Simply Living

2014-07-30 16.04.03Because you asked…

Reflecting on my recent article comparing the life of worldly cares and the monastic life, I have been asked to describe what the proper life in the world should look like. I will offer a few observations, but, in truth, I know of no better description than the 55 Maxims for Christian Living authored by Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory. I know that his list started out shorter and was added to over the years. There is, I think, a theme. That theme focuses on the art of actually living, not being distracted from yourself, from God, and from others around you.

When he says things such as “be an ordinary person,” it focuses precisely on that. It is echoed again when he says, “Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.” He urges us to “live a day, or part of a day” at a time. This means living with attention – not some extreme focus – but attention. I often interpret this to mean not living in an absent-minded way. If you’re talking on the phone, pay attention to the conversation. If you’re driving your car, pay attention to your driving, etc. There is nothing that we do during a day that requires less attention. Multi-tasking is for computers, not people.

This simple living also means refusing to become part of the media herd. The “news” is not news. It exists largely to excite your passions and to sell you things (including ideas and emotions). “Being better informed” is a sales pitch you’ve learned to repeat. If you want to be better informed, read a book…slowly.

In 2011, I was at a conference with Fr. Tom. We fell into a conversation about writing. I told him that my general rule was to refrain from writing about things that I didn’t know. I also noted that the more I wrote, the less I seemed to know. He laughed and said, “Keep writing. Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy!”

I doubt that I’ll ever be holy. But the comment was characteristic of him. His teaching was never complicated, even though it was profound. The same is true of these maxims. Print them out. Put them up where you can see them and think about them. And when the maxims seem to overwhelm you, read number 53. Glory to God.

1. Be always with Christ.
2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
7. Eat good foods in moderation.
8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
9. Spend some time in silence every day.
10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
11. Go to liturgical services regularly
12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
15. Read the scriptures regularly.
16. Read good books a little at a time.
17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
18. Be an ordinary person.
19. Be polite with everyone.
20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
22. Exercise regularly.
23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
25. Be faithful in little things.
26. Do your work, and then forget it.
27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
28. Face reality.
29. Be grateful in all things.
30. Be cheerful.
31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
32. Never bring attention to yourself.
33. Listen when people talk to you.
34. Be awake and be attentive.
35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
36. When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly.
37. Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.
38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine.
40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone.
42. We don’t judge anyone for anything.
43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
45. Be defined and bound by God alone.
46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves.
49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
50. Be merciful with yourself and with others.
51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.
53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.
54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.

 

45 comments:

  1. Father,

    Thank you for this. I’ve been wanting to dig in on Fr. Tom’s Maxims. I was hoping you could delve more deeply and/or unpack #31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.

    Susan

  2. Thx Fr.
    I love simple Rules like this. Is there a source reference or citation? Did I miss it?

  3. Father, every time I read something like this I am reminded of the Shaker hymn of many years ago:

    “Tis a gift to be simple, Tis a gift to be free, Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be!”

    Still too prideful to practice this though. Lord, have mercy!

  4. Father,
    “Be simple, hidden, quiet and small,” is a perfect description of the most blessed Theotokos. It certainly does not describe me, Lord have mercy. The list is timely as I have confession tomorrow. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  5. Rev. Daniel,
    They can be found in a number of places (on the web). They are Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living. Fr. Tom fell asleep just this year. He was Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in New York, and a leading figure in Orthodox theology.

  6. Of all these Maxims, 2, 3, 40 and 54 have helped me the most. I try to hold true to 3 and 54 especially. All I can say is that I try and I fail and I keep trying, only because to quit is death.

  7. Father,
    Thank you for this gem…
    One more request please:
    Is there something to be said about attempting to say ‘no’ (when feasible) in some current overwhelming jobs’ contexts ? (We know that we must be ready to say ‘yes’ to our brother in willing humility. And I don’t mean here that ‘no’ that we must say to sin and it’s causes). I am thinking of the noble and discerning refusal that –unfortunately- becomes a necessity when one’s workplace, struggles to take over one’s life and to prevent them to ‘do the work and forget it’, it wants to steal huge chunks of their time that would have been offered to God in silence, to scriptures, to Church services even.
    I see this happening a great deal more in our consumerist world:

    And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God.
    Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein
    ; (Exodus 5: 6-9)

  8. Thank you Father,

    Fr. Tom was such a source of simple and wise advice. I love his encouragement to you on how to become a Saint… It reminds of something I once read, that in the Kingdom “the beginning of greatness is to be small, the increase of greatness is to be less and the perfection of greatness is to be nothing…”

    I also would like to second Dino’s question on work. Of all the 55 maxims, this has been the hardest one for me to even begin to implement (or even know how to begin to do it), with the workplace experience in my life (job searches and losses, the need to appear more competent than I really feel, the need to project confidence and assurance when deep inside I lack both).

