never be consummed. It is a bit like writing icons, I think.

    Is that not being human in a full and real sense? I think that is why Fr. Stephen laments that we don’t dance much any more or sing or make things even.

    Craft is being systematically and inexorably excluded from this world. I remember when I was young, Art Carney did a special show called “The Last Comedian”. The authorities were hunting him down because he had the gift of being able to make people laugh.

    They caught him in the end but not before he was able to pass on his gift to a young boy.

    The world would kill us if it could to quash the light of the Ressurection and the joy it brings. I would say AR you are doing a holy work and I, for one, commend your diligence.

    Personally, I like Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee:

    Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
    Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
    Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
    Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

    All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
    Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
    Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
    Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

    Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
    Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
    Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
    Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

    Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
    Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
    Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
    Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.

  85. Michael, I think it’s a wonderful point that craft doesn’t lend itself to consumption. No wonder it’s part of monastic practice. Lots of alternative educational systems emphasize it as well.

    Joyful Joyful is one of the hymns I memorized as a teenager. (You’re right, these words are wonderful.) I had an idea to memorize all the good hymns in the hymnal. Each day I would memorize another hymn and then while I was doing my housework I would try to sing them all in order. Well, it went on for a while and then petered out I guess, but I was able to recall a lot of them for a long time, into my mid twenties. Someone at college joked that you could always hear me coming. (I hadn’t realized anyone noticed.) I miss that experience.

    My favorite to this day is John Bunyan’s He Who Would Valiant Be. I call it my hymn of Christian defiance. I love it as sung by Maddy Prior. (This blog’s filter doesn’t like links but it’s easily searchable on youtube.)

    I know Fr. Stephen has admitted to still being nourished by a lot of those old hymns… maybe this is the reality of the situation. We all love, love, love, the Orthodox worship but we are still dependent to some extent on our protestant hymnography.

    Oh, and the Christmas music! How does it come about, I wonder, that the feast of Christ’s birth still penetrates our riven society with so much light? The full-size Oxford collection of Christmas carols is huge – hundreds of carols we’ve never heard. Quite a few of them are drinking songs. 🙂

    But what I aspire to is based on some conversion reading I did back in the day. There was some description somewhere of ancient Christian households in which at various times of the day, the whole household, the family and the employees, would be chanting Psalms together as they went about their business. (St. James – let him who is merry sings psalms – although I guess it doesn’t mean just biblical psalms.) The heavenly sound would echo through the house. What must life have looked like to those people? What holy fragrance must they have brought into Church with them? Sometimes I’m really ashamed of what I’m bringing into church with me.

  86. AR,
    Part of the poverty of American Orthodoxy, is a tendency (especially among some of us converts) to stay clear of much that is of great cultural value. I was surprised to discover that Christmas carols are a venerable part of Orthodox life in Orthodox lands – many with themes similar to the English carols we all love. I’ve been learning to get over such worries. In my parish, at the end of the Christmas Vigil, we kneel around the Nativity Icon and sing “Silent Night.” And I love it still as I did when we did the same thing as an Anglican. These are not in any way a diminishing of Orthodox tradition, but simply the rightful appropriation of all that is “good and holy.”

    Our parish choir goes caroling each year at neighboring nursing homes – and we sing the English carols.

    We sing “O Kto, Kto” on the feast of St. Nicholas in the parish hall when the dear saint comes to visit our children and pass out “gold” chocolate coins. I would love to sing the wonderful Ukrainian Carol the “Bells,” but it’s too complicated for my Anglo ear.

  87. Thinking of what positively enriches children’s experience, carols for Christmas, -as well as Saint Basil’s (the New Year) and Theophany (which have always been a huge part of Greek tradition)- often come to mind. Unfortunately this is slightly waning as a practice in Cities at present.
    As someone once said, about incense and chanting I think, so too, about all these blessed traditions: they are the ‘scaffolding’ without which we cannot build a spiritual ‘house’. They might not be the ‘house’ itself, but they have their undeniable worth in building it.

