In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.
What could be more impossible than inventing yourself? What imagination, courage and daring would be required? How is such a thing possible? To the young our culture offers the incredible task of “becoming.” This is not achieved through apprenticeship or through a process of deep consideration. Rather, they are offered an education with virtually every option imaginable. Often these options include years beyond a bachelor’s degree and the incurring of debt that would have deadened earlier generations.
The “choices” made at this young but critical stage-of-life illustrate some of the absurdities in the modern project. Freedom (complete with its debt) has become a mockery of youth. In Paris, students would be at the barricades.
The historical context of the Modern Project has changed tremendously over the last few centuries. The “choices” of the early part of the modern period very likely created a surge in freedom at a moment whose potentials for reward were at a maximum. The settling of America (driven by land and gold) would have proceeded much more slowly had individualism not been a driving economic factor.
That same landscape and the economic success of America fueled the perception that the Modern Project was the key to happiness and prosperity. Hidden beneath the aggregate numbers of that success, however, are the failures of those whose “choices” were not rewarded.
These failures provide a likely explanation of popular versions of American Calvinism. Poor “choices” and their abysmal results “prove” the theories of the depravity of man and the righteousness of God. Protestant “virtues” of hard work, thrift and common sense were touted as the means to the righteousness of God and the prosperity of man. The same virtues continue to have a hold on the popular imagination.
A recent blog article on the failures of the American college system (by a young person who found “success” without college) offers a sad example:
You have to put some skin in the game. You have to find your niche and master it. You have to be the best. Conquer it, whatever it is that you want to do. Be better than everyone. Be a visionary while everybody else is checking the handbook. Take risks while everybody else stays cozy and comfortable. Be good at something. Then, once you’re good, become great.
It is the myth of the good choice in the new economic landscape. What is the vocation of choice? What is the proper role of the freedom inherent in human existence?
The classic Biblical summary of human well-being is found in Micah:
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8 NKJ)
In more explicitly Christian terms – we were created for union with God through Christ. That union alone makes life “good.” Prosperity and success are not measures of the Christian life – they are merely the sounds of cheerleaders in the economic “market” of human competition. In no case are they the required hallmarks of justice, mercy and humility.
The marriage of American economic power and Christian gospel has, like the American economy itself, been a powerful voice for the modern project. “Self-actualization,” interpreted as “career,” has been the preferred “spiritual” path for several generations. “Career” and “identity” have fused.
I should offer a disclaimer. I am the son of a man who made “poor choices.” He was the son of a man who made “poor choices.” Indeed, I come from a long line of poor choices. I cannot think of a single individual among those whom I most admire who fits the American description of success and prosperity.
The failure of the Modern Project on the personal level accounts for one of our favorite pejorative terms: “loser.” Those who have not chosen wisely, who somehow failed to turn hard work into success, or are simply less than gifted become losers. Our culture’s two most dominant emotions are shame and envy. Shame is what we experience when we feel there is something wrong with us – it is what losers are “supposed” to feel. Envy is not covetousness – it is not the desire to have what someone else has – it is the feeling that resents another for having what they do have. It is the source of pleasure we feel at someone else’s misfortune. It is the Biblical “evil eye,” a source of “great darkness” (Matt. 6:23).
I offer no proposals for a new economy – only observations about the dissonance of our present model for the true Christian life. That the present economic order has been blended with a version of the Christian faith (representing a major distortion) makes discernment in all of this of deep importance.
The primary virtues of the public Christian life are kindness, hospitality, mercy and sharing.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:35-36 NKJ).
It is the practice of these virtues that make us to be “sons of the Most High.” It is these characteristics that manifest the image of Christ being formed within us. Thus St. Paul offers this as the purpose of our work:
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).
The proper vocation of the Christian life is to be united with God and to be conformed to His image. Economically that vocation is defined by work, hospitality, mercy, kindness and sharing. These are the criteria of “success” in the Christian life. The pursuit of these virtues and the life required to acquire them are the hallmarks of Classical Christianity.
Unlike the world of the successful and losers, the Classical Christian path is open to all. We do not need to correctly pick a vocation and navigate our way through the constantly shifting changes of popular demand. Even the poorest of the poor is capable of sharing (statistically, the poor give a greater share of their goods to others). This is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God as preached by Christ. What a tragic caricature has been created in the failed promises of the Modern Project!
Thank you Father. You have a gift for articulating ideas about the nature of the modern world and the conflict which arises in me as a result. I was wondering if you might elaborate a bit on what you meant concerning the “mockery of youth.” and how you see this occurring. I think I take your meaning, but I’d be fascinated to hear more.
As a “failure” my self. As some one who has been constantly put down in this life because of my christian walk, I sympathize with what you have said. And I think that you are pretty much right on. But there are many who would argue that the economic mess we are in is because we have gotten away from the “Protestant Christianity” that you mention. Not because of it. Surely you do not propose a form of communism, do you?
