A Purpose-filled Life

purpose

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching. 

Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.

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The chart I am sharing with this post came to my attention through my newsfeed on social media. It is an outstanding example of how the modern world understands the meaning and role of the individual. It is, on its surface, a guide towards “purpose.” And, as can be seen, purpose is composed of the intersection of what we love, what the world needs, what we’re good at, and what we can be paid to do. It is a map of a “responsible” version of the American Dream. It is also an illustration of the false understanding of what it means to be human upon which our culture is built. This, Stanley Hauerwas would say, is one of the “enemies we must attack through preaching.”

Our modern world (dating from the late 18th century) set the task for itself of redefining what it means to be a human person. This was in reaction to various forms of classical Christian civilization that had come before. The new man was to be the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. Freed from the superstitions of the past, he would discover a new freedom and dignity in the world that was being created.

The result was the birth of individualism and the rise of freedom and self-determination. Free of the shackles of Church and tradition, the new man was free to choose how and whom he would worship, if he worshipped at all. He was free to choose his path in life without regard to station or his father’s last name. This march towards freedom was not clearly meant for all – at first. But with time the notion of equality extended the same freedom of choice to others – to women, to blacks, to minorities of all persuasions. Humanity was a blank slate and modernity empowered each with his/her own chalk and eraser.

As Hauerwas noted, the economic expression of this freedom is capitalism, where the markets enshrine the free exchange of goods and the individual’s right to consume. Democracy is the political expression of this same notion of what it means to be human. Of course, free markets can exist elsewhere and democracy could work within other understandings. But for our modern era, it is Enlightenment individualism that has carried the day.

But not all things are well with the new world order. For though everyone is free to choose, it is apparently not possible to effectively choose success. The market is fickle and good investors still lose. And the losses become catastrophic if the investment was life’s one chance at a college education.

And though equality can be asserted and enforced through laws and policy, it can never be made real in practice. For some are brighter, smarter, prettier, more talented, more aggressive, luckier, better-connected, and so it goes.

And the very dark underside of all of this is that individualism has itself been cast into a free-market existence. We compete for all of those goals in the diagram. And when yours doesn’t work out, it’s your fault. That’s the conclusion of all individualistic models. For you are the individual and it’s your fault.

We can comfort ourselves by blaming someone else, but for everyone I blame I can think of another who found a way to get around it when I did not. And it is my own fault. But the pinnacle of the Enlightenment failure (and the failure of the model pictured above) is enshrined in the poem “Richard Cory.” I’ll use the better known Paul Simon lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory Owns one-half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society, a banker’s only child
He had everything a man could want
Power, grace and style

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show
And the rumor of his party and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head”

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory.

To reach the “purpose” proposed above is a proposition of emptiness. It persists and lingers and tempts so many because so few actually achieve it that its failure goes unnoticed. But the tabloids are filled daily with Richard Cory’s of every stripe and form. They are empty and vapid, insipid and decadent. But we wish that we could be…them.

Theirs is a story they tell themselves when they have no story other than the one they tell themselves.

Christians live in the narrative of Christ. The purpose of our lives is union with Christ. And that purpose is fulfilled daily by union with Christ in all things and all people. It is found as readily on the dung heap as it is in the halls of kings (or more so). We work and study and labor, “as unto the Lord,” for this is the commandment of the Apostle. Markets come and markets go, but the increase belongs to God.

St. John Chrysostom said that “the rich exist for the sake of the poor and the poor exist for the sake of the rich.” Of course, both only truly exist if they exist for Christ, through whom all things exist.

But what of our careers? What shall we tell our children?

Tell them to think about what kind of person they want to be when they grow up rather than what career they want. My father was an auto mechanic, the son of a sharecropper. He worked hard. I never once heard him tell a story about how he got the better of another man. And the day that I told my parents I was leaving my successful Church career in order to be Orthodox, I was told by both of them, “You have our blessing and any help we can give.” They only ever wanted me to be a good man.

There are doubtless better examples than my own (I’ve seen them). But, in truth, do whatever job you want to do. If it’s something you like that’s good. If it is of benefit to others, that’s even better. But in time you will die. And your job will not have been all that important.

Your purpose in life is union with Christ. Not surprisingly, we ask godparents at a child’s baptism, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” If it begins in infancy and continues for a lifetime, that is a good life. That is a purposeful life.

As for the other false myth, it and its institutions are “the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.”