  88. Yes… I reacted against many of the hymns because of the meanings I had attached to them and the damage that ensued. I’m still not sure I could go back in a lot of cases but some things work themselves free. Unfortunately reading the scriptures I often encounter similar difficulties. It’s not a reason to quit but I prefer to hear the scriptures in church rather than read them at home for now.

    For whatever reason Christmas hymns and carols are different. Perhaps it’s a testament to the thoroughness of Athanasius’ triumph.

    I like your traditions.

  89. They are still kept in many parts of Greece, although the Theophany ones are the ones that are becoming a rarity…

  90. There is a place where food, craft and beauty meet: the family kitchen.

    My wife cooks wonderful, nourishing meals that are not only tasty and nutritious but beautiful and about 1/3 the price and half the calories of the consumer meals that are everywhere.

    She learned the art when she was “buckskining” most weekends and feeding 5 kids with no money (before God brought us together)

    She is amazing.

  91. Fr. Stephen,

    You were speaking above of your Appalachian congregation and then you ended with this single statement:

    “It is a great contentment to me that I will fall asleep not having seen the fruit of my labor.”

    How so?

  92. One man sows and another reaps. If what I’ve sown doesn’t bear fruit beyond my death, then I will truly have been a most unprofitable servant.

  93. I understand the part about reaping and sowing, but it would seem that for most, this process causes anxiety. They wonder if anyone will sow – and of course if anyone will remember them, the sower.

    It sounds like you have found peace with your part and are content to leave all else in God’s hands. Many talk this talk but rare is the person who walks it. May God grant you many years.

  94. Father, I’m a little confused. I feel that I am, perhaps, misunderstanding you. The priest of my parish is also a philosophy professor at my university. He is one of the mediums by which I was brought back to Christianity from agnosticism. He told us, on our first day of class, if he knew that he was going to die that very day, he would still come in and teach–that’s how much his job meant to him. It sounds almost like you are divorcing our career from our spiritual life, which seems to be more of a secular tendency than a religious one. I feel that we ought to take the career path that we feel we can give most glory to God in doing. My dad chose a career in the factory, like his father before him, and that always brought food to the table, but left him spiritually despondent and often over-worked. This does not mean that the job disables him from spiritual depths, but that it doesn’t encourage it either.

    For example, I’ve considered becoming a mail-man or a janitor, but these paths may not allow me to devote as much spiritual energy to the benefit of my neighbor. Our jobs ought to be grounded in our spiritual lives, even the Buddha attested to this truth.

    Forgive me, father, as I may have misunderstood you. But the more I work with inner-city youths, the homeless, and even those in prison, the more I feel called to a career that enables me to serve Christ in all.

    …perhaps this is what leads one to priesthood or the monastery….

  95. Nathan,
    Sorry for the confusion. I understand your priest’s thoughts – and I would largely agree. In truth, every day should be lived as a last day. I was once told that if you knew you were dying and would do something different, then you need to be doing something different. I suffered a heart attack this summer, and, on the whole, was glad that I found myself at the desk in my office when it happened – though there are many other salutary things I could also have been doing.

    I do not mean to divorce work from the spiritual life – all life is to be spiritual life. But I do not want to divide work into, “this is spiritual work, this is not spiritual work.” There is nothing unspiritual about being a mail man, if we deliver the mail to the glory of God. I could, for example, think of a mail man who not only delivers the mail, but makes it a point to pray for each soul to whom he delivers the mail as a true vocation. It would even be a “priestly” life of mail-delivery. It is good, for example, to feed the poor, and to have a life of feeding the poor. But the food that is given to the poor must be grown by someone. The man who grows the food is surely as essential as the man who cooks it, etc.

    What I am saying is that all work, unless it is truly sinful work, when done in offering to God, in union with Christ, is spiritual work, and even essential work. This is the opposite of divorcing career and spiritual life. It is the union of all life with God.

    There have certainly been plenty of people (including those who did very direct ministries of service) who found themselves spiritually despondent and over-worked. But this is not the fault of the work they do. The fault lies within us – we don’t know how to work rightly – just as we don’t know how to pray, eat, sleep, etc. – rightly.

    I hope these thoughts clear up some confusion.

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