I certainly don’t propose communism or any economic model (as I noted in the article). Rather, I’m suggesting that Christians need to obey Christ’s commandments – and let economies do what they will. We’re not in charge of economies. It belongs to us (Christians) to belong to Christ and demonstrate this by keeping His commandments.
The nonsense of the Modern Project that I’ve been describing was a prevalent when “Protestant Christianity” was at its cultural high point, even as the Project is today. The very Churches whose emptying they lament, and whose prayers cannot be prayed in schools, are the same Churches who preach the modern project and have benefitted most from its ascendancy.
Since you have started this series, I kept wanting to make a comment that would address just what you have just presented. I have always been distressed when folks treat Christianity as just another choice. I can not not “choose” Christ, just like I can not “choose” the various circumstances that are a part of my life. Yet those that believe in “choice” also believes there must be “losers” and I can not accept that God made people to be “losers” for the glory of “winners”, that would makes this wonderful gift that He has given us seem less and it ain’t less, it is far more than I am capable of perceiving and definitely more than what secular society can present. Thank you for you post.
Father, I wonder sometimes if you know how right you are. 🙂
I absolutely (secretly) pity my serious, scientific, no-God-nonsense colleagues. Their angst is almost palpable. And the very sad part is, most of them grew up like that – if you’re not the best, you’re nothing, so they don’t even imagine it can/should be otherwise.
About a new economy – I always wondered at the precision with which Tolkien placed the prosperity of the first elves in Valinor – whatever they crafted “they hoarded not, but gave away freely and enriched all Valinor”. In my native language we have a saying, “With a gift from a gift one makes Heaven”.
Father, you mentioned the Modern Project and American schools in this post and it made me reflect on a bit of history:
Some big Protestant groups in the mid-19th century eagerly joined the common school movement (Horace Mann’s “public” schools with compulsory education, citizen-formation, and so on) that sought to standardize education and moral teaching. They effectively banned Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants from state-run schools in the process.
Parochial and day schools resulted and it’s probably better for the disestablished immigrants anyway, because, in the 1960s, those big Protestant groups saw their prayers and bibles also get banned from the state-sponsored school system they helped to create 100 years earlier.
As a man of almost 40 I worked hard on the modern experiment in my 20.s but once I found no light at the end of the tunnel. I decidef to get a much lessor paying job and work from home and be with my family and put more time in effort into my faith instead of chasing the phantom of the lies of the American dream. Sad that very few write about what you say. Thank you.
Just on a practical note…at some level our children have decisions to make as they reach maturity about “what’s next?” The “air” we breathe gives young people the choice of choosing a college and a major (usually not choosing a craft). I’ve noticed that those who don’t go away to the college mill often just flounder about doing nothing. Ours are past that point, for the most part, but it is not clear what the alternative would look like. Any models that you would offer for young people and their parents?
Just as a brief note, my wife and I both got our college degrees and upon realizing how little use they were, we taught ourselves leather working and now after three years have a fairly successful leather business. It’s good, simple work which frees up the mind for other considerations such as those spoken of in Father Freeman’s article. All that to say too that it’s never too late to learn a new skill and build towards a life more oriented towards the good and more in balance with what actually matters.
As I noted, we cannot remake the economic structure of our country. But we don’t have to buy into it. The shame factor and the envy it breeds are far more important than career, etc. Education is good – college can be an opportunity to get one. It certainly offers the opportunity for educational discipline. It can also just be one more place for dumbing down. I’m amazed at how little general knowledge most college graduates actually have.
There is also the matter of credentials. Some lines of work simply require degrees.
My advice to someone would be, since their stuck with choices, to find things they like to do (in the most vague sense). Do you like interacting with people? Do you like numbers? Do you like handling facts. Do you enjoy finding solutions to things? Etc. The research where and how such interests can and are employed. My wife is one of four children, all of whom attended the same liberal arts college (Furman Univ.) and all of whom majored in English. None of them teach school. My wife is an administrative assistant in a position that offers enough variety and responsibility that she enjoys it. She uses her education in ways should would never have foreseen. She has a brother who started as a film reporter, then a film maker/editor with PBS, and is now a PBS executive. He learned film while he was majoring in English. Another brother has a small company that provides safety training for Nuclear workers (if I understand things correctly). He sort of stumbled into it. Her sister is a full-time mom last time I heard. None of these things was what people majoring in English think about – but it worked.
I believe, personally, in liberal arts education, but there are very few colleges that actually provide true, general degrees in history, letters, languages, etc. Too much weirdness these days. I have plenty of paper on the walls of my office, but most of what I know I learned the old fashioned way – I studied and taught myself. The 9 years between my M.Div. and my later graduate degree in theology were extremely important. They gave me time to read and pursue things that I needed when I went back to school. The 20 years since that degree have been equally valuable. I still feel like a student.