50 comments:

  1. I forgot to mention that there was an old Styx song called “Jonas Psalter” that mimics the ideas of “Richard Cory”. I always got a kick out of it (even if it wasn’t a terribly great song, to be honest) and, when I got a “smart phone” it was the only Styx song I bothered to purchase. LoL! Some things stick with you, I guess.

  2. Father,
    Rubber hitting the road question…

    Is it unfair to say that ideological Libertarianism (of both the libertine and “market” variety) is a fundamentalism of Modernity’s storyless story and that it is an “enemy we must attack through Christian preaching”? I understand that it may be rather low on the list of our enemies in the world but it is rampant–and aggressively evangelical–within many of our parishes. And priests seem indisposed to confront it. I’ve seen priests shrug even at a parishioner evangelizing Ayn Rand to the parish’s teenagers.

  3. Dear Father Stephen,

    Such a very good lesson about the purpose of life, but one that our American public schools dare not teach.

    Sadly, I suspect that many of our faith-based schools are largely deficient here as well.

    I work at a Jesuit high school, but even there, this very good lesson is drowned out by the more powerful voices of parents, neighbors, Madison Avenue advertising and our increasingly decadent popular culture.

    I ask my high school Seniors to simply write the “purpose of life” on a 3×5 card at the start of second semester. Over the past 10 years, only 4 of 226 Seniors have gotten the right answer. (I often wonder how high school students in an Orthodox land would answer such a question.)

    As an Orthodox Christian, it is tragic indeed. I love my country, but after over 20 years in uniform as an Army Officer, I am troubled by the realization that much of what passes for the “faithful” nature of our beloved American land is quite an illusion.

  4. Just beginning my journey to Orthodoxy and I find your postings thought provoking. Growing up in a Protestant home I’m thankful, but I feel that I have missed the mark and so…my journey begins.

  5. Picking an editorial nit (although this nit does affect coherence):

    “And, as can be seen, purpose is composed of the intersection of what we love, what the world needs, what we’re good at, and what we can *pay* for.”

    Should read:

    “And, as can be seen, purpose is composed of the intersection of what we love, what the world needs, what we’re good at, and what we can *be/get paid* for.”

  6. The greatest gift in life is living by faith.

    Asking God to live by the Spirit allows you to be free. It’s so interesting to me that freedom in every sense of the word can be achieved truly when we surrender our lives to God. When you decide to live by faith you don’t worry but accept what is given to you. God leads our lives, and we should search for Truth in the world. The Truth that is inside of all of us.

    Life to me is not worth living unless God is somehow apart of it. I can’t imagine my life without God as the center.

    The true meaning of our lives is living. When we live everything naturally comes after. Living and existing each day, believing that what we seek the most is right there for us to find.

    I believe in God. Living by faith, living with the hope that God will inspire, lead, and reveal my path gives me hope. A hope that is stronger than anything the World has to say.

  7. I call it the “eschatological perspective” – the awareness of eternity – which should be the overarching motivator of our lives. Sadly lacking today, even in productions of our Church leaders. It was practically invisible in the official document of last year’s Synod on the Family, which read a lot like any contemporary “therapeutic” tract.

    Without the perspective of heaven and hell, none of our teachings are intelligible. They read rather like the by-laws of a club than the gospel of Christ. Let us hope the Ordinary Synod this year will correct the deficiency, for we need the Church to lead our poor broken culture back to a proper understanding of sexuality and family life. Both for the sake of the common good and for union with Jesus.

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    I love Paul Simon songs but never stopped to contemplate the meaning of that one. Thanks for breathing life into it by mixing good music with good theology and making it come out so……tasty and nutritious!

  9. Please forgive me for distracting from this outstanding article. I’m still contemplating it myself actually.

    I was hoping someone here could help me. I’m teaching on humility and need to find a passage or paragraph from a Church Father that on the surface could be seen as “worm theology” but in fact is a good example of humility. Something along the lines of St. Paul’s “I am the chief of all sinners”.

    Anyone?

  10. Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! As a teacher, I totally get the message of our schools, private, Christian or public, it is the same, with little variance, the message of our culture.

    And this blog post points out to me something I have been shown by Our Lord, the lover of mankind and that is as I have grown into adulthood, the horrors of my childhood effectively inoculated me against wanting to be like Richard Cory. And I’ve not been brilliant or Christian my entirety of my adult life, but I have always known as truth that my life is not to be looked at in this way.

    God bless you and Glory to God for All Things!