    Also, if I could ask you to explain more #45
    “Be defined and bound by God alone.”
    What does this mean?

    Thank you again, such a beautiful article. And please be on the lookout for the “Killer Prayer” books I sent you in the mail 🙂

  9. Dino,
    There is very much to be said about work, particularly in our present economic structure. I fear to sound like a Marxist or something when I critique our present economic understandings. But they are deeply flawed. Solzhenitsyn was among our strong critics, and no one can accuse him of being a Marxist.

    Our notions of economics are flawed. For one, the so-called “science” of economics is largely bogus, a creation of the modern project. It has generated notions such as the “laws” of the market, that are not quite true. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that human beings could exercise in our economic world.

    For one, the loss of any notion of sabbath is disturbing. My childhood was spent in Protestant America. My home state had “blue” laws that prohibited many businesses from opening on Sunday. When these laws were rolled back, promises were made the people would not be forced to work on Sundays. It is completely forgotten now. Our economic life is 24/7.

    We have made productivity the master of our lives. It makes us less than human and more machine-like. The Russian word for work is “robot,” the origin of the word in English. When work comes to define our lives, we are indeed robots.

    Many of these things are brought about at a level above where the average person lives. In that sense, we are slaves, without the ability to make changes in our lives and work. There are many admonitions in Scripture about how to get on as a slave. These admonitions were not written in order to endorse slavery, but simply because so many Christians were, in fact, slaves. They needed the teaching and advice.

    Globalization has also removed the levers of control to a place that often transcends local, even national control. The result is a workplace in which people have very little, if any, input. The Church has repeatedly warned against globalization. This is true in both Orthodox and Catholic teaching. Subsidiarity – local control – is a Christian principle.

    But we are slaves. So. We do our work as “unto the Lord,” but it doesn’t mean we have to agree with our masters that it is a good thing. As good slaves, we can also cry out to God for justice. God hates debt – He despises what it does to people. Christ constantly abolished the bonds of various kinds of debt. It is an essential part of the Biblical understanding of justice. So, we pray for justice, and the abolition of debt (in some measure). I seriously think Christians should consider whether it is at all moral to be employed in the debt industry.

    A collapse will come (a great collapse). God does not like debt and He will, at some point, destroy it. I’m no prophet, but we should struggle to be wise in these matters.

    I’ll write more with some careful work. It’s always sort of bothersome to write on such matters. People, including Orthodox Christians, are highly politicized in their thoughts and deeply reactionary in their passions. These topics seem provocative – even if necessary.

  10. I hadn’t seen this before. I consider this to be permission to attempt to be good, which, until now — was completely lacking. There is no support / encouragement for altruism, doing good things in a hidden way, etc and so much support (almost violent insistence) in pursuing worldly goals. It blows my mind that there is this side of Christianity (this very pro-social ‘how to live’) that gets zero play in the media. This knowledge needs to be ‘explicit’ (in the Steven Pinker / linguistics sense) i.e. there is what you, and what I know, but if we don’t ‘put it out there’, we all go about thinking we’re crazy alone in our heads (and give in, by default, to the popular, paid messaging in the zeitgeist) … Thanks for this. I take it as permission to make the right choices on a daily basis, knowing I’m not a complete schmuck / loser. Because, until recently, I felt that not wanting the things I’ve been told to want has been a huge source of pain and alienation. I still have mostly unconscious friends who feel empty, but can’t see beyond the menu of materials solutions, and who view my lifestyle as virtue by necessity i.e. I don’t have enough of a predator instinct to really ‘get out there’ and ‘look after #1’ and have sharp elbows and lie and cheat and misrepresent myself, so … I’m a big loser.

    If it’s of interest to, plz consider writing about people who are good-natured, friendly, mostly decent people but who participate (with awareness) in things that hurt other people. I can’t get my head around that. Is it a good compromise to just keep your job and do something you know is wrong / damaging / not in the public interest / outright dishonest? A lot of friends who are very much of the world are kind + good people, although participating in most of the business activities we might agree are NOT prosocial e.g. private prisons that profit from homelessness and social injustice, working at Paypal and signing users up for credit cards without their knowledge, working at VW and helping them fudge data, etc, etc. I think the answer is that we are reaping the harvest of building a completely unsustainable economy of consumption — people are stuck — (this was very predictable) — so… what?