Find something you want to do, be reasonable (is there a market for it?) and then do it. One of my daughters is a nurse as is my daughter-in-law – the medical world will be a continued growth industry (though with administrative nightmares from the new health care law). But being a nurse opens doors to many things. The local hospital president is a nurse. Depends on what you want to do. I don’t think nurses go into nursing thinking they’re going to be head of a hospital – but it’s not unusual.
Goals – earn a living and discover the joy of sharing it with other people. Have a family and learn the joy (and sorrow) of children. Live your life in such a way that you can die a good death.
Most of what is truly important in life will not come as a result of your job. It can come while you’re on a job. It can come while you’re in an unemployment line.
Thank you, Father–that was helpful. I am hearing you say that even within the “times we live in today” we can put Christian values first in our lives. I wonder if one of the paths to breaking with the modern project might be generous giving (tithing?). It has a way of freeing us from a lot of the world’s values.
Fr. Stephen, thanks for these encouraging words.
I remember with thanks hearing Fr. Hopko’s say (on one of his CDs/tapes) that we should “grow where you’re planted.” His advice helped me turn away several times a temptation to drop everything for a more “spiritual” life. I erroneously thought my workaday world was irredeemably secular and I could somehow get closer to God by abandoning it. I came to find out that, while I haven’t improved, God was always with me and by great mercy has never left. I’m still learning that thanksgiving is the first order of the day. Returning to Him an ounce of His glory every now and then is, for me, a rare achievement and only by His grace.
In the article I said that I could not think of a single person of those whom I admire who had been successful in the Modern Project. But there are a large number of people whom I admire. My father and grandfather are among them. Without fail they practiced great generosity – of a sort I have only seen among the relative poor. I have occasion to know many people on the least successful end of things. Many of them practice a generosity on a scale that would stagger the imagination – certainly if the same scale were applied to the successful. Imagine sharing half a paycheck to get a friend over a hump without assurance of its soon return (and the friend notoriously mishandles money). And all of this without guilt or recrimination. I’ve seen this more than once. My father-in-law was among the most holy men I’ve known – primarily because of an utterly uncompromising trust in God and a rigor with regard to tithing and generosity that reminds me of some of the saints stories.
CS Lewis, in his wonderful The Great Divorce, has a grand lady in the fullness of her sainthood arriving to help someone from the “gray town” stay a little longer there in the edge of paradise. Turns out, she was “Mary Smith,” or some such plain moniker. But he portrays her like the Queen of heaven – such was her hospitality.
I beg nothing more for my children and grandchildren than Paradise. God alone knows their pathways to that destination. But the route through kindness, mercy, generosity and the like is easily the most sure.
In my book, in its last chapter I offered a list of things to do in order to live a “one-storey” life. I would love to revise and extend that list someday. First off, I would add, “Give away your money, lots of it.” It is the one thing that marks all of the disciples. Tithe like your life depended on it – in order to lay a foundation. Then strive to give more and rejoice with every opportunity you have to share. If you gave away everything you had with joy, then you would truly be the Son of the Most High and like our Father in heaven!
As a non US person, [an Ozzie living down under] I am in awe that you have such a clear-eyed view of your culture. As a teacher of 5 and 6 year olds, teaching about the Ten Commandments as part of our religious studies curriculum [I teach in a Lutheran school]it always strikes me that the western economy is actually built on breaking the tenth commandment at every turn.
Thank you for your blog,may the Lord bless you.
The biggest problem is the is no longer much room for human craft because one cannot consume craft since it has real value.
In a utilitarian economy any thing that human beings can do can be done more efficiently by a robot (sooner or later). Economists are actually starting to worry about whether or not human beings will have anything to do in the not to distant future.
We are, unless we are careful, debt salves. Producing nothing of value, working only to pay off debt.
Eventually it will all collapse because it is nothing but a giant ponzi scheme. Only our mindless participation in it allows it to continue.
indeed! It is just that… One giant “ponzi scheme”. In fact the entire existence promised us through a life that does something other than striving to become united to Christ is that very thing in a spiritual sense.
The biggest problem is the continually devaluing of human craft and labor. It is a fundamental dehumanization that really is much like the Borg from StarTrek.
Someone once asked me what my dreams were for my son. I said I wanted him to grow up to be a good man who finds dignity in whatever work he chooses and happiness in family life. My heart always thrills when I see him display mercy and kindness. I know he will have his share of “modern project” failures and successes, but my prayer and disciplinary focus as his father (in my better moments) is that Christ be formed in him.