  11. Father,
    I was recently at the park, sitting with some retired guys like myself. The topic of our conversation had to do with what one does with one’s life after retirement. This is a perennial, generational issue. One fellow spoke up and allowed as how he had realized he had made a profound mistake. He said he had come to the realization that he could have a life without purpose but not one without meaning. His whole adult life he had derived meaning from what was a wonderfully purposeful life. By deriving meaning from that purposeful life, he found that life had lost its meaningfulness once the purpose was lost (retirement). What preoccupied him now was a quest for meaning that didn’t depend on purpose. I, and the others, allowed as we were all in the same boat: once we had lost our purposeful lives in professions we dearly loved we also seem to have lost a sense of life’s meaningfulness.
    As an Orthodox Christian I don’t despair because I know the answer is right in front of me as it always is, but I’m not seeing it. What am I missing?

  12. DMA,
    In the Orthodox site by fr. Kimel, Eclectic Orthodoxy, Feb.2013, there are two articles on this topic, one talking about Zizioulas’ treatment of procession and monarchy.

  13. Gregory,
    Your question makes me think of Abraham: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:8-10)

    Union with Christ is the purpose of life. You have clearly made profound decisions in your life in order to live more fully into that union. That union gives the purpose and shape of your life. And when it is over, we can say, “Christ is risen!” and it will echo the story of your own life.

    On a daily basis, we every breath we take, we offer praise and thanksgiving to God through Christ. That is our purpose. And in that purpose, THE PURPOSE (Christ the Logos), will give you things to do.

  14. I had the displeasure in college to see Ayn Rand speak and then engage in a Q&A with students. It was a very small school and proximity was close. She came across as a rude, ignorant idiot. Her philosophy was the product of a diseased nihilist mind. After 40 years I have the same revulsion as then seeing this gargoyle like woman unable to communicate anything intelligible.

    It mystifies me why anyone would be attracted to her thought.

    Just put a picture of Elder Sophrony next to a picture of her at the same age. That alone should show the fruits.

  15. Michael: The appeal, of course, is seeing someone who appears to truly live the ideal of someone who has freed themselves from love for neighbour, obedience to nature, etc.:

    Farewel happy Fields
    Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
    Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
    Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
    A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
    The mind is its own place, and in it
    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
    What matter where, if I be still the same,
    And what I should be, all but less then he
    Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
    We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
    Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
    To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
    Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

  16. To those who have criticized, and joined in the criticism of Libertarianism, I must ask this: how is that political philosophy any worse than what passes today as political conservatism or political liberalism?

  17. Greetings Fr. Stephen

    Thanks for this wonderful post. As often happens, your topic is somehow mystically timed out perfectly in my journey through life.

    I wonder if you would have any more thoughts about occupation and the modern world. I am a younger man with 3 children and have been a carpenter for over 10 years. It often occurs to me that I’m building superfluous, large homes for wealthy oil executives, wasting materials like beautiful old growth timbers so that folks can live in a house that’s six to seven times more than what they need. It’s something that’s been on my conscience a lot recently.

    I have a desire to do simple work with my hands that isn’t so wasteful – a way that I can support my family that is more non-violent than what I’m currently doing. But I don’t know if that desire is simply pride, and perhaps I should just stay put and focus on loving Christ and neighbour here and now. When does the connection between my ‘being’ and my ‘doing’ break down? Or does it at all?

    Would love to hear your thoughts if you have time…
    In Christ-

    jeremy

  18. There are times in which a company can use one’s sense of mission against a person, so that the company can get what it wants. Combine that with a Christian acceptance of self-sacrifice and one can work for years and forget what they want out of work and life, and why they’re doing it. During these periods of crisis a chart like this feels like a lifeline.

    In this sense it creates room for things *other* than capitalistic goals. It can give one room to breathe.

    This chart is just one piece of a larger puzzle. The first half. John Maxwell would say it like this, “Find yourself so you can lose yourself.” There’s a second half which requires God, charity, and the higher things. Eventually you have to get back out there and serve people because if all you do is the “finding” half, you’re just being selfish.

    I see John Maxwell and these sorts of things in the same light as Tolkien: it’s not explicitly Christian but he’s trying to serve people in high places and not immediately turn them off from the fact he’s a pastor.

    The way I read it, “Passion” “Mission” “Profession” “Vocation” ultimately all draw one’s attention away from the self and toward God. It’s a cross-carrying journey to put down the immediate concerns of a paycheck and ask God if there’s something bigger out there.