  11. Bija,

    This kind of “pro-social” wisdom is out there – granted not as plentiful as I would like it to be – but this is how it always works. Jesus didn’t trumpet his approach and He always sought out the people in the dark, forgotten corners of life. I’m sympathetic when you talk about those decent people who are doing indecent things because they feel trapped and think they have to do them in order to survive.

    They do need help (I know that because we all do) but I’ve found that they need to looking for help first – and then be willing to pursue it when it’s revealed to them. I’ve seen many times where they are presented with the way out – which always starts with the truth – and have decided instead to take the blue pill and wake up back in their old, tortured but at least familiar lives.

    I think the good news should be shouted from the hilltops at some points, but when it is taken over by the masses, it becomes distorted and not the message of the people who enter by the narrow gate. The gate is narrow because people must make a decision to enter one soul at a time. That’s how the gospel is communicated to the heart.

    Maybe you will be able to bring help to your friends. Perhaps your life is already speaking to them.

  12. I have seen this list before and it is a good reminder. Thank you Father. I was wondering how you would answer the requests and I cannot think of a better answer than these maxims.

  13. Forgot to check follow. How, Father, can I follow without having to comment first? I would like to read others works, but I already know what little I know and don’t want to clutter in the in box with my thoughts.

  14. Hi Father,
    Do you have any advice about keeping a Christian Sabbath, other than participation in the Divine Liturgy?

  15. I just read the reply above — sorry about asking for more commentary. It’s not a good topic to discuss (incendiary because so many people who think of themselves as ‘good’ *are* living from economic activities that are immoral) I think it’s time to speak openly about this. I’ve been doing this and it arouses hate, and easy accusations of being self-righteous. I think good people are going to have to eschew being judged and say “Fine, I’m being self-righteous. I’m imposing my views. I think having a pension fund / job where one’s salary and one’s employer’s matching contributions to blue chip companies (e.g. weapons’ companies, major corporations engaged in child slave labour e.g. textiles in Pakistan, Bangladesh i.e. the cheap Joe Boxer clothes everyone loves, etc, etc) — when one’s future economic well-being is safe-guarded by raping, killing, turning one’s eyes away from torture (when you are the agent of God NOT being able to free other ‘slaves’ from suffering…)

    Well, to me … such people are not Christians.

    I see a lot of people taking comfort in ‘being sheep’, which is an egregious mis-reading of that metaphor.

    I’ve been visiting Christian communities and churches … I don’t see many people rising to the spiritual occasion.

  16. I love Fr. Thomas’ maxims.

    When I read them shortly after he reposed, I remembered something I had read in Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journal. It was advice he would give to someone who was thinking about monastic life.

    His advice was to do these things for ten years before you made a decision for monastic life; I thought it was pretty good advice for just living in the world as a layperson, so I jotted it down in my own journal. Here are the basic points he made, somewhat paraphrased:

    Have a simple job. Pray, seek inner peace and reject anger. Don’t insist on your own rights; accept everyone as someone sent to you and pray for them. After paying for a modest home and groceries, give to the poor — to individuals. Go to the same church; be a helper with work, not teaching, and with total obedience to the priest. Don’t impose yourself on anyone or be sad that your talents may not be used. Be helpful where needed, not from your own ideas. Read and learn broadly. Spend no more than a couple of hours at a time when being social. Dress modestly. Be simple, light, joyous; don’t teach. Avoid spiritual conversations and idle talk.

  17. Father Stephen, Father bless! This list is so edifying, and such a great list to aspire to. May God have mercy on my soul.
    This doesn’t really need to be posted in the comments, but I didn’t know of any other way to contact you. I have a blog as listed above. May I post your post there, giving you credit, of course, and a link back to your site? And in the future (because I don’t see this addressed on your Ground Rules), if I wish to do so, do I need to ask again, or may I post on my blog as well?

  18. Bija,
    Be cautious not to build unsustainable attention to what other people are doing. It leads to depression and a darkened soul. It would have been impossible to live in the Southern United States before 1860 and be uninvolved in a slave economy, for example. Economies are very difficult things when it comes to “living off the grid.” It’s like trying to buy food in a grocery store that has no milk by-products in its composition (some Orthodox get fastidious like that when they fast). To find a company, or a fund that has no connection to the military/industrial complex is nearly impossible. It’s democracy – everybody gets to be involved in everybody’s sin.