I have been pondering your comment about giving away money. I cannot disagree with you, of course. But I have been reflecting on differing attitudes toward saving vs. giving away that I have had in different stages of my life.
I have observed in my own life and others’ that, the more money one has, the more one tends to believe in the need for it. That is, if I imagine deriving a sense of security from money, I am left feeling that there is never quite enough. (False securities will never make me feel fully secure, so it is like trying to fill a pail with a hole in it. I always will keep believing I need MORE.)
When I was young, I never thought this sort of “middle aged” (in reality, Modern Project) thinking would happen to me. And I cannot say that it has overtaken me so that I have stopped giving and giving joyfully. However, things that I didn’t see when young, I now see differently – both from knowing more of others’ life experiences as well as from my current status of being in upper middle age.
I see, from this vantage point, that I may live to be old and that can get expensive (e.g. nursing home care). If I can provide for myself – rather than following the temptation to joyfully give everything away – do I not have a responsibility to do so, lest I unnecessarily burden society with the cost of my care? While it is chilly here in Ohio, there are no ice floes for me to disappear on. 🙂
At this point, I can only hope that God will enable me to come Home before I am too decrepit so that the saved funds can go to far worthier causes. Or is it best just to yield to the temptation and let it all go now?
(Of course, I am not seeking financial advice, but I am interested in any reflections on how a Christian might balance legitimate “responsibility” with the Gospel call to relentless generosity.)
Poor Adeline, It amazes me how some Christians who should know better, as soon as objections to corporate capitalism are rightly raised, instinctively react and raise the bogey of “communism”. Let’s be clear: the primitive communism of the early Crhistian community is presented in Acts as as integral a part of their faith as “the breaking of the bread” and “the prayers”. St. Basil the Great was an outspoken socialist (although of what Marx would call the “utopian”, rather than the “scientific” kind). The abominable alliance of Christianity with “classic” capitalism has, in my opinion, been an invaluable tool of the devil in discrediting the Faith with many of those with an innate sesne of justice. Hopefully we reached the nadir in the last election with a vice-presidential candidate claiming catholic Christianity while at the same time being a devotee of Ayn Rand.
I sense that Mary’s question brings up a wider issue for all those who ‘live in the world’: They cannot have the benefit of that same ‘indomitability’ of life of those in a monastic setting. They feel that they need to keep resorting to their discernment regarding the application of many virtues. They are far more prone to seeing ‘responsibilities’ taking on a virtuous form when they hold them back from letting go of “all they have” and living the perfection of absoluteness.
Discernment – how about the “fallout” from Fukushima? I would donate to liquidating the consequences of that ongoing tragedy, but obtaining truthful information and acting upon it are quite difficult. Anyone has any ideas?
The Modern Project presents us with a myriad of similar disasters, but with prayer and fasting, we will find the way to present a Christian alternative.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, from the bottom of my heart.
The Modern Project is all about keeping us in a state of fear (for which I want to thank the late author Michael Crichton for pointing out in the book by that name: State of Fear). When we allow our selves to bounce from crisis to crisis (real or imagined) we are in the that game. We forget, “Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world”, and other such assurances from our Lord.
Fasting, I am coming to understand, is about keeping in our mind and heart that 1. God provides; and 2. any pain we suffer is simply a preparation to enduring the persecution of the world (direct or indirect) with humility and faith.
The American version of the MP is focused on making sure you provide for yourself and your family while at the same time creating a massive government to “help” those who can’t do it and putting as many roadblocks in the way to anyone achieving the task of providing for themselves.
God provides. My late wife taught me that. When we followed it, we prospered in fullness. When we didn’t, everything started coming apart. My living wife has her own take on the same idea.
It is difficult to follow. The desire for a worldly guarantee is eating at you all the time. There is no worldly guarantee.
One of the great difficulties is that we feel we are alone, isolated and many times, we seem to be. Fear begins to creep in on a personal level while all about us is crisis and impending/incipient crisis and past crisis. “Doom, despair and agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery….” That is what the world sells us every day, and, oh by the way, if you buy this product over here, you won’t feel so bad.
So, the question for me is how do we create an atmosphere in our parishes that both supports and encourages living in the knowledge that “God provides”?
I think I read Fr. Freeman that you no longer watch TV news. I find myself watching less and less precisely because of the “state of fear” that it tends to produce, as Michael referenced. For most of history people travelled at most an average of 50 miles from their home. You knew about and were concerned about your own known ( by experience) world. Larger concerns were mostly unknown. Hence it was easier to follow Christ’s admonition to “not worry about tomorrow.” But today, through all the forms of mass media we are inundated by not only what is happening in our locale, but throughout the world. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and it is hard “to rejoice in the Lord always.” So my restricted news watching. And I am praying the “Jesus prayer” much more frequently throughout the day. Dino, perhaps you can help here. I have heard that when we say the Jesus prayer that we are not only praying for ourselves, but that the whole world is included in this petition to our Lord. If this is true then I don’t need to “be (mis)informed” by the news since the prayer is all inclusive. Anyway, I’ll, with Panagia’s help, pray more and watch less.