  19. Jeremy,
    I’m an older man (but just slightly I would like to think), also a father of three, and a carpenter for over 20 years. I often had the same feelings as you when working on these mini-mansions as we would call them. What bothered me the most, aside from the seeming superfluousness, was the waste of so much materials in building these larger homes. One solution we came up with was to save the ‘waste’ from these larger jobs that make great monetary profit and use them to repair homes of those who otherwise would be unable financially to contract much needed work at greatly reduced rates (meaning no profit). If possible, earmark a percentage of profit from the large contracts for use on these to pay the labourers if the need is that great. Use the excess from the rich to care for the poor. We worked for a good Christian man who came to see this as part of his own vocation. I don’t know if your situation could be comperable. It’s some of the most rewarding work I can remember doing and seemed to give more purpose to what I had before judged to be needless extravagance.

  20. Alan all modern political philosophy is based on acquiring and maintaining power. There is no real thought given to how to govern for the benefit of the polity. Everything is ideological and therefore inhuman.

    To one degree or another neo-fascism prevails. It is the natural position for a secular-nihilist state to assume. Pick your poison.

    Mark Twain observed that “If elections really changed anything, they wouldn’t be allowed.”

    Put not your faith in the princes of men.

  21. Fr. Stephen,

    I have a feeling you’ve been reading Charles Taylor sometime recently. Whether or not that is the case, your recent posts have dovetailed perfectly with much of what Charles Taylor explains in A Secular Age, which my parish is currently reading for adult education. We really appreciate your specifically Orthodox insights into this crazy story that we are living in!

  22. Jeremy:

    As a real estate conveyancing lawyer I’ve very frequently had that very same struggle – and even envied people on the making/building end of things since at the end of the day you guys actually had something real (and not just some capitalistic paper idol) that you contributed to! Thank you for removing (or at least mitigating) that illusion. 🙂

    Michael:

    Yes. Appearance of epic heroism included.

    I spent most of my postpubescent life in circles where it was all but taken for granted that Satan was the liberating hero of the story and God was the oppressor – the fruit being analogous to Prometheus’ fire and all that. Associate obedience to that oppressor-God with kindness, temperance and chastity (aka “weakness”, “inhibition” and “failure”), and the rest follows.

    Agreed with your previous comment.

    Alan:

    Further to my above response to Michael, it seems that Libertarianism is at least symbolically a much purer expression of the ego-centered satanic apostasy than the modern left/right which at least acknowledges some sense of absolute duty that each person has towards their neighbours.

  23. Sarah,
    I’ve read some Taylor. I’m not sure at the end of the day that he doesn’t try to make peace with the Secular view. I believe the secular view is simply false and delusional, so there can be no peace with it.

  24. Phil says
    September 1, 2015 at 3:54 pm
    Father,
    Rubber hitting the road question…
    Is it unfair to say that ideological Libertarianism (of both the libertine and “market” variety) is a fundamentalism of Modernity’s storyless story and that it is an “enemy we must attack through Christian preaching”? I understand that it may be rather low on the list of our enemies in the world but it is rampant–and aggressively evangelical–within many of our parishes. And priests seem indisposed to confront it. I’ve seen priests shrug even at a parishioner evangelizing Ayn Rand to the parish’s teenagers.

    Fr. Stephen Freeman says
    September 1, 2015 at 4:49 pm
    Phil,
    It is as you say.

    Phil,

    Good question. It’s one I would have asked (in a different way). Unless I misunderstand Father Stephen, I think he is wrong.

    With the acknowledgement that you did not ask me, I offer my opinion as a libertarian, free market (but not libertine). Please hear me out and ask questions if I’m not clear, which is quite likely…

    “fundamentalist”, “rampant”, “aggressive”, “evangelical”… I’m sure some libertarians fit that description. So do some Christians. We’re all imperfect, but good ideas and truth are worth defending…even advocating. And they can cause harm in the hands of imperfect creatures. That doesn’t mean they need thrown out, let alone attacked. Perhaps they can be explored and better understood, as I briefly try further below.

    Ayn Rand is a bit complicated. She has significant status in libertarian circles, but many of us disagree with her on key points. Noteworthy: she had a dispute with Murray Rothbard. He is a far more appropriate model of a libertarian theorist. In my opinion, Rand’s ideas could very much fit your description of “modernity’s storyless story”, the directionless glorification of the self. Rothbard’s would not, nor would many of his successors. The two overlap, but please do not assume Rand is the beginning and end of libertarianism. I would liken it to using Jimmy Swaggart to judge Christianity. She is the introduction for many.

    A few critical questions I would ask, open to anyone, are:
    Does Christianity oppose personal property?
    Does Christianity condone theft, whether directly or through a third party?
    Does Christianity condone the initiation of force, whether directly or through a third party?