    Look at Fr. Tom’s maxim’s. There are reasons why it is fairly “small” in its focus. Go back and read my article on “you care too much.” You’re reading/listening, etc. to the news too much. It will drive you crazy. By the way, why do you want me to write about people that you consider yourself apart from? It would be of no use to you.

    I think I’ll refrain.

  19. There is no support / encouragement for altruism, doing good things in a hidden way, etc and so much support (almost violent insistence) in pursuing worldly goals. It blows my mind that there is this side of Christianity (this very pro-social ‘how to live’) that gets zero play in the media.

    I think rather than getting “zero play” in the media, it is viewed as something that anyone can do (based on christian or non-christian beliefs). The media goes to great lengths to homogenize all religions, especially Christianity, and make them little more than humanistic social work that makes no more difference if a christian or an atheist does it.

    Their focus on “how to live” (and how they portray Christianity) tends to be boiled down to vague generalities and vanilla “tweets” such as “just be nice to everyone”. They either ignore or have no understanding of the actual message of Christ (or, really, any other religion). They are very busy portraying God as unnecessary in a “good” world.

  20. Agata,
    #45 “Be defined and bound by God alone.” I think this means to only have God as our reference. He‘s what gives meaning to our existence – He defines us – not the world and people. If we are ‘determined’ by the world and people, if we await to get our joy from outside of God, if we expect peace from others and forget that it is only from God that this comes, then we will fail miserably in almost everything.

  21. Agata,
    In line with what Dino said:

    People often define themselves in many ways that have nothing to do with God. Our language, our country, our school, our family, many things. It is not that we should not have such things or acknowledge them. But we should not be defined nor bound.

    Famously, there was a disagreement between Solzhenitsyn and Fr. Alexander Schmemann (they were very good friends). But Solzhenitsyn was deeply committed to Russia in a way that Schmemann thought belonged only to the Kingdom of God. I cannot say that Solzhenitsyn was wrong – but it could have been a dangerous thing spiritually.

    I see people (even here) easily identifying themselves as “conservative” or other philosophical or political things – and it often leads to sin as much as anything.

    When I die, I will be none of those things. But I will still be God’s, and God’s alone. Why not go ahead and die now? (As the monastics say).

  22. So glad you wrote about this. These maxims are jewels and have occurred to me many times when I let myself get led down a dark path.

    Thank you, Father.

  23. Nice. But easier said than done. That’s why #53 quickly followed by #54 then back up to #52 would have to be my favorites. It seems to me that this little trifecta of 52, 53, & 54 encapsulates the meaning of the full list of Maxims.

    Thanks Father.

  24. I have found that many people define who they are by what they do for a living. There is a huge difference between what and who. In my life and career(s) I have had many different jobs. In the end I learned that the “who” that I am is utterly dependent upon my relationship to the Lord. I can retire from the “what” or get fired (done both) but that does not change “who” I am. I am simply a Child of God. All other qualifications, jobs, titles etc. are part of “what” I am doing and do not effect my “who.”

  25. Thank you Father Stephen and Dino,

    for the explanation of “being defined and bound by God alone”. It is so good to know that this is actually how we are supposed to live. Your recent articles Father have been so “freeing” for me. Especially the one on “not caring so much”. I actually had a friend tell me once that all this “cultural disintegration” (gay marriage, etc) was because of “people like me, who don’t care”…. When I asked how exactly I was supposed to care and what should I be doing about it, they did not have a good answer…

    I told them I pray that God would straighten all this out, sooner than later. I always loved how Fr. Meletios Webber said something similar to what you said above, that “none this will matter in 50, 100 years, only God’s Love and our response to It will…”.

    Thank you again for giving me permission not to care so much… And stick to Christ and His Saints and His Church. I still love this quote from Elder Epiphanios:

    “God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us… We must first look at our soul, and, if we can, let’s help five or six people around us”..

    Thank you for helping many more than five or six here…. May God reward you for it richly.

  26. Robot is derived from Czech, the term meaning “forced labor” or possibly “slavery”.

    The Russian word “rabota” means simply “work” or “job”. I assume they have a related root in a more archaic slavic language. Anyway, the reason I added the comment is that the Czech word makes the point even more dramatically…

  27. I see people switch from liberalism to conservatism or vice versa and they are still the same. They have just transferred their outrage to a different ideology. I did the same not to along ago.