I am re-reading Wounded by Love (by recently sainted St.Porphyrios.) One thing that caught my eye this morning that may speak to what one can “do” in the face of the dysfunction and brokenness of this world: “There is a secret, however, and if we understand it, we will be able to help. The secret is our prayer and our devotion to God so that His grace may act. We, with our love, with our fervent desire for the love of God, will attract grace so that it washes over those around us and awakens them to divine love.” (p. 185) His life exemplifies the power of prayer across time and space. Even giving all away–if it is without that Grace–will likely just be another “project.” So much of our politics becomes just that–a panicked, prayer-less posturing.
On another note, I think that if we are mindful of the “traps” of the Modern Project, we are often presented with choices that would erode its control of our lives. Last year our daughter and her husband left an “underwater mortgage” behind in order to start over and not be ruled by that situation.(long story). We combined forces…taking all of our retirement savings out (with penalties) in order to find a place we could all live together. What a blessing! It would probably make financial planners catatonic and those who say it is “shameful” to live with parents aghast. We never saw this option coming.
Many years ago when my late wife died, she was without health insurance. The cost of the day she spent in ICU was well over $30,000. I did not know how I was going to pay–FEAR.
Two things happened: 1. I talked to my priest. There was a gentleman in our parish who was on the board of the hospital and was well known for his philanthropy (may his memory be eternal). My priest simply told me not to worry, it would be taken care of; 2, the hospital referred me to an organization that specialized in working with people like me to maximize state benefits. They sent me the paper work, I put in a couple of things signed it and with in two weeks, I had a Medicaid card for my late wife for the month in which she died. I even got back some money I had already paid.
I was double covered. God provides.
I can cite story after story of this kind in my life and my living wife’s life, none quite so big, but each just as important. Now, we must not tempt the Lord our God, but we can rely on Him.
Geri’s solution is intriguing.
I have a friend who often expresses the desire for all of the folks she loves to live in a community together, not a monastery, just a shared community.
We may well have such a thing forced on us.
Gives me an impetus to tithe more.
And as Dean comments we need to live locally but pray cosmically.
Part of nepsis?
I always appreciate your the insights and honesty of your posts.
Here’s a short phrase which helps me remember an essential aspect of my journey in Christ:
“It’s our job to do His work and it’s His job to take care of us”
I believe this simple phrase summarizes how radical and revolutionary is this Way of Christ. It’s a quote from a AA related book called a ‘New Pair of Glasses’ written by Chuck Chamberlain.
I think Father Stephen helps reminds us that life comes from Him and without Him we have no life. Thus, anything we attempt to do without Him…including ‘responsibly providing for ourselves’ weakens not strengthens Life.
Whatever we may find in the way of security from our self sufficiency is thus dead and full of delusion.
For me, a key aspect of humility is maintaining this awareness of what is my job and what is God’s job. The Psalms are full of references reminding us to ‘cleave unto Him'(Psalms 62/63) and the radical idea that in our fear we find that ‘there have they feared where no fear is'(Psalms 52/53)
So, if our objective is union with Him and His perfect Love; we have this amazing opportunity to identify what work remains as we honestly ‘discover, uncover, and discard’ our fears and in our actions come to an experiential understanding that ‘perfect love casts out fear'(1 John 4:18)
I, too struggle with what you’ve shared in your post. I’m reminded of the verse and great prayer “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)
thank you for your comments – they shed the right light on the matter in a very practical way! God bless you.
yes indeed I agree that: “when we say the Jesus prayer we are not only praying for ourselves”… “the whole world is included in this petition to our Lord”.
According to Saint Maximus the Confessor we are (each one of us is) an unrepeatable view of the entire cosmos. God enters into a dialogue with each of these ‘views’ of the cosmos. Being alone with Him is also an undistracted communion of the entire creation with Him – it can only ever happen in through a ‘personal relationship’ in a sense… The ultimate example of this (according to St Gregory Palamas) is the child Theotokos in the Holy of holies hypostatically praying for the entire creation. She was the “entrance” that God was looking for, in order to enter our world – in more ways than one.
So, I cannot pray ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’ without it also meaning ‘have mercy on us all’ – even if I am not yet that aware of that.
That awareness is properly bestowed through His Grace, as is any good thing.
Dino…thanks for your quick and resourceful reply to my question. You are a helpful brother.
St. Porphyrios speaks to that question. It is surprising, I think: “We are all children of the same Father; we are all one. And so, when we pray for others, we say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, and not, ‘have mercy on them’. In this way we make them one with ourselves. (p.132)
Another facet of the prayer gem. Thank you also Geri.