    If the answer to any of these is yes, I would like to hear more. My priest has brought up the concept of economia when describing what ought to be done. Perhaps that is at play here, in some way. (I am a recent catechumen, early in the learning process.)

    If the answer to all of the above questions is no, then it makes sense to clarify exactly what should be “attacked” through Christian preaching: Corporatism? Selfishness? Greed?

    My core rationale for libertarianism and free market capitalism is moral (non-aggression principle and private property). Although many use the buzzwords of individualism and freedom, they are merely supported as a result. To see a blanket statement suggesting Christianity must oppose the above morals is, at best, confusing for those of us trying to learn.

  25. Daniel,
    I’m not a political theorist and only sought to answer the questions as put to me. It would seem to me that private property is not an absolute, which, it would seem, you make it. It is a good, but not an absolute good. Love is a far greater good. St. Cyril of Alexandria (I think or Jerusalem) once said that if we could strip the rich man down to his clothes without malice it would be a good thing. That, of course, is extreme. But wealth, simply based on the concept of private property, would seem to be using one abstract (private property) to justify another (greed).

    But, more to the point, these are the wrong questions. The notions of all liberal thought (which would include all modern systems, including libertarianism) is the notion of building a better world and our mastery of the whole thing. These are all debates within Modernists. Libertarians are modernists just like the rest of the spectrum.

    Instead, there needs to be a change of phronema (mindset) and of grammar. Wrong questions produce wrong answers. The right questions are rooted in the Fathers and in the faith. The Divine Image, for example, and the true good of man (union with God), are more fundamental and proper concerns for our thought. The consequences that flow from that and its assumptions are what makes sense.

    The fact that Libertarians can just as easily be atheists as believers is a demonstration of its root Modernism. It’s a secular system. If everyone was a true libertarian and that was what we all adhered to, the world would not only be no better, it would be some version of the same hell-bound disaster we now experience. There is no secular solution to an essentially spiritual problem.

  26. Daniel, libertarianism seeks to solve the problem of an authoritarian government by vesting governmental power in individuals–often without thought for community or the common wisdom at all.

    It is the secular version of the Protestant Reformation that made every man a Pope and shattered Christendom and reliance on the wisdom of Holy Tradition.

    One of the hardest obstacles I have had to face (still facing) in my life in the Church is the realization that obedience (especially if one disagrees) to one’s spiritual father or confessor is the root of freedom. In 30 years I’ve only managed to do it once, but that single act has brought an incredible abundance of blessings. In my obedience I relied on God, not on my opinion, my will or even trust in my priest.

    Having studied economics in college under disciples of Milton Friedman I long ago came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a free market. That is an intellectual concept that has no basis in reality and has become nothing more that an ideological hammer to use against folks one disagrees with. All modern political-economy is ideological and utilitarian in foundation. One is anti-human, the other gives human beings ultimate worth. One is of the world, the other not of the world, but in the world. There is a profound and unbridgeable difference between ideological-utilitarian methods and the sacramental holiness of the Orthodox Church. The one is founded in power and manipulation, the other in personal union with the Incarnate God within a worshiping community (acknowledging that we are deeply troubled by sin).

    Adherence to any such ideology will mess with being Orthodox–you cannot serve two masters.

  27. On the political stuff.

    I’m am reminded greatly of the novels of Dostoevsky and the period in Russian history that it reflects. Theories of every sort were popping up everywhere. D starts his adulthood in a Socialist group from which he repents. But the theories are all about inventing a new Russia, solving the problems, etc. Many of the thinkers were trying to engage these topics with their faith non/faith. There was a great deal of foment.

    Today, as the Western liberal democracies are crumbling (America in particular), we have some of the same foment. And the answers are pretty much all about the wrong questions. A great deal of energy is being given to things that will not and cannot save. Their reconciliation, in some version, to Christianity is really mostly an intellectual game.

    One of the symptoms of their emptiness is that none of them require anybody to change anything more than their opinions.

    Our adversary really likes all of our opinions, so long as they keep us asking the wrong questions. He delights in political and economic theory. Indeed, he wrote a large part of it.

  28. Matt, sorry but I don’t agree with that at all. I think Libertarianism is often misunderstood by many. For me as a Christian, it’s not that I don’t wish to help my neighbor or know him. It’s that I don’t want a totalitarian govt forcing me to do things with/for my neighbor, often by means of a system where said govt gets a huge piece of the pie to waste, squander, and award to their cronies. Forced govt programs that supposedly do good are programs that have replaced God and made govt god for many. Recall that LBJ was going to end poverty. How’s that working out so far?