    Not to defend or justify yourself is such a powerful way to live. It seems like a pretty important theme in Orthodoxy.

  28. Fr. Freeman,
    I have trouble changing myself let alone the whole world! Agata, thanks for the marvellous quote from elder Epiphanios. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Quotes like this and your articles Father, help keep my focus small and on the one thing needful.

  29. Father,
    I can’t wait to hear more from you. One of today’s stress-producing peculiarities I can’t help noticing is the obligatory use of technology in the workplace, coming as a directive from above. Although it initially pledged to automate (and consequently eradicate some of the anxiety) of certain tasks, it often does the opposite in the instructions of directors and micromanagers. The compulsory (since there are no other options anymore for this) computer-based ‘accountability’ (that’s what they usually call it) in all companies, or the 24/7 ‘availability’, are new concepts which technology inaugurated. A quick look at some of the common problems nurses and teachers face nowadays (to take one of a number of possible examples) suffices to appreciate that their core duty suffers as a result of a nerve-wracking emphasis on all the [computer-based] peripheral new duties. I keep coming back to the example from Exodus 5 and how our adversary can use an overwhelming workload so that the faithful have no (exclusive/private) time for God -as I see a definite surge of this mechanism all around. It makes me think that the ‘no’ of Moses becomes here, a necessity: with discernment of course, this selective ‘refusal’ can be sometimes applied so that superiors even recognize a self-esteem (as the secular world calls it) in those who politely voice this refusal to comply beyond a certain point, this is a ‘no’ that commands more respect than a ‘yes’.
    Ironically, it is our time alone with God that will attract the grace that fortifies us and teaches us how to deal with all this, yet it is that time that is ultimately being attacked here…

  30. Dino, thank you! Outstanding comment. I work in the business world and can attest that what you wrote is (sadly) absolutely spot on!

  31. I think I failed already in taking a “simple job.” My job is interesting to me and offers me the opportunity to focus on helping the “least of these my brethren” that Jesus talked About. But simple? No. I must make difficult decisions daily and have difficult conversations with people. This necessitates much thought on my part And yes I worry daily did I do the right thing. Last week I went to a professional conference in order to gain skills that would help me be better at my work. Is this bad? How do I know when it becomes bad for my soul?

  32. Anonymous,
    Many of us hold such “complicated” jobs. I’ve served as a priest for 35 years. The questions that come into my office or within the confessional are often perplexing, with no clear solution. Human beings aren’t “simple” in that way.

    But there are ways to maintain a simple soul in the course of such things. You can do your best and know that your best will not be enough and that you won’t always get it right. Humility is the first and most important step to a simple soul. There are many things in our culture that are geared towards trying to get other people to do certain things or to behave in certain ways. These are perhaps the most dangerous jobs. There are many temptations.

    For example, I cannot think that my task as a priest is to make my people be better Christians, or even to stop sinning in certain ways. God Himself has not stopped them, how can I? I can speak the truth and love them. Offer any help that is asked for. Even proactively rebuke when required. But I absolutely have to resist any temptation to control. There are priests who indeed use their ministry in an effort to control. It is spiritual abuse.

    That same kind of abuse can happen elsewhere, and is very complicated indeed.

    Can you keep the commandments when you do your job?

  33. Father,

    I wonder if you could shed some light on #37: “Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.”

    Is this maxim instructing us to flee these things in general, or is it aimed at a more specific kind of imagination and analysis (for instance, speculative imagination about God, or trying to figure out why God allowed a certain tragedy to occur)?

  34. Nataliya,

    That is such a great question! I sometimes wondered about that too, but having met Fr. Tom in person and having received his counsel, I think he would say that true love in expressed in our actions, not by our feelings. Love will automatically be communicated by the actions described in the maxims… But I would love to hear Fr. Stephen’s explanation too…

  35. Nataliya, starting with #1 all require love to either be possible or be fruitful. It is the foundation on which the maxims rest.

  36. To expand on what Michael said, “Love” (which is to say Love properly defined, known, lived, and related) is the foundation of Christianity and this list. I sometimes wonder if the word “love” is like “christianity” or “morality” or “help”, etc. Which is to say they are words that are now so elastic and so dependent on the speakers philosophy they are almost meaningless, or at least confusing so it is best to avoid them…

  37. Regarding economics, it has long seemed to me that economics is (one of) the new religions to fill the void following the death of God in the West ala Nietzsche.

    Modern peoples have collectively become slaves by their own choice. Dear friends – we are slaves, but we all have power. Take your power back – escape if you can!

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