I really had to smile while reading your story (don’t take me wrong!). It’s so typical of how we get taken care of.
I moved twice to a foreign country with only a handful of personal items and enough of the local currency in my pocket to buy me a burger. I wasn’t even a great believer at the time, I didn’t even pray. I had a glimpse of what Dino called the perfection of absoluteness, though at that time I thought about it in Cicero’s words “Omnia mea mecum porto” (all that is mine, I carry with me). It’s above all a unique sense of freedom, and an “applied course” in humility – when you have nothing, you can but accept humbly whatever is given to you. And I got forever cured of “owing” stuff. If it all burns tomorrow, I lost nothing that can’t be regained (though I’d feel very sorry for my cat, I hope God would spare her and forgive me counting her as a possession :)).
After years and years (of being alive and kicking) I can only add that God is not only God, He is also King. So He does not only provide, He literally rains His gifts on us, like a king.
PS: There’s a great Russian movie named “Ostrov” (The Island), in this movie, at some point the main character (a monk and an undercover saint) throws a priest’s new, fancy boots and his thick blanket in fire. The priest is at first terribly angry, but then he understands the gesture and thanks him in tears. Highly recommended movie.
Here is the other thing: when my wife died, in many ways, I died with her. Pascha came a few weeks after and I was resurrected with her–still grieving and still in pain (as I approach the 9th anniversary of her passing, the loss is still with me). Yet, new at same time. Since then (a bit like Job), I have been given a new wife, sons, brothers, sisters, lands and love.
A good deal of our ‘fear’ is one that Christians should never have–fear of death.
The stewardship that our Lord requires of us over His goods, is not a stewardship of penury and conservation, it is one of liberality and graciousness and discerning the right gift(s) to give to whom.
We read in the sayings of the Desert Fathers that
Of course that is scandalous in the age of insurances, but the application of it can, at least be discerningly applied – with the help of our Spiritual Fathers and according to our strength, our spiritual state and situation.
I appreciate all of the comments addressing the question I posed.
I believe that, for someone in my non-monastic vocation, to literally “give everything away” would be irresponsible, not just in the eyes of the Modern Project but also in the eyes of God. (Geri – I especially appreciated your comment on how giving everything away can become just another “project” – which is why I labeled it a temptation.)
I believe there is a responsibility to give and a responsibility to attempt to provide for oneself (& family, if you have one). I say “attempt to provide” because ultimately I accept that I am not in control. My trust is in God, not in what I earn or save. And this trust is not so much that God will take care of my material needs as it is that He will take care of me.
Although I love hearing stories like yours, Michael, about how things came together to cover your wife’s medical bills, I have also known faithful people for whom things have not come together. Some have remained faithful (as we should), others have been enraged (they misunderstood God’s promise).
If I literally gave away everything right now, I would have to stop seeing my patients (no transportation or phone). People who find comfort in my photos or writing would not longer receive that – no camera or computer, etc. I would not be here – and neither would Fr. Stephen, if he gave away everything.
Yet I do need to give and be ever vigilant against any creeping sense of worry about how much I “should” have. None of it is really mine anyway. My only true need is Christ. And I remain willing to become poor at any moment – because poverty is my natural state before God.
Thus, I make a reasonable effort to work, pay bills, provide for old age. Joyfully, I give to those who cannot do these things (whether directly, through charities or even through my taxes). If I myself become one of those who cannot do these things, I humbly accept whatever is given to me (or not), remaining in love with my God who does not leave me alone in my poverty.
May I be given the grace to live out these words!
Insurance contracts are, legally, gambling contracts. Before other types of gambling was legal insurance was allowed because it was deemed to be in the public interest.
Life insurance in this country was begun by Christians as “widow and orphan funds”. Property & casualty insurance started in England to cover ships and cargo to hedge the bets of the ship and cargo owners — transferring some of the risk.
Been in the insurance business for 33 years. At its best the industry helps people at times of tremendous financial burden. At its worst it is a cynical shell game. Its very existence raises the cost of medical care quite a bit and promotes dysfunctional attitudes by patients and providers and that was even before the feds got involved.
The Christian risk sharing groups for helping with health care costs are now in limbo because they don’t qualify as insurance to avoid the penalties. Plus most of them would never take Orthodox because we drink alcohol.
It is the utilitarian/egalitarian attitudes combined with greed that twist it all. Ethical, honest agents loose business to fraud artists and many folks would rather believe lies than the truth.
Kinda like “once saved, always saved” vs the struggle for theosis.
Mary Benton, but you do give away all those things– not to impoverishment but to help others and glorify God more than yourself. St. Paul tells us a workman is worthy of his hire and not to muzzle the ox on the threshing floor–not to mention the parable of the talents or the vineyard.