    Further, Father Stephen has already stated something to the effect that broad, general statements like “caring for the world” or “caring for the poor” are really nothing more than egotistical statements. The poor are to be helped and served, one person at a time, something that of course I’m all for.

    To be totally clear here, I fully subscribe to the old Orthodox adage that says “the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” It’s the calling of every Christian to serve and care for others.

    I’m sorry Father, It is not my wish to hijack this thread. I fully get that as Christians, govt and politics are far from our primary concern. All political systems and philosophies are failed. I just didn’t get why only one was being called out here.

  29. Father,

    I think Alan is referring to this comment by Phil
    Phil says
    September 1, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    “Father,
    Rubber hitting the road question…

    Is it unfair to say that ideological Libertarianism (of both the libertine and “market” variety) is a fundamentalism of Modernity’s storyless story and that it is an “enemy we must attack through Christian preaching”? I understand that it may be rather low on the list of our enemies in the world but it is rampant–and aggressively evangelical–within many of our parishes. And priests seem indisposed to confront it. I’ve seen priests shrug even at a parishioner evangelizing Ayn Rand to the parish’s teenagers.”

    When I was a protestant, I couldn’t understand why my new Orthodox wife was so dismissive of politics and did not pay much attention to the ills of the world or the latest news. In an effort to understand her, I started to study Orthodoxy. To make a long story very short I converted to Orthodoxy. Before I converted I felt it was my duty as a Christian to toil and worry over the state of the world. Although I have occasional lapses, It is so much better for me and my wife that I stopped trying to control the world! I think God is quite capable!

  30. Father,

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but I got that impression from Phil’s comment from Sep 1 @ 3:54PM, and your response to him.

    FYI….I asked you on Sep 2 how L could be any worse than other political theories, and I was happy to read your response that it could not be any worse. My comments just above were a direct reply to something Matt wrote to me.

  31. Alan,
    Ah, I see it now. For myself, I didn’t mean to single it out. As Western Civilization crumbles, and it most certainly is, (one crisis or another will bring a catastropic moment at some point), we are very much like those living room discussions in Dostoevsky. In fact, I can’t think of any time in my life when politics has seen more interest or more opinions. The present disarray of American politics is truly part of the tragedy being acted out. The West has inadvertently created a nightmare in the MidEast, with tragic consequences for its people, and its policies are now flooding Europe with refugees at an alarming rate. All while the West continues to flounder in its own policies, capable, it seems, only of destroying regimes and foment revolutions of one color or another, but unable to foster order and give a purpose and meaning other than its own sick markets.

    I believe this will continue to unwind in a slow, downward spiral as Western Civilization deconstructs itself.

    I do not believe there will be a rescuing political movement. In many ways the political order seems to have almost become moribund and beside the point. Other forces are driving the bus.

    But Orthodoxy has survived any number of crumbling and crumbled empires – not unscathed – but intact. That is where my attention is and where our salvation lies.

  32. drewster2000 says
    September 2, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I was hoping someone here could help me. I’m teaching on humility and need to find a passage or paragraph from a Church Father that on the surface could be seen as “worm theology” but in fact is a good example of humility. Something along the lines of St. Paul’s “I am the chief of all sinners”.

    Anyone?

    drewster,

    This may come a bit too late (just saw your request), and may not be quite what you’re after. However, I have found the following quote from Met. Anthony Bloom (a much more modern “church father”) to be immensely helpful on the understanding of humility:

    ” the word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin humus, the fertile ground. Humility is not a condition which we try to ape by saying that we are unworthy, that we are not as good as others imagine us to be – if they do. Humility is a condition of the earth, lying completely open and surrendered: the earth which is open to all actions, of mankind, of the rain, accepting the refuse and accepting the furrow and bringing fruit, surrendered, offered and given. This is the essence of humility and this is the kind of humility which we see in the Mother of God.”
    – from “The Mother of God” http://mitras.ru/eng/eng_15.htm

  33. Jeremy,
    on the subject of occupation in the modern world I think that a simple maxim applies and keeps us sane as Christians:

    do not try to do the job that you think that Christ might have gone for, do the job you have been given the way that Christ would do it…

    So if you are teaching latin, teach as Christ might have done, if you are “building superfluous, large homes for wealthy oil executives, wasting materials like beautiful old growth timbers so that folks can live in a house that’s six to seven times more than what they need” do it as Christ might have done that obedience.
    Does that make sense?

