Nothing is more common in our day than making choices. Our culture celebrates the freedom we have in our choices and points to this as a hallmark of its greatness. Contemporary Christianity echoes the same theme and urges us to “choose Jesus.” But strangely, choice is not a fundamental part of Christian virtue – indeed, choice, as we understand it in the modern world, is a product of sin and brokenness.
How do you choose when you face something important? Do you make lists of pro’s and con’s? Do you consider the consequences of pain and pleasure? Do you think about the greatest good? Do you simply pray and ask to make the right choice?
All of these have reasonable support. But all of them fail to understand the true nature of our problem. If we made all of the “right” choices in our lives, never making a single wrong choice, we would still suffer from the same disease of brokenness and sin. Right choices are not the medicine that Christ has given us.
The problem lies within a disease of the will. It is broken.
St. Maximos the Confessor, in writings that have become the teaching of the Church following the 5th Ecumenical Council, held that there is such a thing as the “natural will.” This is the will of our human nature. The natural will always wills the good and right thing. It wills the proper end and direction for a human being. This is an inherent part of every nature. It “wants to be” what it is, so to speak.
But we do not directly experience our nature for the most part. What we experience as “choice” is a brokenness that St. Maximos called the “gnomic will.” It does its best (as we do when we’re at our best) but is frequently torn between things. We hear the sound of this in the Letter of St. James:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but let the rich glory in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. (Jam 1:5-10)
St. James uses the word δίψυχος (double-souled) for the doubting person. We would say, “I am of two-minds in the matter.” And this is pretty much the inherent state of the gnomic will. How can it be otherwise?
We all prefer pleasure over pain. But what if the painful route is the best route? We use various measures of success by which to judge a decision, but who can know if it is the right success? We even choose what we think to be good, better or best, but these are matters that are pretty much only known to God. And so we do the best we can and live in a double-souled state.
Christ addresses this with different language in the Sermon on the Mount.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mat 6:22-23)
He concludes this section of His teaching (which includes admonitions against mammon) by saying:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mat 6:33)
His teaching to us is that our “eye” should be single, or whole (ἁπλοῦς), rather than divided in its loyalties. It is a matter of the deep heart.
The disciplines of the Christian life as taught in Orthodoxy are directed towards the healing of the double-mind. They are about acquiring a singularity of vision in which we begin to live in accord with our nature. This is true spiritual existence.
In monasticism, obedience to a spiritual father plays a key role in this spiritual therapy. Obedience, coupled with prayer and fasting and the whole monastic discipline, serves in time for the healing of what is broken. It is the gift of God.
In non-monastic practice, the commandments of Christ and the practice of confession and communion serve the same end. A key dynamic in this process is the place and role of shame. It is noted in the passage quoted earlier from St. James:
Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but let the rich glory in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. (James 1:9-10)
The Elder Sophrony speaks of this as “bearing a little shame” and “the remembrance of death.” Shame was the first wound experienced by Adam and Eve in the Genesis account. Bearing our shame was also part of the essential medicine of the Cross that Christ endured. When we “bear a little,” we unite ourselves to Christ and begin to find the depths of our being that are so completely hidden from us.
The heart of this union with Christ is the self-emptying of the Cross. Though we experience this as “bearing a little shame,” we are indeed bearing the naked truth of our being. It is the act of humility in which we find the true heart and the will of God (and our nature).
This spiritual path describes the patient work of following the commandments, even failing if that be, but bearing honestly the truth of ourselves in the presence of God, in prayer and confession. We must “let patience have its complete work” (James 1:4).
I have written previously that we are saved by our weakness and not by our excellence. In our excellence there is no shame, nothing that unites us with Christ on the Cross. We do not sin in order that grace may abound, as St. Paul says, but nevertheless our shame is the doorway to our union with Christ. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” St. John Climacus wrote, “Only through shame can you be freed from shame.” We already have more than enough shame and sin by which to be saved. But we will find union with Christ through no other means.
What we fail to realize is that our shame is itself a sign of the presence of God. Adam and Eve did not know their shame until they heard the sound of God. It was then that they hid themselves. They could not bear the shame, even though it was provoked by the presence of God.
Our own shame is also provoked by His presence. It is not caused by His presence, but it is our own reaction to His presence. We shrink away and turn the experience into anger or depression or any host of other symptoms of brokenness. It is why the Elder encourages us to “bear a little shame.” For in bearing it, particularly in the presence of His priest in confession, or within the heart in prayer, we find ourselves with God. And there we can pray. There He can comfort us. There we can be made whole. And we can stand there, “on the edge of the abyss until we can stand it no more,” and then we “have a cup of tea,” in the kind words of Elder Sophrony.
It is in this patient union with Christ that we become “of one soul.” Our eye becomes single. We will not be saved by our choices, but in our patient endurance. God wills to heal us and save us. The hard part is staying still long enough in His presence for that to happen.