Poverty is not just about fewer goods. God gives in abundance. He wants abundance for all of us and we should share what we are given.
If I were suddenly homeless and bereft that would, by itself, not make me holy nor would great wealth automatically condemn me to hell.
Either might be used for my salvation or the salvation of others. That is the conundrum: where is our treasure?
“…but you do give away all those things– not to impoverishment but to help others and glorify God more than yourself.”
You give me more credit than I deserve – I am but a work in progress and God still has much work to do with me to bring to true love and humility.
Indeed, material poverty is not virtuous in itself. But if I am to not be attached to the promises of the Modern Project, I believe I must be willing to enter into that poverty, at whatever level God may permit.
And I agree that there are many types of poverty, not just the material. “Dark night of the soul” is a sort of poverty, as is loss of health or loss of a loved one (as you well know). I do not believe God casts us into any of these states of poverty but joins when we are in them – and can make us holier through them if we allow.
As one who also works, provides, saves for retirement, etc., I empathize with Mary very much. I also know the many strong temptations arise from the accumulation of wealth, however modest. It is primary among the thorns that so easily choke me.
The main thing that has been helpful to me over the years is almsgiving. While almsgiving includes love of neighbor, it extends far beyond love of neighbor to the very depths of the soul. I have found that those times when I am most concerned about money are exactly the times I most need to give it away. How much? The minimum amount for me is at least somewhat more than reason alone tells me is wise. Others’ amounts may vary.
The liberation of soul God grants is unspeakable.
How many times have those of us who are in businesses, small or large, prayed that someone would come in and buy our products, or use our services? Spending is also a blessing.
as we await Father’s answer, I would speculate that for those in the world, the ‘law of necessity’ must be adhered to. In other words, having what is necessary in food, clothes, shelter etc is a must, going beyond that (more lavish) makes our gratefulness verge on the fear of being over-blessed, going below that (less than basic needs) makes us seek to adjust back up to basic comfort.
It is common sense.
For monastics the perfection and liberation of giving away everything is the yardstick, the ideal, for us in the world this ‘law of necessity’ is (patristically) the yardstick.
The Maximian dipole is always germane though:
this world keeps us enslaved to it through two chains:
1) the addiction to the promise of comfort (desire for pleasure) and
2) the addiction to the promise of escaping discomfort (repulsion towards pain) [fear].
Ultimately, we desire in our souls to be liberated from these shackles. My guess is that we work internally first, and this might then take an outward manifestation in our lives – not the other way round…
He sheds more light on the issue -and alludes to the motif being other persons- by saying that:
– St. Maximos the Confessor, Four Centuries on Love, Third Century
Yet all this understood in the Maximian additional ethos that:
Dino- (Brian, too)
Thank you for these comments. St. Maximos the Confessor, of course, says it more eloquently than I ever could.
Likewise, Pope John Paul I (who served 33 days) proclaimed: “It is the inalienable right of no man to accumulate wealth beyond his needs while other men starve to death because they have nothing.”
I cannot disagree – and would not want to. However, the world tells me of many “needs”. I can readily reject many and others I can resist with temptation. Still others I may give in to – not knowing if I am justifying them because of my want or because they may serve a greater good, e.g. my camera. (Or even copies of expensive Orthodox books!)
Perhaps one of the greatest areas of discomfort for me is the saving for old age (“retirement”). I do not seek a life of extravagant vacations or great ease in my old age. However, if my old body requires care before it dies, society will end up paying for that cost if I do not.
A financial adviser who knows my values can tell me how much I “should” have – and I write my will to give the poor of this world top priority – but the reality is, in the here and now, I sit on relatively significant savings while others are starving to death.
(BTW, my parents have been a wonderful example – having always been very generous with worthy causes but also having saved wisely to have enough for their care now that they are very old.)
I am not obsessing about this but find this to be a helpful forum to hear the reflections of other serious Christians. Thanks so much.
I’ve struggled in the area of possessions in my walk with Christ all my life. I think most committed Christians do. We know that love is primary from St. Paul’s admonition in ICor.13. We can give away all our possessions, he writes, but without love gain nothing. And our Lord in Luke 12 tells us that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. However, what matters most it seems to me is not our possessions, but how we view them. I believe that our blessed Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna were people of some means and yet very pious and giving…look what they gave to the world! St. Paul writes to Timothy regarding this: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous….”(ITim.6:17,18)
In Micah we see this balance between piety and good works, BTW, a favorite of M.L.King: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to show lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”(6:8) And I believe it is St. Paul who gives us this same balance when he says that we are to visit (help) widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep ourselves unstained from the world. Also, knowing all this but yet needing further help and guidance with a specific issue regarding how I should give, I can always go to my spiritual father (a priest).