  34. Fr. David,

    Thanks for the quote. I appreciate it and it will definitely get used. But what I was trying to accomplish was taking a statement made by a Church Father that on the surface sounds like worm theology.

    I want take that statement and teach through it, showing how in fact it was true humility. I want to use this strategy to answer the question: How can St. Paul rightfully call himself chief of all sinners without it being no more than false humility?

    So I’m looking for a statement where a saint or father is humbling themselves in a manner that at first sounds unbelievable and turns us off.

  35. Drewster,

    Here’s a story from Father Thomas Hopko (with a link to a fuller version) that uses the life of Abba Sisoes to make the teaching point you’re after:
    ———-
    But the closer you come to God, the more you realize your sin, your wretchedness, your misery, your failures, your weaknesses. That’s simply a law of the spiritual life. We have all these wonderful stories in our church tradition about that. The Apostle Paul said, “This saying is true and worthy of all acceptance, that the Lord came to save sinners, and I am the protos, I am the first, I am the foremost, and God chose me to show his great compassion and mercy toward people.”

    There’s that wonderful story in the Desert Fathers about Abba Sisoes who is dying and he’s filled with the Holy Spirit and he exudes the divine, uncreated light, and his face is shining, and he’s filled with joy and truth, and he’s humble and he’s peaceful and he’s meek and he’s merciful and he’s strong, and all the marvelous virtues of God Almighty. And then when they gather around him when he’s dying and they know that he’s dying because they smell the fragrance of the Holy Spirit all through the desert, they see the light over his cave, they hear the angels singing, and all this stuff—the story is built up. Then when they’re finally at his deathbed, they say to him, “Abba, Father, give us a word before you depart and be with the Lord.” And the holy abba doesn’t say, “Accept Jesus as your personal savior or you will go to hell.” He doesn’t say, “Repent of your sins.” He doesn’t say, “Why are you still so weak and lowly.” You know what he says? He says, “Pray for me, brothers. I have not yet begun to repent. Pray for me, that the Lord will receive me into paradise.”

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_one_true_church

  36. Drewster: It seems like Orthodoxy is full of prayers of this sort.

    I had to look up the phrase “worm theology”, but the first thing that came to mind when I saw those words was Psalm 22(21):6.

    The Jesus Prayer is sometimes given without the “a sinner”, but it seems that it’s best to keep it unless specifically instructed otherwise.

    Here’s the first bit of the 2nd prayer of St. Basil before communion:

    O Lord, I know that I am unworthy to receive Your Holy Body and Precious Blood; I know that I am guilty, and that I eat and drink condemnation to myself, not discerning the Body and Blood of Christ my God. But trusting in Your lovingkindness I come unto You who have said: He that eats My body and drinks My blood shall dwell in Me and I in him.

    This is intended to be read just before one, despite the obvious logical extension of the bolded words, takes communion.

    Then there’s the first meeting between Zosima and Mary. I think St. Mary’s response to St. Zosima’s reaction to seeing her in the air is a good example of what you might be looking for.

    That all said… what’s wrong with worm theology, provided it is not done hypocritically?

  37. Bruce & Matt,

    Thank you so much. This is excellent material, just what I was looking for.

    Matt: You ask “what’s wrong with worm theology?” I think this is exactly my point. Modern day Christians read things like this in the Church Fathers – or even in the Psalms – and immediately have the knee-jerk reaction (though they may never voice it) that these guys either had self-esteem issues or were practicing a form of false humility.

    Now sometimes that IS the case, but more often we are simply looking at their words through a skewed perspective, with lenses colored by hellfire sermons on the one hand and being “liberated from all that nonsense” on the other hand. That is what I’m trying to un- and reteach.

    Thanks again for responding to my off-topic request and for coming through so beautifully.

    yours in Christ, drewster

  38. I picture the fool for Christ, Anatoly, in the movie “The Island (OCTPOB)” …his “job” was in the coal shed (my job is the coal shed of business, where I’m busy, busy, busy producing goods and services the world doesn’t really need).

    But in Anatoly’s shed he dutifully shoveled coal to keep his brothers warm, even though those brothers judged him and the coal dust killed him. Yet, through God’s help, trials, and his faithful endurance he was united to Christ.

    I don’t know how to break away from my shed and my piles of coal (I have little mouths to feed and little feet to keep warm) and the stress will eventually kill me, but…hmm…may I be a fool for Christ! May I shovel, and pray, and sing, and dance, and laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry!

    …and through God’s help, trials, and my faithful endurance may I and those around me be united to Christ.