Mary, et al
Our circumstances differ from person to person, as will how fervently we pursue the commandments. There is certainly no sin in owning things, nor in providing for retirement – particularly in the nature of how our own world is economically structured.
It is generosity and hospitality that we want to cultivate. My experience is that these have to be more than “token” efforts if they are to be effective in our lives. Of course, the “widow’s mite,” governs all of this.
Generosity and hospitality, like kindness, mercy, forgiveness of enemies, etc. cannot be taken too far. We have examples of some who have become “fools for Christ,” in their pursuit of such things. They are not activities that promise any result in this life other than to nurture our union with Christ. I cannot think of a measure that I would apply. What measure do we put on love? But God alone is our judge in these things. We should follow them according to our measure of faith.
When I was young, I did some street ministry work in inner city Detroit (bad then, just not as bad as now). My late wife did even more extensive street ministry work in San Francisco, South Boston, South Philly as well as Detroit (I met her in Detroit).
To give did not always mean to give that for which you were asked. If you gave cash for food, it would often not go to food, but for booze or worse. So, get them a meal or groceries. Also have delivered food to poor people for Christmas and found the fridge and freezer overflowing with old, outdated food.
Prayers were frequently asked and there were those who saw us coming and “passed over to the other side”. Too, the not uncommon situation (for my wife anyway) of the toughest thugs making sure no one bothered her (mostly behind the scenes).
The experience of God’s real and active providence in such situations is amazing as is the greed/avarice/addiction posing as poverty.
That is one of the reasons I said earlier that discernment of what to give, when and to whom is called for.
I have a (probably unhealthy) suspicion of institutional charity. Two that I have no problem with are International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCCM).
The IOCC is still on the ground in Syria and my God Father who runs St. Dimtri Project in Romania is under the OCCM umbrella.
No doubt that I am a selfish and slothful man but this thread has gotten me convict at least a little bit that I need and CAN do a lot more than I have.
Glory to God.
I am so happy to have met the historical Michael B !
(These last comments provide a convincing context for many of your more prayerful entries. I shall listen even more attentively from now on. Thanks for being real, Michael! And keep writing.)
Michael, what I meant to say is: I was moved and inspired. (as I have been so many times while reading personal-story comments here)
I too was moved and inspired to know this side of you. Thanks for sharing.
And so I am moved to share something I posted on my blog on Good Friday, 2010, about an encounter with a homeless person:
“As I walked toward my church for Good Friday services today, a middle-aged, African American man approached me. His skin had the rough look of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors and his eyes appeared not to have slept well in days if not weeks. There was a tear on his face, not quite dry. “Why has God forsaken me?” he cried out to me. “Doesn’t God love me?” he pleaded to know, as I walked closer. “I have been homeless for 8 months. What have I done wrong?” As I stood and listened, I tried to just be present to his anguish. “Maybe I would be better off dead. I don’t know why I was born,” he exclaimed, peering into my face. “Does God love me?”
As he repeated his litany of questions, we talked a bit about the homeless shelters nearby. However, it was clear that the man was troubled and that he longed for something more – far more. Unlike many of the unfortunate who walk the streets, this man did not ask for money. He just wanted to know if God loved him – and, if so, why was he still homeless? I asked him his name. I told him that God does love him and that I was sorry that he was suffering so. I told him that I knew I could not solve all of his problems today, but asked if it would be all right if I gave him something. I gave him some money, purposely touching his hand as I did so, telling him that I hoped at least this would help today feel a little better. I told him that I would pray for him. He thanked me and I went on to church, feeling his spirit nearby as we commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus.
Let us hold this man, and the many thousands like him, deep in our hearts.”
Mary benton: could have been an angel. My late wife ran into them a time or two.
BTW while I am glad that my long ago activities inspire you it was just something I did–often more out of pride than compassion-may God forgive me. He was certainly merciful at the time.
My late wife was the real deal though. May her memory be eternal. I have had the blessing to have had two absolutely amazing wives. God has been enormously kind to me.
It was during the seriously deluded, unknowing heretic phase of my journey.
We are all creatures of mixed motivation (at best), but God can work through all of us, even when we are proud, deluded, unknowing heretics. I am as much evidence of that as you or anyone else.
As He works in our seriously imperfect selves, He not only gives His love to others, He plants seeds of love in us and starts the process of teaching and healing us.
All glory be to Him who is our Life and Love.
Father Stephen –
I spend a fair amount of my time with poor folks, mainly because I enjoy the company. When I read your statement that, “Statistically, the poor give a greater share of their goods to others,” I intuitively agreed, but the way you said it made it sound like there are actually studies that support this claim. Are there? Where may I find them? They could be helpful to me when discussing the poor with others who are not-so-poor.