  39. Dear Father Stephen, Michael Bauman, Alan, and Michael G Tilford,
    My apologies to all involved. This is a very belated response to some comments about libertarianism. I forget exactly what was going on last September. Something had me put off responding. A week led to a month led to a season led to today.
    And further apologies go to any others subscribed to this post from last September but not part of the brief exchange.

    Father Stephen,
    First, thank you for bearing with me. I think some of what I wrote could’ve sounded harsh, and I apologize if you found it at all offensive. I had a niggling thought that it wasn’t right. Maybe that’s conscience.

    (I wrote a bit more in response, but I think it got off track. I’ll skip straight to the rest.)

    I would be willing to dispense with libertarianism. If I can better see the connection between it and modernism, then accept a blanket dismissal of modernism, it would help. I will keep your words in mind. Maybe it will come with time. And maybe that is slowly happening as I distance myself from political interest. What remains is the Christian foundation I think libertarianism reflects (ex: don’t kill, don’t steal). Increasingly, I want to just say I’m Christian. That seems to raise enough eyebrows.

    Questions: Our current political system is a product of modernism. Should we take any role in it? If so, what? And why? I assume most political activity is to make the world “better”. Does it make sense to use it at all, from a Christian perspective?

    Restated, what I’m basically wondering is if we should get involved in affairs of the world (including political and non-political action) or live very simple lives focused on faith, worship, and daily life for us and our loved ones.

    A related question: Is it worth trying to learn from, and avoid repeating, the large-scale government murders of the 20th Century? Or should we consider them 1) unpredictable and possible in any situation, or 2) insignificant as they did not affect salvation of the world?

    I am not entirely sure what you meant by the consequences and assumptions, but would like to know.

    Interesting points about modernism and libertarianism’s secularity. This gives me much food for thought. Of course I agree a libertarian society would be the same fundamentally. There is no reason it should not be. It isn’t a religion (but maybe some people treat it that way?). It does not save the world spiritually. It doesn’t lead to utopia.
    I think we both agree so much on this point that we are speaking past each other, not connecting.

    Maybe we mean different things by the term “libertarianism”, but that doesn’t really matter much to me. I think I covered anything worthwhile in the above questions.

    Michael Bauman,
    I disagree with the statement that libertarianism seeks to *solve* anything, but I won’t dispute some libertarians think of it that way. Similar to what I wrote to Father Stephen above, I think we are talking past each other.

    A secular version of making every man a Pope? I guess for those who want to be their own Pope, they may find something about it attractive. And I imagine for those who want to be a Pope over others, it is quite UNattractive.

    I agree with your comment about obedience, and I am glad to hear you found blessings in it.

    Intriguing comment about a free market having no basis in reality. Does it make sense to apply *any* ideal to this world?
    ex: A friend of mine is trying to organize a political movement of sorts. My conversion to Orthodoxy has given me second thoughts about it. My friend’s plan is idealistic, and he is proud of that fact. I have since wondered if it makes sense to apply idealism to a non-ideal reality. The best analogy I can think of is something like the ideal gas equation I learned in high school (PV=nRT). If I remember correctly, it requires certain assumptions. Step out of that ideal scenario, and it doesn’t work as intended. But maybe it is still useful or worthwhile?

    Could you explain what you mean by modern political economy being ideological and utilitarian in foundation? I think I understand, but I’m not sure. Does the difference between it and the Church mean Christians should avoid it? If so, what all does that standard rule out for Christians? Does anything remain other than the Church? I am imagining an end result of monasticism, and I don’t think that’s what you mean.
    [update: I think you had other responses above, so I’ll read those. I’d rather not delay this post any longer, though.]

    I understand not serving two masters, but what about serving one master while adopting a developed framework of ideas that is consistent with serving that master?

    Alan,
    “Further, Father Stephen has already stated something to the effect that broad, general statements like “caring for the world” or “caring for the poor” are really nothing more than egotistical statements. The poor are to be helped and served, one person at a time, something that of course I’m all for.”

    I appreciate that comment. The idea of helping individuals sounds significant, placing the emphasis on personal connection instead of a nebulous “I donated $xx.xx to a charity that does ___.”.

    Michael G Tilford,
    I also appreciate your comment. It would be a tremendous relief to stop being concerned about the world and those in it, at least on a large scale. Maybe that is where Orthodoxy leads. As I mentioned above, I may be headed that direction. And in that case, do we still have room for charity? What would make that different from worrying about the state of the world? Is the difference in keeping it somewhat personal? In that case, maybe a distinction should be made between donating to charitable organizations versus helping individuals.

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